Cyborg rights

Millions of people use mechanical aids or implants to improve their lives. That opens up urgent questions about cyborg rights.

This article discusses it under the aspect of athletics - but I would include other aspects here.

  • Legal aspects of ability. According to Dr. Roger Clarke, a relevant new legal aspect is that recent advances in mechanical and electromechanical implants give humans abilities they otherwise lack. When abilities are compared in a regulated setting - as in competitive sports - then this could play a role and that is his point. While disability requires a performance-enabling technology, otherwise non-disabled athletes already use performance-enhancing technology in their struggle for achievement. As the boundaries seem to become blurred between ability and disability on one hand and performance-enabling and performance-enhancing on the other, there are legal ramifications. In the instance of Oscar Pistorius, it became clear that the fears of non-disabled athletes (that there should be such a fear!) was unfounded - this disabled world class sprinter did not even qualify for the non-disabled Olympics. The same situation becomes a lot more confounded when the aid that is used can actually surpass human function: technology such as wheel chairs, cochlear implants, ocular implants all could exceed normal human capacities to walk, run, hear, see or transmit information. Even my prosthetic arm that I can use to get pasta out of boiling water has a performance-enhancing feature. Clarke said: "People who are using prostheses to recover lost capabilities will seek to protect their existing rights. People who have lost capabilities but have not yet got the relevant prostheses will seek the right to have them. Enhanced humans will seek additional rights, to go with the additional capabilities that they have." - The interesting footnote to this is that Clarke suggests manufacturers of prostheses or implants consider the broader implications of their technology and make potential consequences clear to various institutions before sending them to market [text partly cited from io9].
  • Legal aspects of embodiment. I suggest that implants and prostheses also represent another aspect different from other legal artifacts: they are partly and to a certain degree a part of a person. Just as 'I think therefore I am' defines a reflecting mind, 'the prosthesis is an integral part of a human body' defines it as markedly different from, say, a lamp or a coffee machine. As I observe, my prosthetic arm is indeed part of myself and without that prosthetic arm I am not complete - to a degree (but not entirely) similar to another person being incomplete when missing a body part. Would damaging my prosthetic arm then amount to bodily injury, or at least partly so? Would intentionally selling me my prosthetic arm with undeclared crap parts be comparable to the criminal intent that plays out in cases of poisoning? From my gut reaction - that already reacts to my prosthetic arm as if it was a part of me - the situation is very clear: prostheses are not just things. If a manufacturer intentionally botches component design and I suffer consequences, there should be a harsh penalty for that. Only under such an understanding could the currently charged prosthetic dream prices be halfways justified. Only under such an understanding would the customer service of prosthetic part manufacturers understand what affects their clients. Nowadays and with some big in-nominate German prosthetic manufacturers, one feels treated worse than after having been sold a damaged second hand car - and so I truly believe that there is a lot left to explore inasmuch as the concept of embodiment and legal ramifications are concerned.
  • Legal aspects of outer appearances. We do have a culture where designs, builds, fabrications and makes of artifacts, tools, toys or constructions can be ascribed to an inventor and then, that inventor can patent or otherwise protect her or his design. But as far as I see it, body culture does not work like that. Hairstyles, tattoos, the way we move or are with our bodies are free ideas that we all exhibit, show, present, see, observe, copy, improve, and that in my opinion are something we live. In such a world, I would expect creation of new hand prostheses as an open and flowing process. Personal preferences of body or hair styles are an accepted and socially protected right of the individual while the details are accessible to anyone. Code of conduct, social rules, etiquette regulates use of others' appearances and that is perfectly enough. Under the clear understanding that an Otto Bock or iLimb drafted hand would be considered a legally defined body part that we all should start to accept as our own, we would have the legal right to see, modify, and re-publish that draft without any huge extra legal or financial obstacle. Such insights are mostly absent right now, and as prostheses and implants move forward, they constitute an invisible and conceptual impediment of gargantuan proportions. Our culture moved forward and improved not by limiting and zoning in ideas but by spreading and exchanging them. According to my personal conviction, only once prostheses become part of an openly discussed and continuously redrafted body, style and expressive culture will we see an improvement and an integration that leaves the current suffocating stalemate mood behind - and things are stalling indeed. At the same time, there will be clear boundaries - some people do not wear long hair (but short hair), some people do not wear short sleeves or swim gear (but wide long fabrics), and it does not cross anyone's mind to just walk up to someone and try to talk them out of their own choice - and a similar acceptance for personal choice, preference or requirement will also have to move in to prosthetic parts, to implants, to orthopedic or other aids. Currently, Otto Bock tries to tell everyone to go myoelectric. If a colleague wearing a body powered arm tells me stories about the negative ways Otto Bock representatives questioned and ridiculed his choices, then we have a problem with respect right there. Then the concept of outer appearance being a respected community asset has not been acknowledged by those I would expect should know best. The osseointegration fanatics try to tell everyone to get bolts stick out of their stumps. But not even body and fashion culture is like that! It is unthinkable that I sit on a tram wearing slacks and someone comes up to me to keep bugging me to wear jeans, asking me to send them an e-mail as wearing jeans 'would change my life' - unthinkable. With bodily looks, people are allowed to copy my looks, modify or alter what they see fit, but I am legally protected from too much expression of others' disrespect and my own choice tends to be respected. This does expose the somewhat obsessive and product-focussed aspect of myoelectric or osseointegration fanboys in a still assumed 'man versus part' world - people that cannot see outer appearances and prosthetics as private bodily appearance choices that others will have to respect just as they have to respect my hairstyle or choice of socks. By feel and by feel alone, the future will be with those that can offer body extensions that cater to the need of the user or wearer without a permanent crusade against the user's needs and convictions. Friends of mine already started to take on my arm as part of our community just as hair color, shirt or mobile phone fashion is what we express our opinions about - they talked about the preference they would have, what they liked better and what less, and how they rated that on a scale of importance to them. A standard issue silicone design is so rigid that it precludes that, and in a way that does block some very relevant aspect of physical integration. Only that then makes these prosthetic extensions part of what everyone improves, gives back to the community, wears, lives and integrates.

Cite this article:
Wolf Schweitzer: - Cyborg rights; published 10/06/2010, 10:58; URL:

BibTeX: @MISC{schweitzer_wolf_1632003444, author = {Wolf Schweitzer}, title = {{ - Cyborg rights}}, month = {June}, year = {2010}, url = {} }