In explaining how he coined the term “cyberspace,” William Gibson has often described seeing teenagers at arcades, staring intently into tall plywood boxes—their bodies tense, their attention welded not to the screens—but some imagined space behind the screens, inside them. There was a longing in their gaze, Gibson told an audience at the New York Public Library. “They wanted to be inside there, with the Pong, or whatever,” he said, laughing.
That image, though—of the tense body yearning to be elsewhere—gave Gibson the seed of his cyberspace: a non-corporeal space peopled with those who’d sloughed off their bodies and found something stronger, better, faster, weirder.
Here’s another Gibsonism: “Now cyberspace has everted. Turned itself inside out. Colonized the physical.” Vintage Gibson, that quote: gnomic, vaguely oracular. Rich in possibilities. And I’ve pulled it from context to make it even more grandly evocative. Maybe, though, it suggests that the boundary between cyberspace and “meatspace” swings both ways—that the border between the two is more porous than Gibson imagined back in the early ‘80’s, watching those kids feed quarters into a machine for their next fix of cathode-ray dreams.
As technology has progressed, the boundaries of the body, like the border between cyber and real space, become more permeable.
We might even take the permeability of the real space-cyberspace membrane for granted today. Thinking they can be separated might be a relic of what Nathan Jurgenson calls “digital dualism”: the mistaken belief that we can separate the “real” from the “virtual,” and that it’s in the former that life really happens. After all, we may make “virtual” friends that we’ll never meet in “real” life; we may even feel emotionally closer to them than to people we see every day.
Where does that leave the body, that shell that Gibson’s Pongers yearned to leave behind? As technology has progressed, the boundaries of the body, like the border between cyber and real space, become more permeable. Check out our 21st century Vitruvian man if you don’t believe me. Ears on arms. Eyes on fingers. Cyborg spider-senses. Mind-controlled prostheses. And of course, a vibrating penis.
Transhumanism: That’s one name for the belief that we can—must!—remake the human body into something better. Joseph L. Flatley spent time with the DIY body hackers of Grindhouse Wetware and reported back on their vision of a cyberpunk future that looks a lot less like Gibson’s burning chrome Tokyo and a lot more like, well, Pittsburgh. They’re building a future in the basement, one self-experiment at a time.
The transhumanists may sound like fringe types, and many of them are. But many of their ideas have already flowed into the mainstream. Molly McHugh shows how transcranial direct-current stimulation (TDCS) went from the research lab to an Indiegogo project.
Ears on arms. Eyes on fingers. Cyborg spider-senses. Mind-controlled prostheses. And of course, a vibrating penis.
But you can’t probe a border without producing anxiety, and as we lay-folk learn more about just what it is our bodies do, complications are bound to arise. Selena Larson examines how our current drive for data, data, data produced by fitness apps and health trackers might be harming people with eating disorders. Greg Stevens asks why, in an age when technology can change so much about our bodies, we’re still so uncomfortable with plastic surgery. And we’re not necessarily more comfortable in our own bodies, either; Carly Lanning profiles YouTube star Meghan Tonjes, who’s trying to change that with her Booty Revolution. Nico Lang tells how, despite its reputation as a hypochondriac’s Red Room, WebMD provided him consolation when he needed it most. Aaron Sankin explains why hackers want your medical records, and it has less to do with spying on your body than stealing your identity. Finally, I share how a cyberspace friend’s journey through the ravages of ALS taught me about living and dying with dignity and generosity.
Heady stuff. We hope you like it.
Photo via Gray’s Anatomy/bartleby.com (PD) | Remix by Jason Reed