Category Archives: Elegant Cyborg

On the Elegant Cyborg

[In light of new thoughts since originally writing this I will be posting an update shortly to this site.]

‘Wearables’ or even wearable technology are slightly misleading terms. We wear technology or the products of technology close to our skin all the time. Nearly all of us consume technology or the products of technology all the time, we have modified, created and shaped our environment through technology. We are all, as Donna Haraway has stated, Cyborgs.

What is new is the connection between elements of technology and how you can wear new technology close to your skin and it can both respond and communicate how your body is reacting. Partner that with the network of wireless communications and the Internet of Things and once again we are radically changing our environment.

As such we can define wearable technology as a collection of sensor and communication technologies that have been packaged into physical format that allows for easy carrying by an individual. You could extend this definition to the mobile phone, which in the shape of the ‘Smart Phone’ is a complex computational and communication device. This description also easily encompasses the latest, marketed technologies such as Google Glass, or the activity trackers such as Nike+, or UP 24.

These new wearable technologies are different in other ways as well. Whereas before the technology would most likely be a medical intervention, from vision correction via glasses, contact lenses or even laser sculpting of the actual eye lens, through to other bio-mechanical prostethics through to the use of pharmaceuticals, the current batch of wearable technologies fall (at least initially or predominantly) on the other side of what we are calling the prescription filter.

The prescription filter is a lens through which we can view the different technologies and how the decisions are made that allows them into our bodies. Classic medical interventions are often through the lens or filer of some kind of medical professional. This could be embodied by a Public Health Service or a private doctor but there would be a set of criteria that would either allow or suggest the use of these technologies.

On the other side there is a self-prescriptive filter, where the individual decides to use one of these new technologies. Whereas the medical filter is usually predicated on keeping the individual either alive or better able to interact with the rest of society according to set norms (hearing aid, corrected vision) , the self-prescribed route can be seen as one of enhancement.

‘I wish to improve X and technology Y says it can help do that.’

The decision to wear an activity tracker is not, usually, directly associated with a medical decision. The individual may feel the need to be more active or get healthy in some more general way and decide that using such a device is the way to help them do this. The questions and inputs that lead to the acquiring and use of wearable technology through the self-prescriptive filter are different from those through the medical-professional one.

Of course some of the technologies could be prescribed by either of these filters. A medical professional may ‘prescribe’ an activity tracker to help them monitor a patient for example. Here though questions can be raised about the privacy and providence of the data. If a doctor prescribes  a blood pressure monitor that works with the individual smart phone to capture and upload the data to a secure place to be shared with the doctor, who provides that service and how is it paid for? Whilst it is currently highly unlikely that a Nationalised Health Service would currently do this, it is not inconceivable that a private medical practitioner could. Would the device and service they use be one that has been developed specifically for use by the medical profession or would they use a more ‘off the shelf’ service? Would it be clear to the individual concerned what is happening to their data.

Can you describe possible ‘data side effects’ in using wearable technologies?

The ‘Elegant Cyborg’ is a research project being carried out by geekyoto. It is an umbrella of projects, thoughts and ideas that contribute to the dialogue around the position of the cyborg and communication politics. The overall project aims to use some of the existing language and tools that are being used and developed to critique network infrastructure to be able to examine the more specific case of wearable technology. The Elegant Cyborg project aligns itself with the Stacktivism ‘movement’ as a way of examining the modern landscape. These new wearable technologies are mostly developed by the Stacks, or with the goal of becoming acquired by one of the Stacks and thus designed with the Stack philosophy in mind. They are reliant on the infrastructure that is either created, maintained or being co-opted by these corporate entities.

An Elegant Cyborg is one that understands how their data flows, what the chains of production are and the infrastructures are that enables their technology to work and to be mindful of the political and social implications of these components. An Elegant Cyborg should also, possibly, be aware of when to stop. Stop recording and sharing, when the data is becoming noise and the signal, the reason for the intervention in the first place is getting lost.

