By Alex Massaad
When you change enough parts of something, on a car for example, there comes a point where it eventually will no longer be the same car you started working on. With enough alterations anything can be completely reconstructed. With the technology-centered focus of the cyberpunk genre this reconstruction even extends to the human identity.
Mischa Peters explains that these futuristic descriptions depict a "post-human" identity that is modified from our existing identity through a few features. The idea that natural bodies are fallible runs through countless science fiction texts in this genre. They also point technology as the solution to our "meat" limitations. This is a literary reflection of many existing medical technologies and body modification that can be used to extend our lives such as artificial heart vavles and pacemaker heart regulators.
The modified body is a recurrent theme in William Gibson's seminal cyberpunk bible Neuromancer. The female protagonist, Molly, has nervous system upgrades and optical-enhancements to support hidden blades that retract into her fingertips. Her body is stronger than any "stock" human being. She takes advantage of this power by being a mercenary/bodyguard while flipping social norms regarding the role of women.
Peters sees technology as the next evolution in human development. "Technology seems to serve fundamentally as prosthesis to improve and perfect the frail and failing human body and enable it to multiply its strength and increase its capacities to extend itself over time." (Peters 53) From extending human strength to starving off Senescence, the "posthuman" identity is not bound by traditional limits. It seeks to be the solution for all of mankind's limitations.
The other view of human identity is of the cyber body that exists experiencing simulation of a virtual world. Our reconfigured identity is therefore given new possibilities through technology, without actually changing the body. I find this places more importance on the mind than is generally appropriate. Our minds are like the CPUs of computers and continuing with this analogy our brain is just a small part of this computer; our spinal cord and many other parts are essential to many parts of our existence even though they are non-essential.
Peters ends her analysis with a somber warning that "the dreams of transcendence might be too strong to resist, and this could leave us with digital bodies suited only to a virtual world" (Peters 57). I think this overlooks the fact that Gibson's Neuromancer is a metaphor for our pre-existing and newly developing relationships with technology, not actual fact developments or predictions. Molly's "post-human" strength, agility and reflexes function as metaphors for the way technology can already extend our natural human limits.
I do not believe for a second that Gibson was describing a not-so-distant future where we will all be getting digital interfaces behind our ears. While technology may be distancing ourselves from traditional ways of life, they are absolutely not burning any bridges. The use of internet chat or bluetooth headsets to communicate with others does not preclude the possibility of face-to-face (or to borrow from Surrogates) "in the flesh" interaction. These "digital avatars" exist to support our physical bodies, not replace them.