Is your mobile phone part of your body?
by Rebecca Roache
The Frontline reports that sensors carried on the body of mobile phone users could soon be used to boost the UK’s mobile phone network coverage. If only half of the 91% of the UK population who owns a mobile phone carried such sensors, then nearly half of the UK population would become part of a ‘body-to-body’ mobile phone network.
When technology becomes as wearable and ubiquitous as this, it raises some interesting questions about what sort of things people are, and about the division between the body and the surrounding environment. What, after all, is a body? At first glance, a person’s body is that mass of flesh, blood, and bone that we point to when we point to him or her: all very simple and straightforward. Things get more complicated when we consider someone who has received an organ transplant. Does a transplanted organ become part of the body of the person who receives it? I would say so. Assuming that the transplant is successful, it functions just like the organ it replaces; and an injury to the transplanted organ would be considered an injury to the recipient. What about artificial devices that replace or supplement organs, like cochlear implants: do these count as body parts too? I would imagine that most of us would be less willing to view such things as body parts. However, if transplanted organs are to count as parts of the recipients’ bodies, refusal to accept cochlear implants as body parts seems mere prejudice. Both enable the recipient’s body to perform a familiar and normal bodily function; and whilst a transplanted organ is – unlike a cochlear implant – undeniably a body part, it is pre-transplant no more a part of the recipient’s body than a cochlear implant. So, perhaps we should consider cochlear implants to be body parts too. If we accept something like a cochlear implant as a body part, though, what else might we feel bound to include? What about less permanent replacement body parts, like false teeth and prosthetic limbs? Tools that are not intended to replace body parts, but which nevertheless enable certain people to perform something like a familiar and normal bodily function, like wheelchairs? Tools that enable people to perform functions that are not familiar and normal bodily functions, like pencils and screwdrivers? Where do we draw the line between the body and the surrounding environment?
It might seem crazy to suggest that wheelchairs and screwdrivers should be viewed as parts of the body, but there are reasons in favour of it. Adherents of the ‘extended mind’ thesis argue that some objects in the external environment are used by the mind in such a way that it makes sense to consider them parts of the mind. For example, for a person with Alzheimer’s disease, a notebook containing important personal information might perform a similar function that a working memory performs in healthy people. In such a case – if we subscribe to the extended mind thesis – the notebook should be considered part of the owner’s mind. Analogously, if the body uses certain objects as if they were extensions of the body, then we may consider those objects parts of the body. Does the body ever use objects in this way, though? Recent research seems to show that it does: our brains represent tools as extensions of our bodies, so there is an important sense in which something like a screwdriver functions as a body part. Perhaps, then, any unwillingness to consider certain tools as body parts stems from an intuitive difficulty to consider them as such: perhaps tools are just too unlike the body. However, even this does not seem to be universally true. The view that wheelchairs are extensions of the body is widespread among disabled people, and is reflected in the view that touching a person’s wheelchair is as intimate or intrusive as touching their body (see, for example, here, here, and here).
It is intriguing that wheelchairs should be viewed in this way. Of all the candidate new body parts I have mentioned here, wheelchairs are among the most artificial and the most unlike the body; yet it seems that they are the most likely to be considered part of the body, at least in some sense and in some communities. That wheelchair users have – and are known to have – a particularly well-defined and close relationship with their wheelchairs plausibly accounts for this. Given that people are becoming increasingly reliant on the ubiquitous mobile phone – the explosion of ‘apps’ in recent years means that some mobile phones can now perform a startling variety of useful functions – it seems likely that the relationship that mobile phone users have with their phones will become increasingly close, especially if phones become more wearable. As such, we may come to consider mobile phone technology as an extension of the body. Perhaps, in time to come, intercepting someone’s phonecall will come to seem as intrusive as clapping a hand over their mouth mid-sentence.