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Monday, February 8, 2010

Bionic Me

The other day my back doctor told me I should be using braces on my feet; the pain in my knees I was complaining about was because my gait was bad, and the knees were being stressed in ways they aren't accustomed to.  This was actually good news: I had been afraid that several decades of jogging before the nerve compression that caused the gait problem had wrecked my knees.  Needing braces isn't a new thing for me; I've got one for my right foot that I got before my back surgery last year, so I only need to get one made for my left foot.

But the doctor's prescription started me thinking about how many orthotics, prostthetics, enhancements, and replacement parts we get as we get older.  I'm in my early 60s, and I've already got plastic lenses in both eyes and powerful signal-processing hearing aids in both ears.  And most days I paste electrodes to my back and plug them into an electrical stimulator that I hang on my belt; it's called a TENS (Transcutaneous Electrical Neural Stimulator) unit, and its job is to block the pain in my legs that actually comes from the nerves that were compressed.  Part of that back surgery was a spinal fusion; if I'd had that 10 years ago when the doctors first suggested it, I'd have a titanium rod in my spine, with stainless steel screws to hold it in place.  But in the 9 years I waited, the state of the art in spinal fusion advanced to using bone grafts instead of hardware; result: I can go through a metal detector without it freaking out.

I may not even be near average in the replacement sweepstakes: I know several people not much older than me who have had both knees and both hips replaced with metal parts.  And as we grow older, not only does our need for replacements grow, so does medical science's ability to provide them.  I fully expect that by the time I need to replace my hearing aids (5 to 10 years from now, I hope), implants much more advanced than the cochlear implants available today will be able to restore hearing to many people who get by with hearing aids that barely do the job.

So where does it stop?  How much can you replace before you're not a biological homo sapiens any more, but some sort of homo ex machina?  My own opinion is that there may not be any change that retains the ability to think and speak and empathize with others that can take away humanity.  It's worth thinking, though,  about the cautionary tales that have been written about the subject.  The best and most thought-provoking I can think of are the "Moderan" stories of David Bunch.  Bunch wasn't telling simple horror stories out of a Luddite abhorrence of technology.  The people he described used the techology to express some of the ideals of the period of the 1960s and '70s; ideals like conforming to the expectations of others even in private matters,  competing with everyone else for your place in society, and considering the acquisition of wealth and power the most imprtant goal in life.  Of course our modern society finds these ideals abhorrent: no one would think them appropropriate today.  Oh, wait...

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