Are Human Enhancement and AI Incompatible?

A few days ago, in a post featuring a series of links to stories about new and emerging technologies, I included a link to a review of Nick Bostrom’s new book, Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies. Not long afterwards, I came across an essay adapted from Bostrom’s book on Slate’s “Future Tense” blog. The excerpt is given the cheerfully straightforward title, “You Should Be Terrified of Super Intelligent Machines.”

I’m not sure that Bostrom himself would put quite like that. I’ve long thought of Bostrom as one of the more enthusiastic proponents of a posthumanist vision of the future. Admittedly, I’ve not read a great deal of his work (including this latest book). I first came across Bostrom’s name in Cary Wolfe’s What Is Posthumanism?, which led me to Bostrom’s article, “A History of Transhumanist Thought.”

For his part, Wolfe sought to articulate a more persistently posthumanist vision for posthumanism, one which dispensed with humanist assumptions about human nature altogether. In Wolfe’s view, Bostrom was guilty of building his transhumanist vision on a thoroughly humanist understanding of the human being. The humanism in view here, it’s worth clarifying, is that which we ordinarily associate with the Renaissance or the Enlightenment, one which highlights autonomous individuality, agency, and rationality. It is also one which assumes a Platonic or Cartesian mind/body dualism. Wolfe, like N. Katherine Hayles before him, finds this to be misguided and misleading, but I digress.

Whether Bostrom would’ve chosen such an alarmist title or not, his piece does urge us to lay aside the facile assumption that super-intelligent machines will be super-intelligent in a predictably human way. This is an anthropomorphizing fallacy. Consequently, we should consider the possibility that super-intelligent machines will pursue goals that may, as an unintended side-effect, lead to human extinction. I suspect that in the later parts of his book, Bostrom might have a few suggestions about how we might escape such a fate. I also suspect that none of these suggestions include the prospect of halting or limiting the work being done to create super-intelligent machines. In fact, judging from the chapter titles and sub-titles, it seems that the answer Bostrom advocates involves figuring out how to instill appropriate values in super-intelligent machines. This brings us back to the line of criticism articulated by Wolfe and Hayles: the traditionally humanist project of rational control and mastery is still the underlying reality.

It does seem reasonable for Bostrom, who is quite enthusiastic about the possibilities of human enhancement, to be a bit wary about the creation of super-intelligent machines. It would be unfortunate indeed if, having finally figured out how to download our consciousness or perfect a cyborg platform for it, a clever machine of our making later came around, pursuing some utterly trivial goal, and decided, without a hint of malice, that it needed to eradicate these post-human humans as a step toward the fulfillment of its task. Unfortunate, and nihilistically comic.

It is interesting to consider that these two goals we rather blithely pursue–human enhancement and artificial intelligence–may ultimately be incompatible. Of course, that is a speculative consideration, and, to some degree, so is the prospect of ever achieving either of those two goals, at least as their most ardent proponents envision their fulfillment. But let us consider it for just a moment anyway for what it might tell us about some contemporary versions of the posthumanist hope.

Years ago, C.S. Lewis famously warned that the human pursuit of mastery over Nature would eventually amount to the human pursuit of mastery over Humanity, and what this would really mean is the mastery of some humans over others. This argument is all the more compelling now, some 70 or so years after Lewis made it in The Abolition of Man. It would seem, though, that an updated version of that argument would need to include the further possibility that the tools we develop to gain mastery over nature and then humanity might finally destroy us, whatever form the “us” at that unforeseeable juncture happens to take. Perhaps this is the tacit anxiety animating Bostrom’s new work.

And this brings us back, once again, to the kind of humanism at the heart of posthumanism. The posthumanist vision that banks on some sort of eternal consciousness–the same posthumanist vision that leads Ray Kurzweil to take 150 vitamins a day–that posthumanist vision is still the vision of someone who intends to live forever in some clearly self-identifiable form. It is, in this respect, a thoroughly Western religious project insofar as it envisions and longs for the immortality of the individuated self. We might even go so far as to call it, in an obviously provocative move, a Christian heresy.

Finally, our potentially incompatible technical aspirations reveal something of the irrationality, or a-rationality if you prefer, at the heart of our most rational project. Technology and technical systems assume rationality in their construction and their operation. Thinking about their potential risks and trying to prevent and mitigate them is also a supremely rational undertaking. But at the heart of all of this rational work there is a colossal unspoken absence: there is a black hole of knowledge that, beginning with the simple fact of our inability to foresee the full ramifications of anything that we do or make, subsequently sucks into its darkness our ability to expertly anticipate and plan and manage with anything like the confident certainty we project.

