It’s a bit of trope-cum-cliche to harp on about how technology is ever changing, it’s painstakingly obvious, particularly in this day and age. But at this moment in time science fiction is turning into reality.
Artist and activist Neil Harbisson is a living testament to that fact.
His story is one based on circumstance and identity. In the same way the transgender community has fought to be recognised and treated equally, Harbisson is fighting to legitimise his identity as a cyborg.
Or as the British born and Catalan raised 32-year-old calls it: ‘trans-species’.
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As co-founder of Cyborg Arts, Harbisson has been the poster child for merging man with technology.
From birth he was born with a rare form of colourblindness, he explains:
[The concept of colour is] difficult to understand – it’s always been a mystery for me.
I was never interested in changing my sight because I’ve always had perfect sight but I was interested in colour.
Putting Einstein's Theory of Relativity into practice by developing an organ for the sense of time with @oryano1 @samsonthebrave @moonribas Kelvin, Ellen and Andy at @thoughtworksarts #cyborgart #timetravel #senseoftime #relativity #theoryofrelativity #einstein #senses #cyborg #art #newyork #nyc #thoughtworks #neilharbisson
It’s easy for able-bodied people to take something as ordinary as seeing colour for granted. However Harbisson doesn’t feel like he’s missing out on much.
He claims that he still has perfect vision, can see from long distances, and ‘memorise shapes’. So his interest in colour was purely based on perception.
Harbisson explains that not seeing colour isn’t an issue for him, if it wasn’t used in a social element he wouldn’t feel like he’s missing out on anything.
He told UNILAD:
If you don’t perceive colour then you don’t focus on it. You’re brain focuses on other elements that other people don’t focus on.
This is where Harbisson’s surgically implanted antenna – or what he likes to call his ‘other body part’ – comes into play.
The easiest explanation of how it functions – without getting too technical – is it acts as a sensory device which sends a signal to his brain and bones to identify different colours of the spectrum.
If we dont merge with technology, technology will become so intelligent that it will run away from us pic.twitter.com/7i16OpfwvM
— Neil Harbisson (@NeilHarbisson) June 4, 2016
The theory behind Haribsson’s antenna isn’t new, in fact it’s based on Issac Newton’s theory of direct correlation between colour and sound from the 17th century. Because of the inadequate technology during Newton’s time, it could only remain a theory. However today it can be proved and put into practice.
Harbisson began his project at art college in 2003 with Adam Montandon. Their aim was to take Newton’s theory and put it into practice. Their first task was to create a software which would allow Harbisson to hear the ‘sound frequencies on a visual spectrum’. Their second aim was to add an invisible spectrum so Harbisson and Montandon could go ‘beyond the visual colours’.
When explaining his antenna Harbisson went at great lengths to stress it was not another fancy gadget or device, this was a body part that was very much part of him.
— Neil Harbisson (@NeilHarbisson) April 27, 2014
The aim at the beginning was to create a system that would make me hear colours but I didn’t find it practical to use [with] my hands. So I wanted this to be a new body part, I didn’t even want it to be a wearable.
I tried different ways of having it attached permanently to my body. In 2004 it was screwed to my head.
Later it was implanted under my skin. Finally it was integrated underneath, inside the bone. It had different levels of integration but it was like an implant.
So I’m not wearing an antenna, I have an antenna.
— Neil Harbisson (@NeilHarbisson) September 28, 2012
Adjusting to life with a new body part was not an easy task for Harbisson. Not only did he have to get used to new senses in his brain but he also had to deal with the physical aspect too.
As a body part I had to get used to the new height, the antenna is part of my skeleton so I’m officially taller now. Also putting on clothes was a challenge and I had redesign my hats so I could wear them.
As well as adjusting to it physically, another aspect was being seen in public with it. According to Harbisson, friends and family laughed at him and said he was ‘making a fool of himself’ for going out in the streets with it. They ‘didn’t understand why it was so important for me to sense colour’, he says.
As an artist, Neil’s cybernetic antenna is just as important as a paintbrush and a canvas. For those open to the idea of ‘cyborgism’ you could make the case that his antenna is his paintbrush and his body is the canvas. Throughout our conversation he’s always quick to remind us that this is art as well as technological innovation.
… It’s the art of designing your senses, your own body part and your own perception of reality, which we call cyborg art. It’s a way of creating art where only you are the one experiencing it.
I am the only one experiencing the vibration of colour in my bone, so in this case I’m the audience of my art and the state of where it’s happening.
You could argue ‘How can it be art if there’s no one to appreciate or critique it?’ It’s like the proverbial tree falling in the woods. Harbisson remains adamant in his notion.
Furthermore he doesn’t even consider himself human because of the antenna, which he considers a body part – albeit a non-organic one. The label human, Habisson believes, doesn’t define him anymore. He identifies as ‘trans-species’, a term that will most likely trigger anyone who isn’t willing to open their mind and understand the meaning behind it.
He compares trans-species to those who identify as transgender stressing:
Just like a transgender person may have breasts, I have a new body part so that’s the difference in language. I identify it not as a new device, but as a new body part.
I don’t consider myself human, but not considering yourself human doesn’t mean you consider yourself something more. The definition of human doesn’t fully describe me because it doesn’t include my antenna as an organ and it doesn’t include inferred and ultraviolet perception as a human sense.
So the definition is not accurate. That’s why I feel more comfortable describing myself as a trans-species.
— Neil Harbisson (@NeilHarbisson) October 24, 2011
One authority which didn’t recognise his ‘new body part’, or the eligibility of trans-species, was Her Majesty’s Passport Office who refused Harbisson’s passport renewal due to their strict requirements regarding photos. It ‘was a challenge to explain’ to them he now identifies as being technology.
With help from doctors, friends and his college he was able to convince them to renew his passport but he remains sceptical. When he tried to renew his passport in 2014 he went through the same adversity. By the time he renews his passport again in 2024, he hopes there will will be more people who identify themselves as tran-species and therefore the process will mean less hassle.
I think we will see more people having more senses, and [more] organisms that are not traditionally human, maybe the term trans-species becomes more accepted.
However, as with all new ways of thinking that appear to subvert gender norms – or in this case ‘species norms’ – the idea of making technology a part of our body is an abomination in the eyes of conservatives and religious groups.
Harbisson’s maverick way of thinking, while bold and intuitive, has earned him a lot of anger from those who believe what he perpetuates is ‘against God’.
Neil says he receives:
… a lot of hate emails and gets confronted by people who consider me as anti-natural, anti-human and anti-God.
They tell me God created us as perfect and encouraging other people to design themselves is going against His will and I should be stopped. We should accept the way we are.
I have had death threats – some of them have been filed and monitored. There’s people who want to put a stop to me in any possible way.
However, conservative technophobes, such those threatening Harbisson, are waging a futile battle against progression. The rate at which technology is progressing can be frightening if you step back from your digital luxuries. But this train of thought is a double-edged sword.
The concept of having cybernetic arms isn’t new; we now live in a reality where it’s very possible. Harbisson thinks society will soon open up to the idea of ‘merging with technology for more practical reasons’ like the medical industry and to improve other social aspects of their lives.
Is it against the will of nature to give a soldier a cybernetic leg after their original got blown off while serving his country? Does it subvert the laws of man to give a blind person the opportunity to see if it means giving him ‘cybernetic eyes’?
These are the questions society will ask as technology continues to advance.
Neil Harbisson will be the first of many answers.