Support the IEET




The IEET is a 501(c)3 non-profit, tax-exempt organization registered in the State of Connecticut in the United States. Please give as you are able, and help support our work for a brighter future.



Search the IEET
Subscribe and Contribute to:


Technoprogressive? BioConservative? Huh?
Quick overview of biopolitical points of view




whats new at ieet

Artificial Intelligence, Anthropics & Cause Prioritization

What is the Difference between Posthumanism and Transhumanism?

Building the Virtues Control Panel

Convergent Risk, Social Futurism, and the Wave of Change (Part 2 of 2)

Beauty Is Skin-deep—But That’s Where Genetic Engineering Is Going Next

Convergent Risk, Social Futurism, and the Wave of Change (Part 1 of 2)


ieet books

Virtually Human: The Promise—-and the Peril—-of Digital Immortality
Author
by Martine Rothblatt


comments

CygnusX1 on 'The Problem with the Trolley Problem, or why I avoid utilitarians near subways' (Jul 28, 2014)

instamatic on 'Beauty Is Skin-deep—But That’s Where Genetic Engineering Is Going Next' (Jul 27, 2014)

instamatic on 'Why We’ll Still Be Fighting About Religious Freedom 200 Years From Now!' (Jul 27, 2014)

contraterrine on 'Radcliffe-Richards on Sexual Inequality and Justice (Part Two)' (Jul 27, 2014)

contraterrine on 'The Sad Passing of a Positive Futurist' (Jul 27, 2014)

Rick Searle on 'The Problem with the Trolley Problem, or why I avoid utilitarians near subways' (Jul 27, 2014)

CygnusX1 on 'How do you explain consciousness?' (Jul 27, 2014)







Subscribe to IEET News Lists

Daily News Feed

Longevity Dividend List

Catastrophic Risks List

Biopolitics of Popular Culture List

Technoprogressive List

Trans-Spirit List



JET

Transhumanism and Marxism: Philosophical Connections

Sex Work, Technological Unemployment and the Basic Income Guarantee

Technological Unemployment but Still a Lot of Work…

Hottest Articles of the Last Month


Nanomedical Cognitive Enhancement
Jul 11, 2014
(6007) Hits
(0) Comments

Interview with Transhumanist Biohacker Rich Lee
Jul 8, 2014
(5853) Hits
(0) Comments

Virtually Sacred, by Robert Geraci – religion in World of Warcraft and Second Life
Jul 3, 2014
(4453) Hits
(0) Comments

How Should Humanity Steer the Future?
Jul 5, 2014
(3708) Hits
(18) Comments



IEET > Rights > Disability > Neuroethics > Interns > Anne Corwin

Print Email permalink (3) Comments (3284) Hits •  subscribe Share on facebook Stumble This submit to reddit submit to digg


Your Brain, My Brain, and the Posthuman Rub


Anne Corwin
Anne Corwin
Existence is Wonderful

Posted: Mar 4, 2007

“Here’s the posthuman rub: We are expanding our control into a vast number of realms that we previously had no choice but to submit to, stoically or otherwise.” - Erik Davis,

Take The Red Pill

Interesting times lie ahead for all of us as new technologies (from revolutionary pharmaceuticals to future neuro-modifying nanobots)  allow people to alter their internal operating systems at finer and finer levels.  We’re already facing the first vestiges of the kinds of deep existential questions that go along with this increased level of control, as a result of the proliferation of everything from antidepressants to drugs with the potential to alter learning processes in Down’s syndrome

Neurology is in the news a lot these days, and no wonder: our brains are us and we’ve got all sorts of vested interests in understanding ourselves, our neighbors, and any children that might happen to come along.  Sometime over the past few years (or decades, perhaps, depending on what technologies you’re looking at), the brain has somehow managed to drift from being the seat of immutable personal destiny to being something far more,  and far more quickly, changeable.  But changeable in response to what?  And to what extent do a person’s “initial conditions” truly affect the choices they end up making, and the metagoals and supergoals held as primary?

