Implanted obsolescence

Paul Raven @ 26-10-2010

We privileged early-adopter types are increasingly accustomed to our technology becoming obsolete… but what happens when the technology in question is actually a physically-embedded part of you? Suddenly your upgrade path is a little trickier than hopping on a Boris-Bike and going to your nearest Apple store. Tim Maly points out the risky side of early-adopter human augmentation tech:

On the ground, the realities of the only brain-mounted interface I know of – cochlear implants – are brutal. Here’s a taste: You can’t hear music. For a sense of what that’s like, try these demos. The terrifying truth is that once you’ve signed up for one kind of enhancement (say, the 16 electrode surgery) it’s very hard to upgrade, even if Moore’s law ends up applying to electrode counts and the fidelity of hearing tech.

If you are an early adopter for this kind of thing, the only thing we can say for sure about it is that it’ll be slow and out of date very soon. Unless they find a way to make easily-reversible surgery, your best strategy is to wait for the interface that’s whatever the brain-linkage equivalent is to 300dpi, full colour, high refresh screens.


Medical advancements demand sacrifices. Someone needs to wear the interim devices. Desperation is one avenue for adoption. Artificial hearts are still incomplete and dicey-half measures, keeping people alive while they wait for a transplant or their heart heals. This is where advances in transplants and prosthetics find their volunteers and their motivation for progress. It’s difficult to envision a therapeutic brain implant – they are almost by definition augmentations.

An avenue to irreversible early adoption is arenas where short term enhancement is all that’s required. The military leaps to mind. With enlistment times measured in a few short years, rapid obsolescence of implants doesn’t matter as much; they can just pull virgin recruits and give them the newest, latest. If this seems unlikely, consider that with the right mix of rhetoric about duty and financial incentives, you can get people to do almost anything including join an organization where they will be professionally shot at.

Picture burnt-out veterans of the Af-Pak drone wars haunting the shells of long-deserted strip-malls, sporting rusty cranial jacks for which no one makes the proprietary plugs or software any longer… you can probably torrent some cracked warez that’ll run on your ageing wetware, but who knows what else is gonna be zipped into that self-installing .deb?

Meanwhile, Adam Rothstein brings a bit of Marxist critique to the same issue, and points out that the same problems apply to external augmentations:

It is easy to envision these uncanny lapses between classes occurring when we start fusing bodies with machines, because to imply that our bodies can easily be obsolete machines threatens a certain humanist concept of our bodies as a unifying quality to our species. But we don’t have to start invading the body to find differences that affect our ability to stratify ourselves into classes. If the equilibriums of the relations of production can develop a rift between first and third world without personal technology, between upper class and lower class both before, and as we start to use computers to identify ourselves as class member, why would one not also occur between “cutting-edge” and “deprecated” classes as technology becomes more “personal”–magnetizing that one kernel social structure not yet susceptible to fracture and evolution? At what point will our devices themselves reinforce the equilibriums of choice they themselves provide, by being the motive force for separating individuals into groups? If not by lasting only as long as their minimal service contracts in a planned obsolesce that intensifies the slope of device turnover, then by active means? An app only for the iPhone 8, that can detect models of the iPhone 5 and below–letting you know that you’ve wandered into an area with a “less than savory technological element?” When will emergency services only guarantee that they can respond to data transponder calls, and not voice requests? The local watchman has been phased out, in favor of centrally dispatched patrols that require phones to access. Isn’t it only a matter of time before central dispatch is phased out for distributed drone network policing? The ability to use a computer is a requirement for many jobs. When will the ability to data uplink hands-free be a requirement?

Insert unevenly-distributed-future aphorism here.