Google Buzz Discussion on Prosthesis

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Originally posted on: How do you personally define prosthesis?

Aaron Diaz - Buzz - Public How do you personally define prostheses? Do eyeglasses or shoes count? Is there a difference between a person with a prosthesis and a cyborg? In turn, how do you define a cyborg?

  • Owen Hall - This is where I start disliking semantics. Whether you've 'defined' an object to be a prosthesis or not doesn't really affect its function, so what does it affect?
  • Francisco Tabakman - I think that eyeglasses and shoes are more likely accesories, and that the difference between a person with a prosthesis and a cyborg is that a cyborg must have some kind of device that actually makes him/her dependable in a matter of life an death of it, like a pacemaker... so in turn, I do define a cyborg as a human that depends of techology to actually be able to be alive.
  • Aaron Diaz - But what if being able to see well or run faster determines life or death?
  • Owen Hall - What about a person who's, for instance, replaced their arms with robotic versions? They don't technically need their arms to live (could eat food messily!), so they aren't dependent on this massive technological section of their body. Aren't they a cyborg?
  • David Hand - Depending on technology to be able to be alive? How would people who have kidney problems factor into this? They require dialysis, but don't carry the item around inside them like a pacemaker or substitute limb.
  • Craig Blaylock - I don't think that whether or not an item is required for life is a good indicator of prosthetic or accessory, I think we should go back to the root words. Prosthesis comes from the greek πρόσθεσις, meaning "addition". If we take it literally, anything added to a body is a prosthetic. (I kind of like considering my eyeglasses to be as such, low level cyborgs unite!)
  • Davide Rizzo - Prosthesis is a body part that has been replaced.

You are a Cyborg when one or more of those parts is a machine (ie mechanical, electronic etc...) On that note what would you be called if you had a replacement part that was bioligicaly grown (and maybe enhanced?)
Owen Hall - What if I contract a deadly disease, and a person administers the synthetic antidote to me? Am I now a cyborg because my life depended on this artificial creation?

See, this is why I start to hate semantics. You can go on like this all day and don't really gain anything from the process...

  • Digital Grampa - Well, we've all become reliant on technology. Shoes aren't a life-or death thing until you're stuck amidst the elements. The truth is, we've evolved into our technology. It's all prosthetic at this point. Adding more moving parts doesn't make it any more of a prosthesis. We've become symbiotically fused with our inventions, there really is no going back anymore. Therefore, prosthesis is effectively just a truth of life.
  • Dylan Armitage - For me, the difference between a person with a prosthesis and a cyborg is the cyborg has a prosthesis that gives them at least the same capabilities, if not more, than a normal body part. So just about any current replacement one can buy is just a normal prosthesis.

In general though I'd regard it as a spectrum rather than a definitive state. From human to fully robotic.

  • Aaron Diaz - I think you're just being fussy, Owen. The point isn't to land on a specific answer, but to explore the question.
  • Digital Grampa - @Owen Hall: The process is the fun part.
  • Freddy Cervera - Everybody hold your horses! I thought of all that too. I do think, that limbs are more likely enhancements if you already have them on your birth, if not, well, then you'll have an upgrade to enhance the quality of your life. I think that diabetes factor is more likely a treatment... now I'm thinking what about adding yourself another arm biotechnologically? That would be???
  • J. Scott Jewell - Regardless of semantic accuracy, I find it's a lot more fun to think of people as cyborgs. I've had glasses since I was a wee lad of four, and it makes me proud to call myself a twenty-year cyborg. The word and definition decisions are mostly arbitrary anyway; if I can use them how I like, I'd like to have some fun!
  • Owen Hall - J. Scott, can't help but agree there.
  • Craig Blaylock - @J. Scott Jewell: That's two quadraclops cyborgs!
  • Freddy Cervera - oh! I almost forgot: Francisco Tabakman is Freddy Cervera (me xD)
  • David Hand - @Digital Grampa: Well what is "technology"? Today when we say the word it all involves electricity and metal, but originally technology was any practical application of science. Shoes would readily fit, in applying the "rocks don't hurt as much when you wear things on your feet" scientific discovery.

I'm sure our modern technology will seem quaint and hardly worthy of the word, in a few decades.

  • Owen Hall - I feel like this would be a great time to link to the Caveman Science Fiction comic...
  • Freddy Cervera - @Owen:
  • Michael Lehrman - I think an accessory merely augments an ability, such as glasses or shoes, whereas a prosthesis actually replaces a body part, such as a prosthetic limb or an artificial heart. And then a cyborg would require electronic components, like a robot arm, or a camera for an eye. In my opinion, I mean, and I'm probably totally wrong!
  • Jason Wodicka - I'm surprised I haven't heard the "when you adapt your body-map to use it" approach here. Certainly, I think my shoes and glasses are prostheses, because I treat them like parts of my body when they're in-use. By the same token, I often think of a car as a prosthesis, now that I am a fluent driver, because it becomes an extension of my model-of-self when I'm piloting it.

David Hand - One school of thought basically believes that something qualifies as a prosthesis when it is required to be alive, and replaces a part of your body. What about organ transplants? They would seem to fit, aside from the fact that they are entirely organic (most of this discussion seems focused on inorganic prostheses). And this is even before we consider the rapidly approaching option of cloning organs.

  • Digital Grampa - @David Hand: When bottlenose dolphins tear sponges from the floor to protect their snouts during coral-foraging, that's technology. Hell, that's prosthesis. I like Craig Blaylocks definition. It's an addition. Using anything your momma didn't give you during the slimy months.
  • Dylan Armitage - @Jason: I think that's because adapting ones body-map to an object may be useful in defining a cyborg in only certain situations. I cannot think of any usefulness in defining a cyborg in that regards, as I would hardly consider a painter a cyborg just because they're holding a brush.

