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Human, Non-Human, and Beyond: Cochlear Implants in Socio-Technological Environments


The paper focuses on processes of normalization through which dis/ability is simultaneously produced in specific collectives, networks, and socio-technological systems that enable the construction of such demarcations. Our point of departure is the cochlear implant (CI), a neuroprosthetic device intended to replace and/or augment the function of the damaged inner ear. Unlike hearing aids, which amplify sounds, the CI does the work of damaged hair cells in the inner ear by providing sound signals to the brain. We examine the processes of the CI’s genesis as well as its specific uses by and interrelations to the different and divergent actors that the CI assembles. We argue that the technological device and the implicated normalization process mobilize complex effects in varying socio-technical arrangements. The CI is conceived as a “boundary object” [89] or a “quasi-object” [49, 83], i.e., a metastabilized medium of translation that coordinates social, cultural, and technological (inter)action. Although intended to transform non-hearing or hard of hearing people into competent and “normal” hearing subjects, the CI system reproduces the asymmetrical structures of the disability discourse [14] through its function of “developing and maintaining coherence between intersecting social worlds” [89, 393]. Additionally, it initiates controversial discourses that have resulted in new forms of biosocial collectivities ranging from cochlear implantees with (restored) normal human hearing to (trans)human configurations who have passed through (post)human enhancement. Our approach is thus situated at the intersection of disability and media studies and tackles the particular conditions technological media configurations impose upon the (re-)production of dis/ability.

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  1. The notion of “Anthropofakt” refers to a current research project by the Technical University of Berlin and the Deutsche Hygiene-Museum (DHDM) on the hybridization of bodies and technologies. Cf. Anthropofakte. Schnittstelle Mensch, (accessed 22 September 2015).

  2. Exceptions are Schillmeier and Winance [77, 96]. See also Mills [59, 321] as well as Ochsner, Stock [67].

  3. The notion of “first-time-activation videos”, as can be found on YouTube, refers to the concept of the “activation scene” as developed by Pamela Kincheloe [43].

  4. However, methodologically speaking, in order to observe and describe such processes, a temporal fixation of the object of investigation (in popular imagery as well as in scientific contributions) is the heuristic condition of the production of dynamic knowledge [80, 119].

  5. Callon (1986) uses the term identity for both human and non-human actors in order to remain what he calls a “generalized symmetry.” Thus, identity is not thought of as a fixed and restricted to human entities but needs to be understood as a list of attributes, which can be “negotiated and delimited” [13, 203] in the process of networking.

  6. For the sake of completeness and in order to avoid the misconception of a homogeneous group of deaf people with a common agenda, it should be mentioned that views on CI differ greatly. The views expressed in the following correspond with those of deaf communities, whose members are born and raised in a context with a strong communicational focus on sign language and feel discriminated against by biological/medical concepts of hearing as natural. Depression as a result of feeling excluded from the “hearing world” is a typical clinical view of people who are born with hearing and live large sections of their lives communicating via spoken language before becoming deaf in adult life and being unable to easily adapt to a non-hearing lifestyle.

  7. Examples of such typifying visualizations are Senf, Chute and Nevins, Eisenberg, and the children’s picture book Kylie Gets a Cochlear Implant by Rose [20, 26, 75, 82].

  8. Of course these are extreme points in the debate. There is without a doubt a whole range of other constructions of “deafness” and “hearing” in relation to the CI such as reconciliations of both “worlds” [7, 4; 8, 211] and identities “stuck in-between” both sides [12, 92]. Also, it should be added that this kind of subjectivization also depends on the degree of the hearing loss and whether the person in question was born deaf or lost their hearing as an adult. Identity constructions are certainly conditioned by a vast spectrum of other factors such as cultural and social environment, age, and gender. From the perspective of an ANT approach, this means that a homogeneous and sharply defined group of people cannot be set as the starting point of the analysis. Rather, subjectivization can as be described as relations to and negotiations between different actors in the process of networking. In this case, the extreme points are results of specific mediatizations, which surface as the most “popular,” “politically effective,” or “controversial” in specific network constellations.

  9. Dehumanization as a result of invasive cyborg technology is even more stressed by Peter Artinian’s concern, uttered in the documentary Sound and the Fury (Josh Aronson, Artistic License, 2000), that “cochlear implants will create a bunch of robots.” However, technically speaking, there is a decisive difference between the concept of the cyborg, as a part machine part human hybrid, and the robot, or android, which is a completely artificial machine.

