The Transhumanist Promise: Happiness You Cannot Refuse

Transhumanism, a diverse movement aimed at transcending our present human limitations, continues to gravitate away from the fringes of public discussion toward the mainstream. It is an idea that, to many people, is starting to sound less like a wildly unrealistic science-fiction concept and more like a vaguely plausible future. I imagine that as the prospect of a transhumanist future begins to take on the air of plausibility, it will both exhilarate and mortify in roughly equal measure.

Recently, Jamie Bartlett wrote a short profile of the transhumanist project near the conclusion of which he observed, “Sometimes Tranhumanism [sic] does feel a bit like modern religion for an individualistic, technology-obsessed age.” As I read that line, I thought to myself, “Sometimes?”

To be fair, many transhumanist would be quick to flash their secular bona fides, but it is not too much of a stretch to say that the transhumanist movement traffics in the religious, quasi-religious, and mystical. Peruse, for example, the list of speakers at last year’s Global Future 2045 conference. The year 2045, of course, is the predicted dawn of the Singularity, the point at which machines and humans become practically indistinguishable.

In its aspirations for transcendence of bodily limitations, its pursuit of immortality, and its promise of perpetual well-being and the elimination of suffering, Transhumanism undeniably incorporates traditionally religious ambitions and desires. It is, in other words, functionally analogous to traditional religions, particularly the Western, monotheistic faiths. If you’re unfamiliar with the movement and are wondering whether I might have exaggerated their claims, I invite you to watch the following video introduction to Transhumanism put together by British Institute of Posthuman Studies (BIOPS):

All of this amounts to a particularly robust instance of what the historian David Noble called, “the religion of technology.” Noble’s work highlighted the long-standing entanglement of religious aspirations with the development of the Western technological project. You can read more about the religion of technology thesis in this earlier post. Here I will only note that the manifestation of the religion of technology apparent in the Transhumanist movement betrays a distinctly gnostic pedigree. Transhumanist rhetoric is laced with a palpable contempt for humanity in its actual state, and the contempt is directed with striking animus at the human body. Referring to the human body derisively as a “meat sack” or “meat bag” is a common trope among the more excitable transhumanist. As Katherine Hayles has put it, in Transhumanism bodies are “fashion accessories rather than the ground of being.”

posthumanism crossIn any case, the BIOPS video not too subtly suggests that Christianity has been one of the persistent distractions keeping us from viewing aging as we should, not as a “natural” aspect of the human condition, but as a disease to be combatted. This framing may convey an anti-religious posture, but what emerges on balance is not a dismissal of the religious aims, but rather the claim that they may be better realized through other, more effective means. The Posthumanist promise, then, is the promise of what the political philosopher Eric Voegelin called the immanentized eschaton. The traditional religious category for this is idolatry with a healthy sprinkling of classical Greek hubris for good measure.

After discussing “super-longevity” and “super-intelligence,” the BIOPS video goes on to discuss “super well-being.” This part of the video begins at the seven-minute mark, and it expresses some of the more troubling aspects of the Transhumanist vision, at least as embraced by this particular group. This third prong of the Transhumanist project seeks to “phase out suffering.” The segment begins by asking viewers to imagine that as parents they had the opportunity to opt their child out of “chronic depression,” a “low pain threshold,” and “anxiety.” Who would choose these for their own children? Of course, the implicit answer is that no well-meaning, responsible parent would. We all remember Gattaca, right?

A robust challenge to the Transhumanist vision is well-beyond the scope of this blog post, but it is a challenge that needs to be carefully and thoughtfully articulated. For the present, I’ll leave you with a few observations.

First, the nature of the risks posed by the technologies Posthumanists are banking on is not that of a single, clearly destructive cataclysmic accident. Rather, the risk is incremental and not ever obviously destructive. It takes on the character of the temptation experienced by the main character, Pahom, in Leo Tolstoy’s short story, “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” If you’ve never read the story, you should. In the story Pahom is presented with the temptation to acquire more and more land, but Tolstoy never paints Pahom as a greedy Ebenezer Scrooge type. Instead, at the point of each temptation, it appears perfectly rational, safe, and good to seize an opportunity to acquire more land. The end of all of these individual choices, however, is finally destructive.

