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"He’s more machine now than man."
In 1983, along with my friends and hundreds of other kids, I went to the movie theater at Meridian Mall in Okemos, MI to watch The Return of the Jedi. As a young teenager, this line spoken by Obi Wan Kenobi was not my first introduction to the world of humans altered by science, but it was one of the more noteworthy. And the very next line set the tone of this particular encounter and my feelings on the topic of transhumanism for many years after: "His mind is twisted and evil."
Transhumanism in Pop Culture
Growing up, I never heard the term transhumanism, but as a comic book and sci-fi geek I was very familiar with the idea of humans becoming more through the assistance of science and technology. However, although I always admired and envied transhuman superheroes such as Iron Man and Spiderman, the other side of the coin was always present, and in some ways it presented a more lasting picture. Dr. Doom was always a more powerful presence than the Fantastic Four; Ra’s al Ghul is the true nemesis of Batman, only overshadowed because of the flamboyancy of The Joker; The Green Goblin is there to counterbalance Spiderman; and Red Skull was a confidant of Hitler, and even surpassed Hitler in his evil ways. Of course, there is the iconic Luke Skywalker with his robotic hand, and his father Anakin, or as the world remembers him, Darth Vader, who is perhaps the most visible transhuman manifestation.
And the heroes themselves rarely occupy a purely good space, in that they are either eyed with suspicion by the less evolved humans around them, or they experience a fall from grace. Think of Batman and his place outside of the law; or Spiderman when he becomes Venom; or again Luke Skywalker when he gives in to his hate and tries to destroy Darth Vader, only stopping when he cuts off Vader’s hand, and rather dramatically gazes at his own mechanical hand.
Benefits of Transhumanism
No, transhumans have always been viewed with suspicion by regular humans, and in these stories it is only safe to be wary of the enhanced beings around us. However, in reality we are already surrounded by transhumans, although obviously they are not quite as conspicuous as Iron Man or Darth Vader.
A seven year old Faith Lennox, featured in a news story, received a 3D-printed prosthetic left hand for around $50, which now enables her to properly balance herself while doing what every seven year-old enjoys: riding a bike. She is one of 2 million people living with limb loss in the United States. Fifty-four percent of these people lost their limbs due to vascular diseases, another 45 percent due to trauma, and 1 percent to cancer. Veterans of our many wars are returning after having limbs torn from their bodies in combat, and now we have Rehabilitation and Prosthetic Services offered through the VA (let’s leave the obvious discussion here for another page).
The prosthetic industry is quickly growing, with organizations such as Enabling the Future and The Open Hand Project using 3D printing technology, modern robotics, and other emerging technologies to offer customized prosthetics to those in need at very little cost. The recipients of these prosthetics are transhumans, in that they have had their lives enhanced through a merging of their bodies with science and technology.
On the surface, this may appear less dramatic than Tony Stark creating for himself a magnetic chest plate in order to hold back the shrapnel that is creeping towards his heart and then transforming into the hero Iron Man. However, instead of a single transhuman becoming a hero to save us all, we have turned the story around and it is now a robotic prosthetics company that is the hero by providing the opportunity of a complete life for victims of limb loss. And there is no Dr. Doom or Darth Vader or even a complex and troublesome Iron Man for us to deal with: only grateful people who would otherwise have been ostracized as incomplete humans.
Fears About Transhumanism
But why did transhumanism have such a dark beginning in the world of fiction? Where did these fears originate? And why do we still create monsters who are born of the mingling of human flesh and robotics like the Borg from Star Trek or the Cylons in the Battlestar Galactica reboot?
Prosthetics have been around since at least the year 600 BCE, with archaeologists finding wooden replacements with mummy’s. However, as for the darker side of prosthetics, perhaps Gottfried von Berlichingen, otherwise known as Gotz of the Iron Hand, can claim a share of the responsibility. An Imperial Knight involved in dozens of wars and feuds, he lost his arm to cannon fire in 1504 and had it replaced with an iron prosthetic. He was a pillager and seemed only happy when at war on behalf of whatever friend asked for him.
However, perhaps by searching for an individual culprit for demonizing prosthetics and causing us to fear humans transformed by technology we are committing the logical fallacy of the scapegoat. It is not a bloody German knight who is at fault, it is our own human failings, namely our fear and squeamishness. The image of a human missing a limb has always brought up imagery that includes such colorful vocabulary as disfigurement, grotesque, mutilated, defect, and malformation. Was it Ahab’s anger at the whale that drove him to madness and revenge? Or could he have overcome his failing and the loss of his limb if society had not ostracized him and gaped horror at his mangled body?
We read Moby Dick today and it is the captain who comes under our scrutiny and on whom we cast our judgment. The whale is simply a dumb beast, whereas Ahab’s madness leads to the destruction of his ship and crew. And how alike are Ahab and the Borg queen from Star Trek: First Contact, one setting out to destroy the whale that had become his entire existence, and the other setting out to conquer every living thing in the universe? Both were disfigured until they resembled monsters, both blindly forged ahead when they should have turned back, and both had spectacular failures that led to the destruction of their crew and themselves.
And how unlike these transhuman creatures of science fiction are to the real transhumans now living in our society? Young Faith Lennox will more than likely not grow up to become Iron Woman. However, nor is she someone to be feared or shunned. She is one of a growing number of transhuman citizens to whom science and technology have given an opportunity to live complete and fulfilling lives. And her prosthetic arm is just the beginning, for with the growing industry and emerging technologies, who knows what will happen next?
Then again, perhaps she will become a superhero. You should see her riding her bike.