FIXED:The Science/Fiction of Human Enhancement

How do technologies that claim they will change our bodies and minds challenge our views of disability and normalcy? How might this affect what it means to be human in the twenty-first century?

These are the questions tackled in FIXED: The Science/Fiction of Human Enhancement. It’s a haunting, subtle, urgent documentary that takes a close look at the drive to be “better than human” and the radical technological innovations that some are advocating we embrace. Producer/director Regan Brashear has working on labor, race, youth, LGBTQ, and disability issues for over twenty years through documentary film, union organizing, community forums, and grassroots activism. She is co-founder of Making Change Media, which produces videos for non-profits and labor unions, as well as independent long-form documentaries such as FIXED.

Regan will be interviewed by Gina Maranto, Director of Ecosystem Science and Policy at the University of Miami’s Leonard and Jayne Abess Center, and author of Quest for Perfection: The Drive to Breed Better Human Beings.  Please join us on Thursday October 3 at 11 am PT/ Noon MST / 2 pm ET for Talking Biopolitics a live web-based interview and conversation with Regan Brashnear, Gina Maranto, and you.

Registration is required! You can register here: registration. You can read more about the film and Regan and Gina here

The Living Archives on Eugenics in Western Canada is hosting the Alberta Premiere of FIXED: The Science/Fiction of Human Enhancement with co-sponsors the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine and the John Dossetor Health Ethics Centre, University of Alberta, on Friday October 18, 2013 at the Telus Centre 150, University of Alberta. Doors at 6:30 pm, film at 7:00 pm. Dr. Gregor Wolbring will join us after the film for questions and answers via SKYPE. Admission is FREE and this event is open to the public! Plan to attend!

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If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t fix It, But What if It’s Enhanced?

Gary Karp, who sustained a spinal injury in 1973, which prevents him from using his legs states that although his spine is technically broken, he is not.  Although he confesses that he would want to walk again, he clarifies that he would not want to do so at any cost.  He writes (click here for the entire blog post):

Well, it’s not about whether I want to walk. Of course I want to walk. That is, if I could walk the way I did before my injury. Easily, without fatigue, secure in my balance, painlessly. That’s a pretty tall order (especially given that I’m six foot two!).

The problem with paralysis, Gary argues, is that it is viewed as a thing to be fixed and thus people with injuries like Gary’s are viewed as damaged or broken.  He writes:

If the prevailing view of paralysis—or having a disability of any kind—is that the most important thing is to try and fix people (because, of course, what else could broken people want?), then how will I be viewed as the whole person I am—in the context of my paralysis? If I’m damaged goods, then I’m a person whose life can only be improved—much less be a meaningful and satisfying life—if someone repairs my brokenness.

His view on technological advancements like the exoskeleton is this:

What, then, of the exoskeleton? I don’t see it as something that will fix me, that will fill in something horribly missing in my life. After 38 years I’m so thoroughly adapted that not being able to walk is normal. For me.

The exoskeleton, however, is just a hint of what is possible.  What lies beyond is far from mere fixing; the possibilities point to enhancement.  If Gary and others like him decided to “upgrade” their legs with some future technology inspired by the exoskeleton, would those with “regular” legs be in need of fixing?  In a world of enhanced humans, would all people be born damaged or broken?

Oscar Pistorius is a contemporary example of what may one day be possible.  Oscar is a double amputee and a world class sprinter.  His legs, which were made by the same company the CEO of Ekso Bionics worked for at the time, have been the cause of the IAAF’s ruling making him ineligible for competitions conducted under its guidelines.  This decision was eventually reversed, but the reasons for reversal were not that the use of artificial legs is not an issue, but rather that they do not give him any advantage over other competitors.

Of course, there must be some restrictions set on competitions.  For instance, using a bicycle or a motorized vehicle to win the 100m dash certainly does not seem to be in the spirit of that particular sporting event and so the use of mechanized legs can surely lead to questions.  However, the issue of advantage in sport due to technological advancements does not begin with Oscar Pistorius.  Shouldn’t better running shoes fall into this same category?  What about better diets and certain dietary supplements?  What about the advancement in training efficiency?  Are these not technological improvements?  I doubt that Coroebus of Elis, who won the stadion race in 776 B.C.E., would be a match for Usain Bolt, who won several races at the 2008 Olympic Games.  Does fairness dictate that athletes should have equal access to advantage conferring technologies?  So, in the case of the IAAF’s objections to Pistorius,  was the underlying issue of fairness related to the fact that his legs were not equally accessible to other athletes?  What about Usain Bolt’s physiology?  Is it on par with mine?  If I trained as he does, ate as he does, slept the same amount of time he does, etc., would I also be able to run 100m in 9.72 seconds?  I doubt it!  Does Bolt have an unfair advantage over me?  Insofar as he is better predisposed than I for such great sprinting performance, I guess he does have an unfair advantage.  Do I need fixing?  Am I broken?  Well, no.  I’m not a sprinter, so I don’t need fixing, right??  What about Coroebus of Elis?  Was he broken?  Well, no.  He won the first ever recorded Olympic race!

