What if Technology gave us direct access to information, directly through our bodies? What if the world of information sat there on our pupil, ready for us to access with the twitch of an eye or the swipe of our finger?
That’s the premise of new webseries H+, a story directed by the memorable X-Men (2000) director Brian Singer. The show starts off by introducing H+, a piece of tech that takes the recently developed concept of “Google Goggles” (glasses that access information while you walk) to its exaggerated outcome; a chip-like device that places the Google Goggle directly in the eye of the human.
What’s interesting about this webseries is that we are so close to its premise — that we could directly implement technological developments in the human body that would in fact have long-term consequences. While many see this technology as having negative consequences, there are quite a few thinkers who believe that this technology is just one step in the direction of human evolution; that technology is the medium that will allow humanity to transcend its current evolved state.
To most contemporary minds, this idea sounds like fiction, as though it’s a fun premise for science fiction, but certainly not something that could happen in real life. But with the many technological developments from the last five years, we’re coming closer and closer to the realization that we can actually do this.
This belief has come to be known as transhumanism. While it appears to be a minor philosophy — or unknown — among average people, we do find a rise in transhumanists in the communities of technologists, futurists and, of course, sci-fi authors. The implications on society could be staggering.
Origins of Transhumanism
The idea of physically surpassing humanity’s physical limits is not new. Transhumanist Nick Bostrom believes that transhumanism plays to certain feelings and emotions that all people naturally have, feelings that are expressed in cultural artifacts like the Epic of Gilgamesh, as well as historical searches for the Elixir of Life and immortality in general. However, over the years, quite a few writers began to encourage a new belief about the human future.
This belief is defined as “progressivism”, the belief that society must move towards a more Utopian society by way of reform and change. This idea is a Western perspective, with its origins found in the Christian belief in a “New Heaven and New Earth”. This belief permeated much of philosophy, and the basic premise of a happy ending would transition over. Most notably, both Enlightenment thinkers and philosophers of the 19th and 20th century emphasized this point, most notably philosophers such as Marx and Rousseau.
Rousseau, in particular, really illustrated and handled this idea in his essay on Education, titled “Emile” (1762). In it, Rousseau presented a new idea; that man is actually perfectible, and can reach a state of nature that is at the range of “human pedagogy”. The book was burned in public by his detractors. The philosophy, however, marched on.
This movement progressed forward for most of human history and has fueled the dozens of philosophical shifts in culture, from political progressivism to libertarianism and, even, communism — each attempting to attain a new version of human social perfection.
However, transhumanists see technology as the necessary tool for bringing about this perfection — at the individual and social levels. Authors like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells each had works touching on elements of transhumanist thought, from things like space exploration to the manipulation of animal/human life. The strongest sense of transhumanism from the 19th century existed Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). In this story, the protagonist attempts to overcome man’s plague of death through technological means — though his experiments have unintended, and deadly, consequences.
Most scholars believe that the movement of transhumanism was unofficially started in 1923 with J.B.S. Haldane’s essay “Prometheus: Science and the Future”. In this essay, Haldane introduced a notable idea; that current political and economic states made it likely that science will develop on its own. This would allow recent developments in biology to impact political choices. These scientific developments would include topics like Eugenics — something fraught with peril — and ectogenesis (the creation of life within an artificial environment). Haldane’s thoughts would pervade much of science for the next 100 years, creating a sense that mankind was in a perfect environment politically and economically to create the tools that would allow one to overcome their bodily weaknesses and become like Nietzsche’s Supermen.
The official founder of transhumanism — and the individual who coined the term — is considered to be biologist Julian Huxley, brother to famous author and activist Aldous Huxley. In a 1957 essay, Huxley presented a new idea:
“Up till now human life has generally been, as Hobbes described it, ‘nasty, brutish and short’; the great majority of human beings (if they have not already died young) have been afflicted with misery… we can justifiably hold the belief that these lands of possibility exist, and that the present limitations and miserable frustrations of our existence could be in large measure surmounted… The human species can, if it wishes, transcend itself —- not just sporadically, an individual here in one way, an individual there in another way, but in its entirety, as humanity.”
This belief that humanity has the potential to “transcend” its current state seemed revolutionary.
This idea of transcendence would pervade early science fiction as early as the ’50s and ’60s. The best example of this thought was Arthur C. Clarke’s book 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). In this novel, the hero finds a technological obelisk on an alien world that provided an opportunity to overcome physical barriers and become a being of pure energy, transcending human evolution. However, Clarke’s understanding of this cultural evolution is not the only one.
Another key idea is that artificial intelligence’s mental capabilities will eventually go through a “Singularity”, where the data capability exceeds that of a mortal man. This Singularity is a concept invented by computer scientist Vernor Vinge who predicted the sudden rise of transistors and intelligence in computer brains. From this, futurist Ray Kurzweil suggested that humanity would eventually mix its subconscious with an AI, becoming “one with the machine”. There are multiple variations on these stories, but all of them offer the same result, the ability to gain immortality through technology and overcome human suffering.
What are the basic tenets of a transhumanist? With all sorts of technology companies promoting transhumanism as a mindset, Kurzweil’s for instance, it’s impossible to find a really sufficient system of beliefs that all transhumanists believe in. There are some general themes, however. These include:
Physical limitations: The very premise of transhumanism presents the idea that what makes us human is not enough; that our lack of control over our circumstances weakens us.
