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Posthuman: The Endgame?

Why doesn’t everyone get excited about transhumanism? Why aren’t all people fascinated by augmented and virtual reality, radical life-extension, brain-uploading, and The Singularity? This essay is the first in a series of articles, entitled “The Casual Transhuman” – it will examine H+ topics from the layman’s perspective and give suggestions on how transhumanists can spread their ideas without looking like crackpots to the world-at-large.

What is a posthuman being? For years, I have been hearing that we are gradually moving towards a new state. Transhumanism is, by definition, a step between our current human form and what we will become. I see a lot of ideas on how we will merge with our technology, how things will be radically different after the Singularity, how we will be immortal and how human and machine will become one new being in a glorious new world. But one thing I hear very little about is the end product.

It seems to me that there is a lack of focus in the transhumanist community. There is such an emphasis on the process that perhaps the big finale has faded into the aether. I think it is time to draw the focus back – to answer the question “what, exactly, are we trying to do here?” It is time to get a consensus and work back from that. Only then will we know how to proceed.

The word “posthuman” can be a tad polarizing and even frightening. I’m sure that for an audience like the one reading this on IEET or H+ Magazine, I don’t need to break down the parts of the word, like I would to grade schoolers. That would be insulting. Or would it? Hmm. Maybe the crux of the idea is in the word itself.

Post – obviously means “after.” I don’t think we need to dig into that any deeper. But the next part of the word is “human.” This is the hard part. How can we define “posthuman” until we come up with a specific consensus of what it means to be “human.” Let’s look first at a few dictionary definitions.

Human

Adjective: Of, relating to, or characteristic of people or human beings.

Noun: A human being, esp. a person as distinguished from an animal or (in science fiction) an alien.

Synonyms: adjective Human noun man – person – human being – individual – soul – mortal

This one was from Google, which grabbed it from Dictionary.com and Wikipedia. Here is the problem though. I was told from day one of kindergarten never to use a word in definition of itself. In other words, you cannot say that a tree is a tree-like object. So how can we stand for saying that the definition of a human is “a human being?”

Natasha Vita-More, one of the founders of the transhumanist movement, has released a few different versions of what she calls the “Primo Posthuman.” It is a graphic of a genderless human form, colored entirely in neon yellow with pointers to different parts of hir body, describing technological enhancements that will be on or in that body. This image has been reprinted numerous times in different articles and media. In fact, it has become one of the most recognizable images related to transhumanism. However, the title is “Primo Posthuman” but it shows a human with cyborg enhancements. I would like to know why this fictional person was labeled a posthuman when it appears they were born an unenhanced homo sapiens. Shouldn’t she be labeled a “primo transhuman?”

So we go back to how we define a posthuman. What comes “after human?” Is this a being we would even recognize? How will we evolve biologically in response to our dependence on technology?

The second half of the animated Pixar film Wall*E shows how humans have changed while living for hundreds of years in a massive spaceship after leaving Earth a deserted, polluted wasteland. These people spend their lives in motorized chairs, never walking, never taking their eyes off the computer/TV screens before them. They are depicted as being entirely unable to care for themselves, and are waited on by robots. Although not a hive mind, they are easily swayed. When the computer tells them that red is the new color of choice, they all instantly change their clothes (via a color-changing material they never remove) to red. This movie was meant as a statement on mass consumerism, but it served as an effective argument or allegory for many different subjects, many of which would be of interest to transhumanists.

For the purposes of this article, we are looking at the humans in this film (although the robots are really cool, too). We see through archival footage aboard the spaceship that these pathetic blobs were, in fact, once real humans. We see the president of the Buy’N’Large Corporation, played by Fred Willard, as the only real human being in any Pixar film. Which implies that these pasty, cartoonish blobs are not computer-generated approximations of humans in an animated movie, but rather that this is supposed to be a live-action movie, and that this is how humanity will evolve over the next few hundred years.

This is actually quite frightening.

Think about it for a second.

