Karin Harrasser on elite athletes with cheetah legs, human-machine hybrids, utopias, and the age-old human desire to become superhuman through technology.
On Display (OD): Prostheses were originally developed for people with disabilities. Can they also make us into superhumans?
Karin Harrasser (KH): Yes, prostheses can be enhancements if their development is no longer oriented to human anatomy, but to other models. An example is Oscar Pistorius, the by now quite famous South African runner. His prostheses, which are called cheetah legs, are the standard for disabled athletes. They don’t try to emulate human anatomy. They are instead modeled on a cheetah’s leg and the design thereby incorporates a different form of movement.
© Photographed by Jill Greenberg/ Corbis
OD: Pistorius wanted to compete at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. After lengthy litigation, he was allowed to participate in the qualifiers, where he failed to make the cut. Instead, he took part in the Paralymic Games, as he had four years earlier. Are the Paralymic Games not, in fact, a technological competition?
KH: Competitive sports are based on a strange myth that all bodies are the same and that optimally shaping the body is an individual accomplishment. But we all know that bodies aren’t the same. Try to perpetuate this myth in disabled sports, and you run into trouble. There, it’s clear that bodies have different preconditions. We have a wide variety of bodies and technologies today—that’s why there are regulations for the technologies that can be used.
OD: Has the presentation of the Paralympics changed as a result?
KH: Yes, the Paralympics have taken a more assertive position. For the last Games, there was an exciting publicity campaign called “Meet the Superhumans.” Disabled athletes were presented as “Superhumans,” the next stage of evolution. Instead of presenting people with disabilities as deficient, the campaign elevated them and said, “They’re already one step further along!” That makes them a little like X-Men, a superior species.
OD: So now people are proud to wear prostheses?
KH: Yes, you show off your high-tech prosthesis with a certain degree of pride these days. There are many blogs out there; you can present yourself in a truly self-confident way. But this applies only to a small social group. Those so open about it come from an advantaged position. Apart from their lack of legs, athlete Aimee Mullins and scientist Hugh Herr are privileged. They look like models, are well educated, and operate in a milieu open to transhumanism. Many prosthesis wearers are conflicted about their situation or don’t know how to deal with it. And the fetishization of technology is a very western affair. In many other parts of the world where the need for prostheses is high, people have no access to this technology. There, the Red Cross is the sole provider of very simple prostheses. That’s a world apart from high-tech gadgetry. In the global context, the cheapest prostheses made from the simplest materials are most common. We get caught up too quickly in a few spectacular cases and forget 95 percent of the world.
OD: That’s precisely where the e-Nable network steps in. Its goal is to enable even the poor to have access to prostheses.
KH: It’s a good idea. But it’s also increasingly important to be able to say “no” and to allow for the idea that someone with a “different” body may not necessarily want to “complete” him or herself prosthetically. Plenty of people who are physically different say, “This is how I am. It’s more important to me that society allows me to live in this different body.” Saying no is also a form of enabling. Not everybody wants two arms. It’s also okay to have just one arm; or none, or three.
OD: Three arms could certainly be useful sometimes. Are there prostheses that not only restore something missing, but aim to “improve” people?
KH: Yes. In recent years, there’s been a renewal of the cyborg idea. Cyborgs are composite creatures; hybrids of humans and machines. When the idea of cyborgs emerged in the 1960s, it wasn’t about upgrading the body, providing artificial hands, or implanting computer chips. It was more about how humans could survive in space, how a human body and space capsule could be fused. It was about connecting organic and inorganic systems. But the cyborg idea has changed. Now there are groups whose members use technology to transform themselves. They demand the right to “morphological self-determination.” These are self-aware people saying, “Why shouldn’t I change myself? If I want magnetic fingertips, no one should stop me.” Developments that originally came out of the disability rights movement have resonated in society at large.
© Photographed by Richard Corman/ CPi Syndication
OD: So is the hybridization of human and machine in our future?
KH: It’s already here! We already exist in hybrid form. People are not naked natural beings; we move in permanent feedback loops withthe non-human. Housing, clothing, transportation—an exchange is constantly taking place with things that don’t necessarily have anything to do with our organic basis. And it’s expanded, too. We now live in complex technical-social networks.
OD: How does this impact the development of society?
KH: Prosthetics intervene in perception and open a new approach to the world. It’s an old fantasy of the artistic and political avant-garde that such a broadening of perception can generate new forms of self-organization and collectivization. Many cyborg ideas, after all, are not limited to an expanded meaning of the individual, but rather seek to collectivize perception and feed it into networks. The longstanding hope is that shared perception and feeling could produce a new form of solidarity.
OD: That all sounds positive. Are there any ethical boundaries—for modifications, for example?
KH: Oh, then I sounded too optimistic. Modern cyborgs often revolve far too much around issues of self-optimization. I find that problematic; we already suffer from a compulsion to self-optimize. You can never remain who you are. There’s a standing order to work on yourself. It’s as if the worst thing you could say these days is, “I’m actually quite happy. I don’t want to transform myself in any way.”