Superflux was invited by Belgium's Media, Arts & Design Faculty to help kick-start a third-year research project, bringing together students from Graphic Design, Television/Film, Product Design, Communication and Multimedia, Photography and Animation. Linking design methodology and theory with hands-on practical components, the project, “H(ello).E.T.!“, aimed to:
'Explore the field of human enhancement and its implications, developing design outputs that relate to the debate around human enhancement technologies.'
For Superflux's workshop, we started with a detailed look at current work on human enhancement, and its manifestations in science fiction and speculative design. 'When electronic, digital and other smart technologies enter and merge with the body, they redefine its material and functional properties. As human anatomy gains technological capabilities, where does the body end and the machine begin?' We began to tackle this question by exploring some of the typologies and key examples of human enhancement in the here-and-now – from the pacemaker to the work of Ekso Bionics, and from mail-order DNA sequencing to Aimee Mullins' legs.
Working forward from the present, we demonstrated the key role these technologies have played in forming our sense of the future, with transhumanist rhetoric and glossy corporate videos promising an age in which all our biological faults and limitations are engineered away.
To undercut this idea, and help the participants' unpick some of the (bio)politics of human enhancement, we presented a selection of projects by artists and designers, showcasing examples of critical and creative work that explored the wider sociocultural implications of human enhancement. Through these projects, we hoped to show the students how design provocations and speculation can foster public engagement with the issues, enabling a more nuanced and wide-ranging debate on human enhancement.
Within the framework of human enhancement, we chose to focus on the questions and challenges surrounding genetic modification and prosthetic technologies – forms of enhancement that have traditionally been framed as therapeutic or restorative.
Building on the contents of this initial presentation, we used a set of scenarios as provocation for some group work. Breaking the 80 students into eleven groups, we asked the groups to reflect on the scenarios in the context of their initial research, consider the position they wanted to take as designers, and propose a specific form and topic for their work.
Though this was a far-reaching set of taks for a relatively short workshop, with the support of six tutors roaming the space, and participants' armed with prior research, we felt there was plenty of room to be ambitious.
#1. Gene therapy, bionic implants and wearable prostheses have advanced to the point where those treated with these technologies are seen to be better at certain tasks than baseline humans. Within the labour market, demand for these individuals far outstrips supply, with corresponding disruptions in bonuses, renumeration, and so-called 'golden hand shakes'. A black market emerges to fill the gap, catering to those who want access to these technologies, which are otherwise limited to those with medical insurance payouts or means-tested socialised healthcare.
#2. As the number of stem cell treatments multiply, so does the demand for human stem cells. A legal trade of stem cell production from adipose fat tissue is overseen by an international task force, while gangs formerly engaged in prostitution and human trafficking switch to more profitable bio-ventures.
#3. Advances in artificial organs and regenerative medicine trigger a radical spike in human life expectancy. Though publicly hailed as one of the century's greatest achievements, unintended side-effects spiral wildly out of control. As the last of the Baby Boomers enter retirement with no obvious sign of slowing down, it proves easier for those in power to focus their attention on the growing legion of the over-60s. Inter-generational resentment grows unchecked, with much of the (overtaxed) workforce starting to see themselves as latter-day slaves.
#4. Following a shift in approaches to the modification of embryonic DNA for 'fixing' inherited deases, it becomes culturally acceptable for parents to 'boost' the strength and (more importantly) intelligence of their offspring. In the course of a single generation, base IQ jumps from 109 to 210, in what comes to be known as the 'Generational Event Horizon'. Super-intelligence, however, comes with side-effects, often leaving parents and children struggling to communicate.
With each group picking one of these scenarios as their point of departure, we asked them to imagine some of the unexpected outcomes of these technologies, their impact on society and the economy, public reactions, and how they might fit into individual (often dependent) users' lives.
In the MAD tutors' workshop after-action report, they describe some of the varied final outputs from this workshop. With most of the students opting for the fourth scenario:
'One team presented a scenario involving Google babies, one team designed a megaphone that translated the hyper-intellectual language of children into understandable language for their parents and another team discussed the changing timeline of a person’s life (given the fact that people with a higher IQ learn much faster). These scenarios were an interesting and imaginative first exploration of human enhancement.'
Images of these initial prototypes, and finished pieces from much later in the Flickr account.project lifecycle, can be found on the project's