Each of must now deal, on practically a daily basis, with new questions of what it means to be who we are (and how self-modification might figure into that process).  In addition, people who desire to become parents, or who are already parents, are being faced with new challenges as far as producing and raising members of the next generation goes.

For instance, there’s a father blogging on Wired right now, in a series entitled, Hacking My Child’s Brain.  While I don’t have any ethical problems with sensory integration therapy provided with the intention of helping someone learn to gain better awareness of how the sensory landscape affects them (and how to better cope with overwhelming stimuli), I do think it’s important to focus on how any such therapy might make the child’s life intrinsically better as opposed to how it might “normalize” their responses and reactions to the world and other people. 

The father writing this blog says some very reasonable things (he points out how schools sometimes wrongly accuse students with sensory issues of deliberately acting up), but at the same time, he seems to be making some rather odd assumptions regarding how his son experiences the world (e.g., talking about “demanding” eye contact, and equating typical emotional expressions with the actual feeling of a particular emotion, which is not always an accurate pairing—especially when dealing with someone who is atypically-wired to begin with).

Things are likely to get even more convoluted, ethics-wise, once more dramatic means of brain-alteration emerge, through such tools as nanotechnology.  Chris Phoenix, over at Responsible Nanotechnology recently wrote an article entitled Exploring Nano-Ethics.  While I agreed with the premise and most of the conclusions in this article (i.e., that people shouldn’t need to prove they are “diseased” in some respect in order to have the right to modify themselves in some way), there was one statement that set off my “unexamined bias” flags (emphasis mine):

Incautious or excessive amplification of human traits may lead to situations not dissimilar from drunkenness, mania, or even autism.



The fundamental problem here is, as I see it, in seeking to define autism as a deviation from something that should  exist by default, rather than a legitimate configuration in its own right. Autism is not a transitory “state”,  it’s more of what I’d analogize to an operating system. Every operating system has its adherents—some people prefer Windows, some prefer Linux, but that doesn’t mean that either operating system is a defective or exaggerated version of the other.

I’m not being a voracious relativist here; I am just pointing out that there is such a thing as a set of mutually exclusive yet equally valid configurations.  This, of course, is not the same thing as claiming ALL configurations are valid—I don’t want Alzheimer’s or cancer and I don’t know anyone else who does, either, but I know of plenty of people who are fine with being autistic and don’t feel slighted or sad for having been born that way. 

Some people, including some of the commenters who responded to me on the Responsible Nanotechnology  article I replied to, seemed fine with the idea that autistic thought processes and cognition could be functional and even beneficial in some contexts.  However, both in that discussion and in others I’ve been involved in at times, there’s a kind of sentiment that autistic cognition is best thought of as a tool for accomplishing certain specialized tasks, rather than something people can or should exist within the framework off all the time.

While I understand how a person could come to this way of thinking, based on the current cultural climate, I find the argument that autism is somehow bad if it’s “unintentional” to be insulting—just as, say, a black person might find it insulting to hear that, well, black people are fine, but nobody deserves to be bornblack because that will restrict their freedom somehow from the get-go (and I know that neurology and skin color aren’t really analogous, but attitudes surrounding both certainly are).

It’s a subtle kind of prejudice, and one that many people are probably unaware of having until the dominant culture changes to the degree that it is revealed—try listening to a few old radio programs or reading a few old magazines from the 1950s, and see how women and minorities are talked about. It’s likely much of it would sound very racist and sexist by today’s standards, but it didn’t to most people at the time.  I’m certainly not suggesting that we need to try to “preserve” minority groups through the kinds of policies that, say, white-separatist groups would favor—but rather, that whenever an assumption exists that a given group is inferior for whatever reason, this assumption needs very close examination.  And people need to be allowed to perform these examinations, and to question fashionable assumptions, without being accused of overzealous and gratuitous “political correctness”.

