I, Cyborg?

I was listening to PRI’s “The World” this evening and there was a story called “Engineering Extra Senses” that both creeped me out and added all kinds of thoughts to the ol’ writing fodder files.

source (re-sized here)

Here. Go check it out for yourself.

Professor of cybernetics Kevin Warwick is fascinated with the merging of human and technology, which’ll open all kinds of different sensory realms for human beings.

“The only future I can see,” says [Warwick] at the University of Reading, England, “is one where there are perhaps humans as we know them today, but we also have the cyborg entity – the part human, part machine, with all different varieties.”

The story also brought in a couple of students who have had magnets implanted under the skin of their fingertips, which, they say, allows them to sense magnetic fields — something that people can’t normally do. Warwick notes that some technology implanted in the body could allow, say, blind people to sense their surroundings through ultrasonic means, like how bats are able to determine what’s around them. Another point of discussion in the piece was computer chips implanted in your body that interact with your neurons. Once you have this implant, then you can hook yourself up to all kinds of external devices (like ultrasonic enablers).

This story on “The World” made me think about those shows from the 1970s — The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman, where people were put back together after really heinous accidents with parts that made them enhanced, so they could run super-fast, lift really heavy objects, and either see or hear with enhanced capabilities. Those shows, in all their 1970s glory, nevertheless made me think about the possibilities of a human/machine merger and how it could help someone after an accident, or people wounded in combat (whether civilian or military), or who were born without limbs or limb capability.

The cool side of cybernetics.

And then came Terminator just a few years after those 2 TV series. The bad side of machines. And, in the case of the actual terminator, the merging of man and machine.


The dark side of cybernetics.

Okay. I know people have been modifying their bodies since. . .well, since always. Here are some extreme examples of those modifications, in case you wanted to see. They do so for a variety of reasons (some maybe not, shall we say, healthy), and in a variety of ways. But having a spike implanted beneath the skin of your scalp is a bit different than a chip in your body somewhere interacting with your neurons. And it’s a bit different than said implants allowing you to experience your world in completely different ways than with the oh, so common five senses.

Invariably, I think about how cybernetics could help us as a species, but I also wonder how the technology could harm us, too. And I think about the predictable corporate battles for the technology, and how the very wealthy will monopolize it (at least at first), creating an elite super-class while the rest of us drudges slog along with our ol’ skool prostheses (like pirates with wooden legs or something) and we’ll be left behind in the brave new world, settling for jury-rigged black market implants done by creepy dudes in back alley tech stores.

It’s not that I sit around with my curmudgeonly Luddite opinions. Not always, anyway. It’s just that whenever people start playing god with technological innovation or biological experimentation, usually somebody gets screwed in some way. Like, say, this example. Or this one. Oh, and this one. Or, hell, this one.

So who’s going to make the decisions about this technology and who it’ll be available to? Who controls it? Who gets to benefit from it? And how or why? (see creepy black market example above)

Sometimes I think we get all wrapped up in the “OOO! SHINY!” aspects of technological innovation and we don’t really think through the sociopolitical context in which it’s developed and tested.

Which, of course, makes for a hell of a platform for writing spec fic or cyberpunk, yes? So have at:

PBS NOVA special on the future, including cybernetics

Pros and cons (article from The Guardian UK)

TED talk with cyborg anthropologist (I am so not making that up) Amber Case, who studies the symbiotic relationships between people and technology

Discover Magazine’s “Rise of the Cyborgs” (2008)

In case you missed it above, Kevin Warwick’s site.

And Wikipedia’s Cyborgs in Fiction entry

Another cyborgs in fiction page over at Princeton University

That might get you started and thinking about your next sci fi novel. And feel free to leave the titles of works that feature your fave cyborgs in fiction in the comments, if you’re so moved. 😀

Happy reading, happy writing!

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