More or Less Cyborg? @ The Dana Centre – A Great Night Out

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Ever since I was a child I dreamed of emulating my hero, the bionic man Steve Austin (aka Lee Majors). My friends and I would run round the play ground in slow motion making “dududududu” sound effects, dreaming of what it would be like to be part machine. I was never allowed to be the “Six Million Dollar Man”, as I was disabled, but was instead named “Peg Austin” or the “Six Million Dollar Cripple”. Did I mind? Of course not, because however much my non-disabled play mates wanted to be made of metal I was the one who had a real bit of bionics strapped to my right leg, in the name of my caliper that allowed me to stand up. Oh yes, I was already a bionic boy.

As I grew up (in years but not necessarily in maturity) I still imagined what it would be like to have a body augmented with machinery. My wheelchair could be described as a bionic device, as it is an external mechanical element of my body that allows me to function in a way that I could not without it (or it stops me from having to crawl everywhere) but I do fantasize about more. What would it be like to really be Steve Austin? So when my wife told me about an event at the Science Museum‘s Dana Centre called “More or Less Cyborg” I knew we had to go. So on the evening of June 13th 2013. we headed off to the exhibition district of sunny Kensington ready for a night of feeding my childhood fantasies.

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The Dana Centre is a great building and has the most amazing staff, who are always helpful and friendly. They have a bar for these night time events and serve bar snacks. But more importantly they strive to make science accessible. We have been to several similar nights before and they have always been great fun, but tonight I was going to discover if I would one day be able to become a cyborg. However actually this was not a night of could we, but more a night of should we and if we do how will we cope as a society?

The night kicked off with the audience being split into three groups and each group had to arrange a series of Science Fiction characters into order depending on how human or how cyborg they were. This was going to be OUR kind of night. Diane and myself threw ourselves into the passionate debate over which of these made up people were more or less machine with gusto. Was Darth Vader more of less human that Trinity from the Matrix? (when she was in the Matrix – details matter in such important matters) While this was entertaining it also opened up wider questions over what it was to be human that the guest speakers explored next.

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The first to speak was Rick Walker, managing director of Shadow Robot, a company that builds ground breaking robotic prosthetic hands and who worked to create an artificial person using surgical replacement parts and prosthetics for Channel 4 on their How To Build a Bionic Man TV show. Rick explored the possibilities of what the future holds for the mechanics of bionics and explained the technical challenges around building the C4 Android. His passion for his chosen field was obvious and his talk brought the future in to sharp relief. It’s not only a case of what will be possible that is amazing, but what is actually possible now.

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Next to speak was Steve Fuller, who holds the “Auguste Comte Chair in Social Epistemology in the Department of Sociology” (whatever that is?) and he blew the lid of my expectations by exploring what the social and philosophical implications might be on a society that is fast approaching the ability to really build cyborgs. More than that, Steve made us ask ourselves are we not already cyborgs, both due to our use of technology, such as mobiles and laptops, and our ability to record knowledge, via books and writing. It did take a bit to get my head round that concept, but as Steve explained how a cyborg is actually an entity that has been altered from it’s so called natural state by any means, including learning, it started to make sense. His talk threw open some big questions that he had no chance of answering in his allotted 12 minutes.

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Last to speak was Sarah Chan, Deputy Director, Institute for Science, Ethics and Innovation and Research Fellow in Bioethics and Law, University of Manchester, who challenged us to ask the ethical questions the surround cybernetics. We’d done the what and the could not Sarah was the should. But she covered more than this. She took Steve’s concept that we are already using forms of cyborg technology in our daily lives and delved much deeper. Very few people could imagine not having access to the internet, or mobile phones, or cars and bicycles to get around with and a world without medical intervention terrifies most of us. So once we develop the technology to augment the human body it won’t be long before we view that in the same way as the gadgets we love so much now. Will it not be those who are not cybernetically enhanced that are at a disadvantage? And were will it lead. We already have GPS in our phones and our governments may (or may not – yeah right) be recording everything we say over those phones or send over the internet, but we can at least stop using these devices and escape to solitude. Once they are implanted into our bodies would we be able to do the same and how would we ensure that outside influences could not effect our being in some way? Also who would get these upgrades? Would it be everyone, or the rich and powerful?

When Sarah finished, the Q&A section started and I had to ask what the panel thought about my take on the subject as a disabled person. Let’s face it, us disabled types are always seen as being the first beneficiaries of this kind of technology but yet if what the night had shown was true, and those who used assistive technology of any kind was already a cyborg, then weren’t disabled people the best people to talk to about the social and ethical implications? I also wondered if we understood how society might view those who were physically different from the non-cyborg norm better than most. Sarah found agreed with this concept and all of the speakers thought that it was an interesting take on the subject. After a loads more thought provoking questions, volunteers were called for to put on masks and re-order the fictional sci-fi characters from the start of the night. Di jumped at the chance and was given the mask of 6 from Battlestar Galactica (see a sci-fi nerds dream night out or what?).

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The room now began a heated discussion around the question of humanity and each speaker argued for one of the characters considered less human. Diane explained to the entire room about the details of the humanoid/symbiont relationship from the mythology of the TV series Stargate Sg-1… you know, that Jaffa only incubate them but have free will, that with the Goa’uld the human host is totally controlled by the alien symbiont and in the Tok’ra the human and symbiont live in harmony with mutual control. So obviously Teal’C was human as he was in control of his own actions, only making any bad decisions due to indoctrination rather than external control. When she finished I was overcome with nerdish pride that I shouted “that’s my wife” at the top of my lungs.

