Transhumanism: The final chapter in humanity’s perpetual quest to be kitted out in comforting accessories

When it boils down to it, we are just ugly bags of water. But if our organic selves were allowed to meld with circuit boards, could we become much more?

Andy Martin
Thursday 24 August 2017 15:32
On the march: the development of nuts could provide a clue as to where mankind is heading
On the march: the development of nuts could provide a clue as to where mankind is heading

In Jackson, Minnesota, there is a man making Massey Ferguson tractors. He works for Agco. Which is huge, apparently: making billions. Tractors are very big business. And now they are making roughly another billion every year, because the guy who is making the tractors is wearing a pair of glasses.

The thing is, they are smart glasses, with a blueprint of the tractor built in to the lens, with instructions about which bit connects to which. He never has to pick up a manual with his greasy hands. They may not even be that greasy, but you can see how it’s an improvement on the old system. (Suggestion to Ikea: maybe you could consider including a pair of smart glasses with the next bookcase or bed I buy from you).

So it’s a guy with a very small tool (glasses) making a very big tool (tractor). But eventually he will take the glasses off and go home, job done. Now imagine if he had the lens built in to his eye, maybe like contacts, and he didn’t have to take them off any more. Then you would be modifying the human too, you would have created what is popularly known as a “transhuman”. Not long ago an art student in London was experimenting with a third thumb which she had attached to one hand. Could it speed up tractor making? It’s doubtful but if you’re already making billions it might be worth a try.

Somewhere out there is a guy with a chip in his head (or “neural implant”) that enables him to know whether there is any broccoli left in the fridge without ever opening the door.

It sounds trivial but there is something fundamental happening here. I am a great fan of the almond (and other nuts). But I have only recently discovered (thank you, Tony Kuklinski in New Zealand), that the best almond trees are actually grafted on to the back of a peach tree. The peach tree has more resistant roots, I gather. And the almonds are great (I know, I checked). Transhumanism is a bit like that: we are grafting one thing on to another to produce an improvement, in this case the graft is inorganic and the recipient of the graft is organic, namely one of the species we laughingly – or in a hopeful, aspirational way (rather like saying “Good dog!” to a dog that is manifestly not good at all) refer to as Homo sapiens. The point is to make the homo more fully sapient than it (s/he?) was to begin with.

I think it was Jules Verne, in his prescient way, who first predicted the rise of the internet. He also brilliantly predicted newspapers that would be made out of chocolate and you could eat them when you finished reading them. I’m sorry that one never quite made it through the reality checkpoint. Verne wrote hymns to technology, which was relatively unusual in the second half of the 19th century. I recall he had serious doubts about bicycles (he actually made a speech to a girls’ school denouncing them as a threat to civilisation), but on the other hand was very enthusiastic about the submarine.

A Glass apart: Google’s foray into eye technology was a bit of a flop (Getty)

Captain Nemo (who appears in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and The Mysterious Island) is one of the first characters in literature to dramatise the merging of man and machine. A curious scientist asks him how his wonderful machine is powered: “By a cunning system of levers,” he replies. It should be obvious – it is his organ playing that powers his vehicle (he really is an accomplished organist), which is to say it is the man himself. There is a perfect reciprocity: Nemo is the Nautilus, the Nautilus is Nemo. They are indivisible (far more so than Iron Man, for example, and his suit: you can always take the suit off again). But to make a mere human fully trans now in the underwater realm you would need to give them gills. Maybe a tail too, I guess.

The transhuman is a chimera, a fusion of two forms, one (as I remember human beings being described from an alien point of view) “an ugly bag of water” and the other a nice clean circuit board inscribed on silicon (or similar). It’s like taking the Nautilus and miniaturising it right down and sticking it in your head so you can go cruising 20,000 leagues (or whatever) without any apparent vehicle. You become the vehicle. Which would be cool. Except I don’t know if tractor drivers really want to turn into a tractor and have a little plough sticking out of their rear end, I guess that is never going to catch on.

Having just got hopelessly lost on the road from Wellington to Waipukurau when my phone conked out, I wouldn’t have minded having a map app installed in my head (had there been a decent atlas of New Zealand in the car this thought would never have occurred to me – but rather like the tractor guy I would then be hands-free and wouldn’t have to stop to look at the map). You become a functioning GPS system, in other words, with a screen inside your brain, and will never get lost again (which now I come to think of it, I would regret). Homo sapiens are, at last, on the verge of getting smart.

But, hold on a second, says the philosopher, what ever happened to Socratic ignorance? According to Plato, Socrates had a habit (which could be annoying, depending on your point of view, and of course he was ultimately sentenced to death) of going about checking on people who were supposed to know stuff (tractor makers and suchlike) and concluding that really they knew nothing. Neither did he but at least he knew that he knew nothing, and that was his edge over everyone else. Ignorant, yes, but avowedly, self-consciously ignorant. He at least had the knowledge of ignorance.

