The 21st Century Body Reloaded – a sequel worth waiting for!

The 21st Century Body Reloaded – a sequel worth waiting for!

By Jeremy Wickins

“The 21st Century Body Reloaded”, 8th November 2013, University College London.

There are some events which bring out the conflicting opinions of “I wish more people were here to experience this” and “Many more people would spoil what is happening here.” I felt this several times during the second in what I hope will become an annual event on the way that biotechnology will be able to add to the human body in the near future: many more people would have tended to break the quite intimate atmosphere, and yet it would have been so good for more people to experience the sheer optimism for mankind demonstrated throughout the day.

The speakers defy easy characterisation, since each has a broad range of interests. Iain Banks’ idea – a mere side–thought in The Crow Road – of a taking a spectrum of people’s lives and seeing where the black lines where the things that interest them have been absorbed kept coming to me. The participants would have their absorption lines spread across the whole spectrum, from science and engineering, through the arts and into philosophy. My continuing hope that we are moving from the age of increasing specialism to a Renaissance world of rounded individuals proudly wearing many hats is gaining traction was given a boost, since the only specialism seemed to be not being specialised!

The day was split into three main topics: “Technology and Philosophy: Thinking In and Beyond Human”, “Informing and Rethinking the ethics of 21st Century Body practices” and “The Body, Society, and New Creative Potentials”, each of which provided a lot to think about. At the risk of producing a list, it would be unfair not to address all the speakers, since so much thought had gone into every presentation.

The first topic was very well balanced, with Yasemin Erden and Stephen Rainey taking a positive attitude towards enhancement, and Justin Tomkins and Luna Dolezal taking a more cautionary approach. Yasemin asked whether, in essence, the 21st Century body can be regarded as a “Work in Progress”, something which can always be made “better”? There is no single “perfect human”; such a thing is only a statistical construct. The question then raised is “What is ‘good’?” – not a new question in philosophical terms, but one which might have practical impact if technological body enhancements become available. Stephen followed up with a thought–provoking presentation in which he asserted that there is no point to life, but that it is nothing to worry about – life is a process of constant evaluation and setting new points towards which to strive. He also articulated something I have thought for a while: there is nothing more human than technology. Take away technology and we are no longer human.

Justin Tomkins has a more restrictive view of human enhancement. He feels that there are three key aspects of Christian theology which provide tools for a theological engagement with Human Enhancement are eschatology, love of God and love of neighbour. This was the first time that I have heard the debate about enhancement from the point of view of the Christian idea of “love”. This was interesting, though I am, in general, quite hostile to the idea of “inherent human limits being perfect in God’s plan”. What are these “inherent limitations”, and when should we stop, or have stopped, trying to improve them? How many lives are saved each year because science and technology have found better ways to conquer our “inherent limitations”, and can Christians really argue that this is wrong? Is it not “love of neighbour” to make available ways of improving the human condition, rather than living Hobbesian lives that are “nasty, brutish and short”? As Yasemin and Stephen had said beforehand, there is no “perfect human” (or, alternatively, all humans are perfect), and technology and humanity are inherently linked. I do not see how the argument goes from human enhancement to a reduction in love of others.

Luna Dolezal who spoke about the development of the concept of the body as a site of consumerism. Drawing on the ideas of Foucault, she identified that the dominant model of the body in the last 50 years or so has been that of a machine – something that can be repaired and modified as necessary. This answered some of my questions about where a lack of basic humanity could come from, by identifying a risk of dehumanisation from a consumerist conception of the body as something that exists solely for capitalism to act on.

Both Luna and Justin seem to believe that we have control over the technological advances that are just around the corner. However, I am more of the opinion that we are well into the Vingian Singularity in the sense that we no longer live in a world where we can anticipate what the next decade will be like with any certainty, and the knowledge we possess now will be out–dated long before we die. We can only react to whatever new technology comes along without advanced warning of the magnitude of the impact it will have (look at mobile phones and their rapid progression from objects of ridicule to something that virtually everyone from child to elderly adult has, or the ascendance of tablet computers within less than a decade from a cool idea that never quite caught on to the biggest growth sector in computer hardware sales). Both Luna and Justin make good cautionary points, but I think that they are arguing with the wind.

After an excellent lunch the next topic began with my presentation on the legal challenges facing the first person who voluntarily requests amputation of a limb or limbs in order to have advanced prosthetics fitted. My starting point was that prosthetics are at a point where they can equal or better the performance of “natural” limbs, but a person who makes a rational decision to have prosthetics is going to run up against the law, which is always necessarily reactive. Society has made dramatic changes in the way it accepts quite dramatic body changes in the 20 years or so – for instance, cosmetic changes from tattooing and piercing to cosmetic surgery have become trivial – but the law has not had a chance to address these changes. To illustrate the legal position I explained the UK’s concept of “permissible harms” which can be consented to, and the limitations on freedom of action, using R v Brown and A–G’s Reference (No.6 of 1980), and showed that it is possible that Supreme Court could still decide that it is not permissible for a person to have certain types of surgery.

