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When Gadgets Get under Your Skin

My interface… myself?
May 18, 2012

New Scientist’s Jim Giles calls attention to this freaky fact: that in the future–the rather near future–our interfaces with our gadgets may be our own bodies. “Left your phone at home again?” he writes. “A solution is at hand: make sure it is with you at all times by having it implanted in your arm.” That’s certainly a way of having a solution at hand, so to speak.

This is pretty much no longer the realm of science fiction, according to researchers at the Canadian software company Autodesk. The team embedded, somewhat grimly, a button, LED, and touch sensor in a cadaver’s arm. Each element worked just fine when under the skin–Bluetooth connection and wireless charging even worked through the skin.

MIT’s Sherry Turkle weighed in on this, noting that “in general, the trend has been that people are more and more willing to incorporate bits of the machine world into themselves.” After all, to a certain extent, cyborgs are already among us–think of your uncle’s pacemaker. But there’s obviously a difference between elective, versus life-saving, implantation of technology. Where, if anywhere, do we draw the line?

Turkle’s most startling comment to New Scientist is that in some ways, people already behave as though they were cyborgs, as though their smart phones were essentially semi-externalized parts of themselves, like the daemons in The Golden Compass. “People literally cannot be without this device,” Turkle said. “They don’t feel the same when they are not connected. We live with our phones as if they are part of our body.”

Turkle’s ambivalence about technology is about as well thought out as anyone’s–her book Alone Together is a good place to start, if you’re troubled by our incipient cyborgism. Last year, she told me in an interview that while the iPhone was “a precious technology,” it needed to be “used in accordance with your social, professional, and personal values.” For me, my personal values probably prevent me from implanting the thing inside my forearm.

While certain benefits come with implanting a gadget–it makes it tougher to lose, obviously–there are naturally risks involved: the possibility of infection, for instance. But personally, my mind rejects the idea of an implanted smart phone more than I suspect my body would. Setting aside all the concerns about infection, lack of privacy, and the like, I simply want–I think most people simply want–the option to not be connected, now and again. I have said before that one of the most important applications of the last few years has been the Internet-disabling Freedom. That Freedom can’t be used on smart phones is oppressive enough. The notion of a life in which we literally can’t be free of our phones, because they’re embedded in us? I think at that point, we begin to lose sight of what it means to be human–not because subcutaneous technology would make us inherently robotic, but rather because it would spell an end to all restorative, contemplative, unconnected silence.

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