Neil Harbisson: The Catalan Cyborg Fighting for the Right to Have New Senses & the Right to Be Independent


Photo by Lars Norgaard

Interview by Karen Emslie @DamnRebelBitch

When Neil Harbisson was growing up in Barcelona his parents and doctors thought that he was severely colour blind, it wasn´t until he was 11 that they understood that he could only see in black and white.

He was diagnosed with achromatopsia and tried to adapt. He invented ingenious ways to understand colour, such as he associating their names with people he knew, but his world was greyscale; he was teased by other children and wore mismatched socks. It wasn´t until he moved to Devon to study music composition at Dartington College of Arts that he found a way to experience colour.

He heard a lecture by Adam Montandon, a cybernetics expert, and became fascinated in the possibilities that cybernetics held for altering and aiding our perception of the world. Montandon helped Harbisson create his first “eyeborg”, a device which lets him sense light waves.

“Although light waves are far too high to hear, it is possible to mathematically transpose them down until they sit within the audible wavelength, so the lowest colour in the spectrum (dark red) becomes the lowest note in the scale.”, says Montandon.

Harbission´s first eyeborg picked up colour via a miniature camera, worn in front of Harbisson´s face, then used sound conversion software to scale the colours into audible frequencies.

“The very first thing I looked at with it, outside the classroom, was a red noticeboard. It made the note F, the lowest sound on the spectrum. Red was my favourite colour for years. Now it’s aubergine because it sounds unusually high-pitched.”

Harbission has continued to develop his eyeborg, and now a chip is embedded into his skull and sound frequencies are conveyed through bone conduction, rather than through his ears, and are then amplified by his skull. Not only did this change the way Harbisson perceives colour, it changed the way he perceives himself – he became a cyborg.

“It’s not the union between the eyeborg and my head that converts me into a cyborg but the union between the software and my brain, a union that has created a new sense in my brain that allows me to perceive colour as sound.”

Now, Harbisson´s world is full of colour; he dresses in a rainbow of hues and shades and he makes art using his eyeborg – bold sound portraits of people and music. When neurologist Oliver Sacks met Harbisson in New Year last year he observed him closely with his magnifying glass then excitedly proclaimed that he was new kind of species.

Harbisson agitates for the rights of cyborgs and fought, successfully, to have his eyeborg recognised as legally part of him. He also believes that humans have the right to create new senses and body parts, an idea that many doctors and bioethics committees have been resistant against.

Resistance from the establishment is something with which Harbisson is familiar. Since he was a child growing up in Barcelona he has believed that the Catalan people have the right to be independent.  On the day of the Catalan vote last November he posted a photograph of himself on Facebook; he was casting his vote and the caption below read “One of the most exciting days of my life today, millions of Catalans voting for the independence of Catalonia.”

I spoke with Harbisson to find out more about his thoughts on Catalan independence and global pro-democracy movements – and to ask if, and how, this connects to the right to be a cyborg.

Is Catalan independence something that you have strong feelings about?

Yes, very strong feelings. We want to protect our language, we want to protect our culture and we see that the Spanish government is not doing enough, they´re not listening to the Catalan people, they´re not respecting what the Catalan people want. That´s why the vast majority of Catalans want independence.

Did your feelings developed over time, as you were growing up?

I never felt Spanish, none of my family ever felt Spanish. We’ve always been Catalan and felt Catalan. We felt no connection to Spain. But to say that you wanted independence felt radical a few years ago. Many people didn´t say it openly. Everyone I know always wanted independence but they didn´t say it out loud, they were just keeping it as something personal. But now old people and young people are all saying that want independence – that is a big change.

What do you think has brought about that change?

It´s been gradual I guess, first there was a big demonstration asking to be recognised as a nation. We have all the elements to be a nation but Spain didn´t want to recognise us. And then people start to talk more about who they were in public. The biggest change is seeing the older people say that they want independence. Young Catalans, at least most of them, really always wanted to be independent – people born in the 80s and 90s. What was really strange was to see people from the 60s, 50s and 40s say they wanted independence. That was the biggest shock.

And do you think the older generation were scared of expressing that opinion, or did they change their minds?

They came from dictatorship so they grew up being very, very repressed. They were not allowed to speak Catalan, to write Catalan or to learn it. They thought that maybe it was dangerous to say that they wanted independence. Most people just asked for more autonomy. They felt comfortable asking for more autonomy but they felt that asking for independence was too aggressive. But, it’s changed. People see that asking for independence is normal – and we have the right to choose to be independent.

