Here, Hear!
Awe, humility, and technology
June 15, 2011

by tmartin on June 16, 2011

TODAY HOLDS A SPECIAL star in my calendar. Today, in a few hours, technology gets to shine in a way that changes life, literally. Today is Activation Day.

During the past month, I’ve been working on several fronts, including – finally! – updating my tired old website. The site wasn’t bad – it just didn’t do a very good job presenting CapeEyes.

And since the goal here is to bring in business and income, well … I had a problem.

Like most of us, I struggle with how to present myself and my business on-line. What structure do I use? How to do I brand what I do? What technology do I use? How am I going to keep it all fresh and maintained?

I tried to apply the questions I ask others to myself. If you’ve ever done this, you know what I’m talking about — and you know why the cobbler’s children never have shoes!

For every answered question (wordpress! different hosting service! google fonts! thesis! business + technology + community! categories!) twenty new ones seem to arise.

And just when you think it is safe … BURP.

I mean, a few minutes ago I was feeling pleased with myself; all was working. But now, as I type this, the SQL database won’t point to the correct location for the new website. I’ve got fingers crossed that, DNS and SQL databases, willing, by the time you read this all will be well again. At least for a while. If it isn’t, well, you know …

Luckily, just when one is getting a little too wrapped up in these designs and launches, one receives a slap-in-the-head moment as Monsieur RealityCheck pushes his metaphorical way onto the scene and waves his stubby fingers around, pointing out how all this web activity fits into the larger scale of things, how it pales in comparison to greater uses of technology. Oh, yeah, reality check.

Which is why Activation Day has that special star on the calendar.

A few weeks ago, my daughter spent the day at Children’s Hospital in Boston receiving her second cochlear implant.

The cochlea resides deep inside the ear. This spiral receptacle contains microscopic nerves.

These nerves turn the physical vibration of sound waves into electrical energy. The signals move through the auditory nerve and onward to the brain. The brain processes the data into meaning. Voila! Hearing.

When the “transmitters” in the cochlea malfunction, people end up with sensorineural hearing loss. Sometimes the malfunction is congenital; sometimes it comes on late in life.

The cochlear implant overrides the broken biological transmitters with digital ones. Think about the impact of that: fiber and silicon replace broken biology.

Seems like science fiction, doesn’t it?

But it is very real. Today, a tiny microphone, computer, some fiber, and few dozen electrodes simulate the work of 15,000 tiny nerve hairs for more than 150,000 people around the world.

My child’s first implant, 9 years ago, required 11 hours of surgery. Last month’s surgery? A bit over 3 hours.

That first external processor sat in a box she wore on a strap around her waist. Today’s processor? Half the length and thickness of a pinkie finger and fits behind her ear. Unless you look closely, you don’t notice it.

Both the technique and the manifestation of the technology charge forward – and change lives.

For infants and children, an implant means the gift of hearing and speech. It means growing up like any other kid. For later-in-life loss, it means re-entering the world you’ve always known.

Just yesterday, in one of those inexplicable small-world connections, a woman I happened to bump into told me about her 85-year old brother. He received a cochlear implant last year.

His hearing had been drifting away, disappearing, she said sadly, and he pulled away from the world along with it. Now, she said with a smile, he’s back. He marvels at newly found sounds, like pet paws pattering across the floor. And he embraces the other millions of sounds that make our world and our connections within it.

Last month, the surgeon inserted an array of electrodes into my daughter’s cochlea, into an ear that barely processed sound. Kids heal fast and a few weeks later that scar is barely discernible. The inside has healed as well.

And so today is the day. Activation Day. The day when all the sound & fury of DNS registries and MX records and SQL databases just recede into the background, where they rightfully belong, and the real impact of technology rises to front.

I don’t know what will happen exactly. Every brain processes information differently. Sometimes it takes days, weeks, or months for digital sound to make sense. All we know about these devices is dwarfed by what we don’t know about how our own systems tick.

Technology is the place where the human brain and the human hand intersects, where we create solutions and sort out problems and keep tweaking, tinkering, and adjusting. It’s the place where the creativity and imagination and persistence of our species lies on display.

Today – and the meaning within it – resonates with both awe and deep humility. I bow with awe that we can turn our talents to things that create positive change and open the doors of possibility, and I bow with humility that there’s so much we neither know nor understand.

Of course, I could be over-thinking this whole thing.

Hmmm, yeah, more than more person tells me I tend to do that! Maybe I should just celebrate the coolness of Activation Day and raise a toast to the good things we can do when we set our minds to them.

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