Review: Discussing the Future of Humans in 'Cyborg: A Documentary'
by Alex Billington
March 28, 2023
Are cyborgs the future? A question that humanity always loves to ask, hoping that one day technology will be advanced enough to actually make this a reality. Though it is already a reality nowadays, however it's still a rather taboo topic - especially in the medical community. There's a new documentary showing this year titled Cyborg: A Documentary, which recently had its world premiere at the prestigious CPH:DOX Film Festival in Copenhagen. Directed by Carey Born, the film is more of a biopic than any kind of provocative look at tech, introducing us to a Spanish "cyborg" man named Neil Harbisson. He was born color blind, unable to see any colors at all (only monochrome), so he convinced a doctor to implant an experimental chip into his brain. The antenna comes out of the back of his head and the small camera on the front computes the colors it sees, and transmits them back into his brain as sounds (various tones). Now he can essentially "hear" color, which has given him an extra sense & different perception of life as a cyborg human on Earth.
From a town outside of Barcelona in Catalonia, Neil Harbisson is a "cyborg" artist and he's more than happy with that designation. The film could instead be called I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK, though that title was already used by Park Chan-wook for his 2006 sci-fi film. Neil had this antenna implanted in his brain years ago, back in the early 2000s, and it was done in secret by an unnamed Spanish doctor. This is because the medical community believes the ethical debate is unsettled – surrounding digital augmentation, cyborg implants, technical enhancements, etc. Neil refuses to use any term other than "artist" to describe himself, to nicely escape any criticism that might arise from any more scientific term. He added this implant because he wanted to experience color in his own way, and he came up with the software and mechanism entirely on his own (with a few friends). It's a fascinating topic and the film encourages discussion in an amusing and intriguing way. He's an awkward guy, who also uses humor to lighten up the mood and allow others to let down their guard. He's aware he looks a bit strange with this antenna; sometimes he hides with a hat or wig.
Carey Born's Cyborg: A Documentary is hyper-focused on Neil, spending all of its time with him, not only telling his life story but following him around in cities and at events. Most of the time, everyone who speaks with or interacts with him just can't make any sense of his interpretation of being a cyborg or augmented human. It's one of the most interesting discussions that occurs throughout, and truly the most philosophical aspect of the film. At some point I realized - Neil has a different sense and different perception of life that is individual to him. No one can really understand this. Not only can he not see color as most of us do, he now processes color as a sound, and has spent nearly 20 years living this way. No one else on this planet knows what that feels like, and after all of this time his brain has become so used to it that his comprehension is entirely different from everyone else. Let's not forget that color is simply light reflecting off of surfaces and producing different waves - he now "hears" all these waves. He discusses how he can now assign a "color" to each person he meets, by which he means a certain "sound" emanating from their "color" as a human being.
This isn't the first film about this kind of human alteration, and he's not the first person to try this kind of bio-hacking. In fact, there's a whole bio-hacking community out there (this term is never mentioned in the film, by Neil or anyone else - it's all about "cyborgs" in this doc). A few years ago, Showtime released a doc film called Citizen Bio about bio-hackers and one in particular - Aaron Traywick. His story is a cautionary tale, as he died in 2018 with many still unsolved mysteries surrounding his strange death. Bio-hacking is more about medicine and altering how the body functions, but it's quite similar to the cyborg concepts Neil brings up in this film. The science & medical communities are still very much against any kind of personal biological alterations, be it cyborg enhancements or bio-hacking or even gene editing (also see the doc Make People Better). I do find it strange this film never even mentions the bio-hacking world, but perhaps it was too dangerous to dip into that when the director would rather keep the focus on Neil. I kept thinking about it because so much of what Neil talks about is part of this same conversation; there's discussions to be had.
As with many documentaries nowadays, this one also spends most of its time asking intriguing questions without ever trying to provide thoughtful answers or offer any conclusions. Fair enough, but I wish they'd dig in more with a stronger stance. Yes, Neil is charismatic and engaging and quirky and awkward, yet he's also charming and smart and controversially bold. He challenges all these "big thinkers" at scientific events because he doesn't accept the usual limitations and convictions that are inherent with almost everyone else. That's refreshing and exciting - and only he is capable of this because he is one of the only human beings on this planet with a cyborg enhancement that provides him a whole new perspective. As much as I enjoyed hearing from Neil, I was hoping the film would branch off and talk with other cyborgs, and other people who have enhancements or implants like this. There's even a scene where he goes to a "meet the cyborgs" event, meaning there are others, yet the film never introduces or talks about anyone else. It is frustrating to watch and want to learn even more but then the film is ending. It's absolutely a good discussion worth continuing.
Alex's Rating: 7.5 out of 10
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