The implications of this view are quite interesting, really. When we look at science fiction, especially in film, we usually get three different views. The first is that we will, through our technological advances, create a utopian world where all evils have been eradicated. This is prevalent in Star Trek. The second is that we will let our technology rule us, leading us to become monstrous hybrids, like the Borg…also in Star Trek. The third is that the technology will gain sentience, rising against humanity, and eventually causing our extinction. This is like The Terminator and The Matrix (which I believe, as a closet fanboy, take place in the same continuity alongside Dark City and Cube. But I digress…)

This view of the future we see in Wall*E is completely different than those, and in a much more disturbing way. Utopian idealism is fine, and we should try with all our collective might to get there, but nothing will ever be perfect. In fact, we will most likely never get anywhere close to it, unfortunately. The twisted machine men like the Borg or the people portrayed in the fantastic Japanese manga series Gunnm (Americanized as Battle Angel Alita) are frightening, but as unrealistic as the utopian vision. I seriously doubt we will willingly allow ourselves to be perverted into these monsters.

Even the eventual implants and limb replacements will, most likely, be made to seem as humanlike as possible. The third view, of a robot-dominated Earth, where humans are either enslaved or extinct, is often referred to by non-science types. Those films were so well-received that every time a technological breakthrough is made, people post quotes from those movies right below the articles.

Wall*E, however, shows us what may be a more realistic view. We’ve seen how people in industrialized countries have become softer, rounder and more dependent on technology. The United States is often characterized by other nations as being full of fat, lazy, uneducated, rich and obsessed with consumerism. This is a simplistic view, stereotypical at best and offensive to some. Without getting into a bunch of details this generalization does have some basis in fact.

And this is with the current state of technological development. Let’s take this concept out a few hundred years. Those who (and I must sadly add myself to the list) spend most of their time seated, eating, looking at various glowing screens and trusting Siri, Google and iTunes to keep track of our lives are just the vanguard of a brave new world, aren’t they? Imagine what life will be like after a technological singularity. After we discover we can replace limbs or use nanotechnology to obliterate the cancer we get from eating far too many In-Vitro McRibs.

Now, I’m not trying to be all gloom-and-doom here. And this does tie back into my original question. What will be a posthuman being? If we are human now, and we are using our technology to become transhuman, the step between what we are and what we will become, what is our eventual endgame? We should heed the warnings of Wall*E’s filmmakers. If we are going to become more dependent on our technology, we must make sure we don’t become…that. However, this leaves a lot of room to discuss what we should be trying to become. This is exciting. We can take the time – now – on the edge of great breakthroughs, to have a serious discussion of just what the hell we are doing. Although there will likely be many differing, even opposing, opinions of what posthumanity can or should be, perhaps there can be some sort of consensus.

And now, as always, I leave it up to the reader to continue the discussion.

At what point do we no longer consider ourselves human? When do we go from trans to post? Can we define what human is? Do we want to keep some part of it? All of it? Or do we want to toss it all out, start from scratch, define our own selves and our own future and become posthuman by choice instead of evolution? How do we do that? Most importantly, how will we know when we’ve done it?
[Editor's note: A prior version of this article first appeared on ieet.org on August 15, 2012.]

12 Comments

  1. To me, our reality is holographic in nature, and we project our consciousnesses into these flesh bodies to have ‘the human experience’ much in the same was as conceptualised in the movie ‘avatar’

    It seems to me that the transhuman agenda is ultimately to thwart death, be it via genetic manipulation that holds the aging process in stasis, or through some for of consciousness transfer from body to body.

    Those that finally achieve this goal of immortality, may well find their conscioussness forever trapped within a holographic simulation (of which, as I have stated, seems that we are all currently in)

    To me that would be an example of hell. Experiencing this reality is interesting sure, but I would not wish to stuck here forever.

    For me, a full, healthy vibrant life leading to a comfortable and dignified ending yes, an immortal, undead existence no.

    Good luck the the transhumanists. I will choose a different path.

