Since one of our topics at Reality Augmented is cyborganic experience, I thought I would reflect on my life as a cyborg in the context of another formative article on the subject. In the halcyon 90’s, Gareth Branwyn wrote about his hip replacement surgery and his entering the cyborg ranks. I paraphrase his original reflection in ArtByte, that talking about being a cyborg is cool until you feel the bone saw. This reminds me of the agony of Captain Picard as he was assimilated into the Borg Collective in Star Trek: The Next Generation, and the improbably unpainful removal of his implants and nanite nanobots in his bloodstream.
We’re nowhere near the sophisticated Trek level of technology yet, but we are cyborgs, and the reason I am writing this is that yesterday I had a lens upgrade in my eye; it’s online and functioning at nearly 20/40 within 36 hours of placement in the Anterior Chamber. It was a replacement of a Posterior Chamber lens that had gotten sutures knocked out of place while jetskiing (we cyborgs are still delicate creatures). They popped out the old one, went up front, and popped in the new one, while zapping a retinal angioma on the fly. The comparison with this is that the surgery was not as easy 12 years ago when I had both of my lenses replaced (only with Bausch & Lomb, not those spiffy Tally Isham Carl Zeiss ones). The Cleveland Clinic (no, I didn’t go to Chiba) popped them right in and considering I have had juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, and just about any other eye malady known to science, the fact that the first ones went in without a hitch is near-miraculous. I feel like the movement towards the cyborganism apart from the insinuation of pervasive computing is on a fast march, and I bet that Gareth would have had a much better time of it now, and considering that hips last 10-20 years, I hope this will be the case.
I learned that our stalwart Jon Lebkowsky had the same sort of thing done a year ago, but not quite as easily. It causes me to wonder that, as I talk to my friends from the era of happy cyborgs and cyberdelia where I started getting involved in all of this marvelous madness, so many of us have augments of one form or another. Is this medicine, or is it a mark of our clade? Does habitual computer use send one down to bodily augmentation a la Bruce Sterling’s Machinists from his Schismatrix Trilogy? It makes me wonder if his alternate dream of genetically-reengineered Shapers is a little behind… Could I have had a new lens grown and fused, allowing me to retain the ability to focus my eye? That seems to be possible, but it seems further away than my being able to print out a lens on my Makerbot and go down to the hackerspace and get it installed. I know that’s a furtive little rant, but it seems more likely than getting my hands on a Mr. Tissue bioreactor from my buddy Oron Catts at Symbiotica in Perth and popping out a wriggling little lens for reinsertion.
From my experience this week, I seem to come away with two nuggets of information- I feel like the Mechanists/Cyborganists are a few steps ahead of the Shapers, and the former are getting really slick at replacement of some of the parts. However, when I hear of stem cell research and repair of dog spinal injuries using olfactory cells, I begin to wonder how long it’ll be until the Shapers catch up. The problem is that you still can’t climb into an Autodoc (a la Prometheus) and get this done at home; maybe this will be Bre Pettis’ next project after the Makerbots, but I can only hope. By that time, I’ll probably be a brain in a bathtub somewhere sucking nutrients up my medulla oblongata, and dealing with the frustrations of getting Slimeforge software to run right on my tissue replicatior. Which brings me to the next point.
Secondly, a lot of the cyborganic work seems to be done on the mechanicals and the peripherals. Lens, retinal, and cochlear implants are giving us “better than nothing” results, but it seems that either mechanical or grown upgrades to failing organs, including skin and nerve tissue are still a ways off. Moravec’s upload scenario is lost in the simple fact that brains aren’t binary Van Neumann architecture, and if we were to upload, research is suggesting that our identity and sense of cognitive cohesion is bound to our embodiment, which means if we did get an upload to work, we’d go stark raving mad because we can’t scratch our noses. All these are flies in the ointment of our dreams from the 60’s to the 90’s.
But for now, it seems that – at least at the high end of the medical chain – maintenance is getting easier for us Mechanist-style Borgs. And as I mentioned, I wonder whether we are in Doug Engelbart’s scenario of being in a co-evolution with technology, as use of pervasive media seems to lead to insinuation of technology into the body. But even if that is the case, it seems to be getting easier, to the point where I wonder whether there will be a convergence of Mech-anism with my old age/brain-in-a-bathtub days. It gives me less dread about my cyborg status. Maybe Kurzweil’s right. Maybe technology is going to turn us into shaped, Borged ur-creatures.
I just got a dose of that, and man, it’s fascinating.