What does the word “post-human” actually mean? Of course, we’ll be merging with machines, but what’s the final product? Do we need focus? Is this worrisome?
What is a posthuman being? For years, I have been hearing that we are gradually moving towards a new state. Transhumanism is, by definition, a step between our current human form and what we will become. I see a lot of ideas on how we will merge with our technology, how things will be radically different after the Singularity, how we will be immortal and how human and machine will become one new being in a glorious new world. But one thing I hear very little about is the end product.
It seems to me that there is a lack of focus in the transhumanist community. There is such an emphasis on the process that perhaps the big finale has faded into the aether. I think it is time to draw the focus back – to answer the question “what, exactly, are we trying to do here?” It is time to get a consensus and work back from that. Only then will we know how to proceed.
The word “posthuman” can be a tad polarizing and even frightening. I’m sure that for an audience like the one reading this on IEET or H+ Magazine, I don’t need to break down the parts of the word, like I would to grade schoolers. That would be insulting. Or would it? Hmm. Maybe the crux of the idea is in the word itself.
Post - obviously means “after.” I don’t think we need to dig into that any deeper. But the next part of the word is “human.” This is the hard part. How can we define “posthuman” until we come up with a specific consensus of what it means to be “human.” Let’s look first at a few dictionary definitions.
Adjective: Of, relating to, or characteristic of people or human beings.
Noun: A human being, esp. a person as distinguished from an animal or (in science fiction) an alien.
Synonyms: adjective Human noun man - person - human being - individual - soul – mortal
This one was from Google, which grabbed it from Dictionary.com and Wikipedia. Here is the problem though. I was told from day one of kindergarten never to use a word in definition of itself. In other words, you cannot say that a tree is a tree-like object. So how can we stand for saying that the definition of a human is “a human being?”
Natasha Vita-More, one of the founders of the transhumanist movement, has released a few different versions of what she calls the “Primo Posthuman.” It is a graphic of a genderless human form, colored entirely in neon yellow with pointers to different parts of hir body, describing technological enhancements that will be on or in that body. This image has been reprinted numerous times in different articles and media. In fact, it has become one of the most recognizable images related to transhumanism. However, the title is “Primo Posthuman” but it shows a human with cyborg enhancements. I would like to know why this fictional person was labeled a posthuman when they were most certainly born an unenhanced homo sapiens. Shouldn’t she be labeled a “primo transhuman?” As a sidebar, I am a big fan of Vita-More’s work, and she has been very influential to mine. I will be meeting her at a conference in a few months, and I will be sure to ask her more about this at that time.
So we go back to how we define a posthuman. What comes “after human?” Is this a being we would even recognize? How will we evolve biologically in response to our dependence on technology?
The second half of the animated Pixar film Wall*E shows how humans have changed while living for hundreds of years in a massive spaceship after leaving Earth a deserted, polluted wasteland. These people spend their lives in motorized chairs, never walking, never taking their eyes off the computer/TV screens before them. They are depicted as being entirely unable to care for themselves, and are waited on by robots. Although not a hive mind, they are easily swayed. When the computer tells them that red is the new color of choice, they all instantly change their clothes (via a color-changing material they never remove) to red. This movie was meant as a statement on mass consumerism, but it served as an effective argument or allegory for many different subjects, many of which would be of interest to transhumanists.
For the purposes of this article, we are looking at the humans in this film (although the robots are really cool, too). We see through archival footage aboard the spaceship that these pathetic blobs were, in fact, once real humans. We see the president of the Buy’N’Large Corporation, played by Fred Willard, as the only real human being in any Pixar film. Which implies that these pasty, cartoonish blobs are not computer-generated approximations of humans in an animated movie, but rather that this is supposed to be a live-action movie, and that this is how humanity will evolve over the next few hundred years.
This is actually quite frightening.
Think about it for a second.
The implications of this view are quite interesting, really. When we look at science fiction, especially in film, we usually get three different views. The first is that we will, through our technological advances, create a utopian world where all evils have been eradicated. This is prevalent in Star Trek. The second is that we will let our technology rule us, leading us to become monstrous hybrids, like the Borg…also in Star Trek. The third is that the technology will gain sentience, rising against humanity, and eventually causing our extinction. This is like The Terminator and The Matrix (which I believe, as a closet fanboy, take place in the same continuity alongside Dark City and Cube. But I digress…).
This view of the future we see in Wall*E is completely different than those, and in a much more disturbing way. Utopian idealism is fine, and we should try with all our collective might to get there, but nothing will ever be perfect. In fact, we will most likely never get anywhere close to it, unfortunately. The twisted machine men like the Borg or the people portrayed in the fantastic Japanese manga series Gunnm (Americanized as Battle Angel Alita) are frightening, but as unrealistic as the utopian vision. I seriously doubt we will willingly allow ourselves to be perverted into these monsters.
Even the eventual implants and limb replacements will, most likely, be made to seem as humanlike as possible. The third view, of a robot-dominated Earth, where humans are either enslaved or extinct, is often referred to by non-science types. Those films were so well-received that every time a technological breakthrough is made, people post quotes from those movies right below the articles.
Wall*E, however, shows us what may be a more realistic view. We’ve seen how people in industrialized countries have become softer, rounder and more dependent on technology. The United States is often characterized by other nations as being full of fat, lazy, uneducated, rich and obsessed with consumerism. This is a simplistic view, stereotypical at best and offensive to some. Without getting into a bunch of details this generalization does have some basis in fact.
And this is with the current state of technological development. Let’s take this concept out a few hundred years. Those who (and I must sadly add myself to the list) spend most of their time seated, eating, looking at various glowing screens and trusting Siri, Google and iTunes to keep track of our lives are just the vanguard of a brave new world, aren’t they? Imagine what life will be like after a technological singularity. After we discover we can replace limbs or use nanotechnology to obliterate the cancer we get from eating far too many In-Vitro McRibs.
Now, I’m not trying to be all gloom-and-doom here. And this does tie back into my original question. What will be a posthuman being? If we are human now, and we are using our technology to become transhuman, the step between what we are and what we will become, what is our eventual endgame? We should heed the warnings of Wall*E’s filmmakers. If we are going to become more dependent on our technology, we must make sure we don’t become…that. However, this leaves a lot of room to discuss what we should be trying to become. This is exciting. We can take the time - now – on the edge of great breakthroughs, to have a serious discussion of just what the hell we are doing. Although there will likely be many differing, even opposing, opinions of what posthumanity can or should be, perhaps there can be some sort of consensus.
And now, as always, I leave it up to the reader to continue the discussion.
At what point do we no longer consider ourselves human?
When do we go from trans to post?
Can we define what human is?
Do we want to keep some part of it? All of it?
Or do we want to toss it all out, start from scratch, define our own selves and our own future and become posthuman by choice instead of evolution?
How do we do that?
Most importantly, how will we know when we’ve done it?
Travis James Leland is a science-fiction writer and poet, currently working on a novel entitled "Singular," about a young man who becomes the world's first true posthuman. He lives in Llano, California with his wife and son. His Twitter is @TJL2080.
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