Total Drek

Or, the thoughts of several frustrated intellectuals on Sociology, Gaming, Science, Politics, Science Fiction, Religion, and whatever the hell else strikes their fancy. There is absolutely no reason why you should read this blog. None. Seriously. Go hit your back button. It's up in the upper left-hand corner of your browser... it says "Back." Don't say we didn't warn you.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Crutches and Stilts.

Assuming you haven't been living under a rock or perhaps in an elaborate tree fort, you are doubtless aware of the new television program debuting in a few weeks: Bionic Woman. This program appears to be a remake of the "classic" show from the seventies, The Bionic Woman, which somehow made science fiction writers everywhere cry blood. In any case, given my love of sci-fi,* I'm looking forward to this show and hoping that it will prove to be good. And if good is out of the question, maybe amusingly funny.

For those who aren't as versed in sci-fi as I am, the term bionics technically refers to the use of nature to inform engineering. So, any time a technology adapts something from the natural world, it's bionics. Colloquially, however, the term is most often used to mean mechanical or electronic devices that are grafted onto the human body. So, it's safe to say that we're talking about something akin to prosthetics. In this sense, bionics have been in use for a long time and are only getting more sophisticated. This is particularly true, I am sorry to say, because of the Iraq war- we now have a glut of folks who are missing various limbs and are willing to be test subjects for new prosthetic devices. The television program the "Bionic Woman" uses this meaning of bionics- its protaganist was nearly killed in an accident and is saved through the use of experimental bionics. The thing is, the show isn't really the heart warming story of a woman who triumphs over adversity. Instead, her bionics give her superhuman abilities- amazing strength, amazing speed, acute eyesight and hearing, and so on. In essence the bionic woman becomes something more than human.

It's an interesting idea and I hope they do it well. Most mass media involving bionics of this sort tends to forget things- like the need for limbs to connect to something. So, for example, even if your legs are mechanical and can do zero to sixty in 1.5 seconds, unless they're anchored to equally bionic hips and spine, the rest of your body won't be going with them. Likewise, a bionic arm won't really be able to deliver a steel-shattering punch unless the shoulders, back, hips, and legs are also similarly artificial. The power of the blow doesn't actually come from the arm, but rather from a whole series of muscles that work together. Without that, a punch from a bionic arm is roughly akin to using brass knuckles: it'll hurt, but only so much. Still, we can at least hope that the show pays attention to these sorts of very interesting physical requirements and limitations.

Thinking about this television show, however, also brings us to an interesting habit of humans everywhere: the adaptation of "prosthetic" devices for purposes of enhancement. Think about it for a moment: a lot of the research into prosthetics is intended to restore functionality to the injured, but in the popular imagination this same technology could be used to give someone extraordinary abilities. This raises the question: if we could really restore people to superior levels of mobility and sensitivity, might people employ these technologies to enhance their existing bodies? Might we not replace perfectly functional original components with "new and improved" bionic ones? My guess is that we would, and the popularity of plastic surgery is an argument in my favor. We may have developed surgical techniques to save lives, but thanks to that investment we can now shrink your stomach, enlarge your breasts, and reshape your face. Why would bionics be any different? Consider as well developments in prosthetic eyes. It may be possible, and fairly soon at that, to restore vision to those who have lost it. The data from video cameras implanted in the eye socket can now be fed directly into the visual cortex, restoring something akin to normal vision. As this technology develops, what is to stop us from enhancing normal individuals such that they can feed the video stream from their television or computer directly into their brains? Who needs a monitor when you have a direct hook-up to the visual cortex?

The reality is that as prosthetic technology evolves, so too will the nature of many humans. I can easily see the day when we will implant computers and cellphones, using readouts to our visual stream, to our auditory nerves, and inputs from our fingers, our larynx, or even our thoughts themselves to exert control. What happens when we begin to link ourselves to computers? When we can access our own computers- day or night- from wireless hardware implanted in our bodies and accessible using our brains? It's easy to see why Ray Kurzweil thinks that, someday, humans will be as much or more electronic and machine-based as biologic.

And this, oddly enough, takes us to Plain(s)feminist's recent assertion that powerpoint is a crutch.** Doubtless what she means is that folks think that powerpoint will allow them to get away with a crappy presentation and a poor speaking style- and doubtless she's right. I agree that powerpoint can be, and is, used to shore up an otherwise lousy effort. Much the same thing, however, could be said about calculators: there are so many calculators around now, nobody does math by hand anymore! Likewise, perhaps penmanship is suffering because of the ubiquity of word processors.*** That said, there's an awful lot that we can do with calculators and word processors that we couldn't do otherwise. Folks out there who use Monte Carlo procedures or other iterative techniques in their work, for example, know what I'm talking about. So, the introduction of these technologies has yielded a net gain even if some loss is also experienced. Does this excuse lousy presenters who use powerpoint to cover for their laziness? No, it certainly doesn't, but the presence of losers doesn't mean that we should sacrifice the potential benefits.

Sometimes the difference between a crutch and a stilt is just the perspective from which you view it.

* Seriously, people, I watched Jake 2.0 for crying out loud.

** Somebody really needs to give me props for a change of subject of that magnitude. From post-humanism to powerpoint in one sentence.

*** Those who know me are aware that my own handwriting is simply awful, so this probably refers to me as much as anyone.

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Blogger Brad Wright said...

Interesting idea about enhancement... people use surgery to enhance everything else, why not with "bionics".

I read an article about disabled runners using different length prosthetic to go faster, and the debates it was causing.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007 5:37:00 PM  
Blogger TDEC said...

Great post. The bionics/prosthetics image of the future you project scares me, but I do think that it is realistic. It is hard to separate the valid concerns from the fear of change.

That said, sci-fi is cool; and Ray Kurzweil is really cool (and a good speaker without Powerpoint). Anybody who's a decent speaker should be capable of interesting an audience without visual aids - the core skills you need are not impacted at all by Powerpoint, which is a great tool.

Thursday, August 23, 2007 7:24:00 AM  

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