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This article was written on 25 Nov 2011, and is filled under Workshops.

The Extension of Man – Hacking the Body

Here are a few thoughts from Nina Czegledy, ThingTank Advisor and KMDI Senior Fellow on “Hacking the Body” in preparation for our workshop on December 7th.

The Extension of Man – Hacking the Body

The word “prosthetics” indicates an addition or extension and the term has been included in medical terminology in the 16th Century. Three centuries later, Marshall McLuhan wrote in his seminal book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (first published in 1964): “Today, when we have extended all parts of our bodies and senses by technology we are haunted by the need for an outer consensus of technology and experience that would raise our communal lives to the level of a world-wide consensus.”

McLuhan also argued that ‘any medium whatever is an extension, a projection in space or in time, of our various senses. He postulated that while earlier technologies extended one part of the body (for instance the wheel extending the foot), the new electronic technologies extended the whole nervous system. McLuhan combines Marxist theories of industrial alienation with Freudian theories of subconscious extensions. According to Freud, “With every tool (man) is perfecting his own organs, whether motor or sensory, or is removing the limits to their functioning.

Many contemporary artists have taken on the effects and implications of prosthetic media theory and practice in their work. Amid these Stelarc’s Third Ear, a cell-cultivated ear implanted beneath the skin on the artist’s forearm and Exoskeleton, a six-legged, pneumatically powered walking machine might be the most famous (1, 2, 3). Of course these interventions by the artist raised critical comments in the media (4). Among popular celebrities Lady Gaga in a Harper Bazaar’s interview denied using prosthetics on her face (5). The Phantom Limb syndrome on the other hand was researched and exhibited by Alexa Wright and Eric Fong (6, 7).

Of course the interpretation of the “Extension of Man” by artists is only one of several aspects regarding prosthetics. Engineering and material development contexts are extremely significant both in theoretical and practical applications of prosthetics. A useful overview is provided by Charles Pritham concerning the emerging trends in prosthetics research and developments relating modern prosthetic limbs to those of historical times: One major difference is the presence of newer materials, such as advanced plastics, high polymer materials and carbon-fiber composites. These materials can make a prosthetic limb lighter, stronger and more realistic (8). Electronic technologies make today’s advanced prosthetics more controllable, even capable of automatically adapting their function during certain tasks, such as gripping or walking (9, 10, 11). In addition to the contemporary manufacturing of various materials, extensive research is conducted for future use (12).

Beyond the material and engineering context of prosthetics, ethical considerations are also widely discussed in the world literature, at conferences and on-line publications. Are there enhancements that lie beyond the boundaries of medical care? What are the legal, ethical, economic and social implications of prosthetics? Are some of the issues discussed frequently (13, 14).

This issue has been extremely relevant in sport related discussions, such as the famous story of Oscar Pistorius, a double amputee from South Africa, who calls himself the fastest man on no legs (14). The uses of new materials also allow injured athletes to play (15, 16, 17).

Jocelyn Selim discusses the biological and evolutionary aspects of prosthetics in her “Useless Body” article published in Discover Magazine (18). The pioneering story of ex-marine Claudia Mitchell who has been fitted with the first human trial of a bionic arm belongs to the biological considerations of prosthetics (19). This leads us to the custom design and practice aspects of prosthetics such as the National Artificial Eye Service (20) or the psychological benefit of aesthetically crafted prosthesis (21).

One of the most intriguing contemporary stories concerns the athlete, actor and activist Aimee Mullins with her more than a dozen pairs of prosthetic legs, whose superpowers grant her speed, beauty and an extra 6 inches of height – it has been noted that she redefines what a body can be (22).

In conclusion returning to Marshall McLuhan’s Extension of Man, a contemporary case in point might be Jerry Jalava’s prosthetic finger (23). McLuhan had a life-long fascination with electro magnetism; he postulated that electronic media i.e. electromagnetic forces conjure pre-modern or magical perceptions, stretching the boundaries of the self. This notion might be exemplified in the “bbum’s weblog-o-mat”: Magnetic Finger: A sixth sense (24).

In 2011, Marshall McLuhan’s centenary year is celebrated worldwide. It is fitting to consider his Extension of Man legacy in the Hacking the Body workshop at the ThingThank Media Lab at the University of Toronto.

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