“It’s a different feeling than hearing normal sound,” Mr. Harbisson tells me. For him, silence is white. A trip to the art gallery is akin to visiting a concert hall. The supermarket sounds like a nightclub. “I can listen to a Picasso and arrange my food into my favourite songs,” he explains in his 2012 TED Talk, which has been viewed more than 1,517,000 times. Mr. Harbisson says prior to the eyeborg he would dress to please the eye, but now he dresses to please the ear: a C-major outfit is achieved with canary yellow pants, a peacock blue shirt, and a flamingo pink jacket.
He says a secondary effect took place from wearing the eyeborg whereby regular sounds started to generate colour associations: for example, the ring of the telephone became a green experience, and the monotone beeps of the BBC felt turquoise. While some would recognize his experience as synesthesia (a neurological phenomenon by which people experience a collision of the senses), it’s important to remember that unlike other synesthetes, Mr. Harbisson’s condition is cybernetically introduced.
Cyborgs in science fiction have long functioned as fictional devices for negotiating humanity’s relationship with technology. But fiction may have sensationalized cyborgs to a point where we’re blinded to the more more subtle ways humans have begun to mechanize our bodies. By Clynes and Kline’s definition, there could already be hundreds and thousands of cyborgs among us. Today, an estimated 324,000 people worldwide have received cochlear implants – electronic devices which allow the deaf or near-deaf to hear. Artificial pacemakers and defibrillators have become so commonplace that we often don’t think of them as machines. We’ve already begun to use 3-D printed bones in reconstructive surgeries, and DARPA has already outfitted veterans and amputees with a robotic arm system, called the DEKA arm. With so many people integrating technology into their bodies, it’s difficult to untangle the wires to see where humanity ends and cyborgism begins.
While the physical integration of the technology with his body took place over time, Mr. Harbisson says it was the mental union between the software and his brain that really made him feel like a cyborg. “I started to hear electronic sounds in my dreams” he says. “My brain was creating the same response as the software and I couldn’t tell the difference.”
Beyond transitioning physically and mentally to cyborgism, Mr. Harbisson also experienced a kind of social ratification in 2004 when he renewed his passport. “You’re not allowed to appear on U.K. passports with electronic equipment, but I insisted to the passport office that what they were seeing was a new part of my body.” Although historically other cyborgs have been cited (Melbourne’s Stelarc and Toronto’s Steve Mann come to mind) some have read the inclusion of the eyeborg on Mr. Harbisson’s passport as official recognition of his cyborg status.
In “Flesh and Machines: How Robots will Change us” author and robotics entrepreneur Rodney A. Brooks argues that humans have embarked on an irreversible journey of technological manipulation of our bodies. Writing in 2002, he predicted that the next 20 years humanity would become a merger of flesh and machine.
“All you have to do is look at our relationship with our smartphones to understand how we’re already a kind of wireless cyborg” says Ramona Pringle. Ms. Pringle is a professor in Ryerson University’s Master of Digital Media Program and a researcher studying the relationship between humans and technology. “We’re evolving to be more reliant on our smartphones, and we’re essentially offloading our brains – our contacts, photos, schedules, directions to where we’re going – to our phones.”
In addition to strapping ourselves to our smartphones, we’re also increasingly comfortable outfitting our wrists, babies, and dogs with electronic devices. Wearable technology – clothing or accessories incorporating computer and advanced electronic technologies–is more than just a current craze. According to CB Insights, last year investors put $458-million into companies that make wearable products. Developments such as Google’s Glass, Pebble’s Smartwatch, Nike’s Fuelband, Rest Device’s Mimo Baby, and Bionym’s Heartbeat Identification Wristband are all signs that we’re snuggling up to technology in unprecedented ways.