Hidden Cyborgs

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"Hidden Cyborgs" Talks:

• Portland, October 2010

• @ubistudio Meetup #4, San Francisco, November 2010

'Hidden Cyborgs' Video and Transcript


Full Length VIdeo: Video Complete Talk: Sally Applin • Hidden Cyborgs


Sally Applin

Hidden Cyborgs

Portland, OR, October 2010

Sally Applin - TRANSCRIPT

I’m going to talk about my work, which is the relationship between the visible and invisible. And blurred technology between physical and, for lack of a better word, virtual. And mostly what we do in anthropology is study groups of humans and study behavior within those groups.

And a long time ago, you didn’t get to choose what group you were in. You were just born into a group and that was it. And if you wanted to get out, you had to marry somebody or do something really extreme and get thrown out. Now we’re in an age where we can kind of pick what groups we belong to and this is sort of new for humans.

When we talk about cultural lenses, it’s the way that you view any particular group that you’re in. So, these people are wolf-watching, actually, and they all have their lenses focused on the wolf. But if they take their camera in different places or they change lenses when they look at a different scene to photograph something, they’re going to have a different perspective that they’re viewing through. And that’s what we do when we’re in a group and then we move to another group. We’re constantly changing our cultural lenses. We’re not really aware of it, but that’s what we do.

When I was preparing this talk, I was thinking about hidden cyborgs and then I started thinking about cyborgs. It’s like, okay, well, who are cyborgs or what are cyborgs and again, with cultural lenses, there’s lots of different definitions that everybody uses. One is that they’re everywhere, they’re everybody. The other is that, no, no, no, you have to be augmented in some way. You have to wear glasses or use tools or something like that. No, you have to digest some engineering. You have to be—it’s has to be in your body, something that you swallow or are implanted with. And maybe you have to have something that’s visible, preferably over your eye with lots of wires. Like, that’s a cyborg.

Or you could have something over your eye, but really it has to be bionic, and so if you have a prosthesis that’s bionic, that counts for being cyborg. And, depending on the cultural lens, any of these definitions could be …

[colloquy: re: lights and slides]

Sally Applin Why do you guys care about groups and about cyborgs? How is this going to help you? What it’s going to do for you is, when you understand the way that people hide and are visible within groups, it’ll help you to hide and be visible within groups. Including groups you want to advocate for, if you’re advocating for a certain policy or you have a technology you want to get adopted. Knowing this is going to help you communicate better and understand how groups behave so that you are successful in doing that. And that’s kind of why I’m talking about this.

When I talk about a hidden cyborg, I’m actually talking about both hidden and stealth and they’re sort of different. Hidden is, you just can’t see it. The hardware in her ankle is completely hidden—do you see it? No. Here she is walking, you don’t see it, right? Completely hidden. Pacemakers are hidden. But an RFID tag can be both hidden and stealth. It’s hidden, but you can also use it for stealth purposes. Cheney technically kind of belongs over there hidden because he has a pacemaker. But he’s so stealthy, I just put him over here, anyway. And the $6 Million Man and the Bionic Woman, very stealth, right? You couldn’t see any augmentation on them and yet they were able to do all these things because of it.

In hiding and stealth, it’s important to pay attention to—well, I’ll give you that [slide] again—why you would hide or be stealth, because it helps you integrate into different groups. And the things that differentiate us between groups is how we mark. And there’s a cyborg now.

Marking is the way that we code how people are like us or not like us in a group. And humans are social and they form groups. And they also differentiate between what is not like the group that I’m in and what is the group like that I’m in.

For cyborg marking, marking is the condition—unmarked is the condition of neutral, it’s the default setting. And marked is what’s different. And, in the past, when people wore glasses, you were just a four-eyes and then it threatened the group, because maybe you’re smarter or maybe you can see better or it challenged people, because you’re different. And as contact lenses came online, contact lenses were about also being able to see, but nobody could see that you could see. And you weren’t called four-eyes, it was a more stealth way to integrate and stay unmarked in your group.

