Our most transcendent expectations for technology along with our most common objections and dystopian fears have for centuries been fuelled by the imaginations and visions of writers, film-makers, musicians and artists working in popular cultural idioms. In this lesson, we will explore the evolution of technology and humanity through the lens of philosophy and popular culture. Basically, were going to ponder such questions as ‘what does it mean to be human’ and ‘what does the future look like?’ But don’t panic, you’ve most likely watched or played through a probable answer to these questions dozens of times.
The title of this lecture – more human than human – is taken from the neo-noir dystopian science fiction film Blade Runner, where it was the slogan of the Tyrell Corporation who were the manufacturers of genetically engineered replicants in the film. Some of you may also know “More Human Than Human” as a song by industrial metal band White Zombie (1995). Yet, even if you are unfamiliar with this phrase, you’re probably at least a little familiar with the characters featured on the cover image to this lesson. They are X-men — a fictional team of superhero mutants created by Marvel Comics. With the range of abilities that come from the mutations in their DNA, the X-Men are basically modern day Greek gods, and a good starting point for understanding transhumanism.
In this lesson, we will explore the evolution of technology and humanity’s dependence upon it through the lens of philosophy and popular culture. Basically, were going to try and answer the questions ‘what does it mean to be human’ and ‘what does the future look like?’ But don’t panic, you’ve most likely watched or played through a probable answer to these questions dozens of times.
So let’s begin with a few reflection questions and a quick quiz before we get into the heavy stuff.
● If you were deaf, would you have a cochlear implant to enable you to hear again?
● Have you ever wished you could upload your consciousness to the web?
● Would you take a drug that promised to radically increase your intelligence?
● If you could extend your life by a few hundred years, would you?
● Would you modify you physical body either for aesthetic reasons or to enhance your physical capabilities?
If you answered, yes to any of these questions then you are definitely sympathetic to the ideas of transhumanism. But don’t take it from me. Take this short online quiz to get a clearer understanding of how your morals align with the values of transhumanism. Don’t forget to tweet your results @CIU_SAE.
Humanism, Transhumanism & Posthumanism
The potentialities and the perfection of humankind is a theme that has fascinated and inspired the imaginations of artists, scientists, theologians and philosophers for millennia. In the Ancient Greek world, the nature of ‘Man’ was of great interest, and as Protagoras (490—420 BC) claimed, “Man is the measure of all things.” While this humanist ideal fell out of fashion around the fall of the Roman Empire and throughout the middle ages to come — when intellectuals preoccupied themselves with making sense of our perceived dependence on God — it would return with the Renaissance and the birth of philosophical humanism which understands ‘man’ as a secular individual agentic subject. This ideal of human perfection was to be embodied in a rationalist figure of white masculinity. The most famous of these is perhaps ‘Homo Universalis’ or ‘Vitruvian Man’ designed by Leonardo da Vinci (1452—1519).
Humanism then, can be understood as a philosophical and ethical stance that emphasises the value and agency of human beings, individually and collectively, and generally prefers critical thinking and evidence (rationalism, empiricism) over established doctrine or faith. Human nature is understood as a universal state from which the human being emerges; human nature is autonomous, rational, capable of free will, and unified in itself as the apex of existence.
By contrast, posthumanism is a critique of humanism, emphasizing a change in our understanding of the self and its relations to the natural world, society, and human artifacts: an idea that seeks to fundamentally re-conceive our understanding of the human. Key to this is the ability to fluidly change perspectives and manifest oneself through different identities. The posthuman has an emergent ontology rather than a stable one; in other words, the posthuman is not an individual, but rather one who can “become” or embody different identities and understand the world from multiple, heterogeneous perspectives. As cultural theorists, the cyborg being of the future is akin to what was described in A Cyborg Manifesto (1983) by Donna Haraway. Haraway’s conception of the cyborg subverts the traditional sci-fi trope of the cyborg whose presence questions the human/robot distinction. Instead, she hypothesises that the cyborg living in a future technologically advanced cyberculture, fundamentally challenging the binary dualisms that structure power relations between self/other, culture/nature, male/female, civilized/primitive, right/wrong, truth/illusion, total/partial, God/man etc. The cyborg is a symbol of critical posthumanism where we fundamentally reimagine or dissolve such notions as self, essence, consciousness, intelligence, reason, agency, intimacy, life, embodiment, identity and the body.
