We Can Rebuild You… Slightly.

Many years ago I read an article about differences in responses between children and adults when asked for a knee-jerk impression of developing various superpowers: as I expected, children thought of becoming pranksters or superheroes; unexpectedly, adults thought of having a slightly easier life. I was reminded of this divide while keeping the cats entertained this weekend.

The clearest example of differing power usage was teleportation. Most children said they would use it explore new places (often places restricted not by distance but by authority) or to solve bullying (by dodging or even attacking without warning); clearly recognisable in direction – if not degree – as superheroic acts. The first thought of adults was most often to avoid commuting (or in one case to avoid being late for trains); although there were outliers, adults seemed not just sensible but unambitious when it came to new capabilities.

As part of my strategy to help the cats settle I look for suitable opportunities to bond. Not wanting to be left out of reach of toys or treats for one if the other decided to settle on my lap I moved from my desk to the sofa and back juggling a pot of treats and their favourite string on a stick. Previous experience had confirmed that: if I kept them in a pocket I would be unable to reach them or be uncomfortable; if I put them in a bag I would need to remember it and not gain much advantage in carrying them. I was fumbling to get the treat pot from next to me, open it, remove a treat, and close it again, when I was struck by the thought that it would be so much easier if I had a tube linking a reservoir in my forearm to a hatch in my finger; a treat would appear when I wanted.

Once I had given Una her treat, and hidden the treat pot, and hidden the treat pot again, I started musing about other useful cybernetics: I could have an extending rod in my index finger with a deployable line so I was never without a thing-on-a-string; retractable blunt teeth in my palm so I could groom as I stroked. That night I saw an advertisement for another sequel to Universal Soldier and was struck by how the portrayal of cybernetics in popular imagination is so often based on the children’s view of power and not the way adults would probably use it.

Neil Harbisson with eyeborg implant
The Eyeborg: For Those Who Think All Colours Deserve To Be Loud! (Public Domain)

Films, books, and games of course exist to entertain; a story sold as cyberpunk that lacked a radical change through technology would leave many readers feeling cheated. It would also be naïve to expect advertisements not to trumpet the most extreme features.

However when we are creating, whether it is a story featuring technology or technology itself, I feel it is important not only to embrace the myriad possibilities of childhood innocence but also to remember that most adults will use the new to do the old slightly better.

Do you use all the bells-and-whistles on your devices? Would you change your body to make something you do already slightly easier?


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