Matthew Gandy: cyborg urbanisation
Since it emerged from NASA experiments during the 1960s into how astronauts could survive in space, the term cyborg has become part of a complex discourse about the relationship between technology and the body. If a cyborg is a ‘hybrid of machine and organism’ then ‘urban infrastructures can be conceptualised as a series of inter-connecting life-support systems’. By blurring the boundary between body and machine, as well as nature and culture, the concept of cyborg offers insights into the ‘networks that enable bodies to function in the modern city’ and how we might understand wider processes of urbanisation.
In both science fiction and the material realm the cyborg is ambiguous. One manifestation is the 21st century soldier, equipped with technology to subdue the city and its inhabitants. Paul Virilio articulates the pessimistic view, arguing that technologies have so colonised the body that ‘we no longer talk of the body in the city but “the city in the body”.’ Against this is an optimistic view, typified by the Japanese architect Akira Suzuki whose book ‘Do Android Crows Fly over an Electronic Tokyo’ characterises modern urban humans as “android crows” inhabiting a field of electro-magnetic waves which they can mould, and liberates them from the workplace or family table and extends their sensibilities and opportunities. William J Mitchell shares the optimistic confidence that technology creates opportunities, but what this view misses, argued Gandy, are ‘the devastating disparities between the mobility of capital and labour that have produced new forms of economic serfdom in the global South’. Teenagers in Lagos may have mobile phones but no sanitation.
From a Marxist perspective the cyborg offers insights into the way circulation of capital and transformation come together to produce urban space, for example in Erik Swyndegouw’s and Maria Kaika’s work on water infrastructure networks. This moves beyond the electro-magnetic cyborg to the dialectical cyborg, and relates to Foucauldian debates about the way technological networks effect human behaviour. Instead of the narrow view of technology as a benign enhancement of human capability, the dialectical cyborg suggests a way of thinking about cities as a whole. It recognises that the relationship between humans and technology predates the term cyborg which it acquired during the space programme, and is a recurring theme in cultural modernism. Also, by involving living flesh it brings a material dimension to discussing the body and technology. Above all it helps to fire the imagination and develop a new vocabulary for understanding what we mean by the ‘public realm’ against the vulnerability and inter-dependency of urban societies and the complex technological networks that make them possible.