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Deus Ex: Human Revolution Asks The Tough Questions

I’m a Deus Ex fanatic. Ever since the first game debuted in 2000 (well before I identified as a transhumanist), I’ve been hooked on the techno-futurist setting and the idea of body customization through implantation. Even though the games are heavy on the conspiracy angle, the designers do a great job of fleshing out the story and forcing the player to make tough ethical decisions given options that have no clear right answer.

Edios is back at it again with the newest installment: Human Revolution. The third game is a prequel, taking place after human augmentation is well established, but before the augmentation companies are able to create ‘nano-augmentation’ instead of bulky mechanical augmentation. Even before the game comes out, Edios has been hyping the release with very realistic ‘commercials’ and ‘messages’ from the games various factions. The first was put out by “Sarif Industries”, an in-game augmentation company promoting the benefits of enhancement.

Here’s that video:

The website mentioned at the end of the video actually works, and provides more realistic background information, including a timeline of augmentation from the 1960’s on. Just the other day, however, Edios put out a counter ad from ‘Purity First’, the in-game bioluddites. They ‘hacked’ the Sarif Industries website, so visiting the website now shows graphic overlays from Purity First (and some terrible audio). Here’s the Purity First retort:

Right off the bat, the commercial begins with emotion-laden sound and images not too far off from what we see currently. Compare, for instance, with this 2010 Citizens Against Government Waste ad:

Although much of the Purity First ‘ad’ plays to basic fear and emotions, it also does a good job of presenting ‘facts’ that, from our perspective in the real world, are still just issues.

At 0:44, for instance, the ‘ad’ questions the motivations behind augmentations. This is the basis for a debate I’ve had with people about the actual course of transhumanism. On one hand, I want to explain that augmentation is a choice, and that when it becomes available, people who object can simply choose not to get augmented (a stance that seems reasonable, but seems unpersuasive in gay marriage and marijuana legalization contexts.) They counter with worries like those exposed in the ‘ad’: Won’t people who choose to remain unaugmented get outpaced by the superior skills and abilities of the augmented? I’m not sure how to reply to that; yes, I suppose they will. After all, people wouldn’t get augmentations if those augmentations provided no benefit (note the lack of people with perfectly functional hands beating down the doors to get those hands replaced with even the newest model of bionic hands.) If the augmentations provide benefit, then by definition those with the augmented hands will have abilities that those without augmented hands don’t have. Those abilities might be worth a higher wage, depending on the field the augmented person is in. Unaugmented humans might get outpaced, but it remains their choice to stay in the past (although I’m not taking into account the financial aspects of augmentation; certainly some people will want to be augmented but be unable to afford it – I’ll address that in a bit.)

Around 0:56 – 1:07 the ‘ad’ plays on basic moral and ethical objections. The ‘playing God’ line has been trotted out many times over the years, and seems to take hold with at least some of the population. Consider this news report from British Sky News:

At around 1:15 the ‘ad’ broaches the topic of privacy; a debate that’s been ongoing not just between transhumanists and bioluddites, but also between transhumanists who differ on what level of intrusion is acceptable. On one hand, ideally we want the companies servicing our implants to be able to fix them and upgrade them with the same ease as our cell phones download service packs and our apps update from the Apple store or Droid marketplace. On the other hand, when one is considering implanting new eyes, augmenting our brains, and replacing our legs, do we really want someone else to have any measure of external control? Implants now are largely a one-and-done transaction; someone gets a new hip installed by a doctor and that’s it. But because augmentations are cutting edge technology, it seems like it would be beneficial to be able to upload software upgrades (like our computers and phones have) rather than get stuck with a sealed system that needs replacement entirely when it wears out. The question essentially boils down to whether we want implants that are more like a toaster (where the technology is unchangeable, and only entire replacement can offer additional functionality) or a cell phone (where software upgrades and occasionally firmware upgrades or even limited hardware upgrades [like a SD card] can extend the life of a device for some period of time.) Because implants are high-tech and presumably difficult to get to and expensive, I tend to think that some level of monitoring and upgradability is a reasonable tradeoff for increased intrusion. But the intrusion is there, and in a very private sense not yet seen.

