In this paper I analyze a biomechanical prosthetic arm and the changing meanings and roles given to this artifact on different arenas. In 2003 Jesse Sullivan became the first man in the world to get a biomechanical arm prosthetic; a robotic arm connected directly to his nerve system and directed by brain impulses in a similar way as an organic arm. In 2005 Claudia Mitchell became the first woman to get the same type of arm. Jesse, Claudia and their arms were widely mediated, and many called them “the world’s first cyborgs”. The cyborg concept in itself dates back to the 1960s, but the idea of a fusion between man and machine has been a recurrent theme in scientific research, engineering and fictional narrative over time. To many observers, Jesse and Claudia seemed to finally embody this fusion.
The bionic arm is deeply inscribed in earlier narratives of machine-human interaction, but can also be connected to many other contexts. It is a prosthetic, and one of its functions is to restore a body to its “normal” or rehabilitated state. This makes it an interesting ground for analysis regarding what is considered “normality” in regards to bodies and functions. Further, the arm is a product of military research as a help for wounded soldiers, and at the same time inscribed in a context of weapon production and the possibility to make more effective soldiers. All these interests and narratives meet in the research communication around the bionic arm.
Research on the relation between media and science has underlined that researchers in the media have mixed purposes - to win public acceptance, political support, financial resources, or even personal fame (Weingart, 1998). Medial presence can also be used to create an air of doubt around a technology or a scientific finding (Cf Oreskes & Conway, 2010). It has also been pointed out that the process of legitimitizing new innovations through medial presence has become more complicated with the arrival of the Internet and new social media(Elam, 2004). The case of the bionic arm gives me a possibility to study this process and the actors involved: Engineers, Financiers, Journalists and “the Public.
My study takes as its departure four different levels of the communication around the bionic arm: Public communication from engineers and researchers, from the military, from daily press and from blogs/commentators. These four types of source material represent different interpretations of what the biomechanical arm is and the actors that communicate around the arm have to relate to already existing images of what the connection between man and machine means as well as inscribe the arm in a history of medical engineering, disability, war, science fiction, gender and everyday life. My questions regard the interplay between these narratives, as well as the practical implementations they cause. Who has the power to decide what a technology “means”? Who gets to speak for a certain technology? And which narratives become important when we interpret new technologies?