Human enhancement: In order to get closer to controlling things we can use technologies and tools to equip and empower ourselves to become more effective and more in line with certain attributes, such as reason, humility, tolerance, and so forth. The Transhumanist Declaration from Humanity Plus states that one of their goals is to broaden human potential by overcoming aging, cognitive shortcomings, involuntary suffering, and our confinement to planet Earth. This is why devices like Micro-implants in the brain and cyborg replacements are considered to be helpful, by transhumanists, for they are devices, created by humans, which allow us to have control and remove all outside factors that might interfere with human limitation. They extend us beyond our problems and make us into more than we are, say transhumanists.
Posthuman development: This is the final goal of the transhumanist, to move outside of our non-controllable body to a virtual “place”. This body may be a mind transferred to a metallic and non-degradable form, or it could be a post-material form that allows the human body to be non-existent and energy-based, or some other form conceived by an inventor. Many extreme transhumanists seem to see themselves in the same way that Magneto (of X-Men fame) responded to the negative opinions of the public toward his fellow mutants; that they wouldn’t accept the next stage of their evolution. If technology is the method by which we would transcend our current stage of human development, this line of thought says, then they must be held back by certain ideologies and philosophies that hold them to their physical bodies. Max More came out in his essay “Towards a Futurist Philosophy” (1990, 1996) against religious beliefs in the process of transhumanist development. He stated that religion “acts as an entropic force, standing against our advancement into transhumanity and our future as posthumans.” While this isn’t the belief of all transhumanists, it appears as a consistent theme throughout most of their philosophical writings.
Public Perspective of Transhumanism
How has transhumanism been accepted by the larger audience? In general, there’s been a very strong critical response to the idea from many perspectives. Most critics say that the current practical means of transhumanist thoughts have been helpful, as they have fueled much technological progress. Devices like Nano-medicine and robotic limbs all feel as though they are fueled by transhumanistic ideals yet are practical and helpful. The problem that many have is with the worldview inherent with it. Political analyst Francis Fukuyama wrote a scathing editorial against the transhumanist movement in the September 2004 issue of Foreign Policy.
Fukuyama stated that:
“Although the rapid advances in biotechnology often leave us vaguely uncomfortable, the intellectual or moral threat they represent is not always easy to identify… If it were technologically possible, why wouldn’t we want to transcend our current species? The seeming reasonableness of the project, particularly when considered in small increments, is part of its danger. Society is unlikely to fall suddenly under the spell of the transhumanist worldview. But it is very possible that we will nibble at biotechnology’s tempting offerings without realizing that they come at a frightful moral cost.”
There is this sense of fearing the implications of such a movement. As certain technologies progress, certain questions also progress with them. For example, let’s say a man has a removed limb replaced with a cybernetic arm. By the logic of transhumanism, one needs to ask if the removal of the arm makes him less human, or if the adding of the cybernetic arm makes him “more human”?
It is these questions that create a natural fear of the implications of these technological developments. The people begin to feel as though transcending humanity may not be “natural”, even if this technological progress is the next step in human evolution. Transhumanists state that this should be an expected feeling that our familiarity with our current state makes us fight against our next form of evolution.”
Art and Transhumanistic Thought
Pop culture has used this conception of a “post-human condition” to fuel large portions of science fiction and fantasy. Series throughout the ’80s and ’90s used filming techniques to focus on this premise of becoming posthuman, including Star Trek and Stargate SG:1.
This coverage is often biased, showing technology as a necessity for human evolution. But there has been an even stronger cultural opinion against many of the ideas of transhumanism as well. Critics of transhumanism have appeared across the ideological spectrum, both on the Left and on the Right, as well as from atheistic and religious communities.
Comic series like Surrogates (2009) and two key villains from science fiction history (Star Trek’s Borg and Doctor Who’s Cybermen) all provide the examples of potential consequences of one’s choosing to focus on the cybernetic over the biological.
Most critics against the ideas do believe that transhumanism as a philosophy leads to ethical issues of what a human can choose to do to his or her body, where humanity’s identity comes from, whether humanity can play God, and whether it’s even possible to do so.
Then there are always the motifs where transhumanistic elements are there, not as a positive or negative connotation, but as a background element. For example, the game Deus Ex focuses on characters that are physically enhanced with mechanical attachments, which make combat and work easier, while technology also provides a new disease that is poised to destroy humanity. Many other artistic environments provide differing takes on transhumanistic storylines, from Gattaca (1997) to Prometheus (2012), to even, Blade Runner (1982).
But the presentation of transhumanism as a philosophy is consistent throughout pop culture. In fact, it is likely to be a more present philosophy in future years as we come closer and closer to the technological possibilities that people like More and Kurzweil could only imagine.
Now that this history and analysis has been presented, what’s the final verdict of transhumanistic thought? It certainly is an eccentric view of the world, where it downplays human form and overpowers technological innovation. There is no doubt about that. There have been many benefits of this cultural form throughout history, from the creation of great stories (like Gattaca and Blade Runner) to presenting the philosophical foundations for a lot of our tech. And the general premise as using technology to help humanity is acceptable to most.
But as a means to a final end, the transhumanist mindset can, justifiably, be seen as dangerous. The implications that individuals like Kurzweil offer present a great deal of moral conundrums that humanity may not be able handle yet. Our modern mindset does not yet seem capable of making the proper judgments or deal with that level of technological sophistication. As the saying goes, the best way to predict the future is to invent it.