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Everyday cyborgs

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The development of implantable devices has been a game changer in the medical profession, giving many patients a new lease of life. However, receiving an implant can also alter a person’s sense of identity and have a lasting impact on their mental health. Social scientist Dr Gill Haddow’s research is empowering people living with these…

The word cyborg may conjure images of fictitious half-human half-android movie characters, such as RoboCop, but for Dr Gill Haddow, Senior Lecturer in Science, Technology and Innovation Studies at the University, the word is something that can be applied to real people in the real world. That’s why she has in fact reclaimed it, coining the term ‘everyday cyborgs’ to refer to those who have implantable cybernetic devices.

What is an everyday cyborg?

“The word ‘cybernetic’ is important,” says Dr Haddow. “The word ‘cyborg’ is a portmanteau of two terms, ‘cybernetic’ and ‘organism’, to create the word ‘cyborg’. It was introduced by two researchers, Clynes and Kline, in their article ‘Cyborgs and Space’ in September 1960, discussing how such cybernetic systems would be necessary and important modifications to the human body enabling future space travel and exploration.”

On reading the article it dawned on Dr Haddow that the term could also be appropriate to identify normal people, much closer to home on Earth, who have undergone life-changing medical device surgery.

“My research explored what it was like to live as an ‘everyday cyborg’ and have a cybernetic medical device implanted in the body,” Dr Haddow continues. “The ‘everyday’ makes it clear that this cyborg existence is one that is routine and ordinary and, importantly, the term ‘everyday cyborg’ highlights the vulnerabilities and challenges of the ‘new normal’ that the creation of a techno-organic hybridity raise, even if it is a life-saving one.”

One particular type of cybernetic device is an implantable cardiac defibrillator (ICD). An ICD is a medical technology surgically fitted inside a person that can prevent a sudden cardiac arrest in those who have already had, or are at risk of having, one. It senses when the heart begins to beat in an irregular way, or too fast, and reacts by emitting electrical shocks to return it to a normal rhythm.

“It works in a similar way to the thermostat in a house’s heating system,” explains Dr Haddow. “When the temperature in the house becomes too warm, the system senses this, and turns the heating off. When the temperature drops beyond the pre-set level, the heating comes on again.”

Her research is revealing a new understanding of the effects of transplantation and body modification through the insertion of ‘smart’ medical devices on body-identity relationships. It has led her to meet many people with ICDs and hear their stories about how living with these implants has affected their lives.

Everyday cyborgs on camera

After receiving a Wellcome Trust University award in 2013, Dr Haddow went on to collaborate with one such patient called Maggie, along with a filmmaker to coproduce a short film about her ICD implantation.

A still from Dr Gill Haddow's film entitled Maggie's ICD Story
A still from Dr Gill Haddow’s film entitled Maggie’s ICD Story

Entitled Maggie’s ICD Story, the film takes the viewer on a very personal and emotional journey, watching as Maggie journals openly the initial fear and anxiety she experienced on learning she needed an implant through to her acceptance of it as part of her body, and ultimately embracing the benefits it brings her life in terms of health and wellbeing.

The finished film was selected for the Medicine, What Now? exhibition at the Wellcome Trust’s Collection’s permanent gallery Medicine Now (2007–2019), which attracted approximately 550,000 visitors a year.

Dr Haddow found the experience of working with Maggie, and others like her, profoundly inspiring.

“I am always struck by people’s readiness to engage and share their experiences of health, illness and disease,” she says. “Sometimes these can be extremely difficult stories to tell (and sometimes retell in the case of Maggie’s ICD Story) and I am always grateful and humbled that people are willing to share their words with me, a complete stranger.”

A still from Dr Gill Haddow's film entitled Broken Wings
A still from Dr Gill Haddow’s film entitled Broken Wings

Keen to explore opportunities to widen participation in her research, Haddow embarked on an 18-month film with six young people from a deprived area of Edinburgh. Working closely with Scotland’s leading animators, sound producers and creative artists from organisations such as Screen Writing Edinburgh and Legs on Lens,  the young crew led the project and learned how to write, direct, film, animate and provide a musical score.

