Prosthetics porn

Paul Raven @ 06-10-2009

Hans Husklepp - Immaculate Arm prosthetic design conceptThere is an arc of progress with human technologies: first comes functionality, then gradual acceptance, and then the aesthetic overhaul. The transition from practicality to personality has always interested me, because it hinges on that point of acceptance, be it grudging or enthusiastic; only then do notions of art start to appear and entwine themselves with functional objects.

Some objects achieve that point of acceptance more quickly than others; these are usually the objects of power, objects that make someone more than human – swords and cars, for example. Slower to achieve acceptance and freedom from stigma are those objects designed to raise the disadvantaged to the same status as everyone else.

We appear to be on that cusp of acceptance with human prosthetics. Granted, there have probably been carved crutches, peg-legs and walking sticks for millennia, but they were only ever crude stand-ins (if you’ll excuse the pun) for a damaged or missing limb. But they represented a refusal to be stigmatised, a defiant embracing of the user’s condition – “This is me; this is my replacement limb. Deal with it.”

Now we can build prosthetic legs that are in some respects superior to the originals, and it surely won’t be long before artificial arms that can replicate (or exceed) the essential functions of their biological equivalents become available to the widening sphere of those who can afford them – and that defiance, that rejection of stigma, will become more prevalent. It’s a stage of great interest to transhumanist thinkers, naturally, but it’s also attracting the eyes of artists and designers who’ve noticed a new human space to colonise with the communication of ideas.

There’s a gallery of cybernetic design concepts – like Hans Huseklepp’s Immaculate Arm, pictured top right – and photo-portraiture over at New Scientist at the moment which will get you thinking about this sort of stuff (it’s what inspired the preceding paragraphs of waffle from me, at any rate), but consider it only a starting point. Sit back for five minutes and think about the ways we already customise the human body for aesthetic effect; then imagine what we’ll start doing when prosthetics are affordable and effective enough to become ubiquitous. It’s closer than you think. [image copyright Hans Huseklepp, reproduced here under Fair Use terms; please contact for take-down if required]

Here’s your starter for ten: when will we first hear of people choosing to replace undamaged natural limbs with prosthetics, be it for practical or artistic reasons? How will the general public react to that? How would you feel if your teenaged son came home with a cybernetic hand in place of the perfectly functional one he had before?

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4 Responses to “Prosthetics porn”

  1. khannea says:

    It isn’t a prosthetic per se, but I have been thinking about the intersection between three hot topics
    a) burqahs, masks, anonimity, laws against hiding your face
    b) air filtration tools and masks
    c) telepresence goggles/headsets.

    I came up with a number of sketches, which I may at some point try to reprap, that would be wearable functional hi-tech masks, strongly suggestive of having some kind of functionality. They would have the same aesthetic sleekness as sports bikers helmets, but they wouldn’t be real – they’d just be art nouveaux stormtrooper masks. The question is – in many countries wearing a mask is illegal. Why is that? Why can’t I decide to wear a mask, if it is a breathing filter – if it offers me AR capability – if it shields me – or worse – if it contains a continuous HD double camera? MP3 player ? Stereo Iphone ? I’d love going to court over that to defend my civil rights. I am sure many celebrities would love doing so too. Plus these things could be absolutely beautiful.

  2. Stephen J. says:

    My guess is that we will probably not see purely aesthetic limb replacement until science accomplishes one key biocybernetic advance: full tactile sensory equivalency — the ability to provide the same input of touch, manipulation and sensation at an indistinguishable or superior level. The cooler look of the prosthesis will not outweigh the permanent decrease in functionality otherwise.

    My hope is that by the time we understand nervous tissue well enough to simulate it artificially we will also understand biotech well enough to clone organic replacements, so idiot teenagers who get a cyberhand over the weekend can have a natural hand grown back when they realize what they’ve done.

    Truthfully, I would much rather see prostheses treated the way cosmetic surgery is treated now: Accepted when it’s reconstructive of naturally occurring damage, treated as criticizeable vanity in its minor uses and as a psychiatric disorder in its major, compulsive uses. The degree of self-rejection inherent in mutilating one’s own body to replace parts of it with artificial, unnecessary substitutes is not something that should be unquestioningly accepted as mere vanity or aesthetics.

    (And as with all transhumanist dreams, very few dreamers contemplate the inevitable failure rates of imperfect operators. We’ve all seen nightmare images of botched plastic surgery. Imagine that with a prosthetic arm or leg. The bigger the transformation, the more disastrous the effects of screwing it up.)

  3. Kelvin says:

    Two letters, five words, an abbreviation and two dates: K.W. Jeter, Dr. Adder, written in 1972, published 1984.
    Don’t bother with the Wiki page; it’s pretty sparse. The book, however, is…let’s just say that there’s no dearth of volunteer amputee prostitutes.

  4. Paul Raven says:

    Thanks, Kelvin – I picked up Dr. Adder in a local second-hand books place nearby earlier this year, and you’ve just boosted it through the ranks of the to-be-read piles. 🙂