Rebuilt: Cyborgs or Robots or Bionic Ears, but not Jerry Falwell

The book Rebuilt, by Michae Chorost, and the documentary Sound and Fury, by Josh Aronson, here re-considered. (This is a Bookshelf #1 revisitation and expansion.) ((No reason for mentioning Jerry Falwell, by the way. That was a typo.))

I finished Rebuilt, about cochlear implants and technology-society relationships and deaf culture and the Bionic Man and cyborg philosophy. Here are some tidbits.

Rebuilt is about cochlear implants. They put a thing in your head, behind your ear. You can then hear. Or have sounds transmitted to your brain, through the device. "You can then hear." Some people would put quotes on that. That's either the same thing as hearing--putting a thing in your head and then having sound processed to your brain--something different, or something partially both. Michael Chorost lost his hearing at 10:30 am one day, when his hearing aids no longer worked. He had always been hearing impaired, but then lost all hearing ability whatsoever. This book is about his experience dealing with the ideas and practices of technological solutions to medical problems. Which is a poor way to summarize it. The book is about his experience dealing with the ideas and practices of relationships between culture and technological artifacts, between human capacity and human-augmented ability, between nature and culture. And so on.


There's a tidy convergence here that I should've said first:
I was preparing my summer syllabus for a course on technology, culture, and progress (STS 401, if you really want to know), deciding when I should have students watch a documentary called Sound and Fury. That documentary is huge. My wife and I watched it a few years ago, and one of my colleagues in the department here had used it in her class, as an example of technology and ethics in cultural context. It works for that purpose because the issue at hand in the documentary is: should the deaf parents of a deaf daughter get her a cochlear implant? The story is thicker: the deaf father also has a twin brother, who is not deaf. That non-deaf twin brother also has a child who was born deaf. That twin brother and is wife (whose parents, remarkably, are also deaf!), are planning to get the implant for their deaf child. The debate is thus a family one (parents, grandparents, siblings, children, all intermixed in the discussion), a cultural one (deaf culture, haring culture, medical culture, American culture of the early 21st century), and technological one (medical possibility, computer advances in software to process sound, computing hardware that makes the software feasible, the architecture of the device and the connections to nerves and brains, and surgical skill). You see? There's a lot there.

And the point about ethics, for the class on technology, culture, and progress is that the questions are not so simply asked, simply answered, or simply analyzed. It cannot be a good/bad division, or a better/worse one. Nobody is bad or good here. Everyone has faults, and everyone has a legitimate contribution to the argument. And yet, that doesn't mean there are no answers. It just means that the answers for what to do, why to do it, and so forth, had to be addressed by reference to the family-community-medical-cultural-technological setting. They couldn't be analyzed in some disengaged, disembodied manner. So that was all that. That's why I wanted to film in the class. And I was sitting at my kitchen table, typing on this very laptop, trying to pick the best time in the rapid-fire summer syllabus to have them watch and then discuss it.

That was preface.

In the mail, a package arrived. I hadn't ordered a book and so didn't know what it was. I opened it to find Rebuilt, by Michael Chorost. It was accompanied by a note from someone at the Seed Media Group (not Katherine, though, who was the only one I knew there at the time, way back last month). As a new member of their media empire, I was on the mailing list, and they thought I'd like the extra copy of this book that they'd been sent. We hadn't yet started blogging, but the perks were rolling in. (Here's a follow-up: that's the only perk so far, in retrospect.) And what a coincidence of events. The book, the film, the subject, the syllabus, all on the kitchen table, serendipitously (or by design?).

And that brought the book to me. And I mentioned it to Wyatt, my friend in New York, who has an interest in such issues, since he's also an STS scholar and also since his father's hearing impaired. Wyatt then found the book, read it, and told me it was a good example of making a lot of theoretical points about science-technology-society issues accessible. Donna Haraway, for example, famously opaque in her writing, impenetrable (another friend, Mark, once claimed he thought she did it on purpose, though I disagree - yeah, you Russell) comes across in a way that made you understand her famous Cyborg Manifesto from the '80s. And other stuff too. But that's the main example.

So, now I read it too. And it was good. Although it did have that arc that I'm all too familiar with, of books that are either academically based or striving not to be, but still tied in that direction: it was solid for the first third, had me tired by the middle third, and then picked it up again by the end. Unlike fictional or just strictly non-academic work, which has the chance to grab you right off and pull you zipping all the way top the top, at the end - like Sean Wilsey's Oh the Glory of it All, which I can go on about for pages, if I get the chance, since I just finished that too and am stumped by how effective it was, how I could be pulled cliché-like through the near-500 page memoir in about 3 days, how the blurb on the back that played up the "truth is stranger than fiction" angle was so dead on that it pissed me off, how I actually was forced to say, out loud, with no irony at all, that "I couldn't put the book down," so a book like that has a different arc - and Chorost's isn't an academic book, so I don't mean to cast it that way, but my point is that I found it feeling like something I'd read for class, or research. Which it was, so there you go.

But now I'll seemingly backtrack to say that I enjoyed the writing, I enjoyed the story, I appreciated the points he made about the difference between a robot and a cyborg, about his love for computing technology but respect for its place as part of a larger worldview, not as the worldview itself, about the real ways in which humans perceive the values of technologies, and about how we define progress by reference to science and technology.

Basically, you get a fine narrative about a guy who's view of the world is mediated by a new device, but who comes to understand something more about human experience and cultural identity in our highly technologically mediated world.

And he talks a lot about Steve Austin, the bionic man.
And he doesn't seem to have the most stable love life.
But he talks about that a lot too.
And he's got a good read on the Terminator flicks.

Are cochlear implants progress?
If so, how do you mean?


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And it all seems to come back to that ever so big word "perspective." In that, each and every viewpoint contributes to a collective haze of an answer. I wish everyone would think like that. Also, I couldn't help but ponder how the dynamic would change if Jerry Falwell was one of the twin brothers.