Reminders of the fragility of our bodies are unavoidable. You just have to hope that your next injury won’t be too painful or long-lasting. My most recent started in 2014, with knee pain. It felt like a little electric shock to the outside of the knee joint. At first it was the odd jab, the kind you half-ignore, hoping that it will go away. But over 18 months it became two hours of pain each time I exercised. Then an all-day, everyday event that might involve a hundred or more of these stabs. They’d often awaken me in the middle of the night.
I stopped exercising, and became depressed. The pain contributed to my leaving a job. But the solution was simple. An MRI scan confirmed my WebMD-style self-diagnosis of a meniscus injury. After waiting a month for a physio appointment, I had the solution: a rubber band. It’s the simplest of medical technologies. Two weeks of basic physiotherapy exercises with a resistance band solved a two-year pain problem. Our bodies may be fragile, but they’re adaptable, too.
Since then, I’ve had an interest in technologies that interface with the body in some way. I have spent the last decade writing predominantly about consumer technology, and much of it can seem thin: monitoring your resting heart rate with a smart watch is merely an interesting curiosity. Fitbit’s marketing of the pedometer, a device which I used to think my grandfather was strange for carrying around 25 years ago, was clever.
But where’s the really human stuff?
I thought that I might find some of it among the body augmenters, a subculture I was asked to research for a writing assignment a couple of years ago. Some of these biohackers and self-identifying cyborgs have great stories.
However, what I saw were “bedroom” surgeons who often risk sepsis, and who, for the most part, move within insular online communities. Where’s the cultural benefit, or sense, in implanting a ring of LEDs under the skin of your hand so that you can tell where magnetic north is?
Unexpectedly, though, I found some of the most meaningful technological innovation that I’ve ever seen in a very different place: hospitals.
I come from a family of doctors, you see. My mother is a family physician and my father a research scientist, and two brothers are doctors in hospitals. Some might say that makes me the family failure. (Others would be more polite.) Whenever I’ve watched my family at work, medical care computer systems have seemed perpetually ten years out of date. The combination of constant underfunding and a sensible, clinically-driven approvals process also leads medical facilities to adopt new administrative technology at a conservative rate. Nevertheless, hospitals are where I’ve found some of the most “human” ways of augmenting the body.
Materials scientist and engineer John A. Rogers of Northwestern University is currently redesigning the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). That’s the ward where very premature babies, and those in severe distress, end up. My own brother — one of the doctors — was critically premature. How he could “fit in the palm of your hand” is one of the stock phrases that my dad occasionally brings up at family get-togethers, usually after a couple glasses of wine. Like many babies that premature, my brother almost died.
In a speech that Rogers gave to the MIT Lab ApplySci conference in 2017, he described even the “most advanced” intensive care units as “a rat’s nest of wires.” People are covered in cabling, tape, hydrogels, and coupling gels, which hold…
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