The Cyborg

By Norman Boucher / January / February 2006
April 21st, 2007
Rebuilt: How Becoming Part Computer Made Me More Human by Michael Chorost '87 (Houghton Mifflin).

Michael Chorost went deaf on July 7, 2001, at the airport in Reno, Nevada. Although he'd been using hearing aids for thirty-two years, his right ear had long ago died, and on that day in Nevada his left ear shut down, probably for good.

Rebuilt is Chorost's wry, informative, and affecting account of what happened after he regained his hearing through the use of an implanted computer chip. At the heart of the book is a paradox: the same technology that turned Chorost into a cyborg - a cybernetic organism - also deepened his humanity in ways that might not have otherwise occurred.

Two months after Chorost lost his hearing, surgeons implanted a cochlear implant in his skull above and behind his left ear. The implant, a microprocessor attached through electrodes to the ear's cochlea (the organ of hearing), reads data supplied by a second computer, a speech processor usually worn around the user's waist. The speech processor's microphone picks up sound, converts it to data, and runs it up wires to a thin, coin-sized headpiece that adheres magnetically to the implant under the skin. The headpiece transmits the data to the implant, which then stimulates the cochlea into perceiving the sound.

Chorost wonderfully describes the frustration, anger, and, finally, acceptance he experiences as he tries to make sense of his new world. He has become a cyborg, he writes, because a part of him - his sense of hearing, which is fundamental to his perceiving reality - is now controlled by computer code, and all the biases written into it. "An artificial sense organ," he insists, "makes your body literally someone else's, perceiving the world by a programmer's logic and rules instead of the ones biology and evolution gave you."

A lifelong technophile and self-confessed geek,Chorost is emboldened by the implant to interact more directly with the people around him. With some humor he relates his unsuccessful attempts at establishing relationships with women through online dating services, as well as his subsequent abandonment of this high-tech filter. He gains confidence and soon finds himself learning to embrace the social world of friends and colleagues who, like him, are "differently wired," at least in a social sense.

Along the way, Chorost fills out his memoir with explorations of the deaf community's ambivalence about cochlear implants, as well as the issues raised by an increasing reliance on bioengineering. In the end, he concludes, it's not the gadgets that make you better, it's what you make of them.

Norman Boucher is editor of the BAM.

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January / February 2006