Bored of humans? Maybe it's time for an upgrade.
Steve Fuller is a sociology professor who’s interested in how technological enhancements can improve the human body and mind. This could lead to a world full of superhumans, like Robocop but without the desire to brutalise criminals. There’s a whole movement that thinks this way and it’s called transhumanism. The idea is that technology can help us live longer, be stronger and faster and more intelligent, and generally make us better human beings than the pathetic mortals we are now.
So, maybe in a near future, race and wealth divides will be replaced by those who have technological enhancements and those who are just boring old flesh and blood. Maybe we’ll go to the doctors for updates similar to those for computer software, or there’ll be plastic surgery for the brain. Maybe you didn’t get that job because a cyborg had a better CV than you. Sounds like sci-fi, but it could be reality if the transhumanists are right. Let’s just hope we don’t end up looking like rejects from the Black Eyed Peas.
VICE: Your new book’s called Humanity 2.0. Do you think, as a species, we need upgrading?
Let’s put it this way: Humans are distinguished from other creatures by our seemingly endless need for collective upgrading. In many cases, we didn’t ‘need’ these enhancements to survive as a species. For example, without mass vaccines, Homo sapiens would still be around, though there would probably be fewer of us and we’d live shorter lives. However, we have ‘needed’ these upgrades to define ourselves as a species – to create some distance between ourselves and the other animals: namely, we are the animal that tries to comprehend and control not just the immediate physical environment, but everything. Humans have been acting on this idea – or fantasy – for at least the last four of five hundred years.
Really? Most people assume transhumanism began with the birth of sci-fi.
The people who originally launched the idea included Galileo and Newton. They thought of themselves as using science and technology to make good on the biblical notion that we are created in ‘the image and likeness of God’, and hence godlike in our powers. And, despite living in secular times, we still entertain such exalted thoughts about ourselves: Just think of the amount of medical research dedicated to extending ‘productive human life’ indefinitely, regardless of its consequences for other species (e.g. animal experiments) or the environment.
What sort of upgrades were you thinking of? Eyes that shoot laser beams?
By ‘upgrade’ I mean not just the latest high-tech gadget or brain-boosting drug, but ‘enhancements’ in the broadest sense – including things that smarten our bodies and our environments that we routinely take for granted, such as eyeglasses, books, vitamins, etc. For example; when Gutenberg mechanised book production in the 15th century, people were immediately struck by its brain-boosting potential as a memory offload device.
By the 18th century, the Enlightenment philosophers were hailing Gutenberg. In the interim, newspapers became the social media offshoot of the Gutenberg revolution, and lead to the American and French Revolutions. Fast forward to our own time, and replace Gutenberg with, say, Steve Jobs, and think about how today’s social media is smartening up the political landscape. Generally speaking, our ability to smarten our bodies has only recently begun to catch up with our ability to smarten our environments.
A transhumanist babe
I read somewhere you mentioned “cosmetic neurology". Does this mean we’ll be able to learn kung-fu via memory implants?
No, it’s subtler, and more like plastic surgery in character. The idea is to enable more dopamine to flow through our nerves to make us sharper – say, in the context of performing in some focused task or a job interview. The effect would eventually wear off, and you’d have to return for another chemical tune-up. The expectation is that, once cosmetic neurology is generally available, people whose jobs depend on quick wits may periodically undergo it as a kind of intellectual facelift, increasingly as one gets older.
What current technological developments are pointing the way to our transhuman future?
For the past decade, national science policy agencies on both sides of the Atlantic have been pursuing this goal under the rubric of the ‘converging technologies’ agenda. For example, ‘nano-bots’ may be released into the bloodstream to unclog the fatty deposits in our arteries and then dissolve once the job is done. This would cut down incidence of heart disease, thereby enabling us to work and play harder and longer. This could both boost productivity and save on pension payouts.
So what do you think the humans of tomorrow will look like, let’s say in a hundred years time?
Aside from the greater blurring of whatever racial divisions remain in Homo sapiens, there will also be boundary issues distinguishing humans from, on the one hand, other animals and, on the other, androids. In the former case, we might have to contend with animals – possibly pets – that have been chemically or genetically enhanced to adopt more human-friendly traits. In the latter, we have the prospect of people who will be re-fitted to such an extent that, aside from the brain, little of their original biological body may remain – all having been replaced by more durable organs and limbs.
If humans start using technology to enhance their bodies and minds, how long before this it becomes available on the NHS?
