“We’re not computers, […] we’re physical,” explains the Blade Runner‘s chief antagonist, a replicant named Roy Batty. In this moment of dialogue, Blade Runner engages a frequent themes of the Cyborgology blog—the implosion of atoms and bits, which we term “augemented reality.” In this statement, Roy unpacks the assumption that digitality and physicality are mutually exclusive, while, simultaneously, transcending the boundary between the two. Put simply, Roy is contending that computers cease to be mere computers when they become embodied. In contrast to the familiar theme of cyborganic trans-humanism, Roy is articulating (and embodying) the obverse theory: trans-digitalism.
This Copernican turn—de-centering humans’ role in understanding of the universe—is, undoubtedly, one of the great contributions of the cyberpunk genre (and science fiction, more broadly). Quite provocatively, it points to the possibility of a sociology, or even anthropology, where humans are no longer the direct object of inquiry. The question, here, shifts, from how we are shaped by and interact with our tools, to how technology itself becomes an actors (or even agents!) in a particular social milieu.
Increasingly, we find ourselves comfortable discussing what our technology “wants.” This de-centering of human agency was, perhaps, most famously captured by Stewart Brand when he said:
On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.
In Brand’s framing of this argument, information-sharing technologies influence events in a way that is separate from any expression of human will.
It would be rather shallow, however, to simply conclude that these agents are fully distinct and separable from their human creators. In becoming “physical,” the trans-digitalist replicants (or”skinjobs” as they are pejoratively termed) are made subject to many of the same problems which have afflicted human creators from time immemorial (including mortality). Embodied digitality is just as cyborganic as the digitally overcoded body.
Trans-digital cyborgs are always already social—always already co-determining and being co-determined by humanity. Importantly, this means that trans-digital cyborgs are equally embedded in the political structures that define a particular historical moment. These shared political stakes and the inevitability of conflict are what Roy meant to convey when he told one of his designers: “if only you could see what I’ve seen with your eyes.” It is precisely for this reason that the prospect of artificial intelligence is always a bit terrifying: there can be no such thing as an apolitical machine.