Transhumanism — as defined by Max More and the co-founders of the World Transhumanist Association — is “an intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally improving the human condition through applied reason, especially by developing and making widely available technologies to eliminate aging and to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities.” They also stipulate that this incorporates “the study of the ramifications, promises, and potential dangers of technologies that will enable us to overcome fundamental human limitations, and the related study of the ethical matters involved in developing and using such technologies.” [See More’s chapter on “The philosophy of transhumanism” published in The Transhumanist Reader (2013) available online].
Ultimately, transhumanism hypothesises that with the aid of nanobiotechnological enhancements, humans may eventually be able to transform themselves into beings with such greatly expanded capacities and abilities as to merit the label posthuman.
CRITICAL VIEWING TASK
Watch the video below which gives you a brief but excellent summary of the three key goals of transhumanism: Super Longevity, Super Intelligence and Super Wellbeing. While you’re watching this video, make sure you take notes as you will need to draw on and apply your understanding of these ‘3 supers’ to a media analysis tasks later in this lesson.
As we saw in the video, the theoretical reach of transhumanism incorporates posthuman ideas such as immortality, artificial intelligence, singularity and genetic engineering. Below I have assembled a collage or bodies and technologies for popular culture that fall into the category of human, transhuman and posthuman to help you visualise the distinctions.
In case you’re a bit confused…
It should be noted that while transhumanism and posthumanism are often used interchangeably, there is a difference between transhumanist and posthumanist ideologies.
Transhumanism seeks to build on our current understanding of human and thus works with humanism. While posthumanism seeks to reconceive of the human altogether and thus works against humanism, ultimately seeking to dismantle our current understanding of humanity.
Of course, the two share strong ties and there is a signification body of work that seeks to find a middle ground between these ideologies. The article below provides a deeper look into the critical theory and ideological distinctions. This is not compulsory reading so if philosophy is not your thing feel free to skip it. However, for those who do choose to read it, you will notice that there is a lot of reference to previous theories we’ve covered in CIU 211 such as postmodernism, poststructuralism, feminism, colonialism etc.
Trans[⁺]uman Enhancement Technologies
⁺ (an abbreviation of humanity+ and a short-hand reference to transhumanism) is a leading international organisation dedicated to transhumanist pursuits. If you want to know more about the philosophy of transhumanism and current technological applications see the humanity+ website. As they outline on their website, transhumanism is already here. Humans regularly undergo therapeutic and selective enhancement to ‘improve’ their physical appearance, cognitive functions and physical capabilities. “External devices such as smartphones, smart watches, wearable bio monitors, Google glasses, etc. are all expanding human capabilities In the field of medical technology, the cochlear implant and bionic eyes have broken through the glass ceiling on biological determinism. Regenerative medicine, stem cell therapies, smart prosthetics, genetic engineering, nanomedicine, cryonics, nootropics, neuropharmacology” all indicate that the future of humanity as theorised by transhumanists is highly probable.
Currently, these technologies are primarily used for therapeutic enhancements, however, they have the potential to transform us beyond what humans are ‘naturally’ capable of. In a world where a (dis)ability can be reimagined through bionics as a superhuman advantage the future is starting to look more like fantasy than fact.
Watch the video below and see how transhuman mods featured in the video game Deus Ex are now an embodied reality.
Professor Nick Bostrom is a philosopher from Oxford University who specialises in transhumanism and ethics. As he points out one common tactic in the pro-enhancement argument is to highlight the continuities between new controversial enhancement methods and old accepted ways of enhancing human capacities. “Are not shoes a kind of foot enhancement, clothes an enhancement of our skin? A notepad, similarly, can be viewed as a memory enhancement—it being far from obvious how the fact that a phone number is stored in our pocket instead of our brain is supposed to matter once we abstract from contingent factor such as cost and convenience. In one sense, all technology can be viewed as an enhancement of our native human capacities, enabling us to achieve certain effects that would otherwise require more effort or be altogether beyond our power.” (Bostrom and Savulescu, 2008)
Are you becoming a cyborg?
