~ Posted by Simon Willis, July 19th 2012
Sex sells, and "Superhuman", the new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London, opens with a strong pitch. In the first cabinet is an 18th-century ivory dildo (complete with a pump to mimic ejaculation) and a packet of Viagra. On the wall above is a 19th-century print of a woman pleasuring herself with a root vegetable. The show is all about how humans have used prosthetics and pills, machines and medicines to make up for physical deficiencies, fulfill our potential or just enjoy ourselves. But the most interesting exhibit, and the one which raises the most troubling questions, is also the smallest and easiest to miss.
In 1998, a British professor of cybernetics, Kevin Warwick, had a microchip embedded in his forearm. It's a little grey lozenge less than an inch long, a diminutive object which nevertheless enabled Warwick to do extraordinary things, like open doors and turn lights on and off without touching them. Four years later, he had another chip implanted in his nervous system. So did his wife. They could then communicate sensations to one another without the laying on of hands.
Warwick wrote a book about his experiments, "I, Cyborg". It opens with a justification of his work. We're physically fairly limited and can only perceive the world in three dimensions, he writes, but that's the least of it. More than that, "the way humans communicate is so poor as to be embarrassing. Human speech is serial, error-prone and...incredibly slow". He predicts a change—that soon we will "communicate with other humans merely by thinking to each other. Speech as we know it may well become obsolete". He makes the bold prediction that "in the fullness of time, our children's children will look back with wonder at how their ancestors could have been so primitive as to communicate by means of silly little noises called speech."
Warwick's microchip encapsulates this exhibition's central question, which is about the balance of power between what we're born with and what we can add to ourselves. It's one of literature's grandest themes, an update of Frankenstein: science enables us to do very clever things with our minds and bodies, but a "can" doesn't imply an "ought". The "super" shouldn't push out the "human".
"Superhuman" is on at the Wellcome Collection in London until October 16th. www.wellcomecollection.org
Simon Willis is apps editor of Intelligent Life