(Super)human nature

On your marks...

The 31st Olympiads have started, and I am ecstatic. I indeed have a personal relationship with this global event since I was born in an Olympian city, Grenoble, just like my kids who saw the light in London. I have particularly fond memories of London 2012, and wish to my Carioca friends to experience the same exhilarations we had back then.

The Olympics are a fantastic platform to see human nature at its best: physical exploits, determination, team work, perfection, apolitical statements and some more loaded, the highest degrees of emotions like happiness and despair, intertwined and simultaneous. You simply cannot remain unmoved by this competition. When tears blend with sweat. Why cries of joy cohabit with cries of distress. When pain is the path to pleasure.

However something which gives me even more goose bump is what Paralympians achieve. It is close to superhuman. At least that is what Channel 4, the Paralympic official broadcaster, claims:

Enabling abilities

It is incredible what these so-called "disabled" athletes are actually able to achieve. In many ways they are more capable than many of us. Actually, Oscar Pistorius did compete in the London 400m race against "able" athletes...

His participation raised some questions at the time, because observers wondered if his handicap was an unfair advantage over the other competitors. Actually, to be precise the debate was not exactly on the handicap itself, but rather on the technology used to address it: the blades. Would the blades provide extra spring and pace that human legs would not be able to provide?

More interestingly, it raised an ethical debate which tells a lot about human nature: it was less about diversity and inclusion of disable athletes amongst able competitors, but would Pistorius' participation set a precedent and open the door to technology-enhanced bodies? After all, if some are ready to inject some illegal chemical in their metabolism to enhance their performances, would some be ready to deliberately alter their body to integrate some technology that would multiply their capabilities? What is disability? Could some weirdoes mutilate themselves to compete? Scary, but plausible.

Technology opening doors.

Debate aside, I am amazed by how some technologies are enabling people to live up to the Olympic motto: faster, higher, stronger. More capable in other words. I find this exciting, don't you? And not just in sport... I already wrote about how technology helps with the virtualisation and dematerialisation of our lives. But technology is capable of such grand things, like allowing deaf people to hear or colour blind people to discover the chromatic gamut.

Let me introduce you to Neil Harbisson, a Catalan-raised but British-born artist and cyborg activist who has made the headlines for having an antenna implanted in his skull and for being officially recognised as a cyborg by a government. The antenna allows him to perceive visible and invisible colours such as infrareds and ultraviolets via sound waves. In other words, he does not see colours... He hears them. Each colour is associated to a sound, and with each sounds comes associated emotions.

What I like about this last example is that it redefines entirely the notion of ability. Technically, Neil is not able to see colours, but he has invented a new way to perceive them and in fact this new ability is richer than the classical sight because it spans beyond the human visible spectrum. Just like these athletes are not just emulating able athletes, they are defining new performances in totally new categories. They are shifting the battle ground to places where they are not disable... To places where they thrive. For that and for everything they do, they have my unconditional respect and admiration.