But then also to counter what I just said, at what point does something become a part of your body? Certainly just holding a pencil doesn't convey anything special, but losing your hand and then attaching it to the space where your hand was does. Yet when one holds something, it is "attached" in a sense.

  • Freddy Cervera - @Digital Grampa: Then what about leeches? Are those some kind of negative prosthesis?
  • Jason Wodicka - @Dylan Armitage: I admit, my definition is kind of permissive, but I find the use of it in emphasizing the degree of plasticity of the mental model: a prosthesis is something you don't think about how to use, you just think about using it. But yeah, in my view, that painter is cyborgish, as am I when I type - but I am not, when I hold a paintbrush, because I can't make one do a damn thing.

So, by my definition, prosthetics are common for a tool-using species like ours, and are half in the mind. Maybe I need a different word for the idea I'm getting at, but prosthetics seems close.

  • Dylan Armitage - @Jason Wodicka: I see what you mean. We become essentially a low-level cyborg when we assimilate the use of some tool (really, any technology) into our subconscious.

We are the Borg.

  • Digital Grampa - @Freddy Cervera: Only if they're on a Terminator.

Related note, does the Terminators organic skin count as a prosthetic? He needs it to successfully integrate, therefore he cannot succeed at what he was made for without it - even if he can survive without it.
Amber Case - J. Scott. I agree with you on the joys of calling oneself a cyborg. Cyborg Anthropology has also been applied to childbirth, as mothers are often assisted by machines during and before childbirth. If you were born in a hospital, or you were looked at through a machine while you were still in the womb, consider yourself a cyborg before you were even born!

So I'll preface by saying this: I'm a Cyborg Anthropologist. I study prosthetic culture. I'm afraid my response will be much too long, but I feel I have to share it. Also, this question between prosthetics and cyborgs is not completely defined yet. Cyborg Anthropology is an attempt to categorize and describe the differences and effects of tools and technology on culture. What I say here is not complete or correct. It is only a stab at a framework for understanding these ideas. Humans and objects have been co-creating each other symbiotically since we first began to use tools.

I'd be inclined to say that anything that is an external prosthetic device creates one into a cyborg. A hammer is a prosthetic device that extends the capability of the fist. The cell phone extends the capability of the ear and vocal chords. The idea of a cell phone is a technosocial object that enables an actor (user) to communicate with other actors (users) on a network (information exchange and connectivity) makes one into what David Hess calls low-tech cyborgs:

"I think about how almost everyone in urban societies could be seen as a low-tech cyborg, because they spend large parts of the day connected to machines such as cars, telephones, computers, and, of course, televisions. I ask the cyborg anthropologist if a system of a person watching a TV might constitute a cyborg. (When I watch TV, I feel like a homeostatic system functioning unconsciously.) I also think sometimes there is a fusion of identities between myself and the black box" (excerpt from Gray's The Cyborg Handbook, page 373).

"According to the editors of The Cyborg Handbook, cyborg technologies take four different forms: restorative, normalizing, reconfiguring, and enhancing (Gray/Mentor/Figueroa-Sarriera 3). Cyborg translators are currently thought of almost exclusively as enhancing: improving existing translation processes by speeding them up, making them more reliable and cost-effective. And there is no reason why cyborg translation should be anything more than enhancing" (source:

So with that, I think the items people are talking about here fall into a set of these specialized cyborg types. Here's a quick overview of them. A few more are tossed in. Source is the link above.

"1. the protocyborg, which “lacks full embodiment” (14); the protocyborg translator would consist of a human translator sitting at a typewriter, or perhaps at a dedicated word-processor without internet access.

2. the neocyborg, which “has the outward form of cyborgism, such as an artificial limb, but lacks full homeostatic integration of the prosthesis” (14); the neocyborg translator consists of a human translator sitting at a computer, but so that the computer still serves as a typewriter, without full utilization of word-processing, term-management, e-mail, or web-browsing capabilities.

3. the semicyborg, an intermittent cyborg, only hooked up to technology some of the time; (most professional translators become semicyborgs when they work).

4. the hypercyborg, a cyborg embodiment that is layered or cobbled together into a larger cyborg whole; the hypercyborg translator consists of a network of many smaller cyborg translators, as when a team of semicyborg translator-editors is linked together by listserv or webboard and their collective output is fed into a centralized database, term-management program, or other machine(-aided) translation system.

5. the retrocyborg, a cyborg transformation intended to recreate some lost form; a retrocyborg translator might be one in which, for purposes of historical illustration at a translator fair, say, a human translator sits at a computer made to look like an old pre-electric typewriter, which guides its human operator to make translation decisions typical of protocyborg practice (when to hit the carriage return, when to roll the page up and correct a mistake with whiteout, when to pull the page all the way out and start it over).

6. the pseudoretrocyborg, a cyborg transformation intended to recreate a lost form that never existed; well, we’re pretty far into science fiction, here, but we can imagine, say, a retrocyborg made to look like a spirit-channeling translator, someone receiving the words of the target text from the spirit world (might be an attractive display at the main LDS museum in Salt Lake City, a cyborg demonstration of how Joseph Smith actually translated the Book of Mormon — although, of course, the Mormons would want to call the cyborg translator a retrocyborg rather than a pseudoretrocyborg)".

I want to add that text is also a cybernetic assemblage. We are connected to it through ocular nerves, and it stimulates the brain directly, causing us to hallucinate ideas, people, and things. Text is a really good interface, and the best writing makes that interface dissolve, linking us directly to the content. Writing made us cybernetic creatures.

