Obsessed with understanding what makes People tick

Felicityhm Hero

Are we all Cyborgs?

Felicity Heathcote-Márcz tells us why understanding cyborgs is essential to understanding humans. 

Felicity Heathcote-Marcz isn’t a cyborg. At least not in the superhero, able to shoot lasers out of her fingers and break the sound barrier-sense. (Though full disclosure, we didn’t conduct this interview in person.) But it was the “Cyborg Manifesto,” a seminal sociological exploration of technology and feminism, that inspired her career path as a “Cyborg Ethnographer.” The Manifesto argues that, in one sense, we’re all cyborgs, and that lines separating human and machine are blurring. “By the late twentieth century, our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs.”

Heathcote-Marcz, who has her own consultancy “Sharp Cyborg,” and also acts as a Senior Consultant in the Intelligent Mobility group of design behemoth Atkins Global, focuses on the intersection of technology and human behavior. (And no, she doesn’t spend her days interviewing robots.) dscout spoke with her about whether technology is permanently changing the way humans behave (and what that means for researchers), and how studying the role of tech within larger social structures is necessary in today’s evolving landscape.

dscout: When did you first become interested in how humans interact with technology? #

Felicity Heathcote-Marcz: When I read Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto”—it really did change my life. That’s really the root of my interest in cyborgs and the relationship between people and technology. Haraway’s argument was that the ambiguous and hybrid figure of the “Cyborg” offered a new way to think about gender, race, class and capitalism. It was revolutionary. The Cyborg was a new ally to feminist arguments that aim to transgress gender and a history built on patriarchy. And cyborgs are everywhere!

Before we go any further, can we define what a cyborg is? It’s not necessarily a robot-human superhero, right? #

I love how everyone has their own perception of what a cyborg is. Some people picture the Terminator, others think of patients attached to medical prostheses (like life support or kidney dialysis machines). Either way, for many of us, cyborgs incorporate technology into their physical body, manifesting in superpowers beyond reach of the everyday human experience. They offer a promise of a better future, where humans have “evolved” beyond our mortal, fleshy bodies.

Ultimately, we live in a time of cyborgs—our fascination with how humans and technology interact is driving an amazing amount of innovation and research.

For me, cyborgs are much more intangible. They’re playful tools for the analysis of society, organizations and culture. A cyborg is the space between the fixed definitions of the biological and the technical. It’s what’s made when people build, interpret and use technical systems. It’s a feeling and an epoch.

Ultimately, we live in a time of cyborgs—our fascination with how humans and technology interact is driving an amazing amount of innovation and research.

Ok, so back to the manifesto. Was reading Haraway what spurred you to want to combine the study of cyborgs and ethnography? (And what exactly does it mean to be a “cyborg ethnographer”?) #

I ask myself that same question sometimes, about what it means! Essentially, “Cyborg Ethnography” is a method of immersive research I’ve been developing, trying to move ethnographic research methods out of academia and into the commercial sector. It’s specifically focused on the relationship between humans and machines or technology.

And yes, my interest in cyborgs and the relationship between people and technology can definitely be traced to when I discovered Donna Haraway’s work. The image of the Cyborg always held so much potential for me, especially as I started studying organizations in graduate school for my PhD in organizations at Manchester Business School. I felt it could become a useful tool for cultural, political and technical analysis in my work—which it did, first in academia and now in the commercial sector. But I blame my PhD supervisors completely for why I ended up in this field. They paved the way for me to do a long-term ethnographic project at one of the big UK banks, studying their technology teams. Gaining access to field sites is often one of the trickiest things about doing ethnography, but I was able to connect with two senior managers at the bank who saw an opportunity to gain insight into the micro-cultures of their organization via the help of an ethnographer. I worked on the project for two years, from 2014 to 2016.

The driving idea behind that work—and what is at the heart of being a “cyborg ethnographer”—was to look closely at technology within the organization, to understand the impact it has and the hidden micro-cultures it helps foster. I evaluated how different tech teams were interpreting agile work methods through tools like kan-ban boards, which are digital systems that mimic pipelines of work, or a factory assembly line. I looked at how various communication tools allowed teams based in several global locations and time-zones to work together. And I looked at how bank staff dealt with the behaviors of banking customers using apps, and problems that arose, like customers constantly refreshing and testing the technical limits of the system, and how they mitigated those things. My insight reports dove into both the specific behaviors that defined the culture among the bank’s workforce, as well as the blockers to their progress. Often those were things like duplicate and expensive technologies, and managers or staff on the ground who don’t share the same vision of the future. From there, I made a number of recommendations to improve productivity and culture and break down the silos teams so often work in.

Such long-term studies into organizations are still quite rare, but they can bring seriously rich data and value for both the ethnographer and the field site organization. You have to go into a space, engage with people and understand why and how they are going through what they are. Ethnography allows access to the day-to-day realities and life worlds. The ethnographer can go into an organization and ask “why is this being done this way?” Often it’s because it always has been.

