Now, however, I’m not so sure. Such tweaking of who we are can lead to alternate definitions of what it means to be human. At best, we’d have no more disease, no birth defects—everyone born with the same chance. At worst, everyone becomes Ken and Barbie—perfect, plastic, and shallow.
Transhumanism as a movement holds many promises. I myself have said that humanity must be responsible for its own evolution. Not just in mental capacity, but physiological, psychological. Emotional and social maturity, beyond what we have now. Bettering oneself makes sense, as the empowerment of the individual. Yeah, I dig that.
The Singularity is a predicted event when machine intelligence merges with human intelligence to create something larger than its constituent parts. Transhumanists claim this will be the next stage of human development. Scientists have been experimenting with brain cells and silicon for years, looking for a physical version of such a merger. Nanotechnology might allow us to inure our bodies to bacteria, fortify aging physiques, and many other applications too numerous to list. The secrets of lengthening the telomerase in our genetic coding may likewise lengthen human lifespan well over the triple digits. Cheating death, and looking pretty damn sexy while doing it.
Yeah, great. Now what’s the cost? I don’t mean economic, though that has to be considered as well.
I mean psychological and sociological cost.
If people could decide what their children’s hair or eye color will be, while that child is still in the womb, where will that end? Would certain characteristics be fortified? Would others be repressed? How would you feel, knowing your parents had a hand in every stage of your fetal development—eyes, hair, skin, likes, dislikes. The reconfiguration of genes could lead to tight, structured individuals who’d be forced into a set of acceptable standards before birth. Imagine a set of customized siblings. Maybe they’ll be the next Jackson Five? Maybe they’re all Nobel laureates in the making? People predisposed to a predetermined path, challenging the very concept of free will.
Now, that’s the nightmare version; Brave New World and all that. Science fiction stories have been asking these questions for decades. I just feel such territory shouldn’t be tread lightly. Eggs break when you step on them.
What if technology allowed one to live forever? Hey, sounds good. Nobody wants to die, especially if science can give us better bodies. What about the effects of long life on the human mind? This has never been tested; no one has reached the age of 150 or 200 to test their psychological state. Could the human psyche cope with such a span? Would memory recollection be the same, and would the brain continue to learn and absorb new information, new sensations?
Does life lose its meaning, if death doesn’t wait at the end of it? Who knows.
If the organic brain is augmented with technology, what then? The same questions about psyche remain, in regards to age. Think faster, hold more data (though there is no true benchmark for how much data the brain can hold), and flawlessly retrieve all data. Relive memories as if they transpired before your very eyes all over again. At what point would these memories, in such a brain, cease being the construct of organic neurons and become the dominion of synthetic intelligence? Could that be considered a human brain?
Back to the Ken and Barbie reference, would you like to be handsome or beautiful—all your life? Constantly upgraded so you resemble current societal ideas of what is attractive and desirable? Square jaw and a six pack for the guys, great boobs, legs, and rump for the gals? Or would you go further and redefine human physiology in new directions? Remember, some people like to look and act like their TV and film idols. This represents destruction of the individual in favor of image and popularity. Kinda takes the ‘humanism’ outta Transhumanism, right?
Vanity loosed would be rarity imprisoned.
I fear Transhumanism could set dangerous standards for humanity. If you’re unattractive, guess what? We can fix you. If you’re regarded as mentally incompetent, so? We’ll fix that, too. Who gets to decide what is acceptable and what is not? Some people are already intellectual slaves to celebrities, athletes, rock stars, politicians, and religious leaders. Would the herded masses willingly change the fundamentals of who they are, just to suit someone else’s idea of perfection?
Hell, I hope not. Without ugliness, there can be no beauty.
Okay, now I’ll step away from the Dystopian fears of such technological achievements and address the Utopian ones. Ray Kurzweil and certain other Transhumanists are deluded on one issue: they think all these advancements will be beneficial, with all social and psychological kinks worked out in a few years. Humanity will be smarter and get along; war and poverty will become anachronisms—all because we’ve evolved ourselves. Oh, and everyone will be able to pay for this, due to lowering technological costs over the long term, as predicted by Moore’s Law. These new breakthroughs are far beyond mere cell phones and iPads, though.
It’s likelier rich elites would clamp down on such technology. Keep it for themselves, out of the hands of the unwashed Plebeians and struggling Proletariat. Only the wealthy would enjoy and afford enhanced longevity, perpetual beauty, and super-human intellects. The lower classes would probably be placated with physical enhancement as a distraction. This isn’t like when Andy Warhol was fascinated by Coca-Cola, because everyone regardless of class enjoyed a Coke. This is the possibility of creating cybernetic gods. Imagine Hitler or Stalin living for centuries, or Pamela Anderson always having those two plastic melons to go along with that plastic face.
Such caricatures we create and glorify would haunt our silicon dreams far into the ether of any Singularity. So what if human and artificial intelligence merge? What of the individual? Would we become a collective mind, connected via servers and software protocols? And who gets to control those protocols? Might make the Borg look like a labor union.
To quote Morpheus, the Echelon prototype A.I. from Deus Ex: ‘You will soon have your god, and you will make it with your own hands.’
Even after all this criticism, though, I’m cautiously open to what Transhumanism can offer. Eliminating death due to disease and organ failure sounds nice. Coping with age so our final years can be happy, not ones spent in arthritic, cancerous agony, appeals to me. If the mind can remain intact, then cheating death seems like a game I want to play, since I believe in no afterlife. Extending brain power may enhance our understanding of each other, rather than engaging in endless wars and petty hatreds. I just hope humanity doesn’t reach so far that it progresses into something that is convenient, docile, and replaceable.
The Humanist inside me is vigilant against these ‘nightmare’ scenarios. I hope the rights of the individual to uniqueness and nonconformity remain strong. Personhood should never be incorporated or ‘privatized’. Laziness should not be rewarded with a cure-all. Panacea for the Common Man is not to be found in a box of nanites.
Don’t let humanity become just another toy in the store, where if broken, a shiny new substitute is always waiting. Never let progress replace what makes us who we are.