Tech-horror tropes: putting the “org” in “cyborg”

Off-white fabric with a photograph of a two-leaded cardiac device transferred onto its surface. Embroidered across the device generator and leads are a number of cream objects reminiscent of barnacles. To the left of this image are four lines of embroidered text, changing in colour from silver/grey to red and becoming thicker on each line. The text reads: "The ICD becomes less of a foreign body over time. Like a ship in the sea, it gets covered in barnacles."
Embroidery by Laura Donald (2021) inspired by the experience of ICD recipient “Neil,” as recounted in Embodiment and everyday cyborgs: Technologies that alter subjectivity by Gill Haddow, Manchester University Press, 2021.

It’s been a while since I shared any of my heArt (i.e. heart-art) around here, so thought I’d drop in with this embroidery I finished recently. Sorry if it gives you the boke, as we’d say here in Scotland – I know the whole barnacle idea has had that effect on some pacemaker/ICD recipients who saw earlier versions of this on my social media.

Neil: …[W]hen the device first goes in…it’s more of a foreign body, if you like, to…your system…and then once it had been in a long time, it, kind of…the wires and everything else that’s there, kind of, get covered in all the, sort of, gunk that goes round your body and it becomes less and less of a…foreign body over time, because it…you know, I suppose like a ship in the sea, it gets covered…you know, like…

Gill: Barnacles?

Neil: …it gets covered in barnacles and all these type things…

From: Embodiment and Everyday Cyborgs: Technologies that Alter Subjectivity, by Gill Haddow (Manchester University Press, 2021) p.132

Now, full disclaimer, Gill Haddow (the author of the book that the barnacle quote came from) is actually one half of my PhD supervisory team, so it would make good sense for me to say how much I liked her book…but I REALLY did like it – it’s not every academic text that inspires me to embroider, you know! Gill’s book considers medical modifications to bodies (especially hearts) investigating people’s preference for animal, human or mechanical replacements/additions, before considering how receiving a cardiac device can impact on a person’s subjectivity. The book is open access, meaning you can read the entire thing online for free, but I would particularly recommend chapter 4, which is easy to read and jam-packed full of sensitively handled insights from actual patients’ lived experiences, looking at the positives and negatives of receiving a ICD (implantable cardioverter defibrillator).

This is a short animation, made using the words of some of the “everyday cyborgs” (and their loved ones) interviewed by Gill.

It’s very unusual (and difficult) to remove the leads of a cardiac device once they have been implanted and, in most cases, these will be permanent additions to a heart, even if the function of the pacemaker/ICD is no longer required. The barnacle quote (describing how the ICD becomes enmeshed with the biological body over time) really reflected that semi-permanent merging between hard and soft, dead and alive. The quote stood out to me especially, I think, because of its perfect balance of positive and negative: we get these devices and we probably want them not to be alien to us but at the same time the thought of becoming one with them is quite scary…and a bit icky.

Two images side by side. Left image shows a stone on a wet sandy beach. The stone is reminiscent of an anatomical heart in shape, has seaweed attached to it that are reminiscent of coronary veins and arteries. The stone body of the heart is covered in barnacles. Right image is a digital collage showing a photo of an ICD, branding partially visible behind the photograph of barnacles superimposed on the device.
A heart-shaped stone covered in barnacles, photographed on a beach in Bute (2021);
a barnacle covered ICD, digital art by Laura Donald (2021)

I’ve been reading a lot this past year about cyborgs and their links with horror – a link that exists partly because anything that crosses categorical divides has been inclined to give people the heebie-jeebies (werewolves: animal/human; zombies: living/dead) and partly because so many fictional cyborgs are represented as having lost their humanity, becoming cold and ruthless, i.e. less than human, when they receive cybernetic additions to their bodies.

It’s easy to hear the word “cyborg” and have only negative connotations conjured in your mind, but books like Gill’s (see also Nelly Oudshoorn’s Resilient Cyborgs: Living and Dying with Pacemakers and Defibrillators) emphasise and reassert the “org” in “cyborg,” showing the very human implications of living with smart technology under the skin. I find it exciting that real-life “everyday cyborgs” (a growing group) are being given space to share their own human stories, having their voices and experiences amplified, not [just] by the humanities, but by scholars of science and technology. Academia is moving towards evermore interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary approaches and I think that’s the right way to go if we want to examine what it means to be human in a world where science and technology are so inextricably intertwined with so many aspects of our lives, bodies, and existence.

Of course, those of us who live with smart technology incorporated into our bodies realise we’re no less human now than we were before we were “wired” (we do, don’t we?) but the process of becoming and remaining a cyborg does impact upon our subjectivity and our experiences of being human. That science and technology keeps us heart-impaired types alive – allowing us to continue to be human and have human experiences – is the important and intended outcome of medicine, but it’s not the only outcome. We, as humans, are changed by the technology implanted in our bodies and it’s important, as humans, to acknowledge that too. Unintended outcomes are outcomes all the same.

Much as I don’t want horror stories and imagery to keep amplifying the less-than-human/monstrous cyborg stereotypes, there’s a significant part of me that feels horror could be used to express (or to dig deeper into) some of our real human experiences of what it’s like to live with a cardiac device. Perhaps metaphor, like the barnacles, that taps into our subconscious historical awareness of horror tropes is where we’ll find that useful middle ground – acknowledging our uneasiness about technological enhancement without exacerbating the long-standing dominance of Terminator-esque cyborg imagery in the public imagination.

These are the thoughts I had while embroidering barnacles anyway.

Do you have a cardiac device? How do you feel about the “cyborg” label?

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like: Heart Haiku Issue 3: Cardiac Devices and this pattern for a “cyborg pride” beaded bracelet or cross-stitch, both free to download if you click on the links.

2 comments

    • Thank you so much for your incredibly kind words, Margarita. And thank you for sharing your poem! I particularly love the line: “You hope your humans will keep your machines in good working condition” – an important reminder of all the human input that goes into designing, fitting and maintaining cardiac/medical devices, which is never as straightforward as “just” making someone a cyborg and probably much more social, personal and human (i.e. open to mistakes) than we might expect at first thought.

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