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When my mom was 91, she needed cataract surgery for her left eye. Her right eye, operated on years before, still had perfect 20/20 vision. The doctor suggested a novel approach: tailoring the new lens for close-up vision, specifically for reading. Mom, who hated wearing reading glasses, said, “Let’s do it!” After the surgery, she adjusted immediately and was able to see far and near, reading even small print. No glasses needed.

With this procedure, not only had Mom’s deterioration been reversed; she had also achieved a state superior to what is considered normal.

This is what we do. When confronted with aging, disease and injury, our society seeks to slow down (or reverse) the direction the body is taking. We have developed vaccines to prevent disease, prosthetics to replace missing parts, drugs and therapies to cure illnesses, medicines to alleviate pain, potions and procedures to enhance our appearance. The goal has been clear: bring the body back to its baseline; in other words, back to what nature originally supplied.

But that goal is changing as we redefine what is “normal.”

Where is the line between assisting the body to maintain or return to its natural state, and augmenting the body beyond its abilities? How do we decide what is desirable, justified or repellent? What is ethical? What do we accept and what do we defy?

When do we move from the body as is to the body as isn’t?

Where is the line between assisting the body to maintain or return to its natural state, and augmenting the body beyond its abilities?”

I have a friend who is a fan of the cultural movement called transhumanism. He believes that we can, and should, use technology to improve the human condition. Why limit ourselves to the current standards of physical and intellectual capability, let alone the average lifespan?

A playfully journalistic approach to this topic was offered in March 2015, when VICE Media’s online magazine and video channel Motherboard presented a series titled “Goodbye, Meatbags.” Then-editor-in-chief Derek Mead wrote, “Will the human body become obsolete? ... When other people hack themselves to gain a leg up, will our regular-old fleshy bodies be able to compete?”

This sounds extreme, but all evidence points to a future full of expectations and demands: our bodies will not have pain, will not age, will not deteriorate, will not fail, will not be ugly. You don’t like the destiny prescribed by your DNA? Well then, change it.

Decisions lie ahead. They may be small, like my mom’s—the possibility of freedom from eyeglasses. Or they may be huge—deciding whether you should undergo a procedure that will alter your body forever. You will gather the facts and choose a path by balancing the state of technology with your desire for (or fear of) change.

But do not ignore the subtle factors that surround you—factors that will influence each choice more than you know. Your perceptions are based not only on what’s happening inside of you, but also on what’s happening around you.

As I see it, the primary influences are scientific, societal and personal.

But do not ignore the subtle factors that surround you—factors that will influence each choice more than you know. Your perceptions are based not only on what’s happening inside of you, but also on what’s happening around you.”

Scientific advances are ubiquitous, from a tiny pacemaker delivered to the heart through a catheter to a cochlear implant that can be revised with software. On any day, you can gather news reports of body-based game changers. For example, a Wall Street Journal article titled “Digital Pills That Talk to Your Doctor Are Here” describes “an antipsychotic pill that signals smartphones once it reaches the gut so doctors can track whether patients are taking their medication.” Or, as explained in the Los Angeles Times article “Companies start implanting microchips into workers’ bodies,” “The syringe slides in between the thumb and index finger. Then, with a click, a microchip is injected in the employee’s hand.” With this chip—the size of a grain of rice—a person can “open doors, operate printers or buy smoothies” with a simple wave. Approximately 150 workers already have the implant.

The second factor is societal pressure. With each new medical advance, our expectations change and thus increase our urge to take advantage of it. The most obvious area is beauty. We’re influenced by what is available and what is perceived as appropriate by our culture. How far will we go to achieve the currently attractive nose? Height? Breasts? Eyes?

Then there is personal circumstance, when the objective becomes subjective. As our bodies change because of disease, aging or injury, we revise our judgment about what interventions are acceptable. Everything is different when something happens to you or someone you love.

Along with encouraging me to see movies like Ghost in the Shell, my transhumanist friend asks disquieting questions: “Why should I need sleep? Why is normal hearing so restricted? Why don’t we have eyes that can see for miles or X-ray vision like Superman?”

He believes that we will—and must—take charge of our own evolution. He tells me, “The future is gonna be awesome.” ca

© 2018 W. Richmond

Wendy Richmond (wendyrichmond.com) is a visual artist, writer and educator whose work explores public privacy, personal technology and creativity. Richmond has taught at Harvard University, the International Center of Photography and the Rhode Island School of Design, and she serves on the BRIC Artists Advisory Council and the MacDowell Fellows Executive Committee. Her latest book is Art Without Compromise*. Richmond’s column began in 1984.

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