It is one thing to live with this relative risk and uncertainty when we are talking about simple tools and machines (hammers, bicycles, etc.). It is another thing when we are talking about complex technical systems (automotive transportation, power grids, etc.). It is altogether something else when we are talking about technical systems that may fundamentally alter our humanity or else eventuate in its annihilation. The fact that we don’t even know how seriously to take these potential threats, that we cannot comfortably distinguish between what is still science fiction and what will, in fact, materialize in our lifetimes, that’s a symptom of the problem, too.

I keep coming back to the realization that our thinking about technology is often inadequate or ineffectual because it is starting from the wrong place; or, to put it another way, it is already proceeding from assumptions grounded in the dynamics of technology and technical systems, so it bends back toward the technological solution. If we already tacitly value efficiency, for example, if efficiency is already an assumed good that no longer needs to be argued for, then we will tend to pursue it by whatever possible means under all possible circumstances. Whenever new technologies appear, we will judge them in light of this governing preference for efficiency. If the new technology affords us a more efficient way of doing something, we will tend to embrace it.

But the question remains, why is efficiency a value that is so pervasively taken for granted? If the answer seems commonsensical, then, I’d humbly suggest that we need to examine it all the more critically. Perhaps we will find that we value efficiency because this virtue native to the working of technical and instrumental systems has spilled over into what had previously been non-technical and non-instrumental realms of human experience. Our thinking is thus already shaped (to put it in the most neutral way possible) by the very technical systems we are trying to think about.

This is but one example of the dynamic. Our ability to think clearly about technology will depend in large measure on our ability to extricate our thinking from the criteria and logic native to technological systems. This is, I fully realize, a difficult task. I would never claim that I’ve achieved this clarity of thought myself, but I do believe that our thinking about technology depends on it.

There’s a lot more to be said, but I’ll leave it there for now. Your thoughts, as always, are welcome.

Innovation, Technology, and the Church (Part Two)

What has Silicon Valley to do with Jerusalem?

More than you might think, but that question, of course, is a riff on Tertullian’s famous query, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” It was a rhetorical question. By it, Tertullian implied that Christian theology, represented by Jerusalem, should steer clear of Greek philosophy, represented by Athens. I offer my question, in which Silicon Valley represents technological “innovation,” more straightforwardly and as a way of introducing this second post in conversation with Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry’s essay, “Peter Thiel and the Cathedral.”

In the first post, I raised some questions about terminology and the force of Gobry’s analogy: “The monastics were nothing if not innovators, and the [monastic] orders were the great startups of the day.” I was glad to get some feedback from Gobry, and you can read it here; you can also read my response below Gobry’s comment. Of course, Internet reading being what it is, it’s probably better if I just give you the gist of it. Gobry thought I made a bit too much of the definitional nuances while also making clear that he was well aware of the distinctions between a twenty-first century start up and a thirteenth century monastery.

For the record, I never doubted Gobry’s awareness of the fine points at issue. But when the fine points are relevant to the conversation, I think it best to bring them to the surface. It matters, though, what point is being made, and this may be where my response to Gobry’s essay missed the mark, or where Gobry and I might be in danger of talking past one another. The essay reads a bit like a manifesto, it is a call to action. Indeed, it explicitly ends as such. Given that rhetorical context, my approach may not have been entirely fair. In fact, it may be better to frame most of what I plan to write as being “inspired” by Gobry’s post, rather than as a response to it.

It would depend, I think, on the function of the historical analogies, and I’ll let Gobry clarify that for me. As I mentioned in my reply to his comment, it matters what function the historical analogies–e.g., monasteries as start-ups–are intended to play. Are they merely inspirational illustrations, or are they intended as morally compelling arguments. My initial response assumed the latter, thus my concern to clarify terminology and surface the nuance before moving on to a more formal evaluation of the claim.

The closing paragraphs of Gobry’s response to my post, however, suggested to me that I’d misread the import of the analogies. Twice Gobry clarified his interest in the comparisons:

“What interests me in the analogy between a startup and a monastic foundation is the element of risk and folly in pursuit of a specific goal,”

and

“What interests me in the analogy between monastic orders and startups is the distinct sense of mission, a mission which is accomplished through the daring, proficiency and determination of a small band of people, and through concrete ends.”