Secondly, these risks are a good illustration of the ethical challenges posed by innovation that I articulated yesterday in my exchange with Adam Thierer. These risks would be socially distributed, but unevenly and possibly even unjustly so. In other words, technologies of radical human enhancement (we’ll allow that loaded descriptor to slide for now) would carry consequences for both those who chose such enhancements and also for those who did not or could not. This problem is not, however, unique to these sorts of technologies. We generally lack adequate mechanisms for adjudicating the socially distributed risks of technological innovation. (To be clear, I don’t pretend to have any solutions to this problem.) We tolerate this because we generally tend to assume that, on balance, the advance of technology is a tide that lifts all ships even if not evenly so. Additionally, given our anthropological and political assumptions, we have a hard time imagining a notion of the common good that might curtail individual freedom of action.

Lastly, the Transhumanist vision assumes a certain understanding of happiness when it speaks of the promise of “super well-being.” This vision seems to be narrowly equated with the absence of suffering. But it is not altogether obvious that this is the only or best way of understanding the perennially elusive state of affairs that we call happiness. The committed Transhumanist seems to lack the imagination to conceive of alternative pursuits of happiness, particularly those that encompass and incorporate certain forms of suffering and tribulation. But that will not matter.

abolish sufferingIn the Transhumanist future one path to happiness will be prescribed. It will be objected that this path will be offered not prescribed, but, of course, this is disingenuous because in this vision the technologies of enhancement confer not only happiness narrowly defined but power as well. As Gary Marcus and Christof Koch recently noted in their discussion of brain implants, “The augmented among us—those who are willing to avail themselves of the benefits of brain prosthetics and to live with the attendant risks—will outperform others in the everyday contest for jobs and mates, in science, on the athletic field and in armed conflict.” Those who opt out will be choosing to be disadvantaged and marginalized. This may be a choice, but not one without a pernicious strain of tacit coercion.

Years ago, just over seventy years ago in fact, C.S. Lewis anticipated what he called the abolition of man. The abolition of man would come about when science and technology found that the last frontier in the conquest of nature was humanity itself. “Human nature will be the last part of Nature to surrender to Man,” Lewis warned, and when it did a caste of Conditioners would be in the position to “cut out posterity in what shape they please.” Humanity, in other words, would become the unwilling subject of these Last Men and their final decisive exercise of the will to power over nature, the power to shape humanity in their own image.

Even as I write this, there is part of me that thinks this all sounds so outlandish, and that even to warn of it is an unseemly alarmism. After all, while some of the touted technologies appear to be within reach, many others seem to be well out of reach, perhaps forever so. But, then, I consider that many terrible things once seemed impossible and it may have been their seeming impossibility that abetted their eventual realization. Or, from a more positive perspective, perhaps it is sometimes the articulation of the seemingly far-fetched dangers and risks that ultimately helps us steer clear of them.

 

 

Your Click Will Have Come From the Heart

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For the first time since 1517, when Martin Luther kicked off the Protestant Reformation, indulgences are in the news. As the start of the Roman Catholic Church’s 28th annual World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro drew near, it was widely reported that Pope Francis had decreed the granting of special indulgences for those who took part in the event. A decree of this sort would not ordinarily garner any media attention, but this particular decree contained an unprecedented measure. Indulgences were offered even to those who followed the event on social media.

Perhaps a little background is in order here. In Roman Catholic theology, Purgatory is where those who are ultimately on their way to Heaven go to satisfy all of the temporal punishment they’ve got coming and otherwise get spiritually prepared to enter Heaven. This is where indulgences come in.

The Church, as a conduit of God’s grace, may issue indulgences to reduce one’s time in Purgatory. Indulgences are premised on the notion that while most of us end up in the red when the moral account of our lives is taken, saints, martyrs, the Virgin, etc. ended up in the black. Their abundance of moral virtue constitutes a Treasury of Merit on which the Church can draw in order to help out those who are still paying up in Purgatory. Indulgences, then, are not, as they are sometimes portrayed in the press, a “get out of Hell free” card. They are more like a fast-pass through Purgatory.

That early modern religious, political, and cultural revolution we call the Protestant Reformation was kicked off when a German monk named Martin Luther posted 95 Theses for disputation on the door of a church in Wittenberg. Luther took aim at the practice of selling indulgences to fill the Church’s more literal treasury. He was particularly scandalized by the abuses of the notoriously unscrupulous Johann Tetzel. Think of Tetzel as a late medieval version of the worst stereotype of a contemporary televangelist. Luther set out to shut Tetzel and his ilk down, and the rest, as they say, is history.

