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Call me Ishmael…or Not: The Identity “Crisis” and Transhumanism

A few month ago, I was at a party. One of the other guests was a woman I knew slightly. She is a graduate student at a certain university in Massachusetts—naturally I won’t say which one. She’s also one of those academics who is, well, what some people would call a “pain in the ass.” I, however, prefer the expression, “uncompromising.” But, I suppose, a rose by any other name, etc.

To my distress, I discovered that she’d heard from a friend of a friend that I write under various pennames. I’m one person when I do technical journalism, another when I do academic stuff, a third when I write fiction, and Victor Storiguard when I write about Transhumanism or when I do stories with a transhumanist theme.

Unfortunately, there was an open bottle of tequila at the open bar. She had never tried the stuff and tucked into it with the zeal of a recent convert. After one or two shots too many, the woman laced into me. Why did I write such drivel? And why under a nom de plume? Why hide my identity? Why conceal myself from the reading public?

I tried to explain that there were good reasons for me to use multiple names. For one thing, it can cost me a lot of money not to. If you’re writing for competing publications, you don’t want to have the same name in both of them. It tends to make one’s editors rather grumpy.

Besides, if you’re doing multiple genres, the way that I do both science fiction and academic nonfiction, you don’t want your readership to be disappointed in you. That is, you don’t want them to go to Amazon, seek out your titles, and then be dreadfully distressed when they find out that what they thought was a good Alien-Invasion-From-Mars story is, in fact, a lengthy and tedious meditation on why Christopher Marlowe had Faust go straight to hellfire while Goethe merely toasted him a bit. So, you write under two names—one for Aliens and one for Faust, and everyone’s happy.

This didn’t satisfy my academic critic. “You are the perfect example of the alienated post-industrial man, estranged from not only society but even from himself,” she said, more or less in those exact words. “You are the living embodiment of the Western World’s current Identity Crisis.”

Then, after giving me a pitying look, she turned away.

 

2.

I did have some minor vengeance on my academic friend. First, I discovered that she was using the term “Identity Crisis” without knowing that it had been invented by the great psychologist, Erik Erikson. Further, I found, she did not know that he used the term to mean a very specific set of mental problems common to a very specific set of individuals (i.e., people who do not successfully make the transition from adolescence’s natural uncertainty about one’s place in the universe).

Second, her inexperience with tequila became its own reward. The one or two shots too many turned to three or four, and before the night was done she was in the bathroom loudly suffering the consequences. (I may be alienated from my society. But at least I’m not alienated from my lunch.)

But, when I considered the incident later, what struck me most was her use of the word “identity,” and her assumption that we suffer from a crisis of same, that as individuals and as a civilization, we are not quite certain who we are. Moreover, she implied, that uncertainty is intensely painful for us.

And this idea was not original to her. Hang about a few faculty parties at any university, or cruise the web a bit, and you’ll start hearing the same words, repeated in the same ways, and spoken to mean the same thing. We are, say Those Who Know Best, horribly confused. All our certainties are turned to sand.

Thus, those who identified with their nations discover that the West is no longer the dominant culture in the world. We look about, watching the collapse of social structures and social norms, and ask, “Are we still Americans?” (Or Britons or Frenchmen or whatever).

Those of us who once identified with particular economic systems, now regard an economy that seems on the verge of collapse. In an age in which more and more, it seems, a tiny minority of the population controls more and more of the world’s resources, and in which vast corporations do business with fewer and fewer people, we ask “Am I a socialist or a libertarian? Or, indeed, do those terms mean anything at all any longer?”

We, who once knew that if all else failed there was at least the family to fall back on, now see the whole concept of “family” and our roles within it mutate even as we watch. The White Male, for instance, who once took pride in his job and his status as breadwinner, is now unemployed, watches power shift increasingly to his wife or sisters, and asks, “Am I still a man?”

And for all these excellent reasons and more, Those Who Know Best proclaim our Crisis, and wonder out loud if our identities, our very selves, are on the verge of Annihilation.

I think Those Who Know Best are wrong.

Or, more precisely, I hope they are very wrong. Because, if they aren’t, and if there really is a crisis of identity in the West and the world, then it is about to get a whole lot worse.

And Transhumanism will be the cause.

 

3.

