From Terminator to Darth Vader, Hollywood has cast cyborgs as villains of a dystopian future, but as Tamara Banbury sees it, this fear of body augmentation is misplaced. The master’s student in Legal Studies has been awarded a SSHRC Joseph Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship to research the voluntary implantation of technology into human beings. She believes it can make our lives, well, better.
“The technology isn’t ready to really create a bionic person,” she says. “There are people with really interesting prosthetic limbs and camera eyeballs but they’ve lost those body parts due to illness or accident, and have prosthetics. If I want to pop out my eyeball and replace it with a video camera with a neural uplink, I can’t do that. The tech isn’t that great yet anyway — the human eye is still superior to any man-made one, and no responsible doctor will remove my healthy eye.”
But while artificial eyeballs can’t yet match biological ones, it doesn’t reduce the belief that they could, and the legal and philosophical questions body augmentation raises are complex.
“There are many implications of bodily autonomy,” Banbury says. “Does a person have the right to alter their body in ways they see fit? Is the computer chip in my hand a part of me, an extension of myself or a foreign object in me? If someone cuts it out and takes it, is it theft of personal property or is it theft of a body part? If I have data coded onto my implant, who owns that data? When does a foreign object become a part of the human body… once it’s implanted or over time? When does it become a part of my identity? Does adding technology to your body change how you sense yourself?”
While living in Calgary, Banbury volunteered at the Military Museums, working alongside veterans of the Afghanistan War. Then an undergraduate anthropology student, she picked their brains about the details of military life.
“Many of them had life-altering events happen to them. One soldier had lost both legs in an IED explosion and had two prosthetic legs that were technologically interesting to me, and I found the world of prosthetics and technology studies. It morphed into an interest in the people who are voluntarily adding technology to their bodies for non-medical purposes – cyborgs. My interest keeps growing and changing the further I get into the subject.”
When Banbury learned about Professor Sheryl Hamilton’s work in bodies and technology, she decided to take the plunge and move cross-country to study at Carleton.
“She’s one of the key reasons I applied to this program. She’s letting me explore my research interests in my own way and is really helpful in asking questions that make me think about my work in a fresh way. Because I’ve been researching this subject for several years, I have a tendency to forget that a lot of people don’t think about implants and the human body in the matter of fact way I do. Sheryl helps me refocus my thoughts and drill a bit deeper down into my reasoning and thought process.”
Though Banbury has a chip implant herself, she doesn’t believe widespread adoption of body augmentation is imminent.
“Not everyone will want to augment themselves, and it would be a bit weird if they did,” she says. “I’m aware this is a very niche group of people at the moment. Widespread acceptance will take time. Social acceptance of technology moves in stages. First, it’s weird and new and only very early adopters embrace the possibilities, then it becomes more common and groups begin forming who partake in various aspects of the new tech, and finally it becomes widespread and normal and everyone wonders how we did without it.”
She likens body augmentation to the adoption of smart phones. The iPhone was launched in 2007, and smart phones rapidly became integral to our every aspect of our daily lives, but cell phones had existed for several decades by then
“Before then, cellphones were big and clunky and not that convenient — a necessary evil. But now people who don’t have a smartphone are seen as luddites. That’s only been 10-11 years for that change to take place. If I were to say, ‘my battery is dead,’ you would know that I’m talking about my phone. Users build a personal connection with technology, internalizing it and making it a part of our bodies. If you can’t find your phone, you probably feel a sinking sensation in your stomach and worry you’ve lost it, and someone has your information and your data, and how can you tell people you’ve lost it as you don’t have phone numbers, passwords or log-in information memorized anymore. They’re just part of your phone?.”
Because of this reliance, Banbury sees smart phones as an extension of our bodies — a memory augmentation that dispenses with the need to memorize. And she thinks we’ll become even more integrated with them in the future.
“Wouldn’t it be safer and more secure to have your bank card chip implanted in your own hand? You couldn’t lose it. Eventually parts of cellphones will be implanted as well.”
For more information about the Legal Studies graduate program, please click here.
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