Watch children, or adults, at play. And by “play” I mean the real thing — experimental, messy, reality-shifting and explorative, not the routinized pseudo-work we call “leisure” or “recreation.”
For kids, their play-world might easily imbue them with strange transformative powers, or they might equally enchant and animate the objects that surround them. For adults — say a bunch of Google engineers bashing and drilling away on the flats at Burning Man — the point of their play is to simulate, as tech historian Fred Turner says, a “utopia of relationships and technology.” In either case, when they are at and in play, humans old and young naturally hypothesize about testing the boundaries of human capacities and faculties.
The great guru of play theory, Brian Sutton-Smith, describes play’s role in human evolution as that of “adaptive potentiation.” By that he means play as the mimicking, mocking or fantasizing about our situations of survival, within zones of time and space that open up in our daily life. In this way, play helps us to improve our ability to respond to the challenges of living. It’s our rehearsal hour for real risks and opportunities.
This is why such a flaky, mutable behavior and phenomenon as play has persisted in the human condition. As complex social organisms living with others who are just as complex as us, we’ve needed the imaginative and hypothetical space it opens up in our daily lives to cope with the strategies, feints and demands of human sociability. We “potentiate” or die.
So play is our evolved and natural capacity to test limits; suspend conditions of reality; imagine our way out of tight situations. But how does this sit with the transhumanist agenda? Doesn’t transhumanism take, as a point of principle, that our evolved nature itself is permanently up for being played with and amended, its limits made malleable and even transcendable?
There is — at the very minimum — a positive and negative spin worth considering in this context. Positively, transhumanist ambition could represent the next level of play’s evolutionary development within our human condition. Whatever we have done with our fantasies, our flickering simulations, our imaginatively suffused games, we will be able to do with the raw biomaterial of humanity. We then enter into the world imagined by Scottish SF writer Iain Banks in his space operas describing the civilizational challenges of The Culture. The challenge is: how to live well and ethically in a profoundly post-scarcity society, where we have the ability to “play God” with each others’ biology and materiality, as a matter of convivial living, and not just upon or over others.
If we make our bodies, our intentions and their extensions illimitable and thus fully expressive of the “phantasmagoria”… we could be in real trouble.”
But there’s a prior presumption that ethical behavior will kick in at some stage of advancing evolution. The negative spin is that transhumanism may, in actuality, unleash play from its useful psychological netherworld in our species being. In other words, in our imaginations certain types of risk and experimentation doesn’t have too much direct consequence. It’s just something that keeps the channels of human responsiveness from getting too rusty or ossified, from succumbing to their inherent limits.
The fear is that if we make our bodies, our intentions and their extensions illimitable and thus fully expressive of the “phantasmagoria” (as in Sutton-Smith’s descriptions of the transgressions and horrors that he often observes in the coping play of children) of play — then we could be in real trouble.
Play, as it functions in our sociobiology, has to be amoral/non-moral. That’s the underground and liminal job it has do — the job of keeping our “potentiation” open, infusing the constraints of human living with indefatigable optimism and possibility. What beauties — but also what monsters — may be made manifest, with our play-drive connected to the transforming technologies predicted by transhumanists? Could it be, in truth, a Pandora’s Box: a toy chest filled with Ray Kurzweil’s nano-, bio- and robotechnologies?
In 2004, I wrote a book with the pointed title The Play Ethic. The title was partly aimed at addressing the fact that the sheer playfulness of our coming society — our ability to “take reality lightly” in so many domains — compels us to think about ethics at the most basic level. How we decide to act humanely in a field of exponentially growing human possibility was, to me, the most urgent of issues — and was obvious related to much of the transhumanist project.
Yet, as the Italian Marxist Paulo Virno says, “there is no objective investigation of human nature that does not carry with it, like a clandestine traveler, at least the trace of a theory of political institutions.” The Puritan work ethic presumes a human nature happiest with duty, routine, and social conformism — a useful credo for industrial capitalism. A protean “play ethic” could easily presume a human nature happiest when improvising, being flexible and responsive, exercising imagination: an equally useful narrative, as we know, for informational capitalism.
Each ethic has its supporting cast in the mind sciences. The work ethic is currently undergoing a new intellectual revival, in the age of Obama and his (paraphrasing) economy built on rock, not sand,” (taken from The Sermon on the Mount) and it is bolstered by a new Chicago school of behavioral economics that claims to identify the new “Homer (Simpson) Economicus” in all of us, and argues for a new paternalism to steer (or “nudge”) us towards healthy social and economic outcomes.
But a play ethic also has its grounding in neuro-research that emphasizes the plasticity of the brain: the deeply-founded creativity that generates our consciousness in the first place. Across the opeds, blogs and book review pages, those who want to found their “theory of political institutions” in the next wave of Third Culture science headlines will always have their opportunities.
Yet transhumanism, it seems to me, transcends these familiar political uses of evolved human nature in the sense that it asks us to squarely face our increasing ability to transform that very nature itself, intentionally and by design. And if play operates as dynamically and unpredictably in our unamended nature as I suggest, we are in a moment where we will have to begin to imagine what kinds of “politics” or “ethics” are possible when play’s energies are given the most powerful of chariots to drive.
The debate in the late nineties between the German philosophers Peter Sloterdijk and Jürgen Habermas — Sloterdijk a partial enthusiast for transhumanism, Habermas a resolute opponent — generated much heat in certain intellectual circles, but much light too. But it began to hint at exactly what a “play ethic for transhumanism” might be. In his essay, the “Operable Man”, Sloterdijk suggests the kind of living-well-together that a profoundly (and materially) playful society might generate:
Biotechnologies and nootechnologies nurture by their very nature a subject that is refined, cooperative, and prone to playing with itself. This subject shapes itself through intercourse with complex texts and hypercomplex contexts. Domination must advance towards its very end, because in its rawness it makes itself impossible. In the inter-intelligently condensed net-world, masters and despoilers have hardly any long-term chances of success left, while cooperators, promoters, and enrichers fit into more numerous and more adequate slots.
There may be something a little lost in the translation… but the idea that the conditions of transhumanity may lead to subjects that are “refined, cooperative, and prone to playing with themselves” at least splits the difference between the polarities on offer.
Richard Sennett in his recent book The Craftsman talks of two Greek myths that dramatize our anxiety about technology. It’s either Pandora and her box, unleashing all manner of unstable horrors; or the club-footed Hephaestus, whose diligent labor and craft built the palaces of the Gods.
But what of Proteus, Prometheus or Bacchus — those shape-shifters, firebringers and lovers of sensual conviviality? Is there no place for the energetic, mutable, sociable player in transhumanity? No hope for a livable zone that can assuage the fear that transforming technology generates anarchy, and thus demands order?
Sloterdijk may be an optimist, but optimism — a deep speciesbased optimism — fuels the play that lurks in all of our breasts. Whatever transhumanists seek to transform in human nature, they would do well to respect the innate transformativity of play itself.