Huge Harry's lecture at the Cyborg Panel         Abstract of Huge Harry's lecture

Livia Polanyi

Rice University, Houston, Texas / CSLI, Stanford, California


Introductory statement for the Cyborg Panel at the 94th Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, Washington D.C., November 15-19, 1995.

We are entering an age of communicating machines: cyborgs which speak, gesture, act and understand. As the twentieth century ends, our familiar modernist notions of causality, agency, community and distanced critique are increasingly inadequate to describe a changing world in which interacting persons, machines and information inhabit a largely autonomous cyberuniverse and collaboratively perform actions with possibly profound consequences for "real life" and "real persons". To explore the complexity of the cyberrealm and the implications of virtual interaction for our mundane world, the panel drawn from an emerging group of linguists and cultural critics operating in research laboratories and in computerized interactive art studios will project a nuanced vision of the human which they are building as designers and implementers of cyber-sites of future inter-species exchange and community.

As the presentations by panel members will show, the Cyborg (an increasingly familiar figure in the rhetoric of post-modern anthropology) is being re-shaped by human and electronic cultural anthropologists, linguists, computer scientists and artists who are actively engaged in constructing virtual actors through simulating human semiotic capabilities, constructing sites for mediated communication, and examining the texts generated in modelled interaction. To illustrate their visions, some of the participants on the panel will showcase their own work in computational modelling of signing cyborgs.

Our aim on this panel is thus two-fold. We will grant a voice to cultural critics who are actually designing and implementing our future interactive partners. In addition, we will permit anthropologists a glimpse at somewhat primitive incarnations of the subjects and sites of future encounters and give cultural, linguistic, humanistic and visual anthropologists the opportunity to evaluate the simulations of the human and the reconstructions of the performance of being human in this early moment of the effort. Anthropologists, we believe, have a unique contribution to make in the exploration/development/creation/exploitation of cyberspace. The anthropological imagination has the potential to transform the effort of building the cyber community of tomorrow. Anthropology, uniquely among the sciences and humanities, has the perspective needed to transform cyber-art and cyber-engineering from mechanistic representations of naive models of rationality and hierarchy to much more complex and satisfying sites of human activity. In order to do so, however, in keeping with traditions of anthropological activism practiced elsewhere in the discipline, the disinterested and increasingly moralistic stance of the distanced observer must be abandoned. This panel functions as an invitation to practicing linguistic and cultural anthroplogists to give up the privileged though isolated stance of the ethnographer and recorder and to join as productive colleagues those cultural analysts already at work in the cybertrenches constructing the interactive communicating counterparts/environments/subjects of our collective future.