Monday, July 30, 2012

'Superhuman' at the Wellcome Collection, 27th July 2012

Very soon a momentous event in sporting history is about to take place.  At the London Olympics, double amputee Oscar Pistorius will compete in the able-bodied 400m and 4x400m relay races.  If he wins these events, something will  change forever in athletics - a man relying on an external prosthesis, his 'blades', will have beaten the able-bodied athletes on a world stage.   The notion of a physically augmented athlete being the most efficient and quickest contender will take firm hold, inevitably raising a number of ethical arguments about the relationship between the human body and technology.

Oscar Pistorius competing with able-bodied athletes.
It all sounds like cutting edge scientific debate - a conversation that previously would have been relegated to science fiction - but the Wellcome Collection's new 'Superhuman' exhibition outlines the long history of how men and women have replaced or extended their bodies capabilities and senses, as well trying to explore where we may be heading.

The first exhibit we encounter in the exhibition is a small statue of Icarus dating from ancient Greece.  This is not exactly a cheery start to the exhibition, but it does seem appropriate.  The notion of a millennia old story about the dangers of relying too much on technology shows us that these are issues that humanity has grappled with in some form or another for millennia.  

Icarus - 1st-3rd century CE, bronze
One of the things that the exhibition is keen for us to understand is that human augmentation and prosthesis can take many forms.   It's not all robot limbs and glowing red eyes - even something as innocuous as a pair of spectacles or a watch can be considered an augmentation.  In the first display case we see items as disparate as a pair of Vivienne Westwood shoes, an iPhone and a blister pack of Viagra.  We take many items like this for granted, but in a very real sense they can respectively be considered as augmenting beauty, memory and sexuality - three pretty essential components for humanity.

Viagra (sildenafil citrate)
Near this is another demonstration of a socially acceptable form of human modification - plastic surgery.  In 'Cut Through the Line' a short film by Venezuelan artist Regina José Galindo, we see the artist standing naked (link NWS), with a plastic surgeon drawing marker pen lines across her body to show the changes he would make to her body.  The loops and lines he draws across her look beautiful and faintly primal - as if she's being prepared for sacrifice.  It's only when you remember that these lines of ink are guides for the scalpel to cut along that you understand the true import.  The impact of the film, and the message it sends are quite clear.  Galindo clearly has nothing wrong with her physically, yet to judgmental eyes there will always be a nip or a tuck somewhere that'll somehow bring her closer to an imagined universal standard of beauty.  Her passivity as she stands naked with bystanders surrounding her, some filming her seems to both show her as a submissive canvas on which the plastic surgeon artist can realise his vision, while also showing her as an individual who is comfortable with her body as it is, and has no qualms about standing naked in front of people.  This video outlines a compelling argument against the race for enhancement- would humanity be better off as a race of conventionally beautiful, technologically enhanced superpeople?  If you can afford to recreate yourself like this, then where does individuality lie?  And what about the people who're left behind?

Pair of artificial legs for a child (red shoes), Roehampton, 1966
The next section of the exhibition that caught my attention was a display about the prosthetics developed in the 1960s to help victims of the Thalidomide tragedy.  Pregnant women who'd taken a drug to prevent morning sickness found that their children were born with underdeveloped limbs, and well-meaning experts on prosthesis stepped in to offer their assistance on giving the children a 'normal' life.  Displayed at the exhibition are a collection of these prostheses.  Decoupled from their owners they look faintly disturbing, limbs constructed of leather, gas-cylinders powering movement with shoes incongruously placed on the feet.  What this display highlights is that prostheses like these seem to be more for the benefit of everyone who has to interact with the person using them, rather than to help them.  The people creating them doubtless had the best of motives,  but the victims of the Thalidomide tragedy seemed to find it far easier to learn to cope with their limitations of their own limbs rather than learn to use these somewhat clumsy replacements.  There is an interesting contrast between a video of a child delicately and neatly eating lunch in school using his foot to hold a spon, and of someone in a prosthetic 'suit' awkwardly trying to control arms constructed of hooks and springs.  Manipulating one of these devices is described as like "being in a dream, where you can manipulate things, but can't feel them".  

