We Are Transhuman
One question that I have seen repeatedly asked is: When did the transhuman era begin; indeed, has it begun or is it an event that is yet to occur?
One can find arguments both for and against it being an event we are in the midst of. Those who argue in favour of the transhuman era being well underway argue that we are already cyborg: We compensate for short-sightedness with eyeglasses; we wear clothes to protect our body from the elements, and we depend greatly on computing and communications devices to organise our daily lives. Those who argue against point out that, while we are clearly dependent on technology, by and large it serves only to compensate for disabilities. Glasses correct short-sightedness, for example, but do not augment vision to human+ levels. And we merely carry our smart phones around with us, rather than have them implanted. We are not really cyborgs.
So what side of this argument do I side with? I think it pretty obvious that we are in the midst of the transhuman era. We are, now, clearly in a transitional period between homo-sapiens sapiens and the post-human. It is not my purpose to pinpoint when, exactly, the transhuman era began. Perhaps it is impossible to pinpoint the moment when our relationship with technology was such that we had become transhuman. The computer age? The Industrial Age? The Stone Age? I would not be surprised if arguments could be made favouring any one as the age in which our relationship with technology was intimate enough to warrant favouring it as the beginning of the transhuman era. What I want to show is that, it began at some hard-to-define period in the past and we are now well into that transitional period between ‘natural’ humans and whatever technological being is to follow.
Consider the range of our senses and physical abilities as natural humans*:
For centuries, we have used science to help us understand the physical world and everything in it (including ourselves), applying that knowledge, in part, to the development of ever-more capable devices for measuring forces like gravity, light, and other forces of nature. We have augmented our physical strength with machinery. Now, in the modern age, the range of senses and physical abilities available to humanity are:
It is difficult to put into words how much this augmentation of our senses and abilities has expanded our comprehension of the universe and the opportunities available in our daily lives. Take, for instance, the extent to which we can gaze at the physical world, from the tiniest thing we can see with the naked eye, to the most distant objects we can perceive without the use of a telescope.
Unaided, and with regular vision, the naked eye can see objects no smaller than 0.1 millimetres. In other words, any object smaller than the width of a human hair is invisible to us. And the range of objects that are smaller than 0.1 millimetres is VAST. Life, for example: The organisms we can see with the naked eye are a tiny percentage of all life on Earth, most of which are microbes, bacteria, and viruses so tiny we had no inkling they existed, prior to the invention of the microscope (a handicap that made developing effective treatments for disease decidedly difficult).
Or, consider the night sky. Sometimes technology takes away rather than give: Our ancestors undoubtedly saw many more stars in the night sky compared to urban dwellers today: Light pollution makes it impossible to see all but the brightest stars in the night sky and in some cities, citizens may not see any stars at all. But, in ages past when the night was truly dark, the naked eye could gaze up and see about 45,000 stars. Not all those objects in the night sky would have been stars. It is possible to see the andromeda galaxy with the naked eye, given good enough viewing conditions. And there is at least anecdotal evidence that our ancestors could see the larger Moons of Jupiter with the naked eye. Of course, they could not distinguish features like the cracked marble surface of Europa, the inconceivably gigantic storms raging across Jupiter, or the spiral shape of Andromeda. As far as our ancestors were concerned, the night sky consisted of nothing but the Moon, an occasional comet or shooting star, and 45,000 pinpricks of light.
Aided by modern radio and optical telescopes, which have enabled us to see objects 13 billion lightyears from Earth, we can see that the visible Universe contains something on the order of 100 billion galaxies, each of which contains 100 billion stars. A caveat is in order here. It is impossible to see those 100 billion galaxies all at once through a telescope. The Hubble Deep Field (which, to my knowledge, remains the furthest we have peered into spacetime) required the eponymous space telescope to focus on a patch of sky equivalent in size to a postage stamp for hours on end in order to produce an image of some 10,000 galaxies. We get that ‘100 billion galaxies’ number by figuring out how many postage-stamp sized volumes make up the sky, and multiplying that by the number of galaxies in the Hubble Deep Field. In other words, it is a logical inference that the visible universe contains at least 100 billion galaxies; we cannot look through telescopes and see 100 billion galaxies in the sense that our ancestors could look up and see 45,000 stars.
Nevertheless, our comprehension of the size and age of the universe, and of the strange, beautiful and terrifying phenomena that exists within it, is incomparably more expansive than the universe our ancestors knew about. Today, the average person knows about black holes, quasars, pulsars, nebulae, volcanic eruptions on Io, dried riverbeds on Mars, collisions between galaxies, and can access countless images of startling colour and beauty from highly-detailed images of Saturn and its glorious rings, or the Horse-Head nebula or (my favourite) the Hoag Object. Admittedly, quite a few of the images you can download or see on TV or in books are artist impressions based on scientific data. Examples include those images of black holes devouring a neighbouring star or images of alien worlds as up-close and detailed as the Earth as viewed from our own Moon. But those images are informed by the best scientific data we have (with a bit of artistic licence thrown in as well). Our ancestors could see only pinpricks of light and made up myths about gods and other superstitions which come nowhere near to the extraordinary facts which modern astronomy, astrophysics and cosmology have taught us about the Universe.
