What up with the sexy, Cyborg?

“We’ll become silhouettes when our bodies finally go” We Will Become Silhouettes The Postal Service

For the full effect, play the video when you read.

My life on the web and in cyberspace has early beginnings, and continues at a dizzying rate. Early on, I played Zork. I also would log on to the UNM internet and get my fortune told to me via a logarithmic text that would spit out a proverb or quote when you entered a command. I sent my first email to Pascal Adam in 1993. My life as a cyborg started early. Blade Runner on VHS was all burbly and wobbly by the time it got tossed out in a move to Santa Fe. Now, having read Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto”, I wonder if we aren’t standing somewhere she predicted we would find ourselves: hybrids of machines and humans, in identity and purpose, framed by our gender and undone by that framing at the same time.

This week has been a particularly rich week on the interwebz. Facespace gave me a really good lead for how our interaction with cybermedia is changing our engagement with the world on a global and a personal scale. First up is Sabastian, one of my former students, who has suddenly come to terms with the inexorable and execrable link between video games and drone warfare.


Both Vannevar Bush and JCR Licklider anticipated a not so distant future of drone warfare, where the interface between humans and machines became as close as a sniper to the trigger. Instead, adolescents, trained up on multiplayer online games, would perfect the art of killing from a distance in Air Force training labs on bases around the country. Halo and Call of Duty have created interfaces that do the desensitization for the military. Cyborg selves no longer recognize the humanity of the target. Haraway warned at the birth of Reagan’s Star Wars project, “modern war is a cyborg orgy, coded by C31 (command-control-communication-intelligence), an $84 billion item in 1984’s US defense budget.” The most unfortunate part? The young players don’t see themselves as cyborgs enlisted in a war against humanity. They are part of the machine. The symbiosis is so total that Sabastian is just becoming aware of what Chelsea Manning was trying to warn us about in 2010 in her leak to Wikileaks. We are losing ourselves. And somebody is profiting at that loss. And, as Haraway points out, that someone is the military industrial complex. In a subversion of the employer-employee relationship, consumers pay for the games that turn the consumer into the fodder for the cannon–except that they can stay safely in the confines of Kirtland Airforce Base, never venturing to the battlefield except in the multiplayer world of the game-room.

The second surprise that I had was the sexualization of the term “cyborg.” Go ahead. Google that. What do you see but hypersexualized images of both male and female bodies. While Haraway longs for a Cyborg without gender, that will subvert the male dominated cyberworld, this is not so. It is sadly, just not so. First up in cybermisogyny is the prevalence of intimations of violence by males, who perceive some sort of gender transgression by cyberwomen. Rebecca Watson, of Skepchick.com, blogs about her interactions with some deranged cyberbully named “Rick”. Her cyberidentity is threatened as much as her physical safety is threatened, and I have to wonder if these intimations and menaces of rape and murder have something to do with the popular notions of what cyber”chicks” look like. They are penetrated, skin flayed off, hypersexualized, and mechanical. They are, for the viewer, not real women, not real human beings, and the sensual poses they adopt echo poses not just from comic books, but also from pornography, strip clubs, and peepshows. Shut up, Rebecca, and be the cyberslut I want you to be.

Another surprise came from gamer and cosplayer Caitlin Seida who writes in Salon about how her photo, uploaded to Facebook and shared widely, gained rather creepy attention from those who believed that her Lara Croft costume should be reserved for those cisgender females resembling Angelina Jolie. Seida, in her article, reports how commenters on various failblogs and reddits were suggesting that someone kill her or that she kill herself. The cyborgs are going to eat us alive. None of the sensuality of Lara Croft would be possible without the female voice actors who depict her in the games: Keeley Hawes, Shelley Blond, and Jonell Elliott. Their disembodied voices carry the script with a sexiness that one commentator compared to velvety quality of Kathleen Turner’s Jessica Rabbit. Indeed. The voice, even in cyberspace, should match some gendered ideal of what a cyborg woman should look like.

In the end, I think that the Frankfurt School and Haraway have it right: we are not in control of the symbiosis that is the cyberworld. We are products of it, and we produce what it expects us to produce. In turn, we consume what we are conditioned to demand it produce. Sexy, muscular, cyborgs, instead of real cosplayers, typing bloggers, and thinking posters. We are disembodied, and will become silhouettes when our bodies finally go.

4 thoughts on “What up with the sexy, Cyborg?

  1. Great post! When reading Haraway’s essay I too found myself contemplating the way that technology objectifies and dehumanizes in part through the anonymity that it affords. When I was reading Turkle’s comments of the way that role playing games allow players to recreate/question gender and self, I couldn’t help but think of the research that has been done on racism and group formation in World of Warcraft. Even though the races created in the game are simply different groups of fantasy creations (trolls, elves etc.) players still end up creating racial hierarchies and judging not only characters, but also the human players controlling them, based on the selected race. Turkle, and to some extent Haraway, put forward the idea that the disembodiment provided by technology can help us rethink identity, but in most cases it seems like this disembodiment serves to reinforce conventional notions about identity.

  2. Really effective post Courtney. I hate to consider that video games have been desensitizing people because I was a typical consumer of it. I have answered many Calls of Duty, killed my share of Nazis and Middle Eastern terrorists and thought it was just fun. To reflect on my mindset during those games, though, suggested a separation from myself. You can see it in the eyes of people playing video games; they aren’t the most social chaps in the world. I was no longer John, a high school student trying to identify my meaning and place in this world, but a soldier learning to kill. Why couldn’t I remain John? And why can’t women have a significant role in this cybernetic world? I personally believe it stems from a misconception of masculine activity vs. feminine passivity. The developers instill the false notion that people can make a difference through their male avatars by playing their video games. They become patriots without leaving their couches. Now while this is incredibly offensive and false, the proof is in the money. I mean according to Ib Times, Call of Duty: Black Ops II made one billion (with a b) dollars in just fifteen days. Grand Theft Auto V did that in two. People feel a satisfying sensation killing, and we are controlled by the producers. I am beginning to become a member of the Frankfurt School as well. And unfortunately the cybernetic world we live in feeds us a male dominated world. I hope consumers and producers will elevate femininity and not demand perfection, but that hasn’t happened yet. Good post Courtney.

  3. Great post, Courtney! I too got a bit caught up in how computer games perhaps seem like an escape from reality (which is the very notion Turkle argues against), but how they ultimately re-create reality and preconceived hierarchical structures. In some cases, perhaps, playing these games and roles may point out to us how these structures function already, and how we almost inescapably are bound to repeat them and recreate them. However, in other cases (Call of Duty, World of Warcraft), this message seems hidden, or perhaps rather designed to reinforce structures instead of dissecting them.

  4. Awesome post, Courtney! I found the sexualization of the term “cyborg” fascinating. I did Google, and it is clear that the hypersexualized images of male and female bodies are purposeful. I appreciate your reference to Bush and Licklider who anticipated the use of drone warfare. A definite human-machine systems interface exist, it is impersonal and acutely dangerous. It is my thought that film and game technology are the most active uplink systems for adolescents. Harrison Ford has produced a movie that releases soon, entitled “Enders Game,” it contends that the new ‘human-machine system or cyborg’ can be a child. Thanks for the post.

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