I'm impatient. It hasn't been a good morning. I'm on a business
trip and have just arrived in Reno, where I'm supposed to interview people at
Tahoe for a study. But the car rental at the airport won't take my debit card. I
spend half an hour canvassing the other outlets, no luck. Finally a man at
one counter kindly names a competitor and points me to a courtesy phone.
"Dial 133. They usually have cars and their rates are okay."
I pick up the phone. I can hear it fine with my hearing aids, even
amid the ruckus of the baggage claim. Yes, they have cars available. The
voice directs me to the shuttle bus outside the airport.
It's the last telephone call I will ever make with my natural ears.
Paperwork signed, I wait for my car. I fidget. I might as well have
driven here instead of flying. And then —
That's odd. The traffic sounds fuzzy all of a sudden. Instead of
their usual decisive vrump, the cars have started making a whispery sound as
they go by, as if plowing through shredded paper. And they sound a hundred
yards away, even though I'm right by the road.
It sounds like my left hearing aid's battery is going. Even though
I'm wearing two hearing aids, only the left ear really counts. The right ear is
so poor that it can hear only vague rumbles. My left ear is my conversation
ear, my telephone ear, my radio ear.
I switch batteries in a practiced little pas de deux of the hands:
left battery into the right aid, right battery into the left. That doesn't make any
difference. I guess they're both going. I pull out a battery pack from my
suitcase, do a second changeout, and wait for the familiar rush of clean, loud
sound. But it doesn't happen.
I can't have two broken hearing aids at once. It's as absurd as two
tires blowing out at the same time. As I get in the car I'm breathing shallowly,
and it's not because of the altitude. I roll the car window down, fiddle with my
left hearing aid's volume control, and wait for my ears to miraculously clear.
All the way up to Tahoe, I'm monitoring on all frequencies, and — this
doesn't sound right.
Gotta be the batteries. It's just a pack of bad batteries. At the
hotel I check in, then go to the Long's drugstore and buy three sets of 675s.
It costs me fifteen dollars and thirty-seven cents. Right there at the checkout
counter, I rip the batteries out of their plastic case and put them in.
That doesn't help either.
In the car I spread both hearing aids out on the passenger seat
and methodically try every possible combination of tubes, batteries, and
earmolds. Nothing works: the day is like a coin that always comes up tails.
"It's got to be earwax," I say to myself out loud, looking out the
windshield at the big red-and-white logo of the store.
I've got to get someone to check my left ear for earwax. Maybe
the clerk at the hotel? She had proved to be a lissome woman with blond hair
layered over black, whose full lips pouted as her hands explored a keyboard I
couldn't see. Maybe she would also take me into her arms and tell me that
everything would be all right. Now that would be customer service.
I've never had earwax trouble in my life. But I've also never had two
hearing aids fail on me at once, either.
Emergency room. Now.
The ER is quiet, so while waiting for the doctor I conduct an impromptu
interview with the nurse. The study is on the region's social problems, and I
might as well start collecting data. The nurse is a fount of information. But as
she talks, a chilly realization takes hold of me.
"Nancy," I say. "Are you talking about as loudly as you were when
I first came in?"
"Yes, I think so."
"But I'm not hearing you as well as when I came in. Before, I could
mostly hear your voice. Now I'm only getting little bits of it."
I'm having to lip-read her more and more. With perceptible speed,
the world is becoming softer and softer. Every half-hour, I am hearing less
than the half-hour before. It's like being an astronaut in the movie Apollo 13
watching the oxygen tank's gauge inexorably sliding down to zero.
Reflexively, I think to myself: It's the battery.
Oh no it isn't. I have not only just lost part of my hearing, I am
losing all of it. Minute by minute. I am going completely deaf, right here, right
now, while sitting on this table talking to this nurse and scribbling notes.
The nurse goes off to see if she can find the physician just a little
bit sooner. In a few minutes he appears, listens grave-faced to my story, then
looks carefully in my ears.
"Your ears both look the same," he tells me after I put my hearing
aids back in. "There's no fluid behind the eardrums. No redness or swelling."
I can barely hear him, even though I've twisted the volume wheels
on both my aids up to max. I usually set the volume at three.
Now it's at five, the top number on the dial. I need it to be at six.
Six is my world of a few hours ago, the place where footsteps and birds and
telephones live. If I could just get it to six.