While the practice of selling indulgences was banned by the Church shortly after Luther’s day, the Catholic Church still offers indulgences for particular works of piety. And that brings us back to Francis’ offer of indulgences to those who participate in World Youth Day celebrations. Here is the portion of the decree that has made a story out of these indulgences:

Those faithful who are legitimately prevented may obtain the Plenary Indulgence as long as, having fulfilled the usual conditions — spiritual, sacramental and of prayer — with the intention of filial submission to the Roman Pontiff, they participate in spirit in the sacred functions on the specific days, and as long as they follow these same rites and devotional practices via television and radio or, always with the proper devotion, through the new means of social communication; …

The “new means of social communication” have been widely reduced to Twitter in accounts of this story. Following the Pope’s tweets (@Pontifex) during the week is one way of virtually participating in the event. The faithful may also watch live streaming video through web-portals set up by the Vatican or keep up on Facebook and Pinterest.

Claudio Maria Celli, president of the pontifical council for social communications, was quick to clarify the intent of the decree. “Get it out of your heads straight away,” Celli explained to the media, “that this is in any way mechanical, that you just need to click on the internet in a few days’ time to get a plenary indulgence.”

As the text of the decree makes clear, the “usual conditions” apply. Believers must be properly motivated and they must see to the ordinary means of grace offered by the Church: confession, penance, and prayer. And there’s also that line, almost entirely neglected in media reports, about being “legitimately prevented” from attending. But Celli seemed particularly determined to prevent any misunderstanding on account of the inclusion of digital media:

You don’t get the indulgence the way you get a coffee from a vending machine. There’s no counter handing out certificates. To put it another way, it won’t be sufficient to attend the mass in Rio online, follow the Pope on your iPad or visit Pope2You.net. These are only tools that are available to believers. What really matters is that the Pope’s tweets from Brazil, or the photos of World Youth Day that will be posted on Pinterest, should bear authentic spiritual fruit in the hearts of each one of us.

Protestants are usually taken to be more technologically savvy than the Catholic Church. After all, while the Catholic Church was weighing the moral hazards of the printing press, Protestants took to it enthusiastically and used it to spread their message across Europe. It is also true that American evangelicals have been especially keen on appropriating new media to spread the good news. As Henry Jenkins, a scholar of new media, put it,

Evangelical Christians have been key innovators in their use of emerging media technologies, tapping every available channel in their effort to spread the Gospel around the world. I often tell students that the history of new media has been shaped again and again by four key innovative groups – evangelists, pornographers, advertisers, and politicians, each of whom is constantly looking for new ways to interface with their public.

But this way of telling the story, centered as it is on print and the communication of a message, may be obscuring the fuller account of the Catholic Church’s relationship to media technology. It may be, in fact, that the Catholic Church is well-positioned, given its particular forms of spirituality, to flourish in an age of digital media.

Making that case convincingly is a book-length project, but, allowing for some rough-and-ready generalizations, here’s the shorter version. It starts with recognizing that Francis’ decision to extend indulgences to those who are not physically present in Rio is not without precedent. This strikingly 21st century development has a medieval antecedent.

If you’ve ever visited a Roman Catholic Church, you’ve likely seen the Way of the Cross (sometimes called the Stations of the Cross): a series of images depicting scenes from the final hours of Jesus’ life. There are fourteen stations including, for example, his condemnation before Pilate, the laying of the cross on his shoulders, three falls on the way to the site of the crucifixion, and culminating with his body being laid in the tomb. Catholics may earn indulgences by prayerfully traversing the Way of the Cross.

What makes this a precedent to Francis’ decree is that the Way of the Cross represented by images – carved, painted, sculptured, engraved, etc. – in local churches was a way of making a virtual pilgrimage to these same places in Jerusalem. Since at least the fourth century, Christians prized a visit to the Holy Land, but, as you can easily imagine, that journey was not cheap or comfortable, nor was it entirely safe. By the late medieval period, the Way of the Cross was appearing in churches across Europe as a concession to those unable to travel to Jerusalem.

While the precise history of the Way of the Cross is a bit murky, it is clear that the regularizing of the virtual pilgrimage transpired under the auspices of the Franciscan Order. This is not entirely surprising given the Franciscan Order’s traditional care for the poor, those least likely to make the physical pilgrimage. It also makes it rather fitting that it is Pope Francis – who took his papal title from St. Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscan Order – who first legitimized social media as a vehicle of indulgences.

What’s interesting about this connection is that Catholic theology had grappled with the notion of virtual presence long before the advent of electronic or digital media. And this leads to one of those egregious generalizations: Protestant piety was wedded to words (printed words particularly) and while Catholic piety was historically comfortable with a wider range of media (images especially).

