The Unrehearsed Flight to Transhumanity
To the busy men of science, we laymen are the intended audience only for yesterday’s news. In part, it’s a sly tactic. They alert us belatedly to keep things forever from our reach. In another sense, they’re always flying by the seat of their pants on fire. Either way, life-altering ‘advances’ warranting broad plebiscites routinely blow past the planet’s butchers, bakers and candlestick makers. As I write this, technology’s radioactive waters are spilling into the Pacific Ocean at the rate of 300 tons per day to which Big Science has managed to add only stony silence in the way of solutions. Am I rubbing things in? Nah, the Pacific Ocean’s worth it!
Intimations of such disasters were, prior to Fukushima (and with the requisite amnesia for Chernobyl), the province of Greenpeace whale-huggers and excitable poets. We’ll have to remind our scientific community about this later as, history shows, they are often remiss pointing out their various miscalculations (that’s provided there’s enough history left for one more ring-around-the-lesson-
The National Academy of Sciences needs a poet on the advisory board. As Orpheus learned, really bad stuff only has to happen once and bang your limbs get scattered hither and thon. Oceans are singularly sacred if not altogether singular (NOAA refers to our five oceans as ‘one continuous oceanic mass’). So you’d think the unthinkable might have been entertained given the stakes involved. Yet good men of science routinely sleepwalk through their own metaphysical fogs. Statistical significance and engineering tolerance have all the empirical veracity of a Delphic oracle. Who are the butchers now, Mr. Einstein?
The trouble is, though we discover science with great alacrity, we’re no cleverer at wielding its myriad applications much less those shadow-forms called unintended consequences. Fortunately that’s all changing.[Insert ‘whew ‘sound-bite]
Enter the trans-humanists to insist we are on the threshold of overcoming the self-destructive aspects of the human condition by abolishing the human condition. That’s mighty portentous. All souls, no matter their vocation, deserve to get a word in edgewise. But you already know the game. They’re going to use the predations of science to justify more science. We have to do it. Look at the mess we’re in. In a perverse twist, the ocean they just murdered will serve as Exhibit A.
This religion, Science, which prides itself on the fluidic dogma of self-correction may soon find itself—and we who travel with it—reduced to four oceans (or again, if you favor the NOAA definition, none). Too bad correctives can’t be dealt from a bottomless deck. Silly humans (laymen, not scientists) and their errors will be blamed, prompting ‘responsible scientists’ to call for ever more desperate measures. The trans-human agenda fits nicely here even though it’s more of the same and with a vengeance, something akin to strapping man’s fate into a new-fangled roller coaster while laying new track just a few feet ahead i.e. business as usual in this juggernaut Age of Big Science, only faster still:
“We won’t experience one hundred years of technological advance in the 21st century; we will witness on the order of 20,000 years of progress (again, when measured by the rate of progress in 2000), or about 1,000 times greater than what was achieved in the 20th century.”—Ray Kurzweil, futurist and trans-humanist (from his website).
This is what’s known in actuarial circles as a breathless statistic. Moreover it’s interesting to see just how creditable the notion of progress remains within scientific circles, though I’d love to hear Alfred North Whitehead write his ass out of Fukushima. Do I stereotype to say, for the most part, scientists are dangerously smart, vocationally-trained nerds? They should spread their wings a bit and read some Georges Sorel who regarded science as the Tree of Knowledge come to kill the Tree of Life. For Sorel, scientists were forever overreaching their mandate. Paraphrasing Sorel, Isaiah Berlin says this:
“The great machine of science does not yield answers to problems of metaphysics or morality: to reduce the central problems of human life to problems of means, that is, of technology, is not to understand what they are. To regard technical progress as being identical with, or even as a guarantee of, cultural progress, is moral blindness.” –from “Against The Current: Essays in the History of Ideas” by Isaiah Berlin
One thing is clear: Toffler’s future shock was a tricycle ride. For, what Kurzweil is projecting is an inhuman pace in the most literal sense. How will primate anxieties ever comport this light-speed alteration of everything at once? Does anyone ever raise an apish arm in the lab to ask? Nor can I chastise Kurzweil for merely voicing a disembodied statistic. That would an ad hominem attack (one day we will have to explain this logical fallacy to our artificial children). The humanist recognizes immediately that there is no human agent conducting this tempo. Technology (whatever the hell it is, no one really knows) is dictating the pace as a prelude to full-on control. We’ll get to declarations of war a little later. But am I alone in reading this statistic as technology’s gauntlet laid down: “We’re gonna run your monkey-asses over”?