"I'm also feeling a little dizzy," I say cautiously, knowing the
implications but trying not to think about them. The inner ears also control
the sense of balance. I feel lightheaded, off-kilter, ethereal, as if I had just
downed a shot of vodka. When I'd gotten off the exam bench to greet the
doctor I had first looked down at the floor to check how far away it was. On
the fly, I'm reorganizing the way I deal with my visual field. I'm finding that if I
turn to look at something too fast, my head swims. To stop that from
happening, I've started squinting and holding my eyes steady as I turn my
The doctor goes off to call a specialist. I peer around the curtain to
watch him at the nurses' station down the hall. The phone's spiral cord
skitters over the counter as he paces back and forth.
He comes back, speaking slowly and carefully so I can read his
lips. "It could be a virus in the inner ear. I want to prescribe you steroids and
antivirals. They treat swelling caused by viruses like herpes —"
I'm unraveling his words one at a time, and this creates a kind of
myopia of the soul. The words are roaming around in my brain and not
slotting in anywhere.
"Herpes? I don't have herpes."
"It's not that. It's an antiviral."
Steroids. Antivirals. Vertigo. It is sinking into me that this is not
earwax, this is not an equipment problem, this is not a minor health scare. I
am in deep trouble. My mission is aborted. My life has changed forever. Six
is lost, unreachable, in a place beyond where the volume wheel stops. Whip
right around Tahoe, take the fastest trajectory back home.
The day is July 7, 2001. I'm thirty-six years old. I've just finished
my Ph.D. After a decade of grad school I'm learning what it's like to have a
real job and the beginning of a career. I'm starting to meet people. I'm
beginning to have a life.
I have always been hard of hearing. That's not the same thing as
being deaf. To be hard of hearing is to have partial hearing, which my hearing
aids remedied by amplifying sound. They hurt, itched, and whistled, yet they
enabled me to take my place in a hearing world. I went to school with people
who heard normally. I could use the telephone and understand the radio. No
one ever taught me sign language. I often stumbled; I had to ask for repeats; I
constantly missed jokes and struggled at parties; but I got by, a reasonably
successful child of a lesser god.
I've always been hard of hearing. I can't go deaf.*
Eight hours later I return to the car rental office only to find it
closed and deserted. A sign directs me to deposit the key and call for a
courtesy cab. A yellow arrow points helpfully to the location of the phone. I
go and stare at it, feeling like Snoopy in a world filled with signs saying no
dogs allowed. The lot is vacant, not a human being in sight. What do I do?
Perhaps I have just enough hearing left to hear a yes. I pick up the
phone and dial.
"Mmmm mmm mmbpm bbmm verumf hmm bmm, berum hmmm
"Hi, I'm at the Enterprise Rent-a-car lot and I need a ride to the
airport. The sign says to call. Can you send a cab?"
"Erumm vrmm nerpmm mmm mmbpm ermm bmmm arimm,
mmmbpmm bmm hmm ermmm —"
"I'm sorry, I'm deaf and I can't hear you. Could you just say yes or
no? Just say whether you can send a cab. Just one word, please.
I'm at the Enterprise Rent-a-car near the Reno airport, on" — I
look around desperately, my ears ringing like chimes as my head swivels —
"Ssssss burumm bmm pmmb erumm bmm pmm arumm emm er
berumm bmm pmm bmm erumm burumm."
Human beings are not binary creatures. You can ask as clearly
as possible for a single syllable, yes or no, 1 or 0, but the instinctual
apparatus of social communication is not easily turned off. Even audiologists
will blather on at me while they are holding my hearing aids in their own
hands, and I have to smile tolerantly and hold up my hand to stop them. To
people who hear normally, complete deafness seems to be inconceivable.
Complete blindness can be simulated easily by closing one's eyes, but even
the best earplugs cannot fully shut out the world. The ears are always on,
always connected. To talk is to be heard.
But I have gotten just enough of the sibilant, the ssss in yes, to
get the message. "Okay, I hear you saying yes, thank you, I'll wait for the
I hang up, praying that all the phonic baggage trailing that one
syllable was not yes, but it will take an hour, or yes, but you have to call this
other number, or yes, we will send a cab right away, sir, if you would just say
again where you are.
I stand there and wait, clutching the tow handle of my suitcase as
the sun pivots and falls, as appalled by the enormity of the parking lot as a
castaway who has just watched his last message in a bottle drift out of sight.