This means that Protestants have understood media primarily as a means of communicating information, and Catholics, while obviously aware of media as a means of communicating information, have also (tacitly perhaps) understood media as a means of communicating presence. Along with the Way of the Cross, consider the prominence of images, icons, and statues of Jesus, Mary, and the saints in Catholic piety. These images, whatever shape they take, are reverenced in as much as they mediate the presence of the “prototypes” which they represent.

Without claiming that the printed book created Protestantism, we could argue that in a media environment dominated by print, Protestant forms of piety enjoy a heightened plausibility. Print privileges message over presence. But high bandwidth digital media, combining audio and image, have become more than conduits of information, they increasingly channel presence and may thus be more hospitable to Catholic spirituality. Conversely, digital media may present intriguing challenges to traditional forms of Protestant spirituality.

It’s not surprising, then, that Pope Francis has seen fit to sanction digital media as legitimate tools of spirituality for Catholics. As Fr Paolo Padrini, a Catholic scholar of new media, put it, digital media allow for “Sharing, acting in unison, despite the obstacle of distance. But it will still be real participation and that is why you will obtain the indulgence. Above all because your click will have come from the heart.”

The Tourist and the Pilgrim: Essays on Life and Technology in the Digital Age

A few days ago, I noted, thanks to a WordPress reminder, that The Frailest Thing had turned thee. I had little idea what I was doing when I started blogging, and wasn’t even very clear on why I was doing so. I had just started my graduate program in earnest, so I was reading a good bit and, in part at least, I thought it would be useful to process the ideas I was engaging by writing about them. Because I was devoting myself to course work, I was also out of the classroom for the first time in ten years, and the teacher in me wanted to keeping teaching somehow.

So I began blogging and have kept it up these three years and counting.

The best of these three years of writing is, I’m happy to announce, now available in an e-book titled, The Tourist and the Pilgrim: Essays on Life and Technology in the Digital Age.

Forty-six essays are gathered into eight chapters:

1. Technology Criticism
2. Technology Has a History
3. Technology and Memory
4. Technology and the Body
5. Ethics, Religion, and Technology
6. Being Online
7. Our Mediated Lives
8. Miscellany

Not surprisingly, these chapters represent fairly well the major areas of interest that have animated my writing.

Right now, the e-book is only available through Gumroad. Of course, feel free to share the link: https://gumroad.com/l/UQBM. You will receive four file formats (PDF, .epub, .mobi, .azw3). The .mobi file will work best with your Kindle. Some formatting issues are holding up availability through Amazon, but it should also be available there in the next couple of days for those who find that more convenient.

Each of the essays can be found in some form online, but I have revised many of them to correct obvious errors, improve the quality of the prose, and make them read more naturally as stand-alone pieces. Nonetheless, the substance remains freely available through this site.

Convenience and a few improvements aside, those of you who have been reading along with me for some time will not find much you haven’t seen before. You might then consider Gumroad something akin to a tip jar!

Finally, because I would not presume they would see it otherwise, I’d like to share the Acknowledgements section here:

Each of these essays first appeared in some form on The Frailest Thing, a blog that I launched in the summer of 2010. I’m not sure how long the blogging venture would have lasted were it not for the encouragement of readers along the way. I’m especially grateful for those who through their kind words, generous linking, and invitations to write for their publications have given my writing a wider audience than it would’ve had otherwise. On that score, my thanks especially to Adam Thierer, Nathan Jurgenson, Rob Horning, Emily Anne Smith, Alan Jacobs, Nick Carr, Cheri Lucas Rowlands, Matthew Lee Anderson, and Evan Selinger.

But I must also acknowledge a small cadre of friends who read and engaged with my earliest offerings when there was no other audience of which to speak. JT, Kevin, Justin, Mark, David, Randy – Cheers!

And, of course, my thanks and love to my wife, Sarah, who has patiently tolerated and supported my online scribblings these three years.

Deo Gratias

My thanks, of course, are owed to all of you who have stopped by along the way. While it may sound sappy and trite, I have to say there is still something quite humbling about the fact that when I offer up my words, which is to say something of my self, there are those who come around and take the time to read them.

There is a sense in which I’ve written for myself. The writing has helped me in my effort to understand, or, as Hannah Arendt put, “think what we are doing.” It is no small thing to me that in making that process public, some have found a thing or two of some value.

Cheers!

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The Transhumanist Logic of Technological Innovation

What follows are a series of underdeveloped thoughts for your consideration:

Advances in robotics, AI, and automation promise to liberate human beings from labor.

