Loving the cyborgPosted on: 20 May 2011 by Alexander Hay
New advances in medical technology should be welcomed, not feared
Science fiction can be remarkably conservative, in a sort of dour, pessimistic and petty way. Take the long, acrimonious relationship it has with the cyborg, that fusion of the organic and mechanical.
Fictional cyborgs are much maligned. They're either monsters or tragic characters, a sort of notice board on which luddites and technophobes hang up their anxieties and contempt for progress and human agency.
Or they are a large, clumsy metaphor for fears about the future of the human condition, where we lose our humanity and become 'other'. There is something deeply misanthropic about this.
It also makes no sense. We already are cyborgs, in a way, using artificial means to control our environment, our bodies and how we exchange information. You are reading electronically augmented text right now, and by clicking on one of the links below, you are able to access and share information in a way a non-electronic human could never achieve. And yet, we still fear the cyborg, simply because we need monsters to be afraid of and we're too hypocritical to admit our dependence on technology.
Reality, however, reads no script but its own. A once disabled American man can now walk, thanks to an implant which reawakens spinal activity with electrical stimulus. He hasn't yet gone beserk or tried to take over the world or lamented the loss of his wheelchair. It seems he actually likes being able to walk again.
Then there are the two Austrian men who elected to have their useless, damaged hands amputated and replaced with prosthetics that are controlled via their nervous systems. Does technophobia mean we should fear body parts being replaced?
The truth is that having a working mechanical hand is better than a natural hand that doesn't work. There is no loss of humanity, but instead these men are able to have working limbs again.
Meanwhile, thought-controlled wheelchairs and even artificial limbs with a sense of touch are being developed. So too are retinal implants that help the blind to see. Far from being a frightening development, the cyborg is in fact a benign force, transforming the lives of those otherwise marginalised by being 'the other' already. Elsewhere, a 'cyborg advocate' named Neil Harbisson wears a device that uses sound to represent colours he is otherwise colour-blind to.
There are ethical concerns. Bionics may improve the lives of many disabled people, but those who want to remain fully 'natural' or who can't benefit may find themselves alienated or stigmatised, now for 'choosing' to be disabled.
The gains in acceptance and tolerance that disability campaigners have struggled for years to gain may simply be tossed aside - after all, if you can make a leg amputee walk again, why waste time with wheelchair ramps or subtitles when some deaf people can get their hearing back via an implant?
As the current obsession with obesity and sexualisation shows, our society treats the body as a battlefield, a way of separating 'them and us'. If bionics become a way of policing the body then their benefits may well be undermined.
But there is nothing inherently corrupting about these prosthetics and implants. If they have a purpose, it is because we choose to give them one. Considering the many potential benefits, cyborgs may well be anything but monstrous.
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