In the maze of doctors' visits that take place in the next few weeks, a phrase
that comes up over and over again is cochlear implant. When people go deaf,
it is usually because something is wrong with a snail-shaped organ called the
cochlea, which lives behind the eardrum, about an inch and a half inside the
skull. (The word cochlea comes from the Latin word for "snail.") The entire
function of the rest of the ear — the ear canal, the eardrum, the three little
bones of the middle ear — is just to get sound to the cochlea. The ear canal
funnels sound toward the eardrum, which vibrates. Three little bones transmit
the eardrum's vibration to the base of the cochlea (that is, the big end of its
spiral). Ripples travel through the fluid inside the cochlea from its base to the
apex. As they go, they perturb 15,000 cell-sized hairs lining its inside. Seen
at magnification, those hairs look like a field of grass, and in fact they behave
like one, literally rustling in response to sound waves just as blades of grass
undulate to the wind's touch. Each hair is connected to a nerve ending, which
sends signals to the brain when the hair is moved by sound.
If all of the hairs are physically damaged — and that appears to
be what has just happened to me — the nerves can no longer be stimulated,
and profound deafness sets in. But the nerves themselves are usually still
intact, and can be triggered with implanted electrodes under computer
control. That is what a cochlear implant does.*
Becky Highlander, my new audiologist, explains to me how it
works. She's a slender blond woman with a direct gaze and a deadpan sense
of humor. Lip-reading her is not so hard right now, because I've been all over
the Web researching the device and already have the big picture. Holding up
one of the implants, she tells me that the process would start with sound
going into the microphone at the headpiece. The headpiece would stick to
my head, held there by a magnet inside the implant. The microphone would
convert sound into electrical current and send it down a wire running under
my shirt to a waist-worn computer (or processor) on my belt. The processor
would analyze the sound, ultimately yielding a stream of bits (1s and 0s). It
would send those bits back up the wire to the headpiece, which would then
transmit them by radio through my skin to the computer chips in the implant.
Those chips would send signals down a wire going to my cochlea
through a tunnel drilled through an inch and a half of bone. A string of sixteen
electrodes coiled up inside my cochlea would strobe on and off in rapid
sequence to trigger my auditory nerves. If all went well, my brain would learn
to interpret the stimulation as sound.
Getting the implant would make me, in the most literal sense, a
cyborg. The word is shorthand for cybernetic organism, a term coined by
Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline in 1960 and defined by WordNet as "a
human being whose body has been taken over in whole or in part by
electromechanical devices." The word cybernetic comes from the Greek
kubernetes, meaning "pilot" or "steersman." A thermostat is a simple
cybernetic device, turning on the heat when temperatures get low and turning
it off when they get high. It monitors the world and exerts control on it. It
The cybernetic organism: me and my steersman, fused together.
But it's not the prospect of surgery that upsets me. What upsets
me, considerably, is what's inside the implant. Becky hands me one with its
ceramic casing removed. I cradle it in my palm, surprised by its solidness
and heft. It's a circuit board, plain and simple. With computer chips. There
are clearly hundreds of thousands of transistors in the thing.
It really is a computer. It's cold, angular, and digital, yet it's going
to be embedded in my flesh, which is warm, squishy, and wet — how is that
even possible? How can a joining like that not obscurely but permanently
hurt, the body and brain outraged by the alien language of 0 and 1?
"Sleep on it," Becky says, kindly.
I do, and I dream that I am walking over a dimly lit landscape of
tall grass,my body floating several inches into the air with each step as if I
am on the moon. I trip and fall, and my head strikes the ground. A computer
chip hiding in the scrub senses its opportunity and lances into my head like
a bullet. I get up, hand clutching my skull where it entered, and I am dazed
and uncertain: what have I just become?
A cyborg. Not the Hollywood kind, but a real one nonetheless.
Steve Austin, the test pilot in The Six Million Dollar Man who was rebuilt with
two bionic legs, a bionic arm, and a bionic eye, is a cyborg from the outside
in, with a powerful mechanical body. But this technology would make me a
cyborg from the inside out, because the computer would decide what I heard
and how I heard it. It would be physically small, but its effect on me would be
huge. It would be the sole mediator between the auditory world and myself.
Since I would hear nothing but what its software allowed, the computer's
control over my hearing would be complete.
In a sense, the process would be a reconstruction of my entire
body. To be sure, I would still be nearsighted, still brown-haired, still
delighted by chocolate and allergic to sesame seeds. But the sense of
hearing immerses you in the world as no other. John Hull, a blind man, writes
that while the eyes put you at the periphery of the universe — you are always
at its edge, looking in — the ears put you at its center, since you hear what
is all around you. Hearing constitutes your sense of being of the world, in the
thick of it. To see is to observe, but to hear is to be enveloped. People who
go completely deaf often report feeling dead, invisible, insubstantial. They feel
that it is they who have become unreal, not the world.
If deafness is a kind of death, hearing again is a kind of rebirth.
