An Integral Framework for Transhumanism
The ancient Sumerians had a tradition of rebuilding the crumbling ziggurats of mud bricks that were the dwelling places of a city’s patron deity. They repeatedly reconstructed the glazed facades of their tiered mountains upon which the stood temples where priests could more closely watch in awe and map the movements of stars. Nowadays our civilization tends to deify the crumbling temples, walls and pyramids of the past as though there is something sacred not so much in their inspiration and connotation but in their original materials and construction. In the Sumerian creation myth the Enuma Elish the young gods overthrew the old and took their place in the ruling and shaping of the world. The Ancient Greek and Hindu mythologies had a similar palimpsest of the new overwriting the old. In modern post industrial culture the foundational documents, stories and heroes of past are sacred and awe inspiring. While many are looking backward despite the rising tide of change covering our feet, some of us are looking forward. While Prometheus looked forward, his brother Epimetheus looked back. The creative power embodied in the fire stolen from Hephaestus by Prometheus, and now directed by human knowledge we can call Techne.
At first examination Transhumanism is a complex and quickly evolving Promethean school of thought loosely woven together with a variety of conversations and points of view. It is kind of a crazy quilt of ideas and technologies in which it is difficult initially to discern much more than a common definition. It seems there are already a few manifestos still glowing from Hephaestus’ forge. There is some uncertainty, at least in my own mind where the movement begins and ends. The history of Transhumanism is bound inseparably to the history and evolution of technology from the Paleolithic tools and crafts on through printing presses and mechanical looms and onto smartphones, gene therapy and military drones. The Transhuman Self is a part of the self organizing system of the Technium, the self reinforcing and self organizing ecology of technological innovation. The more we dig into the definition and movement the more it calls into question our place in the natural world, the nature of human evolution and where technology fits into the natural order of the Earth community and cosmos as a whole. Max More defined the movement nicely as the “using of reason, science and technology but by good will to overcome fundamental human limits to live longer than we’ve ever lived, to become smarter, to become emotionally better than we have ever been.”
This is a good start though I would like to expand the definition and explore an integrative vision of human evolution that incorporates physiology, psychology, spirituality, culture and environmentalism. Since I am new to transhumanism, having only learned of the movement in the past year I have needed an intelligible and digestible framework to put all of the disparate ideas into. As a result I’ve constructed an outline of Types of Enhancement and Categories of Technology that I’d like to begin to explore here. Though the various definitions of Transhumanism seem to be longhand for Human Evolution, especially in relationship with technology, it’s focus seems primarily on biology with little concern for Evolutionary Psychology. Likewise, spiritual development generally seems to be somewhat of a dirty word, which is a curious thing that I will begin to address later. I must admit here that I am partial to Terence McKenna’s so called Stoned Ape hypothesis and a kind of techno-shamanism.
My own fascination with evolutionary science and technology originated in watching the first landing on the moon, reading R. Buckminster Fuller’s works, browsing the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, carefully digesting Toffler’s Future Shock, studying cosmology and various works of science fiction. My educational background was in the study of Transpersonal and Ecopsychology and I’m fascinated by the intersection of psyche, technology and nature. More recently I’ve been reading, thinking and reviewing the innovations and ideas of Artificial Intelligence and Transhumanism presented in various novels, articles and discussions online from Google+ and various blogs as well as watching a few engaging documentaries, interviews and reading a few books still made of real paper. Writing a novel that explores some of the implications of neural implants, nanotechnology and A.I.was an opportunity to try to put all these innovations together into a coherent story. This article is a similar exploration without the art of prose and the play of narrative.
Types of Enhancement:
Performance, Cosmetic, Health, Intelligence
Performance enhancements include cardiovascular, muscular, skeletal modifications for the purpose of increasing capabilities and pushing competitive limits. Artificial red blood cells for runners, biking and swimming, carbon fiber reinforced skulls and bones for football players, increased hand eye coordination for baseball, hockey and most competitive sports.
Orthotic, Prosthesis, Simulation, Substrate
It is in some ways difficult to map out stages of development in Transhumanism since some categories of technology do not become fully obsolete. Kevin Kelly noted this tendency in What Technology Wants. In this sense it might be better to think of these as domains or categories of technology.Orthotic: Externally applied Structural or Functional devices made to control, guide, restrict or assist movement, to correct shape and function or reduce pain. Classic examples are braces for teeth, podiatry, combat armor, sports padding, helmets and cleats. Then there are mechanical exoskeletons being experimented with for military uses and assistive technology for the elderly and disabled. There are also cognitive orthotics to assist with memory loss and mental impairments. Since I can’t effectively function without the calendar and address book imbedded on my iPhone, not to mention my obsessive use of Wikipedia and Google I would argue that such a precocious little device as a smart phone as well as search engines and a dynamic encyclopedia of knowledge falls into this category of an intelligence orthotic as well.
Personal, Transpersonal, Ecological, Socio-Cultural
Who we are is clearly larger than the lens and mirror of our conscious mind can take in all at once. I’ve come to think of growth and identity as a more dynamic nonlinear system. Most of the models of development I grew up with and was educated with were more distinctly linear. First this stage then the next one and the next one. But maybe our psyches are shaped more like trees with different limbs and we grow in different capacities at different rates. At some times in our lives we grow more along the personal limb, at others the socio-cultural, at still others our relationship with our environment or our spiritual capacities are predominant. The Self is not bounded simply by one’s own skin but is more of a nexus in a complex system of distributed identity in development. This works well with the insights of Depth, Transpersonal and Ecopsychology.
Personal: This is the domain of what we normally think of as psychology, personal and interpersonal. It is one’s personal identity and one’s place in a context of relationships from the family system to one’s friends and work place. The old notions of the atomistic self lay here, though self consciousness is a limited portion of the psyche as a whole.
The Promethean Self then that is sought to be preserved in Transhumanism is a dynamic system unfolding out of a unique integration of various substrates. The brain itself is not a single organ but a complex organ system that evolved to collaborate fairly effectively over millions of years. Further, human consciousness does not depend simply on a particular configuration of neural patterns but extends into the organ systems of one’s body and extends into all of the different substrates that are woven together into one’s whole being. This fits nicely with Professor Anthony Miccoli’s ideas of Posthumanism in which the Self is composed of a kind of distributed cognition that extends into the various topologies we inhabit, including the spaces we occupy and the wetware of the brain. And so like the Ship of Theseus we can indeed progressively modify and replace our component parts though the Self we end up with will not be the same Self we started off with. Such is, I guess the nature of human development and evolution.
Stephen Kagan is an author of contemplative poetry and the speculative fiction novel Augmented Dreams. With over 20 years of work experience in IT he currently works at the University of Victoria in beautiful British Columbia. He studied at Goddard College in Vermont, the Library of Tibetan a Works and Archives in Dharamsala, India and has an MA in East West Psychology from CIIS in San Francisco. He has a long standing interest in the psychology of consciousness, ecopsychology and the melting point of psyche, technology and nature. www.augmenteddreams.net & http://singularitypalimpsest.blogspot.ca/