    • But this world is not a bridge and thus the mepaohtr collapses. What did people of 2000 years ago know of our time? Today, circa 2008, in a world of technological capabilities that would appear magical to our distant ancestors, falling rates of violence (perhaps the lowest in recorded human history), gradual changes in birth and death rates, an unprecedented selection of religions to choose from, and the likely advent of life and minds created artificially by humankind in this modern world, platitudes from distant lands and times can do little more than compete with other traditional guides for common sense, values, and morality. I prefer a debate grounded in today, with at most a cursory review of reference material from the distant past.Jesus allegedly weighed in with a mepaohtr, but much more relevant to the current discussion about radical life extension is the participation of modern humans scientists, policy makers, and citizens alike.

  2. In my own opinion I think you are off the mark. I fully feel that no matter what we end up doing to ourselves to improve our condition and capacity we will still call ourselves human one way or another. Certainly those that don’t want to tag along for the process may disagree with this sentiment but typically those with power write history and make the definitions.
    Honestly I feel that we almost certainly will not go the route of the blobs in Wall-E. It is far more likely we will figure out how to engineer ourselves to be fit (or even much better than fit at least by current standards) no matter the circumstances. I also agree with previous posters that we will more than likely choose new forms as they occur/appeal to us. I also don’t think we will be staring at screens constantly either as we open up new technologies and avenues to explore. Perhaps we will have the capability to spin off mental copies or avatars of us that are always linked to us but off doing other projects or enjoyable activities, allowing us to do many, many things.
    I also doubt very much that ‘work’ will either be anything like what we experience now or perhaps even exist in any form we recognize now after any conceptual singularity event. Our current time frame could easily be used. If we could ask anyone from a century or more ago about what we in first world nations call work they would probably consider our definition laughable. Most people back in those times had to work much, much harder doing grueling work just to survive and to them we would almost certainly be considered to be living in their version of utopia. It really comes down to perception. Will we ever get rid of all problems? Unlikely, but we could probably narrow them down so that the few that remain are manageable or ignorable.
    Ultimately I think it is perhaps too early to be making judgement calls on what a post human would be. I seriously doubt we have the capacity to make such a leap in logic as we have no real basis with which to make such guesses. To me it would be like a mouse trying to imagine what it is like being as intelligent as a human. Transhumanism however is something we can grasp. We can make definitive guesses with our current knowledge on how we can augment ourselves and improve our condition. Will they all work out? Maybe, maybe not. But we can at least hypothesize them. I don’t feel anyone has the capacity at this moment to declare what a post human would be, even if such a concept comes to pass.

  3. Marshall McLuhan said all Utopias are an attempt to apply what we now know today, to the past. So we think a “better human” is someone with a cell phone stitched inside his skull.

    We must first ask, are we, or have we, been living in a dystopia? We much acknowledge there are people, many of them, who have great lives…fantastic ones. If you were a 20th century rock star, or a medieval king, or a wealthy Roman patron, you wouldn’t be all that worried about what comes next, because your present is so good (alternatively, you may fear change!).

    Another though is that when you look at the newest trends in technology, which up till now has been entirely done with organic, inflexible matter, we find people coming full circle and realizing DNA life may have better solutions! So, swarm behavior has replaced the singular first order logic brain in artificial intelligence. For flight we look at the bees. We long for materials with the flexibility of skin. We covet the information storing abilities of DNA.

    So here we have humans. We have a super computer in our skulls that can be powered by a tuna fish sandwich. We can think, run and jump. As a society (swarm) we problem solve and compete to achieve. Yes, we die and suffer, but with each experience comes progress.

    Perhaps we might go back to the ancient Greeks and Renaissance and ask what is a life well lived, before sticking a portable microwave in our abdomens.

  4. Lots of transhumanists seem to me to be highly aware of what they are eating; some of them are into working out, and one of the first enhancements will, in my view, be technologies to eliminate obesity, and make us look healthy. We may spend a lot of time sitting in front of screens, but I suspect many of those doing so will look “buff”.

