As man is constantly surrounded by algorithms, robots, smart devices, drones, and autonomous vehicles, the intimate relationship between humans and machines remains one of the most pressing and complicated issues of our technological age. We hope machines will work for us and enrich us but fear they will alienate and outsmart us. Using the history of early cybernetics and the evolution of the cyborg in popular culture as a guide, we will show that these hopes and fears are remains of the Western soul and our modern worldview. The cyborg started as a typical modern project but ended up deconstructing the modern worldview slowly but thoroughly.
In this first part of a trilogy, we will study the early wave of cybernetics in the 50s, 60s and 70s and the modern roots of the cyborg in science and popular culture. Although cybernetics has always been an interdisciplinary science, the first wave was mostly military-funded and dominated by engineers, mainly with the goal to automate military defense and attack systems. In broader society and popular culture, the most important topic of debate in this period was whether cybernetic mechanisms would enhance or enslave us. The idea of cybernetic machines mimicking the human brain caused a new wave of fear about automation and massive unemployment. Loss of meaningful control was another concern for scientists and intellectuals, all perfectly reflecting the liberal humanist values of the early wave of cybernetics.
But before we delve into the origin of cybernetics in modern thinking, we should answer the question: what exactly is a cyborg, this half machine, half human creature? If we asked someone to give an example of a typical cyborg, the first thing to pop up would probably be the image of the Terminator. The T-800 and T-1000 are arguably the most famous cyborgs imagined in popular culture. The killer robot is made up of living tissue over a metal endoskeleton and has one simple goal: to terminate the human race. This cult movie The Terminator perfectly reflects the struggles of early cybernetic thinkers in the 50s and 60s and their notion of what the cyborg was, and more importantly, could become.
Although many of us believe the cyborg is rooted in science fiction literature, the cyborg was first mentioned in the magazine Astronautics in 1960. The neologism was coined by Manfred Clynes, a clinical psychiatrist with a strong interest in the useful applications of computer-controlled biofeedback systems monitoring, for instance, our heart rate (Kline, 2009). This early work on pacemakers sparked the interest of NASA, who reached out to Clynes to come up with similar applications for astronauts, e.g. computer-controlled chemical injections through spacesuits. Since these men in space were in a hostile environment, it would be great if biofeedback computer systems would take care of the body, NASA executives thought, so that the spirit of man would be free to do what it is supposed to do: to think, imagine, create and explore.
The goal was to free man from his environment. Making a cyborg from an organism was understood as extending and enhancing his human capabilities. As philosopher Ian Hacking explains: “The point was to supplement a human being, to make it possible to exist, qua man as a man” (Hacking, 2006). Becoming a cyborg, man could be what he longs to be; an autonomous, liberal and creative soul amid a sea of inert matter and energy.
It didn’t take long before the term cyborg was picked up by writers and Hollywood directors and became part of popular culture. In 1972, science fiction author Martin Caidin wrote the book Cyborg, about an astronaut and test pilot named Steve Austin who survived a catastrophic crash. Steve was severely injured and became a triple amputee and blind in one eye. At the same time, the government was secretly working on bionics and other artificial enhancement of human capabilities, typical cyborg stuff. Steve, once a healthy astronaut but now bitter and resentful, agreed to being rebuilt with artificial limbs that gave him tremendous speed and strength, in return for becoming a special agent for the government. His cyborg addons included a poison dart gun in the fingers, camera in the eye and built-in radio transmitters.
Half man, half machine, Steve was now “the deadliest secret agent of them all”. At first, Steve laments to his doctors that they should have let him die but ultimately—in a hopeless situation on a secret mission—he realizes that he wants to stay alive. He becomes reconciled to his superhuman status and starts to appreciate how his augmentation can help him serve his nation.
This somewhat exaggerated image of Clynes’ and Caidin’s worldview is what we normally call modern or cartesian. It usually consists of a dualism of body and soul and adheres to clear liberal humanist values. Technology should work for, not on human beings and is merely a means to an end, fostering human values such as freedom, justice and the pursuit of happiness. (In the second wave of cybernetics, as we will see in part II, many thinkers came to abandon this way of thinking.)
These humanist values are strongly attached to the spirit or soul of man as the soul is free and autonomous and separate from the reality of matter and deterministic laws. On the contrary, the body is nothing more than a complex machine, an animal machine or “automaton” receiving instructions from the soul and itself determined by complex but knowable and controllable mechanisms. So, in the 19th and 20th century, as the life sciences took off, more and more scientists became interested in studying this complex machine-like behavior of humans. But soon scientists found out that there were important differences between the classic repetitious machine they found in factories and typical recurring human behavior. An industrial machine was repetitious but not able to correct or steer these repetitive tasks. And most important, man could set his own goals autonomously and adjust them to new circumstances.
