There were some perks to dating a cyborg.
My ex-boyfriend Josh was born mostly deaf, but had some hearing in one ear thanks to a cochlear implant (CI) — a spiral of electrodes threaded into his cochlea to stimulate the auditory nerve, bypassing damaged parts of the ear. The surgery, which is irreversible, wipes out any residual hearing in the operated ear. (It’s a major invasive procedure — fortunately a one-time thing — that puts the patient at risk of facial paralysis.) A microphone connects to a removable external processor that converts sound to digital code; the code is transmitted to the implanted mechanism by way of a magnet. When fed through the cochlea, the decoded digital information is perceived as sound.
Josh wore the external part of the CI during most of his waking hours and we got by with lip-reading and basic signing whenever he took it off. He never once complained about my snoring. If I wanted to have a private conversation with him in the room, I could just detach the magnet on the side of his head. It was also a fun party trick to announce that my boyfriend’s head could stick to the fridge.
Not everyone likes a cyborg, however. In fact, many deaf people would be offended at the suggestion that they do something so drastic to artificially augment their hearing. Last year at Gallaudet, the federally chartered university for the deaf in DC, Josh and the writer Michael Chorost co-taught a class designed to address the deaf community’s division regarding the use of cochlear implants. There’s concern that the technology will eventually render an entire language — American Sign Language — obsolete.
A majority of deaf children are born to hearing parents, many who would sooner opt for insurance-covered implants for their kids than years of sign education, audiologist visits and hearing aids, which are pricey and usually are not covered by medical insurance. Those against CI argue that sign language is categorically better than oral language, and that orally educated deaf children with CIs are missing out on gaining entrance into a rich community and culture. If the CI business “cures” all deaf people, the implications for the signing community are dire.
Gallaudet is a signing university with a vociferous pro-ASL population. In 2006, a newly appointed president was voted out of office ostensibly because she had been educated orally and didn’t learn sign until her twenties. Mike and Josh’s class looked at how other minorities have dealt with “threats” to their communities and tried to apply the lessons from those experiences to suggest ways that signing deaf people can survive the increase use of CIs.
Mike didn’t think there was that much to report — I was a little disappointed he didn’t mention cat CIs! The future, according to Mike, is technology that facilitates two-way communication. Hearing people who dream of super-human auditory abilities probably won’t be lining up to get CIs any time soon.
“The engineering is too difficult and the risks are too great,” Mike told me. He sees implantation surgery going in a more practical direction. “People might be willing to get them to facilitate new forms of communication that to us would seem like telepathy,” he said. “I don’t mean the transmission of speech; there’s no point to that, since we can do that. I’m talking about the transmission of brain states — fear, alertness, anger — and, in a certain sense, of memories.”
In short, CI technology, as crazy science-fiction-esque as it seems, is already looking like the old grandpa in the rocking chair, nodding knowingly while the pro-CI and anti-CI groups still battle on like so many Hatfields and McCoys. “The real breakthroughs in neurotech will come not from doing existing things better, but from doing entirely new things,” he said. From an outside perspective, it seems that, if the two sides were to unite and embrace implant technology, the deaf community could come out at the forefront of cyborgology. The deaf community has already been profoundly effected by neurotechnology. It’s a point of view Mike argued elegantly in a much-debated 2007 speech he gave at Gallaudet:
We are heading into a future where the technology is opening up profoundly new possibilities for communication and group awareness…Cochlear implants are the cutting edge of a field called neurotechnology—the science of developing completely new kinds of ways of interfacing with the body and the brain…Who better than the deaf community to actively seize the lead in developing communications technologies that interact directly with the nervous system? And to experiment with new social forms to explore their uses? We already have one foot—more than one foot—in that world.
Tomorrow, I may get a brain implant that will help me not repeat myself or remember where I put my keys. Or remember where I put my keys. A large part of the deaf community, however, have already ventured farther down that road than I may ever see. Or, for the matter, hear.
Anna Jane Grossman is the author of Obsolete: An Encyclopedia of Once-Common Things Passing Us By (Abrams Image) and the creator of iamobsolete.net. Her writing has appeared in dozens of publications, including the New York Times, Salon.com, the Associated Press, Elle and the Huffington Post. She has a complicated relationship with technology, but she does have an eponymous website: AnnaJane.net. Follow her on Twitter at @AnnaJane.