The history of human enhancement through technology is the subject of an exhibition by The Wellcome Collection, writes Ola Bednarczuk.
Human beings have long sought to shape the world around them to make it better and more liveable, using advancements in technology to expand the possibilities of what their environments can do.
As technology becomes increasingly integrated into everyday life, our perceptions of our environments continue to change – along with our expectations. Mobile communication, interactive human-centric interfaces – we are expecting more and more from our high-tech enhanced world.
We are irrevocably enmeshed with technology, employing it in various ways to change the way we live. And yet when it comes to amending our own bodies through technology, taboos continue to arise. The idea of the cyborg – part human, part machine – brings our fears to the fore, calling into question what it means to be human. What are the moral implications of physical enhancement? Where do our bodies begin and end when robotics, nanotechnology and biotechnology come into the equation?
London’s Wellcome Collection has chosen to explore these very ideas in a new exhibition entitled Superhuman. Timed to coincide with the 2012 London Olympics and Paralympics – when the parameters of human ability and performance come to the fore – the exhibition is also relevant at a time when our distinctions of what is ‘natural’ and what isn’t are becoming increasingly blurred.
Superhuman looks at the history of human enhancement, from 600 BC to today and beyond, showing the ways in which humans have tried to adapt and improve their bodies. A prosthetic toe from ancient Egyptian times and a medieval iron arm suggest that we have been living ‘enhanced’ lives for a long time – as does our accommodation of items like spectacles, hearing aids and even smartphones, all artificial extensions of the body in their own way.
Whereas early prosthetics sought to ‘normalise’ the body by replicating its form (often at the expense of its function), modern prosthetics like the highly advanced I-Limb prosthetic hand or flex-foot Cheetah blade carbon fibre foot are unabashedly synthetic and built for best performance.
Ultimately, Superhuman asks us to consider whether distinctions between technology and biology are still meaningful given how blurred the lines have become – and how they will continue to blur. Given our predilection historically for artificial enhancement and the astounding potential of recent developments in technology, the answer would seem to be, no. Nevertheless, as part of the display, an early bronze figure of Icarus serves as a reminder of the dangers of going too far.
The Wellcome Collection
Ola Bednarczuk is a London-based writer/editor and editor of DX-London.