In the early 20th century, scientists from different disciplines (e.g. physics, physiology, biology, system theory) found that the concept of feedback or circular causality was fundamental to understanding how complex mechanisms in the physical world, and especially the organism, worked. The body was understood as a complex system with the purpose of maintaining itself using constant feedback, for example, when regulating its temperature or blood sugar level. Concepts such as homeostasis, teleonomy, feedback and self-organization displayed a new paradigm for understanding the behavior of organisms.
In the 20s, R.U.R. was a play by Karel Capek about robots (meaning something like forced labor in the Czech language) and popularized this idea of an artificial workforce that is more akin to us than we would like to admit. The mere fact that it became acceptable that a human plays the role of the machine is already a sign of a changing self-image. In the play, the robots are very human-like although they have no soul, history or passion. Ultimately, the robot slaves end up as destroyers of their makers and the human race, with its boundless hubris, is doomed. This Frankenstein motive will echo through the entire century of filmmaking, as we shall see later on.
The next step was throwing computer science in the mix. Engineers and computer scientists soon found out that this self-regulating recursive behavior worked the same way so-called servomechanism worked and started working on mathematical models to describe the behavior of these mechanisms; man or machine. They figured that adding this computer-controlled feedback loop to other non-recursive mechanical machines could be extremely valuable in, for example, automatic antiaircraft gunnery and target-seeking torpedoes during the Second World War. Hence, the study of communication and control in the animal and the machine, i.e., cybernetics, was born.
Cybernetics soon attracted many lay readers and the godfather of cybernetics, Norbert Wiener, often appeared in newspapers and popular media, speculating about the upcoming age of cybernetic revolution.
Thus, the early wave of cybernetics in the 40s, 50s, and 60s was a clear product of modernity and its dualism. So, when this science took off in the U.S., especially in a military context, liberal human values and modern arguments where never far away. The machine should work for us, not enslave us but enrich our freedom and enhance our human capabilities. Obviously, the hope that the machine would enhance us was counterbalanced by a strong fear that automation would lead to massive unemployment. After all, the important difference between a mechanical machine and a cybernetic, computerized machine also brought new fears. The first - machines of what Wiener called the first industrial revolution - had only replaced our muscle power. The second, the cybernetic machines, on the other hand, would be a replacement of our nervous system, as they actually “think” and make decisions on their own. McLuhan later famously paraphrased the idea: “The wheel… is an extension of the foot. The book… is an extension of the eye…Clothing, an extension of the skin… Electric circuitry, an extension of the central nervous system.”
2001: Space Odyssey (1968) and Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970) were among the first movies to tap into this technological anxiety in society and link it to computerized cognitive extension. In Colossus, a powerful supercomputer is designed to solve world problems such as poverty and disease. But in maintaining world peace during the Cold War, the most onerous of all problems, Colossus soon starts communicating with his Russian counterpart. Together they work out a solution and in a famous scene Colossus turns to his masters and tells them: “this is the voice of world control. I bring you peace. It may be the peace of plenty and content or the peace of unburied death. The choice is yours: Obey me and live, or disobey and die." Since then, AI turning against the human race has become a central cyborg theme in both science (e.g., Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence) and popular culture (e.g., I Robot, Ex Machina), all somehow relating to this central issue: the outsourcing of a task to AI and finding out the outcome is an existential catastrophe for humans, as we are unknowingly perceived as part of the problem to be solved.
The strong belief in quick technological improvement of computers led these cybernetic thinkers in science and popular culture to believe that it was only a matter of time before these computerized machines would outsmart us. And then why not enslave us and let us work for them? When human-like robots became a reality, this typically European mythological motif (e.g. Prometheus, Frankenstein) left the realm of science fiction and became a valid concern (WRR, 2021). Ultimately, as cybernetics historian Thomas Rid explains, it was only a small step from merely outperforming to also “outcreating” us, reproducing, and evolving. The cyborg could be the natural next step in evolution: God created man, but man created a superman. This idea is still prevalent in books such as Harari’s Homo Deus but is strongly rooted in the 50s and 60s.
In the movie Westworld (1973), we find another beautiful example of this technological anxiety in the early wave of cybernetics. Especially the strong moral opposition between man and machine is noteworthy. In the movie, guests visit a futuristic theme park inhabited by cyborgs that are completely subservient to humans. You can do what you like with them: just fool around, kill them, have sex with them, all your darkest fantasies are allowed to be played out. In a great scene in a western bar, everything is programmed and nudged into a typical western shoot-out, but of course the human visitors could never lose. Minutes later, the protagonist and his friend are forced to choose between having sex with cyborg prostitutes or participating in a fun robbery, while the mischievous men giggle with glee.
Every scene serves to show the superiority of the human race, until suddenly the cyborgs start to malfunction, turning into killer robots and terminating most of the guests. A simple plot (the well-known HBO remake series added some spice) but a great example of the role machines were expected to play in society according to the early wave of cybernetics.
