Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology & the Ancient World
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The previous seven sections have hopefully given some insight as to the development of the prosthesis throughout twentieth century America. Though it may at first seem that social changes in America gave way to the rise to the prosthesis, I would argue the opposite, that it was the invention of the prosthesis, and its acceptance into American society, have made those social changes possible.
While section seven aims to explain a portion of the modern mentality towards the prosthetic, the project would feel incomplete without some mention of the place that the prosthesis holds in today’s world, and that of the near future.
Return with me for a moment to the post WWI view of rehabilitation. According to Stiker, the term itself “implies returning to a point, to a prior situation, the situation that existed for the able but one only postulated for the others.” 1 I would argue that this mentality, the idea that the prosthesis exists to replace what is missing from the human body, holds true in part up through the Vietnam era, but has been lessened to the point of non-existence in today’s culture.
Even directly after the Second World War, when the image of the natural body had reached its lowest point, the idea of the god given form still held a certain reverence. Why would the tragedies of the death camps and the atomic bomb have been so mind shattering if mankind already had accepted the powerless notion of the body? While the prosthetic was certainly gaining appeal and a certain majesty in the biomechanical world, it was still subservient to the ideal of flesh and blood.
Has taken a half-century for the idea to settle in American society. In the Vietnam period, the body was just beginning to be treated for what it truly is—not a holy creation, but a mere form of flesh. In the almost forty years since then, Americans, with the rest of the western world, have begun to think of the body as a hindrance, a limited series of tendons and muscle that could easily be replaced by their mechanical superiors.
Though this mentality has virtually pervaded our culture from pacemakers and voice boxes to plastic surgery and body piercing, I will leave you with two extremes that I think best exemplify my point.
On November 10th, 2001, The New Scientist e-magazine ran an article on “the most outlandish military project the Pentagon has ever dreamed up.” What project could possibly warrant this title over such investments as the bat bomb?
“In just four years, and with $50 million, they plan to create a wearable, self-propelled robotic suit that responds to-and amplifies-your every movement. Strap themselves in and troops will be able to run faster, jump higher, leap further, and drape themselves in awesome amounts of armor and high-caliber weaponry. It will turn your average GI into a heavyweight fighting machine with superhuman powers-a kind of Tank Girl meets the Six-Million Dollar Man.”
Seven years later, it's reality.
Two hundred pound pull-downs with literally no effort on behalf of the wearer? The strength to single handedly load a missile onto a jet? It appears that science fiction is incapable of keeping up with reality.
My second and final example is a thing that, even having researched this project, seems incomprehensible. Spanish scientists, though far from achieving a mobile version, have successfully created a working wheelchair that takes commands not from human effort, fingertips, or even tongue movement. This works at virtually the speed of thought.
Finally, I will leave you with some thoughts on the future. While brain computer interface technology is currently in place namely for the disabled, and the exoskeleton for the military, how long will it be until these technologies reach civilian life? Consider the speed at which this industry moved. In seven years, the though of a military exoskeleton has gone from farcical sketch to reality. How many will it take until we send our children to school toting a lunchbox and a titanium alloy frame? Will I be writing my thesis project in three years without a keyboard, merely thinking and watching as words appear on an LCD screen? While these notions will inevitably come across as strange, even humorous, they are far closer than any of us imagine.
This concludes my project. I hope it has provided a basic history of disability and the prosthesis in the past hundred years, and perhaps some though for the future. Perhaps the facts and statistics will elude your memory, but I imagine this will stay with you: the next time you see a person in a wheelchair or toting a prosthetic limb, consider how the very technology that enabled those advancements has changed the world in which you live, socially, physically, and technologically. Thank you.
Back to The Wheelchair Table of Contents
1 Stiker, p. 122