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Your Posthumanism is Boring Me
Jamais Cascio   May 12, 2010   io9  

We will never be posthuman, because we have always been posthuman.

“Posthuman” is a term with more weight than meaning; it’s used variously to describe people with altered genomes, people with implanted machinery, people with lifespans measured in millennia, and a whole host of descriptors that ultimately boil down to “not us, not now.” Enthusiasts and critics alike embrace the term precisely because it advances the argument that the Augmented is the Other—and either an aspiration or a nightmare, as a result. It doesn’t illuminate, it disturbs.

But as augmentations move from the pages of a science fiction story to the pages of a catalog, something interesting happens: they lose their power to disturb. They’re no longer the advance forces of the techpocalypse, they’re the latest manifestation of the fashionable, the ubiquitous, and the banal. They’re normal. They’re human.

Those of us of a certain age remember the birth of Louise Brown, in 1978, quite vividly. Ms. Brown was the first baby born through in-vitro fertilization, or IVF. image Many of you reading this likely know someone who has used (or conceived via) IVF; some of you may be children of IVF yourselves, and are asking now “yeah, so what?” But in 1978, you wouldn’t have been an IVF conception, you would have been a TEST TUBE BABY, and clearly the first in a line of “superbabies” just waiting to take over.

I’m not exaggerating. Even James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA, was quoted as saying “All hell will break loose, politically and morally, all over the world.” [PDF] But hysteria quickly turned into boredom, and the disruptive became the commonplace.

What happened with Louise Brown and IVF will be replicated across the spectrum of technologies that we now celebrate or decry as leading to our posthuman future (the title, by the way, of conservative social critic Frank Fukuyama’s book on how the technologies of human augmentation will lead to the collapse of society). Fear is replaced by familiarity. And unlike IVF, the spread of the Internet and easy communication will mean that most of us will have heard about these technologies as they develop. By the time they arrive, they’ll already be boring.

And when these artifacts hit the real world, they will come complete with the myriad insufficiencies and difficulties of real technology. Again, look at IVF: as anyone who has used it can attest, it’s not a perfect system. It’s troublesome, and frustrating, and clumsy. If nobody still thinks of IVF as being the harbinger of transformation, it’s not because it failed, but because it worked just like any other technology.

Posthumanity, from this perspective, will always be just over the horizon. Always in The Future. When the systems and augmentations we now consider to be posthuman hit the real world, they will have become simply human in scale.

That’s because augmentation—the development of systems and technologies to allow us to do and to be more than what our natural biology would allow—is intrinsic to what it means to be human. Thrown weapons expanded the range of our strength; control of fire allowed us to see in the dark; written words expanded the duration of our memories. If these all sound utterly primitive and unworthy of comment, try to imagine what it would have been like to be without them—and to find yourself competing against others equipped with them. The last hundred thousand years has been the slow history of the process of augmentation.

It’s faster now, and more visible, and, yes, more powerful in its results. But it’s very human. When we read the other entries in the Posthuman Week series we see disruption, but that’s an artifact of perspective. “Posthuman” technologies are disruptive and frightening (or tempting) precisely because they’re not here, and remain off in the distance. They’re alien and inhuman technologies. But as they become more plausible, as they become more real, they will lose that luster.

For the people living in a future surrounded by altered genomes, implanted machinery, and vastly extended lifespans, it will all be boringly normal. Unworthy of comment. And very, very human.

This article was originally published at io9.

Jamais Cascio is a Senior Fellow of the IEET, and a professional futurist. He writes the popular blog Open the Future.


For the people living in a future surrounded by altered genomes, implanted machinery, and vastly extended lifespans, it will all be boringly normal. Unworthy of comment. And very, very human.

I agree with Jamais: this is what I have always thought.

To be clear: I hope, and think, that we will evolve and change beyond the wildest dreams of our generation. Immortality, mind uploading, life in VR worlds as pure software beings, travel to the galaxies as bits carried by magic light… and I think our descendants will find this future magic just a part of boring daily life. And The Future will always be made by hopes and dreams.

To make clear that also very radical and unPC transhumanists can agree with Jamais on this point, I wish to reword the last sentence as:

For the people living in a future surrounded by super human AIs, uploaded minds, synthetic realities, and immortal artilects roaming the universe, it will all be boringly normal. Unworthy of comment. And very, very human.