For example, there seems to be a very pervasive implicit assumption that neurotypicality represents a state of maximum “choice”—when in fact, this is an illusion. The suggestion that autism should never be “unintentional” is,  simultaneously, a statement to the effect of, “Only nonautistic people are qualified to determine whether or not being autistic is okay or not”. Which is, of course, a very patronizing statement, not to mention one quite revelatory of the sense of illusion-of-choice that members of any majority tend to exhibit. When there are a lot of people like you around, it’s a lot easier to see more of your behaviors and preferences as willful and intentional, and therefore the behaviors of people less like you as evidence of constraint or pathology.

A hypothetical case in point: You’re doing something (e.g., watching a soccer match) because you want to, but the autistic person is doing something else (e.g., lining up blocks or drawing detailed and realistic pictures) due to “obsession” or a “savant skill”.

I’m not trying to go off on a tangent on “free will” versus determinism (though I consider myself a

compatabilist, for the record) but rather, pointing out that when viewing a configuration different from yours as inherently constraining, it is important to look at and try to recognize your own constraints and not let them become invisible to you just because the dominant culture accomodates them so readily.

Some might respond to my arguments here with the statement that, “if we CAN make someone more ‘normal’, we should, because though there are some positive aspects to certain kinds of differences, differences can also make a person suffer, and it’s not fair to make people suffer just so we’ll have more diversity in the world.”

But what this assumption misses is the fact that each and every person has challenges in life, and that it is really only a false sense of security and desire for certainty that causes a person to shudder less at the idea of typical challenges (finding a prom date, resisting peer pressure to binge-drink at a college party) than at atypical ones (learning to manage hypersensitive hearing, not emitting or easily translating standard body language). 

I imagine a transhuman/posthuman culture of tremendous diversity and tremendous accomodation of, and recognition of, different ways of being. Certainly, it is best for people to be able to self-determine to the greatest degree possible—and I agree that caution is in order when embarking on experimental journeys of self-modification and cognitive engineering—but I also think that we need to be very wary of bias, and avoid attempting to define a single “best possible baseline state” from which to start these journeys.


Anne Corwin was an IEET intern 2006-2007, and is an engineer and technoprogressive activist in California. She is a member of the Board of Directors of the Humanity Plus, and is active in the longevity movement through the Methuselah Foundation and in the neurodiversity movement addressing issues along the autism spectrum. Ms. Corwin writes the blog Existence is Wonderful and produces a related podcast.
Print Email permalink (3) Comments (3285) Hits •  subscribe Share on facebook Stumble This submit to reddit submit to digg


COMMENTS


“And people need to be allowed to perform these examinations, and to question fashionable assumptions, without being accused of overzealous and gratuitous “political correctness”.”

No reasonable person would deny that all assumptions should be open to question - that’s the only way to prevent descent into mob rule.

However I think it should always be in mind that groups *can* be ‘inferior’ to some definition. Shouldn’t we examine the popular assumption that ‘all people are created equal’?

It will become more and more important to acknowledge this as emerging technologies are rolled out - as the gap between the enhanced and the non-enhanced widens, to persist with this assumption will seem crazier and crazier.

As for political correctness and offense, perhaps semantics has a large role to play here…





Being an autist myself, though highly functioning, I feel from my own experiences that I have to disagree with you.

Not being able to emphasise how other people are feeling, not being able to create the same social connections with others as most do, and feeling at ease in social situations aren’t isn’t really that sweet (especially in a world where social connections and networking means more and more on the workplace).

I understand that no ones life is a walk on roses, but I don’t think intentionally adding deficiencies is a good way to go.

I agree that there might be some mental boons, in some narrow specific areas, but there are also great costs (say reliance on stability around them - which a transhuman future does not seem include much of), which might exceed the gains, even if they are temporary.

Some autists are truly mentally handicapped people, who has to be taken care of for the rest of their lives, and many have greatly reduced life quality (which, I agree, might be alleviated if society became more diverse - and added more funds).

