Are we yet cyborgs? University students and the practical consequences of human–machine subjectivity

Matthew Allen

School of Social Sciences and Asian Languages,
Curtin University of Technology, Perth, WA 6001, Australia

In this paper I propose, on the basis of my experiences in teaching a WWW-assisted unit on critical thinking, that we need to employ two critical fictions (`the cyborg' and `the consensual hallucination' of cyberspace) to understand the ways in which the WWW might operate for effective teaching and learning. My aim is to provide, not a new direction, nor a new set of `criteria' by which we can judge `successful' higher education Web design, but to paint a critical paradigm of subjectivity within which designers and teachers and even students can click into new evaluative and development modes, as easily as they now — apparently — can click into the Web itself.

Cyberspace; Cyborg, Higher education; Subjectivity; Community

1. Introduction

The following abbreviated discussion of the possibilities of `fictive' thinking around the concepts of the cyborg and cyberspace in relation to the use of the WWW for higher education are based on 3 years' experience teaching Applied Reasoning at Curtin University, Applied Reasoning (a basic epistemology and critical thinking unit see [4]). features a diverse mix of students, with multiple modes of access and different motivations, knowledges and directions. It has required me to develop a much more open structure of `learning' than might be traditionally found in most university units.

There have been two related approaches by which I have sought to achieve this structure. The first is a particular pedagogical strategy in which students are challenged to be active learners and to involve themselves in the unit by assisting others. In part, this approach helps to show students that critical thinking and proper analysis are as much a matter of subject-position as cognitive ability: one must become, in a sense, a `teacher' if one is to be able to practice and develop as a critical thinker [ 1; 12, pp. 1–6] Students are encouraged at every opportunity to link their study of critical thinking to the important issues in their own lives, whether they be work, study or more public concerns. They are encouraged to see the Applied Reasoning unit (its students and staff) as a community engaged in a common project: different in its particular aspects for each, but open to the possibility of learning-in-concert.

The second approach provides part of the means to activate this strategy. Applied Reasoning is offered with the assistance of ARROW: Applied Reasoning Resources on the Web. ARROW is an extensive Web-site which contains both supplementary material directly related to the unit and links to sites of interest elsewhere in cyberspace (see also [3] ). ARROW, which was updated at the start of 1998, also provides students with a cultural prompt (as well as an easy interface) to assist them in beginning to use CMC. Students are offered the opportunity and the challenge of communicating by email with staff and other students, either directly or via a general discussion group (set up as a USENET newsgroup). By enabling additional communicative possibilities between staff and students in Applied Reasoning, email (broadly defined to include the use of USENET) allows students to contribute to the community as they wish and to draw upon its resources to assist them. Thus asynchronous CMC is part of both the greater individualising of students' work in Applied Reasoning (allowing communication about issues specific to one student) as well as the greater community-building within the unit (allowing broad discussion between all students). From 1998, USENET will be replaced with a Web-based asynchronous discussion group

2. Two cyber-fictions

I will begin with two, related `fictions', each of which figures prominently in critical work on the cultural meanings and possibilities of the new world of global information technology (which is itself increasingly signified with reference to the World Wide Web (WWW) ). These particular fictions originate with (although are certainly not limited to) the work of William Gibson and Donna Haraway; they are, respectively, `cyberspace' and the `cyborg'. By fiction I mean a concept that hovers ambiguously between future possibility and present impossibility. It is true metaphorically and yet plainly false according to existing structures of reality; in alluding to plausible alternative realities (and such fictions are routinely science fictions) it breaks through, or at least makes elastic, regular boundaries between the given and the invented.

Such fictions reveal the discursive construction of reality as we know it, without losing touch with the dominant discourses which make facts, and make them powerful. `Fictions', then, do not refer to that which is not, but prompt us to think again about that which is, in novel and creative ways. Novelty and uncertainty, bridges between what might be and what is: these are the benefits which the use of `fictions' brings to the analysis of cultural objects. When the analysis concerns something like the WWW, fictions are particularly appropriate. What we now think of as `knowledge' about the Web is not a set of stable, referentially grounded claims about a given object. Rather, Web-knowledge captures and expresses a movement of ideas and values between the present and the future (see also [2, pp. 85–86]).

One of these fictions is "cyberspace", evoked so powerfully by William Gibson in Neuromancer [8] and subsequent novels; now the reference point for numerous discussions concerning almost any aspect of Internet phenomena. I want, however, to concentrate on another, much less-quoted part of Gibson's characteristically off-hand stylisation of the informational future-present: that cyberspace is a "consensual hallucination" [8, p. 4]. One of the most puzzling and attractive features of the contemporary development of the Internet has been the way that networked communities have emerged, held together by information exchange through both traditionally evoked modes of computer communication (`mail' and `chat') and through the exchanges of information implicit in the publication and reception of Websites (see [11, p. 1; 7]). These communities are constituted through agreements to suspend the normal rules of reality and to cooperate in authorship of a `fake' community. A community exists through participation in the hallucination (and the grant of consent to suspend normality thereby made operative).

The other fiction or to use Haraway's term "ironic political myth" is the cyborg [9, p. 149]. The cyborg puts into question any easily assumed ideas that the `human' is an inviolate, natural entity whose identity inheres within itself rather than at the interface with both others and the systems in which they are a part. In other words, the `self' becomes a frozen moment in an on-going transactional process; human identity is experienced as if one were a computer in a network, only `available' and `recognisable' though the network activities that exist everywhere and nowhere all at once, never capable of being isolated to the actions of a particular, individual node.

