What makes someone a cyborg? Is it an artificial limb replacing an organic one lost? Is it the ability to open your phone or your car door by waving your hand, or to sense magnetic fields in your fingertips? Is it someone who can “hack” their own consciousness toward the goal of improved mindfulness? Is it a woman who can control her fertility with an unprecedented near-certainty? In a fascinating piece for Fusion, Rose Eveleth talks about the two cyborg implants that add her to the growing ranks of bodyhackers: the RFID microchip in her hand, and the IUD in her uterus. The thing is, most people only recognize one of those as some futuristic, identity-changing technology, and it’s the one that Eveleth would have removed in an instant if she had to choose.
When we think of cyborgs, it’s in the vast mental leaps that science fiction and pop culture have made: the Cylons who easily pass as humans from Battlestar Galactica, or the Terminator with his superhuman strength and eerie red eyes. But instead of comparing ourselves against specific models, we should allow for broader definitions of what it means to be a cybernetic organism—like this one from Eveleth, rephrasing the discussion of her IUD:
I have a device inside of my body that controls the way that my body functions.
That could describe either implant. But while a Google search for “RFID microchip” brings up a number of conspiracy theories about the immorality and horrors of inserting a chip a few inches into your finger on the first page alone, you don’t see IUDs mentioned with the same wide-eyed fearfulness. (Well, there are plenty who still consider all forms of birth control immoral, but for reasons that have nothing to do with futurism.) According to a 2012 study, ten percent of American women use IUDs; in Europe, it’s up to 16.3 percent of women. Considering that was almost five years ago, and there’s a lot more transparency around women’s birth control options, those numbers have undoubtedly risen. These very different responses to Eveleth’s implants segues into her second thought-provoking argument:
I think this rift has everything to do with what we consider technology and what we don’t. Alan Kay famously said, “Technology is anything that wasn’t around when you were born.” And there’s an element of that to this discrepancy. Magnets and RFID chips are a new thing for people to worry and wonder about.
The rest of Eveleth’s essay delves into the bodyhacking community—which just held its first BodyHackingCon—struggling through the definitions of what bodyhacking actually is. While they seem to have aimed for an umbrella definition that makes room for both the aforementioned mindfulness exercises and even bulletproof coffee, there seems to still be a gender divide:
Quantified self is an exciting technology sector that led tech giants such as Apple to make health tracking a part of the iPhone. But though women have been keeping records of their menstrual cycles for thousands of years, Apple belatedly added period tracking to its Health Kit. Women have been dieting for centuries, but when men do it and call it “intermittent fasting,” it gets news coverage as a tech trend. Men alter their bodies with implants and it’s considered extreme bodyhacking, and cutting edge technology. Women bound their feet for thousands of years, wore corsets that altered their rib cages, got breast implants, and that was all considered shallow narcissism.
Eveleth also calls out sci-fi’s depictions of female robots, like Samantha, the AI from Her, and Ex Machina‘s experiment Ava—products, rather than creators, of technology. As we’re becoming more open-minded about what falls under the definition of bodyhacking, Eveleth argues, we also need to remove biases about who does the bodyhacking.
Especially when our advancing lifespan increasingly requires bodyhacking devices that we’ve had for decades, such as pacemakers. A 2012 study from the Journal of the American College of Cardiology looked at pacemaker implantation from 1993-2009 and found that the mean age of implantation has slowly increased over time. A 2014 report from the FDA (published in JAMA Internal Medicine) regarding Cardiac Resynchronization Therapy revealed some disturbing statistics about women and pacemakers: Even though women are more likely to benefit from pacemaker treatment than men, they’re less likely to receive that treatment because not enough women are enrolled in clinical trials in the first place.
Whether the bodyhacking technology is emerging (RFIDs), current (IUDs), or previous (pacemakers), the women who want and need these implants deserve to be recognized as bodyhackers and cyborgs as much as men who may develop and use these technologies. I’m proud to say that at least ten percent of the women I know are bionic (most with IUDs, though at least one had to swap hers for a hormone implant in her arm), and I will be joining their ranks in a month if all goes well at my OBGYN’s office. But now I also want a microchip that lets me open my phone or my apartment door like a Jedi. A Jedi cyborg—it’s like all my childhood Star Wars dreams coming true.