Before we move onto part two of the lesson, here are a few questions to get you thinking about your own dependence on technology. Can you imagine life without your smartphone? What about life without the internet? I know some of us may remember this, but do you think you could go back or would it feel like you were missing some fundamental part of your capacity? In the virtual world, modification of the individual has been at the core of the gaming experience since the inception of the role-playing genre. If you could modify your physical self to enhance your gameplay, would you? As technology starts to become more like Self than Other, maybe you are more cyborg than you think.
The Future According to Science Fiction
Have you ever wished you could ride a hoverboard? Well now you can.
Our most transcendent expectations for technology along with our most common objections and dystopian fears have for centuries been fuelled by the imaginations and visions of writers, film-makers, musicians and artists working in popular cultural idioms. Most commonly, science fiction.
Jules Verne, one of the most prolific and inventive sci-fi writers of the 1800s, predicted many aspects of the 1969 manned lunar landing of Apollo 11 in his book From the Earth To The Moon (1865) with remarkable accuracy. And in Twenty-thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870) he imagined an electric powered vessel resembling the modern submarine.
When George Orwell wrote 1984 in 1949, the concept of a dystopian state monitored by an interconnected web of security cameras seemed absurd. Fast forward to the 21st century, add video surveillance, GPS tracking and the NSA (i.e. Big Brother) and the world imagined by Orwell suddenly seems real.
In fact, an array of currently available technologies including bionic limbs, the internet, motion controllers, artificial insemination and artificial intelligence among many others, began as science-fiction.
Watch this video and check out this awesome infographic for more sci-fi predictions.
What will it mean to be human in the future?
The question of what makes us human is not a new one, and for any fan of the sci-fi genre, you’ve likely seen a battle between human and AI or the forbidden love between human and cyborg play out on your screen numerous times.
As transhuman and posthuman technologies have the potential to change life as we currently know and experience it, it’s no wonder that they make for such interesting sci-fi plots. In a future where we might have robotic house-keepers, AI co-workers or human clones, what will distinguish us from them? Will they be entitled to ‘human’ rights? Is it ethical to keep cyborgs as slaves? What happens if we fall in love with the wrong species? Would you harvest a clone to save your own life? Would you discriminate someone on the basis of genetics?
An important function of science fiction is that it gives humanity a vision of the future and how we might live in it. Straddling the discipline of art and science is the field of study known as futurology. The job of a futurologist is to postulate possible, probable, and preferable futures, social structure, world-views and conditions of living and they take both science fiction and science fact into account when doing this.
CRITICAL VIEWING & RESPONSE TASK
Synthesising what you have just learned about transhumanism and your familiarity with futuristic sci-fi narratives, in the last part of this lesson we are all going to be futurologists for a moment as we develop our own vision of the future.
Step 1 : Watch the filmic trailers provided below and pick a film based on the technology that most interests you. For example, artificial intelligence, human enhancement technologies, genetic engineering etc.
Step 2: Once you’ve chosen a film, click on the hyperlink below it and you will find a synopsis and a range of discussion questions.
Step 3 : Read the information provided at the link and formulate a thoughtful response to at least two of the discussion questions prior to your tutorial.
You may also draw on other pop cultural artifacts in your rationale but be sure to take note of the additional examples you cite so you can share them in class. It is important that you begin this task prior to your tutorial as we will use your scenarios as the basis of a tutorial exercise.
Blade Runner (1982)
Total Recall (2012)
Minority Report (2002)
If you’re giving your classroom dialogue on this topic, check out the resources on the SAE Media and Cultural Studies Pinterest board. Here you will find links to texts, images, audio, video and other media that help you make more sense of the subject.
READING TASK (OPTIONAL)
Bell, D. (2006). Why cyberculture? In Cyberculture Theorists (pp. 1-14). Routledge.