Unmarked, again, it’s the basic default form. Marked is what’s different. And the interesting thing about marking is just like the cultural lenses. Things can be marked in one context and then unmarked in another. And your marking status, depending on what group you’re in, can change over time, too. So maybe, for example, glasses were marked in the past and now they’re unmarked, because people wear them and nobody really pays attention.

In looking at a marking timeline between the past, the near-past, now and then I’m going to look in the future, the near-future and the future, you can see, in the past—is everybody with me on marking and unmarking? Okay.

In the past, glasses were really, really marked. In the near-past, they were kind of moving towards unmarked and contact lenses were really unmarked because you couldn’t see them. But laser surgery was kind of freaky, right? Remember when people were starting to get laser surgery. It was like, Oh, my god, you’re getting laser surgery? Why are you doing that?

But now laser surgery is unmarked because it’s common, people are getting it and also you can’t see the results. And glasses have become unmarked because everybody wears them. But contact lenses are sort of moving back up towards marking because why would you wear contacts if you could get the laser surgery? If you want to be unmarked, just go for it and change your eye.

And now things like, where’s Erin? Like, Erin wearing some recording video glasses, or the man from—there’s another man that’s wearing glasses, too, [to show his 7:23] phone. That’s marked. Out of this whole room of people, two people have these kind of interesting glasses, right? So they’re marked for us.

You can see how things are changing over time, how different technologies change as they’re included or not included in groups. So that’s just now again. In the near future, we’re going to see glasses being marked and contact lenses being marked and laser is starting to get up towards being marked again because, what? You’re not augmented? These are going to be more common. It’ll be unmarked and more acceptable to have an added technology rather than to not have anything or to have something that’s old.

This is not showing up very well. This is the MIT Eye.

Speaker I was going to wait until you got a stopping point, but you seem to be combining marked, visible and accepted …

Sally Applin I’ll get to that.

Speaker Okay.

Sally Applin It’s coming.

Speaker Okay.

In the MIT Eye, the MIT Eye has—that’s that implant that’s going to be able to attach to the part of the eye to let blind people be able to see, stimulating through the brain. That’s marked until it becomes usual and maybe everybody’s going to want to just do it and maybe it’ll have a camera and be networked and things. And so what this is sort of showing is really about how things change status between marking and unmarking, depending on where you are in time, what’s available and as people adopt things, how it shifts.

Marking matters for a bunch of reasons. It’s a survival mechanism. If you’re marked in a group, you’re kind of that wounded prey. Does the group want to stay with someone that’s weak and wounded? Will the weak and wounded person pull the group down, if you’re hunting or something like that? And also, when somebody joins a group that’s marked for the rest of the unmarked group, do they have a special advantage? Is their behavior going to be predictable or not? Will they be crazy? How do we know? And that’s why people tend to choose similarities for some of these reasons.

And because groups organize around similarities, that marking can actually be used to determine whether or not you’re hidden or stealth within the group or just part of a group. And it also enables you to understand how to communicate within groups, when you understand what’s marked for them and what’s marked for you or not.

When I talk about cyborgs and marking, [we start] getting to acceptability. When I look at cyborgs, I think about the different kinds of cyborgs. I divided them into four categories. There’s voluntary and involuntary and hidden-invisible.

Hidden and involuntary is like the hurt ankle. She didn’t mean to fall, it wasn’t her fault and she has to have this technology that’s hidden within her. But what’s voluntary and hidden is she’s swallowing a QR code. So she’s just taking it in because she just wants to swallow that technology and digest it. This is not coming out as bright as I’d like, but this is voluntary-invisible. And in this one, this is her texting. So she’s willingly connecting to a network, she was walking through an airport when this photo was taken. So it’s a voluntary visible connection as a cyborg.

There she is in her wheelchair after she hurt her ankle. She’s very visibly a cyborg connected to a machine and it’s involuntary. Again, it wasn’t her fault. She didn’t mean to fall and hurt herself, but there she is standing out, marked in a group because she’s in a wheelchair.

