Startling Starts: Smart Contact Lenses and Technogenesis

Isabel Pedersen, Kirsten Ellison


On 17 January 2013, Wired chose the smart contact lens as one of “7 Massive Ideas That Could Change the World” describing a Google-led research project. Wired explains that the inventor, Dr. Babak Parviz, wants to build a microsystem on a contact lens: “Using radios no wider than a few human hairs, he thinks these lenses can augment reality and incidentally eliminate the need for displays on phones, PCs, and widescreen TVs”.  Explained further in other sources, the technology entails an antenna, circuits embedded into a contact lens, GPS, and an LED to project images on the eye, creating a virtual display (Solve for X). Wi-Fi would stream content through a transparent screen over the eye. One patent describes a camera embedded in the lens (Etherington). Another mentions medical sensing, such as glucose monitoring of tears (Goldman). In other words, Google proposes an imagined future when we use contact lenses to search the Internet (and be searched by it), shop online, communicate with friends, work, navigate maps, swipe through Tinder, monitor our health, watch television, and, by that time, probably engage in a host of activities not yet invented. Often referred to as a bionic contact, the smart contact lens would signal a weighty shift in the way we work, socialize, and frame our online identities. However, speculative discussion over this radical shift in personal computing, rarely if ever, includes consideration of how the body, acting as a host to digital information, will manage to assimilate not only significant affordances, but also significant constraints and vulnerabilities. At this point, for most people, the smart contact lens is just an idea.

Is a new medium of communication started when it is launched in an advertising campaign? When we Like it on Facebook? If we chat about it during a party amongst friends? Or, do a critical mass of people actually have to be using it to say it has started? One might say that Apple’s Macintosh computer started as a media platform when the world heard about the famous 1984 television advertisement aired during the American NFL Super Bowl of that year. Directed by Ridley Scott, the ad entails an athlete running down a passageway and hurling a hammer at a massive screen depicting cold war style rulers expounding state propaganda. The screen explodes freeing those imprisoned from their concentration camp existence. The direct reference to Orwell’s 1984 serves as a metaphor for IBM in 1984. PC users were made analogous to political prisoners and IBM served to represent the totalitarian government. The Mac became a something that, at the time, challenged IBM, and suggested an alternative use for the desktop computer that had previously been relegated for work rather than life. Not everyone bought a Mac, but the polemical ad fostered the idea that Mac was certainly the start of new expectations, civic identities, value-systems, and personal uses for computers.

The smart contact lens is another startling start. News of it shocks us, initiates social media clicks and forwards, and instigates dialogue. But, it also indicates the start of a new media paradigm that is already undergoing popular adoption as it is announced in mainstream news and circulated algorithmically across media channels. Since 2008, news outlets like CNN, The New York Times, The Globe and Mail, Asian International News, United News of India, The Times of London and The Washington Post have carried it, feeding the buzz in circulation that Google intends. Attached to the wave of current popular interest generated around any technology claiming to be “wearable,” a smart contact lens also seems surreptitious. We would no longer hold smartphones, but hide all of that digital functionality beneath our eyelids. Its emergence reveals the way commercial models have dramatically changed. The smart contact lens is a futuristic invention imagined for us and about us, but also a sensationalized idea socializing us to a future that includes it. It is also a real device that Parviz (with Google) has been inventing, promoting, and patenting for commercial applications. All of these workings speak to a broader digital culture phenomenon.

We argue that the smart contact lens discloses a process of nascent posthuman adaptation, launched in an era that celebrates wearable media as simultaneously astonishing and banal. More specifically, we adopt technology based on our adaptation to it within our personal, political, medial, social, and biological contexts, which also function in a state of flux. N. Katherine Hayles writes that “Contemporary technogenesis, like evolution in general, is not about progress ... rather, contemporary technogenesis is about adaptation, the fit between organisms and their environments, recognizing that both sides of the engagement (human and technologies) are undergoing coordinated transformations” (81). This article attends to the idea that in these early stages, symbolic acts of adaptation signal an emergent medium through rhetorical processes that society both draws from and contributes to.

In terms of project scope, this article contributes a focused analysis to a much larger ongoing digital rhetoric project. For the larger project, we conducted a discourse analysis on a collection of international publications concerning Babak Parviz and the invention. We searched for and collected newspaper stories, news broadcasts, YouTube videos from various sources, academic journal publications, inventors’ conference presentations, and advertising, all published between January 2008 and May 2014, generating a corpus of more than 600 relevant artifacts. Shortly after this time, Dr. Parviz, a Professor at the University of Washington, left the secretive GoogleX lab and joined (Mac).