But I would be reborn into a different body. Becky carefully explains to me
that the implant can't restore the living organ in all its subtlety and
complexity. The world mediated by the computer in my skull would sound
synthetic, the product of approximations, interpolations, and compromises.
My body would have bewildering new properties and new rules, and it would
take me weeks, months, even years, to understand them fully.
And those properties would keep changing. This new ear would
have thousands of lines of code telling it what to do with incoming sound and
how to trigger my nerve endings. That code could be changed in two ways.
Its settings could be tweaked in a process called mapping, which would be a
bit like changing Word's font sizes and colors for better readability. Or
scientists could change the underlying algorithms themselves as they
learned more about how normal ears encode sound for the brain. That would
require wiping out the processor's software and replacing it with an entirely
new version. It would be the equivalent of changing a computer's operating
system from DOS to Windows, or Windows to Linux. My perception of the
world would always be provisional: the latest but never the final version.
Who has not wondered what it would be like to live in someone
else's body? If I got the implant, I would find out. An artificial sense organ
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. "You will be assimilated," the gaunt, riven "Borg" villains of Star Trek told
their victims. While the implant would not of course control my mind, in a
very real sense I would be assimilated. A cochlear implant has a corporate
mind, created by squadrons of scientists, audiologists, programmers, and
clinical-trial patients. I would be incorporated, bound for life to a particular
company's changing beliefs in the nature of reality. Resistance would be
futile. Unless, of course, I wanted to be deaf.
In 1802, Ludwig van Beethoven wrote to his brothers about the perplexities of
My misfortune is doubly painful to me because I am bound to be
misunderstood; for me there can be no relaxation with my fellow men, no
refined conversations, no mutual exchange of ideas. I must live almost alone,
like one who has been banished. I can mix with society only as much as true
necessity demands. If I approach near to people a hot terror seizes upon me,
and I fear being exposed to the danger that my condition might be noticed.
"No refined conversations," indeed. I had loved to listen to my
massage therapist's gentle voice as her hands worked my shoulders and
arms. Now that I am completely deaf I just have to lie there, wandering in the
dullness of my ingrown mind, while her hands probe my skin. When I am
face up things are easier, though being prone, without my glasses, in low
light, is not the best conversational situation. The results are atrocious: "So
what have you done this week, Wendy?"
"Mnnn gnorm erumm brmm parumm gerumm."
I crane my head up to look at her. I do my best to repeat what I
think I have heard back to her, to save her the trouble of saying it
again. "Sandwich?" I realize as I say it that it is a ridiculous guess.
"Mnnn gnorm erumm brmmm party gerumm."
"Party. You had a party?"
"Yes. For Aiyana."
I know that Aiyana is one of the associates of the clinic. At least
now I'm contextualized. I can decode better.
"A big party?"
"Sixteen. It was just enough."
"Sixteen people. That's a lot for a small space like this." Absurdly,
I am assuming she had the party in the office.
"No, at home."
"Ah, at home." I let my head drop back on the table. "I'm sorry I
It is like returning to the ancient days of 300-baud modems, when
one could see text appearing on the screen letter by letter. I communicate
phoneme by phoneme, with tin cans and string.
And there are many other little humiliations. I forget to take my
change at the supermarket and the bagger runs after me in the parking lot,
calling, but I don't turn around until he taps my shoulder. In doctors' offices, I
have to apologetically ask receptionists to come and get me when I am
called. I don't dare to start conversations with people I don't know.
I'm still able to get things done at work, since most of my job
consists of writing anyway. But when I try to attend a meeting with two other
people, I can't swivel my head back and forth fast enough to follow what
either of them is saying. At first they gamely try to include me, but it's
hopelessly tedious and soon they return to doing what they know how to do,
which is talk like normal people. They aren't being unkind; they just don't
know what more they can do, and neither do I. For about ten minutes I watch
them, feeling like HAL, the hyperintelligent computer in Kubrick's 2001,
spying on two astronauts by lip-reading their conversation through a space
pod's window.Maybe HAL could do such a thing, but I can't. I see their lips
move, I know megabytes of information are flowing back and forth, but it's as
invisible to me as radio waves. Finally I quietly excuse myself and they nod
I relinquish my lead responsibilities in the Tahoe contract, turn it
over to my supervisor, move to a secondary job devising the survey
instruments and doing the background research. It would have been so much
fun to barnstorm Tahoe, interviewing anyone who would stand still long
enough. That's all impossible now.
Using the telephone is out of the question. And this is the worst
limitation of all, because it contracts my social universe into my line of sight.