As we can see, on the surface, the moral order in these days looked typically modern, with a clear distinction between man and machine, good and evil, enhancement and enslavement. However, at the same time, beneath the superficial unambiguity, the study of cybernetics was slowly but thoroughly confusing its clear modern distinctions. As Katherina Hayles profoundly shows in her work How We Became Posthuman, these thinkers found themselves in two worlds, and were intensely struggling to unite their own scientific understanding of man and machines with their moral beliefs.
On the one hand, they (implicitly) endorsed the liberal humanist project. For instance, the father of cybernetics, Norbert Wiener, saw cybernetic machines and extensions as a (political) means to (re)gain control in a probabilistic and chaotic world. In the 20th century, more and more scientists began to agree that the world wasn’t deterministic by nature. Therefore, central control through knowledge was an extremely difficult task, as human control centers lack the speed and computing power to respond adequately to unforeseen events. So instead of organizing control centrally, cybernetic machines would be able to control randomness decentrally through negative feedback. The machines could make the decisions themselves and thus make up for human deficiencies. Cybernetic machines would help the human race control unexpected events (automatically) by, for example, detecting the German bombers above London during foggy nights in the second World War, a tremendously hard task for humans. Working on these army projects and later also on medical applications, Wiener believed in a very clear and typically modern moral order. Good cyborgs would reinforce the autonomous liberal subject. Bad cyborgs, on the contrary, would undermine the autonomy of the subject.
The original Star Wars movie in 1977 is full of droids that form close and complementary feedback loops with human actors. R2-D2 saves the day time after time (one can count at least seven crucial interventions by the little droid). He delivers Princes Leia’s message to Obi-Wan Kenobi, stops the Death Star trash compactor from crushing our protagonists, fixes Luke’s ship again and again, etc. Likewise, though 3CPO is always whining and complaining about everything, he is also indispensable because of his translation technology. Human and machine are tightly coupled and harmoniously work together to save the galaxy. On the other hand, pure evil is, at least in this episode, represented in perhaps the most underrated cyborg of all time: Darth Vader. When someone opposes him, choking the opposing party is his favored response.
However, the cybernetic thinkers were gradually deconstructing the liberal human. The scientific research of Wiener and his contemporaries confused classic distinctions between man and machine, soul and body. In their opinion, humans, animals and servomechanisms all function the same way, as complex steady-state systems controlled by feedback loops. This had both ontological and moral implications.
Concerning the first matter, for some, the study of cybernetics provided at best a nice model to explain some but not all of human behavior. Moreover, it was a theory explaining behavior from the outside only and lacked understanding of subjectivity (this also became an important point of criticism of the second wave of cybernetics, more on that in the second part). But cybernetic studies undoubtedly had interesting and useful applications. An important field was the cybernetic circuit a man and machine could create if they were coupled tightly, e.g. a pilot flying an airplane (this was Norbert Wiener’s original field of study) or prosthetic limbs for army veterans, among many other medical applications that were later incorporated in the field of bionics. Also, the abstract modelling was useful and new to many life sciences and medicine. Building upon the concept of homeostasis in physiology, for example, cybernetics was able to explain and mathematically describe how the body maintains a regular body temperature or blood sugar level. And the concept of negative feedback became a popular model to explain the vicious circle of some mental illnesses. But to most of these early wave thinkers, especially the engineers, cybernetics was simply the study of this behavior, nothing more, nothing less.
But not everybody agreed with this. Because the theory equally applies to animals, humans, and machines, for others, cybernetics soon became more than a theory. It became a fundamental belief or doctrine about the nature of human beings, claiming that the essences of all these entities do not fundamentally differ from each other. Body-soul, matter-spirit, these oppositions do not matter as we are dealing with one system constantly negotiating a relationship with an environment. Information became the key concept and foundation of this ontology to overcome this classic dualism of modernity. As Wiener has famously said: “information is information, it is neither matter nor energy”. Tracing back to the Gaia hypothesis of Lovelock, in which the Earth is ultimately one giant cybernetic feedback system, this ontology is still very popular among certain scientific disciplines.
Consequently, this new ontology of man and machine also had moral implications. All the classic moral schemes and arguments lose their persuasiveness if we are more like machines and/or are tightly coupled to cybernetic extensions. The basic premise of technology as an instrument or means to a human end started to become obsolete for some philosophers, scientists and writers. Before reaching a human goal, technology has already transformed who we are and how we think. It works on us as much as we use it to achieve a certain goal. This marks the beginning of the posthuman and the second wave of cybernetics, which in turn led to a new wave of cyborg movies such as Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell. Stay tuned for the second article on the history of the cyborg in science and popular culture to find out what this means.
This article is part I of a series on the history of cyberpunk movies and the evolution of the cyborg in popular culture. Click here for part II. Click here for part II.