Cyborg Anthropology: The Relationship Between Human Beings and Technology

Cyborg anthropology is one of the newest sub-disciplines in anthropology, and it focuses on the relationship between the human and technology. What role has technology played in the development of humans? And what does it mean for us in the future? These are the central questions cyborg anthropology asks.

Cyborg anthropology can be as diverse as studying IVF, prosthetics, robots, mobile phones or mobile phones. Technology is enmeshed in our everyday lives to the point we barely notice it anymore.

The study of humanity and technology opens many lines of questioning. What makes us human and other species or machines non-human? What are nature and culture, and is there truly a divide between these two categories? Cyborg anthropology’s quest is to explore in-depth the questions technology forces us to ask.

Cyborg Anthropology, Technology, and the Human

Donna Harray sits next to a jelly fish, an octpus, and a woven basket behind a blue backdrop. She is widely studied in cyborg anthropology and technology.
Donna Harraway. Credit:

Perhaps the most famous and widely read text that explores the question of the cyborg is Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto. Published in 1984, it philosophically explores what will happen to humans as we are more integrated with technology. The essay is a milestone and revolutionary text in feminist posthuman studies. It is also one of the most central texts in cyborg anthropology and the philosophy of technology.

The manifesto critiques traditional notions of gender, identity, and clear-cut distinctions between human and non-human, nature and culture. Instead, Harraway says we should push for less rigid definitions of ‘human’. We should embrace a cyborg identity where we share a kinship with animals, plants, and machines.

Haraway writes that over time, evolution has made the differences between humans and animals questionable. But the latest and most revolutionary development in history is technology. This is because it makes us question if there is even such a thing as the natural and artificial.

Typically, we think and reason within a strict set of dualisms. For example, self/other, culture/nature, male/female, civilized/primitive, right/wrong, truth/illusion. However, with the development of AI and technology, it is becoming harder than ever to define what is clearly ‘human.’ It can be difficult to define humans if technology can so easily mimic us. We tend to think of the human as something ‘natural’ and belonging to the ‘natural.’ As we become more technological, we then have to question what we think the natural even is.

The Cyborg Anthropologist

A robotic hand is stretched out holding a human skull in the palm of its hand, representing the human and technology in cyborg anthropology

Inspired by Harraway and questions about the human, the American Anthropological Association presented a paper entitled ‘Cyborg Anthropology.’ Thus, the new discipline of cyborg anthropology was born, exploring how humans define humanness in relationship to technology.

Cyborg anthropology still uses the traditional methods of anthropology. For example, they still do ethnography, participant observations, interviews and also use statistics and research. However, like many sub-disciplines in anthropology, they have a multi-disciplinary approach. Often, cyborg anthropology will contain elements of feminism, philosophy, cybernetics, and Science and Technology Studies.

It is primarily concerned with artificial intelligence, how technology changes human behavior, and what we think of as humans. The word ‘cyborg’ originated in the 1960s with space exploration. It usually means an organism that contains both organic and inorganic parts. Things such as bionic limbs, bionic ears, prosthetics, or pace makers are things  that make one a cyborg.

However, Harroway’s interpretation of the cyborg is different. Things like sex reassignment surgery, artificial wombs and insemination and AI might make dichotomies like sex and gender irrelevant.

It is possible that the more we use Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART), and computers, the less rigid our social categories of things become. For example, sex reassignment surgery and uterus transplants have the potential to undo binaries regarding sex and gender. ART already has the potential to undo rigid ideas about relationships and families. Therefore, we already  accept cyborg ways of thinking.

Cyborg Ethnography

photo of a young cyborg girl with a human face who has mechanical wheels and parts protruding from her neck and coming out of her dress. Behind the back of her head are wires

The cyborg anthropologist Kathleen Richards does ethnography by studying the making of robots at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Initially, she focussed on how robots could be used to assist therapeutically for children with autism. Now, her work concentrates on how replacing human relationships and interactions with robots could damage the human.

She is the founder of the Campaign Against Sex Robots. Her concern with the development of sex robots is that they are made to fulfill needs that are not ethical. However, she is not concerned about robots themselves. Rather, what the interaction between humans and robots will do to our society. If robots allow humans to enact violence or unethical behavior on robots, that can be detrimental to the human condition.

Another concern regarding robots for Richardson is that they encourage the commodification, buying, and selling of human-like interactions and services. Other anthropologists and Richardson believe that this is also detrimental to how we see the human.

Richards does believe that there could be many positive developments with AI. For example, it could help with overpopulation and loneliness. However, Richards thinks this requires developing strict terms of use with robots. It requires that we treat them with respect, even if they do not have sentience.

Another concern for cyborg anthropologists and ethicists is that AI may one day develop consciousness and the ability to suffer. If this is the case, then allowing unethical behavior of robots can only result in harm.

Robots and Animism 

A white metallic, humanoid looking robot points using a mechanic hand, illustrating the potential of technology for cyborg anthropology.

Another aspect of Richardson’s work with AI regards the idea of animism and robots. Animism is  a belief that plants, animals, and objects have souls and personhood. Animism constitutes many different belief systems globally and is different in varying cultures.

Richards says that animism plays a cultural role in cyborg anthropology and the technology of robots. Many humanoid robots are inspired by science fiction and storytelling in places such as Japan and the United States. This follows a kind of myth-based model for the creation of humanoid robots. A humanoid robot can be a kind of ‘uncanny doppelganger’ that represents a liminal space between the human and non-human.

In this way, Richards says that robots are a product of our fears about self-destruction. Robots are comfortably like us but also dangerously different.