You’ve said that cyborgs—like AI, virtual reality, apps, mainframe networks—are “important actors in today’s organizations.” And the very idea of cyborg ethnographer seems to endorse the idea that these systems have their own behaviors and identities. But ultimately, isn’t it humans that you’re studying? #

It’s quite true that people are a fundamental focus for the ethnographic method. How people perform the everyday practices of work, and how they relate to, create and maintain technologies is of interest to me.

But I think there is also a danger of always putting the human at the center of research. It may mean we don’t pay attention to the ways non-human others also play a part in social systems and organizations.

But I think there is also a danger of always putting the human at the center of research. It may mean we don’t pay attention to the ways non-human others also play a part in social systems and organizations.

There has been a turn in ethnography and organization studies away from the primacy of human agency and an attempt to be more inclusive of other ontologies, or ways of being in the world. Donna Haraway looks at what the world looks like from the perspective of a dog. Anna Tsing’s work explores mushrooms! 

Technology is clearly another actor in the wider system that makes up an organization. We need to look at how tech is constructed and enacted in every research context, and the impact different technologies have on particular social and organizational systems.

Some anthropologists have argued that our increasing reliance on devices and technology is “turning us into a new kind of human.” Do you think that’s true? #

The “new human” argument is one that’s been promoted by anthropologists like Amber Case, who has argued that new technologized modes of communication have made us all cyborgs. But others would argue that humans have been cyborg-izing ourselves since the early days of our evolution, using our bodies as tools for creative production (as we did with cave paintings), or developing tools to alter nature. Those were the early prostheses to the human body.

Fhm Robohand

Illustration by Delaney Gibbons

I think what contemporary culture has done and is doing to the human is a very important question. The emphasis on cyborgs in science fiction and in superhero books and films, along with technology research and the social movements to give animals and other non-humans personhood rights– that’s all part of the same challenge to the image of the Cartesian human. This image of “man” (techno-feminism also poses a challenge to the human!) as natural, fully formed (unchanging) and different (superior) to other beings is coming under fire from all these fronts.

For example, take Wonder Woman—someone I’ve written about at length, including a piece for the book “Science of Superheroes,” about the power of her lasso of truth. WW is a great example of the fantasy of the feminine, the ideal human who compels the ultimate truth, and can stop war and its technologies with her body and ideology of agape love. It’s the worship of a feminine deity if we look at it that way! Wonder Woman poses a challenge to masculinist technology and images of the human, or the hero of ‘man’ – the masculine body with ultimate power over the world (the traditional God narrative and that of superheroes!)

So is cyborg ethnography required to understand what’s happening now in our culture? Does studying humans today mean studying humans and technology? #

There’s no doubt that advances in AI tech are forcing a global re-think of what it means to be human.  But we still ask: what is our distinct ontology? If machines can now pass the Turing test, appear to have cognition and communicate with us, and do many jobs better than humans ever could—where does that leave us? 

I think there is something distinct about humanity as a species and a civilization more particularly, and that’s why I do ethnography I suppose!

The study of our complex social systems offers a number of answers to the question of what humans are, and what we do in different contexts.

On the one hand, we’re an advanced species testing connected and autonomous vehicles to create a future where there are zero accidents, and on the other hand, we’re failing to deal with the challenges of climate change and destroying the ecosystems and food sources. I think we can see humans are a species learning via trial and error. Social evolutions, defined by technologies, can tell us both what humans are becoming next, and what we have been through history.

So practically, does the modern ethnographer need to change how she thinks about her research, in light of cyborgs? Should we be approaching our work differently? Is talking to humans no longer enough—do we need to talk to them in the context of their machines? #

In a nutshell, yes! Anthropologists of all kinds have moved their focus in recent years toward studying the social relationships between humans and non-human others, and I think that’s the right direction. We need to pay a great amount of attention to the artifacts of technology and how they are created, supported and utilized in different contexts.

And on that note: is interviewing someone through technology—like, for instance, via a mobile app!—inherently cyborg ethnography? #

The app is being treated as a representation of the future, a new way of relating to the world. But, ultimately, it’s really just another technology, albeit a defining one for our current moment. In some ways, the way that we respond to interactions via app, sliding and scrolling and pinching and poking, are more visceral than the way we engage with “flat” surfaces. So they create interactions and content which differ from other means of communication, such as speaking on the phone or in person. Whether this is cyborg or ethnographic or not depends entirely on how that interaction and the data it becomes are then analyzed. But if we’re paying attention to the context, the ways that responses happen and are received, that does fit the Cyborg Ethno bill indeed!

Carrie Neill

Carrie Neill is a New York based writer, editor, design advocate, bookworm, travel fiend, dessert enthusiast, and a fan of People Nerds everywhere.

Curious as we are about what makes people tick?

Get new People Nerds articles in your inbox.