We used to think of “superhumans” as comic book heroes possessing extraordinary, even divine-like powers. Now, we are realizing that the true superhumans are already among us – they are the extraordinary Paralympians who are actively embracing technology as a way to transform their “disabilities” into “super-abilities.” To emphasize this point, the promotional video for UK Channel 4’s coverage of the 2012 Paralympic Games in London is called “Meet the Superhumans.” This 90-second spot is an inspiring montage of athletic achievement, technological know-how and the power of the human will to overcome anything – whether it is exploding bombs, car accidents or genetic irregularities. Now more than ever, this brilliant mash-up of sports, science, technology and design is causing a new conception of the postmodern body – a body that is part human, part machine and Harder Than You Think.
The line between man and machine is blurring to the extent that what previously seemed in the realm of science fiction is now science fact: humans with “super-abilities” who run faster, throw further, and hit harder than anyone else in the world. The Paralympians currently competing in London are just the most obvious example. Consider some of the other stories currently in the news… New augmented reality Google Glasses that promise a era of “super-vision.” New technologies that make it possible for deaf people to hear music for the first time, for paralyzed people to control robotic limbs with only their minds, and for amputees to have the same range of motion and dexterity as non-amputees. There’s even talk now of having the 2016 World Cup in Rio feature the ceremonial first kick from a soccer player with mind-controlled robotic legs.
The Opening Ceremony to the 2012 Paralympics echoed this superhuman theme, with a spectacular opening every bit as inspiring and intoxicating as the opening ceremony to the Olympic Games back in July. Quadriplegic theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking encouraged the crowd to look up to the heavens and consider “what breathes fire into the equations” that govern everyday life. Ian McKellen (of X-Men fame) appeared, as did an Afghan veteran with no legs who made his way into the stadium via zipline. At one point, the stadium was even transformed into a Higgs Boson Large Hadron supercollider, a clever allusion to the elusive “God Particle.” Overall, there are 4,200 athletes from 164 countries competing in this year’s Paralympics, making it the biggest and most celebrated Paralympics ever (even if they don’t find the “God Particle”).
And this conception of the postmodern, superhuman body is finding its way into mainstream culture in new ways. The “Superhuman” exhibition in London is bringing transhumanism to the masses. The surprising takeaway from the Wellcome show is that everything that we thought was modern about transhumanism actually dates back 500 years or more – the exhibit includes sketches of wooden hands augmented with mechanical gears. Across the pond, the “Ghosts in the Machine” exhibit at the New Museum in New York explores the changing notions of man, machine and technology over the past century. Once threatened by the assimilation by machines by what makes us human, we now realize that technology has the ability to make us – not less than human – but more than human.
To a certain extent, the line between Olympians and Paralympians no longer exists, just as the line between human and superhuman will no longer exist one day, thanks to the brave examples set by individuals like Oscar Pistorious (“Blade Runner”), who became the first Paralympian to compete alongside regular Olympians in a track race at London 2012. As incredible as that moment in London was when Oscar Pistorious entered the track and field stadium for the first time, there are other people just like Oscar, who are competing on the bicycle track, in the swimming pool, and on the court.
Transhumanism, once on the brink of being discredited as “one of the world’s most dangerous ideas” is back and stronger than ever as we get ever closer to The Singularity. In its new form, transhumanism celebrates the enhancement and augmentation of the human body through technology. We’ve passed through the Uncanny Valley, where seeing replica human limbs on athletes makes us uncomfortable. We now celebrate these Paralympians as “superhumans,” not as victims. There is still a long way to go – as witnessed by the relatively muted media coverage within the U.S. of the 2012 Paralympic Games in London – but we are closer to the true merging of man and machine than ever before, and a radically new conception of the postmodern body.
image: Meet the Superhumans / UK Channel 4