To Be a Cyborg or Not?

Being a cyborg is hard for me to imagine. Why would I want to be something else instead of me? But one can question, aren’t you already a cyborg? Indeed. With a Fitbit band on my wrist and an iPhone constantly held in my hand (I don’t feel secure enough if it’s in my pocket), I can hardly deny that I am a cyborg. Anyway, isn’t a cyborg a human plus machine/technology? In fact, in her A Cyborg Manifesto, Donna Haraway shows that a cyborg can mean more than that. A cyborg can be human plus machine, but it can also be animal plus machine, or all of them mix together. What is important is that clear boundaries now disappear, and what has been guarded behind the boundaries – identity – will shatter as well. An alternative world Haraway visions is constructed via affinity, not identity. Affinity is not fixed. Unlike identity, affinity is not an inborn quality. Instead, one can choose with free will or even build an affinity. It is fluid, flexible, possible to be deconstructed and then reconstructed. With multiple affinities, there emerges cyborg.

Thinking about such an understanding of cyborg and then look at both Haraway’s and Hammonds’ chapters on race is helpful. What these authors are both trying to say is that race, as either an idea or a belief, is constructed, even though it is commonly taken as part of one’s identity. Haraway believes that race as an identity quality (that people believe) should be shattered, and new affinity connections should be built (e.g. she talks about vampire). Technology is able to delineate a dream by visualizing a woman’s face with multiple racial backgrounds, but this will only re-emphasize the masculine power which existed on racial differences, based on Hammonds’ understandings. If our present world is inevitably racist, then building affinities and becoming cyborgs will lead us to another future.

However, as “a woman of color,” I have to say that the chapter that I resonate with the most is Moya’s. It is not simply because her postpositivist realist theory of identity is something that I can operate, but more because she admits, and accepts, as a woman of color herself, the history and the reality (and everything carried by them) which made us who we are. Affinity is beautiful, and cyborg is also fantastic – but aren’t they dreams too? We, no matter as a white woman or a woman of color, need a way to achieve these dreams. To me, the first step is to accept who I am, where I am, and the things that build me. Then, maybe little by little, I will have the courage to question my identity, to even deconstruct, and build a new “self” from numerous affinities. Before being a cyborg, I desperately have to see my historical identity.

There is one last thing that I want to share: I have never seen myself as a woman of color before reading A Cyborg Manifesto.

Imagine Alternative Sciences and Identities

Science and identity are perhaps two of the most commonly mentioned terms in the field of Science, Technology, and Society (STS). How does science shape our identities and how do our identities affect the process of developing science? To examine the relations between science and identity, this essay will delve deep into the following papers: Situated Knowledges [1] and A Cyborg Manifesto [2], which are both written by Donna Haraway, an outstanding feminist scholar. I will first introduce these papers briefly and then put them into dialogue to see how they contribute to the understanding of science and identity together.

Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective was originally published in Feminist Studies in 1988. Essentially, it is a paper that heavily criticizes traditional science and the kind of objectivity it represents. Instead, it advocates a new vision of objectivity: feminist objectivity. Haraway starts off by claiming that the present science is an arena of masculine power that awes abstraction, universality, and pure objectivity, while denigrating specificity, particularity, and subjectivity. There is a clear line between these two categories. The former is pursued and the latter is avoided. Those who believe in this image of science are in fact the ones who know less about science. These people believe the so-called scientific objectivity is valuable and convincing because it will not be contaminated by human cognition or perspective: it is absolutely true and is not subject to change. However, she argues, even though this is what science has been shown in the textbook, it is not real – scientists know quite honestly that science is socially constructed; it relies on human beings and the knowledge it produces is “manufactured knowledge (Page 577).” But the way people worship scientific objectivity cannot promote real understanding or real knowledge. To offer an alternative, Haraway promotes a “feminist objectivity” that emphasizes the situatedness of knowledge, addresses connections and relations, and embraces resonance but not dichotomy. It blurs the boundary between objectivity and subjectivity. Here, she points out that all knowledges are situated within particular contexts and can only be viewed from certain perspectives. Therefore, there is no singular or universal understanding of knowledge. Knowledges must be plural. Under this feminist objectivity, human identity is welcomed, because identity actually assists us to gain true understanding. What she also mentions is that feminist objectivity does not equal relativism since relativism negates contexts or perspectives so that responsibility also disappears. One can only know by committing to a situation, to a standpoint, to a perspective. Genuine feminist objectivity is formed by numerous partial perspectives; it calls attention to an alternative science.

