Neil Harbisson

Image credit: Campus Party Europe in Berlin

Last week, I was lucky enough to attend Mesh for the first time. I had wanted to go in previous years but there was always something going on that prevented my attending. This year’s conference was made up of two days filled with a variety of  informative sessions, speakers and participants. One speaker easily stood out as the most memorable. His name is Neil Harbisson and he is a Cyborg artist.

Who is Neil Harbisson?

Neil took the stage mid-way through the morning of the first day of the conference and he immediately caught everyone’s attention. In addition to the bright orange blazer he was wearing, people were drawn to the antenna that Neil has attached to his head.

He explained that he was born without the ability to see colour and that he sees everything in greyscale; a condition known as achromatopsia. As he grew up, he began to memorize the different colours for things. For example, he knew that the sky was blue and that grass was green but he had no idea what the colours actually looked like.

While in university, he began to work on tackling his condition through sound. That is, he worked at finding a way to transit colours to his brain using a camera. Once his brain received the signal, it then produced a sound corresponding to that colour.

Neil explained to those in attendance how when he first started, he had to wear headphones to transmit the sounds to his ears and he had cables running down his back to a heavy computer he had to carry in a backpack. Over time, the set-up was modified so that the computers were lighter, the cables were gone and the headphones were no longer needed.

Neil eventually met with a doctor who worked with him to find a way to have his skull operated on so that they the antenna could be permanently attached as well as a implanting a chip that contains the software he needs to hear the colours.

What is it like to hear colours?

When Neil first started to hear colours, he said he had headaches for about five weeks while his brain adjusted to all of the sounds. He said it took some time for his brain to process all of the different colours in his environment but that he’s now about to better control it. He explained how going to the grocery store can feel like being in a club that’s playing electronic music because of all of the vibrant colours within the aisles and shelves.

Someone in the audience asked what the colour red sounds like and he said that it was interesting because most people see red as passionate or violent, but for him, it’s a low sounding key.

Neil shared an interesting story about how if he sleeps with his curtains open, the sound of the sun will wake him up in the morning, rather than the brightness of it. He also shared with the audience about how he hears colours in his dreams.

He shared that when he gets dressed, he chooses his clothing based on the sounds his wardrobe makes, rather than colour coordination. He chuckled as he admitted that he may not be fashionably dressed, but his outfits sound nice.

Being a Cyborg

What makes Neil a Cyborg? He explained that to him, he is technology. He made an interesting point about how today, technology is a part of who we are. He gave the example of how people will often say, “I’m running low on battery.” While they mean their cellphone, they speak as if the phone is an extension of themselves.

For Neil, the connection to technology runs deeper than most. The antenna and chip in his head are a part of him. He compared being a cyborg to the first published instances of transexuals in the 1950s. At first, no one could understand how someone could feel they were in the wrong body or why a man would ever want to live as a woman. For Neil, it’s the same thing.

In 2010, Neil co-founded the Cyborg Foundation with Moon Ribas. The Foundation aims to help people become cyborgs, defend cyborg rights and promote cyborgism as an artistic and social movement.

Neil shared with us the story of how he had to fight to get his passport photo approved because it included the antenna. The passport office said that the antenna could not be included in the photo and Neil wrote them a letter explaining that it was apart of him, and not removable. It took several months and several letters before his passport photos were approved for use.

How do others react?

The biggest adjustment Neil has had to make since adding the antenna to his body is dealing with people’s reactions. Most people stare when they see him and others are suspicious that his camera is recording them. (He explained that the camera has never been about recording, merely transmitting the sounds of colours.)

When he first started wearing an antenna, he tried to hide it in his hair to have it be more discreet but people ended up noticing it anyway and being suspicious about his trying to hide it. Today, it is clearly visible above Neil’s head so he continues to draw looks and questions from people he meets.

What’s Next for Neil?

Neil said that he’s hoping his next upgrades will allow him to move his antenna without needing to use his hands. He’d also like to be able to charge his chip with his blood flow rather than always having to carry batteries with him.

Someone in the audience asked him what he thought the future of cyborgism looked like and Neil said he believes it will be used in making prosthetic limbs more functional. He believes that by the ‘30s and ‘40s, it will go beyond fusing physical body parts with technology and be more about altering genes.

Enlightened Mesher

I will admit that when I first saw Neil in the crowd that morning, I stared at him. I tried not to, but I caught myself casting glances his way every so often. He stood out, not just because of the antenna but because of his bright orange blazer in an otherwise subdued crowd.

His presentation was one of the most interesting things I had seen or heard in a very long time. I’ve seen all sorts of body modifications, from piercings to tattoos to stretched skin (ear lobes). This was the first time I learned about someone so intertwined with technology and its impact on their life. Hearing Neil speak, you could easily see his passion for the cause of cyborgism.  I don’t think there was a single person in the room that morning that wasn’t fascinated by him.

For me, he was the highlight of the conference, not only because of his uniqueness but because of his drive to intertwine technology into our lives. Some people may think it’s futuristic or too much like science fiction. To me, it’s nothing short of exciting.

To learn more about Neil, you can watch his TED talk:

You can also follow him on Twitter, or download his app (Android) to experience the sound of colour for yourself.