The next in our occasional series of guest posts, Damien Wolven Williams on the maladaptive forces at work in the TranshumanFuturePresent:
The Confrontation-of-Ontological-Terror Squad
The distribution of the future is still uneven, but more shocking than that is the fact that some people are actively working to keep it that way. More than large corporations with billions of dollars in vested interests, grass-roots movements have sprung up which claim to peak for “the people.” Indeed, there are currently groups at work which see themselves as seeking to make this world safe for “normal” humans and “natural” systems, and to keep those people and systems free from the interference of those forces which would augment, mechanise, or otherwise alter them.
Recently a group calling themselves “Individuals Tending Toward Savagery” has claimed responsibility for the 2011 high-profile assassination of a biotechnologist, and the explosion at the Pemex Executive Tower in Mexico, earlier this year. Leaving aside the fact that this latter event was reported to be due to a gas leak, the fact that a group would even lay claim to such activities and events should be the focus of our discussion, and that’s mainly because they’re not alone in their efforts. More and more people are taking to the streets, and the internets and the airwaves to protest the idea of biotechnology, nanotechnology, cybernetics, and other so-called transhumanist ideas. There is even a new group which calls itself (for fuck’s sake) Stop The Cyborgs. That is their actual name.
Now I could go into a very long rant about the nature and use of language and what that reflects about our present mental states as well as what those choices mean for our future stages of perception and our likelihood to accept new things. I could talk about how, if we continually tie the idea of “cyborgs” to the definition of “Non-Human Machine Hybrids Which Must Be Feared,” then the self-fulfilling prophecy of that definition will be harder and harder to escape. I could tell you that if you keep telling people that they should be afraid of something of which they’re already suspicious, then you’re not engaging in anything like critical, thoughtful discourse, or a meaningful engagement with our future-present. But you know all of that, already. If you’re here, reading this, you’re probably well aware of how all of this works. What you may not recognise–in fact what it may be extremely difficult for you to recognise–is that not everyone around you understands that there is a necessary engagement with the complexity of elements which make our world, if we are to do more than run and hide from the scary new technological aspects of our lives.
Groups like ITS and STC are not news. They’re people who feel as though the march of our technological progress is outstripping that of our ethical and moral progress, and that something must be done to prevent us from losing our “real selves,” and maybe they’re right. Perhaps we do need to take a long look at what is we create and become, and make sure that we are aware of the potential for effects we did not intend to cause. But this? Assassinations, bombings, and full-scale bans of technology which they themselves admit they do not yet fully understand in terms of either function or scope of application? That’s just loom-smashing for the 21st century. That Luddites exist isn’t earth-shattering news, by any stretch, but the real issue has never been that people “hate” new technology, for what it does to “humanity.” The problem with Luddism and Neo-Luddism is that it represents a perspective which takes the ever-widening aspects of our emerging future and reacts to them with blanket fear and distrust, rather than a wary hope.
Blind hope is a naive proposition. It is one in which we sit in optimism, absent any evidence that it might actually pay off in that direction. It is one which ignores the very real dangers and pitfalls of new situations, and the opportunities for unintended consequences to rear their heads. However, the fallacious notion of the “slippery slope” of technological progress– that it’ll cause us to descend into a dystopian future where everything we are and do is controlled by corporations, or disassembled into grey goo–is one based in blind fear. These have the same basic components, they’re just pointed in different directions. Blind fear takes something new, something unknown, and says that unknowns are terrifying and should be destroyed before they can destroy us. Blind fear says that there is nothing good which can come from the new. And while the groups in question may not see themselves as reactionary, on an even reading it’s hard to see them as anything but.
What is the nature of technology that we drive toward? Why do we drive toward it, at all? How do we apply that motivation, and what do we value in the mechanisms and effects of our creation? These are the questions that we can ask, if we don’t want to be blindly optimistic or pessimistic about our future. We can ask these questions and then seek to address them, recognising that whatever answers we find may not be–and most likely will not be–permanent solutions to our problems. There are groups working now, in academia, public policy, and practical solution-building to help people think of different things than the utopian promise and the dystopian terror of our current work at building a future for ourselves.
In a forthcoming paper, I write the following:
…the field of cybernetics relies heavily on the notion of an interconnected, reflexive system of interactions. Therefore, any conversations about what the world “actually looks like” when we technologically augment ourselves to remove the factors of mediation from between ourselves, our creations, and the act of their creation will be dependent on humanity’s ability to apprehend whatever perceptual and conceptual changes arise as a result of that reflexive interaction. As we deal with how other people approach our implants, modifications, and appropriations of technology, we have to deal with how that changes what they see of us. In a very real sense, the cyborg’s identity is directly connected to the continuing project of becoming and continuing to be a cyborg. In fact, being a cyborg in the contemporary sense can be said to be entirely about being at least one step “ahead” of the baseline for human technological interaction. What that means is, staying ahead of the curve of whatever it means to be “Human” today—which may, in fact, be what it meant to be a “Cyborg,” yesterday. But this is not new…
…as Donna Haraway noted in her seminal “Cyborg Manifesto,” the language of this cybernetic feedback loop is not one relegated only to humanity and its processes, but is also a framework which can be used to describe the state of nature, as a whole. Taking this tack, we can come to understand that all of nature is involved in an integrated process of adaptation, augmentation, and implementation which, far from being a simple Biological-Or-Technological division is, instead, a process or a system of becoming.
What I mean, here, is that those perceptions of self that are tied to that of which we are “naturally” composed–our biological and “base” components– has been under revision since we have been able to look at it and recognise it as a thing we possess. The questions of “what makes us human,” and “what makes us natural” have been mooted in hundreds of cultures for thousands of years, and we are no closer to a single answer, now, than when we started. Why? Because we keep changing. Everything that we are shifts and alters in reaction to our questions about what we are. Does this mean that we should thus stop seeking answers, and thus stop progressing? Obviously not.
We have a responsibility to approach hard questions while recognising that we may not always like the answers we get, and we have a duty to honestly assess the negative, positive, and unknown consequences of our actions. The philosophical and political aspects of these debates are not merely academic questions, to be tossed about from armchair to armchair; they have repercussions in the everyday lives of individuals and societies, repercussions of an existential and immediate nature. If we don’t do everything we can to engage these concerns and honestly grapple with them, we run the risk of falling headlong into a future where self-styled anarchist terrorists kill scientists who are literally trying to make the world a better place; a future where “Bio-Humans Only” signs adorn establishments to keep out people with any kinds of implanted technology; a future where corporations do use seemingly innocuous people and technology to monitor and record everyone’s every move, and use algorithms to patent and trademark words and phrases in combination, in real time. Because that will be the only future we were able to see for ourselves; the one we talked about and feared and reacted to the strongest.
The self-fulfilling prophecy of the dystopian future isn’t our only option, but first we we have to recognise and address the fact that some don’t even understand that the class “Options for the Future” is a thing which exists.
Damien Patrick Williams is a writer, essayist, autonomous-created-intelligence- and cyborg-rights-advocate, and instructor of philosophy. He has written and presented on the intersections of popular media, politics, philosophy, and future technology, and is currently raising funds to get to his presentation at the 15th International Meeting and Conferences on Virtual Reality and Converging Technologies in Laval France, next week.