So a highly entertaining and informative evening drew to an end. Before we left, I grabbed a quick chat with Rick and Sarah, as it was such a thought provoking evening that I am planning to do a series of interviews with these guys on the topic of cybernetics and disability very soon; to which they both agreed. And so off into the night Diane and I went. I did do a little “dudududu” as we wondered back to the car, but in truth we were both still reeling with the questions that the evening had thrown up for too much childish exuberance. Just enough. I cannot under estimate how much fun these events at Dana are. If you like science, from an academic interest like Diane’s (she’s studying Physics at the OU) or a nerdish love like mine, you can’t go wrong. Especially if you like to spice up your facts with some seriously well designed mucking about.

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Television & Disability – The Mik Scarlet Lecture – Part 1

Last night watched the Huw Wheldon Lecture with Dr Brian Cox OBE. As my wife Diane is currently studying for a degree in Physics, and so I am becoming interested in science by osmosis, we tend to catch whatever programs he is involved with. Not only is the Coxster one of the sexiest men is science (as I am told repeatedly by Di and her friends), but he is one of the key movers in making science more popular and understood by society. When I saw he was giving a lecture on how science should be portrayed on TV I knew I had to catch it. Finally a program about science where I would be as knowledgeable as my wife.

Of course Brian, and as someone who regularly visits my front room I feel I can call him that, didn’t let us down. The lecture was fantastic explanation of how good science programming should be made. Let’s face it, Brian Cox is one of the leading Physicists in the world today, The Wonders of the Solar System is one of the best science shows ever made, and with the help of his wife Gia who works in the media, Dr Cox (more formal now) is one of the best people to explain the direction that science TV should be moving.

Royal Television Society Lecture – You Tube – Part 1
Royal Television Society Lecture – You Tube – Part 2
Royal Television Society Lecture – You Tube – Part 3

After watching the show, I found myself wishing that someone could do the same for the direction of disability in factual and documentary TV. As I can’t get a TV company to give me 40 minutes of air time, I shall try to address how TV should deal with disability in blog form.

The first question that’s needs answering is that of language. Whatever the story being covered, what language is used changes the way that story is perceived. Let’s take an example. Say a local news station ran a story about a disabled child raising money for charity. Now having seen this story many times we all know that words like brave and courageous will pop up somewhere. The problem with words like that is context. If the child had done something that anyone might call brave or courageous, such as climbing a mountain or a parachute jump, then maybe such words might be OK. But if the child has just put on a jumble sale or done a sponsored swim then these words imply that the fact someone disabled has done these things is some way different that if it had been an able bodied child. This is not the case. The story should be about what a thoughtful child this was, and almost ignore the disability. Why? Well, the focusing on the disability makes the good deed a side story to the fact a disabled child can actually do things. It continues a belief that anyone disabled is less capable, and that this disabled child is uncommon. There is also a more subtle issue. It creates an impression that any disabled person who does not push themselves to do such uncommon tasks are in some way less. As disability is already thought of as making someone less of a person, this kind of language entrenches this attitude. As I have already said, the focus of the story should be on the fund raising and not on the disability.

This focus also carries over to the stories about people fighting illness or coming to disability. Those who are in this position are not brave or courageous. Actually most people will fight and try their hardest to cope. This is demonstrated by the fact that so few people do kill themselves or pop off to Dignitas. Of course it is hard, and I do understand that it can help your state of mind to think of yourself as brave during a dark time. But I know from personal experience that it can have equally dark effects.

When I went into my wheelchair, I was always being told I was brave. It appealed to me to think of myself that way and helped me cope. But whether you are ill or newly disabled or your disability has changed in some way, you will come to a point when it does get to be too much. When it does, you find yourself not only depressed by the situation you are in but also by the feeling that you have let everyone down by not being brave any more. In fact the lack of bravery can make you feel like you would be better off not being around, for all concerned. It happened to me when I 17. I had been in my chair for 2 years, and had coped very well (and bravely) with the illness, the surgery and readjusting to life. Then one day I found myself wondering would I ever have a girlfriend. I was sure no one would want to be with a cripple like me, and I crashed into a depression. Then I felt a total failure. Not only was I going to be alone for the rest of my life, but I was also a coward. I considered killing myself, and even prepared everything. I cut the cord of an electrical appliance, plugged it into a socket, ran it to the bathroom and ran a bath. I was going to get in, and drop the cord into the bath. It was only the fact that my parents would be the ones who would discover me that stopped me. Typically, within a few weeks I had a girlfriend and I realized that the whole “brave” thing was foolish.

At that time disability never seemed to be on TV, so this was the result of just the language used by my family and friends. We now see soldiers coping with horrific injuries and disabled sportsmen and women as strive to be the best at their chosen sport, continuously being called brave and courageous. I know that it will be having a much greater effect. Especially as these types of people have mind sets that revolve around performance and excellence. Imagine how it will effect them when they feel that they hit a low point, and have become less by no longer being brave.

Not only does it effect those who are disabled or sick, it also creates an attitude towards disability and sickness that has an effect on all society. Anyone who is not disabled or sick is sure that they could not be that brave, and so they begin to think about the subject with fear. They are sure that if it ever happened to them they would rather die, mainly as they doubt they could cope. If the media showed that the majority of people face such a life changing event in the same way as these soldiers and Paralympians do, it would make disability much more accepted and understood.

The reason why I know people would cope is because it’s why humans have evolved to be the most advanced life form on the planet. We adapt to pretty much everything that’s thrown at us. Also it would mean that when these soldiers and sporty types hit a moment when it gets too much they won’t find themselves feeling like a failure for not continuing to be stoic.

Now that’s a lot to read through, so I will stop there. Next time I will look at words like tragic and examine the subjects of news stories and documentaries. So stay tuned.

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