prosthetics, child-rearing, and social construction

There’s much to think and talk about in this report by Rose Eveleth on prosthetics, which makes me think about all the cool work my friend Sara Hendren is doing. But I’m going to set most of that fascinating material aside for now, and zero in on one small passage from Eveleth’s article:

More and more amputees, engineers, and prospective cyborgs are rejecting the idea that the “average” human body is a necessary blueprint for their devices. “We have this strong picture of us as human beings with two legs, two hands, and one head in the middle,” says Stefan Greiner, the founder of Cyborgs eV, a Berlin-based group of body hackers. “But there’s actually no reason that the human body has to look like as it has looked like for thousands of years.”

Well, that depends on what you mean by “reason,” I think. We should probably keep in mind that having “two legs, two hands [or arms], and one head in the middle” is not something unique to human beings, nor something that has been around for merely “thousands” of years. Bilateral symmetry — indeed, morphological symmetry in all its forms — is something pretty widely distributed throughout the evolutionary record. And there are very good adaptive “reasons” for that.

I’m not saying anything here about whether people should or should not pursue prosthetic reconstructions of their bodies. That’s not my subject. I just want to note the implication of Greiner’s statement — an implication that, if spelled out as a proposition, he might reject, but is there to be inferred: that bilateral symmetry in human bodies is a kind of cultural choice, something that we happen to have been doing “for thousands of years,” rather than something deeply ingrained in a vast evolutionary record.

You see a similar but more explicit logic in the way the philosopher Adam Swift talks about child-rearing practices: “It’s true that in the societies in which we live, biological origins do tend to form an important part of people’s identities, but that is largely a social and cultural construction. So you could imagine societies in which the parent-child relationship could go really well even without there being this biological link.” A person could say that the phenomenon of offspring being raised by their parents “is largely a social and cultural construction” only if he is grossly, astonishingly ignorant of biology — or, more likely, has somehow managed to forget everything he knows about biology because he has grown accustomed to thinking in the language of an exceptionally simplistic and naïve form of social constructionism.

N.B.: I am not arguing for or against changing child-rearing practices. I am exploring how and why people simply forget that human beings are animals, are biological organisms on a planet with a multitude of other biological organisms with which they share many structural and behavioral features because they also share a long common history. (I might also say that they share a creaturely status by virtue of a common Maker, but that’s not a necessary hypothesis at the moment.) In my judgment, such forgetting does not happen because people have been steeped in social constructionist arguments; those are, rather, just tools ready to hand. There is a deeper and more powerful and (I think) more pernicious ideology at work, which has two components.

Component one: that we are living in a administrative regime built on technocratic rationality whose Prime Directive is, unlike the one in the Star Trek universe, one of empowerment rather than restraint. I call it the Oppenheimer Principle, because when the physicist Robert Oppenheimer was having his security clearance re-examined during the McCarthy era, he commented, in response to a question about his motives, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.” Social constructionism does not generate this Prime Directive, but it can occasionally be used — in, as I have said, a naïve and simplistic form — to provide ex post facto justifications of following that principle. We change bodies and restructure child-rearing practices not because all such phenomena are socially constructed but because we can — because it’s “technically sweet.”

My use of the word “we” in that last sentence leads to component two of the ideology under scrutiny here: Those who look forward to a future of increasing technological manipulation of human beings, and of other biological organisms, always imagine themselves as the Controllers, not the controlled; they always identify with the position of power. And so they forget evolutionary history, they forget biology, they forget the disasters that can come from following the Oppenheimer Principle — they forget everything that might serve to remind them of constraints on the power they have … or fondly imagine they have.

technology as prosthesis

As I said I would, I’ve been thinking more about Sara Hendren’s recent essay on assistive technology, and her claim that “all technology is assistive technology.” The key variable is what we’re trying to assist.

These thoughts are consonant with the view articulated by Marshall McLuhan in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, in which he explicitly speaks of technology in prosthetic terms, though he doesn’t, as far as I can discover, use the terms “prosthetic” or “prosthesis.” He writes, “Any extension, whether of skin, hand, or foot, affects the whole psychic and social complex,” and his goal in Understanding Media, is to explore these effects.

McLuhan sees all technology in these terms, not just electronic ones. Riffing on W. H. Auden’s identification of the 20th century as The Age of Anxiety, he writes,

If the nineteenth century was the age of the editorial chair, ours is the century of the psychiatrist’s couch. As extension of man the chair is a specialist ablation of the posterior, a sort of ablative absolute of backside, whereas the couch extends the integral being. The psychiatrist employs the couch, since it removes the temptation to express private points of view and obviates the need to rationalize events.

Like so much of what McLuhan writes, this is simultaneously ludicrous — the “ablative absolute of backside”? — and provocative. But all I want to note at this point, and in this post, is that McLuhan’s description of our movement from the “mechanical age” to the “electronic age” is somewhat misleading, because it is increasingly obvious that electronic technologies do not obviate mechanical ones but enhance and supplement them. They are extensions of extensions, as the varying phenomena that go under the label internet of things indicate. People like Hugh Herr — about whom Sara Hendren has written here — are exploring technologies that establish an intersection of the mechanical, the electronic, and the biological: Herr calls this field biomechatronics.

I have no conclusions here — I don’t know enough to draw conclusions — but I know that I am especially interested in how these convergences will affect our technologies of knowledge. More about that in future posts.