What do we mean by identity?

Well, when we are asked that question, the short answer is “me.” Ego. Self. That something from which we cannot divorce without ceasing to exist. Admittedly, this (like all simple answers) leads to fantastically complicated questions. Am I the same “me” to my friends as I am to my family? Am I the same “me” that I am at work as when I am at play? Am I the same “me” as I write this to you as when I, say, write a letter to my mother?

Complicated questions, indeed, but for the moment let’s leave such queries to philosophers. Let us employ the techniques of wise Brother Occam and take the simplest, most pragmatic position possible. Let us say that “identity” resides within our own skins, or more precisely, our own skulls. In other words, let us assume that “I” is within the brain. That’s where our “selves” are kept, and so there is distinct a limit to that self. It does not extend beyond the cranium. Thus, you and I are separate entities, separate selves, because each of us possesses our own stream of consciousness. What occurs in my brain does not occur in yours.

Ah, but consider what technology can and will do to that definition of self. As anyone who reads H+ Magazine already knows, with bioprobes, brain wave monitors, and MRIs we are getting reasonably close to being able to read thoughts. We’re not there yet, but we are decidedly on our way.

But that means that we can also reproduce thought. If we can read it, we can write it. Soon enough (again, not tomorrow, but eventually) it will be possible for you and I to share thoughts, and sensations, and feelings. With a few nanotechnical devices in the right places, and some (neutrino-based?) successor to cell phone technology, we could be linked. I would know exactly what you felt and thought as you thought it and did it. And, of course, vice versa.

The good news is that finally we’ll have a way to enforce some kind of empathy on even the most self-centered individual. The better news is that the rest of us will have a fantastic new way of experiencing the world. You really will know how someone different from you regards the universe. You really will be able to walk a mile in their shoes.

But there’s the rub. What does it do to our concept of identity? If we can share thoughts, sensations, maybe even memories, are we still two people? Or are we one individual who happens to have a very loosely coupled nervous system?

But we’re just getting started, aren’t we? If you and I can link our psyches, why stop with just the two of us? Why not invite in a dozen friends? Or a hundred?

Or, why stop with human beings? Why not link up with other creatures? A dolphin? A whale? A lioness?

But, if we do that, if we link to things which aren’t human, are we ourselves still entirely human? If I share an intellect with a stag or a bear or a seagull, am “I” to some degree now a stag, a bear, and a seagull?

Let’s take it a step further. Now that we’ve confused ourselves with others, and even with the beasts and the birds of air, we also get a little mixed up on death. For instance, if I am connected to a dozen other people, and perhaps some things which aren’t people, what happens when I die? When, that is, the body in which I was born ceases to function? Well, if parts of my memories and feelings still exist in the shared mind-set of a dozen friends, maybe I’m not actually dead.

Complicated situations. And, all of them, mind you, arise from what we’ll be able to do with technology that is on the horizon—i.e., which isn’t too far beyond what we can do already. Imagine what happens to “self” when we’ve got mind uploading. What will “I” mean when “I” might be a widely distributed collection of natural and artificial bodies and brains, scattered across continents, or even on different planets?

What will identity mean if a thought begins with a part of one’s self that happens to be orbiting Alpha Centauri, and which will not end until a tenuous signal arrives back at earth after four, long, complicated years?

 

4.

According to my friend and critic, the graduate student, and people like her, this is all a recipe for disaster. How can the concept of “identity” even survive in such an age? How could we, limited humans that we are, endure that loss?

Here, of course, is where I make an audacious statement: to wit, identity ain’t that big a deal.

I know that in an age of individualism and libertarianism, that sounds pretty spooky. But, I will submit that the individual and identity are not quite the same things. I will further submit that most of the time when people talk about “identity,” or an “identity crisis,” they aren’t really talking about the self. They are actually talking about the relationship of the self to a group.

Look at the writings of alienated intellectuals. Listen to the people who say in song or story, “I don’t know who I am.” Almost always, what they are actually saying is “I don’t know who I am … in relation to the larger society.”

Thus, when the citizen of a nation in decline asks, “Am I still an American?” (or a Brit or Frenchman or whatever), what they’re actually asking is “Does this community of people still offer me sufficient rewards, or threaten sufficiently Draconian punishments, to cause me to continue to pretend that its members are somehow related to me, and thus worth dying or killing for, when in fact they are total strangers?”

