Transhuman Superheroes

The Golden Age superhero comic was one of the earliest examples of transhumanism in modern storytelling.  And so it’s perhaps no coincidence that the rise of self-proclaimed superheroes is coming along shortly before real technological changes in human physiology are due to emerge.  In the future will humans and machines merge?  And will this have an effect on the sometimes bizarre real life superhero subculture?

Superheroes are one of those things you probably shouldn’t make a claim about unless you’re willing to argue about it with someone.  Still, there seems to be little argument that the news media has regarded the emerging culture of “real life superheroes” with a tongue in cheek, if not a bit cautionary, tone.  The idea of average citizens dressing up in theatrical costumes to transform their identities and then take on crime is something that works well in fiction, but can be severely limited in the real world.  But are the days of superheroes without powers limited?

One of the most prominent recent examples of a person transforming his identity by integrating technology into his body is known simply as “Eyeborg.”  Ralph Spence lost his eye in a shotgun accident, but then a team of engineers helped outfit him with a camera to replace it.  While the camera doesn’t directly connect to his brain, it does send data that he observes by radio to a camera.  There are a number of situations where an ability like this might come in handy, but it’s not truly at the same super-human level of power we like to associate with most superheroes like Batman or Superman.  Nonetheless, it’s hard to argue against Spence being one of the first true cyborgs in the 21st century.  And as time improves, so will technology.

A number of technological trends are offering new ways of pushing away the concept of physical disability and replacing it with a new concept – technological features on human beings.  Take the human heart, for instance.  The first completely artificial heart, AbioCor was first transplanted into a patient in 2001, allowing them mobility with an electronic heart.  By 2011, over 14 patients had received the artificial heart with one surviving for over 512 days on one.  In time, as the technology improves, perhaps artificial hearts will be developed even better than the ones we are born with.  Who will then make the transition toward being a cyborg then?

And in a way the heart is a good analogy for the spirit of the costumed crusaders seen occasionally in tongue-in-cheek human interest stories on the late night news.  Will there be room in the world for these superheroes when super powers become a very real possibility?  Or will the coverage of the well intentioned, self-promoting superheroes take a turn away from the warmth of the afternoon spotlight and resemble the same sort of mistrust exposited in the comics that inspired them?

As a final note, if emerging technologies are any indicator, it may be a good idea for society to be good to those afflicted with these same disabilities.  If disability is as transient as technology allows it to be, it may only a matter of time before the elderly blind woman of today is the superhero of tomorrow.