How Hearing Aid Technology Has Evolved in Society, and Why — Part I

Editor’s Note:  Hearing Health and Technology Matters is pleased to bring our readers a series of posts utilizing a multidimensional approach to How Hearing Aid Technology Has Evolved in Society, and Why. This is a unique perspective from that traditionally presented, coming from individuals having no previous contact with the hearing aid industry, audiology, or having any kind of investment in the discipline of hearing.

This series is the result of an assigned technology research inquiry from a graduate course titled: Science, Technology, and Public Affairs, taught by Arizona State University (ASU) President Michael Crow and Professor Dan Sarewitz of the ASU School for the Future of Innovation in Society.  In this course, pairs of enrollees were invited to explore how a particular technology evolved, what influenced its development from scientific, social, economic, policy, military, and other dimensions.The overarching point is that nothing “just happens”, and that an exploration into a level of inquiry about how hearing aid technology has evolved will help better utilize the influence of science and technology policy and development for this product in the future.

The authors of this HHTM series, Bruno Sarda and Abigail Farmer, were assigned the topic of hearing aids, while their colleagues were given other topics to explore.  The authors state:


Deafness and hearing loss tend to come to mind when hearing aids are mentioned.  Unlike blindness or paraplegia, hearing impairment is invisible to the rest of us – and those who suffer from it have been intent on keeping it that way.  And yet, there is a proud and significant history of technological innovation connected to those driven by the desire to enhance hearing.  This series attempts to honor these roots by analyzing some of this history and the future it enables.

To this end, this series will trace the development of hearing aids, a Level 1 technology,1 viewed through the broad lens of human enhancement, a Level 2 system, and explores what forces have impacted – and been impacted by – hearing aid technology and its users.  To restrict the scope of the full Report, we (the authors) did not consider other Level 2 systems like the American healthcare system or consumer electronics.


In other words, this series related to hearing aids, is from the outside looking in at how hearing technology, specifically that related to hearing aids, and primarily in the United States, has evolved.  This is a totally independent view of the agents driving hearing aid technological development.  We thank Abigail and Bruno for allowing HHTM to share their findings with you, our readers.


–Editor-In-Chief, Wayne Staab


Human Enhancement Throughout Human History and Development


The pursuit of human enhancement is a fundamental human trait as old as humanity itself. From the very beginning, humans have observed their environment, adapted to it, and employed their ingenuity to improve their condition and extend the boundaries of their physical limits. In fact, the story of human discovery, innovation and invention is truly a story of human enhancement. As Sarewitz aptly described, “humans have always been in the game of transforming themselves with technology.”2 Or, as Mumford wrote eighty years earlier, “the age of invention is only another name for the age of man.”3

Human enhancement exists on a continuum with two key dimensions: first, where humans seek to compensate for or somehow repair an unhealthy or missing function, and second, where humans seek to augment or extend a healthy function.


Restoring Function to “Normal”


The first dimension of human enhancement is really an attempt to meet the norm—to function as others can. Most human beings are able to hear, see, walk, procreate, and so on. The inability to do these things is considered a deficiency. There are two primary ways to address these deficiencies.

One way is focused on restoring or repairing the substandard function. For example, throughout history humans have developed a variety of technologies to help people walk who might not otherwise. An Egyptian mummy dating back to 950 B.C. was found at Luxor with a prosthetic toe made of wood and leather, and is the oldest known prosthesis.4 The oldest known prosthetic leg, the Capua leg, named after where it was found in Italy, dates back to 300 B.C.5 Beyond prosthetics, humans have used sticks and other devices, and ultimately shaped them into crutches with an armpit support, to aid in walking. Similar histories exist for virtually every aspect of the human condition. Those who could not see well devised a variety of solutions. In 50 A.D., the Roman Seneca is said to have read all the books in Rome by peering at them through a glass globe of water to produce magnification.6 And of course, for those who could not hear well or at all, a variety of attempts were made throughout history that led to the modern hearing aid, a topic we develop in much greater detail in following sections.