I think technology is being looked at right now only because it moves so quickly that culture is regularly jarred into considering it and acclimatizing to it before it absorbs completely into the vat of culture.

There's the idea also of prosthetics that extend the capability of the mind vs. the capability of the body. Text extends the capability of the mind, and the capability of the body when that text is created by a governing state or group of people to create laws, taxes, scripture... A knife extends the capability of the tooth. A vehicle the speed of one's legs.

I think these questions appear because most of what we've been doing recently has extended the physical self. Now, we're seeing technology as an extension of the mental self. My Facebook body is a set of technosocial sensors that are easily stimulated through the interaction of others with my page. I feel those interactions through my embodied online self. Part of myself does not end at my body, but at my digital body, identity, ect. How I experience time and space is affected by that.

There's something interesting occuring with physical devices vs. mental devices. I think this is something that's really key to the whole study of prosthetic culture and the idea of the cyborg. Mental transportation and prosthetic devices dissolve, while physical ones do not.

Let me explain from the perspective of anthropology:

A hammer's shape and function has remained the same for thousands of years. It is a stable tool that does not suddenly change from one decade or moment to the next. We see it, we hold it, and we know what it is for.

However, the computer arrived on the scene as a gigantic, solid device. Buttons were large and unwieldy. One could not simply move a button around without having to rewire an entire system of wires and sockets and electrical impulses. The thing was the size of a gymnasium.

There's a story about a man coming to visit a massive computer laboratory. He asked the lead engineer about the weight of this thing called "software". The lead engineer had one of the programmers roll out an enormous cart of punch cards before realizing that the software was not on the punchcards, but on the holes in the punchcards. The software was invisible. It didn't weigh anything.

First the computer was larger than an office, then the computer it inside an office. Now Office runs on the computer. Computers and network technologies are extensions of the mental self, and thus they are evaporating and compressing and changing. They are not stable objects, like those we use to extend the capabilities of our physical selves. Solid interfaces are melting. Software can be downloaded from the air. A computer does not increase its weight when one adds data to it. With augmented reality, the interface makes another step from solid to liquid to air. The interface can be anywhere.

I agree with Dylan Armitage. It's more of a spectrum than a binary. It's something that's becoming more common as we become mentally linked by machines. We're technosocial hybrids. Sometimes off, and sometimes on. Some more connected, and others less connected. We will never all be completely connected or completely unconnected. We will always be on different pages. Social class and education affects this a whole lot.

There's a nice book on how these feed systems (especially the one you're using to read this text right now) will affect how people live. It's a teenage sci-fi book called Feed, by M.T. Anderson.

I'm missing the quote attribution for this one, but I think it sums up a lot of things. "If you want to see how technology has changed the world, don't look at how you've changed, look at how childhood has changed".

Sorry for the length.Edit

  • Jason Wodicka - @Amber Case: I for one would love some additional reading on a few of those concepts. I encountered some of the ideas side-on when I was studying CogSci in grad school, and I'm pretty sure that's where my notions of prosthesis come from, but it looks like you've tapped into a much purer source for serious thought on these issues, and I'm really interested in reading more.

Thanks for going on at length, here. =)

  • Amber Case - Thanks. Well, I'm trying to work on a manuscript that delves into this a bit further. Making a nice framework would allow future developments to be categorized instead of past and present ones. The framework would have to be solid enough not to age.Edit

Liam Cady - I may be repeating someone whose post I didn't read in depth, but it seems to me a prosthesis is a non-organic replacement of a body part, and a cyborg is someone whose prosthesis uses technology to improve the function of the part it replaces.
jacquelyn tarics - Prostheses replace a missing body part. A prosthesis driven by a computer or otherwise electronic means (such as certain advanced models which use actual signals from the brain to initiate commands) are cybernetic. That is how I understand it, at least.

  • Aaron Diaz - You've done it again, Amber!
  • Michael John - I think it's only cybernetics if it makes the Million Dollar Man sounds. Or if the eyes light up red. Put some red googley eyes on there and you're set.
  • Amber Case - @Micheal In that case, one could start selling Instant Cyborg kits! Only $9.99, while supplies last. Some restrictions apply.Edit

Kevin Sweeney - Indeed, great post, Amber! I feel all that is left for me to say about this is a thought I had just earlier today while I was walking back from the grocery store. I looked down to see the cords of my headphones hanging down to my pocket and thought about how many of us are walking around a large amount of the time connected to our computers through our ears. This post really expanded upon that flittering of an idea.

  • Patrick Meslin - If a cyborg can be defined as a human / organic structure to which artificial elements have been bound (for the sake of simplicity, exclusively passive things like a glass eye or fake teeth don't count)) how should we define an artificial construct (mechanical, electronic, whatever) to which organic elements have been bound? Is there even a terminology difference wether the end result started as machine or man?
  • Alex Axthelm - Prosthetics replace what is lost. Cyborgs enhance.
  • Sean Gillooly - It seems that a prosthesis is any replacement of a body part, and a cyborg would be anyone who has physically modified their body for the use of a prosthetic or enhancement.

Amber Case - Awesome, @Alex, "Prosthetics replace what is lost. Cyborgs enhance".