That sounds a bit more like an inspirational historical illustration than it does an argument by analogy based on the assumed moral force of historical precedent. Of course, that’s not a criticism. (Although, I’m not sure it’s such a great illustration for the same reasons I didn’t think it made a convincing argument.) It just means that I needed to recalibrate my own approach and that it might be best to untether these considerations a bit from Gobry’s post. Before doing so, I would just add this. If the crux of the analogy is the element of risk and folly in pursuit of a goal and a sense of mission executed by a devoted community, then the monastic tradition is just one of many possible religious and non-religious illustrations.

Fundamentally, though, even while Gobry and I approach it from different angles, I still do think we are both interested in the same issue: the religious/cultural matrix of technological innovation.

In Gobry’s view, we need to recover the innovative spirit illustrated within the monastic tradition and also by the building of the great medieval cathedrals. In a subsequent post, I’ll argue that a closer look at both helps us to see how the relationship between technology and culture has evolved in such a way that the strength of cultural institutions that ought to drive “innovation” has been sapped. In this light, Gobry’s plea for the church to take the up the mantle of innovation might be understood as a symptom of what has gone wrong with respect to technology’s relationship to religion, and culture more broadly. In short, the problem is that technological innovation is no longer a means directed by the church or some other cultural institution to some noble end, it is too frequently pursued as an end in itself. For the record, I don’t think this is what Gobry himself is advocating.

Gobry is right to raise questions about the relationship between technological innovation and, to borrow Lynne White’s phrasing, cultural climates. White himself argued that there was something about the cultural climate of medieval Europe that proved hospitable to technological innovation. But looking over the evolution of technology and culture over the subsequent centuries, it becomes apparent that the relationship between technology and culture has become disordered. In the next post, I’ll start with the medieval cathedrals to fill out that claim.

Innovation, Technology, and the Church (Part One)

Last week I read a spirited essay by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry titled “Peter Thiel and the Cathedral.” Gobry’s post was itself inspired by a discussion of technology, politics, and theology between Thiel, the founder of PayPal, and theologian N.T. Wright, formerly bishop of Durham. That discussion was moderated by NY Times columnist Ross Douthat. As for Gobry, he is a French entrepreneur and writer currently working for Forbes. Additionally, Gobry and Douthat are both Roman Catholics. Wright is a minister in the Church of England. Thiel’s religious views are less clear; he identifies as a Christian with “somewhat heterodox” beliefs.

So, needless to say, I found this mix of themes and personalities more than a little interesting. In fact, I’ve been thinking of Gobry’s post for several days. The issues it raised, in their broadest form, include the relationship between technology and culture as well as the relationship between Christianity and technology. Of course, these issues can hardly be addressed adequately in a blog post, or even a series of blog posts. While I thought about Gobry’s post and read related materials, relevant considerations cascaded. Nothing short of a book-length treatment could do this subject justice. That said, beginning with this post, I’m going to offer a few of considerations, briefly noted, that I think are worth further discussion.

In this post, I’ll start with a quick sketch of Gobry’s argument, and I’ll follow that with some questions about the key terms at play in this discussion. My goal is to read Gobry charitably and critically precisely because I share his sense that these are consequential matters, and not only for Christians.

Reduced to its essence, Gobry’s essay is a call for the Church to reclaim it’s role as a driving force of technological innovation for the good of civilization. The logic of his argument rests on the implications of the word reclaim. In his view, the Church, especially the medieval church, was a key player in the emergence of Western science and technology. Somewhere along the way, the Church lost its way and now finds itself an outsider to the technological project, more often than not a wary and critical outsider. Following Thiel, Gobry is worried the absence of a utopian vision animating technological innovation will result in technological stagnation with dire civilizational consequences.

With that sketch in place, and I trust it is a fair summary, let’s move on to some of the particulars, and we’ll need to start by clarifying terminology.

Church, Technology, Innovation—we could easily spend a lot of time specifying the sense of each of these key terms. Part of my unease with Gobry’s argument arises from the equivocal nature of these terms and how Gobry deploys them to analogize from the present to the past. I would assume that Gobry, as a Roman Catholic, primarily has the Roman Church in view when he talks about “the Church” or even Christianity. On one level this is fine, it’s the tradition out of which Gobry speaks, and, moreover, his blog is addressed primarily to a Catholic audience. My concern is that the generalization obscures non-trivial nuances. So, for instance, even the seemingly cohesive and monolithic world of medieval Catholicism was hardly so uniform on closer examination. Consequently, it would be hard to speak about a consistent and uniform attitude or posture toward “technology” that characterized “the Church” even in the thirteenth century. Things get even thornier when we realize that technology as it exists today was, like so much of modernity, funneled through the intellectual, economic, political, and religious revolution that was the Reformation.