The other way to “fix” deficiencies does not seek to restore function, but rather replace it. Wheelchair-bound individuals can reach a level of independence, mobility and performance withoutthe ability to walk.Technologies like seeing-eye dogs and white canes do not attempt to make their user regain sight; instead, they give independence and the ability to navigate their surroundings safely without the use of sight.


Similarly, people with hearing impairment have relied on visual techniques to communicate, and even developed entire languages such as the American Sign Language (ASL).


Hearing impaired individuals have developed a variety of alternatives to hearing, along with a certain identity and culture tied to their hearing status, developed further below.

The idea that human efforts should be applied to restore or replace physical functions to meet societal norms is deeply ingrained in our culture, and humanity’s ability to successfully develop technologies to achieve these restoration and replacement goals has become a core expectation. As a result, we have become increasingly demanding of a ready-made solution when something is ‘wrong’, believing that if something’s wrong, we can fix it.  Beyond restoring core body functions, humans have also used technologies like hair pieces to compensate for lack or loss of hair and developed potions or elixirs to cure a variety of ills, which ushered in modern pharmacology—the consummate human enhancement enterprise whose more recent achievements have yielded drugs such as Viagra to restore sexual function to men, or Ritalin and Adderal to ‘fix’ hyper-active children, and a variety of anti-mental health issues (depression, anxiety, etc.).


*Stay tuned for Part 2 next week: Going Beyond Human Abilities


  1. Put very simply, a Level 1 technology consists of a single product, such as an airplane. A Level 2 technology is is less bounded, and consists of several subsystems, such as airlines and government regulatory agencies.  See generally Braden Allenby & Daniel Sarewitz, The Techno-Human Condition (2011).
  2. Id. at 33.
  3. Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization 60 (1928).
  4. Artifact, Archeology, (last visited Apr. 25, 2016).
  5. Assistive and Adaptive Technology from Ancient to Modern Times, Bluebird Care, (last visited Apr. 25, 2016).
  6. Richard D. Drewry, Jr., What Man Devised that He Might See, Teagle Optometry, (last visited Apr. 25, 2016).
  7. See generally Joseph Shapiro, Screaming Neon Wheelchair, inNo Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement 211–36 (1983).

*title image courtesy jaivirdi

farmerAbigail Farmer graduated summa cum laude with B.A.s in French and Spanish from Texas A&M University. Before starting law school, she interned with the U.S. Commercial Service in Paris, France. Abigail served as Executive Note and Comment Editor for the Arizona State Law Journal from 2014–2015 and as the Hong Kong team editor for the Wilhem C. Vis International Commercial Arbitration Moot from 2015–2016. She also co-authored an article on bitcoins and estate planning, which won the Mary Moers Wenig Student Writing Competition and was published in the ACTEC Law Journal; she and her co-author presented the article at the Arizona State Bar Convention. Abigail is graduating summa cum laude with a J.D. from the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law and with an M.B.A. from the W.P. Carey School of Business. After graduation, Abigail will join Shell’s legal department in Houston, Texas

sardaBruno Sarda is a leading practitioner in the field of corporate sustainability at Dell, where he’s worked since 2005. In his role as Director of Social Responsibility, he leads the company’s strategy on social aspects of sustainability, including human rights and labor practices, working with internal and external stakeholders. He also manages Dell’s groundbreaking partnership with Phoenix-based TGen (Translational Genomics Research Institute) to accelerate adoption of precision medicine in addressing childhood cancer. In addition, Sarda is an adjunct faculty member and Senior Sustainability Scholar at Arizona State University, where he teaches and helped design and launch the Executive Master’s for Sustainability Leadership working with the Rob and Melani Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiatives at ASU.


About HHTM

HHTM's mission is to bridge the knowledge gaps in treating hearing loss by providing timely information and lively insights to anyone who cares about hearing loss. Our contributors and readers are drawn from many sectors of the hearing field, including practitioners, researchers, manufacturers, educators, and, importantly, consumers with hearing loss and those who love them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.