Week 1 Summary – Thinking about cybernetics

About 12, 000 individuals in the UK (inlcuding my father) wear a cochlear implant. That’s 12,000 cyborgs to EDC students!

Upon reading The Body and Information Technology (Miller, 2011), my interest was piqued in the manner in which the ‘cyborg’ was represented. The terminology, as a result of popular culture and dystopian notions of cybernetics, has often been framed as something to fear, with the term being imbued with pejorative connotations. Citing Gray et. al’s idea that by using technology as a means to restore, normalise, enhance and reconfigure the human body, it is possible to view the notion of cyborgs through an entirely different prism. Ten years ago my father was lucky enough to receive a cochlear implant on the National Health Service after years of degeneration in his hearing. Prior to the operation his hearing had diminished to such low levels that had essentially rendered him severely deaf. The implant to restore his hearing was life-changing and this ‘normalising’ technology significantly improved the quality of my father’s life. His hearing was restored to such a level that the was able to once again hear the sound of a spoon clinking against the side of a mug, as he stirred sugar into his tea – an everyday noise that he had not heard for years. Until I read the core paper, I have never viewed my father as a ‘cyborg’ but Miller has certainly put forward a reasonable case that has helped realign my perspective on this. Imagining cyborgs as individuals who have benefited from technology to improve the quality of their lives, rather than a traditional view often put forward in science fiction, establishes a more positive framework for understanding the complex relationship between humans and machine. This was very influential in my lifestream this week, with my inaugural tweeted about cochlear implants and cybernetics from the Ear Institute.

That said, there are possible ethical concerns on the horizon with this technology – as auditory cybernetics have developed over the past decade, my father’s device has become increasingly connected to the digital world. He can now connect his cochlear to Bluetooth and is able to attune the device to his mobile phone, laptop and television. This has brought me to wonder whether, in the not-too-distant future, humans who do not suffer from acute deafness, will be choosing to voluntarily implant the technology in order to enhance their connectivity to digital environments. This of course raises a gamut of ethical concerns over the nature of voluntary augmentations on the human body. Is this something that should be prevented from happening? And if so, can it be stopped?

Miller, V. (2011) “The Body and Information Technology”, from Miller, V. Understanding Digital Culture pp. 207 – 223, London: Sage.

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