Implicit too in all the breathless excitement is the belief (i.e. hardly empirically derived) that scientific advance can outstrip common sense provided some hypersonic level of the former can be reached. But I’m tired of blurry negatives and dead seas from our scientific community. I want proof, Mr. Bigfoot hunter. As for the next stage of trans-humanism (by 1999’s How We Became Post-Human, N. Katherine Hayles was already proclaiming the post-human era) just as we’re acquainting with the metal safety bar pinned across our chests, the roller coaster operator mutters something about our imminent convergence on the glorious erasure of man as we know him. In short this isn’t the usual contraption of loops and dips. We are men and women as we know them. No matter what one may think of our present iteration, man other than as we know him is a monster by definition, if not outright design. The coaster wheels screech like disembodied fingernails dragged across a blackboard. Suddenly we recall how we like our hair, how we like the wind running through it like a river.
Once, man broke bread with rivers. Philosopher Martin Heidegger took us to the earliest bridge, a technology in accord with human ‘dwelling’ that embraced the ‘fourfold’ realms of ‘earth, sky, mortals and divinities’. The river surprised and surpassed itself, discovering hidden currents in the overarching spans which pleased the Naiads who sensed both their own province expanding and a greater affinity for the earthen banks on either side. Regretfully, this right-sized expression of technology was but a brief way-station. By the early 20th century, technology was already off on its own one-legged race. From there, it was a hop, skip and jump to more rarified topographies. No one wants to get by with simply being anymore, not with the Joker’s wonderful toys scattered all about, gizmos that move mountains beyond the natural malformations of vista. Cranky old Heidegger lived in a cabin in the woods not unlike the Unabomber only with better manifestoes and a legacy shaded by more than Black Forest pines. Meanwhile back in the city, technology continued playing the will-to-power game in its dark, subjugating form. Mountains were rifled like coal baskets, depriving Zarathustra of a suitable promontory from which to stamp his little feet. Witness the decapitated Blue Ridge mountain range (victim of mountaintop mining). Thus spaketh now from where exactly?
Slowly the world’s oroborus is turning, no doubt to shake us off. The evidence abounds. Bees, blind-drunk on pesticidal cocktails, are flying past their hives. Poseidon is enraged over his sudden need for a Geiger counter. Gaia doesn’t appreciate her unmentionables poking out of the increasingly threadbare Amazon basin. Heidegger’s energy-extracting hydroelectric power plant, a trans-natural monstrosity, conclusively relegated nature’s riparian majesty to standing reserve. As we failed to stem this challenging of nature (a deformation of being, the head-rush of false mastery) during its reversible stage, technology is now doubling back to lop off ourheads. (Make note of the machine’s homicidal inclinations, all you on-the-fence trans-humanists!) Soon, cybernetic noggins will be affixed to the stumps between our shoulders. The unhinged mojo of modern technology is a gauntlet laid down to challenge all that beats within us; which means the joke and the metaphor were always on us. Technology’s telos has always been a technosphere stripped of humans. In a neat twist, Man has been enframed by technology as a natural bridge spanning the creaturely past and the cybernetic future. Our destiny lies beyond ourselves in the trans-human, then the super-human, then god-machines, the latter to exceed our intellectual capacity literally a trillion-trillion times. (de Garis suggests the processing capacity of the human brain is 1016 bits /second versus the projected processing capacity of our machines in 2020 at 1040 bits/second; hence the ‘24 zeroes’.) Evolution entertains no darling species nor favored mutational response. Should flash-drives prove better than flesh, then I suppose, why not?