Around 1:40 the ‘ad’ broaches militarization of augmentation. This, I think, is inevitable. Although a general anti-war (or even a more reasonable war-making) policy is fully consistent with the ‘ads’ message, I’m not sure that the militarization of augmentation is particularly objectionable when we’re upgrading the rest of our military equipment and spending fortunes on advanced new rifle systems today.

Around 1:55 the ‘ad’ argues that implants require continual doses of an anti-rejection drug; failure to take the drug causes the body to reject the implant. Because the drug companies have a captive audience, they can charge exorbitant prices for the drug. Because they chose to, people end up on the streets; unable to afford the ongoing costs of the anti-rejection treatments. The threshold question for real-world application seems to be whether implants like those in the game would require extensive doses of anti-rejection drugs. If so, then how might we prevent the drug companies from causing exactly the problems the ‘ad’ addresses? Aren’t drug companies already doing exactly what the ‘ad’ claims where anti-cancer treatments are concerned? Would the government be willing (or able) to either subsidize the cost of the drug or manufacture and distribute it outright to prevent pharmaceutical pricing abuse? If so, would the people feel better about government distributed drugs than corporate distributed drugs?

At 2:30 the ‘ad’ argues that the companies making the implants can shut them down at will; an issue wholly determines (as discussed above) by the level of control that they maintain over the augmentation once implanted. Certainly no company can shut off an artificial hip, but with more software based upgrades comes more external control. Gamers have dealt with companies that stop supporting their products, shut down servers, and otherwise make a purchased product worthless. Sony bans users from the Playstation Network regularly, making an expensive entertainment system much less valuable. The possibility exists that, given the right set of conditions, the same could be true of augmentations.

In all, for a three-and-a-half minute trailer, Eidos does a great job of highlighting the very real concerns some people have about transhumanism. Consider the IEET page on bio-luddites and compare it to the concerns in the trailer; they seem to match up almost word for word. I imagine the game will flesh out these concerns more fully, and maybe incorporate Repo Men like financial concerns and highlight the growing divide between the haves and the have-nots (even as the ‘haves’ are dragged down to ‘have-not’ status by the price of their anti-rejection drugs.)

I know that if the things transhumanists talk about come into being, they will change the nature of what it means to be human. I know that very advanced technology can do both great good and great evil. I know that some people will reject the idea of augmentation. Some argue that the issue will be so divisive that it will lead to civil war; others dismiss the claims as hyperbole and argue that the transition will go more or less smoothly. I’m not sure what to think just yet. Games, however, aren’t built on utopian scenarios; it’s no fun if there’s no conflict, and Deus Ex is giving us a look at something like a worst case scenario. Of course, the techno-utopian viewpoint will (presumably) also be explored in depth.

I, for one, can’t wait for the game.

John Niman is a law student at the William S. Boyd School of Law at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He blogs at boydfuturist.wordpress.com.

19 Comments

  1. anybody else notice that they used the h+ logo at one point in this game? they used it as the logo for the “Transhumanist” achievement, of all things :)

    I was gratified to see that…

  2. I’d say the most fascinating aspect of this game (apart from its mostly tight mechanics) would be its artistic vision. Sure, it’s cyberpunk, but informed by the Renaissance. Of course, this period is perhaps one that Transhumanism as a movement could mostly hope to relate to.

    I just think the term ‘Renaissance man’ and I see the height of humanity, pushing at the verge of transcendence. I personally feel that the Polymath is the archetype that transhumanists probably aspire towards.

    All my assertions, I would like to state, are tentative, these aren’t the most informed opinions but more a set of ‘first impressions’ of transhumanism.

  3. I finished the game myself, and chose the “bio-luddite” (a horribly biased term) ending. The game honestly portrays the demagogic “Purity First” groups and the rich corporate transhumanists for all their faults and failures, without prejudice.

    My question for the h+ community is this: in the future you invision, will those of us who don’t “upgrade”, “ascend”, and “augment” have a place in society?

    I believe it would be hubris on a cosmic scale to try and “transcend” a humanity that we don’t even understand yet. As a species we don’t have a handle on our own biology, psychology, our “human condition”. It seems to me hubris on a cosmic scale to try and transcend in a few years the whole of evolutionary history, something many believe to be a divine act. So for we the “simply human”, will we be derided or included? If transhuman progress is inevitable, will it progress toward a unity of augmented posthumanity or a plurality of different peoples?

