All I Want For Christmas Is A Bionic Lung
December 30, 2011 § 3 Comments
You know those colds that just don’t go away? Oh, you don’t? Because I do.
I’m going to write a retrospective on Sunday because despite my urgings that this isn’t a private blog about the most important person in the world, it sometimes is. Before that, however, I want to write on something that I’ve been meaning to write about for awhile. I caution that it’s a long one, but I hope it’s interesting. It’s a topic that fascinates me to no end.
That topic is Transhumanism.
For those unable or unwilling to slog through the article, I’ll give you my definition of the movement. This is a personal definition and isn’t formed from serious academic study, but for the sake of argument it’ll be the only one I use.
Transhumanism: the application of technology for the purposes of improving the lived experiences of humans.
This definition avoids using the rather nebulous term “human condition“. This isn’t to say that I don’t use and appreciate the idea of the human condition, but only that I want to keep this definition as broad as possible. In fact, I quite like the idea that there is this shared “condition” that all humans have, much like a shared dream (not delusion) that encompasses everything from how we view the outside world to how we think and feel, a condition that words don’t quite describe.
In any case, transhumanism. I believe we could describe it as the idea that says “technology can make things better”. It’s a belief in the unlimited power of the human brain and psyche, as well as confidence in science and technology, that looks forward to a time when science and technology can eliminate the “problems” inherent to humankind. Implicit to these definitions of “problems” are quite reasonable things like hunger and sickness, but the most ambitious can see the potential destruction of that old foe, death.
This idea terrifies me.
Which, as someone who has been technologically modified from the age of 9, is a ridiculous thing. I wear glasses, and I assure you that if I had not had recourse to them, I would never have made it as far as I have. Further, without the wondrous advances in medicine, agriculture, and electronics, not to mention, hell, things like clothes and tools if we want to stretch the definition of technology, none of what I do would be possible. I would not be who I am without technology.
But don’t you put that stuff inside me. That seems to be the point at which I recoil. Technology is great, but changing what makes me human is not. I view most pieces of technology as tools, which I think is a significant definition. Tools require a user to operate and are external to the user. True, there is a significant psychological association of the user with the tool (for example, soldiers trained in a bayonet were reluctant to use it and one of the theories is that they viewed it as an extension of themselves and, quite reasonably, didn’t want to stick themselves in other people. For more, see On Killing by Lt. Col. Grossman, a flawed, but interesting read), but in the end, and most importantly, a tool can be put down.
There is the ability to psychically and physically dissociate oneself from the tool used and thus maintain a distance from technology and the self (even if it is, in the end, a self-imposed distance). For example, I can take off my glasses if I so wish. I would suffer immensely as I’m as blind as a three-day old polar bear without them, but they aren’t an integral part of me. There is me, John, and then there are my glasses.
The singularity will, in a nutshell, create superintelligence. This basic concept posits that technological intelligence will increase at a greater rate than human intelligence, and further, will create a recursive spike where it just improves upon itself more and more.
Essentially, biological humans will be left behind, woefully unable to keep up, much less compete.
That is not what terrifies me, because despite the claims of many people, I doubt I’ll live to see a human consciousness implanted into a machine. Nor would I even begin to understand what a human consciousness is, nor how I would reduce it to electrical signals. Perhaps it can be done, but in terms of this essay, I certainly don’t know. I am also unafraid of A.I. for reasons that just seem right in my gut.
What terrifies me is that I have seen proponents of transhumanism celebrate it as either necessary or obvious. “We must improve ourselves with technology or else we will not prosper as we could“, or “why wouldn’t you want to have a laser grafted into your arm?”
I hesitate, and I am troubled by technology.
This is not to say that I do not love and need technology to improve. Aside from the obvious benefits to increased technology, humans have always taken external artifacts and technology and applied them internally in order to define themselves. The obvious example is the King. He wears a crown, an external symbol of his position, but one that is intimately wrapped up in the King as Person. The King does not need the crown to be King, but only the King may wear the crown. If someone else were to wear it, it would not make them King, because the Kingship is wrapped up in a certain person. The symbol, though powerful, is not transferable to others, and yet, is indispensable in defining the King as King. There is an uneasy dissonance between the King and the Crown as two separate, yet intimately linked, elements of identity.