Three years after Situated Knowledges was published, in 1991, Haraway wrote another influential piece: A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism. To set the context, Haraway spends half of the paper criticizing the dominating belief of abstract individuation, “a man in space (page 152),” and the embedded dichotomies it includes are men vs. women, humans vs. animals, humans vs. computers, etc. Haraway challenges the understanding of these dichotomies by stating the boundaries they draw and the separations they produce are not constructive to our society and ourselves – these dualisms inevitably split people further apart and yield conflicts. In addition, as a human being, one has been forced to begin knowing oneself from one’s body and it is exactly because of the power assigns to one’s body that we must develop an alternative way to construct identity. Hence, as its title entails, Haraway comes up with an alternative identity – the ironic cyborg, which is opposite to “a man in space.” It is ironic because it is meant to confuse, to challenge, and to amuse. Because the cyborg has no historical origin in Western cultures and does not belong to any of the existing categories, there is no way to refer it to any classical concept or even talk about it based on our current language. It is, in fact, a fusion of all categories and all concepts. It emphasizes on connection and affinity, not separated distinct identity. Haraway relies on this imaginary cyborg to disclose the political issues in society. For instance, none of race, class, or sexual orientation naturally exists to define identity. Cyborg informed politics should also bear its characteristics. She goes on to talk about an example of how a woman survives as a cyborg at different locations, such as home, market, and school, to show the importance of not framing woman’s identity through man, but as a cyborg that affiliates with animals, machines, and other artifacts. Therefore, to destruct the current identity also means creating new possibilities. Haraway offers one of them.

These two papers share plenty of commonalities. First of all, they both imagine alternatives on fundamental concepts: one on science, the other one on identity. Haraway approaches these papers similarly by setting out to criticize the status quo and then constructing other possibilities, both through a feminist epistemology, which is the second commonality. Her feminist epistemology embraces partiality, particularity, plurality, ambiguity, and situatedness, almost on the other end of absolute objectivity, as shown in both papers. The purpose for imagining alternatives is to create a more inclusive and thus more understanding reality by deconstructing and reforming the present world. Haraway believes that human, science, and technology all need to participate in this process, because human produces science, science is included in technology, and science and technology together influence human. They are all connected and related.

Nevertheless, there are also quite a few differences between Situated Knowledges and A Cyborg Manifesto. In Situated Knowledges, Haraway only confronts science and scientific objectivity. She challenges science as an entity but does not mention human identity or how it can be affected by science. Certainly, what lies behind her argument of situated knowledges is feminist epistemology. Manifesto is based on Situated Knowledges, but instead of solely looking at science, it problematizes the whole idea of identity, including the identity that results from scientific development. Moreover, Manifesto goes one step further – it sits upon feminist ontology, whose embodiment is the ironic cyborg. Therefore, this paper is not only questioning how people think (i.e. epistemology), but indeed more deeply on what make them think this way (i.e. ontology). In Situated Knowledges, Haraway talks about objectivity through science. In Manifesto, she points to subjectivity through identity. While discussing objectivity is similar to looking around at the world outside of ourselves, examining subjectivity is reflecting on our own honestly. She draws connections between identity and science in Manifesto by implicitly asking these two questions: Is our subjectivity truly defined by ourselves as free human beings? Or is it still somewhat or even completely structured by the scientific objectivity? Of course, the reality falls into the latter and this is why she fights for alternative science and identity. They can actively shape each other on multiple levels.

