Questions from Steve Potter’s class

A student in Steve Potter’s class at Georgia Tech asked me, “Which character in Frank Herbert’s Dune do you most relate to? Has that changed since you got the cochlear implant?”

I would say Duncan Idaho, the ghola. There’s a passage in book 2 or 3 — I’ve looked for it several times, to no avail — where he meditates upon the fact that accepting bionic eyes from the Tleilaxu also means acquiring, to some extent, their way of viewing the world. Not just perceptually, but psychologically. The Tleilaxu had a subtle agenda of influencing the people who used their implants. Taking Tleilaxu eyes meant acquiring elements of a Tleilaxu perspective on life.

I thought about that quite a bit while writing Rebuilt. People often say that technology is value-neutral, but that statement is, at best, incomplete. If you go back to 1950 and give a desert Bedouin a TV, you also introduce him to a new way of viewing time: the jump-cut, for example. Regardless of what he watches, his way of conceptualizing time will become more Western. Technology can consciously be used to propagate values, but unconsciously — and possibly even more powerfully — it will propagate an epistemology, that is, a way of framing the world.

Which is what Tleilaxu eyes were supposed to do. The concept struck me as being both fascinating and creepy. To accept the benefit, you had to accept that you would become more like the people who offered it to you.

Naturally, I wondered if the implant would do that to me. But now that I’m an implant user of eight years’ standing, I’d say that it doesn’t change your values in the slightest. Consider, for example, the vast political differences between me and Rush Limbaugh, who has exactly the same device and software that I do.

But what about epistemology? It tries to reproduce the “conventional” epistemology of the ear as far as possible. But there are certain biases. Until very recently, there was a longstanding bias toward speech clarity, which meant disregarding frequency-dependent phenomena such as music and tonal languages. (Chinese is a tonal language; certain words change their meaning depending on the pitch with which they’re uttered.) That decision was pragmatic rather than political, but it was a decision nonetheless.

I don’t think, however, that it changes your psychological perspective in any specific way, and there certainly aren’t any nefarious and secret political agendas for changing an individual’s personality. In any case, individuals are so complex that even if Tleilaxu eyes — and ears — existed, their effect would be utterly unpredictable and in many cases nonexistent. Take me, for example. I got a bionic ear and jumped immediately into an entirely new career. But that’s just me. I’m a science geek who loves technology, and the implant gave me the perfect platform for exploring what technology does to human beings. On the other hand, plenty of people get them and go right back to doing whatever they were doing before. (Rush, for one, to my deep regret.)

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