The phone used to be a gateway onto an unseen world of distant family and
friends. I can still pick up the handset and put it to my ear, but nothing
happens when I do. I can't even hear the dial tone.
But, grotesquely, I am not living in the silent world that I might have
expected. That would at least have been familiar, for I had always been able
to take my hearing aids out and experience neartotal silence. Now, I am
living in an endless cacophony. Now I hear a thunderous river, now a jet
engine, now a restaurant with a thousand patrons all talking at once. The
sound is unending and overwhelming. Silence is the one thing I never have.
No one can really explain to me what is causing the "noise." One
theory is that in the total absence of sound, the auditory cortex hallucinates
in an attempt to make up for the deficit. Amputees have phantom limb;
perhaps I have phantom ear. Another theory is that it is the auditory
equivalent of chronic pain, where my damaged cochlea is wildly firing nerve
impulses unrelated to sensory stimuli. For hours on end I hear bing-bing-bing
sounds like the bells at railroad crossings. I can hardly help but interpret it as
my ear crying alarm! alarm! alarm! alarm!
But there are consolations. In the evenings the rumbles and bells
soften. They become grand, sonorous, and deep. I hear a vast organ playing
a slowly evolving dirge without a time or a beat. It has the solemn grandeur of
an aurora. Occasionally it rises to sustained pitches, like the voiceless wail
of Gyorgi Ligeti's Atmospheres when the planets come into alignment in
2001. It fits the occasion, for in 2001 my ears are dying. But they are playing
superbly at their own funeral.
It's not only my body and world I can't recognize. I can't even
recognize myself. Two days after I return from Tahoe, a neurotologist writes
me a prescription for an even larger dose of steroids to reduce inflammation
in my ears and tells me solemnly, "Don't make any major life decisions while
you're taking this stuff."
I quickly find out why. Each dose is like chugging a full thermos of
coffee. My heart races. I start nervously rubbing the back of my neck
throughout the day. I pace around in tight little circles while waiting for things
to come out of the office printer. My muscles start to feel tight and dense,
and I begin compulsively flexing my biceps, not because I want to build them
up, but because they just want to move, dammit.
But most of all, I've become an emotional creature I can't
recognize. I'm sobbing in my car, sobbing in locked bathrooms, sobbing on
my couch at home. To be sure, anyone would grieve for lost ears and fear an
uncertain future, but these feelings are like a jagged slash torn in the beige
fabric of my life. Normally I am formal, correct, restrained, the wryly funny
analytical type. But the steroids have wrenched me as open as a conch shell.
In Carlos Castaneda's books, don Juan speaks of drugs as
teachers: peyote is a guardian and an advisor, and mescaline is the gateway
to the other world. Steroids, too, are a teacher. They teach me how to grieve,
how to cry, at a time when grief and tears are what I need. Under their brutal
influence I begin to write, seizing the opportunity to speak with a raw
frankness about my life, my fears, my hearing, and what is about to happen
to me. I'm completely deaf, I'm in an eternal cacophony, I'm sobbing every
hour on the hour, and I'm pouring out words.
In the Divine Comedy Dante speaks of times where "the veil grows
thin," where it becomes easy for the traveler to cross the barriers between the
earthly and the divine, the seen and the unseen. This is such a time. I am a
wreck, but a potently reconstructible one. All that sobbing has made my face
go transparent. The shock of total deafness and impending reconstruction
has unmoored me from my familiar attitudes and assumptions, breaking me
down to first principles, leaving me like a stem cell, embryonic, totipotent. I
am emotionally raw, tender with grief and fear, but perceiving the world with
such clarity and precision that my former self now seems blind and
mundane. The drugs teach me what it is like to be new. It is as if the universe
is whispering into my now deaf ear, "Now. Now is your chance. You have
been torn down in body and soul. Go through the change and come out new.
If I want to hear clocks ticking again, people's voices, a lover's murmur, I will
have to go through the change. The prospect evokes a primitive terror. Before
I got my hearing aids I was a mute, fearful little savage, taking in the few
words I could grasp with utter literalness. In preschool I was informed that I
would become a bird. I took this to mean that I would be changed into an
eerie new shape: wings. beak. eye. The prospect of this eldritch
transformation so terrified me that I came home crying and screaming. Much
later I would realize that it was just a metaphor for labeling the kids on the
first and second floors (the kids upstairs were the "Birds," those downstairs
the "Bears"). But the shaping terrors of childhood never really depart, they
only mature into more sophisticated forms. I was going to become a cyborg:
silicon. electrodes. code.