For this article we focus specifically on the idea of beginnings or genesis and how digital spaces increasingly serve as the grounds for emergent digital cultural phenomena that are rarely recognized as starting points. We searched through the corpus to identify a few exemplary international mainstream news stories to foreground predominant tropes in support of the claim we make that smart contacts lenses are a startling idea. Content producers deliberately use astonishment as a persuasive device. We characterize the idea of a smart contact lens cast in rhetorical terms in order to reveal how its allure works as a process of adaptation. Rhetorician and philosopher, Kenneth Burke writes that “rhetorical language is inducement to action (or to attitude)” (42). A rhetorical approach is instrumental because it offers a model to explain how we deploy, often times, manipulative meaning as senders and receivers while negotiating highly complex constellations of resources and contexts. Burke’s rhetorical theory can show how messages influence and become influenced by powerful hierarchies in discourse that seem transparent or neutral, ones that seem to fade into the background of our consciousness. For this article, we also concentrate on rhetorical devices such as ethos and the inventor’s own appeals through different modes of communication. Ethos was originally proposed by Aristotle to identify speaker credibility as a persuasive tactic. Addressed by scholars of rhetoric for centuries, ethos has been reconfigured by many critical theorists (Burke; Baumlin Ethos; Hyde). Baumlin and Baumlin suggest that “ethos describes an audience’s projection of authority and trustworthiness onto the speaker ... ethos suggests that the ethical appeal to be a radically psychological event situated in the mental processes of the audience – as belonging as much to the audience as to the actual character of a speaker” (Psychology 99). Discussed in the next section, our impression of Parviz and his position as inventor plays a dramatic role in the surfacing of the smart contact lens.

Digital Rhetoric is an “emerging scholarly discipline concerned with the interpretation of computer-generated media as objects of study” (Losh 48). In an era when machine-learning algorithms become the messengers for our messages, which have become commodity items operating across globalized, capitalist networks, digital rhetoric provides a stable model for our approach. It leads us to demonstrate how this emergent medium and invention, the smart contact lens, is born amid new digital genres of speculative communication circulated in the everyday forums we engage on a daily basis.

Smart Contact Lenses, Sensationalism, and Identity

One relevant site for exploration into how an invention gains ethos is through writing or video penned or produced by the inventor. An article authored by Parviz in 2009 discusses his invention and the technical advancements that need to be made before the smart contact lens could work. He opens the article using a fictional and sensationalized analogy to encourage the adoption of his invention:

The human eye is a perceptual powerhouse. It can see millions of colors, adjust easily to shifting light conditions, and transmit information to the brain at a rate exceeding that of a high-speed Internet connection.

But why stop there?

In the Terminator movies, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character sees the world with data superimposed on his visual field—virtual captions that enhance the cyborg’s scan of a scene. In stories by the science fiction author Vernor Vinge, characters rely on electronic contact lenses, rather than smartphones or brain implants, for seamless access to information that appears right before their eyes.

Identity building is made to correlate with smart contact lenses in a manner that frames them as exciting. Coming to terms with them often involves casting us as superhumans, wielding abilities that we do not currently possess. One reason for embellishment is because we do not need digital displays on the eyes, so the motive to use them must always be geared to transcending our assumed present condition as humans and society members. Consequently, imagination is used to justify a shift in human identity along a future trajectory.

This passage above also instantiates a transformation from humanist to posthumanist posturing (i.e. “the cyborg”) in order to incent the adoption of smart contact lenses. It begins with the bold declarative statement, “The human eye is a perceptual powerhouse,” which is a comforting claim about our seemingly human superiority. Indexing abstract humanist values, Parviz emphasizes skills we already possess, including seeing a plethora of colours, adjusting to light on the fly, and thinking fast, indeed faster than “a high-speed Internet connection”. However, the text goes on to summon the Terminator character and his optic feats from the franchise of films. Filmic cyborg characters fulfill the excitement that posthuman rhetoric often seems to demand, but there is more here than sensationalism. Parviz raises the issue of augmenting human vision using science fiction as his contextualizing vehicle because he lacks another way to imbricate the idea. Most interesting in this passage is the inventor’s query “But why stop there?” to yoke the two claims, one biological (i.e., “The human eye is a perceptual powerhouse”) and one fictional (i.e. Terminator, Vernor Vinge characters). The query suggests, Why stop with human superiority, we may as well progress to the next level and embrace a smart contact lens just as fictional cyborgs do. The non-threatening use of fiction makes the concept seem simultaneously exciting and banal, especially because the inventor follows with a clear description of the necessary scientific engineering in the rest of the article. This rhetorical act signifies the voice of a technoelite, a heavily-funded cohort responding to global capitalist imperatives armed with a team of technologists who can access technological advancements and imbue comments with an authority that may extend beyond their fields of expertise, such as communication studies, sociology, psychology, or medicine. The result is a powerful ethos. The idea behind the smart contact lens maintains a degree of respectability long before a public is invited to use it.

