Category Archives: Journalism

My New Knees: On The Way To Being Cyborg

“My new knee is called a Genesis II, a whimsical name that connotes an entirely new species cooked up from metal and plastic. Its principle components are cobalt chromium molybdenum alloy, titanium, and polyethylene. Polyethylene is the scourge of our oceans and landfills; titanium, though, is less alien. Mined from deep in the earth, it’s found in most living things…”

“Has the installation of my new knee – my crossing over into the world of cyborgs – changed me in any way? It’s difficult to say…”

The two short excerpts above are from my latest piece in the American environmental magazine Orion. It’s behind a firewall so I can’t share the whole thing, but subscribers will find it on pp12-13 in the March/April 2016 issue. Since writing it, I’ve had a second operation and now have two replacement knees. I’ve been fascinated by cyborgs, and written about them, for over twenty years, so I’ve found the whole process very significant.  And I’m in complete agreement with the cyborg artist Neil Harbisson who says:

“I don’t feel that I’m using technology. I don’t feel that I’m wearing technology. I feel that I am technology.”

Harbisson was born colour-blind but he developed a device which is attached to his head and turns colour into audible frequencies. Most of the popular images of cyborgs are, like Harbisson, striking to look at because their prosthetics are visible on the outside. In recent years we’ve also become used to seeing people wearing prosthetic legs and arms.

But millions of individuals around the world are already quietly cyborg with not much to show for it. Knees, hips, and ankles are routinely replaced in operating theatres every day but there’s nothing to be seen apart from an occasional limp. And most of those new cyborgs aren’t young and cool but, like me, greying and somewhat mature.  Food for thought.

10 Words Technology Borrowed from Nature, Orion Magazine

Art by Peter McFarlane
Art by Peter McFarlane

Excerpt from my new piece in Orion Magazine, September/October 2015

10 Words Technology Borrowed from Nature

1. Ecosystem. The internet is often described as an ecosystem (or a sky, or a park, or a jungle), and many of its parts are named after the natural world. “Cyberspace,” says the technology historian Fred Turner, “is a frantic mingling of biological, digital, and frontier metaphors.”

2. Tree. Inside every computer, smartphone, and server is a floating forest of branching directories, all sprouting from a deeply buried “root” folder. Open one and you’ll find it connected to many others, like a leaf atop a twig that’s attached, eventually, to a trunk.

3. Spider. One of the first search engines was named after Lycosa kochii, or the wolf spider. Called Lycos, the system was designed to imitate the spider’s habit of catching its prey by relentless pursuit.

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Can a virtual reality game make you forget you’re in pain?

My new piece at The Conversation

A couple of weeks from now I will be in hospital undergoing a knee replacement. It will be the most extreme surgery I’ve ever experienced and I’m pretty scared. I’ve been told that I can expect to endure excruciating pain afterwards but I won’t be allowed to lie in bed feeling sorry for myself. In order to ensure a good recovery I have to get up and exercise the new joint numerous times a day. Make no mistake, this is going to hurt.

It may not be too long, however, until patients like me will be able to ward off their agonies simply by playing virtual reality games. This surprising advance is already being tested, but the premise behind it is not new.

As neuroscientist David Linden recently explained on NPR, the brain has more control over pain than we might at first imagine. It can say “hey that’s interesting, turn up the volume on this pain information that’s coming in”, or it can say “turn down the volume on that and pay less attention to it”. In Linden’s book Touch: The Science of Hand, Heart, and Mind, he discusses how our perception of pain relies on the brain and how it processes information coming from the nervous system. Continue reading Can a virtual reality game make you forget you’re in pain?