Monday, September 3, 2012

Why "The Fastest Man On No Legs" Scares the Crap Out of Me

I don’t really care about sports. Let’s get that out of the way right now. I have respect for most athletes (the ones that don’t do notably bad things, at least) because of the time they put in and the lengths they often go to for their chosen sport, but I have no real interest in playing them, nor do I care who is currently doing the best at them. As a result, the Olympics mostly passed me by without a second thought. Sure, America’s swimming and gymnastics teams did fantastically, but we’re one of the wealthiest nations on Earth; of course our athletes are going to be among the best. The one story that really did jump out at me was that of Oscar Pistorius, a South African sprinter who made it into the semifinals and then finished that semifinal dead last. Why did he jump out at me? Because he was born with no legs.

            I should clarify: technically, he does have legs, but they end immediately below the knee like the best-case scenario for a war amputee. (He was in fact born with legs but due to a congenital deformation of the fibula they were amputated before he left grade school.) The story of Oscar Pistorius is a classic one; a tragedy of birth leads to an ostracized childhood, a coach with a bright idea (giving the boy without feet artificial legs) leads to a spark of hope that gutters but then burns brighter than ever as he enters his 26th year. He is an exemplar of what technology can do for the disabled as the future we were all told was coming finally arrives. I am terrified of him, or rather I am terrified of what he represents. While again, I have great respect for him as an athlete, it must be noted that he is a white man from South Africa. Being a white man is very, very different from being a black man anywhere in the world, but especially in South Africa, where the shadow of Apartheid still looms. The springbok boots he wears in the place of feet are expensive, after all, and learning to walk and run in them requires physical therapy. Pistorius is from a wealthy family; were a black South African man born the way he was, the odds of him having the same resources and care are incredibly low. Simply put, Oscar Pistorius’ parents bought their way out of having a disabled son.
            This brings me to the main point of this post: I am a transhumanist, someone who looks to the future and sees not just what technology can do for humanity, but what technology can help humanity become. I see Oscar Pistorius as a vanguard of the future. In the future I hope for, disability is an outmoded concept. Everything wrong with a person can be repaired, or improved upon. “Humanity” is whatever we define it to be. People who dream larger than I can will alter the definition of person in ways we can’t currently comprehend (and not in the legalistic “corporations are people” sense) and quality of life will improve for everyone. But it’s a long road from where we are now to the future I want for us. This is why Oscar Pistorius scares me. He’s certainly an impressive physical specimen; just look at him. But he’s not just in fantastic shape and powered by an indefatigable drive to succeed in the face of all odds, he’s lucky. Right now the boots he wears are enough to put him on even footing (no pun intended) with other Olympians; what happens when they make boots that are uniformly better than organic feet? Olympic judges sparked a firestorm among themselves about this already (And several smaller competitions have barred him from competing outright) so we can at least expect scrutiny there. Writ larger, what happens when the wealthy can literally buy better bodies for themselves? In everyday life we see how money can often solve problems; what happens when sufficient money solves the problem of sleep? How does a lower-class worker compete with someone who can afford to treat basic human needs like luxuries? This is the dark side of transhumanism, where instead of equalizing humanity it makes us even less equal than we were before. The story of Oscar Pistorius has the seeds of both futures in it; I hope to God we fertilize the right one.

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