Why are science and identity important? Because they both speak to power. Power is the overarching theme that affects science, identity, society, and all of us. Unequal distribution of power and even the existence of power are the causes of numerous social and political issues. To provide alternative ways to think about and then construct science and identity is to disclose different power relations and to be aware of them. Can we balance power and solve all the problems? Haraway does not give us an answer. It is certainly an ambitious goal to erase all the boundaries in our world, but it does not hurt to imagine what if they don’t exist and what the world will then look like. Imagination is good. To imagine alternatives is even better.

In this essay, I briefly introduce two seminal papers by a famous feminist Donna Haraway: Situated Knowledges and A Cyborg Manifesto. I then discuss how they both relies on a feminist epistemology that emphasizes plurality and particularity, while Manifesto goes a step further to inform a feminist ontology. Both papers speak about how science and identity can influence each other and how it can be problematic when they are based on ideas such as separation, objectivity, and so on. Haraway, therefore, imagines alternative sciences and identities that aim at destructing the present understanding of them and reconstruct new connections that focus on affinity and situated perspective. These alternatives, hopefully, can disclose a clearer view of power relations and hence help create an inclusive world.

References

[1]  Haraway, Donna. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” Feminist Studies 14.3(1988): 575-599.

[2]  Haraway, Donna. “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), pp.149-181.

Truth Claims in Science, Technology, and Society

Within the field of Science, Technology, and Society (STS), one notion has been discussed and debated pervasively: truth claims, more specifically, scientific truth claims. What does it mean to claim a truth? What does a typical truth claim entail? This essay aims at delineating the dominating discussions surrounding the idea of truth claim in STS. Throughout this essay, I will argue that scientific truth claims are always socially constructed – they are produced, not discovered; they connect to human beings, objects, and the environment, instead of being isolated on their own. First, I will start by introducing how general audiences perceive scientific truth claims and whether scientists hold the same belief. Then, I will move on to draw the picture of developing truth claims in science. A few key STS concepts will be presented and examined. After that, I will talk about some effects that can be caused by these truth claims. Finally, several methods to disclose the real nature of truth claims will also be investigated.

Scientific truth claims are trusted by general audiences. What can be considered as a scientific truth claim? For example, the moon rotates around the earth – this is a truth claim. An elephant weighs more than a lion – also a truth claim. To hold belief in a truth claim, one first needs to trust. Steven Shapin, in his Rarely Pure and Never Simple: Talking about Truth, notes that “people’s trust in science is based upon their acceptance of certain transcendental and absolutist stories about science. [15]” Therefore, for general audiences, truth claims in science are really true. They are not to be questioned. They are, simply, facts.  But people do not always set out to these truth claims so easily. Shapin also talks about how people used to judge whether a certain claim is true by evaluating if the one who claims is reliable or familiar [16]. At that time, the reliability of men was taken into consideration more seriously. Later around eighteenth century, people began to assign more weight to expertise [16]. It is acceptable if the truth claim is not made by somebody we know personally, as long as that person is an expert in a relevant institution that belongs to the field. Abstract and isolated knowledge claimed by formal institutions means truth. Nowadays, it is hard to convince anyone without referring to media, press, colleges, research labs and so on. This is how general audiences trust.

However, are these truth claims absolutely true? Should they be taken as facts? To answer these questions, many STS scholars look closely at how these truth claims come into being. Bruno Latour describes in detail of how a certain truth claim like “the DNA molecule has the shape of a double helix” is constructed [9]. Take this statement as an example for now. First, it is claimed based on many experiments that are completed in different laboratories. Second, these experiments are conducted by various human researchers. Third, these human researchers discuss and argue with each other during the entire study period (sometimes even longer). They often, if not always, actively seek for allies that will support their own ideas. Finally, one side will dominate the discussion and therefore the experiment results from this side with be considered as a scientific conclusion. Here, it means that “the DNA molecule has the shape of a double helix.” When being presented to the public, this scientific conclusion is crafted as a black-boxed truth claim, leaving all these experiments, labs, or human researchers’ names and actions aside. Clearly, the situation in the experiment laboratories can be crucial. The way each piece of discussion or argument is framed is also vital. One more example: thanks to Collins and Pinch, we are able to learn that scientists have yet reached a consensus whether female whiptail lizards have lesbian mating habit or not [3], simply because there are too many doubts and confusions in either side of the debate. Examples like these two are numerous. What Latour intends to address is that scientific truth claims are always socially constructed. Their construction relies on social relations – one may have more say if he or she has gained trust from a big name. Hence, these truth claims are not isolated absolute truths as perceived by the general audience. They are true only in specific situations, if, luckily, one is hidden from the fighting on the backstage. They are not black boxes and they will never be.

