Mann + Machine = Cyborg

It's not every day that you meet a cyborg.

Well, in some ways I guess it is. But it's certainly not every day that you meet the world's first cyborg, one as fully … (ummm — fleshed out isn't really appropriate) … let's say one as fully developed as Steve Mann.

Mann is the inventor of the wearable computer and the author of Cyborg: Digital Destiny and Human Possibility in the Age of the Wearable Computer. He has basically lived the past 20 years of his life as a cyborg, exploring the post-millenial intersection of humanity and technology through real-life experiences as a scientist, artist, philosopher and activist.

And by sheer coincidence, I bumped into him on the street today.

I was walking north on John Street across from the CBC building when I spotted a man emerging out of a CBC side door wearing half a pair of sunglasses. How strange, I thought. But then I noticed the stooped posture and distinctive profile and realized that it was indeed the Cyberman, and that the half pair of sunglasses was his wearcam.

Go over and introduce yourself, my brain said. But my body didn't follow — he looked like he was headed in the opposite direction, so I easily talked myself out of crossing the street. And then all of a sudden he did an about face, crossed the street and headed straight for me. It was uncanny. It felt like a celestine prophecy moment … get your shit together Sean!

"Hello Dr. Mann," I said, extending my hand. "I just wanted to say that I really enjoyed your book."

He looked up at me, a little confused, and shook my hand. And then he fully warmed up for a ten-minute conversation on the streets of Toronto about his book, cyborg ethics, technology and dehumanization in sport and a few other topics. I found him articulate, energetic and thoroughly engaging. And the whole time, his unblinking digital eye silently recorded the proceedings and transmitted them to the Internet.

Steve Mann

Obviously, it was one of those encounters that makes your day if you are an aspiring academic who has read much of the work of such an interesting person. So of course I nattered like a grade ten girl meeting the quarterback for the first time … well, maybe it wasn't that bad. But the aftermath of self-analysis certainly was (did I say ANYTHING intelligent, or was I pretty much an idiot the whole time?).

That catharsis aside, some reflections from our chat:

First of all, Steve Mann lives it. I don't mean just walking around all day with an Internet-connected camera strapped to his head. From what I gathered during our admittedly short conversation, he really thinks about these issues all the time. He offered great insights, asked great questions, and generally just energized me with his enthusiasm for the topic.

Second, while nobody will confuse him with Charles Atlas, he made some astute observations on the connections between sport, the military, and obedience, intuitively drawing together the explicitly Foucaultian nature of modern sport (though Foucault never wrote about sport, he should have). He also seemed genuinely interested in where I was headed with my work.

Finally, I was struck afterwards by how unfazed I had been with the whole camera-for-an-eye aspect of the conversation. It is one thing to watch Terminator on the silver screen (now there's a cyborg!), and quite another to be talking to a real-life, in-the-flesh-and-circuits cyborg. Just think about someone holding a videocamera in front of your face for a ten minute conversation: you would be acutely aware of its presence the whole time. Yet the wearcam's presence — and more importantly, its purpose — was such that it scarcely crossed my mind I was being recorded and webcast during our entire ten minute talk. In other words, I was amazed at how streamlined the wearcam was, both in its design and how it has been incorporated into his very being.

All in all, it was a bit of an intellectual thrill to meet Steve Mann today, and I truly hope I get another opportunity to bombard him with my dozens of unasked questions.

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