Why do you think self-determination/ independence is important for a nation?

I think the world would be better if we had small countries that are united in a way. Small, independent countries – but inter dependent. One thing is being dependent, another is being interdependent, and interdependency of independent countries is the ideal.

Why do you think that are centralised bodies such as Westminster and Madrid are so resistant to the independence movement?

Well, Spain is much more against it than the UK, at least Westminster allowed the Scots to have referendum. But our government doesn’t even allow us to have a referendum so it’s like a dictatorship, it feels like we cannot decide, we cannot vote. I completely understand if Spain doesn’t want that but then they should allow us to vote. They should defend the no and we should defend the yes. That should be how it works.

What do you think is the next step for Catalonia?

We had this referendum and they didn’t allow or approve the vote so it´s going be an election I guess. Elections are legal so if the political parties that want independence unite and say that if they win they will proclaim independence – then that’s legal. In theory, if people vote for them, and they have in their agenda that they will proclaim independence, then it should be accepted.

So, you think it will be a case of actually proclaiming independence?

I guess so, because Spain will never say yes. Spain has never accepted any other country as independent. All the South American countries, they had to proclaim their independence. Spain would never, ever allow them to be independent.

You´ve referred to this a little bit already, but what differences do you see between your situation and the situation in Scotland?

I guess the response for London is different from the response for Madrid. That´s the biggest difference, we are not allowed to decide, you were allowed. And in Quebec they were allowed. That is a huge difference I think.

And in Catalonia the dictatorship is very recent and also the civil war is very recent, so we have all these old people that have experienced the civil war in Spain and that have experienced a dictatorship. It´s touching a lot of strong feelings because it was a very hard time for them. Everyone is thinking about their grandparents who died in the war or who never were able to vote and were not allowed to speak Catalan or learn Catalan. My mother wasn’t allowed to learn Catalan, she didn´t know how to write Catalan, she had to learn afterwards and my grandparents were in the war as well, so it feels quite close.

It´s within living memory?

Yes, my grandparents left Catalonia during the dictatorship and my mother grew up in Germany and after Franco died they came back. Many people just left Catalonia and some of them never came back. But, some of them did come back and now that they can vote for independence – it is extremely emotional for them.

In Scotland, I think that some of the older generation were also scared. We were subjected, unfortunately, to a lot of propaganda, to the full force of the UK establishment and the UK media. We maybe need to go through this process a little bit longer? 

Yes, I´m am quite sure that Scotland and Cataluña will be independent in the 20s.

And, the connections. Where do you think these questions in Scotland and Catalonia fit into a wider global, pro-democracy movement? How does it all fits together?

People think that having a new country would divide a country, but it’s not like this. If Catalonia was independent we would still be next to Spain and collaborating with Spain, and with other countries. It wouldn’t really change the dynamics of Europe. It just seems like the big countries are afraid of having small countries, whereas I think that Europe would work much better if we had smaller countries, because we would be conscious of what is going on in each state of Europe.

You work a lot for the rights of cyborgs, do you see any connection between that and the right for people to be independent? 

I think that in the same way that we should be allowed to choose if we want to be independent, we should also be allowed to decide if we want to have new senses or new body parts, which is something that bioethical committees and doctors are not accepting of. It is like there is some kind of very conservative Europe that is still alive now and it’s making things go very slow. There are these conservative, old-fashioned governments that think in a 19th century way and then there are also doctors and bioethical committees that think in a very old-fashioned way. It´s slowing down progress basically. There is a connection in the fact that in both fields we are not allowed to do many things.

Finally, what would be your vision of how we would live if there wasn’t this resistance?

At the moment if someone wants to have a new sense implanted in their body or a new body part they have to do it underground because it will be almost impossible to find a hospital or a doctor willing to explore this field. What´s happening at the moment is very similar to what was happening in the 1950s and 60s with sex change operations, doctors at that time said that sex change operations were not necessary and that they were unethical, and that’s exactly what they are saying now – that having a new sense or a new body part is unnecessary and unethical. I´m sure it will slowly change but it is taking time to change.

Comments (5)

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  1. Brian Fleming says:

    An interesting article. It reminds me of a visit to Jean Sibelius’ house in the countryside north of Helsinki (now a museum), where i was told Sibelius used to hear colours as music. Sounded to me like he was on a natural acid trip all the time. It’s great a way has been found to help people like Neil using an adaptation of what was natural for Sibelius.

  2. rogerevans says:

    Olivier Messiaen saw colors when he heard musical sounds. It’s a condition called synaesthesia.

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