I am legally blind in my right eye. I have a birth defect, which means that I’ve never known what it’s like to see with both eyes, and corrective lenses don’t make any difference. For those interested, the condition is called a morning glory anomaly. Ever since I discovered this at the age of 5 (thanks kindergarten check up!), I’ve periodically toyed with the question of whether I would fix my eye if I could. If stem cell research progressed to the point where I could be grown an eye, or if I could be implanted with a cyber eye (tasteful of course), would I do it?
The first impulse is an unquestioning yes. Why wouldn’t I want to make my body better? What could possibly be bad about fixing something that is wrong with me? However especially as I’ve grown older and been exposed to more communities who see this kind of attitude as dismissing their value, I’ve had to question it. Is there something about fitting what we view as the normative or ideal human being good? Can we judge one human body “better” than another simply because our culture is set up to accommodate it? Is it always better to want improved senses?
I’m starting to think no.
There are some “enhancements” that are probably pointless. Sure, we could improve our eyesight to a ridiculous extent, but are our brains even capable of processing that much information? Is it really useful for us as human beings in the world we live in to have highly intensified eyesight all the time or would it simply be distracting and too hard to integrate into an ongoing picture of the world? The idea that more is always better or “enhanced” doesn’t make sense to me, because there are absolutely times when more just means “this doesn’t fit in your life” or “this isn’t healthy” or “this is just too much”.
In order for something to be an enhancement it has to be useful in some fashion: it has to serve some sort of purpose. Not every “more” or “better” actually helps us move towards our goals and purposes. If I wanted to, I could enhance my body to be constantly taller: I could constantly use stilts. Clearly this is objectively better. There’s a scale against which you can measure it: tallness, and you’re getting better at tallness (and reaching things and jumping over things and whatnot). But practically that sounds horrible and ineffective and not actually an improvement at all. There are likely limits to what it means to “enhance” a body: we need a goal to achieve to measure whether our body is functioning well.
There might be some hardcore transhumanists out there who disagree with that, and think that we can just infinitely improve our bodies and they will be objectively better, but that doesn’t seem a very nuanced approach. Most improvements affect other things in some way, lead to some negative effects, or just change how you interact with the world. We need to decide how we want to interact with the world before we can make it better. So there do seem to be potential drawbacks to “improvements” to the body, particularly to implications that if your body is not behaving at the highest standard of human functioning then it is not good enough or should be improved given the opportunity.
The idea of an endless seeking of perfection is harmful. The idea that my body is not good enough as it is is harmful to me. There may be some people who feel comfortable enough with themselves to make certain enhancements without feeling as if it’s a slippery slope into constant critique of what they have now, but I am not one of those people. Especially for many women who have spent their whole lives being told their bodies are not good enough and they need to be enhanced in some fashion, the idea that even our senses, our muscles, or our internal bits need to be upgraded could play into some fairly detrimental mindsets that imply we owe it either to ourselves or the world to be better.
So when I think about whether I should answer “yes” immediately to questions about improving or changing my body, particularly with technology, I want to weigh all the elements of the question that might play into my perfectionistic, eating disordered mind, or that would imply that I’m not good enough, or that would say that any imperfections must be corrected against the potential benefits I could get.
I’m still not entirely sure where that leaves me, especially when it comes to a part of my body that has always been this way and that has deeply affected how I behave, what I’ve been capable of, what I’ve cared about in such a way that it’s shaped my identity in many ways. Our eccentricities often become wrapped up in how we think of ourselves. This may or may not be a good thing, but the process of recreating identity takes time and emotional energy, and is another piece to be weighed in the puzzle of serious and/or invasive body modifications.
None of this is to suggest that there is something inherently wrong with making technological changes and enhancements to one’s body, but that there are likely emotional and identity filled repercussions that we haven’t examined fully yet. As someone who may have to face these kinds of questions in a serious way in my lifetime, I’d rather shift the dialogue to one of personal choice and quality of life rather than one of “better” or “worse” bodies, or natural and unnatural interventions.