Thanks again to Michael Chorost for sharing your inspiring story with us. And many thanks to everyone who has commented about his journey. One of my favorite quotes from Part 1 of Michael’s interview is: “Ironically, being deaf was the loudest experience of my life.” While Michael was referring to a real, physical experience, I think that many of us can relate to that on a metaphorical level. Sometimes, something that we think might destroy us actually ends up doing quite the opposite. I often say that my eating disorder was one of the best gifts in my life in the most ugly package (thanks to the gifts of recovery). And now, let’s learn more from Michael.
Feel free to comment and ask further questions. And, like I said before, I would love to hear your dream.
At the Conference on World Affairs, I couldn’t help but notice your great sense of humor. Humor was a key component of my personal recovery. How did humor play a part in your healing journey?
Well, I think humor is a way of being nice to the universe. There’s always a little bit of humor when I pet a cat or dog on the head, because it’s somehow very amusing that one bunch of carbon atoms has figured out a way to do something nice for another bunch of carbon atoms. That is quite an extraordinary thing if you think about it. As for deafness, I think it was David Wright, the great deaf poet, who said that blindness is tragic but deafness is comic. Deafness is comic because you’re always missing and misunderstanding things. Life on Earth is a constant puzzle that has to be solved. And there was something undeniably comic about all my auditory pratfalls and the way other people responded to them. In effect I was a teenager all over again, with a new body with new rules that I had to figure out on the fly.
Your website, www.MichaelChorost.com, indicates that you chose to become a cyborg. Can you describe what that means to you? In its simplest terms, how does a cochlear implant work?
Google will tell you all you want to know, but the basic idea is this: A surgeon inserted sixteen electrodes into my inner ear that fire my auditory nerves. There’s a gadget I wear on my ear that takes in sound, digitizes it, and sends it by radio to an implanted chip in my skull. The chip figures out how to parcel the binary data to my sixteen electrodes, and I get an experience that is sort of like hearing.
For me, it was an intimate collision with the computer. I got my Ph.D. by spending endless hours writing software. But I realized in my 30s that computers hadn’t made me happier. They hadn’t helped me make friends, or feel part of a community, or fall in love. Sure, the Internet helps you spread information and stay in touch with people. But you need more than that for the kind of deep communication that builds enduring love and trust. I’d begun to hate computers, because they struck me as a seductive distraction from the important things in life. Then I went deaf and realized that I’d have to have a computer inside my body, controlling the way I perceived the world. It wouldn’t be just my computer that would be programmable; now it would be my own body. The geek in me loved the idea. The technophobe in me was appalled. Rebuilt records the psychological struggle I went through in accepting the computer as an integral part of myself.
That contradiction continues to play out in my second book, World Wide Mind: The Coming Integration of Humanity, Computers, and the Internet. It’s about implants that could, in theory, someday, allow the sense-impressions and feelings of one person to be transmitted directly to the brain of another person, or even more profoundly, to groups of other people. A kind of collective awareness, or telepathy. But as we all know, technology is already addictive. Something like a World Wide Mind would be even more so, and it might cause us to retreat even more from human contact. That would be terribly destructive to our society. So in the book I interwove the whizz-bang technology with a story of teaching myself to connect better with people face-to-face. To do that I went to workshops in Northern California where people would do exercises like looking into each other’s eyes and listening without interrupting. Very basic stuff, but these are skills that really need to be taught and usually aren’t. In brief, I juxtaposed a high-tech, low-touch future with the high-touch, low-tech present of these workshops, and argued that we need to develop new technologies and teach ourselves how to be human, at the same time. There isn’t any shortcut; both things have to be done if we want a high-tech future worth living in.
Kitchen magnets stick to your head. You can plug himself directly into a CD player. Tell us about this unique experience. How have others reacted?
It has to be a strong kitchen magnet, actually. Weak ones fall right off. There’s a magnet in the implant, and I can stick things like magnetic darts to it. It makes me look like I have half a of a fake arrow running through my head. It’s very funny to do it with kids. Their eyes go wide and they try to stick the dart onto their own heads, and they get puzzled when they fail. I just tell them I’m special.
I used to plug myself into CD players, when I was using a now-obsolete processor that had an input jack. I got better sound quality that way. But now I just put on headphones to listen to music like anyone else.
It’s not easy to convey what hearing through a cochlear implant is like. When the implant was first turned on, “What did you have for breakfast?” sounded to me like “Zzzzzz szz szvizzz ur brfzzzzzz.” Teapots sounded like foghorns instead of whistles. My own voice sounded either squeakier or hollower, depending on what software I was using. Paper made bell-like sounds when I rattled it. It was so bizarre; it was like waking up in that Beatles cartoon Yellow Submarine. Now, twelve years later, I’ve adapted to it, but it’s still strange. My mom had an advantage in helping me because she works with deaf children all the time – she’s an audiologist – but I don’t think anyone can truly understand the experience without having been through it. Still, I spend a lot of time in Rebuilt trying to get the reader to experience the world the way I do.
Any words of wisdom for people who might be struggling with a major life challenge?
Honestly, the best advice I ever got for going through hard times was, “Just keep putting one foot in front of the other.” It sounds simple, but it says a lot: get one thing done every day, keep moving forward, don’t give up.