Wired Magazine – Diary of becoming an NHS-funded cyborg

This piece (Diary of becoming an NHS-funded cyborg from Wired Magazine) is a firsthand account of being a cyborg* by William Mager.  Mager was born deaf and talks about having cochlear implants surgically installed in his ears.  I’m posting this article mainly because I subscribe to the idea that anyone who owns a smartphone or drives a car (or bike, for that matter) is already a cyborg.  Something to chew on…  Tell me what you think in the comments below.  I always want to hear from you!

*Dictionary.com defines the term cyborg as “a person whose physiological functioning is aided by or dependent upon a mechanical or electronic device.”  By this definition, I would say that we are all cyborgs, but that’s a conversation for another time.


This is a guest post by William Mager, an award winning director who works for the BBC. His blog can be found at http://www.wlmager.com

The human brain has an evolutionary mandate to adapt to its surroundings. It constantly rewires itself every day in response to the sensory input it receives.

Our brain shapes the way we view the world, and the world shapes our brain.

My brain, however, is not wired for sound. I was born deaf. The audiogram below shows my right and left ears.

From the day I was born, my brain developed according to the stimuli it received. My senses of vision, touch, taste, smell were all slightly heightened in compensation for the lack of input from my ears, helping me to create a world I could understand.

My mother worked full time with me, playing a set of activities she called “the game”. I was a child, and didn’t understand the real reason for playing the game — but it taught me to read, write, lipread, and speak, if not to hear in the traditional sense of the word. What I do hear is filtered through digital hearing aids that amplify what little sound I can hear:

I also used technology to help me connect with the world. Through necessity, deaf people have always been at the forefront of technology — from the earliest ear trumpets, through to the use of transistor technology in hearing aids, and exploiting existing technologies like text messaging and video chat in different ways.

Whether fine tuning a teletext decoder to get subtitles on television, making calls to videogame mail order shops via a textphone and relay operator, or logging onto a 2000AD Bulletin Board via a BBC Micro B and 56k dialup modem — technology could crack any obstacle life might throw at me. Even today I’m using a smartphone which allows me to make video calls and relay calls, watch subtitled BBC and online streaming content, as well as send text messages, receive voicemails transcribed to text, and more.

A cyborg is someone who relies on external technological means to extend their daily life. Whether wearing glasses, sending an email, or wearing a Bluetooth earpiece — we’re all cyborgs. But the popular vision of a cyborg is that seen in movies and videogames — Robocop, the Borg in Star Trek, Universal Soldier — people who wear technology as a permanent part of their body.

A month ago, for the first time, I made the change from external technology to internal technology. I became a full time cyborg, free of charge on the NHS.

They cut away a flap of skin behind my left ear, drilled a tiny hole into my skull between the two main nerves of the face that control taste and the face, and inserted an electrode into my cochlear, connected to a small magnet and circuit board under the skin.

They’re going to switch me on in a few days — and if it’s all working as it should, my auditory cortex will be bombarded by a range of electronic noises. Over time, I may come to understand these sounds as consonants, music, even the spoken word.

This is what it will sound like, apparently.

Even if I can make sense of those sounds, it won’t be “hearing” in the normal sense of the word. My ears have had the same level of input for the last 30 years of my life — and now I’ve physically rewired one of them to receive a completely different signal.

In all the recent blue sky thinking on Wired.co.uk and elsewhere about the future of the human race — coprocessors for the brain, enhanced spectrum bionic eyes, artificial legs, even the possibility of interfacing with computers directly — people forget one thing. What it feels like, what it’s like to live with it every day, whether it makes you feel more, or less, yourself.

I’m also wary of augmentation and body enhancement becoming the norm. We have a fluid definition of what a disability is, and what isn’t. If certain people with access to this technology start engineering themselves to have greater physical or mental abilities, then where does that leave ordinary people? Differently abled? Or Disabled? Or in fact more abled? In giving up perfectly usable eyes, the end result of millions of years of evolution, to install digital eyes that can project images onto the retina, are we really putting ourselves at an advantage?

If I’d been born into a deaf family, all of us signing, my brain developing to become fluent in sign language and developing a deaf identity so strong and complete that I saw deafness as “normal” and hearing as “abnormal” — I wouldn’t have had this implant.

The cochlear implant, in crossing the line from external wearable technology to permanent fixture, becomes a technology that is potentially in conflict with human values, rather than a testament to them. Many deaf people see the cochlear implant as a symbol of medical intervention, to oppress and ultimately eradicate the deaf community and deaf culture, by fixing them one implant at a time — this includes implanting children at an early age so that they’ll be able to acquire spoken language rather than sign.

It’s a complex and emotive area, and not all deaf people may want to be “fixed” — but I do.

When all’s said and done, I’m at the beginning of a complicated journey, starting with an NHS-sanctioned implant. Wish me luck.

Video Info:

Uploaded on Jan 23, 2011

A simulation of what speech sounds like when recorded first through a hearing aid, and then through a personal FM system linked to the hearng aid. The demonstration takes place in an empty classroom while the presenter walks toward and away from the “listener” and while competing voices are played in background. To view the Captioned Version, go to our website: http://www.vcdhh.org/community-progra….

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Uploaded on Mar 21, 2011

A simulation / demonstration of what users of a cochlear implant hear, for both speech and music.

Demonstrates 1, 4, 8, 12 and 20 channel implants for speech, and 4, 8, 12 and 20 channels for music.

All audio for this video is from http://www.sens.com/helps/ — the website has additional sounds for different sentences and pieces of music, as well as video so you can see what a difference being able to lipread makes: well worth a visit.

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This article can also be found at http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2012-12/10/cochlear-implant

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