  10. However, “becoming a Borg” is not always discoursified as undesired. For example, on the blog, being implanted with cyborg technology is presented as a “cool,” nerdish gimmick. The blog’s owner, Graham, has included a picture of the assimilated Captain Picard with the ironic side note, “I will begin my planning now for my role as a real life cyborg in the next Star Trek movie!! Beam me up Scottie!!” [33].

  11. The photography is used by Chaikof as an argument for her discussion of the acceptability of the CI [16].

  12. Cochlear device switch-on live in studio (23 March 2014),, accessed 22 June 2015. More examples, Activating Anderson’s cochlear implant (15 May 2013), (accessed 22 June 2015); 3 year old hearing for the first time with a cochlear implant (15 May 2012), (accessed 22 June 2015); Hearing for first time - Wee Daniel's reaction to Cochlear Implant Switch On in Belfast (05 January 2013), (accessed 22 June 2015); and 2-year-old Cooper hears mommy’s voice for the first time! (10 October 2011) (accessed 22 June 2015).

  13. Cf. the Listening demos given by Dorman, Loizou, Rainey [25].

  14. Drake’s cochlear implant activation (18 June 2006),, accessed 22 June 2015.

  15. For example in Suzi’s switch-on: Brain doctors. Emergency. BBC Two (02 February 2013),, accessed 22 June 2015.

  16. Joanne Milnes’ very emotional viral cochlear implant switch on,, 28 March 2014 to 27 May 2014.

  17. “[…] moments after switch-on takes place, she can understand the days of the week being read to her, knows she is speaking with a Geordie accent and tells the audiologist that the sounds seem “too high”… Hang on, wait… “Geordie accent? This is the first time she has ever heard and she can not only speak, but with a recognisable accent? That is not a cochlear implant, that is a miracle.” Joanne Milnes’ very emotional viral cochlear implant switch on (28 March 2014), (accessed 22 June 2015). Another critic, Betty Hoven, expresses her anger about this kind of videos as it focuses on entertainment rather than the long process of auditory mapping [41].

  18. For other autobiographic experiences, see Romoff and Biderman [3, 73].

  19. Other examples from television series highlight the implementation of visual prostheses. In Star Trek, Geordi la Forge uses his visor in order to sense a frequency range that goes far beyond the capacity of human physiological sight. But the visor also transmits the recorded visual material wirelessly so that his user is transformed temporarily into a mobile camera. The six million dollar man (ABC, 1974–1978) uses his telescope vision in order to track down suspects.

  20. For ambivalences in the medical and rehabilitation discourse, see the analysis by Moser, who emphasizes the “relocation” of dependency through the use of assistive technologies [62, 205].

  21. Being able to hear bats is an idea also articulated by biohackers like Rich Lee [47, 90].

  22. In the case of the CI, these restrictions are not only commercially motivated. The process following the implantation is very complicated; audiologists and CI users have to collaborate to define how the implant system operates. The initial adjustment or mapping is followed by fine-tuning, hearing training, speech therapy, and further medical tests to measure the auditory perception of the CI user.

  23. Chorost, for instance, despite a keen interest in improving the perception of music using CI, points out that he would not dare to hack his system due to its complexity [cf. 59, 338].

  24. Chorost describes such a scene, “I’m plugged directly into the player. Its electrical output goes straight into the processor, which converts it to binary and passes it on to the implant. The implant decides which electrodes to trigger in my cochlea. These are no physical vibrations anywhere” [17, 58].

  25. Discussing the Turing test, Hayles contends that the specificity of this setting is not to be found in the decision whether one communicates with a computer or a human person but in the fact that the test person is participating in a “cybernetic circuit that splices your will, desire, and perception into a distributed cognitive system in which represented bodies are joined with enacted bodies through mutating and flexible machine interfaces” [34, 14].


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We would like to acknowledge the thorough comments, encouragement, and instructive suggestions of the editors and anonymous reviewers which contributed to the preparation of this manuscript.

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Ochsner, B., Spöhrer, M. & Stock, R. Human, Non-Human, and Beyond: Cochlear Implants in Socio-Technological Environments. Nanoethics 9, 237–250 (2015).

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  • Cochlear implant
  • Disability
  • Biosociality
  • Media studies
  • Socio-technological environments
  • YouTube activation videos
  • Humaneness
  • Human enhancement
  • Cyborg