Printed: 2019-12-11

Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies





IEET Link: https://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/Igwe20190715

Beyond Humanism: Emerging Technologies and African Futures

Leo Igwe


Beyond Humanism Conference


https://ieet.org/index.php/IEET2/IEETblog

July 15, 2019

Beyond Humanism highlights the philosophical implications of emerging technologies. And any one who is deeply concerned about improving the human conditions needs to pay attention to discourses on critical transhumanism and post humanism. The consequences of emerging technologies on the lives and prospects of Africans cannot be overemphasized because these technologies have the potential of radically transforming the life worlds.

However, what constitutes this impact is debatable because life worlds differ, and contexts shape the way and manner that humans relate to existential possibilities. In this presentation, I articulate a Nigerian African perspective. I am cautious not to conflate the situations or to over generalize because even within Nigeria multiple contexts apply. While arguing for a shift away from a traditional humanist understanding, this presentation highlights the implications of emerging technology-based changes for humanity in Africa going forward. 

Africa and the Rest of Us

Like their counterparts in other parts of the world, Africans imagine and harbor radical thoughts and ideas of how to tackle the existential challenges that they face including poverty, diseases, unemployment, and hunger. Everyday life is characterized by efforts to translate these instincts and sentiments into realities that enhance their lives and improve their wellbeing. However, a disconnect persists between Africa and the West; between Africans and the rest as shown in the various indices of global and human development. According to a world bank report, people living in poverty in the region grew from 278 million in 1990 to 413 million in 2015. The report further noted that as of 2015, most of the global poor live in sub-saharan African countries. 

This aim of this presentation is not to bemoan the digital and technological divide between Africa and the rest of the world. Instead it sees the divide as a resource, a necessity that inspires- and could inspire unique inventions and innovations, imaginations of epic proportion. The tragic predicament of Africa rather provides a raw material for forging radical and transformative imaginaries. This presentation is interested in exploring how this divide could engender visions and imaginations, or occasions a paradigm shift in thinking about humanity that reflects the African contexts within the framework of fabricated humans. It hints on how such an undertaking could provide Africa and Africans a bridge and a trajectory towards a development that has a global dimension.

Transcendence Thinking and Tool Making

Imaginaries to extend life, overcome mortality and augment human intelligence as we know it, are not recent aspirations, not European, western preoccupations. As old as human beings, these longings are found in all cultures. These desires have always existed in some form or another in various societies and have inspired great changes and transformations, experiments and explorations. To adequately situate these imaginaries and their relationships to everyday life a bit my personal background might be helpful. 

I was born in a small village in Mbaise in south-eastern Nigeria. I grew up in an environment that could hardly be associated with the sophistications of urbanity and technology as we know it today. But the environment was human in every respect. People grappled with existential risks and challenges. However, beneath the veneer of rural pristine life and experiences lurk sublime and overarching fantasies; imaginings of transcendence, of extending life, overcoming mortality alleviating human suffering and tapping into supposed intelligences that people believed populated the world and enabled better management of everyday life.

From Tool Use and Construction

People forged various tools and devices to maintain control over their environment, and to address their everyday needs and uncertainties. Tools and techniques were used to process and preserve food, construct shelters, plough the farms, transport goods, deliver services, hunt animals, cure diseases, and build roads. However, the tools that people utilized in communities evolved over the years transforming the ways people lived, moved and did business. While growing up I witnessed as people gradually abandoned certain techniques for others. They adopted tools which they deemed more efficient and cost effective, sometimes discarding tools made of stones, wooden devices for the metallic instruments or forging a combination of wooden and metallic techniques as the case may be. These wooden metallic or metallic wooden tools are still used for farming and hunting activities in rural African communities. 

In the preservation of water, cooler clay pots gave way to refrigerators in many places. And in farming, many people abandoned hoes and shovels for tractors and other machines that made farm work less laborious. Subsistence, small-scale farming, has slowly given way to mechanized and commercialized farm projects thanks to new agricultural technologies. In the sectors of health, transportation and construction of roads, there have been a mixing, merging and switching of tools and techniques in pursuant to answers and solutions to everyday problems.  Some of these techniques have been adopted as a result of the influences from other nations. Encounters with eastern and western cultures have technologically left a legacy of hybridity, a curious admixture of local and global, indigenous and the eastern/western technoscientific cultures. 