I am certainly not making claims about the IAAF’s decision, nor about the reversal of the IAAF’s decision by the Court of Arbitration for Sport.  I also am not questioning the logic behind the rules and boundaries in sporting events.  What I question, however, is whether any competitors can truly be said to be advantage-less?  And I think the answer is no!  If that is the case, however, then it would seem that the point of contention about Pistorius’ alleged “edge” over his co-competitors might actually stem from a deeper apprehension about what our society considers to be abnormal.  Could it be that both Gary (who cannot walk) and Oscar (who can outrun much of his “normal” competition) are somehow viewed in terms of being in need of “fixing” because they are abnormal?  If this is the case, then it’s not merely an ableist fear because Oscar Pistorius, to my mind, is more than able to win races against “normal” sprinters.  Perhaps people are suspicious of difference?  I just hope they never figure out that taller people take bigger steps when they sprint.

Our Post-Human Futures Conference

Living Archives team member, Gregor Wolbring, will be speaking on the body and prosthetics at the “Frontiers in Research: Our Post-Human Futures” conference at the University of Ottawa on November 15, 2011.

The University of Ottawa is pleased to present the thirteenth annual Frontiers in Research lectures. This year’s theme is Our Post-Human Future .

During the past decade, human perfection and even immortality have become topics of renewed interest due to groundbreaking scientific advancements, and are now much more tangible and potentially achievable goals. The quest for human improvement through biomedical means appears to be unstoppable in the developed world. But this drive towards the “post-human” has also given rise to discussion, debate, conflict and a great deal of research on where to take the human species.

Frontiers in Research: Our Post-Human Future will explore these questions in light of developments in the fields of genetics, neuroscience and prosthetics, and their social, political, economic, ethical and religious implications.

For more information on the conference, click here.

FIXED: a Kickstarter plea

Aimee Mullins' Legs

Some of Aimee Mullins' legs

Oakland-based filmmaker Regan Brashear is launching her film FIXED: The Science / Fiction of Human Enhancement and is running a Kickstarter campaign to help with funding for the film’s clean-up.  You can start with donations of $1 and up–details about the campaign and film here.  The campaign runs until 9.03am EDT, August 31, so donate NOW.  A brief excerpt from the site:

What’s the film about?  What does “disabled” mean when a man with no legs can run faster than many Olympic sprinters? With prenatal screening able to predict hundreds of probable conditions, who should determine what kind of people get to be born? If you could augment your body’s abilities in any way imaginable, what would you do and why? From pre-implantation genetic diagnosis to neural implants and bionic limbs, researchers around the world are hard at work developing a myriad of technologies to fix or enhance the human body, but what does it mean to design “better humans” and do we want to? FIXED follows three remarkable people: Continue reading

Feeling Guilt for Feeling Hope

One of the most common questions random strangers at bus stops, cab drivers, airport staff, and anyone else in my presence long enough to make the absence of small talk slightly awkward will ask me as a blind person is: “so there’s nothing they can do?” There are some very interesting assumptions built into this question.

This question assumes that, if “they” could do something, then I wouldn’t be blind.  It assumes that I want them to do something.  It assumes that it is someone else that needs to do something, and because the “they” refers to doctors and/or scientists, the question assumes that the “thing” that needs doing relates to treatment and/or cure.

I’ve been thinking about this more lately because of a couple of emails sent to my inbox in the last two days.  The first was forwarded to me by a family member.  It was originally sent out by “the Foundation Fighting Blindness”, and the second was a CTV News story sent to a blind-related listserv I subscribe to.

Continue reading

Vancouver 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games podcast

The Talks
As Canada prepares to host the world’s best, Vancouver 2010, The Globe and Mail, and the University of British Columbia in collaboration with universities across Canada, are partnering on a unique project inviting the public to flex their intellect via podcasts by some of the country’s best minds on topics related to the 2010 Winter Games.

My podcast is live

Gregor Wolbring

Who will be the future Olympic and Paralympic athlete? The impact of advances in science and technology and bodily assistive devices on Sport.

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/intellectual-muscle/the-talks/article1312702/

The transcript of the podcast is situated here

http://www.bioethicsanddisability.org/vancouverpodcast.html

Human Kinds–Species Typical, Sub-typical, Beyond Typical–Part 2

Gregor Wolbring in full swing on ableism and its relationship to sexism, racism, caste bias, anti-environmentalism, consumerism. It all goes by very fast, so be prepared! Part 3 will have some panel interchange on this.

Here Gregor argues that ableism lies at the root of these other “isms”, and so is in that sense the most fundamental form of discrimination.  In the audience discussion following the talk–which, unfortunately, we did not have permission to film–there was quite a bit of discussion of, and resistance to, this idea.  Gregor also writes a regular column, The Choice is Yours, and you can find more information about him there.  On this issue, as Gregor says about most things, the choice is yours.  Is ableism the most fundamental form of discrimination out there?