Friday, July 3, 2009

SMORGASBORG #1: What is a cyborg?

Yes, We is the new Queen of the Borg. As a Borg, We don't need glasses, but as the Queen, We thought it might help people take Us seriously.

Working on the Terminator Salvation posts generated some interesting conversation in my household over the following days. I've become curious about that meat/metal interface, what it takes to make a cyborg, how cyborgs are portrayed in the movies, and what a cyborg is and is not.

What is a cyborg? It depends who you ask. Some sources say a cyborg is anyone who uses a tool to enhance sensory input, or improve physical mechanics of the body. By that definition, eyeglasses, hearing aids, canes, crutches, and prosthetics have been making cyborgs of us for centuries(1). Other sources are more stringent in their definitions, and yet others seem to confuse terms like robot, android, and cyborg.

Cyborg, or Kindle?

Cyborg, or Kindle?

Language can get confusing. A Kindle covered in a leather casing is not a cyborg even though it resembles, on a crude level, the Terminator. Why is the Kindle not a cyborg? Because it is not encased in living tissue (just dead tissue), according to the definition used in The Terminator movies. My husband, the cartoonist, is crushed of course, because he was hoping we could buy a cyborg from

Patrick Parrinder wrote a great historical survey of cyborgian literature and presents his own set of definitions, which I've paraphrased and embellished here(2).

Robot is the English version of the Czech robota, basically meaning "forced labor". This label can be applied to machines, which take the place of human workers. Examples of robots from film include V-Ger (Star Trek the Motion Picture), the Gunslinger (Westworld), and don't forget the autobots and decepticons (Transformers)!
The Gunslinger, looking like Yule Brenner

Android, meaning "manlike," was first used in 1727. The term is currently used to mean artificial human beings of organic substance. Replicants (Blade Runner) belong to this category.
Sean Young as Rachel-the-Replicant

Cyborg is a contraction of "cybernetic organism," which is how the Terminator labels itself. Cyborgs are constructed through surgical extension. They are not born, they are made. Some sources(3) say that a basic principle of cybernetics requires some kind of sensory and/or motor interface between the man (or biological tissues) and his machine parts. This involves the exchange of data and of energy. This relationship between two independent systems (man and machine in the case of the movies we will look at) is a dynamic one, where each influences the other.

The requirement of interface between the human and the artificial body part gives us a good base from which to look at cyborgs in the movies, so let's include this in our definition of cyborgs.

1. The Terminator series: The Terminator itself (Arnold Schwarzenegger), and Marcus (Sam Worthington) from Terminator Salvation.

2. Star Trek: First Contact: The Borg
The Borg Queen, before my reign.

3. Cyborg: Pearl Prophet (Dayle Haddon)
Little Pearl

4. The RoboCop series: RoboCop (Peter Weller). Oops! Picture gaff! We'll see him later...

5. I, Robot: Del Spooner (Will Smith) could qualify as a cyborg because he has a prosthetic arm that obviously has sensory and motor feedback systems that interact with his private parts (nervous system, musculature, etc.).
Spooner and his miracle arm

6. Iron Man: Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) when he dons his "power suit." Power suit?!?
Iron Man

7. The Matrix Revolutions: Anyone wearing an Armored Personnel Unit.

8. Aliens: Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) when she is wearing the exosuit cargo loader to battle the Alien Queen. Weak, I know, but I'll make my point next time.

Ripley suited up

I know what your thinking... You're wondering how I, Robot, Iron Man, Aliens, and Matrix Revolutions qualify as cyborg movies. Next time, we look at exoskeletons and cyborgs.

1. Someone should make a movie about Benjamin Franklin, the cyborg: struck by lightning while wearing glasses, the electrical charge fuses them to his head (and brain) and gives him super-human vision...
2. Robots, Clones and Clockwork Men: The Post-Human Perplex in Early Twentieth-Century Literature and Science. Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, Vol. 34 No. 1, March, 2009 pp. 56-67. You can purchase this article online if you're into the history of science fiction literature (or even if you're not).
3. Vanishing senses -- restoration of sensory functions by electronic implants. Rosahl, Steffen K. Poiesis & Praxis; may 2004, Vol. 2 Issue 4, pp 285-295. An excellent overview of what it means to enable the body with a sensory and/or motor interface. You can purchase this article through this link, or just check out the abstract.


  1. Excellent presentation. Thank you for your time and effort!