Many other philosophers have made similar claims, not excluding ace deconstructionist Jacques Derrida, as Bernard Stiegler has pointed out. Stiegler was a student of Derrida’s who, as one should, derided the old master. All philosophy, argued Stiegler (having done his time in prison, I recall, for armed robbery), has been anti-tekhnē. The guys who were making tractors – or the BC500 equivalent (Socrates mentions shoemakers, for example) – really did know something and Socrates was just being a bit of a pompous ass for cocking a snook at them. And Derrida was doing something similar by raving on all the time about the “text” and ignoring (in his Socratic ignorance) anything that smacked of science or technology. Just as anti-tekhnē as all the others. Which is ironic considering that writing is a form of technology, just so commonplace (unless you happen to be illiterate) that we have forgotten that’s what it is.

Dani Clode, a Royal College of Art student, created a ‘third thumb’ as part of her MA dissertation project

This should have been obvious after the invention of the printing press, what Marshall McLuhan called the “Gutenberg Galaxy”, and the typewriter. If you ever went into a newsroom of old, you will know what I mean: it was like a factory, with the sound of clacking machines, and printed paper coming off the far end of the assembly line. This may explain why, even when it was parchment or stone tablets, Socrates disdained writing and stuck rather religiously to the oral (and relied on Plato to be his Dr Watson). He understood that the written would have compromised and corrupted the purity of his austere anti-tekhnē discipline. Somehow Stiegler managed to get Derrida discussing computers and television, which of course he maintained were all just variations on the “text”.

There is no polarity between the human and the technological. We are naturally “prosthetic” beings, says Stiegler. The process of hybridisation simply means that we are becoming more engineered. I can think of a few spare parts I wouldn’t mind having right now. It’s a phenomenon that Derrida refers to as “the logic of supplementarity”: writing is a “supplement” to speech, for example. A guy with a leaf blower is supplementing his ability (extremely limited) to blow leaves around. The odd thing about Desmond Morris’s old concept of humankind as “the naked ape” – on account of our relative hairlessness – is that it omits the crucial fact that we generally are not naked: we are constantly kitting ourselves out with accessories of one kind or another, perpetually dissatisfied as we are with the initial denuded state. The smart glasses are an advanced type of fig leaf.

In Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari suggests that, with the multiplication and extension of our virtual skills, we are now approaching a final state of secular divinity. It is true that it is possible to imagine (or not even imagine) enhancements to our knowledge such that, for all practical purposes, we are effectively omniscient. I already have students in the classroom correcting me, about two seconds after I have come out with some clearly inadequate answer to a tricky question: “But my phone says…” You too can become a transhumanly annoying fact checker.

As seen on screen: could RoboCop become a reality?

Add to that additional supplements: happiness, you only have to press a button, or rather your brain would press the button for you, releasing a rush of endorphins or endocannabinoids, just as soon as there is a hint of boredom creeping up on you. And, for an added bonus, intolerable beauty too, combined with a dash of immortality. A full-body engineering makeover, physical and mental, bionic and cognitive: the temptation to become a Hollywood superhero will surely become irresistible. In the realm of the Matrix, humans will become simulacra of themselves, but very good at running up walls and firing guns upside down. The physicist Frank Tipler, in The Physics of Immortality, reckoned that we will have to wait till the universe collapses in on itself – a form of the “Big Crunch” that he refers to as the “Omega Point” – until we attain godhood (admittedly, we would have to be boiled down into pure silicon). But perhaps we won’t have to wait that long.

And alongside the homo deus would presumably stand the homo stultus, the village idiot or holy fool who remains regressively or aggressively unenhanced. Smartness versus dumbness – who will win? The knowledge-based economy has only one answer. But somewhere in the interstices of all this information must remain at least the possibility of the kind of creative madness, an inspired stupidity, that lies beyond mere digital shuffling. Ignorance is probably not bliss, it probably contains an almost unbearable sadness and discontent, but it also allows the possibility of innovation in a form that mere knowledge (by definition) cannot know. Jules Verne, having described how a giant gun could shoot a missile at the moon, ridiculed his rival HG Wells for dreaming up an anti-gravity paint, for in effect, cheating: “Mais il invente!” Stupid dreamers can invent things that the smart guys can only deride.

Back in the Garden of Eden, Yahweh (a classic transhuman, if ever there was one, fully tooled and enhanced, and spending most of his time stored in a cloud, moreover) felt the same way about the humans he was soon sorry he had conjured up: not only were they ignorant (despite tasting of the tree of knowledge), it was impossible to guess what they were going to do next. If a god does not exist, maybe we can invent one.

Andy Martin is the author of ‘Reacher Said Nothing: Lee Child and the Making of Make Me’. He teaches at the University of Cambridge.

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