Aaron Parkhurst was next, and gave a fascinating talk on the situation in Dubai, which I do not have space to give the treatment it deserves. He told how, in Dubai, skin–whitening techniques are a $1billion industry from 9% of the population. It seems that pale skin is valued amongst part of the population, especially amongst women. It is believed that skin colour is inherited from the mother, and that it is the colour of skin at the time of conception which is passed on. This all adds up to a lot of women applying a lot of potentially harmful bleaching agents to their, and their daughters’, skin in order to secure good marriages. To me this sounds as sensible as witchcraft, but is it really any different to the skincare regimes that women and, increasingly, men adopt in order to have smooth skin? The semi/pseudo–scientific language used in adverts suggests that somehow the effects will be lasting, effecting a deep change on the body. It is another example of the fact that we cannot anticipate what will become popular, since a minor change of fashion could have an entire new population bleaching their skins – just another form of body art.

Matt James refused to be beaten by a migraine in order to present his topic on the potential of 3–D printing to alter our bodies. The technique has been used to grow an ear, and recent developments raise the possibility of printing cells directly onto wounds, such as burns, with dramatic implications for full recovery. This clearly has enormous potential– the recipient can be the donor of their own cells which can, in a relatively short time, be grown into the tissue required. In principle any structure or organ can be grown, and therein lie the ethical issues. Should there be a limit on what can be grown, and for what reason? Should the natural degeneration of organs be a reason to grow a new one, with a concomitant relatively easy extension of life? Is this a step towards dramatically extended life, and what implications will that have for risk–tolerance: will people be more or less likely to risk themselves if they have the chance of extended life? I suspect the answer to the last question is, “Some people will, some people won’t” – there will be those that take the ability to repair serious damage quite easily as an opening to take risks short of death, whereas others will guard their potential for extended life jealously. The individuals may change, but I cannot see the actual balance changing. One does wonder, though, what the practical limits of the technology will be – could entire bodies be grown? Are we on the verge of the grown–to–order clone?

After another break, Anna Maria Destro told us of the results of some research she has conducted in Italy looking at how people on long–term artificial ventilation regard the machinery upon which their lives depend. It seems that there is a process in which the person goes from regarding the machinery as “other” to regarding it as “part”, integrating the device as part of their body. In addition, there is a connection with the care–givers that raises questions of what “autonomy” and “independent” mean in these cases: the people on ventilators begin to see “dependency” as “connectedness” – which seems to me to be a variation of the Stockholm Syndrome! However, I had not really previously thought about how people who have involuntarily, and possibly dramatically, had a change in their lives so great that even the freedom of breathing has been taken from them must adapt to the inclusion of machines as part of their lives and how they must in essence incorporate them into their body–image. It does seem very strange to me, since total dependency on machines and people is one of my nightmares, but the concept of people incorporating (literally!) the machines into themselves seems to reinforce my thoughts that there is going to be a demand by some to have technological additions to their bodies by choice, sooner or later.

Next up was Deborah Gale. She has a particular plea – individuals and society need to accept aging as a reality, and alter the perception of “getting old” from something that is awful to something valuable and worth doing. Each and every one of us needs to take responsibility for aging, and identify new options as we progress. A very good idea she has – that really needs to be taken up – is a manual for aging, in the same vein as books that tell people what to expect in pregnancy. This sort of road–map, or Haynes manual, for the aging body and mind could serve to reduce the fear of aging, and normalise it – as she pointed out, it took just one short internet generation to make shaved pubic areas normal. Careful presentation of the aging process could do a great deal to change attitudes. At this point I looked around the room and noted the wide range of ages present, and that many people were indeed developing new interests and new plans out of previous careers and interests. There were several people doing, planning, and recently graduated with, PhDs after many years working in other areas, something that stood out in a society which fetishises youth – ever younger politicians and heads of major corporations, for instance. Maybe the tide is turning back towards a point where the experience and context that comes with age will be represented more fully again.

The penultimate speaker was David Gamez, who works in the field of consciousness and Artificial Minds. He pointed out that, in a sense, each person’s perception is functionally no different from a virtual reality projection. The mind perceives the world as a bubble of experience, projected more to the front than the rear, and losing definition the further away the perception is. He explained some experiments in which the mind can be projected onto artificial limbs and, in one great experiment, entire artificial bodies of differing sizes, which has the effect of modifying the consciousness of the person experiencing the changes. This, interestingly, was the only presentation during that day which dealt with the mind, and it raises an interesting point when taken in with Deborah’s idea of a manual for aging – could virtual reality be used to help people prepare for the experiences of aging? Rather than a book, could the manual be web–based, with an immersive component built in (if so, it could be time to start buying shares in Oculus VR …)

Lastly, Julia Laki spoke of the entanglement of art and science, where artists use biotechnology to create their works. Her fascinating talk showed that some contemporary conceptual uses experimentation and scientific process. An example she gave was the “Victimless Leather” project, in which a bioreactor was used to grow a coat from skin cells – a new (at that time) idea which required “hard” scientific techniques in order to make artistic points about the use of animal products. The art space was a laboratory – something that in the early part of the 21st century was radically new. Whilst I have some problems with the language of art, finding it both subjective and unwarrantedly opinionated, I am quite happy for science and art to grow closer. They are both creative endeavours, and both have their serious and playful sides. The divide between the two is essentially false – in a Venn diagram the two would be seen to have a significant overlap. I had not been aware of the art that Julia spoke of before, but I am now much better informed.

For anyone with an interest in the philosophical and social sides of human enhancement, the 21st Century Body symposia are a must–attend event. I look forward to next year’s event – “The 21st Century Body Revolutions”, anybody?


My appreciation goes to Yasemin Erden, Deborah Gale, Matt James, Aaron Parkhurst, and Stephen Rainey, for their excellent organisation, and to BioCentre and the Anthropology Department at UCL for supporting the event. Thank you, all.





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