The Cyborg project, as articulated by Haraway, is at its core, a utopic project. It is the melding of mechanical and organic, digital and physical, human, machine, and animal in such a way that categorizations cease to hold meaning, and in turn, cyborg bodies break through repressive boundaries.
And yet here we are, at the pinnacle of a cyborg era, inundated with high tech, engaged simultaneously in digital and physical spaces, maintaining relationships with organic and mechanical beings, constituted with and through language, medicines—and increasingly—machines, and we STILL have to deal with bullshit like this (click below to view):
Let us break down the problems. This is a classic play on the Car Show Girls who act as ornamental adornments for capitalist goods. These women (described problematically as girls) are literal objects. This objectification is laid bare by the replacement of sexy “girls” with sexy bots. “Respect the Tech,” the commercial instructs, implicitly including both the bots and the car. Further, with a terrible attempt to portray feminine strength, the bots physically dominate a male admirer who handles the product inappropriately (again, the product here extends to the female bodies represented by the bots). This #FeministFail portrays female strength as ironic and unexpected, exciting in its performative enactment by sexualized bodies, and activated in response to threats not against themselves, but against the capitalist good through which they are constituted.
This speaks to the social, cultural, and structural embededness of technology and technological representations. Technology is made and used by humans. Technologies have culture written into them. When culture is sexist, racist, and homophobic, or progressive, sex-positive, and accepting, so too will be the technological default. Perhaps the cyborg project is a utopic one, but our culture is not. Technological objects and their portrayals are rooted in raced, classed, sexed, and gendered environments. They are used for varied ends, disproportionately so by those with greater financial and social resources. Far from de-categorization, the portrayal of technology here hyper-categorizes. The Car Show Girl has always represented a patriarchal view of the ideal woman—silent, pretty, fun, subordinate — and yet she has always been limited in her perfection by the quarrelsome nature of her human body with its leakiness, sweat, smells, moods, emotions, needs. The bot brings this ideal woman to full fruition, replacing these objectified female bodies with fully sanitized objects in an ideal female form.
So is the utopic cyborg project for naught? Can we expect only hyper-categorization, solidified forms of racism, sexism, classism, digital dualism etc.? For my money (which to be fair, isn’t much), I say no. These built-in “isms” of technologies may be the default, but they are not the inevitable ends. The purposive architect and/or user can certainly create, construct, or utilize technological means for radically equalizing purposes. To do so, of course, one has to take note of a problematic default, and explicitly guide technologies down an alternative route. This KIA commercial is an egregious example of how the cyborg project, when left to default standards, can go awry. And yet through my words in this post, facilitated by myriad technologies—a keyboard, a blogging platform, YouTube— I’ve taken this object of popular culture and used it for my own ends. The object now exists, easily spread, shared, commented upon, as not only a sales tool, but a blaring specimen of deeply embedded social inequalities. I—and we—can co-opt the object, reformulate it.
Put away your fluffy utopic visions, my fellow cyborgs. Instead, bring out your sharp eyes, employee your analytic skills, utilize available tools. The cyborg project is not a naïve journey, nor is it a lost cause.
Jenny Davis is a regular contributor for Cyborgology. Follow Jenny on Twitter @Jup83
*Special thanks to Jill Detwiler and Matt Gasner for bringing this KIA ad to my attention