Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Normality and the engineer

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to speak at a festival of new cinema and digital culture in Liverpool called Abandon Normal Devices (http://www.andfestival.org.uk). Abandon Normal Devices forms part of the North West’s Cultural Olympiad and alongside the extensive artistic programme, the festival hosted a series of salon debates on a range of topics. The leading sports ethicist Professor Andy Miah chaired the sessions, and I was on the stage with a very ‘interesting’ transhuman philosopher, Natasha Vita-More. Now, as an engineer it’s not very often that I get invited to speak at a major arts festival, let alone share the stage with a transhuman… this Fellowship from the Royal Academy of Engineering is certainly broadening my horizons!

After doing a quick Wikipedia search on transhumanism to reassure myself that I wasn’t completely out of my depth I set off for Liverpool, my computer brimming full of fabulous engineering animations and images. As a Public Engagement Fellow I knew that I should avoid blinding my predominantly artistic audience with science, but at the same time I was quite happy for them to feel a little dazed as I feared some very tricky questions! The session was called ‘Compete’ and was all about how emerging technologies may affect the nature of competition in both sport and society as a whole.

In my presentation I focused on how engineering continuously changes perceptions of what a ‘normal’ athletic performance is. We always think that what is happening today is ‘normal’ but turn the clock back 50 years, or move 50 years into the future and things would seem very different indeed. Back in 1964 Jiri Daler from Czechoslovakia won the Olympic gold medal in the men’s 4000 metre individual pursuit in a time of 5:04.75. In 2008, Bradley Wiggins won the gold medal in the same event with a time of 4:15:03. In both cases the finishing times represented a phenomenal individual performance, and yet in both cases the feats were considered to be relatively ‘normal’ in the sense that they were readily accepted by the public. Now consider what would happen if a 2008 Bradley Wiggins were to race against Jiri Daler in 1964? I think that we can assume that the public would perceive the Wiggins performance to be wholly unnatural and abnormal. Although many factors have led to the increase in human athletic performance over the decades; in track cycling, technology has been the key driver.

Quite simply, engineering changes what we perceive as being normal. In sport, we, the public, rarely have any concern with athletic performances that we consider to be natural; it seems that problems arise when our notions of normality are challenged. In the short term we resist changes to the status quo, and yet when we take the long view we perceive ‘old’ versions of normality as somewhat ridiculous. Old television footage of athletes landing into sandpits after jumping with a bamboo pole vault rarely fails to cause a childish snigger! It is my belief that whenever we feel like putting on the brakes with sports technology we should step back for moment and try to picture the long view. What we currently perceive as ‘normal’ is only ‘normal’ for us in today’s world. In the future, swimming without a high-tech swimsuit may seem as absurd to us as playing football with a water logged leather ball.

Anyway, back to Liverpool and the AND festival…

Being the consummate show off I enjoyed delivering my talk, it seemed to go down well and Natasha Vita-More (our transhumanist) followed through with some very intriguing perspectives on the ethics of human enhancement. However, when it came to answering questions from our audience of seemingly highly intellectual artists, I was moved significantly beyond my comfort zone! I speak at a lot of events and if I’m brutally honest I rarely get asked a question that I have not encountered before. Over the years I have developed a safely net of various lines of argument that I can draw upon whenever they’re needed. At this event my safety net was wildly out of position; I was challenged with question after question that were well constructed, valid and most of all, totally new to me. I think that I just about held it together, but I was forced to really think on my feet. This was perhaps the best thing about the whole event; I was challenged to really think about my work from a different perspective just as my audience were challenged to move outside of their norms.

Just to give you an idea of what I mean let me give you this example… I normally get questions about things like; “what’s the difference between engineering athletic performance and using illegal drugs”, or, “why doesn’t everybody just use exactly the same equipment”? However, at this event I was being probed with questions such as “how will enhancement technologies be reconciled with the notion that beauty comes out of frailty”? Yikes! I feel a cold sweat coming over me just remembering that sense of needing to find something semi-intelligent to say whilst wishing that someone would throw me a lifeline with a nice technical question about the aerodynamics of cricket ball swing!