by Bruce Dunlavy
(My blog home page and index of other posts may be found here.)

The Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries saw the invention of countless devices that changed the way human life had been conducted for thousands of years. Less than 200 years ago, the speed with information could be moved had not changed since the domestication of the horse over 5000 years ago.  Since then information transfer had been limited to the speed at which a horse could run or a ship could sail. In 1844, the invention of the telegraph made it possible for information to be transmitted over long distances at the speed of light.

By the mid-1900s, telephone, radio, and television had brought the Information Age to life.  Before the century was out, electronic media were able to reproduce the functions of telephone, radio, and television in a single device, the personal computer. With that device, access to information became easier and better. A shelf of encyclopedias can be stored in a single tiny chip.

Within the span of about 30 years, humanity – at least in the developed world – has been liberated from having to access physical sources of information. By carrying a smart phone, an individual now has at the ready not just a telephone, but also a mail service, a radio, a television,  a camera, a timepiece, a notepad, a movie theater, and – through internet connectivity – the ability to search for and find all the written and pictorial material available in the world’s biggest libraries. With a smart phone, you can quickly search for and find words, pictures, immediate news, statistics and other data.  You can also rapidly research as deeply as you wish into everything from thermodynamics to international economic and political reports to history, literature, quantum physics, or anything else you have a need for or interest in.

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What is the next step? Computer-Brian Interface (CBI) has been in development for quite a while. Surgeons are already implanting electronic devices to allow people who have lost hands or arms to use their minds to activate artificial replacements that function quite well. CBI is also helping persons with paraplegia to walk and persons with deafness to regain their hearing. Restoration of other senses, including sight, is not far behind in development. The National Institutes of Health have prepared a general timeline of the progress of CBI in that regard.

Sounds like a wonderful thing!  Beneath this happy veneer, however, rests a future, one that may indeed be dangerous to democracy. Why? Let us look back a hundred years to another magnificent development that provided huge benefits to the disabled, namely plastic surgery.

Through the end of the Nineteenth Century, plastic surgery had scarcely developed at all. The American Society of Plastic Surgeons has outlined what followed this long period of stagnation. The second decade of the Twentieth Century, however, saw rapid and dramatic improvements in the field.  During and after World War I, many veterans returned home with horrific disfigurements from the weaponry and conditions they had encountered. Burned faces, some missing eyes, ears, noses, lips, or jaws, were not uncommon results of battle injuries. Surgeons developed techniques such as skin grafting, nose-rebuilding, and maxillo-facial surgical innovations that helped wounded veterans regain something like a functional and presentable face.

Within a few years, most of the war veterans who needed plastic surgery had been given as much treatment as could be accomplished. There was still a need for plastic surgery such as for victims of burns or other accidents, but the immediate cause of the rapid advancement of plastic surgery techniques had waned.  The plastic surgeons and their abilities were still there and still developing.  Where would they find enough work?

The answer to that question was to redirect their practice from those who needed it to those who wanted it.  “Plastic” surgery became “cosmetic” surgery, aimed not at those who were disfigured and needed to get to normal, but to those who were normal and wanted to get to something better. It is no surprise that plastic surgery would come to this; after all, breast enlargement surgery had been performed as early as 1899.

A rhinoplasty, or “nose job,” is a common cosmetic surgery, as are face lifts, buttocks lifts, blepharoplasty for saggy eyelids, and so on.  Unlike the kind of cosmetic surgery that allows a person who is practically non-functional to become functional, a nose job or butt lift is not medically necessary. It is performed only because a person who as a perfectly adequate appearance wants to look better than that. Medical necessity, though, is the threshold for getting treatment paid for by health insurance. Insurance companies that pay for surgery to repair a nose smashed in an automobile wreck do not typically pay for reshaping an average nose to look like a supermodel’s nose for the purpose of feeding the patient’s vanity.

Thus the use of cosmetic surgery for enhancement and not normalization is available only to those who can afford to pay for it themselves. No wonder the rich are sometimes called “the beautiful people” – they can afford to have themselves made beautiful.

Now consider the incipient uses of CBI. Imagine being able to meld one’s brain/mind with one’s smart phone (these days, not a far-fetched idea at all). A person with memory loss from a traumatic brain injury or dementia such as Alzheimer’s disease would be able to access lost memories or retain new ones indefinitely. It would be a boon to the aged who now lead attenuated lives because their memory has failed to the point where they can’t recognize their own families from day to day. Being able to access data about their own past – let alone all the information mentioned in the third paragraph of this essay – through a combination of digital files and internet research capability would add many productive years to the lives of people with cognitive or memory dysfunctions. Consider it “cyber-symbiosis” – a cooperative blending of the mental and the electronic to make a synergistic whole bigger than the sum of its parts.

Like plastic surgery, though, CBI is a likely candidate to be captured by those who seek not repair of damage or loss but the acquisition of the extraordinary.  Imagine the advantages of a person who could connect his/her brain to a smart phone and thus to everything available in memory files or on the internet.  What an advantage it would be for businesspeople to have immediate recall of their own and their competitors’ production and cost figures for the last twelve fiscal years.  What an advantage for an engineer to be able to research all the information about a particular mechanical or electrical problem just by thinking about it. The uses for doctors and lawyers are unlimited.

The people with these superior capabilities would be the most sought-after individuals in their professions. And, of course, it would follow the same course as plastic surgery, which was developed to help the disabled, but was taken over by rich narcissists.  Correcting deficiencies would give way to millionaires buying brain enhancements giving them access to all information about anything and everything – just by thinking about it. At that point the rich would not just believe they are better than the rest of us. This time they actually will be better.