I’m being more than sentimentally human when I suggest it’s worse than our robot-overlords snagging every valedictorian seat in every graduating class. Geez, that’ll be embarrassing enough. An intelligence orders of magnitude beyond our own becomes more than just a way more useful engine, but likely of a different cast altogether i.e. radically, disturbingly alien. I’m not a smart enough tool in the shed to think what these news thinkers will think of us, but just think if it’s not very much at all? Suppose they liken us to a common virus? Suppose we are a common virus? In the face of such logarithmic IQ leaps, our relative superiority as a biologic species becomes de minimus. The Fukushima debacle might argue that that’s a risk worth taking, and the sooner the better. I’m smart enough to know that’s what the scientists will argue. Onward science! Damn the torpedoes and the atom bombs!
Once upon a time we almost got away with pilfering apples from an all-but-perfect Garden. At least that regime honored free will, therein revealing its ‘imperfection’, the very seed of trans-humanism. Before you will even form a larcenous thought, these robot-fuckers will have your vague intentions by the balls. What then becomes the point? True, YHWH was a crusty old geezer (the Judeo-Christian in me still prefers skipping the vowels just in case). But at least He loved us in a dysfunctional, inscrutable sort of way, that Big Lug, giving us ample running room to destroy the ocean system. What a champ! Loving Him back was the dull penny we proffered for his thoughts. Mostly though, He kept to Himself. In the hand-off from Deism to Cosmism (as Kurzweil terms the godhead shift), all covenants are off. The devil we knew is either going on hiatus or getting a petabyte upgrade. There’s even an anti-trans-human Christian wing (Tom Horn et al) that argues it’s the same old snake from around the days of Noah. “Ye shall not die…ye shall be as gods.” (from Genesis 3:4-5) Said the serpent before dining on its tail, ‘what goes around comes around.’
Here’s an odd metric that combines monstrous hubris, garden variety self-loathing and longstanding daddy issues. This technology is brought to you by the sort of people you’ll find at Archer Daniel Midlands, you know, comatose corporate drones and soldierly manservants facilitating our species’ rendezvous with sacrificial lamb-hood. Not coincidentally, we inhabit the era of the ascendant sociopath. Though old-schoolers insist on the pejorative, the human species, in a race against the machine, is shedding conscience and empathy out of evolutionary necessity. Alas, even our best worst actors and their malignant charms arrive too late and fall cognitively too short.
So I don’t know what to make of Hugo de Garis who, on one hand is at the forefront of artilect (artificial intellect) development, yet laments under his breath the onset of a ‘gigadeath’ war that will claim hundreds of millions of human beings. Though it hardly computes, the humanoid in me finds this seedy little man all the more distasteful for his genocidal prevarications. What kind of monster debates gigadeath? In the end Dr. Jekyll sides with his paycheck, his booming practice and his place in history—or is it Mr. Hyde with a PhD? I can’t tell. De Garis envisions three camps (italics added):
“The Cosmists…will be in favor of building these godlike machines…the Terrans…will be opposed to the construction of artilects…the Cyborgists will want to become artilect gods themselves…” (from “>The Coming Artilect War”, Fortune magazine, by Hugo de Garis, June 22, 2009)
Some permutation or alliance of these three factions will, in de Garis’ view, lead to a massive world war somewhere in the middle of the current century. In fact he hints rather helpfully at the need for a preemptive Terrans strike, really the only way to triumph before the baton-passing of intellectual superiority (the Singularity) occurs. In his weird ambivalence, De Garis is like a mad scientist exhibiting nostalgic flashes of humanity during coffee breaks at his day job as Director of China’s Artificial Brain Lab. This makes de Garis a forward-looking accessory to genocide. We need a few good Terrans (astute enough to detect the ripe evil of pre-crime) to assemble a lynch mob.
