‘Synths’, ‘Robots’, ‘Cyborgs’? Rethinking similarities and differences in social relations

Have you been watching ‘Humans’, the British science fiction television series about a society (in the not too far distant future) where much of the work is done by ‘synths’ (human-like advanced robots)? You might have also seen the (2004) movie ‘I, Robot’ starring Will Smith, and more recently, the movie, ‘Ex Machina’ (2015), starring Alicia Vikander. All focus on the troubling question of what makes a human in the context of technological developments which obscure boundaries between ‘natural’ beings and ‘technological’ beings –  and especially, in ‘Humans’ and ‘Ex Machina’, the story-lines have interesting things to say about gender.

In the social sciences, it’s the concept of ‘the cyborg’ that has been used to analyse the ways that advanced technologies blur boundaries between, on the one hand, ‘natural’ human bodies and, on the other, ‘artificial’, ‘automated’ and ‘digital’ human bodies. It’s a concept especially associated with Donna Haraway, a US professor whose work has focused on science, technology and feminism. In her original formulation, Haraway defined cyborgs as ‘hybrid creatures’, composed of those ‘special kinds’ of organisms and machines appropriate to the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries (Haraway 1991). More recently, Haraway (2012) has argued that, rather than hybrids, cyborgs are best understood as ‘string figures’. In Haraway’s words, cyborgs are ‘things’ or ‘relatings’ that are ‘ontologically heterogeneous, historically situated, materially rich, virally proliferating’ and which are ‘constitutively full of multiscalar, multitemporal, multimaterial critters of both living and non-living persuasions’ (2012: 301).  As Lupton (2013) explains, this shift in Haraway’s understanding from cyborg as ‘hybrids’ to cyborg as ‘string figures’ is intended to emphasise the multiplicity and intricate complexities of the intertwinings, patternings and assemblages of technoscience, human bodies and animal bodies. Haraway’s argument is that concepts of cyborg/string figures hold promise as a way of re-thinking similarities and differences in social relations.

In gender studies, the concept of the cyborg – whether understood as a hybrid or as a string figure – has influenced analyses of relationships between nature, bodies and culture, and the theorising of identity and ‘difference’. For example, Fouché (2012) explores how the concept of the cyborg can be used to intervene in and reconceptualise commonly understood notions of gender, bodies, and identity in the world of sport. Fouché focuses on the case of Caster Semanya, an athlete whose exceptional performances in women’s track events lead to her being subjected to ‘gender verification’, via technoscience testing. In Fouché’s analysis, Semanya’s experiences show that sporting organizations have yet to develop a scientific understanding that bodies do not simply conform to the binary of female and male. Fouché concludes that embracing the cyborg in athletes has the potential to resolve deep-seated social tensions within sport around bodies and performance. ‘Specifically, the cyborg understanding of athletes can be leveraged to reconstruct competitions that are no longer based on sex or gender’ (2012: 289).

Park (2012) draws on Haraway’s cyborg concept in an examination of connections between digital communication technologies and motherhood. She argues that these technologies are integral to the practice of mothering in ways that ‘transform the maternal body, its location in time and space, and its engagement with others, making possible resistant forms of maternal agency’ (2012: 61). What Park calls ‘technologies of co-presence’ (including cell phones, email, social media and video calls) allow mothers to inhabit time and space differently, and so enable ‘presence’ with their children ‘at a distance’. Park concludes that ‘Cyborg mothering is thus a practice that enables us to resist self-sacrificing ideals of motherhood’ (2012: 71).

In Haraway’s original formulation, the cyborg was a mythical hybrid, regarded optimistically as a symbol for the development of analytical as well as practical political strategies for diminishing social relations of domination. As Lupton (2013) summarises, critics of Haraway’s approach have challenged the notion of cyborgs as disruptive and transgressive. The ‘forces of cyborgification’ (Davis-Floyd 1998) are argued by some critics to be powerfully aligned with already dominant, hegemonic cultural forces and to represent, in Lupton’s (2013) words, aggressive masculinised technophilia (for example, Squires 2000).

Whether as a source of inspiration or as a target of criticism, Haraway’s concept of the cyborg is a key reference point in a range of debates on the impact of scientific, technological developments for our understandings of ourselves, our bodies and our relations with organic and inorganic others. Who knows, maybe the scriptwriters and producers of ‘Humans’, ‘I, Robot’ and ‘Ex-Machina’ read a bit of Haraway in the development of their ideas?



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Fouché, R. (2012) ‘Aren’t Athletes Cyborgs?: Technology, Bodies, and Sporting Competitions’, Women’s Studies Quarterly 40 (1 & 2): 281-293.

Haraway, D. (1991) Simians, Cyborgs and Women. The Reinvention of Nature, London: Free Association Press.

Haraway, D. (2012) ‘Awash in Urine: DES and Premarin® in Multispecies Response-ability’, Women’s Studies Quarterly 40 (1 & 2): 301-316.

Lupton, D. (2013) ‘The digital cyborg assemblage: Haraway’s cyborg theory and the new

Park, S. (2012) ‘Cyborg Mothering’ in Fenton Stitt, J. Reichert Powell, P. (eds.) Mothers Who Deliver: Feminist Interventions in Public and Interpersonal Discourse, New York: SUNY Press.

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Squires, J. (2000) ‘Fabulous feminist futures and the lure of cyberculture’, in Bell, D. and Kennedy, B. (eds.) The Cybercultures Reader, London: Routledge.