How different we are to humans of times gone by. Biologically speaking, we are hardly changed at all. If you could somehow bring back a baby born 100,000 years ago and have it raised by parents in our day and age, that infant would mature into an adult no different from any other. But biology is only an aspect of what makes a human; there is also culture and technology. And where technology is concerned we are radically different. Today, ordinary citizens have commuted some 8.8 million miles in twenty-seven years. Our ancestors typically died within a mile of their birth, a distance equivalent to just one 25,000th of the Earth’s circumference. Again: How narrow the range of experiences our ancestors had access to throughout their lives, compared to a person today in just one year of life.
Having said that, though, it is a fact that a lot of the figures cited above refer to achievements humanity has accomplished rather than the experiences of regular people. Take the figure for ocean depth for example. Thanks to advances in technology we have ventured down as far as 10,912 meters. Well, I say ‘we’ but actually more people have walked on the Moon than have been down to the bottom of the Mariana Trench (the deepest part of the world’s oceans). Similarly, only an elite few are part of the ‘300 club’, a rarified collection of drivers who have taken cars or motorbikes to a speed of 300 MPH and beyond. Frankly, the figures cited above refer to capabilities that most of us have, at best, only intermittent access to and, at worse, have never experienced and do not expect to.
In other words, I know of no superperson who can claim to have been down as far as 10,912 meters, and soared high enough to look down on Earth from an astronaut’s vantage point, and so on and so on, ticking off every number listed under ‘the range of senses and physical abilities available to humanity’.
In ‘Natural Born-Cyborgs’ Andy Clark argues that to be ‘cyborg’ in the sense of physically integrating technology into our bodies and brains is far less profound than ‘being human-technology symbionts: Thinking and reasoning systems whose minds and selves are spread across brain and nonbiological circuitry’. Put another way, the key step in becoming ‘cyborged’ by a technology is to ensure that tech can be swiftly and easily accessed whenever the need arises. When you naturally turn to Google or some app on your smartphone in order to help organise your life or help solve some problem you are working on, you are, effectively, a cyborg. Psychologically-speaking, such technologies- on hand and easily accessible- are (in Clark’s words) “not just external props and aids, but… deep and integral parts of the problem-solving systems we now identify as human intelligence”.
A historian of technology called Lewis Manford wrote about how the notion of time as divided into hours, minutes and seconds did not exist prior to the invention of accurate timepieces. Instead, people marked the passage of time by the cycles of dawn, morning, day, afternoon, evening and night. Once clocks became readily available, actions could be more precisely measured, and different activities could be coordinated more effectively to achieve a future goal. This ability to accurately determine the time was a necessary skill for coordinating the division of labour that typifies much of modern working life. It is also, notice, a transhuman skill. Easy and ubiquitous access to accurate timepieces turns us into a bio-technological system whose conscious self represents a fairly thin layer, sitting between unconscious neural subsystems ‘below’ and cultural/technological systems ‘above’ and these systems all operate harmoniously to enable ‘you’ (this system that includes the timepiece and knowledge of how to use it) to know the time. It is not a purely ‘natural’ ability to be aware that it is now precisely 3 hours, 29 minutes and 17 seconds past 12.
But a lot of technologies have yet to achieve this level of psychological integration, as those who have struggled with awkward interfaces know only too well. This may be why our being in the midst of the transhuman period goes unnoticed by some; its signs are still too subtle unless explicitly pointed out.
I am reminded of a poetical passage by Richard Fortey, in which he imagined standing on the shore of a Cambrian beach.
“The wind is whistling across the red plains behind me, where nothing visible lives… but in the muddy sand at my feet I see worm casts, little curled wiggles that look familiar. I can see trails of dimpled impressions left by the scuttling of crustacean-like animals… Apart from the whistle of the breeze and the crash and suck of the breakers, it is completely silent, and nothing cries on the wind”.
How dead, how devoid of life this world would seem from a casual glance. No grasses covering the land, no chirrup of insects or birdsong echoing through the air. And, yet, with a guide to point you to subtle signs, you would have to agree that life does exist in this world.
I think we are, now, at a similar stage in our transhuman evolution. It is not a stage that must wait until the future to begin, it has begun already. But, it is in a primitive stage, its impact not yet large enough to be obvious unless you deliberately set out to look for signs of it happening. And we have been lulled by science fiction notions of what it is to be Transhuman, notions that to be cyborg necessitates physically integrating technologies within our bodies, or robots would be anthropomorphic devices that walk and talk like we do, and therefore possibly misinformed about the real Transhuman period evolving in our midst.