In African societies, the impact of these tools has been mixed. On the one hand, these tools and techniques have led to significant changes - to improvement in the quality of lives and health, improvement in the means of transportation, and communication. On the other hand, huge problems remain including massive poverty, social inequality, lack of access to modern technologies, high infant and maternal mortality rates. 

Technological devices have not succeeded in eradicating the existential dangers that many Africans face. In fact these risks have become more complicated. Incidentally, unlike in other parts of the world, international politics and economic manipulations have left Africa and Africans technologically worse off.  Many people in the region cannot afford or use available medical cures and health technologies. In many parts of rural Africa, there are no health centers; people still heavily depend on traditional healers and healing methods. There are no telephones, no electricity, no internet access, no pipes with water, no motorable roads. And wherever these facilities exist, they are inefficient, of low quality or outdated. 

Despite the profound scientific and technological progress in tool making, tool use and construction, African countries are still on top of the table of the human poverty, suffering and misery index and down the line in the human happiness and development.

Thus the technological legacy has not led to radical transformations that Africans desire, and imagine. It has not provided the thrust for Africa’s progressive leap and fulfillment of basic necessities. Innovations in tool making have not yielded expected outcomes. While tool use and construction has greatly enhanced the living conditions, the progress recorded so far falls short of the envisioned goals of eradicating suffering, abject poverty, overcoming aging, mortality and other existential encumbrances. Thus it has become pertinent to rethink the notion of humans as a homo faber, as a maker of tools in the light of the existential risks and uncertainties that persist in the region. 

To Fabricated Humans

This rethinking exercise requires a shift in focus, a recalibration of the inventive and innovative ingenuity. But this time the target is not the tool but the toolmaker; it is not to improve the machines, making them faster or smarter, lighter, or energy saving –as desirable as these could be-, but enhancing the capacity of the maker of machines, triggering an orientation in technological innovation blurs the line demarcating the machines from their makers.

This paradigm shift has implications in various aspects of African life world especially in the eradication of diseases and other health care challenges.

Diseases Control

According to the WHO, Africa has about 11 percent of the world population but 60 percent of the people living with HIV/AIDS and 90 percent of the 300-500 million malaria cases that occur every year. Biological constraints exist that limit the way and manner that Africans enjoy good health or remain healthy. These constraints, complicated by poverty, ignorance, absence, limited or lack of access to medical cures and technology have led to prolonged illness and suffering. In African societies, the health situation is so bad that most people have resigned to dying slowing as a result of debilitating diseases. In Nigeria, faced with serious ailments that require complicated medical procedures such organ, liver, kidney transplants, brain surgery, a few who can afford the treatments go overseas, to Europe, America or Asia; while those who cannot, stay at home to slowly die or pray for a ‘miracle’ recovery. 

In May, a family member suffered a stroke and I accompanied him to a state hospital for some medical examination and sessions on physiotherapy. At this hospital unit, I saw persons, both young and old who could barely walk or use their limbs. Some of them had their hands and legs dangling as if they were lifeless objects tied to their bodies with very tiny threads. The therapists subjected the patients to various treatment sessions that were sometimes painful; sessions that made some of the patients to scream due to unbearable pain. The doctors tried very hard to get them to use the affected parts of the body again.

Actually, many patients that I saw at the hospital had little chances of fully recovering or fully regaining the useability of their hands and legs. Thus they would be travelling back and forth for subsequent painful physiotherapy sessions until their eventual demise. At the same time, the patients that I met at the hospital were fortunate because they could afford physiotherapy treatments at a state hospital. Many people who suffer stroke in Nigeria cannot afford such prolonged treatments and end up becoming bedridden for the rest of their lives. Others go to traditional or faith healers or for a bit or a mix of traditional and orthodox medical treatments.

It may interest you to know that, at the hospital, the patient with me suddenly had seizures while we were waiting to see the doctor. And as the doctor was attending to him, a woman walked up to me and squeezed a piece of paper into my hands. It contained the name of a local herb, which she said I should obtain and administer to the patient. While this patient was on admission at the local hospital, Christian and muslim groups and individuals came and pray for his divine healing and miracle recovery.

Meanwhile, medical experts said that a stroke was as a result of problems in the left or right side of the brain. Emerging technologies can alter the way Africans live, manage and treat diseases, and reduce the unbearable suffering millions of people endure. Technologies could enable genetic modifications and redesign that will make people resistant to all ailments such as malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS. 

