The monster opens the curtains of Victor Frankenstein's bed. Schwarzenegger tears back the skin of his forearm to display a gleaming skeleton of chrome and steel. Tetsuo's skin bubbles as wire and cable burst to the surface. These science fiction fevered dreams stem from our deepest concerns about science, technology, and society. With advances in medicine, robotics, and AI, they're moving inexorably closer to reality. When technology works on the body, our horror always mingles with intense fascination. But exactly how does technology do this work? And how far has it penetrated the membrane of our skin?
The answers may lie in Sonoma County, California. It's not the most futuristic place in the world; quite the opposite. The little clusters of wooden houses dotted up and down the Russian River seem to belong to some timeless America of station wagons and soda pop. Outside the town of Healdsburg (population 9,978), acres of vineyards stretch away from the road, their signs proudly proclaiming the dates of their foundation. The vines themselves, transplants from Europe, carry a genetic heritage far older. Yet this sleepy place is where visions of a technological future are being defined. Tucked away off the main highway is a beautiful redwood valley. Here, in a small wooden house, lives someone who says she knows what's really happening with bodies and machines. She ought to—she's a cyborg.
Meet Donna Haraway and you get a sense of disconnection. She certainly doesn't look like a cyborg. Soft-spoken, fiftyish, with an infectious laugh and a house full of cats and dogs, she's more like a favorite aunt than a billion-dollar product of the US military-industrial complex. Beneath the surface she says she has the same internal organs as everyone else—though it's not exactly the sort of thing you can ask her to prove in an interview. Yet Donna Haraway has proclaimed herself a cyborg, a quintessential technological body. (See "The Cyborg Ancestry.")
Sociologists and academics from around the world have taken her lead and come to the same conclusion about themselves. In terms of the general shift from thinking of individuals as isolated from the "world" to thinking of them as nodes on networks, the 1990s may well be remembered as the beginning of the cyborg era.
As professor of the history of consciousness at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Haraway is a leading thinker about people's love/hate relationship with machines. Her ideas have sparked an explosion of debate in areas as diverse as primatology, philosophy, and developmental biology. To boho twentysomethings, her name has the kind of cachet usually reserved for techno acts or new phenethylamines. Her latest book, the baroquely titled [email protected]_Millennium.FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouse® (1997, Routledge), is her first in five years and has been as eagerly awaited as any academic text of recent times. In the book, Haraway concentrates on biological networks and takes a critical look at the way biotechnology is constructing our bodies. She tackles masculine bias in scientific culture and sees herself as the troubled "modest witness" of the ethical maelstrom of genetic engineering. Haraway scrupulously observes and records—unable to be silent about what she sees. She's also become a heroine to a generation of women who are starting to call themselves cyberfeminists.
Cyberfeminism, says Sadie Plant, director of the Centre for Research into Cybernetic Culture at Warwick University in England, is "an alliance between women, machinery, and new technology. There's a long-standing relationship between information technology and women's liberation." It's a view that is resonating with feminist thinkers. Academics like Katherine Hayles have taken Haraway's ideas into literary theory, while male-to-female transgendered theorist and performer Allucquère Rosanne Stone has shocked traditional academia with her eccentric accounts of the technological transformation of her own body. Haraway's most famous essay, "The Cyborg Manifesto," first published in 1985, has become part of the undergraduate curriculum at countless universities.
Haraway herself is a veteran of '60s counterculture, not a scene known for its faith in technological transformation. She has that aura of slightly cynical wisdom you get if you spend long enough fighting for left-wing causes. So it's startling how opposed her ideas are to the back-to-nature platitudes that dominate the old West Coast stereotype. This is a woman who has no interest in being an earth mother or harking back to some mythical pretechnological past. She once famously declared, "I'd rather be a cyborg than a goddess," flying in the face of received feminist wisdom that science and technology are patriarchal blights on the face of nature. As a cyborg, Haraway is a product of science and technology, and she doesn't see much point in the so-called goddess feminism, which preaches that women can find freedom by sloughing off the modern world and discovering their supposed spiritual connection to Mother Earth. When Donna Haraway says she's a cyborg, she's not claiming to be different or special. For Haraway, the realities of modern life happen to include a relationship between people and technology so intimate that it's no longer possible to tell where we end and machines begin. In fact, she's not the only cyborg in Healdsburg. There are 9,978 of them.
Sitting on the porch, listening to Haraway explain her ideas over a background of singing birds and buzzing insects, it's hard not to feel she's talking about some parallel world, some chrome-and-neon settlement in a cyberpunk novel. "We're talking about whole new forms of subjectivity here. We're talking seriously mutated worlds that never existed on this planet before. And it's not just ideas. It's new flesh."