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Future Imperative

What if technology were being developed that could enhance your mind or body to extraordinary or even superhuman levels -- and some of these tools were already here? Wouldn't you be curious?

Actually, some are here. But human enhancement is an incredibly broad and compartmentalized field. We’re often unaware of what’s right next door. This site reviews resources and ideas from across the field and makes it easy for readers to find exactly the information they're most interested in.


The future is coming fast, and it's no longer possible to ignore how rapidly the world is changing. As the old order changes -- or more frequently crumbles altogether -- I offer a perspective on how we can transform ourselves in turn... for the better. Nothing on this site is intended as legal, financial or medical advice. Indeed, much of what I discuss amounts to possibilities rather than certainties, in an ever-changing present and an ever-uncertain future.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Plastic Surgery in Iraq, Human Ideals, and the Disruption in Augmentation -- Bio, Soc

Here is an NPR piece about the sudden spread of plastic surgery in Iraq -- a rise encouraged by popular culture images showing celebrities with a particular "look." In addition to tummy tucks and so forth, there's also a push among these Iraqis (and visitors from nearby countries) to reshape their noses.

Hmm. Much as I think the bit about altering the shape of noses to be rather sad, I wonder...

Is there a physical ideal for the human body? At least in a general sense, if not a specific person you can point to and say, "He's perfect," or "She's perfect."

For example, whatever you may think of nose jobs and augmentation surgery, if we heard that Iraqis were now working out all the time in the hopes of looking more like the Olympic Athletes they'd seen during the '06/'08/'10/'12 Summer/Winter/Whatever Games... would we all still be as depressed by the idea?

This may be a more serious question than you think. If gene therapy enables the permanent, harmless modification of adult genes who knows what people will choose to look like (or not look like) or be capable of. And the modification of genes in the unborn is even more probable and may come along even faster. Imagine what well-meaning parents may choose for their kids.

Blue eyes, blonde hair, less fat, more toned...

I don't mean this as a simple nightmare scenario. Choosing to be smarter, stronger, healthier, etc, isn't such a terrible thing. But what happens if we realize one day that everyone looks like Brad Pitt or Anna Kournikova?

An odd world, indeed. And no plastic surgery required.*

There are a number of reasons why plastic surgery is often publicly disparaged. Several of them are actually very revealing when it comes to public perceptions of other emerging human augmentations.

"It's frivilous and vain." -- A classic criticism that takes the moral high ground, this one essentially looks down on the motivations of people choosing to change their appearance. It's strange to think of this reason in terms of other forms of human augmentation, but remember, while athletic ability is celebrated in the West and elsewhere, many people would be willing to agree that physical gifts can hypothetically be increased to the point that conventional competitions become meaningless.

And while intellectual ability is commonly valued in the East, that attitude is hardly widespread everywhere. And some people look at individuals who are proud of their intelligence as flaunting their talents at the expense of those less fortunate -- an unfortunate by-product of the assumption that basic intelligence is fixed and can never be significantly increased, only diminished. After all, if your mental capacity is set at birth or by the age of five, and there is nothing you can do about it, why make people feel inferior? It's not like all those attributes people like to take pride in, like height, or strength, or inherited wealth, or physical beauty.

"It's a waste of money." -- A variant on the above rationale, suggesting that certain changes might be acceptable at a lesser cost. This quibble is one worth keeping in mind if a whole host of viable augmentations emerge at once. A bit of gene therapy here, a bit of sensory deprivation there, and a handful of nootropic drugs and nutrients to wash it all down -- not to mention possible cybernetic/nanotech augmentations or advanced "mindtech" or hypnosis research -- before you know it, the rich could indeed be different from you and I. Not merely in status, but in terms of intellect and even their basic biology and genetic make up. A kind of self-made (or employee made) "master race." Which would, appropriately enough, be our masters.

Not a pretty picture, and one that feeds into people's misgivings.

"It's not worth the risk." -- Sometimes a variant on reason one, sometimes a simple assessment of the health risks of having your body cut open and getting something removed and/or put in, and sometimes a bit of both. Given the relatively crude nature of most cosmetic surgery tools, this is one of the best practical reasons to forego an elective surgery.

