1: I am a cyborg
What act could be more simple than making a cup of tea? As daily practices go, it appears contained, individual, independent, non-technical – a simple, easy ritual with personal variations that is baked into the routines of millions, if not billions, of people across the globe.
Making a cup of tea is easy, because I’m a cyborg.
Imagine me stood in my kitchen; where does my body end? Gripping the kettle in my left hand, I ease open the cold tap with my right. As my hand touches the tap, my arm is extended to thousands of times its original length and diameter; my body reaches out through the plumbing of my house and into the local distribution network, whose miles and miles of pipe lead to numerous treatment plants, which are connected in turn to dams and reservoirs and wells and aquifers from which the water I need will be drawn – and all with just a flexing of my wrist. When I touch the tap, the water infrastructure of my local region waits for my command: a prostheses for my body that can turn a gesture and a desire into the actuality of cold, clean and potable water, whenever I want it, in whatever quantity.
I close off the tap, lift the kettle onto its base-unit, and flick the switch. As the weight of my finger causes the contacts to meet, my body extends again. In and of itself, the kettle is merely a tool, a container which can hold a certain amount of water; its true powers are only manifest when I repeat the correct gestures and connect the kettle to another of my prostheses. Activated, the kettle sips electrons from the ring main of my house, which come in through the fusebox and the meter from the local area distribution grid, which is supplied by a succession of larger, simpler networks at higher voltages, into which the various breeds of power station feed the energy they generate. My modest little kettle is part of a system the size of this country, if not the size of the world – and yet it can do nothing without me to control it. And so, in the process of using the kettle I become connected to that network, too.
In the simple ritual of making tea, I have already marshalled two vast technological systems which exist only to fulfil my desires – and that’s without thinking about the convoluted global supply chain through which I acquired the tea (which involves not only the agricultural systems used to grow and prepare the tea leaves, but also the packing, distribution and stock management systems used to get the tea from where it was grown to where it will be consumed, and the global markets of trade and finance through which its ownership and value must pass), or where the fuel for some of those power stations might have originally come from. I have accomplished all this with a few movements and gestures, so simple and untaxing that they can reproduce themselves almost unbidden through even the fiercest of hangovers.
Sat squinting into the light of a bright summer morning, the warmth of a mug of tea seeping into my hands, I am a cyborg.
2: You are a cyborg
You may have read a dozen other articles or essays on the internet today; maybe more, maybe less. Perhaps you saw this one while poking around the web at work (during a break, obviously!) and flagged it to read later, and you’re now sat on your bus home, drawing out your smartphone from your pocket.
Reading what you want to read when you want to read it is easy, because you’re a cyborg.
As your finger brushes the black mirror of your smartphone’s screen, your body extends, becomes global – becomes bigger than even global, in fact. As your email app opens, packets of data hurl themselves from the aerial of your phone and begin a conversation with the nearest cell tower; the cell tower is wired into a national network of copper and glass pipes, through each of which hundreds of conversations – whether between humans, between machines, or between humans and machines – can flow at the same time; this network is studded with routers and servers playing the role of postmaster, ensuring your packets get to where they’re going – a huge server-farm, powered by hydroelectrics and cooled by glacial run-off, perhaps, somewhere far overseas – and that the packets you’ve requested from there are delivered promptly to your phone, where they reconstitute into a readable characters in the palm of your hand.
Your smartphone is not an independent machine. It is merely a control surface, a user interface behind which lurks the seething speed and power of a network that spans the planet, and whose webwork of cables and cell towers and server-farms grows thicker, more pervasive and more entangled every day.
Perhaps you fire up your favourite mapping application after reading this article, having decided to disembark early and go to a restaurant or bar; or perhaps you decide to call a friend, currently working on location in some far-flung city on the other side of the world; now, as your finger moves across the screen, you are conducting an orchestra that includes satellites in orbit miles above the surface of the planet. Your finger commands an army of hardware, the functionality of the majority of which is likely beyond your comprehension, if not your awareness – and that’s before we start thinking of the road network upon which your bus is travelling, and the specialised communications networks designed to keep the road flowing, or thinking of the automotive industry that designed, built and assembled the bus’s hybrid engine, or the morally dubious supply chain through which the petrochemicals part-powering the engine were provided
Sat on the top deck of an overfull bus, streaming just-released music to your headphones while you read some weird essay you found on the internet, you are a cyborg.