The future of body modification?
Cyberpunk sci-fi fetishists and scientists of questionable skill have long held that “the future of body modification” is implantable technology. Some of you may have recently seen Professor Kevin Warwick appearing alongside myself on TLC’s Skin Sculptors documentary. On that show, Professor Warwick, often falsely held up as the “first human to host a microchip” (after having a PetNet-type passive chip implanted), showcased a series of barely functioning technological parlour tricks such as clapping his hands to try and make lights turn on and off. While many scientists hold that Warwick’s experiments are meritless, amateur, and misleading, Warwick predicts that they will have enormous medical and social applications and will revolutionise the way we interface with technology.
Ultimately we are discussing the addition of gadgets such as implantable watches, identification systems, and input/output devices. I will ignore the more common “correction” of handicaps using similar technologies (cochlear implants, prosthetic devices, and so on), since I don’t believe they could reasonably be classed as voluntary body modification and seek to bring normal rather than augmented functioning.
I think most of us have entertained notions of implanting a timepiece or PDA device under our skin — just think how convenient it would be, not to mention cool! Or what if we had an ID chip so our computer would only respond to our touch, or our house would automatically turn the lights on for us as we entered. Those are just the tip of the iceberg — we can come up with “neat” gadgets indefinitely … but that’s the core problem — do we want something that’s going to be “neat” for fifteen minutes, or do we want something that will permanently enrich our lives?
We are tool using creatures; we are not walking tools. As we grow as a species, we enhance our tool set, but our core being remains relatively unchanged. As we create new tools, we discard our old ones as they no longer meet our expanding needs. We do not have that luxury with our bodies, which we discard only once, as we leave this world.
How many of you reading this are still using the computer they were using twenty years ago? The fact is, bleeding edge technology (which is what implantable technology would be) becomes obsolete very quickly and ceases to be desirable — short of removing and replacing it every three years, a human being who has chosen to augment themselves with implantable technology will quickly become an obsolete human — yesterday’s model — a fate no self-respecting futurist ever wants to face.
Let’s assume briefly that we have reached a point where technology is relatively static in terms of the device that we seek to implant. Now we have to ask the larger question: why bother? After all, these gadgets could just as easily be wearable, with projects such as Isa Gordon and Jesse Jarrell’s Psymbiote being excellent examples. What is the advantage to the device being implanted? Once implanted, we can’t upgrade it, we can’t swap it out, and we’ve done physical damage to the area, weakening our core physical form. In addition, implantation requires a power source that is containably non-toxic and can be recharged without direct contact. It would be utterly unreasonable and ill-informed to presume that an implantable power source can compete with one that is external (as has been consistently illustrated in the world of artificial organs).
As far as simpler passive identification devices, again we must ask ourselves what the advantage is. After all, it is just as easy to place the RFID chips into clothing or jewelry … But that ignores the larger issue that identification devices serve not to augment us, but to augment the technology surrounding us (that is, having an implanted ID chip makes it easier for computers to detect us, but offers no enhanced sense to us in return). In addition, as computer technology becomes more powerful, their ability to recognise us will grow. Building fingerprint identification systems into keyboards is already being done, and speech and visual identification systems become more accurate every day. The only advantage to implantable identification technology is that it is difficult to remove. So I propose that any future person with an implanted ID is either walking around with yesterday’s tech, or is a criminal that has had this unpleasant fate forced upon them.
These things are very fun to think about, and make glorious storytelling elements a la Neuromancer, but the fact is that the future of human/technology interconnection is wearable. Yes, one day in the distant future we may (and probably will) reach a point where we have a “port” — perhaps a plug on our spine that acts as a communications hub between the technological word and our wetware innards. However, that’s a long way away, and ultimately we’re just talking about a communications medium rather than a body modification. Taking it to greater extremes, these transhumanist ideals eventually lead us to the end of the human being as we replace ourselves with machines that may or may not carry on with human souls … and that’s an entirely different debate.
We will definitely have some tough questions to face regarding technology over the next fifty years as the “intelligence” of machines first meets, and then surpasses our own. It is my belief that in order to survive that difficult time in our evolution, we need to really cherish being human.
Part of what makes body modification attractive to people is first that it recognises and glorifies the human biology, and then allows us to seize control over our physical form and mold it to our desires where we can revel in a personal utopia of our own creation. A fancy piece of technology, above or below the skin, does not glorify the body. A subincision does. A stretched piercing does. A fit body from years of exercise does. Let’s face it: as megalomanically superior as it may make you feel, driving a Ferrari does not make you feel like you can run fast.
Now, genetic engineering on the other hand…