Popular Mechanics (South Africa)
Harry Parker (pictured right) joined the British Army at the age of 23. Three years later, while serving in Afghanistan, he lost both his legs in an explosion. Ten weeks after that, he stood in prosthetics for the first time, attributes that now make him 12 per cent machine. Parker spoke to POPULAR MECHANICS about what it means to be partially machine, the innovations that come with his disability, as well as his new book, Hybrid Humans.
Popular Mechanics: Can technology make us feel more human?
Harry Parker: Without my prosthetic legs, I feel much less human. I can’t interact with my family and society in a way that I would like because I am on the floor or I’m in a wheelchair. When I have my legs on and I’m upright and walking, I feel more human because I am inhabiting a human space and interacting with the world in the way that feels more comfortable for me.
PM: How has the world of prosthetics changed recently?
HP: I was injured nearly 14 years ago, and even in that time, there has been a massive improvement in the technology in some areas. But it’s a small marketplace as there are relatively few amputees out there, and even fewer who can afford to pay lots of money. So while technological advancements do filter into things such as prosthetics, it happens at a much slower rate than other sectors. PM: Where does smart technology fit in? HP: One example is microprocessor knees – and I’ve trialled loads. These microprocessors, in a very simple sense, help the amputee to walk by judging gait patterns, and making things more predictable. PM: Where can the tech still be improved? HP: There’s this tension between the amazing tech, such as my knee and all that it can do, and actually attaching it to my body – that’s a real challenge. In my book I talk about osseointegration, or direct skeletal fixation, where a hole is drilled directly into the femur and an implant is used to attach prosthetics to the limb. Of course, you achieve a really good connection to the limb in terms of biomechanics, but there are other risks such as infections and fractures. There really are some comprehensive solutions out there, but any time you attach something to the body, it feels murky and medieval – it’s quite gritty.
PM: It sounds as if not all bionics are slick?
HP: When you start to shove things into the body such as bionic eyes or deep brain stimulation devices, there’s that foreign-body reaction. You’re putting something into you and your body goes, no thank you, that’s not human, that’s not biological; I want us to reject that.
PM: What has been your experience with trying different types of prosthetic legs?
HP: I think the tag line for my legs is ‘limitless freedom’, and that’s not really the truth of it. You’re longing for prosthetics that can take you back to where you once were, and yes they provide improvements, but it still hurts. I still can’t run for the bus. It’s even the case with upper limb bionic hands… They might look amazing, but when you ask people who have them, they often say life is easier without a really heavy bit of tech, no matter how cool or functional it looks. PM: Some prosthetics are more complicated than others; tell us about that.
HP: There’s a big difference between something such as a lower limb injury, like I have, and upper limb conditions or hearing loss. My condition is really quite a straightforward biomedical problem to solve, whereas those other conditions are typically much more complex, from a sensory-motor perspective.
PM: Is there a particularly interesting prosthetic device that you’ve encountered?
HP: Bionic eyes! The assumption is that they return people’s vision, but in reality it’s much more rudimentary. The best-case outcome is that the user sees a matrix of dots in the dark, which they use to navigate the world. We’re a long way from restoring sight in a way that’s truly meaningful.
PM: What do you think of body hackers, transhumanists?
HP: This is where the medicine of prosthetics tips into performance art or recreation – where people deliberately put devices into their bodies with the intention of augmenting them. To me, as an amputee who’s been forced into doing it, it seems really crazy. Transhumanists believe they can free humans from our suboptimal bodies. As a person with a disability it’s interesting, because these ‘enhancements’ are often tried out on us first, because our bodies are already broken.