I love the brevity of this description. I'm trying to find counter-examples. There may not be any.Edit

  • Jerico Mele - Pardon the intrusion, but I hopped in from the Dresden twitter link and this is an interesting discussion. @Amber Case makes an excellent case for a rather inclusive definition of the term cyborg, but I think it might be a little more inclusive than is practical. Cyborg, of course, comes from cybernetic organism and the term cybernetic has diverged quite a bit from its original meaning, which was related to regulating systems with a closed signal loop. Generally speaking, systems which exploit feedback loops in a controlled (or controlling) manner are cybernetic. The term evolved into one applying mostly to computers and biomechanical devices mostly as a result of the cyberpunk movement in S.F. Limiting the term cyborg to one that includes some reference to the original meaning of cybernetics seems a practical limitation, which would most likely remove things like hammers, glasses, etc.

However, as someone who quite literally wouldn't have survived past childhood without glasses (nor be able without them) I'm interested in the development of prostheses that alter the way in which genes are passed on. I don't know of any studies relating to the genetic basis for eyesight deficiencies and their presence in the population before/after the development of effective corrective eyewear, but I'd be surprised if there wasn't a pretty big jump around the same time (allowing for trickle down effects between development and ubiquity). This of course assumes a fairly straightforward genotype-phenotype relationship for eye problems.

Again on practical grounds, I'd say that the distinction between prostheses and cyborg should be drawn on the basis of enhancement. If something is added to an organism that wasn't there at birth, it's a prostheses. If that prostheses adds a capability not found in the majority of the species (or at all, as the case may be) or enhances an ability to a level beyond that found in the majority of the species (and, for tradition's sake, is primarily electromechanical) I'd call the resulting organism a cyborg.

Eek, that was a little longer than I thought it'd be.

  • William Frank - I'm not nuts about absorbing "tools" into "prostheses", as in "A hammer is a prosthetic device that extends the capability of the fist". It's definitely a semantic difference, but linguistically we don't call that a prosthetic, we call it a tool. The spectrum discussed seems between tools and integrated prostheses, with all the levels of "cyborg" Amber listed fitting somewhere in there. And then we have to make sort of a fuzzy logic distinction between "tool" and "prosthetic", probably being at some level of physical integration.
  • Arran Ubels - Jerico; Someone described this to me as people evolve to become dependent on technology.
  • Stewart Hills - It seems to me that prosthetics are more permanently attached to the body. The also tend to originate as replacements for lost functions, not to create new ones. That comes in version 2.*
  • William Frank - "Prosthetics replace what is lost. Cyborgs enhance."

What's a magnifying glass?

  • Stewart Hills - @william Frank Yes. The answer is yes.
  • Alex Axthelm - A magnifying glass is a tool. Glasses and contact lenses are tools.

William Frank - @Alex: Just working within the frame of Amber's post, where all tools are essentially prostheses. I whole-heartedly agree with you.

  • Jason Wodicka - I think we're getting at an interesting question of division here: There seems to be one camp that says "tools and prostheses are different things," and another that says "tools and prostheses are largely overlapping categories." Certainly in my view of prostheses, all tools have the potential to become prostheses. If I'm reading @Amber Case correctly, all tools are inherently prostheses in her model. (Please correct me if I'm misrepresenting that!) But I can definitely see the appeal of looking for a definition of prosthesis that cleanly excludes tools like hammers - things that don't meet the "common-sense" definition of a prosthesis.

Kevin Sweeney - As much as having words to describe what we are talking about is important, sometimes I feel like we create differences when there really are none. This can sometimes be bad.

One fantastic example of taking common words and giving them very specific meanings in a context is James Carse's book "Finite and Infinite Games". Pretty much every example is based on redefining a concept that we all know to highlight the finite vs the infinite. Machine vs garden is a good example for this conversation. Both are examples of humanity using knowledge to shape our world but the machine is an attempt to control it completely while the garden plans for the unknown and works with unpredictability. By this definition, a computer is a machine while a sentient A.I. could almost be considered a garden.

My point with this is to highlight how definitions are important in context. However, they can be misleading when vast concepts are condensed into short jumbles of letters and thrown around every day. A good example of this is the distinction that many people have in their mind between animals and humans because of the different words we have for them. We are animals; we are not above animals. I picked this example because of the distinction that many seem to be making between machines and organic life. Organic life is but a very complex machine (I imagine this group will not have any issues with this and I will let it stand on its own). The distinction worth making is perhaps the base of the machine: carbon based lifeforms, silicon based computers, steel based automobiles, etc.

Then the questions become: should there be a distinction when we make a steel based prosthesis for an organic machine or when we make a carbon based prosthesis for a silicon machine? I would say no. Also, I suppose a transplant could be a carbon based prosthesis for a carbon machine? Would a harddrive upgrade also be a like prosthesis? No one really answered if transplants were prostheses or not...

Then cyborgs become machines with components of various bases.

(This was inspired by Patrick Meslin's question: what should we call artificial construct[s] to which organic elements have been bound? and obviously heavily influenced by Amber's bit removing distinctions between tools and prostheses)

  • William Frank - @Jason: That's the heart of what I'm getting at; there's a division to be made somewhere but it'll be fuzzy. Of course this is all a side issue from the original search for a division between "person with prostheses" and "cyborg", but it's just as valid especially within Amber's framework, which I like quite a bit of but certainly creates some new problems.
  • Jerico Mele - @Arran Ubels: I think we toss the word evolve around a little too freely when discussing the relationship between man and technology. What's actually going on is that technology is changing the pressures on our evolution by impacting what phenotypes are successful enough to reproduce. This changes allele distribution in the population. It's a small distinction but one that has pretty big consequences in the system works and the way we look at it.

I think there's a good reason why we have different words to describe tool and prostheses because there's a functional difference in the impact of one and the other. In addition to the enhancement qualifier I added to the idea of a cyborg, I'd like to take up Stewart's idea of permanence- things that involve a more or less 'untakebackable' choice like a tattoo.

