Guide to the declaration of cyborg rights

What with all the trouble over human and animal rights, have we given enough thought to cyborg rights?

Attention receptors at Cosmos have been activated by the case of self-actualised cybernetic organism Meow-Ludo Disco Gamma Meow-Meow (aka Mr Meow-Meow, or Meow to his friends). The Sydney scientist, train commuter and committed ‘biohacker’ has discovered the latter two things are hard to combine. It has led to a legal showdown heralded as ‘Australia’s first cyborg rights case’, and the world’s second.

Meow-Meow’s claim to cyborg persecution stems from modding his travel smart card. He cut out its chip, encased it in biocompatible plastic and had a professional piercer insert it under the skin of his hand.

Electronic sensors at ticket gates recognised his waved hand. Human elements of the New South Wales public transport system were less forgiving. Transport officers took issue with Meow-Meow’s inability to show a whole card. His chip was cancelled (ironically, he says, while he was away at a convention addressing cyborg rights). He subsequently faced court and was fined for travelling without a valid ticket.

Meow-Meow and his lawyer say the case raises questions about bodily autonomy and the rights of people who implant technologies into their bodies. Other questions arise, too.

What is a cyborg, again?

C’mon, you might be thinking, does implanting a computer chip really qualify you as a cyborg? It does. Though many of the narratives featuring cyborgs derive their drama from emphasising the mechanic over the organic, a cyborg is defined as any being with elements of both.

The first use of the term is credited to scientists Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline, who in a 1960 article in the journal Astronautics titled ‘Cyborgs and Space’ argued for “suitable biochemical, physiological, and electronic modifications” to bodily functions to enable adaptation to extra-terrestrial environments. “The cyborg deliberately incorporates exogenous components extending the self-regulatory control function of the organism in order to adapt it to new environments,” they wrote.

Not a particularly catchy definition, granted. Dictionaries go with a definition along the lines of “a person whose physical abilities are extended beyond normal human limitations by mechanical elements built into the body”. That means a cyborg could be someone with a prosthetic limb. Or Mr Meow-Meow.

So that means the Six Million Dollar Man was a cyborg?

You’re on to something, and have just revealed how old you are. Though 1970s pop culture icon Steve Austin, the critically injured NASA astronaut rebuilt at considerable expense with mechanical parts to become a secret super agent, was often referred to a bionic man, the working title for the television series The Six Million Dollar Man was in fact Cyborg – the same as the novel by Martin Caidin on which the series was based.

Spin-off series The Bionic Woman – about Jaime Sommers, a critically injured professional tennis player rebuilt with mechanical parts to become a sexy secret super agent – therefore could well have been called The Cyborg Woman.

Bionics, in case you’re wondering (and so you don’t have to google), is defined as the study of mechanical systems that function like living organisms. That means a cyborg can have, for example, a bionic ear like Jaime Sommers, or bionic muscles like Steve Austin. But no part of a bionic ‘creature’ – such as a bionic bat, bionic cockroach or even an entire bionic human – actually needs to be living tissue.

So what are cyborg rights?

Cyborg rights activists have put together a Cyborg Bill of Rights V1.0. It contain five key principles: freedom from disassembly (including from suspension or interruption of function); right to organic naturalisation (meaning Meow-Meow has “a reasonable accrual of ownership interest” in the travel-card chip embedded under his skin); equality for mutants; freedom of morphology; and the right to bodily sovereignty. An alternative Universal Declaration of Cyborg Rights has been proposed by activist Aral Balkan.  

These rights seem very anthropocentric.

Indeed, though there are certainly voices making the case that cyborg rights apply to non-humans. A Cyborg Manifesto, published by American academic Donna Haraway in 1985, argued “the boundary between human and animal is thoroughly breached” and that “cyborgs signal disturbingly and pleasurably tight coupling” between humans and other living beings. Make of that what you will given current laws. What can be said is that if cyborg and animal rights activists get their acts together, scientists experimenting with the likes of cyborg beetles might be in for some stick from CETA or PETC.

What was the world’s first cyborg rights case?

That was the fight by Neil Harbisson to be legally recognised as a cyborg. Harbisson, born completely colour-blind, has an antenna surgically implanted in his skull that allows him to hear different colours. He calls the antenna his eyeborg. He co-founded the Cyborg Foundation with his childhood friend Moon Ribas.

I’m not sure how I feel about all this.

You’re not alone. As the reaction of the New South Wales public transport authorities indicate, social acceptance of cyborgs in their all multifaceted interfaces has a long way to go. Popular culture suggests we are as uneasy about humans becoming more machine as we are about machines becoming more human-like. More often than not depictions of cyborgs in fiction are more threatening than comforting. Think the Daleks, the Cybermen, the Borg, Darth Vader or the T-800 from The Terminator (the only cyborg to make the top 10 favourite robots in science fiction nominated by Cosmos readers.

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