The Paralympics should remind us that technology liberates human potential

OSCAR Pistorius’s comments after losing the final of the 200m were a reminder that the elite athletes competing in the Paralympics don’t just have keep themselves in peak physical condition, but also watch that their rivals don’t run away with any technological edge. It is the skill and speed of athletes like Pistorius, and now Alan Oliviera, that captivates the crowds, but it’s a thrill that rests too on ingenuity and excellence in engineering: the latest materials in the smartest combinations.

The power of technology to enable high performance in all walks of life can get forgotten. The blooming, buzzing confusion of a gadget-rich age makes it fashionable to complain instead about the overwhelming demands of new inventions. So it’s rewarding to recollect that the advance of the so-called bleeding edge of technology doesn’t just mark the accumulation of an ever-larger heap of meretricious toys. It is a steadily advancing liberation of human potential.

There could be no better symbol of what that means than the sight of Claire Lomas on her own two feet in Trafalgar Square, despite being paralysed from the chest down, using a ReWalk bionic suit to light the Paralympic flame. And technological advance brings new freedoms to all of us. Think of the role played in female empowerment, for those whose religious beliefs permit it, by a safe and effective contraceptive pill. Think of something as simple as how the invention of better, cheaper lighting and heating has transformed the ease of day to day life.

Such liberating technology is not inevitable. For countless generations, humans existed without such aids; too many still do. Like the achievements of athletes striving to outdo one another, these inventions, that set new standards for what is humanly possible, are born from creative competition, the dynamo of a capitalist system. The economist Joseph Schumpeter famously observed that the capitalist achievement “does not typically consist in providing more silk stockings for queens but in bringing them within the reach of factory girls in return for steadily decreasing amounts of effort”. But the real achievement is not so trivial as the democratisation of luxury. It is the ever-expanding opportunities we gain to explore the heights of our potential. Not just more affordable silk stockings, but carbon fibre running blades for amputees.

The Paralympic motto is spirit in motion, and it would be wrong, of course, to reduce this celebration of the human spirit to an inevitable byproduct of technological advance or economic freedom. There are plenty of Paralympic events, such as sitting volleyball, where technology is barely relevant. But it is also an event that shows us again and again how the Olympic motto of faster, higher, stronger can be a spur to human inventiveness, not just to human athleticism alone. And how, when the two work side by side, the potential for exceptional achievement expands ever wider.

First published: City A.M. 7/9/12

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Filed under Innovation, Olympics, Technology

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