In this way, I have to disagree with the sentiment, that all people who today are labeled as handicapped/disabled are, all in all, having the same amount of life-quality (just different) than non-handicapped/disabled.

This, at least, is my take on the situation.





> Being an autist myself, though highly functioning, I feel
> from my own experiences that I have to disagree with you.

Disagreement is fine; I don’t expect everyone to agree with me.

> Not being able to emphasise how other people are feeling, not
> being able to create the same social connections with others
> as most do, and feeling at ease in social situations aren’t
> isn’t really that sweet (especially in a world where social
> connections and networking means more and more on the workplace).

It’s a matter of priorities, I suppose.  I don’t place a high premium on being able to create the same kinds of social connections as others, and never have.  If I did have a desire to do things the way everyone else did, I might be more upset at how my brain was wired.  I think that some of what you are feeling might be due to social pressures—society doesn’t value certain kinds of people as much as it values other kinds of people, and some other people on the spectrum do feel as you do.  But many do not, and I’ve found that people who learn to view themselves in a less pathologized manner actually start functioning better socially, since less energy is being spent on trying to do things the standard way.  There’s nothing wrong with wanting to do things the standard way, but there’s a lot wrong with the situation if the only reason people want to do things the standard way is because they’ve been taught to hate themselves (or because they’ve been bullied or excluded on the basis of their atypicality).

Autistic people generally aren’t taught how to function autistically; rather, we’re taught in most cases to try as hard as possible to simulate and emulate normalcy, which can actually lead to the appearance of being “lower functioning” (though I have a problem with functioning labels to begin with, since I think they’re very environment-dependent). 

But it doesn’t have to be that way, and I’ve learned a lot (and improved my communication abilities a lot) by reading the writings of others on the spectrum, because such people have experience learning to navigate in the world with an atypical brain.

For example, nobody knew I was experiencing sensory overload as a young child, and tended to think I was just weird and whiny and irritable.  Once I learned that I was hypersensitive to certain noises and textures and such, I was able to learn coping strategies for dealing with these things, rather than just trying to suppress my reactions all the time.  I also didn’t know until my mid-twenties that other people generally saw the world in a drastically different way than I did; once I learned this, interactions became less confusing.

The experience was sort of like learning that I’d actually been speaking a different language throughout my whole life without knowing it, because though the words sounded the same, the meanings were very different.  I didn’t even know that other people used body language to communicate until I read about it, and once I learned that, it became much clearer as to why I frequently had miscommunications with others. 

Even though I still can’t read standard body language automatically, I at least know that it exists and that in itself has made a huge difference. (And incidentally, there are some kinds of body language I can read very well, such as that of cats, and other atypical people).

> I understand that no ones life is a walk on roses, but I
> don’t think intentionally adding deficiencies is a good way to go.

I agree, but it really depends on the individual…one person’s deficiency is another person’s desired state.  For example, someone might want very sensitive hearing if they like walking in the woods and identifying bird calls. 

But the consequence of having this hypersensitive hearing might be that they get easily overwhelmed in loud shopping malls.  Of course, there are some things that nobody would ever want—but generally, those are things that aren’t much good in ANY environment.  If you have hypersensitive hearing or some other common autistic trait like intense focus, there are environments in which you can do very well. 

But if you have, say, pneumonia or cancer, there isn’t ANY environment in which either of those is not going to be painful, awful, and dangerous.  So there are boundary conditions—there are traits or states of being that should definitely never be introduced on purpose. 

But this doesn’t mean that everything that looks like a deficit in one environment is inappropriate everywhere, or that there will ever be universal acceptance by everyone that a given thing represents a problem.

> I agree that there might be some mental boons, in some narrow
> specific areas, but there are also great costs (say reliance
> on stability around them - which a transhuman future does not
> seem include much of), which might exceed the gains, even if
> they are temporary.

Again, it depends on the person.  Some people like being autistic, some don’t.  And I do think people should have the choice as to what traits and configurations they would like to keep or shed.