How does this translate to acceptability? When you think about hidden versus visible—and I’m drawing a line right now for kind of modern society, not necessarily this crowd or people that are enthusiastic about technology, I’m just talking about the broad, overall societal expectations of what technology can do right now—having a pacemaker is probably the most acceptable. People have had it for a long time and also you can’t see it. There’s nothing about wearing a pacemaker that identifies someone as having to—they chose to do it. It’s not their fault. They either have one or they don’t live. So it’s an involuntary technology. You can’t blame someone for having a pacemaker.

The second probably most accepted technology that’s unmarked is voluntary, but hidden. This is when you do something to yourself that no one else can see. So, for example, this is a diagram of an implant that helps with OCD. It triggers stimulation in the brain to change behavior with OCD, but it’s absolutely embedded. No one can see that.

Now, the interesting thing about this category for being unmarked is it’s accepted and unmarked because it doesn’t create any difference at all, until—it’s stealth, this is stealth over here—until you tell somebody, or they find out. And then, when they find out that you’ve willingly augmented yourself, when you didn’t need to, when it wasn’t involuntary, then you’re down here, in a voluntary-visible category, which has very different acceptance right now.

The third category is a marked category. Again, this is like the woman in the wheelchair. This is Oscar. I put in a cat for Max. And it has, he has his bionic legs. And he’s marked because we can see his augmentation. But we also can’t assign any blame to him—not his fault what happened to him. Again, it’s visible, but we’re willing to make a concession to him as an injured party being part of our unmarked culture, because it wasn’t his fault.

The fourth category in terms of voluntary-visible are when people just voluntarily do stuff to augment that’s really, really visible. And that’s a harder thing right now, because the society isn’t at the moment conditioned to really understand and accept these differences, because of the way that we’re unmarked as a culture or the groups that we are. And this is the one that’s probably the least accepted at the moment, although in the future, this may be the most accepted and these things may all change places.

I’m going to talk a little bit about some of the cyborg technologies that can change the way we mark and hide. This one I particularly like. I don’t know if you know about the Otologics hearing aid. This is an embedded hearing aid that people have implanted in their skulls to be able to hear better. They can swim and do everything with it. The trials are going on Europe, it’s not in the U.S., and the company was very kind to share their slides with me.

The thing that’s very interesting about this technology is actually in the trials people can’t hear as well as they can with a regular hearing aid. And yet they still want this technology. Which is a really powerful force for wanting to be accepted, to be unmarked within a group.

Because it’s a technical crowd, I actually brought the slide up that shows all the pieces of how it works so that you all can enjoy learning about its cyborg-ness. I can’t explain all of it, how it goes together, but that shows you more about it. And it’s otologics.com. They don’t have a lot on their site, but this is what I got from them.

Speaker [unintelligible] pressing against the bone, is that how it…?

Sally Applin It’s implanted, so.

Speaker And, on the implant, is it resting against the bone? How do they…”

Sally Applin I don’t know. I’m sorry, I don’t know. I can ask, though, I’m happy to share my contact with you, if you want to ask him

The thing that’s interesting about this is, that’s a hidden, voluntary technology, right? That’s stealth. But also, to charge it, the battery lasts 20 years, but to charge it, they have to charge it 30 minutes once a day. And to do that, they have to stick a magnet onto their head where it is and then walk around with the battery pack for 30 minutes. Or stay at home or something. But it’s a really interesting way to play with this marked and unmarked, because they put it on, they’re marked. They take it off, they’re unmarked. But inside themselves, they’re hidden, anyway.

It’s just very interesting how they blend between—they can blend between worlds depending on—or, between groups, depending on which way they’re going, if they’re charging or not.

That’s kind of a blended one and this is one that’s just super-hidden and it’s just starting. I don’t know if you all have followed this research or know that much about it. I just found it and I thought it was just incredible. So, they’re predicting—they can put cells into, they can put transistors into cells now and they’re predicting they’ll be able to put 2500 in them by the year 2020. And what means is how are we going to be able to control ourselves at the cellular level. And that’s really hidden and really stealth and very interesting.

