Published in ZKP-4 Net Criticism Reader. Ed. Geert Lovink and Pit Schultz. 1997.

Technological Prostheses: An Anecdote

Phoebe Sengers
Computer Science / Cultural Theory
Carnegie Mellon University
phoebe@cs.cmu.edu

We have reached the post-physical era. On the internet, all that matters is our thoughts. The body is obsolete.

At least, whoever designed my computer interface thought so. Clean design means reproducibility, modularity, uniformity, simplicity. It means a technological prosthesis direct to my brain, a simple input device, easy to use, requiring little effort, just the rhythmic tap-tap-tapping of fingers continuously pushed and pulled by tiny, underdeveloped muscles and tendons in the lower arms until one day they simply give up.

By December 1994 I had RSI (repetitive stress injury), tendonitis in my hands so badly that if I tried to squeeze your fingers, you would not have noticed.

My doctor, concerned that I would lose my livelihood (computer scientists who cannot type are not in great demand), saved the day. He handed me a technological prosthesis, two black leather wrist braces which held my hands permanently in a `healthy' position, allowing those overused muscles and tendons to rest, allowing me to return to my keyboard, to head back to 10 hour days of rhythmic tap-tap-tapping of fingers pushed and pulled by a set of even more underdeveloped muscles and tendons in the elbows until one day they simply gave up.

By March 1995 I no longer had tendonitis in my hands. That had cleared up nicely; what I had was severe tendonitis in my elbows, which was much harder to treat and meant that I could not type.

My advisor, concerned that I could not finish a paper on time (paper authors who cannot finish a paper by deadline are not in great demand), saved the day. He handed me a technological prosthesis, a speech understanding system that would transcribe my words - modulo a few errors every word or two - allowing my arms to rest, allowing me to return to work, to head back to 10 hour days of rhythmic chat-chat-chatting, of vocal chords in constant movement until one day they simply gave up.

By two days later I could not speak. I could not write. I could not type. I suffered a freak injury to my knee and could not walk because I could not hold my weight on crutches.

I learned to live, mostly, without prostheses. I had my friends type my paper. I learned not to work 10 hour days. I learned that my body does not go away when I work. I learned to stop when it hurt. I learned to take breaks and even vacations. I learned to become a much less valuable member of society by learning to refuse to hurt myself and to refuse to behave as though my body was not there.

I took my paper, a critique of technology, to Virtual Futures, on the prowl for a critical consciousness often lacking in computer science departments. "Ooooo!" said the other attendees, on breaks between lectures on the body as obsolete. "Those black leather braces are to die for. How can I get a pair?"