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Monday, 7 May 2012

Seeing Electricity: Science Fiction or Science Fact?

 It is tempting to believe in the old adage that 'seeing is believing' and that the way the sighted see the world is the best, and only, way of seeing it. That the world is made up only of what we can see of it. This is certainly the approach of most opticians who try and use artificial means such as glasses and contact lenses to mimic the workings of the eye, thus helping the visually impaired to see as well as their perfectly sighted peers.

But what if there are better ways of seeing the world? What if the model offered by the normal human eye is not the most desirable one? Why don't opticians offer us different kinds of sight rather than always striving to replace what we are lacking with an artificial reproduction of it?

 At first this seems like the stuff of science-fiction. In fact in his 1923 novella L'Homme truqué (The Phony Man), French writer Maurice Renard describes what happens when electroscopes are implanted into a blind man's eyes. This operation gives the novel's hero Jean an initially alien, and highly perceptive view of the world. After his operation the first thing he sees is a hideously misshapen monster standing before him. It is only when this monster speaks that he realises that this is in fact his (human) doctor: the pulsating nerves, electrical impulses and brain waves that Jean can see are no less part of the human body than the skin and bones we are used to seeing. They seem alien to Jean because he is not used to looking at the body in this way. But once he becomes accustomed to this new way of seeing, he can relate to the world in a much more detailed way than his normally sighted friends.  He can see electrical impulses inside the human body, electricity flowing far underground, lights shining behind walls or energy fields several miles away. His ability to see through solid materials and across vast distances means that it is impossible to hide anything from him. The concept of secrecy loses all meaning as the plot develops, just as day and night and light and dark lose all signification for him for what we call darkness has no effect on his vision.  As the novel progresses, the reader is obliged to reconsider the very way we think in order to take into account Jean's new way of seeing. Traditional novelistic twists involving concealment, mistaken identity or suspense become impossible in a world where the protagonist can see inside and through people, buildings, the earth.

I read this story a couple of weeks ago and was enchanted to discover that this way of seeing is not limited to science fiction. On this morning's Start the Week, 'The Digital Future' (at 23 minutes), Anab Jain from futurology company Superflux describes exactly the kind of sight Renard evoked in 1923. She is developing a kind of  'prosthetic vision' whereby the blind can have a virus injected into the back of their eyes which would enable them to see electromagnetic spectrums that are not visible to normally sighted people. Apparently, the blind community has not been overly positive about Jain's project. But surely this kind of 'supersight' is the perfect way of rethinking the myths about the predominance of the ocular. I hope Jain's project succeeds. I hope it helps people see in a new way. But most of all I hope it reminds the sighted that their highly prized way of seeing the world is neither as powerful, nor as necessary to human happiness as opticians would like to have us believe.

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