Parviz exhumes much cultural baggage when he brings to life the Terminator character to pitch smart contact lenses. The Terminator series of films has established the “Arnold Schwarzenegger” character a cultural mainstay.  Each new film reinvented him, but ultimately promoted him within a convincing dystopian future across the whole series: The Terminator  (Cameron), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (Cameron), Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (Mostow), Terminator Salvation (McG) and Terminator Genisys (Taylor) (which appeared in 2015 after Parviz’s article). Recently, several writers have addressed how cyborg characters figure significantly in our cultural psyche (Haraway, Bukatman; Leaver). Tama Leaver’s Artificial Culture explores the way popular, contemporary, cinematic, science fiction depictions of embodied Artificial Intelligence, such as the Terminator cyborgs, “can act as a matrix which, rather than separating or demarcating minds and bodies or humanity and the digital, reinforce the symbiotic connection between people, bodies, and technologies” (31). Pointing out the violent and ultimately technophobic motive of The Terminator films, Leaver reads across them to conclude nevertheless that science fiction “proves an extremely fertile context in which to address the significance of representations of Artificial Intelligence” (63).

Posthumanism and Technogenesis

One reason this invention enters the public’s consciousness is its announcement alongside a host of other technologies, which seem like parts of a whole. We argue that this constant grouping of technologies in the news is one process indicative of technogenesis. For example, City A.M., London’s largest free commuter daily newspaper, reports on the future of business technology as a hodgepodge of what ifs:

As Facebook turns ten, and with Bill Gates stepping down as Microsoft chairman, it feels like something is drawing to an end. But if so, it is only the end of the technological revolution’s beginning ... Try to look ahead ten years from now and the future is dark. Not because it is bleak, but because the sheer profusion of potential is blinding. Smartphones are set to outnumber PCs within months. After just a few more years, there are likely to be 3bn in use across the planet. In ten years, who knows – wearables? smart contact lenses? implants?

And that’s just the start. The Internet of Things is projected to be a $300bn (£183bn) industry by 2020. (Sidwell)

This reporting is a common means to frame the commodification of technology in globalized business news that seeks circulation as much as it does readership. But as a text, it also posits how individuals frame the future and their participation with it (Pedersen). Smart contacts appear to move along this exciting, unstoppable trajectory where the “potential is blinding”. The motive is to excite and scare. However, simultaneously, the effect is predictable. We are quite accustomed to this march of innovations that appears everyday in the morning paper. We are asked to adapt rather than question, consequently, we never separate the parts from the whole (e.g., “wearables? smart contact lenses? Implants”) in order to look at them critically.

In coming to terms with Cary Wolf’s definition of posthumanism, Greg Pollock writes that posthumanism is the questioning that goes on “when we can no longer rely on ‘the human’ as an autonomous, rational being who provides an Archimedean point for knowing about the world (in contrast to “humanism,” which uses such a figure to ground further claims)” (208). With similar intent, N. Katherine Hayles formulating the term technogenesis suggests that we are not really progressing to another level of autonomous human existence when we adopt media, we are in effect, adapting to media and media are also in a process of adapting to us. She writes:

As digital media, including networked and programmable desktop stations, mobile devices, and other computational media embedded in the environment, become more pervasive, they push us in the direction of faster communication, more intense and varied information streams, more integration of humans and intelligent machines, and more interactions of language with code. These environmental changes have significant neurological consequences, many of which are now becoming evident in young people and to a lesser degree in almost everyone who interacts with digital media on a regular basis. (11)

Following Hayles, three actions or traits characterize adaptation in a manner germane to the technogenesis of media like smart contact lenses. The first is “media embedded in the environment”. The trait of embedding technology in the form of sensors and chips into external spaces evokes the onset of The Internet of Things (IoT) foundations. Extensive data-gathering sensors, wireless technologies, mobile and wearable components integrated with the Internet, all contribute to the IoT. Emerging from cloud computing infrastructures and data models, The IoT, in its most extreme, involves a scenario whereby people, places, animals, and objects are given unique “embedded” identifiers so that they can embark on constant data transfer over a network. In a sense, the lenses are adapted artifacts responding to a world that expects ubiquitous networked access for both humans and machines. Smart contact lenses will essentially be attached to the user who must adapt to these dynamic and heavily mediated contexts.

