The transformation of human bodies by artificial means has a long history behind it, but recent technological development has given it a new dimension. From the lotus feet of young Chinese girls, obtained by binding, or the giraffe necks of African women made to wear successive rings, to all the prostheses of current medicine, there is an extensive itinerary that mixes the ornamental or the ritual with the curative to blur the limits between nature and artifice. Beatriz Colomina and Mark Wigley addressed this theme at the Istanbul Design Biennial (see their article ‘Built Bodies’, Arquitectura Viva 192
) and in an exquisite small book, Are We Human?
, also resulting from their work as curators of the biennial, which explores the role of design in defining the human animal.
BBVA’s new corporate book The Next Step: Exponential Life
– which includes twenty or so essays by leaders in the fields of bioscience, genetics, robotics, and artificial intelligence – brings the matter a step further, showing how humanity is at the threshold of a technological revolution that will stretch the physical and intellectual capacities of people, as well as their life spans, to unimaginable extremes: a revolution of extraordinary promises but no fewer risks, from the growth of unemployment and inequality or the crises of social protection systems to catastrophic threats on the planet and the survival of our species.
While some of the authors tread familiar ground (intelligent materials, computational creativity, augmented reality, the internet of things, or neuroethics), others explore new territories: posthuman trips, hyperhistory, multiagent systems (which organize a post-Westphalian world where humans are no longer the center of the infosphere), and last but not least, the use of human engineering to slow down climate change.
In the book’s most provocative contribution, S. Matthew Liao, director of the Center for Bioethics at New York University, defends the biomedical modification of humans to mitigate climate change or adapt them to it. In response to the dangers of geoengineering he proposes the voluntary transformation of bodies: making them pharmacologically intolerant to meat (stockbreeding is responsible for a high percentage of greenhouse gas emissions), inducing altruism and empathy through designer drugs, limiting births with intelligence enhancers, and even reducing the size of human beings through the genetic diagnosis systems used in fertility clinics. Eugenics has an ominous history, and calling it ‘human engineering’ does little to make it sound better, defended by a bioethics professor or not.
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