The Cyborg Spectrum

Words by Carlota Rangel / Photography by Maria Fonti for TOUT

“I no longer feel 100 percent human. The definition of human does not include antennae or the perception of infrared and ultraviolet.”

Neil Harbisson says this without any trace of doubt: He speaks with certainty, while a metallic extension attached to his head wobbles lightly. “I feel closer to other species that do have antennae or that do perceive the infrared or ultraviolet. That is why the definition of trans-species makes me feel very comfortable.”

Harbisson is a 37-year-old cosmopolitan artist — half British and Irish, who alternates residence between New York and Barcelona — and the first cyborg (defined by scientist Manfred Clynes as a being with both organic and biomechatronic body parts) to be officially recognized as such by the authorities of the United Kingdom; but he wasn’t always like this.

Born with a visual condition which only allows him to see in grayscale, he had to implant an antenna in his brain in order to listen to color. The device has a light sensor that picks up the color frequencies and transforms them into vibrations that are perceived by him as sounds. Not only is he able to perceive the same spectrum the rest of humans can see, but now he can also sense colors that go beyond this range.

“My grandmother was left-handed and felt disabled, because in her time being left-handed was considered an issue. It is your environment that makes you feel disabled.”

To normative eyes, it might seem that because of the antenna he’s somehow “cured,” as if with it he had transformed a visual impairment into a sensory enhancement, but he doesn’t see it this way: “In my case, seeing in black and white never made me feel disabled, I wanted to perceive color out of curiosity. When you add new senses, you are not improving yourself; you can have 20 senses and use them very badly or have three and use them very cleverly to understand reality in a very deep way. Being disabled does not exist for me, what exists is feeling disabled.”

We rely so much on sight and our understanding of the world through color, that, ironic as it may be, we have somehow become blinded by it. We know that in nature, highly bright colors are a poisonous alert; yet, we have no way of knowing how badly the UV rays are damaging our skin until it is too late and we see red marks all over our body. Thinking that our sight (or any other sense) allows us to perceive everything there is might be even more disabling than being, so called, “handicapped.”

Livia Corona Benjamin, “Silvana’s Sandbox I” (2021); Sea urchin shells and cement mortar on wood panel. Photo by Luis Corzo.

“My grandmother was left-handed and felt disabled, because in her time being left-handed was considered an issue. It is your environment that makes you feel disabled,” he continues.

In order to motivate people to add new senses to their bodies regardless of the biological ones they might have or not, Harbisson co-founded the Cyborg Foundation. He sees technology as an ally of biology: “I think the beautiful thing is to find a union between these two worlds that flows and allows us to open new doors of perception to expand our experience of reality, because the objective is nothing more than to explore, to experience our environment more and to be able to go deeper with nature.”

This way of experiencing reality can be found all over his artistic work. “The art that I do could be called perceptionism,” he explains. “The most important thing in my work is to emphasize that we all have our own perception of reality and that we can even design this perception and express it artistically.”

“I am not using technology, but I am technology.”

In some of his pieces, he transforms the frequencies of color into sound or the other way around, immersing the viewers into a kind of synaesthetic experience that allows them to understand, although not directly experience, the existence of a whole spectrum of previously unknown sensations. Suddenly, viewers get to see how sounds generate color patterns that might lead them to experience a completely new set of emotional and aesthetical reactions.

In his book “How to Create a Mind,” AI expert and public advocate for the transhumanist movement Ray Kurzweil explains that the hybridization between technology and biology will lead humans to expand their neocortex again (artificially this time). The last time we experienced this was approximately 4 million years ago, with the immediate predecessors of the genus Homo, an expansion that was key to the cognitive development of humanity. In reductionist terms, we could say that this neurological revolution was the one that, to a large extent, defined us as humans. According to Kurzweil, we are about to take an equally radical step.

Cyborgs like Harbisson are the living example that hybridization is not reserved to sci-fi stories set in a remote future — it is a present reality and the implications are tremendous. “The definition of cyborg fits with the fact that I have introduced technology into my body. I am not using technology, but I am technology. The creation of new senses will happen more and more. Each person who has a new sense will have to create a new lexicon, a new way of sharing feelings and explaining concepts that do not exist so far. I think that what awaits us is a diversity of species, of perception of reality.”

Carlota Rangel is a creative writer and journalist from Mexico City. Her work has appeared in El Universal, Chilango, ELLE México and Vice Media. She wrote a travel column for El Heraldo de México, and her project Mi Casa es tu Casa won a Sabre Award.

This is an excerpt from Issue 01 of TOUT, a print magazine by Dims. launching Spring 2022. Sign up to be notified when it’s available for preorder.