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.

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9 Responses to Is your mobile phone part of your body?

  • Peter Wicks says:

    I’ve had thoughts like this while driving my car!

    What I’m wondering, though, is – beyond the semantic question of how we want to define “body” – what would be the moral (or other operational) significance of our decisions. Obviously the issue of identity is relevant here. Also, do we need to settle on one definition, or can we accept that words like “I” and “my body” can and should be used in different ways depending on the context? I’m inclined to go for a multi-definition approach (and/or perhaps invent some new words).

    Although I agree that these questions become more urgent with technological development, they are not entirely new. A lot of people, if not most of us, identify with the clothes we are wearing, albeit in a transient way. And before we drove cars we rode horses…

    I guess we’re talking about the theory of identity here; in any case I agree that these questions of identity are crucial for any interests- or rights-based ethical theory, and are indeed becoming more urgent as the singularity (arguably) approaches.

  • Thanks Peter … I think I agree with all of that!

    It would be interesting if developments in technology challenged our conceptions of our identity by challenging our conceptions of our bodies. Philosophers working on the question of what sort of thing persons are have – pretty much exclusively, as far as I’m aware – focused on the question of what sort of things we are *other* than our bodies. It seems that, historically, the body has been viewed as the least philosophically interesting aspect of personhood. Things could take an interesting turn if that were to change.

  • David Shipley says:

    Interesting. When I changed from spectacles to contact lenses in my late 20s, my parents took some to get used to the idea, saying “it doesn’t look like you”. As far as they were concerned, the glasses had become part of me, a viewpoint I took strong exception to. Now in their old age they have artificial joints in hips and a knee which have effectively become part of them. Is the simplest defining factor whether the prosthesis is incorporated into the body or not?

  • Anthony Drinkwater says:

    I am sure that it is true that many wheelchair users have a particularly well-defined and close relationship with their wheelchairs and that they view touching a person’s wheelchair as intimate or intrusive as touching their body.
    It is equally true that many who have had their house burgled report feelings of being invaded or defiled. But does this imply that they perceive their house to be an extension of their body ?
    To take another example, a talented pianist could be seen as playing their instrument as if it were an extension of their body.
    Analogies such as these can be useful and instructive, but let’s not forget that they are analogies.

  • I love this post! It has me thinking about all sorts of things I tended not to think about before. Although these thoughts do not seem to go in the intended or specific direction of the post, I think they might share a similar spirit. Let me first give just a bit of relevant background. I find many sorts of boundaries and borders morally insignificant if not harmful and dangerous. For instance, many people rely on the alleged moral significance of national boundaries to justify morally many kinds of differential treatment toward foreigners and compatriots. Cosmopolitan principles that transcend ingroup/outgroup thinking sound much more appealing to me.

    This wonderful post has me thinking about new (new to me at least) forms of unity, unification, wide scale solidarity, and similar sentiments. Please be patient with this comment – I am an old school psychological individualist and have tended so far to sympathize with the more bounded views of cognition currently under debate. However, Rebecca Roache’s vivid examples, descriptions, and exposition in this post knocked loose some of the rusted gears in my narrow mind. The body to body phone network is one kind of shared extension of our minds/bodies. What about other sorts of shared phenomena? A simple example could be two people who take turns using the same wheel chair. Other examples could involve things that people (maybe two people, maybe all people!) similarly share at the same time. For instance, vision on the Earth arguably depends on the subtle details of planetary atmosphere. If various atmospheric details were different, we would see things in different colors, we might see different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, the bodily aspects of our visual systems could have evolved differently such that we might see substantially different things that we now cannot see, and so on.

    Similarly, perhaps our respiratory systems, for instance, include the air within certain parts of our planetary atmosphere. As in the case of vision, if various atmospheric conditions on the Earth were different, we arguably could have evolved very different ways of utilizing oxygen (or other elements) and energy (as have other life forms living in/on different parts of the Earth). I guess I am trying to think of ethical analogues for extended mind theses that support forms of unity, solidarity, cosmopolitanism, cooperation, equality, and/or similar/related ideas, as briefly described toward the beginning of my post. Has anyone written on this before? If so, please explain. Have writers shown such ideas wayward and unworkable, or have writers well developed elaborate versions of my very simple attempt at an idea here in much more sophisticated ways? Again, if so, please explain. In any case, many thanks for this wonderful post.