    • I think one of the obvious but rarely used arguments for augmenting ourselves is that there’s no such thing as “Playing God” when there obviously is no God to be playing as. We humans have been changing the conditions of “what it means to be human” for all of history. However we seem to have an idea that there is some unseen omnipotent being in charge of all this, and once we cross a certain threshold we will be punished.

      In fact, every advance we have made is just as inevitable as every consequence is. Our advancing technology is a natural extension of the evolutionary process that gave rise to us and may in fact be just a short transition from biological life to something else. When we look at the massive scale of time and space over which evolution and the history of the universe occurs, this Human phase that we are so concerned with preserving is extremely limited in comparison to the potential of its successor.

      Since this process doesn’t necessitate an intelligence to guide it, there is no sin in giving rise to our own guiding intelligence. In fact, it appears to me to be hubris to question this transition. Why not blindly rush into a posthuman existence without regard to the consequences? We didn’t start building cities carefully, or ask ourselves if it was ethical to begin recording our spoken language, because none of these advances were decisions.

      Technological advance is not a decision, it is an emergent property of Human life. It is not our nature to step backward from progress, we only move forward in earnest and with faith in our continued survival and betterment.

      Stop worrying about transhumanism. Live your life: drink, eat, laugh, love your kids and family. The only free will we have is the decision to enjoy or despair in the face of the inevitable.

  4. Some spoilers below:

    While I have purchased and beaten DXHR and had a good time doing it, I have some problems declaring it the flagship game for transhumanism. First and foremost is the lack of empowerment, I played on normal and was killed multiple times by street thugs with 10mm pistols. Despite being a cyborg ex cop in Detroit, Adam Jenson is far from Robocop. Dermal armor helps, but then it feels like I am playing gears of war, a cover based powered armor shooter, but with a lot less ammo. I never really felt superhuman, and considering I had to eat a candy bar every time I punched someone in the face, I felt subhuman at times. For the experience of being superhuman the best game is still Prototype.

    Second major Issue is the anti rejection drug, which seems like a purely fictional plot device designed to keep with the game messianic roots, ironic really considering there isn’t merge with an ai and become god ending like in the first two. While I would really like to get our resident cyborg to confirm this, our bodies seem very adaptable to inorganic material that we put into it. Pacemakers don’t need an autoimmune suppressant, and then there was that story about a women who sat 2 years on a toilet and her skin began to grow around it. I am having difficulty thinking of a more unnatural object than a toilet seat to be absorbed into the human body.

    As an aside, the combat realism in the game is quite low, the best weapon is a revolver that can turn normal bullets into explosive ones. Combat augmentations in this game are fairly unimaginative, and would not revolutionize the warfare in any meaningful way. Just watch how long it takes that cyber gun arm to start shooting, any trained rifleman can put a bullet right into the cyborg’s unprotected face before he could start shooting.

    To Nate:
    I agree with most of the points you make, however standard Kurzweil party line is once the automated nano factories come online, just start giving everything to everyone. While I think that the probability of this actually happening is low, the intent is there and the technology could make it happen. Blaming transhumanism and technology is as pointless as blaming the rest of humanity for not rising up and acting like a single coordinated hive mind to bring peace, love and happiness to all liveforms.

    To Beo
    Despite their fearsome reputation, NBC are really more a poor mans weapons, richer countries can murder people without them. This games partially augmented cyborgs are still vulnerable to biological weapons, notice that the face and torso are still fleshly and weak. If your talking about more advanced versions that are basically a brain in a sealed jar carried around by a robot powered by the grid, then yes such a being would be able to freely use biological, and also chemical and nuclear weapons without much threat to itself. At that level of robotics through you should be more worried with rich letting the obsolete unemployed simply starve to death.