There will, of course, be examples on the fuzzy line between both tool and prostheses. Cell phones, for example, are right on the cusp, and the notion of a distributed character to our personas (i.e. our online presence, etc.) is as well. Neither of them trip my 'prostheses' trigger entirely though.

  • Tara Drennen - When I wore glasses/contacts, I considered them prostheses; so are shoes if they give you arch support; my belt which I hang various tools and gear upon; my phone(s) that I carry everywhere; heck, anything worn on or attached to me that enhances my naked capacity or talents :)
  • Alex Axthelm - @William: Now that I think about it, I've discovered I am wrong. Glasses and contacts would be prosthesis. They would be replacing what was lost (eyesight). A magnifying glass would still be a tool though, because it only provides a temporary boost in ability.
  • Aaron Diaz - We can take it further. Language is a tool, a technology like any other. It augments our brains, and utilizes the carrier waves produced by our vocal chords. Language, I would argue, is really the primary and still most powerful prosthesis humanity's ever had, as it is not only essential for any meaningful human interaction, but it drives our individual brain development and biological evolution. Our brains have evolved to accommodate the technology of language, and if you were to remove this technology from any person, they are more severely handicapped than someone with injured limbs.

I think a main point to take away from discussions like these is that augmentation, cyborgs and the like are nothing new. Humans have been in this business before we knew how to write, and the divisions popular culture currently uses are more than a bit arbitrary.

  • Kevin Sweeney - btw, that means dolphins are cyborgs too since they chatty chat. that's awesome!
  • Arran Ubels - Now what of symbiotic relationships?
  • Stewart Hills - While the divisions we make with language are arbitrary and the basic forms are truly ancient, this is an exponential topic. It is appearing in our lives and bodies in new forms far more often that is used to.

Kurzweil's discussions of the exponential nature of time very evident here.

  • William Frank - @Alex: That certainly works as the dividing line between tools and prostheses, but it's ultimately drawn at a bit of an arbitrary point. Glasses enhance ones sight just like a magnifying glass. The only difference is the standard of human eyesight, and it's at that "average ability" at which we draw the line.

It looks like that's what Aaron's using as a definition of prostheses, except the line is drawn at what we are genetically; it seems then all accumulation of knowledge, all art and expression, anything we've used to evolve past cavemen is a form of prostheses (or cybernetics) under this definition. I can see the appeal of that definition but I don't think it jives with what most people would think of as prosthetics.

  • Aaron Diaz - Not sure about that, Kevin, since "language" can mean a lot of things. I was thinking more along the lines of a rigorous syntax, but obviously the lines are blurred the further you go to antiquity. With certain primates, we know specific calls and noises can be unique to a particular troupe, but would we consider this "language" an invention or just localized behavior? It's clear there's not a specific cutoff point, but I don't think it's meaningful to call dolphins cyborgs.
  • Kevin Sweeney - Agreed. The more I thought about it the less it worked, but why edit it out? It did allow you to make the point that communication alone is not enough. It may require using symbols (including sounds) to represent abstract ideas. There certainly is a grey area.
  • Alex Axthelm - @Aaron I don't believe language or advanced communication to be a prosthesis. It doesn't replace anything that is lost. It is evolutionary, not reactionary.

@William: If I use a magnifying glass constantly, to improve my vision beyond what I had lost, that would make me a cyborg.

  • Aaron Diaz - Well I don't think replacement is necessary for the definition. All inventions are prostheses in that they augment human abilities. Shoes enhance our feet, phones enhance our voices, and language enhances our brains, and our brains' ability to form thoughts.
  • William Frank - I'm less interested in the semantics of tool/prosthetic/cybernetic than in the way it affects our understanding of our development. Whatever language is, we should definitely recognize it as an attempt on humanity's part to better itself - whether that is a tool, prosthetic, or cyborg technology, the point remains the same. In fact everything we've done to expand our understanding of eachother and our world is an augmentation process akin to evolution but replacing natural selection with an artificial, sociological selection. We choose the words, knowledge, art, technology, etc. together as a race that we feel will augment us the furthest.

Personally the words "prosthetic" and "cyborg" are sort of casualities of popular culture and will forever mean peg-legs and the Borg. ( but then again I'm no cyborg anthropologist =) )

  • Alex Axthelm - I think that tools and cyborg technologies are part of the evolutionary process. There's no important difference between advancing your sight by using a lens and creating better eyeballs.

Prosthetics, on the other hand, are more related to the immune system.We can't regrow our limbs, or repair our eyes, so we have to build mechanical systems to compensate.

  • Dylan Armitage - @Alex Axthelm: I'm not sure I quite follow your statement that prosthetics are related to the immune system. Is it that we cannot regrow limbs, etc. due to our immune system, hence the requirement of mechanical systems that the immune system is less likely to attack?
  • Eric Basile -
  • Alex Axthelm - @Dylan: I'm sorry if I was confusing. Prosthetics are, in my view, an extension of the immune system. The immune systems fights disease and repairs damage to the body. When the damage is too great for biological methods to repair, Humans can use prosthetics to help offset the damage. While not actually repairing the damage, they fulfill the same role, in bringing the individual back to prior functionality

Chris Battey - When you've defined prosthesis to include "any creation or invention", you've essentially made the term useless. I'm in favor of a much narrower definition. I think a "prosthesis" is anything used to replace or augment missing or deficient capabilities, where "missing" and "deficient" are defined relative to some sort of human normal level. Glasses, then, are prostheses, whereas a magnifying glass is not.