As a child I had watched wide-eyed as Don Knotts fell into the
sea in The Incredible Mr. Limpet and was transformed, in a series of
agonizing stages, into a fish. Could such things really happen? I wasn't quite
sure, but when adults offered to turn me into a bird, the prospect chilled me
to the bone. Now I dreamed of computer chips lancing into my head and
woke to the realization that the dream was a prediction. The sheer psychic
shock of that. The chaos it evoked in the orderly bookshelves of my life.
While the computer would not change me beyond all recognition,
it would nevertheless be woven into my body in ways that anyone would find
unnerving. There would be a post-surgical scar, which although eventually
hidden by re-grown hair would be nonetheless present to my appalled gaze
the day after surgery. There would be a tactile bump on my skull a millimeter
or two high, obvious to my own fingers and those of a lover's. Most of all,
there would be the interface — the plastic thing that would stick onto my
skull. It would suck itself into place with startling soft firmness, an
electromagnetic soul kiss to start the day, and cling there like a remora, odd
and obscurely frightening to strangers. Transmitting data generated by
complex algorithms with strange acronyms — SPEAK, ACE, CIS, SAS. (Put
in that order, they sounded like a strangely intimate telegram from an
emotionless intelligence.) The somberly impressive cost: fifty thousand
And the utter strangeness of the journey. The ritual scarification of
surgery, the thirty-day silent period between surgery and activation to let the
incision heal, and the crossing into a domain of experience that few people
could ever know. Mysterious devices sticking inside and out of my body,
crunching numbers like mad. A cyborg. The real thing. Not science fiction.
I had long lived a life surrounded by computers, from the TI-83 I
had in high school to the successions of computers on my desktop. Now the
computer would go inside my body, literally woven into my flesh, in my head.
Running do-loops in a language compiled from C, updating an array of
internal variables thirty-two million times a second. I locked myself in my
office and cried as I thought of getting a little plastic model of the inner ear
and symbolically burying it in my garden. Saying goodbye to the organic ear I
used to have, and preparing for its terrifyingly rational reconstruction.
I would not have been so frightened a decade earlier. I used to be uncritically,
eagerly in love with computers. In ninth grade my parents bought me a
programmable TI calculator, and I spent hours devising programs that would
make it play blackjack and tic-tac- toe. Over the years I owned a succession
of computers and learned four programming languages. I did my master's in
Shakespearean drama because I loved words as well as code, but computers
let me build beautiful machines out of ideas, castles in the air held up on
delicate struts of logic. For my dissertation I wrote twenty thousand lines of
code to create a Web-based program that let students in my literature and
composition classes work on projects together outside of the classroom. It
worked. It won awards. It got me my Ph.D.
Computers were an elegant, productive addiction — and like all
addicts, I began to realize that I was paying a terrible price. In the end, after
all those hours at the keyboard, I was still a man sitting alone in a room
staring at a computer screen. I had no girlfriend, no family of my own, not
even enduringly close friendships apart from the ones I had already developed
in high school and college.
My addiction came at least partly from being hard of hearing. I
was agonizingly slow to acquire the social graces while growing up. Social
norms are not taught, they are overheard, but the one thing even the most
skilled deaf people cannot do is overhear. I did not know until high school that
people went to parties on the weekends. Community? Intimacy? Like car
accidents, they only happened to other people. In my freshman year of
college I was so desperate to meet women that in my first month I knocked
on every single door of the dorm and introduced myself, a memory that still
makes me cringe twenty years later. Day after day, I ate alone in the
cafeteria at Brown. I had friends, yes, good ones, but just a few, not enough
to book all those lunches and dinners. I longed to have a body that didn't
need to eat. It was not until I was twenty-five that I had my first girlfriend, and
even after that, relationships were few and far between. I was an unbearable
teenage nerd, fascinated by computers, miserable with desire, and wholly in
love with the idea of the machine. The computer offered me escape and
respite, the feeling of control and power.
Computers could connect people, I had argued in my dissertation,
and so they could — if their use was embedded in a context that was already
social and personal, such as the classroom. But absent that, they were
machines whose main outputs were logic and loneliness. For me the proof
was that my persistent efforts at online dating had met with virtually complete
failure: it offered no social context in which I could be judged as a human
being. Most online dating sites ask one to specify one's height and the
height of one's ideal mate. They also — and here is the rub — enable one to
search for people who are only above a given height. I am five-feet-four in my
shoes, and it depresses me no end that most women specify, in their
profiles, that they want a mate between five-ten and six-two. eHarmony is
positively tyrannical about it, matching men only with shorter women. As far
as the computer is concerned, I am not five-four; I am invisible. The computer
utterly rationalizes dating by enabling people to search for potential mates by
numerical specifications, eliminating the goofy serendipity of life in a human
Because computers are the ultimate expression of abstract logic,
they invite the creation of systems that are only about logic. That level of
abstraction enables programmers to disregard utterly the world of human
feelings and needs. All that matters to them is the theoretical beauty of
machine logic. The tragedy is that the problems that cannot be precisely
characterized and neatly solved happen to be the most important ones:
communication, understanding, collaboration, negotiation. Love.
