In grad school, I was a consistent reader of the Canadian critique of consumer-culture monthly Adbusters. (I even sported a pair of its black high top uh-swoosh shoes–the anti-brand brand.) I found–and still do–that much of its Marshall Mcluhan-inspired media-scrutiny savviness paired well with a traditional worldview. Then taking Mcluhan’s communique that media is the message (or massage), Adbusters took on a decidedly sleeker look that I found jarring with its emphasis. In addition, an increase in a tone of self-importance and urgency often makes a casual reading exhausting. Still, when Adbusters is spot on, it is spot on. The current issue, “God, I’m Lonely,” concerns topics near and dear to my shrinking heart: automation and transhumanism.
In a snippet from Yuval Harari’s Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, we can sneakily and freely read: “Liberals uphold free markets and democratic elections because they believe that every human is a uniquely valuable individual, whose free choices are the ultimate source of authority. In the twenty-first century three practical developments might makes this belief obsolete: 1. Humans will lose their economic and military usefulness, hence the economic and political system will stop attaching much value to them. 2. The system will still find value in humans collectively, but not in unique individuals. 3. The system will still find value in some unique individuals, but these will be a new elite of upgraded superhumans rather than the mass of the population.”
Even though one may believe, as I do, that democracy is the god that failed, one cannot deny that democracy is the reigning ethos in the West, the prism through which the light of our modern values is refracted. All institutions, movements, ideas, and actions are, consciously or not, viciously or not, judged according to how well they further the spread of democracy. However, as we have seen, though, with greater economic dependence for the individual qua individual comes a myriad of additional ways that such an individual can be used and abused, economically, socially, and militaristically. (E.g., Given that women can now vote and compete on a, more or less, level playing field in the marketplace as self-contained atomic entities without the safety net of a family, well, by golly, they should be able to die on foreign soil in order to spread democracy to lands that still may not allow their women to join the military.) As I gather from this snippet, the author maintains that we may see the implosion of democracy as individuals begin to lose their economic and militaristic value because of automation and the rise of non-conscious but “intelligent” robots–using intelligence to denote the ability to set up, appraise, and complete tasks. What I also find interesting, though this is not explicitly developed in this short passage, is the paradox of democracy: for all the touting of the uniqueness and importance–if not sacredness–of the individual, in democratic societies people have value collectively, not individually. What will happen for democratic societies when people en masse begin to lose their value? Hariri speculates that we will see the corollary rise of unique individuals, but not in meritocratic sense; rather, what we will see is the rise of humans who through fortune will have the means by which they can transform their brains and bodies into highly efficient quasi-machines.
In a speculative piece by the chief editor, Kalle Lasn (KL), the emergence of our aquatic ancestor species onto land is labeled the first migration. The second migration, according to Lasn, is “abandoning the physical world and moving into a virtual one.” Whether one adheres to the evolutionary narrative, I believe this analogy is still very compelling. We are now at another watershed moment (see what I did there?) at which the choices we will be forced to make will determine what it means to be human and whether we want to stay merely human. Given, perhaps, that there is nowhere to go biologically, we must necessarily look to technological augmentation/”improvement.” Such technologically-aided development may lead to a supra-species, a more purely effective and affecting species. Interestingly, were one to espouse eugenics for the purpose of fashioning a more racially pure breed, the enlightened world community would be in an uproar. However, holding the banner of the inevitable march of scientific progress, we can employ a similar breeding program.
Apart from this curious inconsistency, where could the rise of a supra-species lead? Another contribution from the magazine ponders the possibility: “The new projects of the twenty-first century–achieving immortality, bliss and divinity [ahem, Ray Kurweil]–also hope to serve the whole of humankind. However, because these projects aim at surpassing rather than safeguarding the norm, they may well result in the creation of a new superhuman caste that will abandon its liberal roots and treat normal humans no better than the nineteenth-century Europeans treated Africans.” I take issue with the claim that abandoning our liberal roots will lead a new type of hierarchy. Instead, I think holding onto our liberal roots is that which will lead to such a fate. The essence of liberalism is a denial of the bonds found both in nature and in society. Liberalism proclaims that as atomic individuals we contractually choose into what bonds we want to enter, and we dictate the terms of the contract. Is such thinking not at the heart of transhumanism? (It definitely is at the heart of our current transgender madness.) Human nature is now treated as another contract into which we have entered and may have served us well, but we still remain free to dissolve this contract if a better option arises, and if life is understood strictly in materialistic terms, on what basis could one argue that it would be better to limit oneself to the current biological paradigm? For example, if learning a language becomes a matter of inserting a chip into our brains, why go through the years of grueling work in order to achieve fluency? Simply for the sake of the authentic experience? Why treat with respect people who may choose to remain merely human? Such people may come to be viewed and treated in the same way that racists and sexists are currently treated in liberal societies. Simple experiment: try reverting, as I recently have done, to a non-smart phone. Yes, there have been those who have admired my lifestyle choice, but I wager that the general response is one of incredulity. Why give up the good things that technology can give us? Anyway, back to the quotation: on what basis should we expect a superhuman breed to treat us unenhanced people with any more respect than we have historically treated those races of people thought to be inferior or still treat non-self-conscious animal species? What if the new breed of people, horror of horrors, is intelligent enough to see the weaknesses of a liberal democracy and then seeks to correct it, primarily by imposing a new caste system in which those of us who are too poor to/choose not to purchase enhancement stand the most to lose?