(Versione italiana: Il futuro alle porte)
Over the Easter weekend I took my son Daniele and my nephew Brando to see Human+, an exhibit on possible futures imagined by scientists and artists at Palazzo delle Esposizioni in Rome.
Room by room, we see formulated scenarios that technology already makes possible today, scenarios that provoke many questions, that can ultimately be summarized by the exhibit’s title: what does it mean to be human in the third millennium? The hypothetical questions proposed by Isaac Asimov 50 years ago have now become a pressing imperative.
How do we define beauty?
Prostheses, or artificial devices that substitute a part of the human body, are a consolidated reality. Scientists are working to make them ever more functional, while significantly reducing their cost. The current objective is to bring the cost down to less than 100 dollars, roughly the equivalent of a pair of shoes. Once they get there, how difficult is it to imagine an evolution from medical device to fashion accessory? Some artists have illustrated this concept for Human+, highlighting how art has the power to lighten the burden of a handicap, with taste and even wit; the artificial limb can become more ‘human’ by expressing the personality of its owner, who will be able to change it according to occasion or mood.
What does it mean to be normal?
If the artistic prothesis moves the discourse from “different” to “beautiful”, artist Addie Wagenknecht explores the concept of “normal” in the world of Internet. Her original experiment involves running an image search on line for the terms “Miss America 2013”, “selfie” and “terrorist”, and then computing the average of the pixels to determine the “perfect average” and create a composite image as a result.
Somehow this work brings to mind Charles Bukowski‘s famous quote: “I do not trust statistics, because, statistically, a man with his head in the oven and his feet in the freezer, has an average temperature.”
What is “art”?
One of the objectives of the Cyborg Foundation is to promote “projects related to the creation of new senses and perceptions by applying technology to the human body”, also known as “cyborg art”. They defend the right of artists to express themselves using the new senses they can acquire by applying cybernetics to their own bodies. The sculpture presented above, Seismic Arm, reproduces the arm of Moon Ribas, a dancer and dance scholar who had a chip implanted in it in order to better feel the movements of the earth (earthquakes) and to dance to their beat. It is not easy to accept this concept as “normal”, but then art has always anticipated normality, and perhaps cyborg artists are throwing light on a future that may be nearer than we think.
What is “evolution”?
Artist Agatha Haines imagines scenarios of “planned evolution”, in which newborn babies are modified in order to better prepare them for a mutated environment:
- Thermal epidermiplasty: a surgical increaseof the skin surface of the scalp to enable a faster heat dispersion, in an overheated world.
- Extension osteogenesis: the application of pins to the nasal bridge to make the bone grow in a specific direction and, for instance, change an escessively long face into a more rounded one.
- Podiaectomy: in the event of asthma, the middle toe can be amputated and the wound exposed to favour the development of hookworms, a parasite that reduces allergic reactions.
Deliberately provocative, these ideas are not-so-distant cousins of the well established corrective plastic surgery of today.
How can we define “death”?
Artist Julijonas Ubona’s Euthanasia Coaster (or death by roller coaster), is a hypothetical machine conceived to kill in a humane way. The acceleration provoked by the extreme drops contemplated by this lethal ride would produce first euphoria, followed by thrilling excitement, followed by loss of consciousness and eventually death.
Even more disturbing is Afterlife, the work of artists James Auger and Jimmy Loizeau, whose proposal is to collect the electric potential of the body in a battery as definitive proof that there is life after death.
For the time being these are just technological reveries, but given that the last 50 years have amply demonstrated that fantasy is but a step away, we are called upon to review fundamental concepts like life and death, which usually we take for granted.
How do we learn in the third millennium?
Today, with science traveling faster than ever before, and certainly faster than regulations and policy, the mere knowledge transfer that characterizes traditional schooling systems is nowhere near enough to prepare our children to face the complexities and the philosophical challenges of the future. Rethinking the entire education system is more urgent than ever, as is the need to involve all the players: schools, universities and government, certainly, but also centers of informal learning, and above all parents, families and educators.
Which questions should we be asking?
The exhibit presents us with very troubling questions; my generation can probably get away with not confronting them directly, but this will not be the case for our children, who will have to grapple with them and take a stance, if they want to maintain the right to determine who they want to be.