Many augmentations, however, while they effect far more significant things than wrinkles or a few extra pounds, are far subtler than going under the knife for a facelift. Simply having your genetics altered to give you enhanced musculature (even without exercising) could require no more than an injection, if the therapy used on mice can be transferred to humans. Similar genetic experiments have also enhanced cardiovascular endurance and even bestowed remarkable regenerative abilities upon animals.

And most augmentations on the immediate horizon don't alter your body in any visible way.

"I don't want to look like a freak." -- Ah, here we're getting to a key concern. Of course, as stated above, most likely near-future augmentation techniques aren't going to visibly alter your body. Lots of plastic surgery on the other hand, especially bad plastic surgery, will make you look more than a little bizarre.

"Why can't people just be satisfied with who they are?" -- Actually, a key question. Unfortunately, part of what this question taps into is a sense of disquiet people often find when someone around them seems to be dramatically improving in some way. Someone who suddenly leaps forward can look like they're leaving you behind -- which can feel like losing a friend or trigger feelings of inadequacy.

Parents who resent their kids' academic success, "buddies" who wonder why you're working out and eating right instead of hanging out at the bar or the donut shop, neighbors who get jealous when you abruptly get rich -- all of these folks can be responding to a whole complex of feelings, many of which barely involve you at all. Now imagine how those emotions could be magnified if you increase one or more of your abilities to superhuman levels.

"If you start making changes, where will it stop?" -- This is a combination of the "freak" argument and the "who you are" argument. On the one hand, people may imagine you turning into a Darth Vader figure with all of your augmentations -- becoming both more and less than human, and perhaps a bit threatening to boot. Others may feel they're either losing a friend or a sense of personal inadequacy. And others may realize that in a world where superhuman beings are possible, if they remain purely "normal" -- or more accurately, "average" by turn of the millenium standards -- they will quickly become irrelevant.

Which leads, of course, to that unspoken problem many people likely have with cosmetic surgery -- someone is upsetting the apple cart. Like it or not, a lot of people hold their status in life based partly or entirely on their looks. This may be particularly dramatic in some situations (high school, modelling, acting), but it has a pervasive influence on people's perceptions, particularly towards beautiful women.

Given how complex some of these relationships are, and how hard some people have worked to gain or retain their particular bit of status, a lot of them do not appreciate someone else gaining an "unearned advantage" over them. This source of disquiet actually includes the others listed above -- most people realize that they can't afford to engage in an arms race involving invasive surgeries the way they might compete in terms of diet, exercise or clothes. Again, an unlimited degree of cosmetic surgery using present-day technology eventually will turn you into a Frankenstein patchwork monster. And even if more advanced methods came along which were totally safe, who could afford them?

Now transfer those concerns to every aspect of human life, and realize that virtually everyone out there values some kind of ability. What happens when not just one or two of those applecarts get overturned, but all of them get picked up and their contents reduced to applesauce. After all, in our modern world, the Anna Kournikovas and Jessica Albas still outshine lesser lights who have had a little "work done."

After all, when augmentation doesn't just change one's looks but the very definition of what it means to be human and to be fully human, everything else in society changes with it.

Future Imperative

*Actually, you might need a bit of modification of your basic bone structure if you really wanted to alter your appearance. Though it would be curious to see how much of that could alter over time, particularly in the case of people who were not yet fully mature. We'll need to see the effects on animals first if we want to get an idea of the potential morphological impact.


Blogger Hoodia said...

Help me Dude, I think I'm lost..... I was searching for Elvis and somehow ended up in your blog, but you know I'm sure I saw him in a car lot yesterday, which is really strange because the last time I saw him was in the supermarket. No honest really, he was right there in front of me, next to the steaks singing "Love me Tender". He said to me (his lip was only slightly curled) "Boy, you need to get yourself a San Diego cosmetic surgery doctor ,to fit into those blue suede shoes of yours. But Elvis said in the Ghetto nobody can afford a San Diego plastic surgery doctor. Dude I'm All Shook Up said Elvis. I think I'll have me another cheeseburger. Then I'm gonna go round and see Michael Jackson and we're gonna watch a waaaay cool make-over show featuring some Tijuana dentistson the TV in the back of my Hummer. And then he just walked out of the supermarket singing. . . "You give me love and consolation,
You give me strength to carry on " Strange day or what? :-)

November 04, 2005 9:21 PM  
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