This young man stands out. Neil Harbisson had a new sense designed for him – and everyone can see it. Harbisson entered into an unusual partnership between his body and digital technology. We met this cyborg in his adopted home of Catalonia.
Neil Harbisson arrives on time to our meeting on an afternoon in Barcelona. He didn’t need to travel far from the district in which he resides, El Raval. From some distance, I can already spot him standing in the middle of the Ramblas at metro station Liceu – and not just because of his blond hair and bright blue quilted windbreaker. The thin, flexible antenna which seems to grow out of the back of his head takes me by surprise for a moment. Harbisson is conspicuous, but he doesn’t really want that. The 34-yearold Briton rather sees himself on a mission to achieve general awareness of cyborgs and the recognition of artificially designed senses in humans.
On a brief tour of the city in the direction of Plaça de Catalunya, Harbisson begins to explain how he became what he is today: a human-machine hybrid and avant-garde artist who is the living embodiment of a very special direct partnership between humans and technology. “I’ve been color-blind since birth. I never perceived that as a handicap, but as a child I was curious about the colors that surrounded me. In 2004 I had an antenna implanted in my head that allows me to transform the colors of the surroundings into audio tones. I can therefore hear colors, like the red and green of the flowers at the shop over there.”
“The union between my body and technology has worked very well for more than 15 years now. The antenna is therefore no longer a device for me, but an organ.”
Cyborg activist & avant-garde artist
His antenna picks up the light waves of the colors and sends them to his skull bone as vibrations. The vibrations are transformed into internal sounds, so that Harbisson hears different notes for different colors. In order to be able to visualize the sounds for himself, he memorized a color for each pitch before the device was implanted. “By the way, the red of the flower sounded very deep to me just now. This union between my body and technology has worked very well for more than 15 years now. The antenna is therefore no longer a device for me, but an organ.”
Once we arrive at Plaça de Catalunya, Harbisson says he has to get something. Without hesitation, he heads in the direction of the famous El Corte Inglés department store directly on the square, and I quickly understand why. A smile is on his face as we enter the basement with its fashion and perfume articles in all colors. “I like coming here. For me, it’s what visiting a nightclub is like for other people. A lot of exciting soundscapes.” Harbisson dives into this spectrum of sound and almost forgets about his purchase, but he never gets to the point of sensory overload. He’s long since gotten used to getting all this information that the antenna transmits – day and night, whether he’s standing in the shower or sleeping.
CYBORG AS A LIFESTYLE
We want to continue our conversation in a bar. Harbisson leads me to the cozy restaurant of L’Ovella Negra Ramblas in the historic district of El Raval very close by. Over a glass of wine and some tapas, he explains that for him it is about much more than just his own cyborg existence. He wants to encourage more people to adopt this lifestyle. “That’s why I co-founded the Cyborg Foundation and the Transpecies Society, which are to encourage more people to become cyborgs. What I care about is a close partnership not only between humans and technology but also with other like-minded people.”
In addition to his commitment to the recognition of cyborgs, Harbisson sees himself above all as an artist, with his body as his primary work. He also creates his own works of art, for example by translating the music of famous songs into “color scores.”
He tells us that his next project will again focus on his own body. He wants to have another artificial organ implanted, with which he will be able to feel time. Now there is time for that in reality, because a developer meeting is planned for today. Harbisson smiles as he says goodbye: “That’s the good thing about being a cyborg. In contrast to my traditional senses, my new senses can get better and better with age, because technology is constantly evolving.” While lost in thought as I watch him leave, I ask myself: Is this what humans of the future will look like?
July 27, 1984,
in Belfast, Northern Ireland
Cyborg activist and
What sets him apart
– Color-blind from birth
– Since 2004, the first person worldwide to have an antenna in his skull with which colors can be heard
– Since 2004, official recognition by the British government as the first cyborg.