My perspective on this seems to be that doctors were in too much of a hurry to 'normalise' these children.  The de facto position seems to have been that the conventional human body shape was what should be aimed for above all else.  Their mistake was assuming that if a person looks normal, then the assumption must be that they feel normal - a position that conveniently allows able-bodied people to avoid dealing with the disabled person's condition.  If someone can learn to utilise their bodies effectively in a way that works for them, irregardless of whether it might appear a little weird to onlookers, then that is something that should be aimed for.

Thomas Hicks, Marathon Olympic Champion and his supporters at the marathon, St Louis Olympic Games, 1904

The next arena we examine is the world of sports.  There are two areas to focus on - athletes using drugs to enhance performance, and physical aids.  I was amazed to learn that in the early C20th, athletes would use strychnine to improve performance during marathons.  The athlete, Thomas Hicks won the 1904 Olympic marathon after taking two doses of strychnine and brandy to ward off exhaustion.  Not surprisingly, he collapsed and nearly died after crossing the finish line.  A slightly more recent, and more disturbing example is the death of Tom Simpson in 1967.  He was competing in the Tour de France on a bakingly hot day, and race rules at the time restricted athletes to about two litres of water per day.  On a steep mountain climb he began weaving across the road before collapsing.  While a medical team attempted to save his life he urged them to let him continue the race, shouting "Go on!  Go on!".  Three tubes of amphetamines were later found in his pocket - the drugs prevented Simpson from knowing he was dehydrated: he didn't realise he was dying.

The last minutes of Tom Simpson

Thankfully, deaths like Tom Simpson's are now extremely rare due to advances in anti-doping detection and an awareness of the dangers of doping.  Yet athletes still seek to enhance their bodies with banned substances.  One exhibit in this section is a fake penis called a 'Whizzinator' that allows athletes to fake urine tests.  In a 2012 study by Leeds Metropolitan University it was discovered that athlete's attitudes towards banned substances was generally negative, although many of them understand the temptation.  Athletes believe that 37% of their fellow athletes would use a drug if it was undetectable and guaranteed winning - 9% believe that their fellow athletes would use the drug even it led to guaranteed death within 5 years!

This intense desire to win lies at the heart of all professional athletes - arguably they wouldn't be professionals if they didn't have that burning desire for victory within them.  It's easy to understand how they can come to rely on the crutch of a banned substance - especially in circumstances where a coach or instructor is advising the use something as safe, morally acceptable or undetectable.  

Pair of blue and yellow Nike waffle trainers, Nike 1977

The other, more uplifting side to human augmentation in athletics is physical prosthesis.  This ranges from something as simple as running shoes.  On display at the exhibition is an early C20th running shoe - it's a fearsome and uncomfortable looking thing made of hard leather and with a flat sole.  Apparently athletes used to soak their feet in brine to toughen themselves up to wear it!  So it was somewhat of a revolution when Bill Bowerman, coach of track sports at the University of Oregon developed a 'honeycomb' sole and new running shoe design - many of these innovations are still in evidence in running shoe design to this day. 

The displays within the exhibitions are in rough chronological order, and as we get to the final rooms we begin to consider the future of human enhancement.  There are a variety of theories, ranging from wearable computers, to internal organic implants, to gene therapy and even more science fiction applications of nanotechnology to the human body.  One thing that is agreed is the future of humanity almost certainly lies with further augmentation of our bodies and senses.

There are two short films on display here that more than adequately demonstrate the dangers of this.  The first tells us a fictional story of an injured US Marine who wins a contest to turn him into a superhero through prosthesis.  The film takes the form of his video diary over a number of months - and we see his progression from a handsome and well-adjusted person to a monstrous and disorientated Frankenstein.  Initially he starts out happy, enjoying the look of his new 'blade' legs, but as more and more is subtracted from him he begins to lose his humanity.  There is one distressing sequence where his arm has been amputated and replaced with a prosthetic "that'll let me punch through walls", but as impressive as this might be, "it isn't so good at the small stuff" like fine motor manipulations.  By the end, after he's had radical brain surgery and his eyes replaced by bleeding mechanics there is almost no trace of the excited and charming man at the start of the documentary - he's been replaced by a scarred and disorientated machine.  