  • Akshat Rathi says:

    Interesting article. It was a nice read.

    But I fail to see the point of it all. Yes, if we do consider a mobile phone to be an extension of our body then what difference does it make. It’s just redefining the word ‘body’. Can we think of anything useful that can come from it?

  • Wayne Yuen says:

    I think there are some reservations that we can pose against cellphones being part of our bodies. With most of the examples that you give in the post above, a person really can’t participate in the normal walks of life without them. If one “forgets” or “loses” or has stolen their wheelchair, artificial heart, pacemaker, cochlear implant, etc. their disability comes through hindering them from functioning.

    Now as much as people would like to believe that they NEED their cellphone, and for some people this is more true than others. When I steal someone’s wheelchair, I harm them in a significantly different way than if I stole their cellphone. Same with the implants.

    But that said, I’m not sure what the difference is exactly. I don’t want to make it a function-based difference and I don’t want to make it a “restorative-enhancement” difference.

  • Thanks for your comments, everyone.

    David Shipley – I think it is certainly intuitively easier for us to consider an artificial device as part of the body if it is hidden away inside the body (I assume, from the context of your comments, that this is what you mean by ‘incorporated’) than if it is external, visible, and detachable. But I don’t think it is satisfying as an ultimate criterion. I think, for example, that a prosthetic limb is a better candidate for a body part than a breast implant. A breast implant may be hidden away inside the body, but a prosthetic limb – when used as intended, of course – is functionally more integrated into the body. Does that mean that functional integration should be the criterion? I don’t think so: there are many bodily organs (such as the appendix in humans) that would fail to qualify using that criterion. I’m not sure exactly what necessary and sufficient conditions we should be using here, but I do think it would be interesting to give this some serious consideration.

    Anthony – I have a hunch that viewing a person’s home as part of their body is taking things a step too far, but I’m not sure why. I think your final comment is beside the point: when an object should be considered literally part of the body, and when it should be viewed as more loosely linked to the body is exactly what is at issue, and I have only scraped the surface of it here.

    David Slutsky – I’m happy that you enjoyed the post! I agree that the boundaries that we take for granted are very often not the most useful, important, or ethically relevant ones. You might find the work on the extended mind thesis interesting. As well as the Wikipedia page about it that I linked to in my blog, you can read Andy Clark and David Chalmers’ paper here: http://consc.net/papers/extended.html

    Akshat – Much depends on what we take to constitute the body. For example, it seems generally true that we harm somebody more by harming their body than we do by harming an object that belongs to them. So, whether an object is part of a person’s body determines how bad it is to interfere with that object. This is a significant ethical matter. Another, more practical example: on a site that linked to this blog post (http://www.usatechguide.org/blog/wheelchair-part-of-your-body/), a wheelchair user reported that she was forced to check in her wheelchair tools for a flight, and commented that ‘I certainly feel that (like any other part of my body) I should have been allowed to retain them’. This suggests that whether or not certain tools are generally viewed as part of the body could have significant effects on the lives of those who rely on those tools.

    Wayne – It does seem true that, at least in many cases, being deprived of a mobile phone would be an inconvenience rather than a significant harm. But I think that this tells us only a limited amount about whether or not we should consider mobile phones to be body parts. There are many parts of the body that we could lose without suffering harm, and which we even prefer to lose than to retain: the tips of the nails, various swathes of bodily hair, the fat that gets drawn out of the body during liposuction, rotting and painful teeth, cancerous tumours, and so on. I do not mean to suggest that the extent to which we rely on a tool is never relevant when considering whether or not it should count as a body part; but I do think that the matter is more complicated than this.

  • shiba malek says:

    it is worth thinking over , even your glasses could be a case of discussion.

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