Prosthetic envy describes the condition under which someone might claim to be willing to remove a perfectly healthy limb in order to replace it with a bionic or machinic equivalent.
As artificial limbs and assistive devices become increasingly sophisticated they have evolved from symbols of loss into desirable design objects. Recent advancements in materials science, processor speeds and myoelectrics mean that new prosthetic devices exemplify the latest in technological development. This technological potency is rapidly creating a new relationship between the users of prosthetics and their ‘unenhanced’ beholders.
Amputees are already opting to remove healthy tissue to make room for more powerful bionics or to allow for a more intimate integration with their prosthetics. This contrasts with the traditional narrative in which orthopedic surgeons have considered amputation the equivalent of failure – the aim of medical professionals is to save as much of a damaged, injured, or diseased limb as possible.
Additionally, some amputees are opting to have their current artificial limbs upgraded with additional functions (such as a mobile phone charger) or with aesthetic enhancements (such as ornate 3D-printed covers or LED lights). Such embellishments reframe these devices as fashion statements and further drive the possibilities of and desire for self-enhancement.
But these prosthetic promises must be approached with scepticism. Prosthetic limb users note that current devices are still inconvenient. The current interfaces between the device and human body can often cause pain and abrasions on the skin and the prosthetic is prone to break. As such, it is important to acknowledge the limits of these devices before pointing to prosthetics as an early example of the sorts of tools that might enable an enhanced future human.
What does it really mean to have machinery incorporated into the body schema? How does upgrade culture operate on the body? Where does the techno-fetishism for prosthetics originate? What might drive an individual to have their limbs removed or replaced with bionic equivalents?
Nigel Ackland, Pioneering Pilot of the bebionic Prosthetic
Nicky Ashwell, First User (UK) of the bebionic small
Cathrine Disney, BIOFUTURES Lab Curator
James A.H. Young, Collaborator on the Phantom Limb Project
Luke Robert Mason, Director of Virtual Futures (Moderator)
Plus, a special performance from Virtual Futures’ Near-Future Fiction Author in Residence:
Stephen Oram, Near-Future Fiction Author