Another cyborg anthropologist, Jennifer Robertson, does ethnography on Japanese robotics and technology. She also notes that Japanese culture is inspired and fascinated by robots and technology in art and cartoons. Today, Japan is the number one leader in the development of humanoid robots.

Japan is potentially the first society to embrace the idea of humans and robots coexisting. Robertson studies how both scientists and artists imagine that humans and robots will coexist in the home together one day. For example, a humanoid robot could be a family member who looks after the children. Or does housework, cooks, and keeps children and elderly people company while the rest of the family work.

The Many Uses of Robots

The 2013 film Her imagines a future where we communicate with emotional, advanced, and intelligent AI. The operating systems, or OS’, are so advanced that they form friendships and even romantic relationships with humans. Stories like this, and others, simultaneously inspire and copy existing AI.  This film is studied in cyborg anthropology classes as it deals with the philosophy of technology and the human.

Cyborg anthropologists vary in their views about how technology is affecting humans. Some view technology quite positively and embrace it, like Harraway. Others have fears and concerns, such as Richardson.

We can see the development or rising popularity of robots in many different ways. The most recognizable is Sophia, a social humanoid developed by Hanson Robotics in Hong Kong. Sophia could move, talk, show emotion, draw and sing.

The University of Tehran has invented a humanoid robot called Surena IV. It is an adult-sized humanoid capable of face and object detection, speech recognition, and walking and moving.

Another weird and remarkable development in AI is digital humanoids. They look and act like human beings but are virtual. For example, the Samsung Technology and Advanced Research (STAR) Labs ‘Neons’, are AI-powered human beings with personalities and emotions. Instead of being designed to fulfill tasks, they have actual conversations, show feelings, learn socially, and provide companionship.

It is becoming easier and easier to imagine a future with robots. Day by day, they become less science fiction and more reality.

Cyborg Anthropology and Assisted Reproductive Technology

photo of a cyborg baby's face with half of the face covered in technology such as wires and buttons, is also studied in anthropology.

Cyborg anthropology is fascinated by how ART is reforming and changing social relationships. Surrogacy and IVF allow technology to interfere in human reproduction and improve social connections in new ways.

Another way in which anthropologists and social theorists look at the cyborg and post-human is in ART. Sophie Lewis follows in the tradition of Donna Haraway and says we need to embrace a cyborg approach to kinship. She says we can achieve this through altering reproduction.

Lewis says that human birth is cyborg in the way that Harraway describes. She describes the uterus as a place where we are human but not quite human, closer to animals. It is a liminal, uncertain space, often aided by technology.

Lewis is first and foremost a post-humanist feminist. However, as the study of cyborg anthropology and technology is inter-disciplinary, Lewis’ questions are also anthropological. Lewis believes that if we can embrace reproduction as being a cyborg and chimeric, we can easily accept cyborg relations. She posits that the cyborg is very similar already to current human nature.

Lewis says that embracing a cyborg kinship would save us from the more destructive aspects of family arrangements. For example, a cyborg kinship does not include the nuclear family. The nuclear family model, according to Lewis, has many destructive traits such as financial difficulty and the subjugation of women.

A more open, cyborg, and technological kinship model would free people of any suffering we currently experience in family arrangements. A cyborg kinship might look like animals, plants, humans, and robots, all existing in a broad, complex kin system. This larger network can then share and distribute care and nurturance to all.

The Cyborg in Pop Culture

A Victorian-style iron robot with a caged chest and gold face in the style of old fashioned technology has also been studied in cyborg anthropology

The concept of the cyborg has long been active in the cultural imagination. Perhaps you have heard of Inspector Gadget Robocop, Iron Man, Geordie LaForge from Startrek or even Darth Vader. Each of these characters imagine what it means for a human being to be partially machine or be augmented by technology. Perhaps you could even think of Frankenstein as a sort of cyborg, bought to life by electricity.

One of the earliest accounts of the cyborg is Edgar Allen Poes’ satirical tale, The Man That Was Used Up. Written in 1839, it tells of a very famous war hero, who the narrator is trying to find. When he eventually does, he is stunned to find that the war hero has to be assembled, piece by piece.

It turns out that he had been through so many battles that he had lost most of his body. Thus, modern technology stepped in to reconstruct him. Eventually, he had given himself to war so much that he was almost entirely assembled from parts. Like a cyborg or a robot. Poe ends the tale by saying “was the man that was used up.”

Some scholars  have suggested this is a satire of a real life war hero. Others suggest it is political commentary, fear of technology usurping the human, and even a critique of the male ego. Whatever interpretation you choose, technology acts as the metaphor that represents change within the human condition.

Cultural Significance of Technology and the Cyborg in Anthropology 

Technology has transformed the human experience in a short amount of time. It is not only AI and robots that cyborg anthropologists look at but also how technology connects people. For example, many social movements and uprisings are increasingly organized and mediated through digital technologies.

People communicate and construct identities through online platforms, which changes culture and social relations. Technology is altering humanity’s perceptions and experiences of love, dating, family, death, politics, gender, and minds. Human nature and how people perceive themselves are reforming. This cultural shift through technology is at the center of cyborg anthropology.

Mobile phones have rapidly changed the way we communicate and socialize. The internet, screens, delivery services, online activism, social media. All these things are altering how people form relationships and communicate and have contributed to a sense of globalisation. People no longer feel fractured into smaller communities, villages or even their own countries.

We have developed a constant awareness of what is happening to people on the other side of the world as it happens. This is perhaps one of the most fundamental changes human beings have experienced in history.

As we go deeper into the development of technology, who knows what cyborg anthropology will uncover about what it means to be human with a non-human?

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