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Futurist Friday: Superhuman

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

As you may have guessed from Wednesday’s wordless post, I’m glued to the Paralympics this week. Today I’m encouraging you to watch this trailer for the 2016 Paralympic games titled “We’re the Superhumans.”

After you’ve had your mind blown by the abilities of these athletes (and dancers, and musicians), spend a bit of time thinking about the convoluted and increasingly problematic criteria we use to determine who is eligible to compete in which games (Olympic or Paralympic) and in which gender category. Consider the following:

Double amputee Oscar Pistorius had to petition the IOC to be allowed to compete against able-bodied runners–he was initially banned from the 2008 games due to concerns that his specially designed carbon fiber running blades gave him an unfair advantage. He was, eventually, allowed to compete. However, full-body swimsuits have been banned from competition, even though everyone (theoretically) could adopt this wearable technology.

A large number of male Olympians carry a variant of the EPOR gene that results in the production of additional red blood cells–which confers a tremendous advantage in speed or power sports. Competitors are banned from inducing the same effect through the use of hormones or hormone-promoting drugs.


Female athletes with naturally high levels of testosterone are banned from competing, or required to undergo chemical or surgical intervention to bring the amount of this hormone in their blood below a level considered “normal.” (See this long and excellent article from The New York Times on the history of humiliating treatment of “intersex” athletes.)

I recently listened to episode 226 of the podcast 99% Invisible exploring how Belgian astronomer/mathematician Adolphe Quetelet first applied the concept of “average” to people in the early 19th century. This innovation shaped the standardization of military clothing and equipment (and, in turn, of civilian fashion sizing). One eventual ripple effect: the deaths of a large number of pilots in WWII, when it became evident that designing sensitive, high performance equipment for a fictional “average” airman meant it didn’t work well for anyone.

Rapid developments in gene therapy, gene editing, prosthetics and neural implants will expand the range of human variation even further, making “average” even less meaningful as a benchmark for design–whether of spaces, equipment or regulations. 

Average is often conflated with normal, making anyone sufficiently far from the mathematical center “abnormal” and relegating them to the statues of “other.”

Your Futurist Friday assignment: over the next few days, look at the world with fresh eyes. What concepts of “normal” or “average” shape the physical spaces, the written or unwritten rules of behavior of your environment? When do these principles of design result in places and policies that don’t work for you, members of your family, or people you know. How would the world be different if they were designed around the full range of human ability and identity?  And with that in mind, is there anything you would change in your home, your neighborhood, your museum right now, to make it work for people who don’t inhabit the vanishingly small mathematical point that is “average?”

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