    • I disagree. Think we can blame technology to the extent that humanity has clearly begun to serve it rather than have it help us, a theme picked up by Einstien,Fritz Lang, and others.
      Lok at the recent post on sexuality being improved by technology-clearly it hasn’t been improved by technology-for every positive development- there are huge ethical and human rights problems. Just look at birth control & China, where females are being abandoned en masse. Also look at the accusations of Planned Parenthood setting up in AAmerican neighborhoods,
      Take this and expand it-how many things is technology helping us with that really matter? You could say communications tech is helping families stay in touch-but the same tech is the reason why everyone has moved so far apart. Family,equality,social stability, mental well being, free time/leisure time, variety in work-all being thrown in the trash by the hungry pursuit of technology by the minority who doesn’t feel the negative imact due to living in little secure bubbles in universities. It’s hard to imagine the negative aspects from inside those bubbles.

      • First off, I am currently in china, whenever I go outside there is a fairly even ratio between males and females. That women chose to have boys rather than girls is because the traditional society gives them more status when they have boys. The problem may resolve itself though, supply and demand could reverse this ancient thought. Otherwise give sexbots for unmated males, which may be for the best, since they are likely unwilling to give up other cherished beliefs, like the female should be obedient.

        Your going to have to come up with something better than human rights to make your case against me, last time I heard that noise, Libya was being bombed with right to plunder, then the country declared to not be a part of Africa.

        As for sex, that post does point out that improvement is mainly stymied because people do not share information about it. The post also talks about the benefits that the internet has for matching up niche couples, and information that can make the act of sex better i.e. toys, positions, etc.

        People leave their homes for a variety of reasons, those are mainly social economic. They leave to go to college, to get better jobs, etc. Technology can hardly be blamed for the movement of peoples, otherwise we would have all stayed in Africa.

        Look the reason that the western standard of living is decreasing, isn’t because some eggheads want to cure death in a university. It is because powers that are, wish to turn the planet into giant corporate serfdom. People has this idea, constantly reinforced by mainstream media, that capitalism is the only way to use and improve technology, and thus capitalism = technology.

        Talk to actual inventors for the reason they invent things, they usually say things like “wouldn’t that be cool?” or “how nice would it be if…”. Making money is usually a secondary concern, which explains that these people are generally not the wealthier members of society.

        If you want alternative world views were technology is used for the people, check out http://www.technocracy.org/faqtn or http://www.thevenusproject.com/

        If your going to keep your stance and continues this conversation, then I need you to answer two things:
        1 How exactly do envision this world is going to turn of its current path?
        2 What era of technology would you prefer humanity remain at indefinitely?

    • About the gameplay:

      Thats because its primarily a stealth game. You can go action, but then it feels like GoW which is unlucky, because the stealth side is great and has great mechanics. You may be a cyborg, but you still have a flesh and blood torso, you will get hurt. Plus its a game, they need to take liberties to make the gameplay good. If you want to feel superhuman than playing a stealth game isnt the best choice. Even though going invisible, seeing through walls and killing people with robot arms with blades isnt very normal.

      And to do with the cyborg gun-arm:

      God, you sound like a youtube comment. Its a game. They tweak mechanics. The boss fights werent the best part obviously, but if it was going to be a documentary then itd be very different.

      as for unrealistic weapons:

      YOU HAVE FUCKING ROBOT ARMS AND LEGS. I think a few little weapon mods are within the realm of the suspension of disbelief.

      I give you 2/10. Terrible deconstruction.

  5. >can simply choose not to get augmented
    >unpersuasive in gay marriage

    It’s because those are different things. Augmentation does not require third side to take any action, while marriage = registration by state, requires somebody who represent state to actually do registration. And that person may be religious and thus we are getting conflict. I remember news about somebody got fired after he or she refused to marry same sex pair.

    >I’m not sure that the militarization of augmentation is particularly objectionable when we’re upgrading the rest of our military equipment and spending fortunes on advanced new rifle systems today.

    It’s not rifle, it’s more like mass destruction weapon. I am afraid that only reason why in the past biological weapon were rarely used it’s because there was no way for attacker to make sure disease won’t spread on himself. Now new possibilities are appearing.

  6. If we don’t play god, who will?

    • OMG I wish I could heart comments on this site!