This is super-text-y, but I thought it was worth it to talk about their research. In implanting these things, they found they could keep the cell healthy and put these transistors in and seven days later 90% of the cells are still healthy. So they’re starting to speculate, what can we do with this? How can we change the way cells are functioning and how can we change the way we can make sensors and things? So people with the biology background might find this really a very interesting area to start learning about.

When we start doing this, we kind of get into policy. What’s happening if certain countries are doing this and we’re not? And certain other people are putting stuff in but they’re not telling us and they’re coming, they can be more stealth or hide or we want to do some technology and no one else wants to do it? And the thing about policy with markers is, just like with the glasses and all the vision things that we saw, policy and markers change together over time. When technologies come out, sometimes they’re sort of outrageous, it’s the Wild West, there’s new stuff, everybody’s using it, like we saw with the cellphone. And then all of a sudden people say, We must regulate this. And so they create these policies to regulate it. And the policy’s usually affecting what’s marked, what’s standing out. And once that marked stuff comes back into the culture as unmarked, then the policy shifts to the next thing that’s marked to pay attention to.

Policy is very controversial. So we talk about policy with the pervasiveness of cyborgism. How do you advocate? How do you decide that what’s involuntary and hidden or visible, why is that a priority? Is it because it’s involuntary, versus people that want to choose to become cyborgs in some way? Like, why is that okay or not? And so it’s going to start changing the way that we advocate and talk about our policy. And if we understand how to approach the policymakers who are not marked or unmarked for what we’re after, to sort of help us negotiate that realm.

Why should you care about all this? Why does this matter to this community of people that are developing cyborg technology or that are interested in it? As I said, understanding the context really does help and also if you’re creating a technology, you can understand that, right now, if you’re going to create a visible, voluntary technology, it’s not going to have as much widespread success, perhaps, as if you did something that was stealth or hidden or hidden and involuntary versus—or involuntary and visible. That, where the culture is now, between hiding and visible, there’s a certain acceptance that you might not get for your technology if you decide to do something that’s in a more, less acceptable category. And being able to be aware of what’s marked and unmarked gives you clues about how to move your technology through a culture.

The other reason why you should care is because you’re the hidden cyborg. In every culture and every group that you’re in, you’re marked, you’re unmarked, you’re visible, you’re hidden. Depending on where you go and what context you go between, it shifts the way that you are as a person and how you’re accepted or not accepted. And that’s really useful to know and play with.

It also gets to being able to do that and understand it, it’s really going to help your negotiation and development, as I said earlier. And it will help you to find places with other people that you might not usually play with to be able to play with, to create even a stronger advocacy or stronger product or technology.

Oops. And that’s all of us. And that’s me. Thank you.


I left a bunch of time for my talk because I thought maybe people would be interested in talking and this is a group of experts and I … I know certain things, but I don’t know others and I thought we could kind of learn from each other, if anyone wanted to have a discussion about this. I can bring up the policy slide.

Does anyone have any questions?

Speaker One of the things that I expected you to talk about that you didn’t, kind of, was that the practice of self-marking to identify with groups. Is that called something besides “marking”?

Sally Applin Marking is the way to … marking theory comes from linguistics and it’s really the way to talk about what differentiates from the default. So it’s not literally that you mark, it’s just that the idea of being marked versus default is that category. So, self-marking would be, would go in the voluntary category, which would either be hidden or visible, depending on what someone decided to do.

And to do that, yeah, it would reinforce joining—it would reinforce joining a group that you’d want to belong to and you’d want to become unmarked in. Does that answer your question?

Speaker Yes.

Sally Applin Okay.

Speaker How do you define voluntary versus involuntary?