Sorgner (2019) has suggested that in the course of integrating people and computers, “Sensors of the integrated computer will be located in different parts of our body in order to be able to check our bodily functions”. In this case, a chip could be inserted in the brain of those who suffer stoke to restore the functionality and control of the affected parts of the body. In addition, chips could be inserted to dictate and help rectify impending malfunction in the body such as the blockage of arteries, brain damage or heart failure. 

In fact, genetic modifications could correct the predispositions to malaria, diabetes, high blood pressure, epilepsy or stroke and other diseases that kill millions of Africans every year and cause so much suffering to millions more in the region. 

 

Eradicating Aging and Death

Emerging technologies could slow down or totally eradicate aging and eventually help realize The Death of Death as Cordeiro and Wood have proposed. Growing old is associated with so much suffering in the region. For many people in African societies aging holds very frightful prospects. As people grow old, their body organs begin to weaken, fail or malfunction; as they are no longer able to resist diseases. Lack of social support and effective public health care system have made the situation worse. Old people’s homes are virtually non-existent and often taunted as a western idea. Aging implies retirement into poverty, isolation, debilitating ailments, and misery. The aged find it difficult to get the basic care that they need and rely mainly on family networks for their everyday needs. Families that are unable to cater for their aged especially when they become senile or are afflicted with terminal ailments, abandon them, and just let them die. That’s if they are not accused of witchcraft or some occult harm to legitimize abandonment, neglect or cold-blooded murder. 

Emerging technological processes present Africa with potential benefits, opportunities and possibilities that need to be harnessed in order to alleviate grave suffering, and make diseases, aging and death technical problems that could be fix. 

Nonetheless, these possibilities have enormous social cultural, economic, and anthropological implications. These implications are subject to both plausible and implausible interpretations. They raise ethical concerns and cogent technopolitical issues, which need to be openly addressed. For instance: what could be the socio-economic and political implications of refabricating humans for Africa and Africans? Will fragile African states be able to hold their grounds against opposition from more powerful states and block of states to using and applying emerging technologies? That is, bearing in mind the projected promises and perils, are African countries able to muster the technopolitical will to partake in the enhancement of human capacities and other futurist endeavours? In fact, will African schools agree to expand their educational curriculum, establish research programs and integrate modules on emerging technologies, transhumanism, post humanism and futures studies?

A Nigerian woman recently recounted how her two sickler children became AA after undergoing a stem cell therapy in the US. She noted that the children were among the first to successfully go through the procedure. Look, initiatives to introduce such research programs in Nigeria are likely to be vehemently opposed by the political elite; and by those who believe that such initiatives interrogate or challenge the basis of their religious faith. 

Writing in one of the Nigerian dailies, The Guardian, Hope Eghagha (2018), has this to say regarding his concerns over emerging technologies:

“Science is no longer an abstraction. It is real. It challenges existing notions based on faith. If it is true that barring accidents man could live forever how does this fit into faith as received in the great religions? One of the most revolutionary outputs of science in our time is the driverless car. Robotic engineering has developed profound ways of engagement. It has become a metaphor for the contemporary. Everything is now computerized. We are used to computer created-characters who have more than one life. 

Science also wants to transfer that to man as a being. In other words, in the brave new world we have found ourselves in (radically ahead of Aldous Huxley’s predictions in his novel Brave New World), science could create a being, infertility is not a problem, no barrenness if one can afford to pay – test tube babies are available. Surrogate mother hood. Birth by inducement thereby obliterating birth pains for the woman. Impotence can be, has been treated. The revolutions in stem cell technology which can grow human parts and the 3Ds are challenges to received notions. Dolls as sex companions are common. Cloning is also a threat; it could further the quality of life but it also challenges creation once the technology is deployed to creating human beings”. 

Meanwhile, it is still members of the elite in the region that are ready to pay any amount to get their friends or family members to undergo procedures such organ transplant and implants, stem cell treatment overseas. A positive and optimist outlook is needed in the evaluation of unfounded, misguided fears and anxieties over the project of human enhancement, genetic modifications and other futurist endeavours. Technoptimism is needed to adequately situate the dystophic and technophobic scenarios that are too often painted and used to undermine the deployment of emerging technologies.


Leo Igwe, as a member of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, has bravely worked for human rights in West Africa. He is presently enrolled in a three year research programme on “Witchcraft accusations in Africa” at the University of Bayreuth, in Germany.

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