Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

"More Than Human"

Bioconservatives like Leon Kass and Francis Fukuyama express horror and rage at the prospect that people will use technology to become “more than human,” while some radical technophiles seem ardently to desire precisely that.

I recently overheard a conversation among some self-identified “transhumanist” technophiles who, casting about for a nice tee-shirt slogan, cheerfully proposed the phrase, "Being human is not enough."

I have to admit the sensibility expressed either fearfully or hopefully in this sort of slogan is utterly incomprehensible to me.

"Not enough people are treated humanely" is a statement that makes powerful sense to me, but "human is not enough"?

Not enough for what?

It seems to me precisely an expression of our humanity (such as it is) that we would want to re-write ourselves in the image of our aspirations -- through experience, through education, through our cultural and now our prosthetic practices.

What exactly do people expect to happen, whether they dread or desire this outcome, that will make some of them "more than human"?

There is surely a difference between incarnating different-from-normatively-human life-ways (which is true of indefinitely many people already) and imagining you incarnate something "more-than-human" (which seems simply a way of mistaking difference for superiority -- something too many people already do as well).

To the extent that bioconservatives claim to be defending the value of “human dignity,” they really need to quit constantly handwaving in panic about superlative technological states like immortality, superbabies, and clone armies -- none of which are sufficiently proximate developmentally to illuminate deliberation about technology policy here and now -- and explain just how restricting women’s reproductive freedoms and clamping down on medical research to cure and ameliorate suffering from treatable diseases has anything to do with “human dignity” in the first place.

To the extent that trans- and post- humanisms still presumably emerge out of humanism as an ethical project, these "movements" really should be demanding that the category of "the human" be rendered as capacious as possible to better accommodate the consensual genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive modification of humans now and in the futures we will share.

And as a matter of unsolicited, possibly unwelcome, practical advice to my technophile friends, a "slogan" is largely intended to pithily communicate your worldview to people who do not share it (but some of whom you presumably would want to). I think you should worry that the phrase “being human is not enough” expresses or will widely seem to express little but a disdain for humanity, or at any rate a disdain for those who choose not to embark on paths of prosthetic modification so radical as your own.

Isn’t it human to want to be healthy and happy? Isn’t it human to want to express yourself, to make your mark in the world? Isn’t it human to want to make the world a better place? Isn’t it human to want to better yourself?

This slogan, and the many variations on it that are commonplaces in so-called "transhumanist" discursive spaces, seem to me more like expressions of hostility than of hope. In a slogan from radical technophiles I would personally like to see something more like an invitation to the dance than yet another declaration of war.


Doctor Logic said...

I agree with you that the slogan isn't an example of smart political communication!

However, I would say that, in my view, being human is not enough. If we don't get smarter we will probably destroy ourselves (and probably all the other complex life forms on the planet, too).

The problem is that society and technology are becoming much more complex than our brains can handle. There are both technological and political dangers here.

From a politics/governance perspective, there are at least two threats. The first is that individual voters really don't know what's going on. They're too overworked to spend any time looking at what's really happening in the world, which is why they elect the charismatic instead of the wise or the good. The second threat is that government is becoming so complex that even government can't understand it. Eventually, large corporations may be the only ones spending the millions it takes to understand legislation. We've already seen this during the recent corporate tax and trade bill. General Electric was just about the only entity, public or private, that understood the impact of the pending legislation. As a consequence, GE had a major role in crafting legislation that landed them (almost exclusively GE) a multi-billion dollar tax benefit.

Maybe the only way to fix democracy is to get people to participate, and they won't participate unless it's easy. It won't be easy until they possess the mental prowess to make it easy.

From a technology perspective, we're relying on complex constructions whose properties are not well-understood. The national power grid springs to mind. We might need far greater cognitive abilities to ensure that we aren't destroyed by our own webs of technology. Of course, this could be in the form of AI, not necessarily human enhancement.

Government can fund research into all these areas, but, as we have seen under Bush, science rarely gets used when the people aren't smart enough to hold politicians' feet to the fire.

I think these are compelling arguments for the necessity of human cognitive enhancement.

Dale Carrico said...
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Dale Carrico said...

I'm all for looking real problems squarely in the eye, and then working together to solve them with whatever tools and whatever allies we have ready to hand.

But I never can quite figure out how those curiously transcendentalizing and rather self-congratulatory elitist rhetorics you often hear technophiles trumpeting, you know, involving a coming superhumanity set against "mere" humanity, really contribute much to the actual work of finding solutions to problems and allies to take on the work of resolving them.