  7. I feel I should point out (Mostly to Adamantious) that whilst it does have cyberpunk roots the game does have a few throwbacks to the transhumanist links. A good example is how (On the pc in any case) there is an achievement wherein you fully augment yourself in some way. When you do this you get the achievement “Transhumanist.”
    The part that I find amusing about this is the icon used for the achievement is “H+”
    Obviously this refers to H+ magazine.

  8. It’s very clear the direction that technology is taking us in is profoundly negative. I’m not one of those who thinks anything can be done-just like nothing could be done to stop the hell created by trench warfare planned by rational experienced generals who failed to account for the effects of the new weapons. Or the almost automatic build up of nukes and confrontation of the Cold War.
    I believe the coming crisis due to unpredicted effects of technology will be even worse due to the leaps and bounds progress has made.
    The first Deus Ex highlighted the creation of inequality due to the technological society,with a permanent underclass cut out from any benefits and victim to most negative sides of the new world. We see this right now, in places like Trenton NJ which has a food desert(no grocery store to buy semi healthy food) despite being right next to Philadelphia. Taking the train through from NYC and one notices 2 things: 1.that the landscape for miles and miles looks like something out of a Philip K Dick novel and 2. That no one looks up from their laptop or cellphone.
    Being from a rural area, I was incensed to read a pro technology blogger claim that rural villagers in places like China freely make the choice to migrate to cities due to all the benefits it gives them, “They feel the loss of immediate access to these, but they come to the city anyway because in the end, the tally favors the freedoms created by civilization”
    Couldn’t be more deluded, these people have negative reinforcement as well as positive (competition due to globalziation with cheap food from overseas megafarms, cost of living increases due to wealthy people from the city buying up the best rural land,the lack of jobs in the rural areas, and the lack of other young people because everyone else has made the move). The author claims the benefits of urban life are what attract them. What benefits are these despite those created by a monetary system creating artifical incentives abstract from people’s well being? The horrible air quality, the immorality inherent when living in a constant anonymous crowd, the dependence on slave labor to cover a rent for a overcrowded slum?

    I’m sorry but transhumanist must come up with better arguments. Increasing it looks as if they are the minority whom the machine confer benefits on, a small group of people glued to iPhones,laptops,and other fake worlds of info in a climate controlled train compartment while hurtling through miles and miles of inhabited desolation-where the very nature of humanity has been corrupted, young men who’ve been tossed in the bin become violent and enraged and inflict terror on the surround population.
    We are hurtling towards hell on earth and the train conductor is playing a round of Angry Birds

  9. Just finished the game and picked the transhuman ending. It is litterally the best game i’ve played. From gameplay, to storyline, voice acting, and suprisingly soundtrack it is a cut above anything else in the market, to the point that i believe that it is just as important to the development of the gaming industry as the original.

    But more importantly, i love the way that it deals with all of the issues you have pointed out. From the drug pricing (neuropozyne ingame) to the use of remote control to damage a human with augmentations, the writers are excellent in demonstrating not only the obvious benefits of augmentation, but the risks and detriments as well.

    If you haven’t already, BUY THIS GAME. It will be the best money you’ve spent on entertainment (as well as something to stimulate thought) in a long time

  10. Great article and review of the game! Certainly brings up many issues we will have to deal with eventually. I definitely am going to try this out!

  11. I think things like this will become inevitable, which raises ethical quandries regarding privacy. Furthermore, what even is privacy? It seems to be a social construct that has been imposed upon us, and people gladly seem to relinquish their privacy on social websites which in turn has opened all sorts of ethical issues regarding people’s personal and professional lives — in fact, bragging about drinking and pictures of you at a club can possibly be used against you if you get a DUI or into an accident that night.

    On the subject of augmentation, bionics are already becoming viable technology with replacement limbs approaching, though awkwardly, the equivalence of their organic counterparts.

    Also, I could wax philosophical about Kurzweil, but ascension is inevitable.

  12. The heavy conspiracy angle comes from its cyberpounk roots. I would be very hesitant to call Deus Ex a transhumanist game, is pure cyberpunk

    • One of the elements of cyberpunk is transhumanism. Case from Neuromancer is aumented, So is Johnny from Johnny Mnemonic. Blade Runner is also very h+. I use h+ elements in all of my cyberpunk stories.