The Programmable World promises to liberate us from mundane, routine, everyday tasks.

Big Data and algorithms promise to liberate us from the imperatives of understanding and deliberation.

Google promises to liberate us from the need to learn things, drive cars, or even become conscious of what we need before it is provided for us.

But what are we being liberated for? What is the end which this freedom will enable us to pursue?

What sort of person do these technologies invite us to become?

Or, if we maximized their affordances, what sort of engagement with the world would they facilitate?

In the late 1950s, Hannah Arendt worried that automated technology was closing in on the elusive promise of a world without labor at a point in history when human beings could understand themselves only as laborers. She knew that in earlier epochs the desire to transcend labor was animated by a political, philosophical, or theological anthropology that assumed there was a teleology inherent in human nature — the contemplation of the true, the good, and the beautiful or of the beatific vision of God.

But she also knew that no such teleology now animates Western culture. In fact, a case could be made that Western culture now assumes that such a teleology does not and could not exist. Unless, that is, we made it for ourselves. This is where transhumanism, extropianism, and singularity come in. If there is no teleology inherent to human nature, then the transcendence of human nature becomes the default teleology.

This quasi-religious pursuit has deep historical roots, but the logic of technological innovation may make the ideology more plausible.

Around this time last year, Nick Carr proposed that technological innovation tracks neatly with Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs (see Carr’s chart below). I found this a rather compelling and elegant thesis. But, what if innovation is finally determined by something other than strictly human needs? What if beyond self-actualization, there lay the realm of self-transcendence?

After all, when, as an article of faith, we must innovate, and no normative account of human nature serves to constrain innovation, then we arrive at a point where we ourselves will be the final field for innovation.

The technologies listed above, while not directly implicated in the transhumanist project (excepting perhaps dreams of a Google implant), tend in the same direction to the degree that they render human action in the world obsolete. The liberation they implicitly offer, in other words, is a liberation from fundamental aspects of what it has meant to be a human being.

hierarchy of innovation

Curiosity and Wonder

I was up during the wee hours of Monday morning to watch NASA’s live feed of mission control as Curiosity made its way to the surface of Mars. I’d been turned on to the whole affair by the “Seven Minutes of Terror” video that made the rounds in the weeks leading up to the landing. The video described all that had to go just right for Curiosity to land safely. If it worked, it would be a marvel. And, as we all know, it did and it was.

Watching the whole affair unfold, I was struck by the drama of it all — the suspense, the elation, the tears, the euphoria. It was fascinating on multiple levels: On its own terms as a triumph of engineering and ingenuity, as a media event generating memes as it unfolded (notably the Mohawk guy), as a rekindler of awe and wonder, and as a skirmish in the war of science and religion some are determined to wage.

I found the last of these particularly interesting, and perhaps a bit misguided. Take, for example, this tweet which appears to have brought its author a burst of Twitter-fame:

Just after the landing, I added my own tweet to the explosion of commentary: “Interplanetary Technological Sublime.” Needless, to say it was not retweeted 16,000+ times. I was alluding to what historian of technology David Nye has termed the American technological sublime. It is the sense of quasi-religious (and quite often not so quasi-) awe that has attended the life of technology in the United States.

One might also have drawn a connection to the religion of technology as it was chronicled by the late David Noble. Whatever we might conclude philosophically about their relationship, historically technology and religion have been entangled with one another. And the entanglement has quite often been anything but adversarial.

In a recent post at The Atlantic, Rebecca Rosen noted this entanglement in the arena of space exploration. Noble, in his chapter on the technology of religion as exemplified by the American space program, provides a multitude of further instances in addition to those related by Rosen. The chapter would surprise, and perhaps scandalize readers who were not already aware of the history. One example: When NASA recently confirmed that five of the six flags left by American astronauts on the moon still stood, they might also have checked to see if the Bible left sitting on the Apollo 15 lunar rover was still intact. See photo below:

At the conclusion of her post, Rosen wrote, “There is perhaps nothing more human than the curiosity that compels exploration. But paired with that curiosity is a search for meaning — we don’t want to know just what is out there, we want to turn it into something with a story, something with sense.”

Curiosity — it gets us back to where we started. Curiosity, the quest to understand, the search for life, wonder at the mind’s apprehension of the universe — whatever else we conclude about these things, it would be mistaken to draw too sharp a distinction between the techno-scientific and the religious impulses. Historically, at least, the line has not been as sharp as we may suppose.

Wonder and awe lie near the heart of both pursuits — or else, why would we cry.