It isn't clear to me why the modification of memory or problem-solving abilities through recourse to, say, neuroceuticals, or digital/textual archives, or network facilitated co-operation would make those who participated in these prosthetic practices "more than human" particularly, any more than my books and contact lenses and multivitamins and blogging do now.

Won't emerging prosthetic practices, like the ones in which we variously engage here and now, just be woven into what we mean by the way we do our humanity these days, what it means to be human in this historical moment?

As for the specific threats you mention, of course I agree with you about them. I see the general sense of your point, and sympathize with the thrust of it, but I'm not sure it is finally helpful to ascend to a general critique of complexity as you cast about for critical purchase on these problems on the ground.

A large part of the reason the electorate is so oblivious and tractable nowadays is because neither the media nor public education are performing their necessary functions in relatively democratic secular societies, due almost entirely to their present outrageously inadequate funding and de-regulation.

Corporate interests have managed to institutionalize the assumption that "money is speech" (by which they mean, money is the speech that matters most) and nowadays almost nothing but money talks.

Real campaign finance reform, public funding of elections, regulation of advertising claims, re-insitution of the Fairness Doctrine, a radical curtailment of government secrecy, and an incomparably more robust insistence that conflicts of interest between individuals in the private and public sectors be eliminated would address so much of what ails us.

These sorts of reforms are all possible right now, most of it in mainstream language and through efforts that needn't even seem particularly radical, let alone mobilize cultural revolutions or re-inventions of humanity.

Ryan said...

I agree with what you say concerning the idea of becoming "more than human." However, I submit that rather than expanding the definition of human or humanity to include trans- and post-human beings as you suggest, a distinction should simply be drawn between human and person.

As you know, this is a distinction many bioethicists already make, but is not yet seen in common usage. The key is that it lets those who might ultimately be nonhuman persons (AIs, uploads, pantropic variations, etc.) not have to defend their "humanity" to those who would deny them rights on that basis.

It will be trivially easy for bioconservatives to claim that radically-altered persons are not human and I imagine that claim will be largely accepted. By establishing in people's minds the idea of personhood as independent of genetics, these posthumans can respond to their critics with a simple, "So what?"

Dale Carrico said...

Yes, this is an important point. As an advocate for some animal rights positions, for example, I have long been suspicious about the adequacy of humanism (what James Hughes might call "human-racism" in this context) as a proper foundation for a democratic rights culture alive to the standing of all the beings with whom we share the world and collaborate, each in our separate measures, in the making of shared futures.

But even if nonhuman animal rights issues don't make you suspicious of the ethical adequacy of humanist ideologies, it is easy to survey the long history in which humanist champions have claimed as universal accomplishments a set of entitlements and enlightenments that have been enjoyed in reality by only a few lucky mostly white male humans from limited socioeconomic strata, and to find yourself feeling rather suspicious of the ethical adequacy of humanism even for human animals!

I like very much the distinction you make between humans and a more inclusive (one hopes!) category of people, and I have even sometimes further distinguished people from peers myself, just in case "person" still seems too anthropomorphic to accommodate the sense that some beings deserve standing even if it is not quite the same as the standing we reserve particularly for people.

In the original post, I meant to register my expectation that the "transhumanists" should be moved by the humanist legacy from which they usually claim to derive to work to make the category of "humanity" more generous to accommodate the range of consensual prosthetic practices that also preoccupy them, rather than to simply denigrate humanity -- or "mere humanity" as you sometimes hear ("mehums" is a derogatory term used to express this disdain by people who sometimes seem not fully alive to the ironies mobilized by saying so while being merely human themselves).

But I didn't mean to suggest that I was myself either humanist or transhumanist in all this. I think of myself as a technoprogressive prosthetic-queer secular post-humanist radical and social democrat and advocate of rights-culture and morphological freedom.

Part of the reason I like that whole long awkward phrase is that I hope it is long enough and weird enough to frustrate most people who would want to imagine that I mean by that tangle of words to designate my membership in some kind of identity.

As I have often said, given the rich modes of affiliation opened up by emerging digital networked information and communication technologies and given the proliferation of individual incarnations opened up by genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive modification it seems to me that "identity" is just so LAST CENTURY as a way of making meaning and sense out of personal experience or organizing campaigns to achieve political outcomes, anyway!

Thanks for the great comments, Ryan and Doc!