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?
1. What is your objection to liberal democracy? 2. Your analogy, ingenious as it is, between new classes of humans tomorrow and races in, say, the nineteenth century, may undercut another of your arguments, since all races now are equal under the law. I.e., the political system has specifically worked to overcome inequality in order to apply equal protection to everyone; why can’t it do so in the future, even if that future be transhuman? 3. In the present, certain human beings have tools that others did not have, yet all (again) had equal status under the law; in what you fear of our (possible) transhuman future, the past may serve as analogy: those with greater means will essentially have more tools. Why does it necessarily follow that those with better tools will in the future receive different legal–if not ontological–status than those with fewer?
1. Without developing this too much (especially given that book that I to which I link is such a sterling critique), I believe that democracy can work only on small scales–neighborhoods, cities, states (maybe). Basically, at that level people can truly participate, and it is harder for people running for positions of power to bullshit people who have known them all their lives/have seen them black-out drunk/know whose cars are parked in their driveways at night. At the national level, money and media machinations (but I repeat myself) can cover a multitude of sins. Of course, that is a rather pragmatic critique; I believe that there are more fundamental theoretical critiques, but for those I will refer to you once again to the book Democracy: The God That Failed. 2. Good question. I would like to think that such could, one hopes, be the outcome, but let me return to what I speculated: what if those who refuse transhuman transfomation become the new class of undesirables such as racists and sexists and anti-governmental preppers are currently? Truly retrograde people–today we call such people “Cro-Magnon” or “Neanderthal”; tomorrow we may call them merely “homo sapiens.” While we can argue that such people are still afforded a legal status equal to everyone else de jure, we know that de facto such people are not. I suppose I am more concerned about an unofficial caste arising rather than a legally-imposed one, but such may be inevitable regardless of the technology available. 3. It does not necessarily follow. As you have probably gathered, I am pessimistic, both by nature and by choice. I simply do not have faith in humanity to maintain the current status quo of legal rights once things start to really heat up technologically speaking. This is one scenario, however, in which I hope I am proven greviously mistaken.
I understand the temptation to oppose democracy in principle. Two points, however. The first is that in the same way in which the transhumanists (like Marx) find history to move in an irreversible trajectory such that at some point in the future human nature itself will change, it is possible too that human society has evolved to the point at which monarchy is now simply no longer feasible and that democracy is here to stay. (For what it’s worth, I’m agnostic on both points. I think, however, that the question of whether or not history moves forward is one of the most pressing of philosophical problems.)
The second is that your objection to what democratic society is becoming may have more to do with the corruption of institutions than with any evil inherent in democracy as a system of politics. To my mind, the problem isn’t that too many people have the right to vote; rather, it is that right thinking people have abandoned the important cultural institutions–or indeed subverted them in the case of the Christian churches.