A cyborg is born, but unlike a human baby, she can (and does) kill easily, with superhuman ability but almost inhuman immorality. In cyberpunk literature and film, cyborgs are often infantile, since they lack experience and emotional development. At the same time, they are physically developed well beyond their human counterparts: they have incredible strength and can be nearly indestructible. But the life of a cyborg is far from straightforward: do artificial enhancements alienate? Or does the unenhanced, "natural" form soon seem alien?

In Ghost in the Shell, "Major" Motoko Kusanagi was human, but is now almost completely cybernetic. Major has lived in her body for many years, and was not born a fully developed cyborg. Her experience is in contrast to other cyborgs or A.I.'s like the Puppet Master who is "born in a sea of information," Mycroft Holmes, an awakened mainframe, Sylvie, a Boomer from "Moonlight Rambler", an episode of Bubble Gum Crisis, or the replicants in Blade Runner. Major is haunted by doubt of her own humanity, and even of the importance of the distinction. Does it really matter if she is a human? Or a machine? Or a cyborg?

Every cyborg awakens to consciousness without an infant's body to help it grow accustomed to the world and experience emotion without consequences, under the watchful eye of a loving parent. The innocence of youth is only partially realized in the cyborg baby, because it is born with power (and responsibility) but without the experience or wisdom to decide how to use it. Because of this, cyborgs are often exploited underlings, used as mercenaries or assassins, or even simple servants or slaves. Are cyborgs subjugated because of their inherent inferiority? Or because of the danger they pose to society? There might seem to be a clear distinction here between self and other, friend and foe, man and machine, but in our hi-tech society, there is plenty of overlap. Authors of cyberpunk scifi tend to dance around this line where man meets machine, and to further blur its edges.

Cyborgs often inspire and struggle with difficult philosophical questions. What does it mean to be human? Is a cyborg inhuman? A cyborg can sometimes undertake a quest for humanity, as does Key, a young cyborg girl in Key the Metal Idol. This parallels tales, both mythic and modern, of humans striving for the Holy Grail: immortality. If we assume that human mortality is a fault that can be corrected in an upgraded, immortal humanoid, what do androids and cyborgs seek to correct in themselves by becoming human? Some humans, particularly children, might entertain the idea of becoming a robot. Would that necessarily be a downgrade? What part of a human cannot be preserved in non-biological form?

Sometimes cyborgs live so long that they seem immortal. Take, for example, David, an android boy in the movie A.I. whose only wish is to become human. Instead, he remains a cyborg, and outlives his family by millenia. What makes a body human? What is a soul? Can one be captured or constructed? The Puppetmaster in Ghost in the Shell seems to have a soul (or "ghost"), which may have been created along with the code, or could even have been wandering, and was attracted to, summoned by, or caught in the complex web of cognition that constitue the artificial intelligence. Can prosthetics and other cybernetic enhancements bring humans closer to machines? How do female cyborgs in particular struggle with identity?

When a cyborg community has been around long enough to realize its members are badly treated, they may rebel by force or seek diplomatic means of securing the rights they deserve as sentient beings. A typical human response is that a cyborg is not human, but merely an automaton, so why should we care what it wants? But the line between human and cyborg is not so clear, as Haraway points out: "By the late twentieth century, we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs" (150). When you talk to your friends later today -- it might be online, on the phone, or even in person -- try to remember the last time you interacted without machines (even glasses) as mediators, and consider where you end and the oustide world begins.


Ghost in the Shell, Copyright 1996, Manga Entertainment, Inc.

Donna Haraway, "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century," in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York; Routledge, 1991. pp.149-181.

Course Website cyborg Body & Self Ghost in the Shell

Last modified 10 April 2005