But that is not all. As I’ve discussed numerous times before, defining “technology” is itself also a remarkably challenging task; the term ends up being a fiendishly expansive concept with fuzzy boundaries all around. This difficulty is compounded by the fact that in the medieval era there was no word that did the same semantic work as our word “technology.” It is not until the ninth century that the Carolingian theologian, John Scotus Erigena, first employed the term artes mechanicae, or the “mechanical arts,” which would function as the nearest equivalent for some time.

Finally, “innovation” is also, in my view, a problematic term. At the very least, I do not think we can use it univocally in both medieval and contemporary contexts. In our public discourse, innovation implies not only development in the “nuts and bolts” of technical apparatus; it also implies the conditions of the market economy and the culture of Silicon Valley. Whatever one makes of those two realities, it seems clear they render it difficult, if not impossible, to make historical generalizations about “innovation.”

So, my first major concern, is that speaking about the Church, technology, and innovation involves us in highly problematic generalizations. Generalizations are necessary, I understand this, especially within the constraints of short-form writing. I’m not pedantically opposed to generalizations in principle. However, every generalization, every concept, obscures particularities and nuances. Consequently, there is a tipping point at which a generalization not only simplifies, but also falsifies. My sense is that in Gobry’s post, we are very close to generalizations that falsify in such as way that they undermine the thrust of the argument. This is especially important because the historical analogies in this case are meant to carry a normative, or at least persuasive force.

Because the generalizations are problematic, the analogies are too. Consider the following lines from Gobry: “The monastics were nothing if not innovators, and the [monastic] orders were the great startups of the day. The technological and other accomplishments of the great monastic orders are simply staggering.”

As a matter of fact, the second sentence is absolutely correct. The analogies in the first sentence, however, are, in my view, misleading. The first clause is misleading because it suggests, as I read it, that “innovation” was of the essence of the monastic life. As Gobry knows, “monastic life” is already a generalization that obscures great variety on the question at issue, especially when eastern forms of monastic life are taken into consideration. But even if we concentrate on the more relevant strand of western and Benedictine monasticism, we run into trouble.

As George Ovitt found in his excellent work, The Restoration Of Perfection: Labor and Technology in Medieval Culture, technical considerations were consistently subordinated to spiritual ends. The monastics, were, in fact, much else even if they were at times innovators. This is evident in the Benedictine’s willingness to lay aside labor when it became possible to commission a lesser order of lay brothers or even paid laborers to perform the work necessitated by the community.

The second clause—“the [monastic] orders were the great start-ups of the day”—is misleading because it imports the economic conditions and motivations of the early twenty-first century to the medieval monasteries. Whatever we might say about the monasteries and their conflicted relationship to wealth—most monastic reform movements centered on this question—it seems unhelpful, if not irresponsible to characterize them as “start-ups.” The accumulation of wealth was incidental to the life of the monastery, and, historically, threatened its core mission. By contrast, the accumulation of wealth is a start-up’s raison d’être and shapes its life and work.

I hope these considerations do not come across as merely “academic” quibbles. I’ve no interest in being pedantic. In writing about technology and Christianity, Gobry has addressed a set of issues that I too consider important and consequential. Getting the relevant history right will help us better understand our present moment. In follow-up posts, I’ll take up some of the more substantive issues raised by Gobry’s essay, and I’ll follow his lead by using the construction of the cathedral’s as a useful case study.

tres_riches_heures_march1410

The World of Tomorrow 75 Years Later

April 30th will mark the 75th anniversary of the opening of the 1939 New York World’s Fair. With a decade of Depression behind them and a world war looming ahead, 44 million visitors came to catch a hopeful glimpse of the future. The essay below, an earlier version of which first appeared on this site two years ago, explores the convergence of technology, utopian aspirations, and corporate power that animated the vision of the future visitors encountered 75 years ago. 

