Web Roundups

Web Roundup: Prosthetics in Public

Last month Melanie Boeckmann gathered links from around the web dealing with multiple publics—the public image of anthropology, the availability of content to the public, and the place of private behavior in public, just to name a few topics.  Melanie’s interest in public leads the way for this month’s web roundup, where I ask: what ideas (and imaginaries) about future bodies circulate publicly? Specifically, several new pieces on cutting edge assistive technology offer the image of a future body that is at once aesthetically familiar and technically advanced. George Dvorsky of iO9 returns from the Global Future 2045 Congress in New York City to recount the overwhelming interest in RSLSteeper’s latest artificial hand.  “This is what it’s like to shake hands with the future” follows “Nigel Ackland, the recipient of the Bebionic 3 artificial hand—the world’s most advanced cybernetic limb” and the crowds that lined up to see all that Ackland-as-cyborg can do.

Also receiving continued coverage is British teen Patrick Kane, who uses Touch Bionics’ i-Limb Ultra, a prosthetic hand controlled by a smartphone app via Bluetooth technology.  Niqui Stubbs at Assistive Technology Blog includes Kane in a brief post on a few new ATs controlled via smartphone—but what are the ramifications of a prosthetic with a prohibitive cost (between $46,000-$123,000) but a low priced or free iPhone app?  Is there a promotional aspect to making the i-Limb app free in the Apple app store?  Are we staring down the possibility of open source bodies? Are there possibilities to reverse engineer at least some of the technology in order to make it more affordable for other users?  At Forbes, Merrill Matthews suggests that “the public seems supportive [of high prices for new limbs], both because there is a “cool factor” involved with robotic technology and because everyone, including the medical community, wants to support wounded vets.”  “Medical Miracles Aren’t Cheap” rightly asserts that most new and exorbitantly expensive limbs go first to “our wounded warriors,” but that patients like Kane are caught up in these trials too.  These are assistive dramas partially played out in public forums, a potential explanation for why the i-Limb is the subject of so much mainstream coverage.

Mark Honigsbaum’s article in The Observer quotes director of the Creative Futures Institute Andy Miah as saying, “The human enhancement market will reveal the truth about our biological conditions—we are all disabled.  This is why human enhancements are here to stay and likely to become more popular.”  That particular idea really irked me!  Luckily, the article, focusing on i-Limb user and Channel 4’s Bionic Man Bertolt Meyer while also name checking Oscar Pistorius, and Lance Armstrong, generally provides some resistance to Miah’s statement.  Not only do many of Honigsbaum’s subjects attain celebrity partially because of their disabilities, but also they are generally discussed together (Armstrong, Pistorius and Heather Mills, for instance) instead of among their peers.  These are associations by ability, not by sport.  Also, saying we are all disabled occludes people with disabilities who do not yet have access to new assistive technology. At least Bertolt expresses dismay over the access gap (“What will people go through to get one?”).  When he says “We are all disabled” Miah isn’t expressing solidarity; instead, the queue for the i-Limb becomes that much longer as so-called transhumanists up wait times for crucial tech.

On Jezebel, Dodai Stewart wants readers to “Meet the Marine Who Lost a Leg and Gained a Modeling Career.”  Veteran and recovering alcoholic Alex Minsky went from Marine to underwear model after losing his leg in Afghanistan, and now spends his days posing for the camera.  The images of Minsky don’t conceal his prosthetics, nor do they emphasize them.  His physique is so meticulously developed it is nearly unreal, and the sheer bulk of his figure neutralizes the carbon fiber blade that might otherwise dominate the frame.  While the NBC video included in the post locates Minsky in the classic archetype of the hero’s redemption, a possible alternative narrative is that the public objectification of Minsky’s body (the comment section is quite enlightening in this regard: “Well, he might have lost the leg, but at least we’re winning the Battle of the Bulge” – user cassiebearRAWR) invites a female gaze where desire and lust is mixed up with violence and technocratic medicine.  Is this hyper-sexual and frankly postmodern female gaze constructive for the subject?  Or is this another example of a “cool factor” used for promotional purposes?  And what does it mean that the sexuality of a person with limb loss is revived through the exaggerated process of becoming an underwear model? As an unreasonable public expectation of an ‘attractive’ person with limb loss, this contradiction is a bit like how Amanda K. Booher problematizes the supercrip in her article “Docile Bodies, Supercrips and the Plays of Prosthetics.”

More links of interest:

“Indeed not Perfect” – Different Strokes

“The Tyranny of Normal” – The Prague Post

“’Miss You Can Do It’ Documentary Debuts June 24 on HBO” – Media dis&dat

“Veteran Granted New Arm after Being Fitted with High-Tech DARPA Prosthetic” – ZME Science

3-D Printer Brings Dexterity to Children with No Fingers” – NPR

One Response to Web Roundup: Prosthetics in Public

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