Monday, May 11, 2020

Lockdown, The Singularity, And The Idea of Post-Humanism

Back in 2010, when we were younger and more naive, a bunch of people were excited about something they called The Singularity, a time in the not-so-distant future when humanity would be replaced with ... something else. Post-humanity. A "superior intelligence that will dominate," so that life will take on a radically altered form that we cannot see and predict now.

Here at TKIN, I expressed my skepticism. Sure -- if you want to make an artificial liver or bionic limbs or whatever, awesome, I love it! But that's not post-humanity. It's the human experience, just somewhat improved. Longer, more fun, less painful, whatever. Beyond the human-upgrades interpretation, the suggestions get more radical but also more vague. We're going to meld minds and machines. We're going to upload your consciousness into a computer. You'll live forever, in some unforeseen Venn diagram overlap zone between virtual and real.

When I pondered this in 2010, I was like WTF, and now that we're in lockdown I feel even more like WTF. Aren't most the best pleasures of life embodied? In 2010 I listed sex, food, wine, sports, music, and dancing as things we like to do that are embodied, seemingly inaccessible to the computer-based post-human. And what's on the other side, on the post-human, singularity playlist? Math? Most people don't even like thinking about math.

I don't think I'm alone when I say that lockdown has made the importance of the embodied life even more vivid to me. We're sick of interacting through screens. We long for the touch of our family and friends. People are flocking to bake bread, grow plants, and acquire pets; the concept of "going for a walk to get some fresh air," at one time a symbol of a life lived quietly and meditatively, is now essential to the happiness of millions of people. I myself have taken care to notice the minute daily progress of leaves coming out on trees in my neighborhood.

I was mentally reviewing all the internet think-pieces I've read about what people are experiencing in lockdown, and the one disembodied activity now flourishing that I could spot was online chess. Touchingly, the New York Times places this news in the Sports section, where they are clearly dying for content.

Anyway, after writing that post in 2010, I expressed my doubts to some guys who were roughly in the robot-biz, and they smiled that guy-smile that comes up when a woman says something they think is stupid. It's not computer-based in that sense, they explained slowly to me. You'll still be able to do all the fun things. It's just that the whole system will be artificial, and therefore more permanent, less flawed, and better.

Fine, but as I've already said, I don't think that's post-humanity -- that's more like keeping your human self while being less susceptible to the world's problems: less vulnerable to injury, less in need of food and medical care, less dependent on others for your well-being. Our desires for life to be less difficult, less painful, less scary and less mortal are very human, and like the embodied pleasures, they have been intensified by the lockdown and the pandemic itself -- as we have all been reminded how vulnerable we are to illness and death, how challenging it is to care for others, and how fragile our little systems are.

Of course, in our radically unequal world, these things bear more heavily on some people than others, and awareness of our shared situation and our interdependence has been a bit of a wake-up call to some people who maybe used to imagine themselves as self-sufficient tech-oriented rich people.

I don't know what those people are dreaming of now, and whether it's still something like The Singularity or whether it's more like a walled city in New Zealand with a stockpile of ventilators. But whatever it is, I hope they'll remember it's not really post-humanism that they're hankering after. It's more like human life made less difficult and scary. And that dream is not only shared by everyone, it's also about the most human thing you could possibly have.

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