Enmeshed in technology

Anthropology and technology combine in a Sarah Bakewell piece about the most recent Channel swimmer, Karen Throsby: “Man is a work in progress, constantly adding technology”. Purists pooh-pooh anyone who swims the Channel in a wetsuit.

Throsby's contribution was to remind us that even something as elementally "human" as marathon swimming involves many artificial techniques: gaining weight, acclimatising to the cold, monitoring one's psychology, and developing new micro-senses an awareness of tiny differences in water temperature, a heightened kinetic sense of the body's balance and position, and so on. It means self-transformation, and is filled with "uncountable, mundane bodily technologies". Channel swimmers use rubber caps, sunblock, Vaseline to prevent chafing, sleek swimsuits and energy-boosting snacks. They are accompanied by boats with GPS.

I can’t believe there are Channel-swimming purists. I mean, if they brought back Annette Kellerman, they’d still find a woman in a full-body suit.

Annette Kellerman, from Wikimedia Commons

Annette Kellerman, from Wikimedia Commons

Of course the technology that accompanies the body is only one aspect of Channel swimming. The technology inside the head is even more essential; a product of training, pacing, knowledge about risks and methods, contingency plans and logistics. I often use Channel crossing swimmers as an example of human potential, an incredible achievement for a primate body made possible by a human brain.