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Design Fictions: Imagine If You Could Custom-Order New Skin [Video]

British artist Jenny Lee envisions a post-human future in which we slather our faces with virtual membranes in the name of fashion.

Scientists love to argue about the future of human evolution: Will we transform into a species of tall, gorgeous, richly endowed people — a sort of global Sweden? Or will we morph into freaks, owing to technology that causes harmful mutations to metastasize? Or maybe we’ll split off into two separate species, one beautiful, the other an army of trolls.

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Whatever the answer, British artist Jenny Lee believes technology can intervene (further) and help design “the perfect human.” So she turned to the ultimate vehicle of unattainable perfection, high fashion. Immateriality: The Future Human creates a hypothetical “digital couture service,” in which people alter their appearances by selecting from a clutch of “Digital Skins.” Upload the skin — whether a membrane of coral-like crystals, rose petals, or Paul Newman’s flawless kisser circa 1967 (okay that’s not really an option, but it should be) — to an online platform. Then when you come into contact with someone wearing augmented-reality bionic contact lenses (in the future, everyone wears bionic contact lenses), he or she will see the skin sprouting off your face. Android fashion accessory, check.

[Lee tapped the augmented-reality retailers Holtion to create a real-life mockup of Immateriality. Using face-tracking technology, users can redesign their own mugs.]

Lee developed a preliminary batch of creaturely skins “inspired by morphogenesis and mineral crystalisation processes,” which make us wonder if tomorrow’s “perfect human” is in fact the Loch Ness Monster. The point: “to engage the public to consider if we have the tools to-redesign ourselves, would we still look, feel and be human?”

It’s a rhetorical question. Fact is, we already have the tools to redesign ourselves. Thanks to in-vitro fertilization and genetic testing, we can custom-order our kids. Thanks to a higher standard of living and improved medical technology, we’re enjoying longer and healthier lives, even in the face of bum genetics. (At least one scientist thinks that’s a bad thing; the more we tamper with natural selection, the more mutations we carry and the worse our health is). Lee’s project is a provocation. It gives visceral form to the technology that’s shaping human evolution. It offers a preview of the species, post-human. And — see for yourself in the slideshow above — it ain’t too pretty.

[Images courtesy of Jenny Lee]

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About the author

Suzanne LaBarre is the editor of Co.Design. Previously, she was the online content director of Popular Science and has written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Newsday, I.D

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