Rituals of Getting a New Body Part

How do you mark the turning on of an ear? Activation is a momentous event, biblical in scope: a thing that was dead is brought back to life. In the film Elmer Gantry there’s a faith-healing scene where a deaf man hears again. I was watching it with my mom, and I looked over at her and said dryly, “Could have saved fifty grand.”

But the incantations of science really work. Sixteen electrodes pour current into quiescent nerves and they flare into life. It is an extraordinarily profound experience. Your body changes; your perception of the world changes. For thirty years I have assumed that nothing interesting happens on my right side. That will change in a hurry on January 24th, when my other ear is activated. All of a sudden my brain will have to correlate the input from two ears and summate them.

That’s a very subtle thing. Sound travels at 760 miles per hour at sea level, but even at that speed, the brain can tell which ear heard a given sound first and calculate its direction from that. The brain can detect differences between the ears as small as 20 millionths of a second, allowing it to tell where sounds are coming from with great accuracy.

I won’t do as well as as a person with normal ears would, because each electrode array refreshes only five thousand times per second. Still, I willl have a lot of new information to work with. It’s not just that I’ll have twice as much binary data coming in. That would be a merely quantitative change. The information will let me do new things: a qualitative change.

An extraordinary change. What’s missing, though, is what religion is good at providing: a way of marking the occasion in a way that supports me as I cross the threshold from one domain of experience to another. The setting will be distinctly anticlimatic. A clinician’s office, flourescent lighting, a laptop. At the end the main ritual will be handing over my debit card to pay for it. I will walk out and there will be the naked world, indifferent.

What can we do for people whose bodies are being changed in dramatic ways by technology? There’s no equivalent of the bar mitzvah, the ceremony that marks when a person is old enough to lead the congregation.

Yet the changes that are coming may be as profound as adolescence. In his book Radical Evolution, Joel Garreau predicts a future where human bodies are woven into the technological matrix. A person would be able to run google searches simply by thinking them, and their memories might be externally storable in some meaningful form. That would require surgical implantation of some kind, and it would be a momentous event. Garreau muses,

Can we picture devotions marking the great sigificance of a young person getting her first cognition piercing – awakening her mind directly to the Web of all meaning? What about a rite of maturity in which someone is formally recognized as knowing enough worth keeping that the larger society marks the occasion of his well-deserved first memory upgrade? Should we have a liturgy of life everlasting as a person receives her first cellular age-reversal workup? (p. 265)

I admired Garreau’s courage in writing this passage. We live in a desacralized world – so much so that the very idea of ritual has come to seem hokey and artificial. The tempo of modern life works against ritual, because workdays and pleasures have become so individualized that that there are fewer and fewer opportunities for people to come together in unforced ways.

The medical world makes it even more difficult, because it’s been rationalized to maximize throughput (the most patients per hour) and profits. Ritual is not “useful” or “efficient”, so it doesn’t fit into the medical system. And there’s the sheer issue of décor. Formica and flourescent lights are inherently incompatible with the creation of sacred space and time. Sacred spaces need to be arboreal, eldritch, involuted, layered — and unsterile. They need to be old.

So Garreau took a risk in this passage. But it was a risk worth taking. How does one sanctify a medical procedure? It can’t be done on an individual level; the very idea of a ritual requires that it be invented by a society. It would be just plain silly if I brought a little altar and called on the spirits to bless my electrodes – although similar things are done every day in other contexts. I can’t just make up my own ritual. Well, I could, but it would be laughable; it would carry no real weight.

I have several thoughts.

Perhaps the single biggest thing lacking in the entire cochlear implant process is that one is not assigned a guide – an experienced person who has been through it before. A person to be the Virgil to one’s Dante. A guide, and a witness; a master to an apprentice. A person to see you through it, from initial decision to surgery to the long process of relearning to hear over the years.

No one was there to play that role for me. I’ve played it, haphazardly, in bits and pieces, for several people, but the process has not been formalized; it hasn’t been granted a place in the medical establishment and given stature and dignity. It has to be more than volunteer work. It has to carry real weight and be given real rewards. That guide/witness relationship would give the moment of activation some of that devotional quality.

I’m certain that if such an institution existed, success rates would go up immediately and substantially. But try getting it past a budgetary review board. The idea would wither as fast as you could say the word “desacralized.” Such things have to emerge organically, and given how new medical technology is, that emergence may take decades. Centuries, perhaps.

So that’s not what I’m doing on January 24th. But there are other things I can do. I can bring friends, and I will; Joe Quirk and Diane Weipert, close writer friends of mine, will come that day. They’ve seen me fight for a year and half to make it happen. Joe drove me back from the hospital the day it was implanted. I feel like I’m honoring them by asking them to be there – as if I had asked them to be in a wedding party. Very few people get to witness an activation. It’ll be fun to explain the technology to them; they’ll get to see that look in my eyes as I realize I have a functioning right ear; and I know they’ll remember the day for the rest of their lives.

And I’m having a party a few days later, on February 2nd. I’m calling it a “Two-Eared Party.” I think about twenty people will show up. It’ll be the first time I’m in a crowd with two working ears, and it’ll be a strange and novel experience. It’ll be a celebration. Everyone there will be happy for me. It will be a good party.

Friends and parties. That’s not too bad, as far as rituals go. They will do, until our cybernetic descendants invent rites of transformation that will seem as natural to them as weddings do to us today.


  1. I didn’t have a guide, either, the first time around…I went it almost alone, except for my friend Laurie’s support. I did have a few CI blogs that I read but had never met any of them and didn’t really have a lot of people to bounce questions off of. Your book told me more about the CI than any other source…it was an invaluable resource! Your website (soon-to-be-blog) will help a lot of people…I, for one, am staying tuned 🙂

  2. my 17-year-old high-school-senior daughter just came by and asked what i was reading and i told her who you were. she was saying she wishes there were a lot more ritual in her life to mark her big occasions. she had a great example, it went something like:

    “daddy, you know when i was little, i used to love to watch you play solitaire on the computer? it was because, when you won, the cards would go cascading all over the place? i loved that. i wish something like that would happen when i push the button to send my application to a college. when you push that button, it’s so anticlimactic. nothing happens. if a college sent up screen fireworks when i applied to it, i would apply to it just to see the fireworks.”

    glad to hear about your party. wish i’d been there. i would have brought fireworks. maybe set up their launchers in a big circle, and put you in the middle, so you could hear them from all directions.

  3. Hey, this sounds like a fascinating book. I’m going to go pick up a copy. I have a question for Joel, though… This story is a great example of “Prevail”. Based on your observations of what’s been happening so far in the early 21’st century, which scenario do you think has been emerging? Heaven, Hell or Prevail?

  4. indeed, “transcend” comes straight out of “prevail” and mike embodies it. don’t dismiss the “heaven” and “hell” scenarios, though. in scenario work, we do everything we can to avoid assigning probabilities to possible futures. it’s the scenarios that you least except or want that can really bite you.

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