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1939 World's Fair Progress“The World of Tomorrow”—that was the theme of the 1939 NewYork world’s fair. Prior to 1939, the American fairs had been characterized by what historian Astrid Böger has aptly called a “bifocal nature.” Janus-faced, they looked back to a glorified past and forward to an idealized future.The fairs were both “patriotic commemorations of central events in American history” and they “envisioned the nation’s bright future.” During 1930’s, however, the fairs turned their gaze decidedly toward the future.

The ’39 New York fair offered an especially grandiose and compelling glimpse of a techno-utopian society poised to materialize within a generation. Its most popular exhibits featured Cities of Tomorrow—Zions that were to be realized through technological expertise deployed by corporate power and supported by benign government planning. And little wonder these exhibits were so popular: the nation had been through a decade of economic depression and rumors of war swept across the Atlantic. “To catch the public imagination,” historian David Nye has explained, “the fair had to address this uneasiness. It could not do so by mere appeals to patriotism, by displays of goods that many people had no money to buy, or by the nostalgic evocation of golden yesterdays. It had to offer temporary transcendence.”

This link between technology and the realization of religiously intoned utopian visions did not, however, appear out of nowhere in the 1930s. In fact, the late cultural historian David Noble has argued convincingly that this religiously inspired techno-utopianism has been integral to the Western scientific project since at least the late middle ages; it was the central tenet of faith for what Noble called the “religion of technology.”

The planners of the 1939 fair instructed the industrial designers, who “looked not with the pragmatic eye of the engineer but with the visionary gaze of the utopian,” to weave technology throughout the fabric of the whole fair. In previous fairs and expositions, science had occupied a prominent but localized place among the multiple exhibits and attractions. The ‘39 fair intentionally broke with this tradition. As world’s fair historian Robert Rydell put it, “Instead of building a central shrine to house scientific displays,” the designers decided “to saturate the fair with the gospel of scientific idealism.” With nearly a decade of economic depression behind them and a looming international conflagration before them, the fair planners remained committed to the religion of technology and they were intent on creating a fair that would rekindle America’s waning faith. It may not be entirely inappropriate, then, to see the 1939 New York world’s fair as a revival meeting calling the faithful to renewed hope in the religion of technology. But the call to renewed faith in 1939 also contained variations on the theme. The presentation of the religion of technology took a liturgical turn and it was alloyed with the spirit of the American corporation.

GM Building designed Albert Kahn and Norman Bel Geddes

GM Building designed Albert Kahn and Norman Bel Geddes

Ritual Fairs

Historians of the world’s fair typically focus on the explicit message fair designers intended to communicate. They have studied the fairs as texts laid out for analysis. But it’s debatable whether this tells us much about the experience of fairgoers. Böger suggests a better way of understanding how the fairs made their impression. “World’s fairs,” she tells us, “are performative events in that they present a vision of national culture in the form of spectacle, which visitors are invited to participate in and, thus, help create.” Writing of the Ferris Wheel at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Böger explained that it was the “striking example of the sensual–primarily visual–experience of the fair, which seems to precede both understanding of the exhibit’s technology and, more importantly, appreciation of it as an American achievement.” What Böger picks up on in these observations is the distinction between the fair’s intellectual content and the embodied experience of attending the fair. It is the difference between reading the fairs as a “text” with an explicit message and constructing a meaning through the experience of “taking in” the fair. The planners intended an intellectualized, chiefly cognitive experience. Fairgoers processed the fair in an embodied and mostly affective manner. It is this distinction that leads to the observation that the religion of technology, as it appeared at the ‘39 fair, was a liturgical religion.

1939 World's FairThe genius of the two most popular exhibits at the fair was the embodiment of their message in a ritual experience. Democracity, housed inside the Perisphere, and General Motors’ Futurama both solved the problem of the impertinent walkers by miniaturizing the idealized world and carefully choreographing the fairgoer’s experience. Earlier fairs presented themselves as idealized cities, but this risked the diffusion of the message as fairgoer’s crafted their own fair itineraries or otherwise remained oblivious to the implicit messages. Democracity and Futurama mitigated this risk by crafting not only the world, but the experience itself–by providing a liturgy for the ritual. And the ritual was decidedly aimed at the cultivation of hope in a future techno-utopian society, giving ritual expression to the religion of technology.

As David Nye observed, “the most successful [exhibits] were those that took the form of dramas with covertly religious overtones.” In fact, Nye describes the whole fair as “a quasi-religious experience of escape into an ideal future equally accessible to all … The fair was a shrine of modernity.” Nowhere was the “quasi-religious” aspect of the fair more clearly evident than in Democracity, the miniature city of the future housed within the fair’s iconic Perisphere.

