Tommy Douglas: Father of Medicare, Grandfather of Cyborgs?

The cyborg is a common feature in science fiction, so much so that it has transcended its particular genre audience to develop a pleasant little place for itself in pop culture at large. Ask someone on the street to name a cyborg, and chances are good they'll be able to, at least with relatively little prompting on your part; Robocop, the Borg, Inspector Gadget, Darth Vader, something along those lines. Those more attuned to current events may even be able to come up with the name of the South African runner, Oscar Pistorius, whose attempts to compete in the Olympic Games was questioned based on his prosthetic legs. And of course, there are the now utterly mundane real-life cyborgs, people with cochlear implants, pacemakers, and artificial limbs that run the gamut from 'barely better than a peg-leg' to 'actually functional robotic hand'. The cyborg is no longer the fever dream of the science fiction writer, but more and more they're the reality of your neighbour or your coworker.

And that raises a pretty fundamental question in a capitalist society; who's paying for all these cyborgs?

And how do we make sure they don't cheap out on them?
Traditionally, fiction has usually looked at the cyborg as being a piece of private investment, either on the part of the individual or a corporation. Robocop is legally the property of OCP, after all, and Emperor Palpatine appears to have paid for Anakin's en-Vader-ing himself, since there's not a Property of the Republic stencil to be seen on any of the extremely complicated and expensive medical equipment around them. And when it hasn't been the preserve of the rich, it's usually the result of a particular purpose, spies and assassins being upgraded by their government employers to make them better at their jobs. Cyborgism is a reward as much as a status, and tied with a certain elite classification in fiction. The cyborg is a main character, antagonist or protagonist. Sure, there's Lobot and Geordi and the like, but as secondary character cyborgs they're the exception, not the rule. As cyborgs become less fantastic, however, and more just a societally normalized response to people who have lost some degree of 'human standard' functionality, it becomes less clear why that elite status should be so. This is particularly the case in advanced non-American countries, where the state already pays for citizens' health care. In those cases, why is it that the state can afford to implant a pacemaker, but not fit a pair of 'cheetah legs'? Or introduce the kind of brain-computer interface that can restore damaged nerves and retrieve functionality in extremities? Obviously purely cosmetic procedures could be exempted from national health plans, in the same way that current, purely cosmetic procedures are, but as the technology progresses the definition of non-cosmetic prostheses is only going to grow more and more broad. Because of course, there is not actual 'human standard'.

States like America may at first decide that it's every (rich) man, woman and child for themselves when it comes to personal enhancements, but there are plenty of 'friendly' states that could challenge America's '99% human, 1% cyborg' distribution of enhancements across society as the norm. And what about less friendly states? What about, say, China? Think about it for a moment. A large, prosperous state, with a great deal of accumulated savings, and no history of the citizens being treated as anything but extensions of the state. What would it mean if, ten or fifteen years from now, when the technology has advanced far enough, the government of China paid to have every citizen fitted with a computer-brain interface that provided them with a fundamentally significant advantage in the knowledge-based economy? Or what if they provided increased-functionality sensory suites, little clusters of cameras and audio pickups and the like, that gave every Chinese person 20/20 vision and perfect hearing, and allowed them to record everything they saw and heard while they were at it? If China decided to invest in even 1% of its billion-plus population, the definition of 'human standard' could certainly start to inch away from 'a healthy un-augmented person with a full range of naturally-provided functionality' and towards something a little more competitive. And the higher the bar is raised as far as the maximum possible achievements of a human being, the more pressure there's going to be on everyone else to catch up. If you live in a world of people who can run as fast as a car, lift a piano, compose software in their heads and enjoy absolutely perfect recall, what choice do you have but to try and match those people?

 She can do everything you can do, faster and better.  And she fills out that leotard pretty well, too.  Why should they hire you, again?
These ideas, far-fetched as they may sound, are still safely on the conservative end of the predictive spectrum; in another generation, it's entirely possible the technology could have already surpassed much of what we see even in the more imaginative works of science fiction. And once it has, there will be enormous pressure, from all sorts of groups and institutions, to put it to some kind of use. After all, why just have one Darth Vader, a 7" tall killing machine with the ability to hold a human being off the ground with one hand and casually snap his neck, who should have increased endurance to go with that strength, whose wounds can be instantly healed thanks to the wonders of plug-and-play technology and who could have a permanent audio/visual up-link with headquarters, when you could have whole special forces teams of Darth Vaders? Or whole armies of them?

Once the replacement parts surpass the parts they're replacing, the entire equation changes. At the moment there's no sense chopping your hand off, or gauging out your eyes, just to become a cyborg. Current prostheses are fine for replacing damaged or non-functional parts of our bodies, but they have yet to really out-do what an average, healthy human being can accomplish with their normal body. But technology progresses, sometimes slowly and steadily, sometimes vaulting ahead in great leaps and bounds, but always moving forwards. So soon enough, well within my own lifetime and probably within that of my parents', the day will come when a prosthetic isn't a second-rate replacement, but an upgrade. And when that happens, society is going to have to decide a few very important things. What is a 'human'? What is 'normal'? And perhaps most importantly, who is going to pay to make sure all 'humans' are 'normal'?

And you thought Canadians were sensitive about their health care system's performance before...


  1. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own? Your culture will adapt to service us?