“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.