  5. Great article and very interesting thought. There’s just one problem: They could all be equally true of our future, without excluding each other.
    To me, it’s quite silly and overly naive to think humans will always be one singular species. Firstly because looking back, there has always been more than one hominid species at any one time (besides the last 30,000 years, which is a drop in the bucket when it comes to time) and secondly because we’re already more than happy to create sub-cultures based on views, preferences and technology. So why wouldn’t this natural subdividing of humans cause us to slowly create many new sub-species of humans? After all, the initial steps of reaching post-humanism will be based on what preferences one has for technology and “upgrading” oneself. So slobs could be “blobs”, the weak willed could “choose” to be ruled by intelligent machines, some could create semi-Utopian countries and in doing so, they become sub-species as different from each other, as Homo Sapience are from our Australopithecus forefathers.

    And as for a definition of posthuman, i usually tell people to look at X-men, Fantastic 4, the Avengers etc, to see what transhuman might be and then to the mythologies of old to see what posthuman might be.

  6. The suggestion is made I think that humans becoming a Star Trek Borg or Doctor Who Cybermen species would not necessarily be a kind of utopia. Humans could easily have normal children conceived with modifications and allow them to grow up and have their natural mental and physical capabilities gradually enhanced using similar mechanics to the Borg or Cybermen but with much friendlier sensual and aesthetic outcomes. Humans would always be human but since the age of the pierced ear and the tattoo humans have been structurally augmenting their bodies. There would always be exceptions to the desires for techno-biological improvement of yourself and your offspring in communities such as the Amish or other religious fundamentalists. However, the majority of people who can have themselves and their children safely and affordably modified to have brains and bodies on par with Marilyn Monroe and Albert Einstein, and they had no chance of doing so naturally, would take the choice, if only out of necessity to stay competitive in the workplace and social strata. Eventually in the far future people who do not have their bodies augmented so they would never be intentionally a burden on society will be seen as moochers or sado-masochists and ultimately suicidal (Pensions will be abolished except perhaps for extended holidays.). For if you can live young indefinitely, but you choose to die of frailty and old age (When the method is entirely avoidable.), will be incomprehensible. We already have our technology control our behavior without it even being surgically implanted, that step will change nothing.

  7. The author seems to spend a lot of time wondering what we will look like or what our physiology will be like, but the whole point of being “beyond human” is that none of that stuff will matter anymore. To me, the definition of posthuman is obvious: the moment when we decouple our minds from our bodies. Like Director_X was talking about, a posthuman might want to spend a few weeks in an octopus body or as an intergalactic space ship. Maybe one day you’ll want to take your old-fashioned meat-body out of cold storage for a stroll around the park. Maybe you’ll be a god in your own personal simulated reality and never leave. To be posthuman is to be a mind free from the constraints of physical reality; to be not only immortal, but immaterial.

  8. A self directed biology/existence to me implies the inevitability of extreme diversity.

    My endgame looks like this:
    Multiple biological and robotic bodies with P2P or otherwise networked brains, some of which will be floating through space on a craft made from grey ooze, devouring planets as I see fit. The types of forms I would like to inhabit would be very diverse: octopus, vending machine, cyborg space mantaray…you name it, I’ll try it.

    Were does that fit into posthuman? Do you think I can win society over to my vision?

  9. Obviously, we must turn all matter into computronium, thereby eliminating the great twin evil of stupidity/suffering.

  10. The article implies that there is a coherent “we” that has an identifiable “end game”, i.e. common goals on which we could converge. I think this is a misrepresentation of transhumanism; there is no such coherence.

    However, if you want my opinion on “what we should be trying to become”, I’d say, if anything at all, humans should become beings that never suffer against their will and replace or similarly alter the rest of the living world as well (hedonic enhancement, bioethical abolitionism). Of course, that is not a new idea, and of course their is no agreement even in the transhumanist “community” whether it can be done, or even if it should be done if indeed possible.