A woven temperature sensor inserted into a textile, Wearable Computer Lab ETH Zurich

Cyborg Guidelines

Project Visions and R&D Strategies in Computer Engineering

Carmen Baumeler, David Gugerli

"Cybernetic organisms" are inhabiting our concepts of a future man-machine relationship ever since Manfred E. Clynes and Nathan S. Kline published their "Cyborgs and Space" article in 1960. From a conceptual point of view, Clynes and Kline had a very clear approach: Instead of carrying a small, artificial environment in order to survive in an unfriendly natural environment (e.g. wearing a special space suit during extra vehicular activities), they rather proposed to change the homeostatic conditions and cybernetic controls of the organism itself: "If man in space, in addition to flying his vehicle, must continuously be checking on things and making adjustments merely in order to keep himself alive, he becomes a slave to the machine. The purpose of the Cyborg, as well as his own homeostatic systems, is to provide an organizational system in which such robot-like problems are taken care of automatically and unconsciously, leaving man free to explore, to create, to think, and to feel." (Clynes and Kline 1960, see also Driscoll 1963).

In 1984, William Gibson published his influential novel Neuromancer where he created a similar vision of the future relationship between humans and technology (Gibson 1984). From Neuromancer we got the now ubiquitous term "cyberspace", which describes a new class of cybernetically controlled spaces. Astonishingly enough, it was a novel and not a research program, which described for the first time the new potential manifestations of technology that is carried on the body, connected with the body, or even taken into the body. The novelist's metaphorical discourse merged the technology with the body and eventually popularized the notion of a human as a cyborg living in many different cyberspaces (Gray 1995; Downey and Dumit 1997).

Both the cyborg and the cyberspace metaphor had a huge impact on the development of computing. In this sense, the Wearable Computers Project at ETH represents just one of many steps towards a technologically feasible realization of a cyborg and of the juxtaposition of the virtual and the real. Metaphors are almost omnipresent in this proposal - and there is good reason for such a discourse. Where symbols turn into the real (i.e. in the computer sciences' development of software and hardware packages), metaphors remain the last resource for mutual understanding. Moreover, it is precisely in cyberspace, where metaphors become true and realities become virtual. 

Therefore, the project needs to start with a cyborg metaphor, i.e. with a vision, which can be subsequently broken down into practical research modules. This research strategy matches with a general conceptual framework we can find in computer sciences since World War II. We just mention three examples: (1) the development of a hypertext based information structure, (2) the development of real-time 3D graphic interfaces, and (3) the development of computer based telecommunication networks. All of them started with rather utopist, visionary concepts that helped to define the rules of attention for the researchers involved in basic computer research and eventually led to new technologies and to new visions (Landow 1992; Funding a Revolution 1999).

This means, that the original visions and their partial implementations into functional hardware-software packages are mutually shaping each other (Wise 1997). Furthermore, both the vision and its corresponding research modules change our notion of the human as a machine and our understanding of the machine as a part of the human body. In other words, we are confronted with a crucial topic of a leading-edge cultural history of technology. 

  • Carmen Baumeler
  • David Gugerli
  • Carmen Baumeler: Imaginäre Welten entwerfen. In: Unimagazin 2001 (3) 2001, 14 – 16.

    Carmen Baumeler: Die Geburt des Cyborgs. In: Bulletin - Magazin der ETH Zürich 2002 (286) 2003, 6 – 9.

  • Baumeler, C. (2005). Von kleidsamen Computern und unternehmerischen Universitäten. Eine ethnographische Organisationsstudie. Münster: LIT Verlag.
  • Baumeler, C. (2005). Kleider machen Cyborgs. Zur Geschichte der Wearable Computing-Forschung. In B. Orland (Hrsg.), Artifizielle Körper – lebendige Technik. Technische Modellierungen des Körpers in historischer Perspektive (pp. 221-237). Zürich: Chronos Verlag.