Sally Applin Well, my advisor and I were talking about this, because I wasn’t sure, either. And I thought, well, there’s some times when people need something cyborg or need some engineering help to help them exist and live. Versus they don’t really need it. So that’s how we define it. Involuntary is, if you don’t do this, you’ll lower your quality of life, you’ll—like a cat, if they don’t have their legs, it’s very hard for them.

Speaker [unintelligible] situation as opposed to how you, how the situation actually is?

Speaker Yes.

Speaker Isn’t it how others perceive the situation instead of how the situation actually is?

Sally Applin I chose to do it in terms of, with defining marking, it’s how it is with that, what that situation is. If all cats have four functioning legs and a cat has two artificial legs, that cat is marked. And it’s involuntary, because the cat couldn’t decide whether or not it wanted legs, someone put legs in it.

So, for marking, that’s the example. But for voluntary and involuntary—involuntary is you don’t choose to do it. If the government says we’re going to RFID all of you and it’s not a choice, that’s an involuntary augmentation.

Speaker [unintelligible] one more quick question. Is it the person who is making the change decides whether it’s involuntary or voluntary? Or is it the person who’s perceiving them as marked to decide if it’s involuntary or voluntary?

Sally Applin It’s the person that makes the change.

Speaker Okay.

Sally Applin But some people—like, for example, if you have an unconscious, if someone’s wounded and unconscious and the only thing that will save them is a pacemaker …

Speaker Sure. I’m thinking like transgender people.

Sally Applin Yeah. So specifically, I was going for—you mean, using an augmentation to transgender?

Speaker Sure.

Sally Applin Okay. So, that’s voluntary, but it’s also involuntary in terms of their…that’s like on the fence between hidden and stealth. It’s on the fence between voluntary and involuntary. Because they have an internal process that is involuntary, let’s say. I don’t know a lot about the transgender community, but I would say they have an internal process that makes them want to change. And yet they’re volunteering to pursue that change in a—it’s like a hardware/software case.

Speaker [unintelligible]…about who is the one who decided.

Sally Applin The person who’s consciously making the decision is, unless you’re a cat. I don’t mean that in a glib way, but...

Speaker [I thought] marking was what a group of people do to each other as opposed to what you do to self.

Sally Applin So, you do.

Speaker You stand out by doing something that changes from the default. But it’s still something that’s perceived by the other people.

Sally Applin It’s kind of both. Like, I’m standing up and, for the most case, there’s some people that are leaning. But I’m standing up and everyone’s sitting down. So in the group of people that are sitting down, I’m marked. But if I sit down and you all stand up, I’m still marked, but if I sit down and we’re all there, then I’m unmarked. Does that answer your question?

Speaker [unintelligible] the transgender thing, also. What about like the deaf community and now there are some … there’s a specific deafness where you can have surgery for it. What if your parents decide to augment [you], child, and then your community rejects you because you’re [unintelligible]. Like, the reverse. What would you call that?

Sally Applin So, if you’re a child and your…if you’re a child living in a hearing family and you don’t have hearing and you’re marked in your family. So the family decides to unmark you by giving you the surgery so you can hear. And then you now, unless you’re stealth and you don’t talk when you’re in your deaf community except through the traditional [change], you are either stealth and unmarked in the deaf community, or you are marked because you are augmented and you’re a hearing person within that community. And that’s how those lenses shift. Does that…?

Speaker So what if you’re … you were born into a deaf community and your family augments…?

Sally Applin Then that’s involuntary, right?

Speaker Right.

Sally Applin Yeah. Because it’s involuntary, too—again, that’s policy. It’s involuntary because you’re a child, you’re under 18, parents have jurisdiction over bodies at a certain age and that kind of thing. And that’s why policy is really important to learn to advocate for these things.

Speaker I’m wondering about where things are at right now with prosthetics and voluntary—I haven’t done research on this in a long time, but the last time I did, you couldn’t dismember yourself in order to gain a prosthetic limb, because the doctor who had done so would lose their license and you would probably be institutionalized?

Sally Applin Yes.

Speaker Is that still the case? Where’s the policy?

