Man or Machine?

Michael Kim '10, English 65, The Cyborg Self, Brown University (Fall 2006)

As technology becomes more advanced, machines have been increasingly integrated into the human body and robots are less and less distinguishable from human beings. The blurring of the line between human beings and machines causes us to examine what makes us a human. Donna Haraway discusses the merging of the two in her essay "A Cyborg Manifesto."

The second leaky distinction is between animal-human (organism) and machine. Pre-cybernetic machines could be haunted; there was always the spectre of the ghost in the machine. This dualism structured the dialogue between materialism and idealism that was settles by a dialectical progeny, called spirit or history, according to taste. But basically machines were not self-moving, self-designing, autonomous. They could not achieve man's dream, only mock it. They were not man, an author to himself, but only a caricature of that masculinist reproductive dream. To think they were otherwise was paranoid. Now we are not so sure. Late twentieth-century machines have made thoroughly ambiguous the difference between natural and artificial, mind and body, self-developing and externally designed, and many other distinctions that used to apply to organisms and machines. Our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly inert. (152)

As she states in this passage, machines are becoming more human and already the Japanese have developed a robot that looks and acts human. It has gotten to the point where we can no longer tell the difference between a machine and a human being. When we can longer tell the difference physically, it makes us wonder what gives people their humanity. Is it their mind or their body? We consider coma patients as human, but at the same time we see physically handicapped people as human as well. According to Haraway, one difference between machines and man is that machines cannot create. However, in William Gibson's Count Zero, an artificial intelligence is able to make boxes out of any material; it takes any object that is at hand and fashions them into art. As Haraway states, the distinction between man and machine is becoming "leaky."

While machines look more human, people are integrating machine parts into their bodies with prosthetic limbs and they sculpt their bodies with plastic surgery. In the anime film Ghost in the Shell, the members of Section 9 all have cyborg bodies with augmented brains and modified body parts. The Major, a character who is completely machine except for her ghost, even states that they no longer own their bodies since they have to return every adjusted part when they retire. Furthermore, the Major begins to wonder about her humanity and whether or not she is human. She realizes that while people may treat her as another human being, that treatment does not make her human. Furthermore, the lack of her human body raises the question of what separates her from an A.I? If she is all machine except for her ghost, what is there to show that she is still human? At the end of the film, she merges with the Puppet Master, a computer program that has achieved sentience, to create a new being. The Puppet Master demonstrates an example of a haunted machine because it shows traces of a ghost, but it does not have any human parts.


Donna Haraway, "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century," in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York; Routledge, 1991.

Course Website cyborg Body & Self

Last modified 17 November 2006