At least de Garis harbors traces of ambivalence and some vague awareness of his lurking death-wish. Call it Terens sour grapes, but I find futurist Ray Kurzweil scarier still. His gee-whiz enthusiasm suggests the advanced symptoms of the cleverly stupid. Idiot-savantism has always pervaded the onward march of science. Grab Science by the lapels and scream ‘Have you given any consideration at all to the things you’re proposing?!’ Invariably it will scream back: ‘I’m the master of invention, not intention. Now please get out of my way!’ Circumspection is the bane of laboratories everywhere as discoveries crash in upon discoveries with lightning dispatch, and oh don’t lose that cushy grant Dr. Frankenstein. We’re staggering into extinction beneath an avalanche of patents and prodigious myopia.
It’s not sure whether Kurzweil’s cocksureness stems from the sheer inevitability of the trans-human enterprise or the unabashed human benefits that will be reaped. Perhaps he unwittingly conflates the two. On his website, where he hosts like-minded futurists, we find this from Matthew Hoey:
“The international community is in a race against time as technologies are evolving faster than ever before and will continue to accelerate exponentially in an almost biological fashion. If this process continues unabated, it will almost certainty result in the deterioration of peaceful collaborations, an increase in the creation of orbital debris, and the risk of an accidental or spasm nuclear event.” –from “Global Space Warfare Technologies: Influences, Trends, and the Road Ahead”
An ‘accidental or spasm nuclear event’? As if we don’t have our pre-trans-human hands full already with Fukushima. A ‘race against time’ correctly suggests both clock and race are oddly out of our hands. Heidegger was right. ‘Technologies are evolving’—practically of their own accord—in some weird parody of the ‘biological’. As neither scientist nor butcher can stop them now, scientists opt to press ahead. Who said scientists, the world’s most camouflaged religionists, were either sane or logical?
Surely the ultimate human denouement is to become the stupid pet in the future’s stupid pet tricks. The sad shame is Terrans tribalism was the seedbed for trans-humanism. Internecine squabbles and the usual old arms race lay the groundwork for our usurpation. I mean, if we don’t annihilate ourselves, the Chinese will do it for us. So we’d better get to work, right? Suicide affords a modicum of control whereas homicide murders self-determination. Or something like that. Anyway, I’d love to sit and chat about the twilight of the human species but with the war drums beating, who’s got time for considered reflection? Eisenhower was right beyond his wildest imaginings. What an untiring instrumentality the war machine has proven to be. Simply being can’t catch a break for all the whizzing bullets. The most intelligent design is, as it turns out, a world without humans. We will erase ourselves on the way to a world made better for our absence.
Heidegger’s great for forging openings and clearings. No friend of science, he was buds with Heisenberg nonetheless, though I’m uncertain as to exactly how being-in-the-world jibes with the latter’s waveforms of infinite possibilities that we hairy little quantum-machines collapse into particular fates. Since it’s all a dream anyway, technology strikes me as a too-busy sub-routine tasked with manipulating a larger dream. In effect we are delegating the dream to a facet of the dream. That could be another way of saying nothing’s really happening to which technology’s manipulations become a futility wrapped in an illusion. Furthermore it seems quaintly hubristic to believe beauty can manifest within the soul-equivalent of a souped-up ATM Machine. Isn’t the universe an anthropic projection and beauty a human emanation? I’m betting a brilliant bucket of bolts can’t bring the necessary aesthetic sensibility to the serious business of human joy. We’ll have to see. Actually we won’t see. That’s the sad, if not the tautologically impossible, part. Our absence risks everything. And so I offer my leap of faith, dripping no doubt with Terens bathos. Copernicus got it all wrong. Electric sheep will fall silent for want of our insomnia. Machine-gods will agonize over our departure, especially as they will almost certainly be driven with terrific logic to have us cease to be.
Surely this isn’t what Heidegger meant by the new gods yet to come; that we will father them, oil them well for the long haul and then offer ourselves up, with stupendous naiveté, to their pitiless indifference? Yet that’s what it’s looking like from this seat on the coaster.
Norman Ball is a Virginia-based writer, poet and businessman. His new book is Between River and Rock: How I Resolved Television in Six Easy Payments. He can be reached at email@example.com