Sally Applin I don’t know where the policy is right now. I know that they’re pushing it because when I was looking around for different things to use in the talk, there’s people that are embedded spikes under their skin so you see the bumps, but not the spikes. And people obviously are chipping themselves and putting things in their hands and somebody has to do that, surgically.

But that’s different than…there’s some really interesting thing in the culture now that it’s okay to have stuff stuck on you and it’s okay to have stuff drawn on you or put through you. But if you put things through or stick stuff on you and there’s wires connected to it—and we’re getting better, because of iPads and iPhones and stuff like that, or, sorry, iPods and stuff like that—there’s still this—there’s this really weird creeped-out factor between hooking electronics and being embedded. And doing something like severe, like cutting off a limb or something like that—I don’t think that the policy’s there to do that.

Now, it might change with the new runners and their new legs, we might evolve in the way future to everybody voluntarily doing that. Does that answer your question? Like, that’s how all this stuff changes over time and policy sort of ... follows along.

Speaker [unintelligible]

Sally Applin Yeah, but we have an option, too, if you understand this stuff, to be better activists. It helps to be better activists.

Speaker So you can’t actively dismember yourself, but if you were accidently dismembered…?

Sally Applin Yeah.

Speaker And it’s what people who have the weird brain thing where they think that they’re amputees and really have…

Speaker Right, yeah.

Speaker …they have to force an accident on themselves.

Speaker Right. I read this article about a man who had a motorcycle accident and he lost part of his finger, he had a [unintelligible]. So is that—that’s not the same, though.

Speaker That’s not on purpose.

Speaker Right, but [unintelligible].

Speaker No, it was actual…

Speaker Accident?

Speaker …you know, will ask the surgeon to remove a body part.

Sally Applin Because they’re supposed to do no harm. They promised to do no harm. And what is harm and is what harm is going to change? Harm is marked right now. And so if that changes—if we change we all want harm to be more evolved humans and that’s unmarked, then it might be do more harm. Or do more good and good is cutting limbs off and augmenting. And that’s…

Speaker [unintelligible]

Sally Applin The point of my talk really, too, is to share with you how we identify in groups and to be able to understand that this stuff changes over time and depends on context. And you can use those tools in hacking way to further whatever causes you’re working on in a cyber community that you care about.

Speaker I’m thinking about all the high schoolers, the permanent little ear bud, headphones all the time and you see the studies that are going on their hearing, because the iPod usage and … Or these, like a girl just got hit by a train again crossing train tracks with their ear buds in. And I’m wondering what your opinion is of how people are changing their natural body by using technology? Basically shifting—so, at a young age, they’re destroying their hearing and then how do you see that manifesting in the future? Do you think …

Sally Applin They’re going to get hit by more cars.

Speaker …or hearing aids, like—I’m just being [unintelligible].

Sally Applin Well, again, it goes back to the hearing discussion. Right now, having that kind of hearing damage is, it’s hidden, for the most part. It only shows up when people start to talk, but just to look at someone—I mean, we’re visual first. So, if you’re in a group and you look at someone, you won’t know that they have that significant hearing loss.

There’s going to be a group of people, a whole cohort of young people that are going to suffer hearing loss. And hearing loss I think tends to show up later, so they’ll do damage now, but it’ll show up later. And that’s going to be kind of interesting. Maybe that’s why they’re pushing these implants, because they’ll know that there’s a group coming up that will want to do that and then that will be more common.

The stuff that I study is about how—it’s kind of how we hack culture. Like, we don’t just receive culture. We’re constantly making it and reinventing it and changing it as we move through different groups. And people are making decisions to do things to their bodies that impact whether or not they belong, whether or not they can fix it and that, in a small way, just as individuals might not matter just for them, but the aggregate of any of these small changes, it causes these really big waves. So we’ll just see … and that shifts really big waves of what’s marked and unmarked and we’ll see that coming up.

So I hope that answered you.

Speaker Sure.

Sally Applin Okay.

End of audio