They are also shown with the rod, a symbol of their temporal authority. This symbol is more interesting, I think, than the crown, because it can be given away or borne by others. The Field Marshal’s baton is also a symbol of their power, but it is a physical object that gives him power over others, not only as symbol, but as a stick he can beat you with. It is purely external, and less intimate than the crown. However, it’s arguably far more powerful. Many people throughout history used the baton to get themselves the crown.
No-one’s born with a beating stick (hee hee hee) or crown, and so the symbols of power are dependent on external technology, and yet the King is not able to be extracted from the technology he bears. Much like me and my glasses, he can put them down, but they are essential aspects of who he is. They are not necessary to his survival or his continued identity as self, but he needs them in order to be King. I don’t need my glasses to be alive, but if I want to do something (like stay alive), I need them to function. Well, for the sake of argument I do. Just replace “glasses” with “pacemaker”, and you understand.
This is the sticky situation I find myself in: I do not define myself according to the technology I use (for example: I am not an Apple fanboy. Suck it, powerbook!), however, technology is an incredibly important part of my life and, lest I deceive myself, as least part of my identity as a person and an individual.
So the, why does transhumanism rub me the wrong way? Because it does. The idea that we, as a society and culture, would start to replace our organic bits, the pieces of us, with metal and plastic seems horribly wrong. Unless it’s a fake hip, then I totally get it. Or a prosthesis, or a pacemaker. See the problem? I’ve got this weird reluctance to embrace it to the point of fear, and that fear always revolves around changing the brain.
Why is the brain this impossible frontier for me? Is that simply the line that must not be crossed. Is the brain, and the technological improvement thereof, simply the next apple in the garden that we’re not supposed to touch? Is the body only the carrier of the human, but the brain is what makes us…us?
Tubes aside, we need to think about how much we want to change ourselves with technology. There are things, failings of the human body and human mind, that we could stand to change. I would not hesitate to remove world hunger or destroy cancer. I would not, however, remove the human ability to feel hunger. I wouldn’t give everyone implants that made them happy all the time. Nor, most importantly, would I remove death.
Humans, as Russian history has taught us, are built to suffer. I wonder how we would function if that ability was removed? What would we become if we all became Superman? To paraphrase Lex Luthor’s divine question, if we suddenly found that we could, “Why don’t we put the whole world into a computer?”
And why, if it would involve the elimination of so much suffering and pain, would I not want to? Is it human dignity and freedom? I hope not, because there’s precious little dignity or freedom in the children’s cancer ward.
I obviously don’t know the answer to that, nor does anyone else, but there is a current of thought that I disagree with strongly, and one that I see in many supporters of transhumanism. There is this idea that humanity, with all its weaknesses and problems and the whole essential aspects of humanity, are problems that need to be solved.
What would we be if there was no sickness, if there was no pain, if there was no regret? I can only speak from experience, but pain has been an incredibly important part of my life. I have made horrible, horrible mistakes that have hurt me and others immensely, but mistakes that have taught me more than success ever did.
But, in the interest of fairness, fuck cancer. If technology could eliminate that, why not?
In the end, I am still uncertain about what role technology should play in humanity’s future. I know it will play an increasingly larger one, and to deny that is stupid and blind. But I think it’s worth questioning how much it should change who and what we are.
I’m an imperfect doofus who’s made a great many mistakes in his life. But those mistakes are my king’s crown, no matter how twisted and jagged they might be. They can’t be removed, and they are an integral part of my self and my identity. Hell, they’re a part of the walking, talking, thinking, changing story that is my life. If I was offered a technology that would let me avoid making those same mistakes, would I take it, especially if it meant less pain for me? If it meant I would be a better person for not spreading that pain around?
Would you take the apple?
Therein man, Placed in a Paradise, by our exile, Made happy: Him by fraud I have seduced From his Creator; and, the more to increase Your wonder, with an apple; he, thereat Offended, worth your laughter, hath given up Both his beloved Man, and all his world, To Sin and Death a prey, and so to us, Without our hazard, labor, or alarm; To range in, and to dwell, and over man To rule, as over all he should have ruled. Paradise Lost, Book X, Lines 483-493.