I like this article because it encapsulates a widely disseminated fallacious objection to posthumanism in the clearest terms.

‘Humans necessarily augment.’

doesn’t entail that

‘Necessarily all augmentations to humans will result in more humans.’

This is a non-sequitur. The fact that augmenting is a necessary property of humans doesn’t mean that non-humans can’t be augmenters as well. The only way round this is to change the premise to ‘Necessarily all augmenters are humans’. You’d get the desired conclusion, but at the expense of an implausibly strong transcendental assumption.

It’s also epistemically dubious to take the subjective apprehension of difference as a measure of difference. It’s probably quite boring being a slime mould from Alpha Centauri but this doesn’t entail that slime moulds from Alpha Centauri are humans.

Still, I like this article. It’s good to be able to disagree substantively.

So what?
Hey, that blonde in the pic above is a cutie smile

This whole article sounds like an argument over whether or not Green Day or Blink 182 is punk or not (sorry, I just had a conversation with my nephew over this - he’s 15, I’m 32).

Who cares?
Actually, this article is more banal than people’s arguments over what it means to be “posthuman”. At least the people arguing over that are trying to define something, rather than just cynically trying to point out it’s meaninglessness.
Oh Jesus….I just realized I’m a hypocrite for commenting on it….

I disagree.  I don’t think that Jamais understands how abrupt an MNT revolution could be once the first nanofactory is built, or how abrupt a hard takeoff could be once a human-equivalent artificial intelligence is created. 

Read Nanosystems, then “Design of a Primitive Nanofactory”, and look where nanotechnology is today. 

For AI, you can do simple math that shows once an AI can earn enough money to pay for its own upkeep and then some, it would quickly gain the ability to take over most of the world economy.

Have Giulio or Jamais read “Design of a Primitive Nanofactory” or Nanosystems?

I have had the same notion recently. Not that transhumanism is boring. No, I don’t think so. I’ve had the notion that from our historical perspective (and for those in the future who won’t be moving as fast as us), the Singularity appears very abrupt. But, from the perspective of, I think, the vast majority of human beings who will go along for the ride—-and ultimately the only surviving faction of humanity that will be around for it to make a difference—-we will never really “experience” a Singularity.

Please feel free to correct my physics, but it’s kind of like falling in a black hole. As you approach the event horizon, gravity warps space/time so much that you never really “experience” yourself crossing over.

I’m not saying that I find this CONVINCING, but it’s an argument.

@Michael - I did, and I can imagine a very fast takeoff MNT revolution.

But my point is that we have already been through fast takeoff revolutions in telecom, and today’s kids just use Facebook on their Iphones on public WiFi hotspots without even thinking about it.

Tomorrow’s kids will be at least as smart as today’s, and they will learn the new ways immediately. Things may accelerate and go faster, but so will people’s abilities (already augmented by their cognitive exoselves).

Giulio, a fast MNT revolution could lead to some obscure country, say Kazakhstan or North Korea, taking over the world in less than a year.  Are you sure that kind of instability is something that kids would just “learn the new ways” about?  How about going from a world with today’s privacy to literally zero privacy in under a year?  How about the sudden introduction of thousands of new mind-blowing designer drugs that get millions of teenagers into all-night partying?  How about pornography so realistic that husbands leave their wives for haptic porn and millions of people quit their jobs to stay in virtual worlds all day?  What about assassin robots so small and effective that anyone can kill their enemies without fear of repercussion?  Or when ten new arms races are kickstarted simultaneously around the world, and warring ethnic factions finally have a realistic means to wipe each other out once and for all?

Will people just “get used” to all of this overnight?  Maybe you and a few others might, but I have a feeling that the other 99.999% of humanity is going to freak out, and the situation will be nothing like Jamais claims here.

If Kazakhstan or North Korea beat America, Europe, China and Japan to nanotechnology, that would be pretty incredible - and would probably indicate that those other countries had been massively overcautious in their development efforts.

Agree with Tim. Re “getting used”, things happen faster and faster to each generation, but people also adapt to new things faster.

“Giulio, a fast MNT revolution could lead to some obscure country, say Kazakhstan or North Korea, taking over the world in less than a year.”

Michael, I think you are wildly overestimating just how fast a first-generation MNT capability can be translated into military advantage (even presuming that Kazakhstan or North Korea could steal a march on DARPA, which has shown quite a bit of interest in Nanotechnology in general and seems to interested in MNT). 