What’s more, these truth claims tend to change. In Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact, Ludwik Fleck, by delineating how syphilis has been understood across time, discusses deeply about the change of thought collective and thought style [6]. If we listen to Fleck’s words and clarify thought collective as a collection of thoughts of a certain topic and thought style as the most prevailing style of thought for that topic in a specific period of time, then here the change of thought styles for syphilis is clear: syphilis was first seen as a mystery, then a pathogenetic idea, and finally an etiological disease entity, due to Wassermann reaction [6]. Similarly, Kuhn describes how a scientific paradigm can shift because of an “accident.” Different from Fleck’s thought collective, Kuhn’s scientific paradigm focuses more on a specific disciplinary (i.e. a closed community), and his accident means something that is unexpectedly discovered or derived but ultimately adjusts the direction of the entire paradigm [8]. One example can be Coulomb’s law. Paradigm shift is an ongoing process. It happened before and it is still undergoing at present. Foucault [7], Clarke et al. [2], and Rose [12] all point to the paradigm shift from medicalization to biomedicalization. To uncover the problematic notion of race in science, Fausto-Sterling [5] and Pollock [11] both draw the maps of how race is perceived, used, and in fact not being legitimate for bone density research and heart disease studies respectively. Therefore, truth claims are subject to change. They are not only socially constructed but also time dependent. They are not universally true.

While truth claims are situated in contexts and time, they inevitably will influence the world in one way or another, especially when they are embedded in artifacts such as technology. Yes, technology, as one form of scientific product, conveys truth claims. The procedure of “materializing” truth claims involves categorization, classification, standardization, etc. Bowker and Star have talked extensively about what they mean by classification and standardization [1]: Classification is a segmentation of the world, either based on time, or space, or both time and space. The resulting categories of classification are consistent and complete within themselves, while being mutually exclusive among each other. Standardization, however, is the process of imposing a certain classification to enable the collaboration of various things so that they can work together. Classification and standardization collaboratively materialize scientific truth claims. For instance, to produce a touch-screen smartphone, both classification and standardization have to be involved to include certain truth claims from biology, cognitive science, ergonomics and more. The consequence is that although this smartphone is suitable for some people, it is not friendly to everybody – imagine a blind person using it. Additionally, it can only be used in some occasions, but not all the contexts – imagine if there is no electricity. Hence, the world is then classified and/or standardized by these artifacts and by the truth claims they represent. These artifacts have politics. Langdon Winner delves deep into this issue and concludes that artifacts are always political [18]. Atomic bombs are designed to deter and destroy. When being materialized as artifacts, truth claims can have real political impacts to the world and to us in positive and/or negative ways.

Due to this effect, numerous scholars have proposed approaches for scientists to understand the possible results of their “truth claims” and then make science and technology more inclusive for people. Latour raises an “actor network approach” to think about how artifacts, as actors who have independent capability in the world, can affect people’s lives by substituting, shaping, or changing their actions [10]. He focuses on both the power of human and non-human actors and how they relate to each other to form a network. Cowan, when examining the history of cooking stove in the United States, proposed the inclusion of consumer by looking at the “consumption junction,” where consumers actively chose among competing products [4]. Back to then, people tended to think about producers solely and ignored consumers entirely, not including them in the whole network. Rosenberger and Verbeek learn from phenomenology and come up with the idea of “postphenomenology” [14]. Postphenomenology’s focal point is the relation between human and technology and it cares more about empirical analysis. Four major human-technology relations include embodiment relations, hermeneutic relations, alterity relations, and background relations [14]. They also raise the concept of “multistability” to talk about the flexibility of technology to be understood and used different under distinct contexts by distinct people [13] [14]. Different from all the approaches above, who are basically theoretic frameworks, Vertesi et al. introduces a variety of design methods that are used widely by designer and researchers to study human-technology relations [17]. Examples include participatory design (i.e. design with stakeholders) and reflective or critical design (i.e. design to reflect and provoke). All these scholars suggest means to think more deeply and comprehensively about artifacts and technologies and what they bring to human beings and our society.