Once augmentations reach the point where they're allowing you to significantly exceed human-normal levels - and they've become a significant part of your everyday concept of your body - I think that's where the "transhuman" line begins. ("Cyborg", I'd define as "transhuman" where the primary means of augmentation is electronic in nature. There are other means to transhumanism, particularly the biological...)
Kevin Sweeney - @Aaron About my silly dolphin comment: "Language is a tool, a technology like any other..." I could plagiarize your entire bit about language except plug in communication instead of language. However, if evolved traits like language and communication are prostheses, isn't vision a prosthesis? Everything that you said about language applies equally to communication as well as to vision: driving brain development, driving more biological development, inducing a handicap without, etc.

I was going to say that vision, communication, and language were not prostheses and that we might have to draw the line at writing and written language, but now we are just extending through some more grey area. It is a fairly arbitrary line between technologies that we 'evolved' and those that we 'invented' when we start talking about language as an invention as opposed to an evolution that improved our chances of survival. communication -> language -> writing -> computers opposable thumbs -> sticks -> hammers -> computers Where is the evolution / invention barrier?

I go back to my post that was kind of lost in the shuffle. All of these are types of machines, from simple to incredibly advanced, including ourselves. We could define a prosthesis as a machine of one base integrating that of another (carbon based lifeform machine with steel based hammer machine). It would answer why medicines that improve health are not considered prostheses even though they improve the immune system and why artificially grown hearts are not really considered prostheses, but why a metal arm or heart makes you a cyborg.

It would include language and communication: carbon based lifeform with information based sound (energy based waves). In this case, many lifeforms began having prostheses when they began communicating with sound, light, and chemicals (wait not chemicals, they are carbon based) but we are the only lifeform that has continued that through to many many forms of complex machines (most of which we have invented with our evolved intellect, including language). I feel that this is especially appropriate since we as humans have a pension for defining things in terms of us vs everything that came before us, where 'us' is usually agricultural man. That line through the grey is one of the most obvious and the least seen.

In the future we may even see silicon based computer machines with carbon based prostheses (I imagine that carbon based something is better than its silicon or steel based equivalent).

  • Aaron Diaz - Kevin: your analogy doesn't work because language is not a biological product, but a conscious invention. The capacity for language is evolved, but language was first a type of behavior but then became codified. Communication and vision are universal abilities; language is not. If language was innate, we wouldn't have so many.
  • Kevin Sweeney - Well I suppose I have to respectfully disagree ;-)
  • Kevin Sweeney - To be more precise, I think there was nothing conscious at all about the evolution of language. To bring it further forward, while we are certainly conscious now of what we are inventing, there isn't a lot of "conscious" invention. The green movement could be one notable aberration. Looking for cures for cancer could also fall into that category, but those almost seem like "discovery" over "invention".
  • Kevin Sweeney - Oh also! The number of languages has more to do with its evolution than conscious change (Shakespeare being one notable exception).
  • Jeremy Ruhland - You become a cyborg when your enhancements alter your voice, duh. Extra points for red glowing eyes.
  • Carlo Peralta - Adding to what Alex said, it seems to me that the use of technology to replace/improve human-born abilities (or lack of it) is one of the facets of evolution.

It's still natural selection in process, except that now, we have more clout to say how and in what direction this evolution will take place than we ever had previously, in face of the imposing conditions of the ever-changing environment.

And if such technologies enable or assist us in order to survive, then my guess is we are all for the better of it. And for those that didn't make it, give us a valuable lesson in their failure to adapt. And prostheses are just that - augmenting abilities or lack thereof.

Moving on to the difference between a person with a prosthesis and a cyborg, in my humble opinion would have to do with the creation of either being. Humans are created initially through the fertilization of an egg by a sperm cell, and undergoes the whole gestation process. In other words, completely organic in origins. Whereas cyborgs, according to "Cyborgs and Space" by Clynes and Kline is a cybernetic organism (composed of both natural and artificial elements).In essence, a good deal of humanity can be classified as cyborgs due to the application of existing technologies (glasses, shoes, cane, bone replacement, etc.).

These definitions seem to suffice at least on the physical level. It's a whole lot more complicated to define once metaphysics come in. In a nutshell, at least I believe that the fundamental aspects of human and cyborg are one and the same, thus at least metaphysically, there is no significant difference. To put in question, removing all the cybernetic enhancements on an organism, would that organism be any more or any less human than one without (whether they require it for convenience or not)?

  • Freddy Cervera - My goodness! This have go so far... that almost lost sense at all. Did I see at some point some kind of memetic approach to languages? O.o

Back on topic about Cyborg and Human with no real arms but plastic ones... right now, I don't see any difference for what I've read in here, except for the massive connotations of the cyborg term for mecanichal humans ala Shirow Masamune.

  • Steven Campbell - I'm far too busy to read through this entire thread, but I feel like this may have been mentioned.

There is some sort of parallel to be drawn between medicine and prostheses. Medicine, either used as human enhancement, dietary supplement, or treatment for an illness, has been viewed as a very critical part of human advancement, and rightly so: it's caused us to get over MAJOR hurdles in our evolution as a culture. However, if we are going to have any sort of opinion toward the nature of prostheses and cyborgism, then such critiques must be applied to medicine as well.

If there is to be any negative conclusion drawn about modifying ourselves from our natural form, then it is not only a negative conclusion in regard to cyborgs and artificial limbs. It's a connotation received as well by medicine, eyeglasses, functional clothes (warm coats, shoes, etc.), tools operated intimately with our bodies, surgeries, blood transfusions, etc.

