“The problem with technology,” according to Neil Harbisson, “is that you need an external application.” Campus Party Europe, like any tech conference, contains an overwhelming amount of tech hardware, with every attendee seeming to always wield at least a laptop and smartphone.
But Harbisson sees change in the next decade, believing that we’ll start avoiding technology ‘objects’. Instead, we’ll have technology inside us: “We’ll stop making apps for mobile phones and start making them for our bodies.”
Harbisson knows a thing or two about literally ‘internalising’ technology. Born able to see only in grey scale, and later trained as a fine artist and in music composition, Harbisson combines technology and sound to ‘hear’ colour.
Initially, he heard just a few sound frequencies which corresponded to five basic colours. But Harbisson can now differentiate between hundreds of slight changes in sound frequency, and every hue imaginable. Saturation was added in 2007, so that brighter colours are louder, duller colours softer. Harbisson even goes beyond the limitations of human perceptions of colour. He can now sense colour at frequencies we can’t, such as ultraviolet and infrared.
The First Eyeborg
A chance meeting at a cybernetics conference led to the creation of the first ‘eyeborg’ in 2004. Today, all that visibly distinguishes Harbisson as a cyborg is his ‘antennae’ (his description), a sensor which comes from the back of his head to hover over his forehead, and detects the hue and saturation of colours in front of him.
The visible hardware has evolved in the last eight years. Instead of headphones, sound is delivered directly to the bone, and while he used to wear a computer in a backpack at all times, this encumbrance has been replaced with a small chip, invisible under his hair. The eyeborg continues to become more portable, more corporeal and more a ‘natural’ part of him. Next month, Harbisson will undergo surgery. The eyeborg will actually be implanted in his skull, rather the current version which delivers vibrations (and therefore sound) by resting on the bone.
Experiencing colour as sound changes and completely transforms everyday human experiences. He recreates songs through the arrangement of colourful food on a plate, and wears clothes in colour palettes which correspond to chords. Dressed in bright yellow trousers, red shirt and blue jacket for his talk at Campus Party Europe, he apparently “sounded good” in C major. Harbisson said he goes to supermarkets for fun, particularly enjoying the aisles with brightly coloured cleaning products: “Galleries are now concert halls and supermarkets are now night clubs.”
A Union Between Software and Brain
Although he never removes his eyeborg, and fought to have it included in his passport photo, Harbisson isn’t a cyborg because of the physical, visible union between his body and technology. Rather, he embraces the terminology ‘cyborg’ to describe the union between the software and his brain. Now able to dream in colour, the technology has become an extension of his sensory capabilities.
As senses give us knowledge, Harbisson sees his eyeborg and sensory extending devices and increasing our human knowledge. He believes that “everyone should have an antennae.” Those interested can actually find out how make their own eyeborg on the Internet.
Beyond challenging our understanding of technology in relationship to what it means to be human, Harbisson’s art projects confront our social world view too. Most interesting of all was his human colour wheel as “there are not black and white skins.” ‘Race’ doesn’t exist in Harbisson’s sensory perception. Instead, we’re all just shades of orange.
We may not be making apps for our bodies quite yet. But sharing in Harbisson’s unique sensory experiences was a fascinating exploration of our current limitations. And perhaps a glimpse at the future?