Tuesday, December 15, 2009

these ain't your grandfather's mods

Our bodies, and the way we see them, are changing. Cochlear implants, LASIK eye surgery, prosthetic everything – medical technology has gradually been getting us accustomed to the idea that the body is something we shouldn’t fear tinkering with. This, in turn, almost certainly has an effect on the way modern society views body modification. In the eyes of some traditional-minded individuals, tattooing and piercing are wrong because they betray the anatomical design granted to us by the Creator. Despite the obvious problems with utilizing this belief as an argument against modding (uhhh, makeup, braces, fake nails…) mothers, grandmothers, and conservative Christians everywhere love to utilize it as a justification for their disdain for mods. Rather than making even the slightest attempt to understand why the kids love modding so, the whole concept is immediately dismissed as wrong by an outdated, closed-minded vision of the human body as a finished product. But this may be changing.
The reasons we acquire body modifications are quite varied, ranging from simple fulfillment of aesthetic predilections to reminding one of a lost family member to rebellion against societal standards of appearance. What remains the same in each case, however, is that the mods provide a vehicle through which to improve our lives. Because the effects of modding are so personal and unique to the mod-bearer, plainskins may have a hard time accepting that mods have any value whatsoever. To them mods are a waste of time, money, and previously pristine skin. But now that modifications of the human body have become a new and exciting area of medical and scientific innovation, that view may be on the way out. Functional body mods have been in the news quite a bit recently, most prominently on gadget blogs like Gizmodo, which is currently featuring a set of articles based around the increasingly cyborgian nature of the modern human. One particularly interesting mod is the newfangled LED tattoo (and another one...), which is actually made up of electrodes that are mounted on silk and embedded underneath the skin. The electrodes have the ability to link up with variety of electronics, allowing for endless possible applications of this wild innovation. Think GPS screens on your wrist, no-fuss blood sugar tests that present results right on your skin, and even a built-in cell phone that appears in LED tattoo form with the simple touch of an inner elbow. Phew. There’s also the man with the bionic sphincter, who wields a remote that allows him to engage and release his sphincter muscle at will with the help of electrodes attached to the sphincter muscle nerves. I can’t imagine how grateful this guy must be for living in a time of such brilliant advancements in the fields of science and medicine.

Now, despite the fact that these new developments in the realm of functional body modification are improving lives, not everyone will agree with them. And if even professionals are still being greeted with skepticism, then surely mod-lovers and the talented practitioners who make their mods possible will continue to catch flack for doing what they love. But we must remember, altering the way an entire society feels about a particular issue doesn’t happen overnight. The slow, agonizing process of change can take decades, even centuries to fully take shape. The good news is that every lil’ bit helps. The increased prevalence of functional body mods is a virtual stepping stone to eventual social acceptance of aesthetic body modification. Not that we neeeed to be accepted - it’s just that, once people become comfortable with an idea, they can finally move past the preconceptions and find their way to a genuine understanding.
I think body modification is fucking fascinating. From pointed ears to pierced ears, whether functional, beautiful, or just plain shocking, mods are important to the owners of the bodies they grace. And that is as good a reason as any reexamine one's opinion of 'em.


Schwa said...

Apparently about four years ago, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) coughed up $50M in grants to two groups — the Applied Physics Labs at Johns Hopkins and DEKA, Dean Kamen's tech workshop that gave us the Segway — whom they tasked with building the next generation of prosthetic arms.

Neither DEKA nor the JHU-APL applied for the grants. DARPA simply told them they had 2-4 years to figure out how to build a modular prosthetic arm that would not only replicate the motions of the five-fingered hand (including a fully opposable thumb), but the 20+ degrees of motility the arm can achieve when you factor in the wrist, elbow and shoulder.

DEKA's "Luke arm" is a technological masterpiece. No doubt. But the APL, which had twice as much money and twice as much time, had the real challenge: to develop a myoelectric interface that would allow the user to control the prosthesis as he/she would a natural limb. This involved recording the nervous system's myoelectric signals that instruct the arm to move onto a very small microchip. Eventually, this will be implanted in the pectoral muscle where it will be wet-wired into the central nervous system, then connect to a much more powerful microcomputer within the arm itself.

You can see an early version of a test trial here. (I think it's the same woman from the photo in your post.)

Will drop some links on the bionic eye and the gestural wearable interface soon.

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