With regard to managing autistic neurology in an unpredictable environment: here are a lot of creative ways of dealing with things like a need for stability; in my case I’ve learned to plan ahead a lot (and try to figure out a “plan B” in case the first plan doesn’t happen). 

I also have certain things I know I can do every day regardless of what else is going on.  You can also try carrying a small familiar object around; this is very non-invasive and easy and allows you to maintain what is called “local coherence” even if things around you are changing.

> Some autists are truly mentally handicapped people, who has
> to be taken care of for the rest of their lives, and many
> have greatly reduced life quality (which, I agree, might be
> alleviated if society became more diverse - and added more funds).

Everyone is taken care of throughout their lives; it’s just that some people need different kinds of care than others.  Most people shop at grocery stores, for instance, rather than growing and harvesting their own food.  A lot of people these days type and don’t hand-write; in the past, having poor handwriting would probably have been considered a serious disability, but it isn’t anymore since keyboards are so readily available.  Most people go to mechanics to have their car fixed rather than doing it all themselves; similarly, most people go to dentists rather than drilling their own teeth, and practically all people who aren’t blind are dependent on artificial lights.

It costs money to keep everyone in society alive and functioning, and providing services to people so that they CAN function their best isn’t a “zero sum game”.  I am very much in favor of helping to shift society so that it accomodates a far greater range of people—but this is in no way in conflict with the idea that people should also be able to change themselves if they want to.  Sure they should, but society shouldn’t systematically devalue people who *don’t* want to change to become more standard.

> In this way, I have to disagree with the sentiment, that all
> people who today are labeled as handicapped/disabled are, all
> in all, having the same amount of life-quality (just
> different) than non-handicapped/disabled.

I didn’t express that sentiment, but overall, I think you’d have to take a survey of different people in different situations in order to get an idea as to whether that were true or not.  If you find that people who are, by your definition, handicapped do rate their quality of life as high as non-handicapped people, then the data will speak for itself.

I get the impression sometimes that people are afraid that if they accept that it’s possible to live richly and fully with a disability, then somehow people who *don’t* want to have particular disabilities will be prevented from changing their configurations (on the basis that we need disabled people in order to preserve diversity). 

This is a totally wrongheaded way of looking at things…it is always improper to turn people into political symbols, and if you told someone that they (for instance) had to keep using a wheelchair rather than get stem cell therapy to mitigate their paralysis, that would be an inappropriate infringement on that person’s right to self-determine.  Nobody should be forced into being a symbol of diversity.  But equally important is that diversity is not squashed by ignorance. 

When people assume that autism is universally a bad thing for everyone, that’s an example of ignorance, because it’s obvious that there are autistic people who don’t feel that way, and these people deserve just as much a right to self-determine as anyone else. 

If some people choose a “cure”, fine, but they don’t have the right to foist that “cure” on everyone else, and society doesn’t have the right to make it illegal to be autistic.





YOUR COMMENT (IEET's comment policy)

Login or Register to post a comment.

Next entry: Poll: Should there be a standing U.N. military force to enforce world law?

Previous entry: Looking for limits to enhancement in a plastic world

HOME | ABOUT | FELLOWS | STAFF | EVENTS | SUPPORT  | CONTACT US
SECURING THE FUTURE | LONGER HEALTHIER LIFE | RIGHTS OF THE PERSON | ENVISIONING THE FUTURE
CYBORG BUDDHA PROJECT | AFRICAN FUTURES PROJECT | JOURNAL OF EVOLUTION AND TECHNOLOGY

RSSIEET Blog | email list | newsletter |
The IEET is a 501(c)3 non-profit, tax-exempt organization registered in the State of Connecticut in the United States.

Contact: Executive Director, Dr. James J. Hughes,
Williams 119, Trinity College, 300 Summit St., Hartford CT 06106 USA 
Email: director @ ieet.org     phone: 860-297-2376