Fairgoers filed into the sphere and were able to gaze down upon the city of the future from two balconies. When the five-and-a-half minute show began, the narrator described the idealized miniature landscape featuring the city of the future at its center. Emanating outward from the central city were towns and farm country. The towns would each be devoted to specific industries, and they would be home to both workers and management. As the show progressed and the narrator extolled the virtues of central planning, the lighting in the sphere simulated the passage of day and night. Nye summarizes what followed:

“Once the visitors had contemplated this future world, they were presented with a powerful vision that one commentator compared to ‘a secular apocalypse.’ Now the lights of the city dimmed. To create a devotional mood, a thousand-voice choir sang on a recording that André Kostelanetz had prepared for the display. Movies projected on the upper walls of the globe showed representatives of various professions working, marching, and singing together. The authoritative voice of the radio announcer H. V. Kaltenborn announced: ‘This march of men and women, singing their triumph, is the true symbol of the World of Tomorrow.’”

What they sang was the theme song of the fair that proclaimed:

“We’re the rising tide coming from far and wide
Marching side by side on our way
For a brave new world,
That we shall build today.”

Kihlstedt believes Democracity’s designer, Henry Dreyfuss, modeled this culminating scene on Dutch Renaissance artist Jan Van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece featuring “a great multitude … of all nations and kindreds, and people” as described in the book of Revelation. “In this well-known painting,” Kihlstedt explains, “the saints converge toward the altar of the Lamb from the four corners of the world. As they reveal the unity and the ‘ultimate beatitude of all believing souls,’ these saints define by their presence a heaven on earth.” Ritual and interpretation were thus fused together in one visceral, affective liturgy.

Democracity, inside the Perisphere

Corporate Liturgies

Earlier fairs were driven by a variety of ideologies. Robert Rydell, arguably the leading historian of world’s fairs, has emphasized the imperial and racial ideologies driving the design of the Victorian Era fairs. These fairs also promoted political ideals and patriotism. Additionally, they sought to educate the public in the latest scientific trends (dubious as they may have been, as in the case of Social Darwinism for instance). But in the 1930s the emphasis shifted decidedly. Böger notes, for example, “the early American expositions have to be placed in the context of nationalism and imperialism, whereas the world’s fairs after 1915 went in the direction of globalism and the ensuing competition of opposing ideological systems rather than of individual nation states.” More specifically the fairs of the 1930s, and the 1939 fair especially, sought to buttress the legitimacy of democracy and the free market in the face of totalitarian and socialist alternatives.

“From the beginning,” Rydell observed, “the century-of-progress expositions were conceived as festivals of American corporate power that would put breathtaking amounts of surplus capital to work in the field of cultural production and ideological representation.” Kihlstedt put it this way: “whereas most nineteenth-century utopias were socialist, based on cooperative production and distribution of goods, the twentieth-century fairs suggested that utopia would be attained through corporate capitalism and the individual freedom associated with it.” He added, “the organizers of the NYWF were making quasi-propagandistic use of utopian ideas and imagery to equate utopia with capitalism.” For his part, Nye drew on Roland Marchand to connect the evolution of the world’s fairs with the development of corporate marketing strategies: “corporations first tried only to sell products, then tried to educate the public about their business, and finally turned to marketing visions of the future.” Nye also tied the ritual nature of the fairs with the corporate turn: “Such exhibits might be compared to the sacred places of tribal societies … Each inscribed cultural meanings in ritual … And who but the corporations took the role of the ritual elders in making possible such a reassuring future, in exchange for submission.”

In this way, the religion of technology was effectively incorporated. American corporations presented themselves as the builders of the techno-utopian city. With the cooperation of government agencies, corporations would wield the breathtaking power of technology to create a rationally planned yet democratic consumer society. Thus was the religion of technology enlisted by the marketing departments of American corporations.

Framing the 1939 New York World’s fair as an embodiment of the religion of technology highlights the convergence of technology, utopian aspirations, and corporate power at this pivotal cultural moment in American history. This convergence was taking shape before 1939, but at the New York fair it announced itself in memorable and compelling fashion. Through its imaginative liturgical experience, the fair renewed the faith of a generation of Americans in the religion of technology, and it was this generation that went on to build post-war American society.

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.