Thursday, 23 August 2012

Superhumans in London - an Exhibition

Last week I had some time to spare in London and, prompted by a poster that I happened to come across, visited the Superhuman exhibition in the Wellcome Collection. I hadn't heard anything about it, so was curious what to find. The exhibition was rather small, and the exhibits appeared curiously random. There was a little statue of the flying Icarus, obviously meant to be a potent symbol of human enhancement (a rather unfortunate choice given the disastrous consequences of Icarus's attempt to fly to freedom), various devices that were thought to represent early enhancements, such as glasses, dildos, a set of teeth, and running shoes, pictures of comic book superheroes, prosthetic limbs, a video of a pretty, naked female artist whose body is being marked by a plastic surgeon, other "artistic" films dealing in some way with the human body, its frailty and the possibility of its transformation (providing, among other things, a good view between the wide open legs of another naked female, which seemed of particular interest to the group of college students that also happened to be there), a microchip similar to that implanted in the arm of Kevin Warwick, a robot wheelchair that moves by itself through a room, and last, but not least videoclips showing some of the usual enhancement suspects - Julian Savulescu, John Harris, Andy Miah, Anders Sandberg, Barbara Sahakian and Bennett Foddy - giving speeches about both the desirability and ordinariness (same old, same old) of human enhancement.

Sandberg: "Why should we have to exercise in order to be strong and fit? Couldn't we achieve that using a pill or some other means? (...) Human technology is something natural."

Miah: During the "ancient Olympic Games 2700 years ago (...) athletes were using technologies or natural products to make their products more capable for the sporting environment. Athletes would rub oil on their bodies to protect themselves against the baking heat of Olympia when they do their marathon (...). 2700 years later, not much has changed: athletes are still experimenting with technology to try and push themselves as fast and as hard as they can."

Foddy: "People often think of anti-ageing medicine or lifespan enhancement as somehow being outside the domain of medicine but almost every medical intervention that we've made over the past 150 years has extended human life, and to a lesser degree, human youth. Really it's the project of medicine to extend human life, to enhance life and human youth and to defeat age and death."

Harris: "Enhancement is part of medicine. (...) I'm mystified by the resistance that human enhancement faces. (...) we've got to enhance ourselves; we know we have (...); there is literally no alternative."

Both the exhibits and the comments by the experts strongly suggested that human enhancement is nothing new, nothing out of the ordinary. Enhancing ourselves is what we've always done. That there might be a difference between external devices such as glasses and the permanent transformation of the human body, between the replacement of lost limbs and functions and the attempt to gain superhuman abilities, is clearly denied. Yet it is strange that so little of the actual exhibition has got anything to do with "superhumans". There is no clear idea here what would turn us into better humans, or beings that are better than humans, unless it is the image of the comic book superhero. Distinctions are blurred, everything is the same as everything else, we're all enhanced anyway, so what's the big deal. This appears to be the message conveyed. Just listen to what Emily Sargent, the curator of the exhibition has to say in the introduction to the exhibition brochure:

"While human enhancement might initially seem to be the preserve of science fiction, the exhibition examines the subject through the lens of broader human experience. Initial fears that enhancement might compromise our core values are dispelled as we unravel the subject and face the possibility that it is our very desire to improve ourselves that makes us human. The extraordinary range of objects, artworks and ideas that have been brought together for this exhibition reflects this. Superhuman hightlights the ingenuity displayed in the past to overcome obstacles or conquer new frontiers, while offering a glimpse of what we might look forward to in the future." So there's nothing to fear really and everything to look forward to. Unfortunately, the exhibition itself does not dispel any fears at all, simply because it doesn't even address them. Neither does it show us what we "might look forward to", unless this is looking like a robot (yeah!) or perhaps having prosthetic devices that are indistinguishable from real limbs. And there is certainly nothing there that would suggest, let alone demonstrate, that "it is our very desire to improve ourselves that makes us human".

All in all, it seems to me that this exhibition does not do what a good exhibition should do, namely increase knowledge and stimulate reflection. It is, I'm afraid, ultimately just a piece of pro-enhancement propaganda.

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