Since much of this stuff is bound to be made commercially available once it passes a basic health and safety threshold, it will be important for the people in government to research who's likely to want it. The key thing to watch for is when norms of performance start to shift so that one is at a serious life disadvantage – which may include the obtaining and maintaining of certain jobs – without the enhancement in question. At that point, the enhancement should be made available on the NHS, very much in the spirit of eyeglasses and hearing aids.
What, for you, are the downsides of enhancing our bodies and minds with technology? Could it lead to a divided society, and open up a Pandora’s box of new prejudices between augmented and non-augmented humans?
Yes, definitely, it could lead to new class divisions, though not exactly along the same old industrial lines. This is why I said in response to the last question that the government now needs to be monitoring the social uptake of new enhancements and, when necessary, make them available to everyone to prevent class divisions from opening up. But in addition, there is the deep anxiety on the horizon associated with what the disability theorist and activist calls ‘able-ism’ – that is, we will all come to think of ourselves as ‘always already’ disabled, because we’ll be in fear of not having the latest enhancement in a world whose expectations for individual achievement are likely to increase over time.
What would you say to people who think that transhumanism is just a bunch of wishful sci-fi fantasies?
Just look at how much we’ve transformed ourselves and our environments over the last 400-500 years. Consider the long-term psychotropic effects of the introduction of caffeine and spirits as a regular part of the Western diet: It’s not by accident that the period in which this happened in full force is called ‘The Enlightenment’: The brain made a step-change in terms of its character and speed of its functioning, which in turn set a new default position for conducting a quality human life. Also, consider how the introduction of aspirin in the early 20th century altered our default threshold for pain, so that now even low-level suffering is considered unacceptable and requires treatment.
We keep being told about the “grey tsunami” that lies in wait, where the planet will be overloaded with old people. Won’t extending our lives with technology just intensify this problem, with an overpopulated planet full of pensioners who can access the internet through their eyeballs, while charging around on carbon fibre limbs?
It’s not obvious that everyone will want to live a long time, especially if it becomes socially acceptable for people to ‘live fast, die young’. We’re already seeing a steady neglect – perhaps even abandonment – of the biological human by those who spend most of their lives in front of a computer screen. Obesity and heart disease are back on the rise. And, of course, there is also the growing underground facility with experimental and illicit drugs associated with this group. While many have treated this development as a pathology, it may be simply an emergent effect of Humanity 2.0 – namely, a division of people into those who wish to continue living in perpetuity (the classic transhumanist agenda) and those who want to make their mark as soon and sharply as possible without any concern for longevity. The challenge will be to reap the most social benefit from those who wish to be shooting stars [the latter]. Since these people will be leaving tracks throughout cyberspace, we might think of them as becoming absorbed into virtual reality as they pass out of the carbon-based containers of their birth. Of course, I can’t guarantee that this will solve the world’s population problem – but you can be sure that the population problem will come to be seen just as much a matter of expediting death as inhibiting birth.
Pretty bleak. Do you think that attempts to control our own evolution by playing around with the human genome will turn a significant proportion of people into mutants?
No doubt, there will be some disasters along the way, some perhaps quite serious, wiping out many people, though hopefully not on the order of The Rise of Planet of the Apes! I believe this because, despite the best efforts of the gloomiest ecologists, we still tend only to look at the benefits column when evaluating science and technology. For example, we didn’t stop genetics research after the Nazi atrocities. Rather, we convinced ourselves that the Nazis were bad people, their science corrupt, and that we simply needed to take legal and political steps to ensure that something similar never happened again. A big part of the issue is that virtually everyone now is implicated in the future of science and technology. It is really in no one’s considered interest to arrest its development. If anything, people might be encouraged to forge tighter bonds with science and technology through a sort of ‘national service’, say, by participating in scientific experiments and lay-expert technology assessment panels.
If transhumanism succeeds, where will it end? What’s to stop humanity becoming just a ghost in the machine?
That might well happen. Here we should recall the deep roots of today’s transhumanism in the history of Western philosophy and theology. Our most distinctly human feature – call it ‘mind’, ‘reason’, ’consciousness’ or ‘soul’ – has always been portrayed as battling against the weaknessess of the biological body to reach its full potential. Dreams of abandoning the needs of the body to reach more spiritual ends yielded in the modern period to new dreams of greater productivity, which is to say, forever doing more with less. Friedrich Engels rightly saw the end of the 19th century, the dawn of our current obsession with efficient energy consumption, as materialism’s attempt to simulate spiritualism by defining pure energy as ‘de-materialised matter’. Doesn’t transhumanism simply put a human face on that dream?