The resulting film, Broken Wings, is a modern Gothic tale of a teenage girl coming to terms with her body modification, using the analogy of human-to-bird transformation to give the viewer an insight into a person’s experience of xenotransplantation.

Maggie’s ICD story and Broken Wings along with two more films, Electrifying Cyborg Heart and Everyday Cyborgs, have been incorporated into a 45-minute documentary intersected with film introductions by Dr Haddow and the filmmakers and illustrators who collaborated on the projects.

The finished compilation entitled Everyday Cyborgs and Humanimals met with positive feedback following its premiere at the Filmhouse in Edinburgh in 2018 and is available to watch on YouTube.

When asked why she chose to create films around the subject, Dr Haddow is clear and passionate about her reasons.

“Films and animations about everyday cyborgs, offer an alternative to the science fiction depictions of ‘cyborgs as monsters’ of which we are more generally familiar with and accustomed to. Further, both film and animation makes the issues more accessible and meaningful to everyone and therefore takes us beyond the written word; this was extremely important in terms of participant collaboration and empowerment.”

Watch the film Everyday Cyborgs and Humanimals

Some viewers may find some scenes contain sensitive content.

Power to the people with implants

The idea of empowering people is a key driver for Dr Haddow who is keen to outline the need for change in how medical implants are viewed and a better understanding of the psychological impact they can have on patients.

“I would like to think the films make people re-evaluate the cyborgisation process. That is, we absolutely need cybernetic devices and should continue to research and develop these technologies,” she says. “However, everyday cyborgs require support to become accustomed to living their lives with a technology that is inside their bodies, and can shock them at any point.”

“This can result in a sense of alienation; in effect producing anxiety and depression,” she continues. “However, if the everyday cyborg comes to view the ICD as functioning for them (as opposed as working against them), then they are more likely to ‘humanise’ it and integrate it as part of their identity.”

The impact of Dr Haddow’s research is reaching both medical practitioners and policymakers.

Having met with the Cardiology department at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, Dr Haddow interviewed the hospital’s ICD patients. She discovered that although these patients shared similar experiences with other cardiac patients, they faced additional challenges.

These were mental, such as distress, anger, depression, anxiety and social isolation, as well as physical, such as pain from the electric shocks the ICD emits. Her findings have encouraged cardiologists to take a more holistic approach to managing the care of patients with implantable devices.

The cover of Dr Gill Haddow's book entitled Embodiment and Everyday Cyborgs
Dr Gill Haddow’s book entitled Embodiment and Everyday Cyborgs

In addition, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics liaised with Dr Haddow on its 2019 briefing note on security issues raised by medical devices and the final associated press release was picked up by 280 news sites.

The future of body identity

As well as exploring the subject through film, Dr Haddow has written a play and recently published a book. The book, Embodiment and Everyday Cyborgs, asks readers to ponder the medical question of, given a choice, would they prefer human, non-human animal organ transplants or implantable cybernetic technologies to replace their own?

Further more, it offers an insight into what the future of humanity may look like, bringing what we may have once thought of as science fiction closer to a medical reality.

“In the book I suggest that with increasing gains in life longevity, more of us will require more materialities in us. Our bodies will become a montage of different materials and technologies in order to keep repairing, replacing and even regenerating our aging and ailing human bodies; the born body will become a rare occurrence. Our elderly bodies will be muddled with different types and kinds of materials with consequences not only for the human form but for human identity.”

It is a thought-provoking concept that philosophically challenges the reader to question what it means to have a body: “I wonder if some of the ideas in the book might cause some people to reflect on what it is about their bodies that makes them so special to their sense of identity, and why certain modifications to the body can strongly alter their sense of subjectivity.”

Through her book and films developed using empirical data generated with sociological research methods Dr Haddow’s interdisciplinary approach is making the conversation about everyday cyborgs more accessible and, ultimately, more human.

“Being interdisciplinary was at the heart of the project, and I wanted the journey to be meaningful and comprehensible, as well as stimulating difference so that further discussion and debate will ensue,” she explains. “Trying to do that was ambitious. But bringing together creative professionals, with people and patients was amazing and it was their good will and commitment that was pure inspiration.”

Images courtesy of Dr Gill Haddow.