Teaching university students through and with the WWW (which includes elements more traditionally thought of as computer-mediated communication or CMC see [5 ]), can be understood in ways that produce meaningful and important conclusions through the fictions of the cyborg and the consensual hallucination of cyberspace. Students' reactions, behaviours and so on when using Web-based learning materials cannot be understood as emanating from some pre-formed unitary self-identity: they are instead constitutive (see [6]) of a fragment of their subjectivity. In other words, students are not people who teachers might instruct once they join a particular unit; students are cyborgs whose identity consists (rather like Picard/Locutus in the Borg episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation) in the discrete, temporary and transitory melding together of the teacher and the student, through the interface of the knowledge made material within the unit.

The image of the cyborg is appropriate because of the way that machine interaction substitutes for, extends, transforms and, simultaneously, destabilises that process of melding. Moreover, students (even when "resistance is futile", to quote the Borg) do not necessarily embrace either the practical or the metaphoric reality of the cyborg. Students do not consent as readily as academic managers, (with their predilections for technological solutions) to the economic realities of mass education, to participate in the hallucination of electronically mediated community life. Their consent cannot be assumed. At the same time, since their cyborg identity is in part the result of being `taken over' by the teacher through the knowledge interface, `they' no longer can be assumed to exist. Thus, consent may not be something only students may grant, legitimated by liberal humanist discourses of the sovereign subject: it may be something to be subverted in the process of creating the cyborg.

3. Conclusion: hallucinations for the future

The real problem that underlies the fictive analyses just outlined is that the aims and goals of the use of the WWW for higher education are predicated on two assumption about the forms of identity which currently exist within universities. The first assumption is that students and teachers exist in a relationship of shared identity in which each exists because of the other: the student is the subordinate, receptive, primarily voiceless subject and the teacher is authorial, authoritative, dominant. The second assumption is that students and teachers `access' the Internet in the same way and, further, that it is a technical, non-subject-forming manner: a small amount of experience and training, the provision of some computers and students can be assumed to be equally on-line as academics. These assumptions are primarily structural: they are not consciously held and are indeed openly challenged. Yet, the first in particular, persists in a host of disciplinary apparatuses that suffuse the university system and indeed define the very nature of learning as it has been understood in the Western world since Ancient Greece. Moreover, the challenge is usually one that assumes that simply acting as if this structural relationship did not exist would somehow wave it out of existence. The second is equally pervasive, reflecting a strangely nostalgic view of the interrelationship between humans and technology that suggests a good deal more reading of cyberpunk novels might be a good start for changing the culture of universities.

Perhaps the way around this problem is to return to Gibson's notion of consensual hallucination. The sorts of learning experiences I wish Applied Reasoning students to have via the Web are, necessarily, an hallucination, for they depend on an act of consciously imagining ourselves (teachers and students) to be different from who we thought and are told we `are'. Consent must be forged, not through agreements for how can there be equitable, just agreements between students and teachers when inevitably those two sides of the bargain come with unequal power and resources but through the on-going process of hallucination. Consent is not something which precedes the act but comes from participation. In practical terms, then, teachers seeking to design educational experiences involving the WWW must first of all imagine themselves to be students and try, if possible, to understand the challenges which students might face; at the same time, the resulting design must continue to encourage students to `be' like teachers as much as possible. Finally, we can longer give our cyborg students an option: they are already cyborgs beings who are systemic interfaces and the technologies of the Internet will give them the muscles to make their cyborg selves stronger than they are at present.


[1] Allen, M., How do we enable and encourage students to ask questions, not simply answer them?, in: J. Abbott and L. Willcoxson (Eds.), Teaching and Learning Within and Across the Disciplines. Academic Services Unit, Murdoch University, Perth, 1996, pp. 7–12; also available at

[2] Allen, M., The future of knowledge and subjectivity in higher education, in: N.F. Ellerton (Ed.), International Networking: Education, Training and Change. Edith Cowan University, Perth, 1996, pp. 85–89.

[3] Allen, M., On target with ARROW, in: R. Pospisil and L. Willcoxson (Eds.), Learning Through Teaching. Academic Services Unit, Murdoch University, Perth, 1997, pp. 1–5; also available at

[4] Allen, M., Smart Thinking: Skills for Critical Understanding and Writing. Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1997.

[5] Allen, M., To `e' or not to `e'? Questions of computer-mediated learning and distance education, Strategies for open, flexible and distance education, Website, Teaching Learning Group, Curtin University of Technology, Perth, WA, 1997.

[6] Butler, J., Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge, London, 1990.

[7] Foster, D., Community and identity in the electronic village, in: Porter, 1997, pp. 23–38

[8] Gibson, W., Neuromancer. Ace, New York, NY, 1984.

[9] Haraway, D., Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. Routledge, London, 1991.

[10] Herring, S.C. (Ed.), Computer-Mediated Communication: Linguistic, Social and Cross-Cultural Perspectives. John Benjamins, Amsterdam, Philadelphia, 1996.

[11] Herring, S.C., Introduction, in: S.C. Herring (Ed.), Computer-Mediated Communication: Linguistic, Social and Cross-Cultural Perspectives. John Benjamins, Amsterdam, Philadelphia, 1996, pp. 1–10

[12] Makau, J.M., Reasoning and Communication: Thinking Critically about Arguments. Wadsworth, Belmont, CA, 1990.

[13] Porter, D., Internet Culture. Routledge, London, 1997.