Following closely on the first, the second point Hayles makes is “integration of humans and intelligent machines”. The camera embedded in the smart contact lens, really an adapted smartphone camera, turns the eye itself into an image capture device. By incorporating them under the eyelids, smart contact lenses signify integration in complex ways. Human-machine amalgamation follows biological, cognitive, and social contexts. Third, Hayles points to “more interactions of language with code.” We assert that with smart contact lenses, code will eventually govern interaction between countless agents in accordance with other smart devices, such as:

(1) exchanges of code between people and external nonhuman networks of actors through machine algorithms and massive amalgamations of big data distributed on the Internet;

(2) exchanges of code amongst people, human social actors in direct communication with each other over social media; and

(3) exchanges of coding and decoding between people and their own biological processes (e.g. monitoring breathing, consuming nutrients, translating brainwaves) and phenomenological (but no less material) practices (e.g., remembering, grieving, or celebrating).

The allure of the smart contact lens is the quietly pressing proposition that communication models such as these will be radically transformed because they will have to be adapted to use with the human eye, as the method of input and output of information. 

Focusing on genetic engineering, Eugene Thacker fittingly defines biomedia as “entail[ing] the informatic recontextualization of biological components and processes, for ends that may be medical or nonmedical (economic, technical) and with effects that are as much cultural, social, and political as they are scientific” (123). He specifies, “biomedia are not computers that simply work on or manipulate biological compounds. Rather, the aim is to provide the right conditions, such that biological life is able to demonstrate or express itself in a particular way” (123). Smart contact lenses sit on the cusp of emergence as a biomedia device that will enable us to decode bodily processes in significant new ways. The bold, technical discourse that announces it however, has not yet begun to attend to the seemingly dramatic “cultural, social, and political” effects percolating under the surface. Through technogenesis, media acclimatizes rapidly to change without establishing a logic of the consequences, nor a design plan for emergence.

Following from this, we should mention issues such as the intrusion of surveillance algorithms deployed by corporations, governments, and other hegemonic entities that this invention risks. If smart contact lenses are biomedia devices inspiring us to decode bodily processes and communicate that data for analysis, for ourselves, and others in our trust (e.g., doctors, family, friends), we also need to be wary of them. David Lyon warns:

Surveillance has spilled out of its old nation-state containers to become a feature of everyday life, at work, at home, at play, on the move. So far from the single all-seeing eye of Big Brother, myriad agencies now trace and track mundane activities for a plethora of purposes. Abstract data, now including video, biometric, and genetic as well as computerized administrative files, are manipulated to produce profiles and risk categories in a liquid, networked system. The point is to plan, predict, and prevent by classifying and assessing those profiles and risks. (13)

In simple terms, the smart contact lens might disclose the most intimate information we possess and leave us vulnerable to profiling, tracking, and theft. Irma van der Ploeg presupposed this predicament when she wrote: “The capacity of certain technologies to change the boundary, not just between what is public and private information but, on top of that, between what is inside and outside the human body, appears to leave our normative concepts wanting” (71). The smart contact lens, with its implied motive to encode and disclose internal bodily information, needs considerations on many levels.


The smart contact lens has made a digital beginning. We accept it through the mass consumption of the idea, which acts as a rhetorical motivator for media adoption, taking place long before the device materializes in the marketplace. This occurrence may also be a sign of our “posthuman predicament” (Braidotti). We have argued that the smart contact lens concept reveals our posthuman adaptation to media rather than our reasoned acceptance or agreement with it as a logical proposition. By the time we actually squabble over the price, express fears for our privacy, and buy them, smart contact lenses will long be part of our everyday culture.


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smart contact lens; digital rhetoric; media stuides; media adaptation

Copyright (c) 2015 Isabel Pedersen, Kirsten Ellison

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