(incorrectly but fittingly ascribed to Emma Goldman, feminist, activist, trouble-maker)
This post first appeared in George Dvorsky’s Sentient Developments, where I’m his guest this month.
Those who know my outermost layer would consider me a science geek. I’m a proponent of genetic engineering, an advocate of space exploration, a reader and writer of science fiction. However, I found myself unable to warm to either transhumanism or its literary sidekick, cyberpunk. I ascribed this to the decrease of flexibility that comes with middle age and resumed reading Le Guin’s latest story cycle.
But the back of my mind gnawed over the discrepancy. After all, neither transhumanism nor cyberpunk are monolithic, they come in various shades of… and then it hit me… gray. Their worlds contain little color or sound, few scents, hardly any plants or animals. Food and sex come as pills, electric stimuli or IV drips; almost all arts and any sciences not related to individual enhancement have atrophied, along with most human activities that don’t involve VR.
And I finally realized why I balk at cyberpunk and transhumanism like an unruly horse. Both are deeply anhedonic, hostile to physicality and the pleasures of the body, from enjoying wine to playing in an orchestra. I wondered why it had taken me so long to figure this out. After all, many transhumanists use the repulsive (and misleading) term “meat cage” to describe the human body, which they deem a stumbling block, an obstacle in the way of the mind.
This is hoary dualism disguised as futuristic thinking, augmented by healthy doses of queasiness and power fantasies. Ascetics of other eras tried to diminish the body by fasting, flagellating, abstaining from all physical gratification from washing to sex. Techno-monks want to discard it altogether. The goal is a disembodied mind playing World of Warcraft in a VR datastream. If a body is tolerated at all, the ideal is a mixture of metal and ceramic, hairless and poreless, though it still retains the hyper-gendered configurations possible only in cartoons.
Is abandonment of the body such a bad thing? As anyone who lost a limb or went through a major illness can attest, it’s a marvelous instrument whose astonishing abilities become obvious only when it malfunctions. On the other hand, it’s undeniably fragile and humans have lost patience with its shortcomings as technology has overtaken nature. Transhumanists extol such prospects as anti-aging medicine; advanced prosthetics; radical cosmetic surgery, including sex changes; nootropic drugs; and carbon-silicon interfaces, from cyborgs to immersive VR.
I don’t know many women who, given the choice, would opt to retain menstruation, pregnancy or menopause (though few would admit it openly). And few people, no matter how stoic, can face the depradations of chronic disease or age with equanimity. The neo-Rupturists who prophesy the coming of the Singularity can hardly wait to exchange their bodies with versions that will never experience memory lapses or fail to achieve erections at will.
I’m no Luddite, bio or otherwise. I am glad that technology has enabled us to lead lives that are comfortable, leisured and long enough that we can explore the upper echelons of the hierarchy of needs. However, we demean the body at our peril. It’s not the passive container of our mind; it is its major shaper and inseparable partner. If we discard our bodies we run the danger of losing context to our lasting detriment – as we have already done by successive compartmentalizations and sunderings.
Humans are inherently social animals that developed in response to feedback loops between the environment and their own evolving form. Like all lifeforms, we’re jury-rigged. Furthermore, humans are mediocre across the entire spectrum of physical prowess, from range of vision to maximum running speed. Yet this mediocrity probably enabled us to occupy many environmental niches successfully before technology allowed us to impose our wishes on our environment. Optimizing in any direction may push us into dead-end corners, something that has happened to many species we engineered extensively.
This also holds true for our brains. It’s a transhumanist article of faith that intelligence can and must be augmented – but there are many kinds of intelligence. A lot of learning is mediated through the body, from using a screwdriver properly to gauging complex social interactions. Short-circuiting this type of learning results in shallow knowledge that may not become integrated into long-term memory. There is a real reason for apprenticeships, despite their feudal overtones: people who use Photoshop, CAD and laboratory kits without prior “traditional” training frequently make significant errors and often cannot critically evaluate their results. Furthermore, without corrective “pingbacks” from the environment that are filtered by the body, the brain can easily misjudge to the point of hallucination or madness, as seen in phenomena like phantom limb pain.
Another feedback loop is provided by the cortical emotions, which enable us to make decisions. Two prominent side effects of many nootropic drugs are flattening of the emotions and suppression of creativity. Far from fine-tuning perception, the drugs act as blunting hammers. Finally, if we evade our bodies by uploading into a silicon frame (biologically impossible, but let’s grant it as a hypothesis), we may lose the capacity for empathy, as shown in Bacigalupi’s disturbing story People of Sand and Slag. Empathy is as instrumental to high-order intelligence as it is to survival: without it, we are at best idiot savants, at worst psychotic killers.
I do believe that our bodies can be improved. Nor does everything have to remain as it is now. I wouldn’t mind having wings that could truly lift me; even less would I mind living without fear of cancer or diabetes. Yet I’m fairly certain that we have to stick with carbon if we want seamless form and function. When I hear talk of “upgrading” to silicon or to ether, I get a strong whiff of cubicleers imagining themselves as Iron Man or Neo. Being alone inside a room used to be a punishment. Being imprisoned inside one’s head is a recipe for insanity. Without our bodies, we bid fair to become not exalted intellects but mad(wo)men in the attic.
Images: Top, still from Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell. Bottom, Jump by Sergey Kravtsov.