'Metalosis Meligna' Floris Kaayk, 2006
The other is a 'documentary' about the fictional condition Metalosis Meligna.  The report shows us how people's metal implants have begun to take over their body.  It's an extremely effective bit of body horror - reminding me of Shin'ya Tsukamoto's Tetsuo: the Iron Man (1989), with pieces of metal invading and taking over people's bodies.  While Tetsuo treats this as surreal and frantic, this takes an almost perversely sober look at the 'metalosis' of sufferer's bodies.  It's a nice allegory for our relationship with technology, and the dangers of immersion and reliance upon it.

The final piece of the exhibition is an autonomous wheelchair 'Psalms'.  This piece was created by Donald Rodney, a sufferer of sickle-cell anaemia.  He was too ill to attend his gallery openings, and a wheelchair was designed to take his place.  The piece incorporates a neural network, and it wanders through the exhibition negotiating paths around us using various sensors affixed to it.  Rodney died in 1998, and yet his wheelchair still roams the exhibition without him: a prosthesis making a lonely journey without its owner.  This none too subtly points towards a possible future for humanity - that we will dissolve into or be replaced by what we have created to aid ourselves.

There is a theory popularised by futurists like Ray Kurzweil known as the 'singularity'.  Here is the basic outline of how it may come about:
"Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion,’ and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make." - I.J. Good - 1965
This is sound thinking, but adherents commonly posit the singularity as a quasi-religious enlightenment of the human race.  That it'll be a jump towards post-humanism, the end to all of our woes, that we will soon after become immortal, godlike digital intelligences.  Thinking like this is one of my major issues with the notion of augmentation as inherently a good thing for the future of humanity.  It seems that something like this would inevitably widen the gap between the haves and have nots - sure some people may jump forward, but at the expense of those left behind.

If a person is likely to experience a vast increase in awareness and intelligence due to an application of technology they are far more likely to be an extremely affluent person than, say a subsistence farmer in a Third World country.  The gap between life at the lowest end of the poverty scale is wide enough already, and it is worrying to think of a world where the rich can afford to make themselves physically and mentally superior to us.  How will these superhumans consider their interactions with us?  The wealthy will have perfect photographic memories, be able to survive without sleep or run for miles - can we expect to be able to compete against them with our clumsy and imprecise organic brains and easily worn out and tiring bodies?

These are issues that we are beginning to have to face in the current day.  Elderly people who are not connected to the internet risk losing out on essential interactions with their families - separated from them by an intimidating digital wall.  As time progresses, we will find ourselves in their position, faced with a society plugged into each other in ways we might not be able to comprehend, or more likely, won't be able to afford.

'i-Limb ultra prosthetic hand', Touch Bionics
There is a good argument that while there may be an initial stratification of society it will eventually even out.  Look at mobile phones - once a trademark of wealthy financiers in the 1980s, and now a worldwide technology hugely popular and useful in African countries.  The spread of the internet, possibly humanity's first global prosthesis is another way in which technology that was once the preserve of the wealthy eventually becomes accessible to all.  I consider there be to be obvious silver linings to this cloud, but for a while it may be a pretty dark and forbidding cloud as we race to catch up with those who can afford to make themselves 'superhuman'.

This is a typically excellent, and highly thought provoking exhibition from the Wellcome Collection - a place which really should be more popular among London attractions.  It's well laid out, gives us just the right amount of information and most importantly lets us come to our own conclusions about what we see.  There is a wry sense of humour to some aspects of the exhibition, and some interestingly provocative choices in what to exhibit.  I particularly liked the way that the information cards were pinned to the wall in a stretched, slightly surgical manner.  My only criticism is that this is an exhibition that relies very heavily on video and the volume of them varies enormously.  There are some that are so quietthat it is very hard to make out what is being said, while conversely a few are so loud that you can hear them across the entire exhibition.  But in a summer where people are pushing their bodies to the limits of athleticism in the Olympics and Paralympics it's very timely and any visitors to this should find themselves watching some events in a different light.  Highly recommended - and anyone attending should be sure to see the rest of the Wellcome Collections fascinating galleries.

If anyone visited this and wants to add their thoughts I'd be very interested to hear them, post in the comments below!

'Superhuman' is at the Wellcome Collection from the 19th of July until the 16th of October 2012.

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