  • Justin Toney - Thank you, @Amber Case, for your sharing your research. If anyone hasn't read her lengthy post above, please do.

The wide variety of answers we've collected as to which meaning associates with which word has become unruly and unreliable. Perhaps our questions should focus more upon the use and perception of those words. After all, in linguistics, the symbol that lacks a relationship to its audience is not language at all. It communicates nothing.

Instead of trying to differentiate between Cyborg, Tool, and Prosthetic (the overlap of which terms is clear simply by reading through this sampling of their use), let us ask instead what it means to be called a cyborg. Could it offend someone? What if I were to call your laptop, or this Google Buzz software a prosthetic? What does calling a thing a prosthetic do differently than calling a thing a tool?

In my own understanding of these terms, I perceive neither a spectrum nor a binary between tools and prosthetics. Their distinctive use is to denote an attitude toward technology and its relationship to a user. When one person complains metaphorically that "that boy would die without internet access" they are implying that the device has become so integral to that person's homeostasis that their optimal functionality is threatened without it.

This is the same kind of relationship that people feel but speak less of when they talk about shoes or glasses to varying degrees and in varying contexts. A master blacksmith, for example will talk more often of his hammer as an extension of his arm than a "mere tool." I, however, with little experience in physical crafts, would more naturally associate "hammer" with "tool." The distinction is not in the object itself, but in how that object relates to us. A fighter pilot's plane is his/her prosthetic. It requires that pilot to have expert familiarity with it, its capabilities, its limitations, its intended use, and the principles guiding its use. So too the blacksmith's hammer, but not my hammer.

There is another layer to this distinction. In the example of the "boy who would die without the internet," there is also the element of disapproval. There is an implied irony in calling something non-vital necessary for survival. Agreeable examples of a prosthetic are current medical prosthetics: semi-robotic arms, false legs, pacemakers, etc. To imply that these are "tools" may be insulting to a prosthetic user, since it undermines that person's conception of their own body. If a prosthetic leg is a tool, then it is extraneous to one's self; not a leg, but an object independent of one's homeostasis. To that person, it would be ridiculous. A leg is thing that is used to walk or stand, that has a knee, and connects to a foot. Chairs have legs.

So to call a device (the internet) a prosthetic, is to make a statement about how it is used (by the boy... in this case we assume obsessively.) Call a fighter pilot's plane a tool, and that pilot will say that you're undervaluing the expertise of his skills and his role in the plane's function. Call a kindergartener’s pen an extension of his mind, and you're exaggerating the same things. Call the internet necessary for survival to an individual, and you're implying as much a deficit in that person's mentality because of their use of technology as is denoted about another person's physiology when you say the same thing about their pacemaker.

So not only are these words used to indicate use and relationship of object and user, but they can also reveal the attitude of the speaker toward that object or its use. Luddites see a world ever-more populated with tools. Progressives see it as ever-more populated with cyborgs.
Steven Campbell - "The distinction is not in the object itself, but in how that object relates to us. A fighter pilot's plane is his/her prosthetic."

Excellent, wonderful.

  • Justin Toney - And in response to @Aaron Diaz, I would argue that a particular language is technology. The concept of language itself, in the context of a language user, is indistinguishable from the user's capacity to employ language. Language is a natural, biological, human evolutionary trait. French, English, and American Sign Language are examples of technologies used by humans to enhance their natural capabilities. (A small distinction)
  • Steven Campbell - @Justin Toney: Wouldn't language be different in the sense that it evolved almost without conscious effort? Clearly endeavors to create a global language (like Esperanto) could be considered as attempts at a "prosthetic," but couldn't natural language with its "biological, human evolutionary traits" be separated from those prosthetics which were created with an end in mind?

When someone went to build the hammer, as cited by many as a tool or prosthetic that hasn't changed, they decided to build something that could achieve a specific task. Language has had natural evolution and although it was CREATED with a purpose, it has not EVOLVED for any reason other than organic reasons, as a creature evolves. And because language has not evolved for any sort of purpose, it is, in my mind, no prosthetic.

  • Eric Izzett - Human being are already cyborgs. We have been cyborgs ever since the first caveman picked up a stick and bashed a woolly mammoth over the head with it. Saying that we rely on tools understates the fact of the matter. We have an evolutionary need for tools.

Imagine dropping a person off in the middle of a forest and forbidding them the use of any kind of tool (including fire, shelter, hunting utensils, etc). That person would not survive. They could not survive. Without tools, our bodies are almost laughably vulnerable. Regardless of the technological advances that occur within the next century, human beings simply could not be more dependent on 'prostheses' than we already are.

So, at the point where human beings literally cannot survive without prostheses, why is it that we do not already call ourselves cyborgs? I think that the reason is mostly rhetorical. Being dependent on our inventions is just a part of being human. It always has been. For that reason, I think that, regardless of what proportion of our bodies become synthetic, humans will always think of themselves as humans.

Any why not? To be human is to be a cyborg.

  • Alexandro Raymundo - The first time I heard the notion that my glasses made me a cyborg, I got all giddy with excitement.

I tend to think that a cyborg would have to have a prosthesis fully integrated into their form. Glasses, shoes, and even many prosthetic limbs tend to be easily removable.

  • Justin Toney - @Steven Campbell, I think you're exactly right. Maybe I wasn't clear enough? Language (or our evolved capacity to use language) doesn't fall under "tool" or "prosthetic," because it is part of our naturally evolved biology. A specific language (Esperanto, as you said or English, as I said) was invented by conscious human effort. Languages (codified lexicon, syntax) are technology (prosthetic or tool), language itself is an evolved skill enhanced by one or many languages.

