Technology and the mutable body

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Yesterday, the Globe and Mail reported that California doctor Gregg Horner is awaiting approval for a procedure he developed that changes the colour of patients’ irises, transforming brown eyes into blue (view the article here). The procedure involves using a laser to remove the pigment from the top layer of the iris so that the colour eventually fades to blue. There’s no indication in the article that the procedure can be implemented in the reverse direction, to make blue eyes brown, nor does the writer suggest that different shades of blue can be achieved.

The editorial piece points out the obvious social issues associated with procedures like this one that allow individuals to transform their bodies in order to meet an ideal standard of beauty. For one, the desire for blue eyes is connected to a specifically Aryan ideal of beauty, one that the author suggests “[we went] far enough with” in the twentieth century — a mentality that, by now, should be replaced by an acceptance of diversity. Further, the rarity of blue eyes, resulting from the trait’s recessive nature in the human genome, presumably makes this characteristic highly desirable. Of course, the culturally constructed nature of beauty ideals (as well as the changing nature of cultural myth and metaphor — i.e. the eyes as windows to the soul) means that, with a higher presence of blue eyes (perhaps due, eventually, to procedures like this one), the preoccupation with eye colour will pass, or shift to a preoccupation with something equally less consequential.

The argument that a single technology or medical procedure, or series of them, can drastically change human ideals and behaviour is certainly debatable. The Globe and Mail writer is outwardly critical of bodily augmentations that seek to “make everyone fit the same beauty mold.” This is certainly a valid concern, but at the same time, it simplifies the issue and verges on technological determinism. It also makes me wonder what other lines of inquiry we can pursue.

I keep coming back to these questions: does having the tools to alter one’s body result in more of an obsession with personal physical appearance or achieving an ideal of beauty, or will the obsession exist and thrive regardless of our capacity to carry out procedures such as an eye colour change? Does technology like this procedure make something like physical appearance — over which we presently have little real control — into a more democratic state of affairs? Or does it instead perpetuate hegemonic notions of normalcy and perfection?

The financial barrier is, of course, also a factor in the proliferation of a technology, and the social influence of such a procedure is limited by this fact. It would seem that the development of a cosmetic surgery like this one is aimed, ostensibly, at profiting from the vain and shallow concerns of a privileged minority, rather than seeking to correct a socially debilitating or life-altering condition. At the same time, is there not something important to be said for the value of developing various ways by which individuals can alter their bodies? If we have the technology to construct ourselves in the ways we desire to exist, is it socially detrimental to develop procedures that achieve these possibilities? (The transhumanists would say NO! See: http://humanityplus.org/.)

What do you think? It’s a big question. Does technology fundamentally change the social structure, cultural ideals, etc. of human communities, or does it simply emerge from a set of already existing impulses, power relations, and collective imaginings that would continue to exist regardless of whether tools were developed to support or contradict them?