Scientific truth claims are not isolated. They situate in contexts and time and they rely on people to be developed. Even though general audiences prefer to view truth claims as ultimate truths, they are always socially constructed. They are not neutral and therefore bring real impact to our lives. Scholars advocate various ways to think about science and technologies more inclusively, but it is everybody’s responsibility to open the black box of truth claims and understand everything better.

References

[1]  Bowker, Geoffey C., and Susan Leigh Star, Sorting Things Out: Classification and its Consequences, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999, Intro and Chapt 1 (pp. 1-50).

[2]  Clarke, A.E., Shim, J.K., Mamo, L., Fosket, J.R., & Fishman, J.R. (2003). “Biomedicalization: Technoscientific transformations of health, illness and U.S. biomedicine.” American Sociological Review, 68(2), 161-194.

[3]  Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch, “The Sex Life of the Whiptail Lizard,” from The Golem: What You Should Know about Science, pp. 109-119.

[4]  Ruth Schwartz Cowan, “Consumption Junction” in Bijker, Wiebe, Thomas P. Hughes and Trevor Pinch The Social Construction of Technological Systems.

[5]  Fausto-Sterling, Anne. “The Bare Bones of Race,” Social Studies of Science 38.5(2008): 657-694.

[6]  Fleck, Ludwick. Genesis and the Development of a Scientific Fact. First published by Benno Schwabe, Basel, 1935; English translation by Bardley F. and Trenn T.J., University of Chicago Press, 1979.

[7]  Foucault, M. (1978). Excerpts from The history of sexuality, Vol 1: An introduction.

[8]  Kuhn, Thomas S. “Scientific Paradigms.” In Sociology of Science edited by Barry Barnes, 80-104. Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1972.

[9]  Bruno Latour, Science in Action. How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society (Harvard), pp. 1-100.

[10]  Bruno Latour: “Where are the missing masses? The sociology of a few mundane artifacts”, in Bijker, Wiebe E.; Law, John, Shaping technology/building society: studies in sociotechnical change.

[11]  Pollock, Anne. Medicating Race: Heart Disease and Durable Preoccupations with Difference, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012. Introduction, pp. 1-27.

[12]  Rose, N. (2007). The politics of life itself. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press (Introduction pp. 1-8).

[13]  Rosenberger, R. (2014). “Multistability and the Agency of Mundane Artifacts: from Speed Bumps to Subway Benches.” Human Studies. 37: 369-392.

[14]  Rosenberger, R., and P.-P. Verbeek. (2015). “A Field Guide to Postphenomenology.” In: Postphenomenological Investigations: Essays on Human-Technology Relations, R. Rosenberger and P.-P. Verbeek (Eds.). Lexington Books, pp. 9-41.

[15]  Steven Shapin, “Rarely Pure and Never Simple: Talking About Truth,” Configurations 7:1 (1999), 1-14.

[16]  Steven Shapin, A Social Construction of Truth. Civility and Science in Seventeenth Century England (Chicago), Epilogue.

[17]  Vertesi, Janet, David Ribes, Laura Forlano, Yanni A. Loukissas, and Marisa Cohn (2016). “Engaging, Critiquing, and Making Digital Systems: Crossings between STS and Design,” in The STS Handbook. Cambridge: MIT Press.

[18]  Winner, Langdon, “Do Artifacts Have Politics,” in The Whale and the Reactor (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), pp. 19-39.