Prosthetic history

28 Mar

io9 published a photographic history of prostheses yesterday, going back to an iron arm from the 1500s. Some of them are quite beautiful, like this Victorian hand:


Mechanical and electronic enhancement of the human body fascinates me.  I’m interested in how the prosthetic part is (or is not) incorporated into a person’s proprioception and sense of self. I’m curious about the possibilities for enhancement beyond human standard abilities.

I have a hidden prosthetic: an artificial hip joint. It’s purely mechanical and attached to my bones. I walk a little strangely and my hip is often sore, but that was true before the surgery too. The process of incorporating the prosthetic into my selfhood was barely different from accepting a dental filling as part of my tooth; it’s invisible to me and except for when I notice some stiffness or that eight inch scar, I forget about it.  That’s dramatically unlike someone with an external prosthesis.

Like the experience of presence in a virtual world, incorporating a prosthetic is the extension of the self into the inanimate, mechanical or digital. However, I think there’s a risk in getting too philosophical about it, as that’s not a uniquely human characteristic. We successfully equip a wide variety of animals with prosthetic limbs. Perhaps we’re simply designed to make the best of the situation in which we find ourselves.


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