@ Eric Izzett, I agree with your point about "humans will always think of themselves as humans." To be human is to be technology-dependent, at least now. But the use of "cyborg" defines it better than its meaning. It's a recent word, used to distinguish between what has become accepted as socially normal tech-dependent and beyond-normal (or specifically computer-based) tech-dependent. Where we as a community of language-users draw the line for "cyborg" is where we draw the line for 'acceptable' technology.

  • Richard Stubbs - Personally, my definition is that prosthetics replicate a biological function that would otherwise be present. This means artificial limbs, pacemakers etc. Things which augment or enhance existing functions are not. (i.e. glasses would be no use to a blind person)
  • Peter da Silva - @Richard: So is my knee brace a prosthesis or a tool?

What about implantable cardioverter-defibrillators?

Dental prostheses are definitely prosthesis, even if they're cosmetic.

What about breast implants?

  • Richard Stubbs - @Peter da Silva These are just my personal opinions, remember, of how they are defined:

Breast implants = enhancement = tool Dental prostheses = replace lost function (missing teeth) = prosthetic Knee brace: if it is to improve existing knee performance, tool. If knee is significantly less operable without it, prosthetic (I would imagine a more permanent 'brace' in this case, e.g. reinforcing struts used in partial knee replacement surgery) ICDs however are more difficult, but my opinion is they are prostheses since their presence corrects irregular biological functions.

  • Peter da Silva - @Richard - I can technically walk without it, but if I don't wear the brace I'm in significant pain after walking even a short distance.
  • Mr. Aswell - A prosthesis is when an experienced writer puts forward an idea to the intellectual community.. No wait . . . that's a Pro's Thesis.

@ Peter. Your knee brace is something in-between. Whereas a total or partial knee replacement would be a prosthesis, and a knee pad is a tool used to prevent injury, your knee brace is a prosthetic tool used to support the operation of an organic device that has suffered damage, but is not out of order to the extent that it would require replacement. As for breast implants, those are accessorial prostheses used by tools.

  • S Hagan - The human form is a recognizeable chassis. Remove a limb, and the chassis is no longer whole.

In my opinion, a prosthetic is something that replaces a part that is missing from the standard human chassis, be this a titanium hip replacement, or a wooden leg, or one of those nice scottish hands with the replaceable, mass produced finger bits.

The knee brace listed above is not a prosthetic - it is a corrective external modification. It's essentially a case of "There, I fixed it!" kludging, because opening up the human body and repairing tissue damage is expensive, difficult, and far riskier than just welding or strapping an exoframe onto it to do most of the work the joint would do.

The ideal is to be able to use interchangeable, or replaceable parts on the human chassis. Since every human is different....well, we just need better machining systems and custom parts might be possible.

TLDR: a prosthetic replaces a part that no longer functions. Note the No-Longer part. Reconstructive surgery after a horrific injury might be called prosthetic face. Cher... not so much. I'd like to take a moment to pull in a term from fiction here: Augmetic. An Augmetic device is something that replaces existing parts of the organic human chassis with parts that work more efficiently, or have some function not found in the standard meatbag. Yes, some crossover with cybernetics here, but Cybernetics refers to electronic/computer controlled servos. Augmetic here refers to function.

  • Peter da Silva - I would agree, my brace isn't a prosthesis... but not because I can walk without it, but because it's not replacing part of my body.

I don't think reconstructive surgery is prosthetic, though it may involve prostheses.

I'm not sure that it's possible to define a breast implant as "not prosthetic", because the same implant may be used in cosmetic surgery or reconstructive surgery. There's a substantial gray area.

  • Richard Stubbs - Yeah, I think I probably agree with those points. Perhaps it is better to define them by purpose rather than function

@S Hagan Interesting you should mention custom parts; some are possible now:

  • Peter da Silva - On the other hand, prosthetics and cybernetics provide rich metaphors. I have in the past referred to my PDA as "the third lobe of my brain", and now that I think of it the term "prosthetic memory" is not too strained a metaphor. :)
  • S Hagan - @peter da silva - While I agree- the surgery for reconstruction wouldn't be prosthetic, the plastic and metal bits used to replace bone tissue removed might be. Sorry, should have been clearer.

@richard Stubbs - Though I can't provide a link at the moment, consider this - High Resolution 3d scans of bone tissue + rapid prototyping technology + advanced robosurgery techniques = A new bone replacement, EXACTLY like the old one (if your scan is on file), printed while u wait, and attached via microsurgery. With the right prototyper, or even a CNC machine, imagine a perfect fit in carbon fiber or titanium.

  • andrew hudson - It may be too late to try and insert a new point into this discussion, but we'll see...

I find that when "defining" something that most of us would agree is a human creation or invention, it's easiest to look at two fundamental things that make up our definition: Intent and Perception. A false leg would indeed be a prosthesis, because it is intended AND perceived as such; specifically, intended and perceived as an extension of the body, replacing a leg that is no longer there.

To use an earlier example, a Magnifying Glass as we think of it would not be a prosthesis, because it is neither intended nor perceived to be a part of the body, or replacing a part of the body, etc. and is instead viewed as a seperate object in and of itself. However if you take that same magnifying glass and grafted it in front of your eye, then it would be a prosthesis because our intent and perception of it have now changed-- and arguably its function as well, but let's not get into the semantics of utility here :D

My point is that when making a definition we must focus on what we really use to implement the definition, rather than trying to classify things by criteria evident within the defined object itself. Culture is fluid, and therefore definitions must be also; otherwise we'll get stuck in cycles of counterexamples and redefinitions, and end up with something arbitrarily long and useless.