> technology : path of penetration

inventions that can save lives tomorrow, like vaccines, are distributed as rapidly as possible (at least to the western world). however for most other technologies, even medical devices, there is a more gradual pattern of emergence, and this distribution mirrors our priorities.

retinal implants
electrodin' i first of retinal implants at a technology conference, Sime 97, where i heard Professor Gerald Q. "Chip" Maguire Jr. speak of computer chips implanted in our skulls. human trials were to begin in the next year, with blind people receiving visual/monitor cranial implants.

it's an indefiable logic - people without sight could again see, why refuse that scientific advance? it puts our good doctor near par with the living son of god.

but note how this technological advance provides a fix, a patch for the problem (sight through a machine) but not a fix of the root situation,

"Earlier efforts to restore the sight of the blind focused on the brain's visual cortex. Researchers at the National Institutes of Health tested volunteers by stimulating the brain with a similar microelectrode array with similar functional vision results. Unfortunately, this technique requires brain surgery.

"The risks to operating on a blind eye are considerably less than operating on a functional brain," said [Mark] Humayun [assistant professor of opthamology at the Wilmer Eye Institute at Johns Hopkins University]."

- Kristi Coale, "Sight for Poor Eyes: Hard-Wiring the Retina," Wired News

the prospect of brain surgery is daunting, so instead of correcting the problem at the source prosthesis is provided. the prosthetic extension solves a problem as long as it is present, so as the tool expands our range of motion it creates dependence.

Marshall Sahlins, in his book Stone Age Economics, examines humanity when technology was less embedded - before agriculture. tools then, he argues, were simpler and accordingly afforded more human control:

"Typically, the instrument is an artificial extension of the person, not simply designed for individual use, but as an attachment that increases the body's mechanical advantage (for example, a bow-drill or a spear thrower), or performs final operations (for example, cutting, digging) for which the body is not naturally well equipped. The tool thus delivers human energy and skill more than energy and skill of its own. But the latest technology would invert this relationship between man and tool. It becomes debatable which is the tool."
- Marshall Sahlins, Stone Age Economics, page 80

we have moved beyond facilitating "operations ... for which the body is not naturally well equipped" and work now to augment or repair intrinsive human functions. this is where the lines between machine and man blur some. those with physical limitations, the blind, might be rightfully declared dependent in the realm of physical attributes (would Tiresias have accepted retinal prosthesis?) - depending on their daughters, dogs or devices to move about. but retinal implants up the ante - grafting technology into the body in an irrevocable merging of machine and flesh. it promises to make a blind person a single mobile unit, by internalizing their tools.

after the handicapped get it, then next comes the folks who need the advance for their work. ie, those who can subsidize/justify it within the confines of production. in the case of the visual chip, information workers who process endless databases could access them far faster with far less manual labour required, or members of the military subsidized by a government interested in the faster firing of patriot missiles.

then the rich, who can afford to be on the cutting edge for that touch of zip added to life, then the middle class who aspire to have those things, and then, well, the technology's just about everywhere.

that point at which technology intended to resolve affliction or just serve a specific purpose becomes popularly accessible is both exciting and frightening. exciting because human beings continue to innovate and invent new uses for new inventions! redux - diet pill spinning! and frightening because occasionally these new uses of technologies intended for specific assistance can be disastrous; in the case of diet pills, healthy people trying to lose some pounds were injured by drugs intended for the seriously obese.

as more people who don't need them come to depend on prosthetic technologies devised for more specific uses, the number of devices with broadly social functions increases, and the more we become technologically determined.

that said, who, or what was the laptop computer invented for? little white boys in the back of greyhound buses? the social contexts invent the uses of these computers, and the social context is all at once static, utopian and determined! oh, my heart!

(note: what i call here "technology penetration" is often referred to as "diffusion of innovation" with inventors, early adaptors, middle adaptors, etc.)

index | biblio