As I entered the second half of my thirties I began to feel, as
Dante had, that I had lost the path of my life — indeed, that I had never found
the path to begin with. I had several close friends scattered around the
country, but no one I could just call up and go out for coffee with. I depended
on no one, but then again, no one depended on me. Most painfully of all, I
found establishing relationships with women nearly impossible. It took me
longer to go from puberty to my first relationship (1976–1989) than it took the
entire United States government to design and land a spacecraft on the moon
(1961–1969). Again and again I made overtures and was rejected. I had
always been sort of: sort of hearing, sort of socially aware, and as one dating
prospect ambiguously said to me, sort of adorable. I felt, as a result, sort of
Even as I put the finishing touches on my dissertation, then, I was
becoming increasingly disenchanted with computers. They certainly had not
met my most poignant needs. I frequently reread Frank Herbert's Dune
trilogy, which is set in a future that has outlawed computers. It doesn't object
to technology in general: it embraces spaceships, weaponry, chemistry, and
heavy machinery of all kinds. But computers were long ago outlawed during
its "Butlerian Jihad," a religious movement that defined the automation of
thought as profane. Its battle cry was "Thou shalt not make a machine in the
likeness of a man's mind." The need to handle information did not go away,
however, so in place of computers are mentats, human beings trained to
achieve prodigious powers of memorization and data analysis.
Dune's universe focuses on developing human rather than
machine powers. Its characters are intensely alive, bursting with inner
monologues and ambitions and relationships. Not that I would necessarily
want to live in Dune's universe: it's also feudal, violent, autocratic, and totally
lacking in what we would call civil liberties. But the gains and the losses
apparently couldn't be separated. Take computers away, Herbert seemed to
be saying, and what you lost in rationality and orderliness you gained in a
human capacity to enter into true relationships with the self and the world.
You can have one kind of civilization or the other, Dune implied, but not both.
That was why I both loved and hated computers. I loved their
pleasures and seductions and conveniences. I hated the hyperrational, lonely
society that their remorseless logic had let human beings so easily create.
And then in Becky's office I was staring at a computer in my palm
that was going to go inside me. My very body would have technical
specifications. Programming language, C. Number of auditory channels,
eight. Electrode array refresh rate, either analog or 833 cycles per second,
depending on the software. Number of transistors, 140,000. Data transfer rate
through the skin, 1.1 million bits per second. Processor speed, 32 million
cycles per second. Now the computer would have a grip on me that I would
never, ever be able to escape.
I would have to become a cyborg who was deeply suspicious of
computers. If I ever chose to embark on a Butlerian Jihad, my first logical
target would have to be myself.
The medical system gathers me up into its routine of tests. One of my first
stops is the MRI machine, which will peer deep into my skull to see whether
surgery is feasible. It's hulking, huge, enormous — a cylindrical
superconducting magnet so powerful that it can yank unchained oxygen
tanks into its maw from across the room. I am deprived of every piece of
metal on my body plus, of course, my wallet with all of its magnetically
encoded credit cards. Then I am slid tenderly into the machine's narrow birth
canal. The computer may get inside me eventually, but today I am getting
I lie very still, per instructions. I cannot help eyeballing what little I
can see: the off-white curve of the chamber, blankly emitting the confining
grandeur of Washington Metro stations; the metal array encircling my head
to focus the magnetic field lines; and nothing else whatsoever. I catch myself
thinking it would be a nice idea to position a small TV above the patient's
head, to fill the lonely forty-five minutes. But it would certainly be destroyed
by the magnetic field. Machines can't survive in here. Once I had the implant
embedded in my head, I would not be allowed in or even near this room
again. In fact, above the MRI's underground chamber is a small outdoor
garden whose perimeter is ringed with signs reading sternly: persons with
pacemakers, neurostimulators, or metallic implants must not enter the
landscaped area. Twenty-first-century cherubim and seraphim, banishing me
from the Eden of the innocently organic.
