Down a Cyborg Rabbit Hole

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Mark McGwire, in hot pursuit of Roger Maris's Major League Baseball home-run record for a single season, admits to using a dietary supplement. It has a testosterone-boosting compound.

Most fans still cheer him on since what he ingests is not banned by professional baseball. But the added strength from the drug may taint what for Mr. McGwire is a routine feat - blasting a baseball out of the ballpark.

What if he placed a micro-chip in his eye that let him see like a hawk? Fans would reject any record set.

Recommended: Baseball Hall of Fame quiz, worthy of any candidate

Computer professor and Englishman Kevin Warwick doesn't hit home runs. But he threw the cultural equivalent of a bean ball last week. He had a silicon chip implanted in his arm. The chip didn't make him stronger. It let him open doors, turn on computers, play audio signals, just by walking into a room.

Gail Chaddock's cover story (at right) grapples with the profound implications of humans jumping down the cyborg rabbit hole. Wearing a sensory-enhancing computer is one thing. Grafting one into the body is quite another. Thankfully (we can catch our metaphysical breath for awhile at least) the good professor had the chip taken out yesterday.

Some context is helpful here. We're not talking gross-out like that first encounter with a waiter, diamond ring pegged to his nose, serving soup. The concern goes beyond vexation that the glittery object will pop off into the chowder. The concern is about bionically extending the nervous system. It's about human identity and the Pandora's box where the sum of the parts may be greater than the whole.

Remember the brouhaha when Johnny brought a hand-held calculator to class.

Was a math turbocharger fair? Should he be allowed to use one? When doing homework? When taking a test? Today, it's a non-issue.

We want number-crunching computers in the hands of every student.

Ten years ago, combing the words "female" and "East German athlete" meant Olympic gold medal. Now, all that comes to mind is national disgrace. Discovery of systematic abuse of anabolic steroids stripped many of that nation's athletes of their medals.

Performance enhancing drugs cross a threshold we don't accept. An anabolic substance entering the body, altering the way it works, isn't fair to other athletes. And it can be unhealthy for the athlete using it.

Ten years from now will we be as comfortable with bionically enhanced individuals - their listening, seeing, memorizing powered up - as we are with the hand-held calculator? Or will we be as opposed to such electronic accretions as we are with the use of steroids by the East German athletes? Slugger McGwire's four baggers thrill because we still recognize him as the agent behind the blast. Chaddock points to a whole new ballgame.

* Comments or questions? Write to Ideas Editor, One Norway St., Boston, MA 02115, or e-mail Ideas@csps.com

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