“We are all orange.“

“Have you met the cyborg already?” For three days, all eyes were on Neil Harbisson. His mere presence disrupted the St. Gallen Symposium. Harbisson was born with complete colour blindness, only able to see black, white and shades of grey. In 2004, he had an antenna implanted in his skull. This device allows him to turn colour into sound frequencies. In his words, he listens to colour and can compose music just by staring at different objects.

However, his transformation has not been an easy journey. More than a decade later, passers-by still confront him on a daily basis and call him a fraud. It also took him several months to get used to the new sense he had acquired, and to understand what he was feeling. He says he never removes the antenna, even if he is asleep or taking a shower. It is now a part of his body. “I am not using technology, I am not wearing technology, I am technology,” he says, convinced that he does not fit into the traditional definition of what it means to be human. Beyond his eye-catching appearance, Harbisson’s introverted character is unusual for a person receiving this amount of attention.

After 13 years experimenting with the boundaries of human perception, Harbisson is trying to expand his repertoire of senses. In addition to the antenna, the cyborg activist is now developing a permanent Bluetooth tooth implant, which would allow him to communicate “trans- dentally” using Morse code. He is also working on altering his awareness of time by attaching a device to his head that can keep track of the Earth’s rotation.

All of which raises the question: Are humans ready to enhance their bodies permanently with technology? While some question the ethics behind this process, Harbisson asserts it is inevitable. He af- firms it is going to lead to a renaissance of our species by disrupting our own bodies instead of affecting other forms of life on the planet.

What is it like to be a cyborg?

I feel like a part of me can evolve at a different speed. Most of my organic body will not regenerate the older I get, but the other part will get better and better. Getting old is exciting. I also feel that I am technology. This is difficult to express. It is a cyborg feeling. I do not know the difference anymore between software and brain, or between the antenna and my other body parts. The new sense normalises with the other senses. That happened after about five months, when I started to dream in colour. That was the turning point.

What makes someone a cyborg?

It is a matter of identity. It has nothing to do with your body. You can have cybernetics inside of your body and not identify as a cyborg. You might not have an implant, but identify as a cyborg. The same happens with men and women that identify themselves as cyborgs, al- though their biological body does not correspond to that. Being a biological cyborg is something more specific. You merge with technology. There are people that do this voluntarily, to extend their senses and their perception. Other people go through this process for medical reasons. That is why being a cyborg is more about identity.

„Being a cyborg is about identity.“

When did you start recognising yourself as trans-species?
I had a long conversation with neurologist Oliver Sacks a few years ago. He brought up the subject of species. This made me think I no longer identified myself with the concept of human. He also suggested I could be a new species. I felt more comfortable defining myself as trans-species. I added senses and organs that are untraditional for our species, but that are present in others. I have an organ that many species have – an antenna – and senses that other species have – infrared and ultraviolet perception.

What was it like to sense colour for the first time?
Initially, sensing colour did not allow me to identify what I saw. I could feel the vibrations, but they did not make any sense. It was a little bit chaotic, but then I slowly memorised the names people give to colour for each frequency of light. It took me some time. It was magical, very special, I guess. I felt free, because I did not need to ask anyone about colours anymore.

What is your favourite colour?

Infrared. I like the vibrations, they are very low. They are among the lowest frequencies. It is very profound and very peaceful.

Your antenna can also receive emails and phone calls. Can the internet become a human sense or is it one already?

It can be a sensory expansion, for sure. We can also use the internet for senses that are only received through Wi-Fi. The internet can help us to receive many senses, not only one. I think that might be happening soon.

“The internet can be a sensory expansion.“

There are not many cyborgs in the world. Do you ever feel lonely?

I am surprised there are not many more cyborgs yet. When I did it, I thought there would be many more by 2009. I am sure by the 2020s there will be more. I do not have many cyborg friends. There are thousands of biological cyborgs, but they do not identify as such. We are planning to organise a cyborg pride parade next year in Austin, Texas. This might help people who are afraid of coming out of the closet, because there are still many people who laugh at you when you tell them you identify as a cyborg.

How do you reply to people who think that what you do is unethical?

It depends on the person. Some people are more open, but others will not change their minds. I have received death threats from religious fanatics: They think that no matter what I say, this is against God, that it should be stopped, and I should not be allowed to encourage people to design themselves. After I went to the Middle East, in particular, I received many emails from people saying what I do is evil and outrageous. I can’t change their minds. That is very difficult. So, I do not reply to these people. I think that if God exists, what I do is much more about collaboration with him. I am not going against my organic part. Actually, I am giving it more potential by adding new senses and developing them.

“I am surprised there are not many more cyborgs yet.“

Do you consider yourself a disruptor?

I do not think I am disruptive, I think we as a species are disruptive. We have destroyed this planet in many ways for our own comfort. If we changed ourselves, it would make much more sense. We are very fragile as a species. For instance, we get cold very easily, but instead of installing a heating system, we should be thinking about disrupting our own bodies with technology in order to survive and adapt to different temperatures.

You have stated that there is no such thing as white people or black people.

Yes, we are all orange. Some people have darker skin or lighter skin, but we are all the same colour. For me, it was a beautiful discovery. As I started sensing colour, I realised saying somebody is black or white is completely false. I also realised that cities are not grey, there is always colour. It is quite hard to find absence of colour.

Have you seen anything special inSt. Gallen?

I like the sound of grass and wood. Those are the dominant tones here. Wood sounds like F Sharp and grass sounds like A. These notes sound good together. If you added violet, you would have D Major. So, I would paint some walls with violet in order to have a major chord, because I saw there were not many violet objects. It would be even more harmonic this way.

How do you imagine the future?

I think it will be more normal to meet people with new senses and new organs. This will allow us to have a much more profound experience of reality and nature, and it will connect us to other species with similar features. The more you share with others, the more you respect them. Therefore, more people will be vegetarian, for example.

What's behind your antenna?

I am a pianist. That is why I started this process. I was encouraged to create electronic music when I was at university, but I was not that interested in electronic music. I wanted to create a musical instrument inside my body. It started as art, and then it became my life. I am able to transform reality into music. I can compose music when I move my head. I am still a musician, just a completely different kind of musician.

Do you have any regrets?

I regret having used my ears when I started this. Using an existing sense to gain a new sense was a mistake. It was like blocking a sense. We have lots of space in our body to create new senses. So, it makes more sense to create a new organ.

“I like the sound of grass and wood.“

Neil Harbisson (London, United Kingdom, 1982) is a contemporary artist and cyborg activist. He rose to fame when he became the first person in the world to be recognised as a cyborg by a government. This happened when his passport expired and the British authorities initially refused to accept a photo where he appeared with an electronic device over his head. Harbisson argued successfully that the antenna was a part of his body, and he was finally allowed to renew his passport in 2004. In 2010, he co-founded the Cyborg Foundation, an international organisation
that helps humans become cyborgs and defends trans-species rights.

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