Mapping the Cyborg, the first project in the elegant cyborg project is using SCIM to map the position of the human in the data flows around these wearable technologies. Its aim is to use the SCIM framework and develop visual maps to show how the data flows from the individual to the ‘Stack’ through the wearable the network.

The initial visualisations attempt to show the individual and the two filters spoken about, medical professional and self prescriptive. Whilst we are currently focusing on the spec prescriptive side as this is the place that the Stacks most obviously operate, what is also interesting is the fact that the medical professional filter also shows the flows of information through to big, global, corporate entities. The space of public health institutions, pharmaceutical companies, insurance companies and governments creates a web just as complex as the new webs that are being exposed on the side where the stacks operate.

These visualisations will help us uncover areas for further research, to develop new approaches on how we communicate to potential users of these technologies what the flows and implications of these flows of data could mean. A critical toolkit that allows both the designers and users of new wearable technology is vital in being active participants in a democratic, digital society. Developing a way to be digitally polite around your friends, neighbours and everyone else is vital. Otherwise we run the risk of subsuming ourselves into a loud, brash and uncontrolled environment that is driven purely by the philosophy of the Stacks.

Stacktivism, Stacks and SCIM?

Stacktivism is the critical study of the Stacks, as coined by Bruce Sterling. The Stacks are the new corporate style entities, global, highly technically integrated capital systems. They collect data from everywhere they can get it, they process, package, mine and try and turn this data into a capital asset.

They deal in you. You are a part of the network and environment onto which they have mapped their capital model.

The cyborg has always been attached to the institutions, governments and other entities and as such, to examine the cyborg one has to also examine the political systems as much as the technical ones.

Simple Critical Infrastructure Maps were developed to evaluate personal and social resilience and is used by Stacktivism to help visualise and understand the political and social analysis of the infrastructure of the modern world.

Updates on the Elegant Cyborg project are posted at


[This article was written as a contribution to Connected, The Internet of Things Quaterly for the second issue on wearables]

[It has been pointed out that Benjamin Bratton coined the term Stacks in the context it is referred to here, which was picked up and popularised by Sterling. Not coined by Sterling as I state in the text].


we’re physical

The internet is tied inextricably into the physicality that is the earth. Even the network nodes that exist beyond this planets atmosphere have been constructed from the materials pulled from the ground below our feet.

Whilst many will now take their power from the sun, the very fact that they are there and are able to collect, transmit and receive data is dependant on the raw materials that this planet provided.

Roy Batty proclaimed that ‘We’re not computers Sebastien, we’re physical’ what we have done is built the paths and tools for computation onto a physical layer.

Our infinite virtual exists in the imagined space conjured up by this computation and our interaction with it.

At some level, at some point we have to step off the virtual levels of the stack and examine the physical parts that make this machine work and tally the cost of each component and each joule of energy it consumes.

Physical costs but so do bits.


Quantified Value

In thinking about the Elegant Cyborg one has to start asking the value in the data, that which we measure must have a value somewhere, somehow, mustn’t it?

That value does not have to be financial though, which of course makes the quantification of the perceived value difficult.

From the first sketches of the cyborg I can see the points of basic data flow from the individual and their activity, through the devices and onwards towards the stacks. To me, this does ask an initial question.

‘How useful is the data captured by devices such as Nike+, or Jawbone UP to me?’

From this initial question, I can add some further questions, to try and get more detail on this:

Does seeing the number of steps I take and/or data such as the calories burnt (estimated?) actually allow me to improve my health? Am I equipped with the right information to understand and analyse this kind of information properly?

I also have another question,

‘what is the value of this data to the Stack?’

Either on an individual basis, or in aggregation? How can they use the data to sell? (which is the primary use of data by the stacks).

