Thursday, July 15, 2010

Post-Human Nature

(Picture from

When people talk about how the the future is going to bring about a new and better way of being human, I'm always like, WTF?

There's a certain kind of person -- usually a certain kind of guy, but whatever, we'll leave that aside for now -- who gets really excited about the ways technology is going to change things for us.

For instance, check out these guys in the "singularity movement" (NYT story here).  The singularity, they say, is "a time, possibly just a couple decades from now, when a superior intelligence will dominate and life will take on an altered form that we can’t predict or comprehend in our current, limited state."  A time for post-humanity.

It's hard for me to understand what these guys are thinking.  I mean, sometimes they talk about using technology to cure illnesses and live longer, and sure, that sounds great, who doesn't want that?  That's the kind of thing technology really is good for.  Dentistry, organ-transplants, bionic limbs . . . these things are excellent.  But it's not because they make human life really like totally different.  They don't.  They just make it better:  easier, more pleasant, longer.  That's not post-humanity.  Au contraire mon frère.

Other times they talk as if the transformation will happen because there will be a new way of melding minds and machines,  a way of making post-humans.  There's a vague suggestion that you might do this by uploading the information of your mind into a computer. 

But I can never see the appeal of this.  If you think about the best things in the world, computer-based post-humans wouldn't even get to enjoy most of them.  Sex, food, wine, sports, music, dancing . . . these are all embodied pleasures, surely not improved by not having a human body. I don't even get how it's supposed to work:  I mean, pleasure is pleasurable because of certain neuro-chemical things happening in the brain, which make you feel good.  If there's no neuro-chemicals, how is there any pleasure?  And if there's no pleasure ... well what is the point of that?

If you're a brain in a computer, what do you think about all day?  Math?  Most people don't even like thinking about math.  But even setting that aside, wouldn't that it be boring and stupid if that were your whole life?

I suspect that what people have in mind when they daydream this way is something like the old Q character from Star Trek.  But I never found the post-humanity aspect of Q convincing.  Q likes mischief; he enjoys tormenting people and doing things they don't understand.  He can't feel pain, and he can travel through time and do other neato things.  This doesn't describe a post-human as much as it describes a powerful human who is kind of an asshole.

And that's what I always suspect when I hear about post-humanity:  that the real desire is to be a better, richer, more powerful human.  Someone with an eternally youthful appearance, health, long life, and robots to make coffee, clean the house, and probably to provide sexual services.  And to be and have these things when only a few people do. 

Which is fine, I guess, but it's about as human, and as familiar, as it gets.


Really? said...

I think I agree with your perspective on the matter but I might also suggest that the singularity change might be one of a less physical nature. Arguably the greatest technological advancements in the past 50 years are in some way rooted in communication and maybe the singularity transformation has already started to occur through the formation of our ever growing and evolving interconnected ideas. Not to belabour the Star Trek metaphor but the Borg-esq hive mind that seems to have emerged from modern internet use appears to be an accurate reflection of the average person...yes a hive mind that assimilates celebrity genitalia and hardcore pornography.

Patricia Marino said...

Hi Rob,
Yeah, I know what you mean, though I've also always been impressed by how much the several-letter-deliveries-a-day life of Victorian England resembles our own.. just a small difference of scale.

Anyway, something I think about often is that if the internet is a hive-mind, then spam is all of its secret anxieties ... all the things the hive is freaking out about: body shape, erectile dysfunction, financial insolvency... at least this view makes receiving spam mildly interesting.