There were black and white portraits hanging in the vestibule of the Human by Design conference. Within each baroque, gold leaf frame was a model sporting a futuristic, photoshopped prosthetic. They seemed well-suited to an event that was itself a sort of hybrid—part intellectual forum, part sales pitch. Courageous, CNN's "branded content" shop, had assembled the day of panels, guest speakers, and documentary-lite fare alongside Square Enix, to buoy promotion of the latter's upcoming game, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. Academics weighed the implications of transhumanism. Futurist artists sketched out the idea of "cyborg" as a self-identifier. Most strikingly, presenters showed off the bleeding-edge prosthetics and body modifications that enable them to grip, walk, see, and hear—in some cases even beyond normal human ranges.
For Deus Ex's speculative fiction, that's the jumping off point for a cyberpunk dystopia where the enhancements that "Augs" possess threaten the rest of the population. This is the fulcrum around which any conversation about human augmentation pivots: whether it will prove to be a great equalizer, or simply widen the existing gaps between us. For a game called "Mankind Divided," that answer is probably self-evident.
When pressed any further on those inherent politics, though, Square Enix and developer Eidos Montreal have repeatedly begged off. "We're not trying to be preachy here, just holding up the mirror" goes one typical-sounding official statement, provided to Polygon. The reticence of those responsible for the game that prompted the conference in the first place makes an effort like the Human by Design seem cynical, an intellectual patina to protect the game underneath it from criticism.
Human by Design sought to strike a more hopeful chord, even if it still acknowledged the possibility that augmentation might one day be a source of conflict. Asem Hasna, a Syrian one-time paramedic who became a prosthetics technician after losing his leg, enthused about the need to bring do-it-yourself, 3D-printed prosthetics technology to victims in conflict areas. "Augmentation can return dignity and purpose," he said.
Fashion plays an outsize role in that, as it turns out. Joel Gibbard of Open Bionics—which partnered with the Deus Ex team to model a prosthetic arm after one the game's protagonist uses—made the case for customization succinctly. Most contemporary prosthetics, he pointed out, "are trying to replicate the look of human limbs. People find them ugly, people find them creepy," adding, "The experience [people] want from prosthetics is something more like buying a pair of shoes. They want to be able to go to the shop, or even look online, get something that fits really nicely, is comfortable, but also really fashionable." Hence all the runway-ready models, with their brightly colored artificial arms and high-heeled, vacuum-formed legs. In an ironic twist, attempting to mimic the tones and contours of human flesh puts prosthetics firmly in the uncanny valley. It's only when they're allowed to be completely conspicuous that they begin to look, for lack of a better word, natural—by matching the rest of the body in its capacity for self-expression.
Any fashion, of course, also has the potential to stratify people—to divide. And even as the presenters of the Human by Design conference were evangelizing on the potentials of tech-utopianism, old divides were never far. It began in the first panel, "Is Augmentation a Human Right" when the futurist Natasha Vita-More, extemporaneously listing medical conditions, reached for the archaic epithet "Mongoloid." Asked, later in the panel, if transhumanism was an entitlement, Vita-More gave the following answer:
"I don't like 'entitlement,' because what it means [is] that because I'm a white woman that I don't get to go to college, whereas someone who is of a minority gets to go and that just happened to both my niece and my nephew who are in medical school—they didn't get scholarships because they were white, and you wonder: so is that an issue there? I think that when we start dividing like 'black lives matter' or 'blue lives matter' or 'white lives matter,' all lives matter and for each individual you are your own person."
In the audience, the sound of air being sucked through teeth briefly threatened to drown out the panel. Controversy has dogged Deus Ex since last summer, when it coined the phrase "mechanical apartheid" to describe its world where those with prosthetics are forcibly ghettoized. Even as the conference moved along, another battle was flaring up on Twitter, where one of the game's brand representatives was making a confused defense of its use of the phrase "Augs Lives Matter" in promotional material just the day prior. Speaking to Jonathan Jacques-Belletête, the game's executive artistic director, one gets the sense of a team genuinely aggrieved by the very idea that this all might rightly be interrogated for its shallow appropriation of the civil rights movement and Black Lives Matter.
As it happens, not two days before the Human by Design conference, a coalition of activists and organizers came together with a platform of demands under the Black Lives Matter name. Human by Design too, culminated in a manifesto of sorts, entitled "An Ethical Framework for Human Augmentation." It calls on those invested in the future of augmentation to "promote justice," and notes the moral imperative to ensure equitable access and protections for all peoples. But the last lines one might have encountered at the conference might have been the strangely confrontational ones on a sign exiting the theater: "The conversation is moving forward. Are you?" The question prompts another, equally rhetorical one: in the zeal for an augmented future, is there an eagerness now to leave inconvenient criticism, and inconvenient people, behind?
It won't do for the minds who make up the transhumanist scene's élite, or video game developers keen on sourcing their sci-fi conflicts from current affairs, to demur on this one. Reconciling the question would show them an underlying truth, which is that the best lessons of Human by Design are also the lessons of Black Lives Matter: our solutions just don't look right until we find contrast, and by first acknowledging disparity we can custom-build better ones. Specious apoliticism, on the other hand, and a laissez-faire trust that the benefits of technology will trickle down, seem a good way to a future like the one in Mankind Divided.
Editor's note: In the interest of full disclosure, Motherboard is currently airing a season of our transhumanism show Humans+ that is sponsored by Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. Square Enix was not involved in this story.