Cyborgs are coming to Vassar—but they look more human than one might suspect.
Technology theorist, author and public speaker Michael Chorost will be opening for “Sonic Cyborgs,” a free, public series of lectures exploring often taboo or unmentioned topics like cyborgism, transhumanism and technology. His lecture, entitled “What It’s Like to Go Deaf and Get Your Hearing Back with an Implanted Computer (And What That Means for Theory)” will be held on Wednesday, Feb. 24, at 5:30 p.m. in Taylor Hall, room 203.
After losing all hearing in 2001, Chorost received a cochlear implant and now speaks as a leading authority on neural prosthetics. He studied computer programming, Renaissance literature and cultural theory at University of Texas at Austin for his PhD, and is an advocate for the blurring of lines between disciplines. On his website, he says, “[Both the sciences and arts are] profoundly creative human endeavors.” His memoir, “Rebuilt: How Becoming Part Computer Made Me More Human,” was written as a response to his profound relationship with deafness and sound, and was deemed the first of its kind by the L.A. Times.
Chorost’s second book, “World Wide Mind,” draws from his experience of being physically integrated with implanted computers in order to extrapolate what being a cyborg might mean in the future–rather than becoming unfeeling robots, he suggests that technology be used to let us reconnect with emotion, touch and what it means to be human. According to his website, “Humanity can incorporate the computer into its collective soul in a way that enhances communities and creative work instead of diminishing them.”
Chorost’s writing addresses exactly what the “Sonic Cyborgs” series seeks to understand. Chorost poses the question, “When the senses become programmable, can we trust what they tell us about the world? Will cochlear implants destroy the signing deaf community? And above all, are cyborgs still human?”
The proposal for the “Sonic Cyborgs” lecture series was born out of conversation between Professor of Music Justin Patch and Professor of Physics and Astronomy, and Science, Technology and Society Jose Perillan. According to Perillan, “Justin and I both love science fiction and had talked about science fiction in the past, and I think that’s probably where these conversations started.”
It seems natural, then, that Chorost will be the first lecture in a series about relatable, real-life science fiction. Perillan explains, “The human experience is so wide and varied that everybody has a different approach as to how they are in their own skin and how they are in their own body and how they interact with the world, and so [Michael Chorost] draws comparisons and contrasts between his own process and how he goes on rebuilding and pushing through some of the early, really difficult stages of relearning how to hear and re-engaging with the hearing world.”
Additional events in the series include a lecture from Professor of Science and Technology Studies and Professor of Sociology at Cornell University Trevor Pinch as well as a conversation between Chorost and Pinch on Thursday, Feb. 25, at 7 p.m. in Taylor Hall, room 102. According to his website, Pinch’s research focuses on the sociology of technology and its relationship to and role in human interaction. He just finished editing a book on hearing and hosts a weekly radio show.
A second set of “Sonic Cyborgs” lectures will continue during April 11 to April 15 with a talk from the first legally-recognized cyborg, Neil Harbisson, who can hear colors through a skull-based antenna as a way to combat lifelong achromatopsia, or complete color blindness. In a short film, “The Man Who Hears Color,” Harbisson is quoted as saying, “I don’t feel that I’m using technology, I don’t feel like I’m wearing technology…I feel like I am technology.”
Musician Marco Donnarumma, interested in the fusion of science and technology with performance art, will also be speaking.
According to Donnarumma’s website, “[His work relies] on the material force of sound to produce intensely intimate encounters of bodies and machines, and vivid sensory and physical experiences…His creative process is a continuous feedback between artistic intuition, scientific experiments and development of custom technologies.”
Learning from cyborgs has the potential to transform an individual’s relationship with technology. Patch mentions that his exposure to Chorost completely flipped his line of thinking. “The ways in which you thought sound was a fundamental thing is shown not to be true,” he said. It is this truth, then, that Sonic Cyborgs aims to seek out—in a world of cyborgism, what exactly does it mean to be human? And how exactly will the notion of humanity change as technology changes with us?
“Sonic Cyborgs” and Chorost’s lecture are made possible by Creative Arts Across Disciplines, an initiative funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Aiming to facilitate greater integration of the creative arts across campus, CAAD centers each academic year’s programming around a sense-based theme, this year’s being “Sound and Silence.”
According to Interdisciplinary Arts Coordinator Tom Pacio, “CAAD will be at All College Days on the 24th and we hope students, faculty, administrators, and staff stop by the table to learn about the initiative and everything we are doing.”