First off, there is what I term the “eutactic paperweight” problem.  Like the early PCs at the dawn of the microcomputer revolution, the first nanofactories are likely to arrive without the ability to make much, certainly without the ability to make much in the way of advanced weaponry.  This is because, like PCs, nanofactories are generalized devices capable of building many things rather than inherently able to build a single thing.  Like the early PCs, it will take time, significantly more time than you seem to think likely IMO, for the instructions for building specific products that could be useful in taking over the world to be developed.

Then, even if this were not the case, the process of weapon design for advanced weapons is best described as a software design project with some conjoint hardware development thrown in for good measure.  This was already widely understood to be the case when I left the Military-Industrial Complex in the early ‘90s.  Without this vitally important software component, which MNT does essentially nothing to help you develop more quickly, the ability to churn out complex hardware (once the instructions for fabricating that hardware, which is a sort of software design project in itself, is written) is essentially useless.

Worrying that if one were to drop a working Nanofactory (especially without a catalogue of instructions for products for it to churn out) into a place like Kazakhstan or North Korea, they could become instant world powers is getting yourself all worked up over nothing.  MNT will, I expect, turn out to have great military and economic utility, BUT this utility will take time to develop rather than showing up fully formed (and armed) like latter-day Athena emerging from the head of Zeus.

Maybe Kazakhstan and North Korea are bad examples.  A better example might be an accelerated arms race between existing superpowers.

We already have full blueprints for a number of weapons and other devices, and insofar as most of the crucial components are made out of stainless steel or other metals, designs can quickly be made to substitute diamondoid or fullerene components for the original metallic ones.  Most of the non-structural components in guns, for instance, would interoperate just as easily with diamondoid as metal.  I’m not talking about designing new weapons from scratch, just copying the blueprints from existing weapons to make diamondoid versions, which would offer substantially better performance. 

The first nanofactories will necessarily be designed to produce other nanofactories, which is a huge task unto itself.  If a nanofactory can build all the complex parts in another factory, then it will naturally be capable of manufacturing a number of simpler products.  Even a diamondoid mortar consisting of little more than a hollowed-out cylinder and diamond slugs would confer a major advantage on the battlefield of the future. 

3D scanning has already progressed to the point where reverse-engineering arbitrary devices is much simpler than it used to be. 

This is all an engineering/science issue, not a cultural issue.  If science and engineering facts permit extremely powerful weapons to be constructed with early-stage nanofactories, then we have a huge problem, regardless of the surrounding cultural context.  Even if the USA develops nanofactories first, it’s still a huge problem because our sudden massive increase in military power will alarm other countries.  But if we don’t develop the technology rapidly and first, someone else will simply do it.

Well, my reply to this was just put up at H+

The gist? Jamais is right… but completely overlooks the fact that we are already ignoring the ten thousand revolutions and changes which are taking place right now because we are so focused on the end results.

“Most of the non-structural components in guns, for instance, would interoperate just as easily with diamondoid as metal. I’m not talking about designing new weapons from scratch, just copying the blueprints from existing weapons to make diamondoid versions, which would offer substantially better performance.”

Re-implementation of existing weapon systems may well provide performance benefits, but I suspect that they are unlikely to be the kind of game-changer that, for example, stealth technology or precision guided munitions are.  I suspect that it would be much more akin to the introduction of Chobham armor: you certainly want to have it (or follow-ons to it) on your tank if you can, but it is not a revolution in military affairs unto itself.  I think that the really impressive military benefits to MNT are going to be a while in developing, which I think is probably a good thing.

“Even if the USA develops nanofactories first, it’s still a huge problem because our sudden massive increase in military power will alarm other countries.”

The thing is that the lead that the US *already* has in conventional military power is so huge that I am not sure that throwing MNT into the mix will matter all that much.  US military spending approximates that of the rest of the World put together.  The US spends more on military R&D than the UK, itself one of the bigger military powers, spends on its whole military budget.  At most, this would take us back to the where things were post Desert Storm, with the US having no serious military peer competitor on the horizon.  Even if I am wrong and there is a full blown revolution in military affairs that can be easily and quickly achieved through MNT, this would still not be unprecedented.  The US is the only country in the world ever to possess a nuclear monopoly, we have a track record for not going power-mad even while having that monopoly on such capability.  I believe that the reaction to our developing such a technology would be better characterized as envy than alarm.

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