Book choice: Hybrid Humans - Dispatches from the frontiers of man and machine

By Harry Parker

  • Date: 23 August 2022

Hybrid Humans

Wellcome Collection, paperback, £14.99, 2022

Review by Dr Greg Dollman, Insight editor

HARRY Parker, the best-selling author of Anatomy of a soldier, describes himself as 12 per cent machine. A ‘hybrid human’. He lost both his legs to an IED in Afghanistan, and in his new book explains why he prefers that term (over ‘disabled’, ‘injured soldier’, and even ‘bionic’ or ‘cyborg’) for someone who relies on an assistive device. By this definition, Parker tells us, an increasing number of us are hybrid humans.

From contact lenses to contraceptive implants, from joint replacements to dental implants, devices are now an integral part of our lives.

In Hybrid Humans, Parker explores how technology is helping those who are seen as ‘different’. Not only the cutting edge technology of exoskeletons and robotic knee joints but also everyday devices. Mobile phones no longer just make calls - they speak, write, listen, identify objects. Technology can assist beyond measure someone who is blind or has limited mobility or dexterity. This is no longer science fiction.

And we learn about Parker’s reality. He narrates his story in a gentle but powerful voice, chronicling his 10 years post-injury on duty. He is a husband, father, artist, writer – so much more than a ‘double amputee’, a term that may define him for some.

He wonders what it would be like to live in a world where disability is truly accepted.

Parker writes about the paradox of how he defines himself. And that his injury defines him. “I have a new body and a new identity.” He reflects that while he was able to endure the physical injury, it was more difficult to come to terms with what loss had done to his sense of self.

We learn about the history of assistive devices and the pioneers who created them. In a chapter entitled “Metal ghosts”, Parker salutes those who crafted the first crude machines, like the metal lung so widely used to support people with polio, and those who endured them.

Parker writes that disability and invention have always gone hand in hand, and gives us a glimpse of what the future holds. Think osseointegration (the prosthesis is attached to a point fixed within a bone), virtual reality in medicine, spinal and deep brain implants.

Understandably the medical technology industry is now incredibly competitive and potentially lucrative. May the possibilities be endless? Regular readers of Insight’s Innovation articles will be fascinated to read Parker's thoughts.

This book, and Parker’s journey, is inspirational. It takes us from the brink of death and destruction to a horizon of hope. Perhaps it is appropriate then that Parker reimagines the fate of Icarus - now with his wings strengthened by osseointegration and other technologies, he has a chance to soar.

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