Becoming a cyborg

January 17, 2012 – 11:18 am

Via Nina Cary, a great short post on disabled bodies and ableist acceptance that makes me go damn yeah.

Since age 2, I’ve had the type of hearing loss that’s hardest to amplify. I’m also an engineer who sometimes wonders how to amplify it anyway, a geek who occasionally reads up on languages and cognition and tries to intellectually understand what I can’t perceive, and a hacker who enjoys playing with new tools. But for all that, I’ve been incredibly reluctant to have those new tools go on me or inside me; I’m also the 5th grader who stood up to her parents and teachers and refused to continue wear hearing aids, and a musician who never wants a cochlear implant to compromise my playing, even if I’d likely be a great candidate for EAS.

Part of this is the social stigma. Tools that are on you, in you, with you — people can see them. They mark you as different. “Differently abled,” some advocates say… but really, in common parlance, that simply means “broken.” I’m not broken; I happen to be a first-order low-pass filter.

That last sentence is a key glimpse into the second part: I am a hacker, and I want my body, including my hearing, to be my platform to control. Imagine revisiting my signal processing coursework with this! Imagine being able to treat my hearing like a computer peripheral, exploring what I can do once it’s able to bluetooth-sync to other devices — my head would be an absolutely spiffy sensor probe! These are all things that hearing people might find fascinating; these are all things they might find fun, we may someday all go around with hearing augmentation.

But right now, it’s not worth it to be a cyborg. There’s still a social stigma when people see a hearing aid or a cochlear implant; subtly, somehow, you get treated as more stupid than you would have otherwise. The platforms aren’t mature and accessible enough to overcome their social, financial, and opportunity cost (time I spend hacking on my ears is time I could have spent hacking on something else). And some of these are irreversible decisions: in the case of cochlear implants, you only get one shot per ear; whatever electrode you stick in there is the one you’re stuck with for the rest of your life (unless you want to pull it out and become completely and irreversibly deaf).

So it’s not worth it to me to be a cyborg. Yet. That I know of.

However, Purdue has this great department that does hearing and speech research. And they’re doing some interesting things. And I’ve started heading down there and meeting people, asking if they need an articulate guinea pig who also happens to know software and electronics. And they go wait, you’re an engineer? We need those!

We’ll see what happens.

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  1. 3 Responses to “Becoming a cyborg”

  2. There’s still a social stigma when people see a hearing aid or a cochlear implant; subtly, somehow, you get treated as more stupid than you would have otherwise.

    To play devil’s advocate: how does that compare to how they treat you when you can’t hear them? What are the assumptions people make when you repeatedly don’t understand what they’re saying to you, especially when they don’t know why?

    By Nikki on Jan 17, 2012

  3. Late response:

    It’s a choice between two evils, and so far I see this as the lesser one. I can almost always pass as hearing, and at the point I repeatedly can’t understand someone, I usually explain why. I just don’t usually explain it if I can avoid it; why acquire a stigma if you don’t have to? And which route will cause others less trouble?

    Not a great solution, but better than other alternatives I can think of.

    By Mel on Jan 25, 2012

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  2. Jan 23, 2013: Mel Chua » Blog Archive » Dear metabrain: help me cram-study engineering for my hearing aid consultation

What do you think?