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The future has never looked older

Tyler Coburn

Ergonomic Futures

Published: 31.12.2017


However convincingly space agencies justify the enormous budgets, there’s one gratuitous expense: training astronauts for free fall. Simply pay a visit to fraternity row, where potential spacemen routinely defy the laws of gravity.

Zero-G is the post-planetary equivalent of a keg stand. Astronauts don’t hang upside-down, but the effect is much the same: the body’s fluids congregate in the chest and head, puffing faces and pressurizing skulls. Balance soon goes out of whack; G-force makes the adrenaline flow. Continual swelling of the optic nerve causes some to become…farsighted!

For spacemen of the sixties, the poison of choice wasn’t alcohol, but drugs. In the early years of the decade, NASA commissioned two researchers to design a human best adapted to space—who lived in “space qua natura.” Their model being, astoundingly, could breath without lungs and space walk without suits.

To describe this new human, the researchers invented the term “cyborg.”

Essential to their vision were exogenous devices: fuel cells that replaced the lungs, intravenous feeding tubes, pressure pumps injecting pharmacological cocktails to keep radiation and high blood pressure at bay. When functioning effectively, this cybernetic system would be so integrated into the user as to operate “unconsciously.”

When the system didn’t function effectively, the human element was presumed to be the problem. Spacemen deprived of sensory and motor variation, for example, have been known to experience “psychotic-like states.” In such instances, the researchers advised that drug infusions be triggered remotely from earth or by a fellow crew member.

In other instances, a human could exhibit maladaptive behavior. The exogenous devices and subcutaneous tubes might be misperceived as threatening and controlling, not ingenious and benign. The pharmacological pumps, despite their avowed function, appear as “palliation” for the depressions of the cyborg complex—the anxieties of being haplessly invaded by the future.

For these (and most other) scenarios, drugs were the prescribed solution.

The first cyborg was thus a human freed from biological limitations, yet bound by imperfect devices and doped to ease the pain of those imperfections. In the decades since, genetic engineering has been learning to fix such problems on the assembly line. Speaking at a 2014 symposium, George Church—the man who gives the field an avuncular face—identified gene variants pertinent to survival in extra-terrestrial environments: LPR5 G171V for extra-strong bones, MSTN for lean muscles, GHR for lowered cancer risk, and so on. Future generations won’t suffer come-downs or crushing...

Nothing under the sun, no matter how unbelievable or fantastic, is immune to the pressures of evolution. Take science-fiction. The Force, the mind meld—the entire field of psionics, for that matter—have the look of yellowing comic books, the taste of stale popcorn. They would have gone the way of the dodo, if not for the magic of capital. Hollywood has proved to be more powerful than natural selection, building menageries in the form of franchises, gilding cages for endangered ideas. The future has never been better preserved; the future has never looked older.

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Tyler Coburn

is an artist and writer based in New York. Coburn’s writing has appeared in frieze, e‑flux journal, Mousse and Rhizome, among others. His performances, sound works and installations have been presented at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; South London Gallery; Kunstverein Munich; LAXART, Los Angeles, among others.

Other texts by Tyler Coburn for DIAPHANES