Digital Divergence

Karen Kayfetz '08, The Cyborg Self, Brown University, Spring 2005

Cyberpunk literature, TV, and film take varied approaches to characterizing the composition of futuristic humanoid forms. Since the idea of enhancing the body with technology is well within reach of current science, cyborgs, creatures composed of organic as well as mechanical components, most commonly appear in these works. Max Headroom, however, takes a different spin on things; instead of adding machinery to a human the human is added to the machinery. In Blipverts, the first episode of Max Headroom, Network 23 reporter Edison Carter gets into an accident and computer whiz Bryce Lynch uploads his memory into Network 23's computer network.

What if we could go all the way with shaking ourselves loose, shuck the last few atoms from our souls, and simply live on server farms somewhere? The gonzo endpoint of these trajectories of dematerialization and hypermobilization is the suggestion that mental life is just an affair of bits in the brain; you might strip them from this squishy substrate (much as one rips a CD) and download yourself onto disk. You are, on this view, just software—and as device-independent as a Java applet. You don't have to run on a high-maintenance meat machine. You no longer have to be, as Yeats so famously lamented, "fastened to a dying animal." Like saints and shamans in ecstasies, you loosen, to the ultimate, the binding of your persona to materiality and place. [William J. Mitchell, Me++, p. 167]

Max Headroom, the digital representation of Edison's mind, takes on a life of his own with a unique personality that differs from Edison's; he even learns new information and forms his own unique memories. Max's divergent individuality implies that whatever makes one unique as a person can not be transferred digitally. Ghost in the Shell takes a different angle, suggesting that the individual and the body are in fact separable.

Ghost Seeking a Shell

In Ghost in the Shell people are composed of two distinctly different parts: a body and a “ghost.” The ghost contains the elements that constitute one's individuality and humanity and alterations to the body do not affect it. Though uncommon in practice, theoretically a ghost can transfer from one body to another and a person can live on with all of their personality characteristics and memories in a different body. The Puppet Master, an entirely digital agent operating in cyberspace, uses the explicit distinction between body and soul to "ghost-hack" victims and attempt to insert himself into a host. Like the replicants in Blade Runner The Puppet Master seeks true humanity.


The replicants in Blade Runner are genetically engineered almost human forms. Though artificially engineered by their creators to differ from humans in their emotional responses they eventually learn and evolve to have passions and desires and pain; they reach the point of being nearly indistinguishable from real people and wish to be treated that way, they wish to be allowed to live the lives of real people. Replicants are a fusion of biotechnology and intellect, a more advanced take on the idea of inserting memories and personality into a machine than that explored in Max Headroom.

Cyborg OV Max Headroom

Last modified 18 March 2005