3 March 2016

Sticking to the script? Superheroes, enhancement, and the challenge of steering technologies in socially desirable ways - Part 1

Guest post by Michael Morrison (Oxford, HeLEX)
'With great power there must also come – great responsibility!' Penultimate caption of Amazing Fantasy #15 (Atlas Magazines/Marvel 1962) which introduced Peter Parker/Spiderman
The idea behind the Costumed Visions initiative is that superheroes, as represented in comics, movies and other media, provide us with a useful way of thinking about what human enhancement might look like and what it might be like to live in a world where enhanced beings existed.

Why is this important? Why might it be worth taking a world with human enhancement seriously?

One reason is that, in recent years, a number of high profile policy documents have discussed the use of technology to create people with enhanced capabilities as something that could become a scientific and social reality. The first, and perhaps the boldest, of these is the report Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance: Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Information Technology and Cognitive Science compiled by Mihail C. Roco and William S. Bainbridge for the US National Science Foundation (NSF).

This report, often referred to as the ‘NBIC’ report after the four areas of science and technology mentioned in its title, argues that an anticipated combination, or ‘convergence’ of the scientific fields of nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology (or computer science) and cognitive science (or neuroscience) will provide new techniques that will allow human beings to be created, or engineered, to have improved capabilities:

Examples of payoffs will include improving work efficiency and learning, enhancing individual sensory and cognitive capabilities, fundamentally new manufacturing processes and improved products [and], revolutionary changes in healthcare (Roco & Bainbridge, 2003: p. 1).

Following the NSF report, a series of European reports also considered the possibilities for technological convergence to ‘enhance evolution’ and produce augmented humans and in 2012 the Academy of Medical Sciences, the British Academy, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society in the UK hosted a joint workshop on Human Enhancement and the Future of Work. This surge of high-level interest has put human enhancement firmly on the science policy agenda.

Of course, these reports are not accounts of existing science. They are deliberately speculative, intended to drive discussion of technological options that might arise in future. There are no guarantees that the scientific advances proposed will turn out to be possible or that enhancement will come to pass in the ways that are predicted.

On the other hand, the concept of responsible research and innovation  (RRI) advocates that we should start thinking about what technologies we want to develop and what the social consequences of new technological approaches could be before any commitment is made to pursue a particular course of scientific research.

When thinking about how to responsibly develop technologies, it is important to remember that technologies, including potential enhancement technologies, do not simply appear fully formed to present dilemmas about their application.

Most technologies are developed with a particular purpose in mind; this can be thought of as a technological ‘script’ which describes how a particular technology will be used and who will use it. Focusing on how technologies are intended to be used is one way of thinking about desirable or undesirable consequences.

Comics provide a ready-made treasure trove of ideas about what it might be like to live in a world where enhanced humans exist. Although many comic superheroes gained their powers through accidents and other unplanned events, it is possible to identify some whose enhanced abilities come as the result of planned technological modification and who are intended to serve a particular purpose. Many of these examples involve enhanced characters who serve in a military capacity. This is not surprising as many real world attempts to enhance human performance, from the use of amphetamines by World War II fighter pilots to exoskeletons, have also occurred in the context of improving soldiers combat performance.

Steve Rogers is deliberately injected with the super-soldier serum to transform him into Captain America as part of the US war effort against the Axis powers.

In Britain’s 2000AD the Rogue Trooper is genetically engineered to be able to fight in the harsh battlefields of future wars, while in Zenith the first enhanced humans were the World War II super-soldiers Masterman and Maximan created by Nazi and British military scientists respectively.

What can these characters tell us about the relationship between the intended uses of technology and the possible social consequences of enhancement?  

In the 1990s the Rogue Trooper series was rebooted. The new version of Rogue was one of a number of genetically engineered soldiers produced by the malevolent Clavel Corporation and sent to fight in a war which the corporation had itself manufactured as a way to drive economic growth and innovation. The genetically engineered troopers are deliberately ‘tested to destruction’ in a series of combat objectives with no strategic value other than to serve as a beta test of the technology.

As in the original story, a single soldier survives and goes ‘rogue’, coming back to the corporation to find answers. In the climax of the reboot, Rogue confronts the corporate mogul Clavel who explains:
‘Whatever quick of genetic engineering inspired you to overcome your conditioning and make this incredible journey will be replicated - Built into the clones we’ll be sending to explore hazardous worlds and totally eradicated from the slave workers we’ll develop.’
Rogue eventually kills Clavel, before destroying the corporate artificial intelligence which holds the data collected from the beta testing of the genetically engineered soldiers, thus preventing Clavel’s promise about future genetically engineered clones from coming to pass.

In this case enhancement though genetic engineering is intended to generate a product, a piece of bio-engineered technology. From the perspective of his creators then, the Rogue Trooper is not a successful enhancement but a faulty device, a rogue item that does not perform as it was intended. In this story the outcome the reader is rooting for comes from a failure, or a deviation, from the intended technological script.

Captain America had a more successful career as a soldier fighting the Axis powers before moving into crime-fighting superheroics after WWII. However, in 2007’s Civil War storyline, Captain America makes a stand against a governmental registration scheme for enhanced humans, putting him at odds with other superheroes such as Iron Man and the forces of national security in the form of S.H.I.E.L.D. The enhanced powers that made the Cap so successful as a soldier and crime fighter fighting for American interests now make him a problem when fighting against the interests of the state which created him. From a technological perspective, the ‘script’ has not changed but the circumstances in which it plays out have.

These examples demonstrate that we can imagine scenarios where we would want technologies to be used as they were intended, but we can also imagine scenarios where it would be better if everything did not go ‘according to plan’. What works, or what is acceptable in one set of circumstances may later be undesirable as situations, and even values and goals change.

Moreover, although technologies are usually designed to be used in a particular way, there is always the potential that they can be adapted to new and unexpected applications by users who ‘re-script’ them.

This point is illustrated in the Zenith storyline, where the successful deployment of super-soldier Maximan in World War II prompts British military scientists to produce a second generation of enhanced individuals.

Although these new superhumans are trained for combat they refuse their orders to support American military operations in the 1960s and instead join the counter-cultural movement, becoming hippy icons.

Zenith himself, the only third generation enhanced human, is largely indifferent to both preceding generations of enhanced people and is mainly interested in using his powers to achieve stardom as a 1980s popstar.

Given that circumstances change and that the full range of outcomes or uses of a technology can be very hard to predict, it does not seem sufficient to simply focus on separating out ‘good’ or ’bad’ applications.

Instead, some alternative approaches to steering enhancement technologies in socially desirable ways will be considered in part 2.

Civil War written by Mark Millar with art by Steve McNiven
Rogue Trooper: The War Machine written by Dave Gibbons with art by Will Simpson
Zenith written by Grant Morrison with art by Steve Yeowell

The concept of technological scripts is taken from Madeleine Akrich ‘The De-Scription of Technical Objects’ in W.E. Bijker & J. Law (1992) - Shaping Technology/Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change, MIT Press.

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