In thinking about this at one stage I did wonder, does any of this information really have any value to the stacks? especially in aggregation? Or in fact is it really of use in creating a platform with share options, which basically leads to other sales of the devices (and a possible update path for existing users)? Basically is the real value in selling the device and general information on users sharing on the platform or is there any value in the quantified activity data from the users?

[I know, lots of questions and as yet no answers]

Mapping the Cyborg

I have been thinking about the cyborg and our instrumentation of the self. The Elegant Cyborg project is encompassing of a number of strands of investigation but initially I have been thinking about activity trackers, the data that they generate and the Stacks.

To get started on this I have started scribbling a few maps. Initially, in my notebook I drew this:

Its me trying to frame what I want to examine by cyborg. There is already a lot of research and writing on this and I am fully aware of the fact that we can create a definition of cyborg that encompasses all of modern human beings, in that they enhance their physical interaction with the word through technology. This can be corrective technologies and interventions such as medical intervention through drugs, or artificial limbs or even glasses or it could be self prescribed tools to enhance ones self, a smart phone to act as a reminder / memory and location finder or something like an activity tracker to specifically tally some activity data about oneself with a specific aim in mind. This aim is probably around fitness.

With Google announcing their Fitness data system at I/O the other day and Apple already having announced their HealthKit as a part of the forthcoming iOS 8 it is appropriate to look at this last element of cyborgification in more detail.

This map has a lot from the previous map, at the moment it does miss off genetic technology, 23andMe for example. It does show the Stacks over on the right. What it does not show is the place existing Pharma and medical technology companies play in this.

What are the questions to be investigated here? I think some of the following are worth looking into:

  • How do the different activity / health apps/devices compare?
  • Is the actual data useful to an individual (and/or how to make it useful)?
  • How is the data useful to the company offering the system?
  • Are there problems with the sharing of this data?
  • Are there ways of mitigating any such potential problems with this sharing?

On the second map sits Google Glass. Around the corner from my office at Central Saint Martins is the new Glass Basecamp. I don’t think glass counts as an activity/health device yet, but it is there in the cyborg enhancements. Its the bridge to the projects on privacy. Its the poster device for a reaction against the cyborg as an extension of a corporate entity (Wear Glass be a Stack Node?) but is that justified? Are all our interactions with an entity such as Google a cyborgification of our selves and do we need new tools and language to understand what that means to us and to it and how do we (if deemed necessary) change that so that the technology is still useful to us as humans not us humans being useful to the Stack.

[[I am currently trying to find funding for this project so if anyone has any suggestions for routes for such funding please let me know.]]

Elegant Cyborg

The #elegantcyborg project is a multipart investigation into the instrumenting and augmentation of ourselves via technology delivered by the Stacks (see Stacktivism).

The first stages of the project is the development of a set of maps and visualisations to show the connection of cyborg technology, the individual and the corporate owners of the technology.

Also the creation of a questionnaire for people who use activity/health trackers (apps and devices) to try and get an idea on the landscape of usage.

Below are our first set of proposed questions:

* Why did you decide to get/use a health/activity tracker (app or device)?
** Was it a gift?
** Was it a personal decision?
** Was there any medical/professional intervention (e.g. A doctor suggested more physical activity).
*** If so, did they suggest using an app or device and if they did was it the one you use?

* What factors affected your decision as to which app or device to use?
* How long have you had it?
* Is this the first one you have had or used or have you tried other apps or devices?
** If so, would you write some more about your experience with the other apps or devices? What was it like, why do you no longer use it?

* Did you read the EULA fully, especially where pertaining to data?
* Did you understand the EULA?
* Do you understand or know about the privacy options and settings for your app or device?

(Where app or device can be any combination of the two. You may use the device in conjunction with a number of other devices, such as base stations and mobile phones.)

* Do you share your activity data online with the app device service?
* Do you make this available publicly or do you keep it private?
* Have you shared, commented or discussed anyone else’s activity / health data that you have public access too?

If you think there are any other questions that should be posed here, or any of the above reworded then please let me know in the comments.