More on "A Cyborg Unplugged"

by Richard Vernon

When I read recently the New York Times story that told of Dr. Steve Mann's unpleasant experience while trying to board a plane to Toronto at St. John's International Airport in Newfoundland, I decided to do a follow up seeing as Dr. Mann is an occasional author for both Linux Journal and Embedded Linux Journal. Dr. Mann was on his way home from serving as an external examiner for a doctoral dissertation when the incident occurred. The Times story reports on his three-day trial that included a strip-search, some bodily injury and the loss of $56,800 worth of his $500,000 wearable computing equipment, including a heart monitor and computer vision system.

I e-mailed Dr. Mann to see if I could get any further information. From the details he gave me, it seems the three-day incident was considerably worse than reported in the Times. His general complaint is the inconsistency with which Air Canada behaved, as revealed in the examples below.

Air Canada, due to disorientation caused by the damage to Dr. Mann's system, helped him board the aircraft. But once the other passengers were aboard, they asked him to get off the plane.

Mann requested bandages for the bleeding caused by ripping the electrodes from his body, but these were denied with the explanation that to open the first aid kit would require additional paperwork.

The strip-search occurred in the presence of three people (including two women). After the search Mann was allowed to replace his clothes and was left alone in a room with knives and other weapons. Upon the return of the personnel, he was not re-searched and could have easily concealed one of these weapons had such been his intent. Mann feels that their main concern was either blind obedience to protocol or humiliation.

On the first day of the incident, Mann was told that the doctor's letter he had explaining his need for the equipment was not sufficient because it was not on hospital letterhead. He was informed that if he would return the next day with a letter on hospital letterhead, he would be allowed to board. Returning with the letter on hospital letterhead the next day, however, he was again denied permission to board.

Officials told Mann that if he were to power down his system and power it back up, he then would be allowed to board. Despite the possible loss of data, and the health risks associated with that loss, Dr. Mann agreed. Again, however, he was denied boarding.

Besides the damaged items, much equipment was simply lost by the airline, such as his wearable image projector valued at $5,000 and heart monitor instrumentation valued at $1,000. The Times reports that the occurrence caused $56,800 in damage to Mann's equipment. Dr. Mann claims, now however, that the total cost to restore the computer vision system is $109,698.

That the system be restored is imperative, according to Dr. Mann. He claims that while the extent of brain damage cause by his being "unplugged" is still being determined, the full extent cannot be known until the system is again operating normally. Also, he says his doctors have indicated that further brain damage may result from continued separation from his wearable computing system.


Richard Vernon is Editor in Chief of Linux Journal.

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