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Do You Want to be a Cyborg, or a Transhuman?


Nikki Olson


Ethical Technology

January 05, 2013

The words “cyborg” and “transhuman” are frequently used interchangeably, but to what extent, and in what ways, do the concepts have the same referents? And which is the preferable concept to identify with when contemplating one’s own future?


...

Complete entry


COMMENTS



Posted by SHaGGGz  on  01/06  at  12:06 AM

“And from the transhumanist’s explicit valuing of life and disvaluing of death, the transhuman gains association with health and wellness – associations scarcely evoked by the notion of the cyborg.”
Yes. The issue is largely one of PR.

“Being transhuman requires that a modification make an improvement and that such improvement not be at the cost of some other aspect of functioning.”
Virtually no modification is unambiguously and absolutely an improvement in functioning without any downsides (and this is assuming we put aside the inherent difficulty of judging something as being an “improvement” of an organism).

The categories of cyborg and transhuman are basically substantively equivalent (when discussing humans), outside of the connotations you’ve alluded to, which are largely accidents of cultural history. A transhuman is necessarily a cyborg in that she must modify her biology with technology, and a cyborg is a transhuman in that she is modifying her capacities, or humanity, through technology. That the two words evoke different feelings and images is a question of PR.





Posted by Nikki_Olson  on  01/06  at  02:42 AM

SHaGGz,

Thank you for the comment.

“Virtually no modification is unambiguously and absolutely an improvement in functioning without any downsides”

- I found the sentence you are responding to difficult to word in a satisfying way. What I intended to communicate was that overall one is enhanced - or - overall, one is in a better state than prior to the modification.

Without insistence of the above, one permits use of the word in instances where the given enhancement has an overall disabling effect. For instance, modifications in genetic code that result in down syndrome make people “happier” than the average person - laughing a lot, smiling a lot, but its well understood that in terms of survival, functioning, and prospering, down syndome’s persons are worse overall (needing constant care into adulthood, surgical intervention for issues pertaining to physical development, and typically die in early adulthood from heart failure).

Of course, in many cases, evaluating whether some alteration makes a person better or worse overall is/would be difficult, however, the argument is that the standard for evaluation should be holisitic (overall) improvement. Transhumanist philosophy (at least how it was originally formulated), advocates the use of reason/science/technology towards/with the goal of sustainable and perpetual progress.

“A transhuman is necessarily a cyborg in that she must modify her biology with technology, and a cyborg is a transhuman in that she is modifying her capacities, or humanity, through technology.”

-The unifying factor in all uses of the word “cyborg”, the essential characteristic (the characteristic that distinguishes the concept from all other concepts), in the present day, and historical discourse, is of a functional unit that is part biology, part artificial. This is not a necessary or sufficient condition of a transhuman. Critically, genetic engineering could yield humans that would be considered transhumans - and yet, the end result is a wholly biological entity. Furthermore, it would be a misapplication of the concept “cyborg” to call this wholly biological, genetically altered human a “cyborg”.

Further yet, the word “cyborg” has a history of being used, and is still used (although less and less it seems) to refer to people who are in no way enhanced via a non-biological component (such as a prosthetic hand). And there are at present dictionary definitions, such as dictionary.com, that do not describe a cyborg as an enhanced entity.   

“The issue is largely one of PR.” - Even if one permits that the “enlightened” usage of the word cyborg means only enhanced persons (and ignores dictionary.com, and non-serious labels), one is still faced with the issue of genetic engineering discussed above.

Again, it is the necessity of enhancement that distinguishes the transhuman from the cyborg, and such necessity is the product of the underlying philosophy.

This was a difficult article to write, because there is a lot of crossover in the concepts, more and more it seems as we go forward, and the words are often used interchangeably. And inflation of the cyborg concept via Andy Clarke etc., to make everyone cyborgs, of course, being a cooperative slip slide down the epistemological laundry shoot, voids the concept of meaningful referent, to the point that in some sense there is no point to evoking the word at all. “Cyborgs” are human + unintegrated technology (i.e.,stone tools) and/or integrated technology? Who cares, then. It’s old news. Artificial hearts are just more of the same ... or maybe that person is a “super cyborg”? Epistemological nightmares, lol.   





Posted by SHaGGGz  on  01/06  at  03:15 AM

“the argument is that the standard for evaluation should be holisitic (overall) improvement.”
Using the term “improvement” (even if you throw in the modifier “holistic”) to define “some alteration [that] makes a person better” is circular and still doesn’t address what exactly one means by improvement. You cite the example of disorders that make one unable to survive in the wild, but this clearcut example of basic darwinism does little to address more subtle questions. For instance, would the trait of psychopathy that confers greater odds of survival to the organism at the expense of its fellow organisms be an “improvement” or “progress”? Progress towards what?

“Critically, genetic engineering could yield humans that would be considered transhumans - and yet, the end result is a wholly biological entity.”
It could be argued that as the Greek prefix cyber- means “skilled in steering or governing” (from Wikipedia) that this would include enhancements that are still unambiguously biological in nature, though I agree that much contemporary use of the term has diluted it to meaninglessness. A further difficulty would be to judge what precisely distinguishes biological from non-biological technology, especially as synthetic biology and nanofacturing ramp up.





Posted by Nikki_Olson  on  01/07  at  02:38 AM

The purpose of stating that the standard for evaluation should be holistic improvement is that the concept of Transhuman implies a single, and objective, such standard. This is as opposed to multiple and/or subjective standards.

Bear in mind that the extropian philosophy is an individualist philosophy, arguing for the pursuit of rational self-interest. It takes the objective world to be knowable, and that a hierarchy of preferences can and should be formed via the use of reason and knowledge of the world to guide action.

As for “progress toward what”—“Trans"human means from human and towards “post-human”, where post-human is defined as preferable to human (defined by use of reason and knowledge of the world, where in which life is the standard of value). “Transhuman”, as defined, cannot be human towards something worse, or arbitrary. 

re: psycopathy—if the overall standard of value is one’s life, this leads to the principle of benevolence: neither sacrificing oneself to others nor sacrificing others to oneself.

Expanding man’s cognitive, physical, emotional capacities, etc. enhances man’s capacities of preserving life, and hence is consistent with holding life as the standard of value. Emphasis on life extension is non-arbitrary - aging, disability, or anything that reduces man’s capacity to pursue his rational self interest, is inconsistent with holding life as the standard of value, and is therefore bad ... i.e., regressive. “Improvement”, then, in the context of originating Transhumanist philosophy, is not ambiguous.

 






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