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Review of Mark Coeckelbergh’s Human Being @ Risk
Nikki Olson   Jul 25, 2013   Ethical Technology  

Singularity topics, being in many ways theories of everything, and Transhumanist topics, being relevantly political and ethical, are subject matters that lend themselves to broad conceptual discourse, often of, and related to existentialism. Mark Coeckelbergh’s publication Human Being @ Risk: Enhancement, Vulnerability, and the Evaluation of Vulnerability Transformations, is a thoughtful and bold exercise in relating Transhumanist discourse to historic and present day academic existentialism and anthropology, and offers a considered evaluation of core Transhumanist beliefs.

The main topic, centrally relevant to Transhumanism and the Singularity, concerns the human experience of vulnerability, and the prospect of reducing and/or modifying human risk via technology.

The central thesis concerns the ways in which Transhumanists think about and discuss vulnerability and/or risk – not just how the transhuman is envisioned, but also how the present/past human-technology relationship is conceptualized and evaluated. Coeckelbergh’s contention is with interpretations and conceptualizations that underscore the “overcoming” or “transcendence” of risk as a reasonable goal and/or explanatory device for the events of history.

He believes that although technology can objectively decrease risk of a particular kind or make us feel less vulnerable in particular way, any technology that decreases some kind of risk also introduces new risks, thereby altering the ways in which we are at risk and experience vulnerability. Thus, rather than think of the human-technology dialectic as a process that makes humans less vulnerable, it is better conceptualized, he believes, as a process of transformation--a process that transforms human vulnerability.

Coeckelbergh examines the Transhumanist ideas of Ray Kurzweil and Nick Bostrom to illustrate the aforementioned conceptual paradigm of transcendending/overcoming risk, and demonstrates how and in what ways “vulnerability transformed” is a more accurate means of understanding past and present humans, as well as proposed future technologies aimed at reducing risk.

He uses examples such as antibiotics, industrialization, and information technology, citing that antibiotics have introduced the risk of superbugs, industrialization has given way to climate change, and information technology has made us vulnerable to cybercrime and social isolation. When it comes to future proposals, he examines the hope of becoming less vulnerable by means of virtualization and nanomedicine, reasoning what new risks these technologies would introduce in order to show how these too would “transform” rather than diminish risk.

Examination of particulars, and derivation of the central thesis, is by way of a unique philosophical mode. Coeckelbergh’s philosophy is grounded in the normative anthropological perspective, which he develops into what he calls a “normative anthropology of vulnerability”. It accounts for existentialist-phenomenological aspects of being at risk, as well as empirical perspective, thereby operating by a simultaneously subjective-objective epistemology. The main theorists drawn upon in development and support of Coeckelbergh’s philosophical approach include Helmuth Plessner, Bruno Latour, Martin Heidegger, and Hubert Dreyfus.

Human Being @ Risk is a proposed prolegomena to future Transhumanist discourse – as a starting framework from which to go forward in evaluating future technology, including pragmatic issues regarding ethics and politics. The book is no small undertaking in this way. Going forward, Coeckelbergh argues, given the futility in being guided by the prospect of decreasing/overcoming risk and vulnerability, future discussions ought to concern discerning which kinds of vulnerability transformations we prefer over others.

Coeckelbergh is quite adamant in reminding the reader that his approach is one of normative anthropology; that in spite of incorporation of phenomenology, and the subjectivist aspects it entails, the subjective-objective framework he has constructed does not discard the possibility for normative discussion. As he writes: “We can and should discuss which changes we want – at least to the extent that we have the power to make these changes and to the extent that we can imagine and sense future possibilities” (Coeckelbergh, 203).

But by virtue of which values, if not risk reduction, ought we evaluate possible technologies, or, what standards/ideals might guide inclination towards one technological transformation over another? This question is not raised and its significance remains unacknowledged by the author throughout the book. And the absence of a proposed alternative standard or set of values makes it difficult to envision how to go forward from Human Being @ Risk. Popular Transhumanist philosophers, such as David Pearce and Max More have proposed sets of values that may inform considerations of risk/vulnerability transformation. David Pierce, for instance, has suggested the reduction of suffering in sentient life as a value by which to guide technological pursuit.

Alternatively, Extropianism, an early Transhumanist perspective established by Max More, holds intelligence, information, energy, vitality, experience, diversity, opportunity, and growth as central values for improvement. Perhaps these philosophies can be of use in addressing the question of values, standards, and vulnerability transformations.

Human Being @ Risk assumes some background in philosophy, sociology and anthropology, though Coeckelbergh takes a great deal of care in explanation and example. It explores a lot of terrain, including ethics, politics and aesthetics, meditates on rich and meaningful aspects of the human condition and psyche, and explores issues relevant to anyone interested in a broader, conceptual, more existential address of the human-technology relationship. 

Nikki Olson, an Affiliate Scholar of the IEET, is a transhumanist writer/researcher authoring unique articles on transhumanist culture and advancing technology. Involved in Singularity research for 4 years as a full-time research assistant, she worked on an upcoming book about the Singularity, aided in the development of the University of Alberta course "Technology and the Future of Medicine", and produced educational material for the Lifeboat Foundation. She attained a bachelor’s degree in 2007 at University of Alberta, Canada, in Philosophy and Sociology. Her interests lie in scarcity reducing technology, biotechnology, DIY, augmentation technologies, artificial intelligence, and transhumanist philosophy.

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