The machine grinds, clicks, and hums around me. To my
surprise, I feel an artless joy. This is just where I love to be, deep inside
elegant machines doing mysterious invisible things at high speed. I am eerily
aware that right now the computer is probing my head with magnetic fields,
executing tens of thousands of lines of code, assembling megabytes of data
that will lay bare the inmost contours of my ear. Words like sagittal,
transverse, and spline drift through my mind, although I am only vaguely
aware of what they mean. The poetry of technology. Somewhere out of sight,
megabytes of data purl onto a server's hard disk.
How was I going to go through the change? As a lifelong reader of literature, I
already had some answers at hand. A mind richly stocked with stories can
select from them as needed, applying narrative to the chaos of experience in
order to move ahead with greater sureness to an imagined resolution. When I
failed an important exam in grad school, I thought of Odysseus clinging to
the fragments of his wrecked ship at sea and remembered that he had still
managed to get home to Ithaca. The myth gave me heart and hope.
Now I needed a story not of survival, but of transformation.
Pinocchio? Well, not really. Pinocchio was turned into a real live
boy as a reward for virtue, and it was done for him. Steve Austin? Possibly.
But the Steve Austin of the TV show was problematic. To be sure, I had been
fascinated by The Six Million Dollar Man when it ran in the 1970s. But Steve
Austin was a Hollywood cyborg, steely, impassive, and impervious to pain.
The nerd in me had loved that image. And yet I could not help feeling
skeptical, even then, of the implication that having bionic limbs and organs
also entailed having a mechanical soul.Hollywood's depiction of the cyborg
seemed like a cheat, a poor bargain: to become more than human, you also
had to become less than human. You had to give up your soul to the
But Martin Caidin's novel Cyborg, the inspiration for the TV show,
had given me an entirely different perspective on Steve Austin. The book
version of Steve Austin was resentful, disciplined, and ambitious, a flawed
human being who lashed out at his own doctors and engineers yet also
collaborated with them in the project of rebuilding himself.More than anything
else, Caidin's novel is about Austin's painful transformation and his gradual
acceptance of his new body. Acting as Virgil to his Dante is Rudy Wells, his
flight surgeon, who guides him with endless patience. At one point Austin is
furious because he continues to fall while running and Wells says to him,
"You are a clumsy kid. Can't you understand that? Biologically, that
happens to be the fact. Oh, for God's sake, Steve, you know the score.
Physiologically, much of your body is that of an adult child. Your system is
learning things all over again at superspeed. But it's still confused. The
problem isn't in the bionics limbs. It's in your own nerve network."
Hollywood cyborgs are often ungainly, but they are not clumsy. Clumsiness
is a purely human trait. And Steve Austin has a very human reaction to
Wells's attempts to explain his own body to him:
Steve looked at him. "Are you patronizing me, Doc?"
"No, you son of a bitch, I am not."
"Well, you damn well are acting like it!" In a sudden burst of rage
he swept the table clean of all objects; ash trays, manuals, coffee cups went
crashing to the floor.
It was Caidin's story of struggle and transformation, rather than the ones
offered by Hollywood, that served me best twenty-five years later. For me
Cyborg became a map of the unlighted journey I was about to traverse. Like
Steve Austin's, my body would have to build up its own "memory banks" of
the new "data feeds" (and they would literally be data feeds). I would become
an adult child, learning how to hear all over again at superspeed,
compressing into days and weeks what takes an infant years to learn.
But I did not yet understand, going in, why Steve Austin was so
angry. To be sure, surgery and transformation is a difficult experience, but
where did the rage come from? Shouldn't he be excited? Grateful? Eager to
learn and improve? But I would come to understand. Oh, boy, would I be
angry.Would I ever.
Yet that was part of the transformation. In acquiring the body of
my teenage dreams, I would have the chance to become the adult I wanted
to be. To cast off, in my long agon with the machine, the longstanding
frustrations left over from an unfinished adolescence. To reject the worthless
bargain offered by Hollywood, and negotiate a better one. To become a
cyborg. In real life. On my own terms, in my own way.
* The word deaf is fraught with definitional and political complexities. Just as
many "blind" people still have some vision, many "deaf" people still have
some hearing. Audiologists therefore prefer to use the terms hard of hearing
Conversely, many members of the signing deaf community use
the capitalized word Deaf to distinguish themselves from non-signers, whom
they consider merely "deaf."
I find terms like hard of hearing awkward to use repeatedly, so
from this point on I will usually use the term deaf to describe myself.
* See the Appendix for a diagram of the ear and the components of a
Copyright © 2005 by Michael Chorost. Reprinted by permission of Houghton