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Body mechanics

Part of the mythology surrounding the former tennis player John McEnroe is that he never practiced. The reality, McEnroe wrote in his autobiography, was that he worked out and practiced much more than anyone acknowledged - and that even if he did take it physically easier than some of his peers he spent an enormous amount of time *thinking* about the game. Mental practice is still practice.

This is an extension people's desire for athletes be pure of motive and natural of body. They can work physically beyond all rationality with the world's most expensive experts but they aren't supposed to gain an "artificial" edge. Remediation, however, is OK. Within the rules, Andre Agassi could take cortisone injections to ease his chronic back pain, but trace amounts of nikethamide got Marin Cilic banned. Maybe it's the "yuck factor": who wants to think of their sporting hero lying on a gurney, sweaty butt pointed upwards awaiting injection with questionable substances in a seedy veterinary clinic?

Last night's Cybersalon on human enhancement carried the remediation versus enhancement theme into hardware for the rest of us, exploring some truly strange possibilities.

It's impossible not to cheer the amputees who, like Veronika Pete and Nigel Ackland, have been fitted with prosthetics with superhuman characteristics. Pete's customized prosthetic leg lights up and has a secret compartment (she's not quite sure yet what she intends to store in it, but do *you* have one?). Ackland has a bionic hand that, he said, has turned him from an object to pity to one of envy. Only a curmudgeon could object to these.

The same is true of two more of last night's presentations, which edged further into creative enhancement. Science writer Frank Swain was only 25 when he realized he was going deaf. The beige hearing aids he received made him wonder: given that the aids do extensive processing to turn the noise they capture into what they think you would normally hear, why couldn't he hack their code to produce something rather more interesting than reality? The BBC radio documentary Hack My Hearing was the result. Swain has big plans. He is, he said, "on the cusp" of being able to hear wifi.

"The idea is not to simply be sensitive to it," he said (or more or less). "It's more to have it like traffic noise and be aware of invisible environment. If you don't perceive those systems they will be able to control you." And, he added, given an auditory connection to your phone, why shouldn't you be able to listen to the stream of information about you and your environment coming over the Internet? I guess it's an auditory version of Google Glass, and while I think augmented reality would be more efficient via audio, keeping your hands and eyes free, the idea makes me long for silence.

Like Swain, Neil Harbisson's implanted periscope/antenna color sensing device has remediation as its primary purpose: Harbisson was born completely color-blind. Granted, he's come a long way since the first iteration ten years ago, when he began experimenting with transposing the different frequency vibrations characteristic of colors of light into sounds. The current model of the sensor, which works through bone conduction, transmits ultraviolet and infrared as well as the spectrum normally visible to humans. One consequence: he's taken to composing meals and selecting clothing based on how they sing (he was wearing orange, bright blue, and hot pink but failed to provide audio).

These folks are all making the best of a bad situation (YouTube).

At the enhancement extreme, however, lies Rachel Armstrong's work helping - or enabling - Stelarc and Orlan. Armstrong got used to "rewiring" the body to remediate failing functionality while working in a leprosy colony in India. Once returned to the UK, lacking similar opportunities to "study the cultural, social, and aesthetic effects of being alternatively bodied", she turned to working with performance artists. She spent seven years helping Stelarc develop an extra ear, which he eventually had implanted on the underside of his left forearm. Orlan I remember vividly from a 1994 video presentation of her surgeries at an ICA conference. Some of her fellow speakers turned green; distressed audience chatter filled the unfortunately scheduled lunch immediately following. Armstrong, like Orlan herself, sees a fabulous exploration of the edges of physical transformation. I see something that looks more like mental illness than art.

The two theorists on the panel distinguished, like anti-doping organizations, between remediation and enhancement. Steve Fuller, author of the 2011 book Humanity 2.0, noted that the problem with enhancement arrives in stages. First it's rare and confers an advantage; then it's normal and society reorganizes around it; finally, those without are left behind. By contrast, Dave King, founder of Luddites 200, to be the lone dissenter. He is, he said, not anti-technology but "anti-technocracy". Enhancement, he argued is hurtful to community because it values competition to be the best.

Not being a theorist, to me there's a practical reason to be cautious: defying biology is a risky business. I'll stick to original equipment as long as I can - and keep the enhancements external, thanks.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted throughout the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.


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