Bruce Sterling on Fri, 15 Mar 2002 04:13:12 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> FW: MEDIA: A Cyborg Unplugged

------ Forwarded Message
From: Brian D Williams <>
Date: Thu, 14 Mar 2002 06:21:25 -0800 (PST)
Subject: MEDIA: A Cyborg Unplugged

Steve Mann is a long time well known member of the wearables
computer list out of MIT.

March 14, 2002

At Airport Gate, a Cyborg Unplugged


STEVE MANN, an engineering professor at the University of Toronto,
has lived as a cyborg for more than 20 years, wearing a web of
wires, computers and electronic sensors that are designed to
augment his memory, enhance his vision and keep tabs on his vital
signs. Although his wearable computer system sometimes elicited
stares, he never encountered any problems going through the
security gates at airports.

Last month that changed. Before boarding a Toronto-bound plane at
St. John's International Airport in Newfoundland, Dr. Mann says, he
went through a three-day ordeal in which he was ultimately strip-
searched and injured by security personnel. During the incident, he
said, $56,800 worth of his $500,000 equipment was lost or damaged
beyond repair, including the eyeglasses that serve as his display

His lawyer in Toronto, Gary Neinstein, sent letters two weeks ago
to Air Canada (news/quote), the airport and the Canadian
transportation authority arguing that they acted negligently and
seeking reimbursement for the damaged equipment so that Dr. Mann
could put his wearable computer back together again.

The difficulties that Dr. Mann faced seem related to the tightening
of security in airports since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.
But he had flown from Toronto to St. John's two days earlier
without a hitch.

On that day, Feb. 16, he said, he followed the routine he has used
on previous flights. He told the security guards in Toronto that he
had already notified the airline about his equipment. He showed
them documentation, some of it signed by his doctor, that described
the wires and glasses, which he wears every waking minute as part
of his internationally renowned research on wearable computers.

He also asked for permission not to put his computer through the
X-ray machine because the device is more sensitive than a laptop.
He said that the guards examined his equipment and allowed him to
board the flight.

But when he tried to board his return flight on Feb. 18, his
experience was entirely different. This time, he said, he was told
to turn his computer on and off and put it on the X-ray machine. He
took his case to Neil Campbell, Air Canada's customer service
manager at the St. John's airport, and spent the next two days
arranging conversations between his university colleagues
and the airline.

The security guards continued to require that he turn his machine
on and off and put it through the X-ray machine while also tugging
on his wires and electrodes, he said. Still not satisfied, the
guards took him to a private room for a strip-search in which, he
said, the electrodes were torn from his skin, causing bleeding, and
several pieces of equipment were strewn about the room.

Once his system was turned off, turned on again, X-rayed and
dismantled, Dr. Mann passed the security check. When he was finally
allowed to go home, some pieces of equipment were not returned to
him, he said, and his glasses were put in the plane's baggage
compartment although he warned that cold temperatures there could
ruin them.

Without a fully functional system, he said, he found it difficult
to navigate normally. He said he fell at least twice in the
airport, once passing out after hitting his head on what he
described as a pile of fire extinguishers in his way. He boarded
the plane in a wheelchair.

"I felt dizzy and disoriented and went downhill from there," he

Air Canada said that there was no record that any of Dr. Mann's
baggage had been lost and that the Canadian transportation agency,
Transport Canada, had required that his belongings be X-rayed. "We
don't tell the security firms that there is going to be an
exception made," said Nicole Couture-Simard, a spokeswoman for Air
Canada. "We don't have that authority."

Transport Canada declined to comment on the case except to say that
it was reviewing it.

Considering that even tweezers may be confiscated when a passenger
boards a flight these days, the stricter scrutiny that Dr. Mann
faced may not seem surprising. But for him, the experience raises
the question of how a traveler will fare once wearable computing
devices are such fixtures on the body that a person will not be
able to part with them.

"We have to make sure we don't go into a police state where travel
becomes impossible for certain individuals," Dr. Mann said.

Since losing the use of his vision system and computer memory
several weeks ago, he said, he cannot concentrate and is behaving
differently. He is now undergoing tests to determine whether his
brain has been affected by the sudden detachment from the
technology. Alejandro R. Jahad, director of the University of
Toronto's Program in E-Health Innovation, who has worked closely
with Dr. Mann, said that scientists now had an opportunity to see
what happens when a cyborg is unplugged. "I find this a very
fascinating case," he said.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company

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