Similarly, when an individual in a complicated economic system asks, “Should I be a socialist or a libertarian?” what they are actually asking is “Do the people in this particular marketplace value what I have to offer? And will they pay enough for it to justify my continued presence in their community?”

And, finally, the white male American, struggling with the shift of power to his wife and daughter, is not really asking “Am I a man?” but rather “will the inhabitants of this most intimate of all communities—the family—continue to value me even though I no longer have an economic role to play?”

 

5.

This is not to suggest that the question “Whom am I?” is not real, potent, and haunting. It undoubtedly is. In fact, I suspect it is stamped directly into the human genome. It is literally within our genetics and derives from our fundamental origins, from the long generations we and our predecessors spent on the African veldt. In the wild, membership in a supportive group, and knowing one’s place in it, can mean the difference between life and death. (The rugged individualist is romantic, but has no one to watch his back.)

So, as humans, we worry about identity. “Who am I?” is a genuinely important question, and we justifiably obsess over it. And when we have an “identity crisis,” it really is a crisis.

But what will posthumans do? How will they regard identity?

My guess is that they won’t regard it at all. They won’t think about it. After all, if “identity” is really another name for community interaction, then someone who is linked directly to the brains of other individuals never has to worry about how he or she fits into the group. Or, if the posthuman is, in fact, a collection of coupled bodies and brains, some near and some far, some organic and many not, then she/he will be a community. The individual and the mass will be the same thing.

And besides, if “identity” and “identity crisis” are built directly into the human genome, then transhumans/posthumans may not care to take that particular characteristic with them when they move to the next level of existence. Why bother? It reflects the needs of plains-dwelling creatures living in hunter-gathering bands, endlessly seeking meat and fruit, endlessly trying to avoid lions and tigers and bears (oh my). It may not meet any need possessed of a creature for whom the stars alone are a worthy goal.

I suspect that posthumans will simply abandon identity as a concept, as they will abandon shyness, depression, violent competition for mates, posturing for social position within the tribe, and all those other behaviors that had a role once, long ago, in the world of homo erectus and his many heirs, but not now.

Instead, the posthuman will, like God and Popeye, say “I am what I am,” (or in Popeye’s case, “I yam what I yam.”), and not give a damn about any theories to the contrary. They will simply exist, alone or in groups as they choose, confident and certain of their place in the universe, untroubled by any doubts about who they are.

Indeed, to the posthuman, our own concerns about such things, our asking “Who am I?” will seem at best inexplicable, and at worst frankly laughable.

 

6.

There is nothing uniquely wrong with being made laughable. To us, the sort of theological questions that are parodied as “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” are a joke. To us, they are the quintessential waste of time and talent. How, we wonder, could some of the most intelligent minds of history have obsessed over them?

Yet, obsess they did, and from their perspective the dancing angels were a serious problem upon which much else depended. If there were a finite number of angels on that pin, then God himself might be limited. The whole concept of omnipotence might be called into question. Perhaps, indeed, an intellectual historian might argue that it was with such questions that humanity began its long ascent to the secular.

And so it will be also with “identity” and “the identity crisis.” For our successors, these will seem as unworthy of attention. Scholars of pre-Singularity humanity will shake their (multi-brained) heads in wonder. How, they will ask, could we have cared so much about something that was so minor? Why did someone calling himself “Victor Storiguard” write an entire essay on the topic? Why did you read it? Why did a half drunken woman’s comments spark the essay in the first place?

So, perhaps, all that I’ve written here is meaningless. And my critic, the woman who rebuked me at the party for my multiplicity of names, is wholly irrelevant.

Yet, I will defend my critic, the woman who discovered tequila’s effects the hard way. I think she touched on something important. Specifically, she raised a question that should haunt us all:

If identity is in fact only an outgrowth of human origins, how many other things that we consider vitally important today will be revealed as merely the workings of ancient neural structures developed by ground-dwelling apes? How many of them shall not manage the transition to posthumanity? What will we lose?

And, more, what we will put in its place?

Victor Storiguard is a former trade press journalist who now teaches English, U.S. and World History, and Creative Writing. He lives in the Boston-area.

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