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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019) and AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021).

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Idol worship?

In my continuing program of reading, and commenting on, the six articles about transhumanism in June's edition of The Global Spiral, I now come to "Of Which Human Are We Post?" by Don Ihde, who approaches the issues from a perspective in philosophy of technology.

This is actually a good article, in many ways, though of somewhat limited ambition. The title is rather misleading, at least to this extent: the overall topic of this group of articles is supposed to be transhumanism, so the title could give the impression that somebody (I don't know who this would be) claims that we are already posthuman.

That, of course, is not a claim typically made by transhumanists. The idea, rather, is that a time will come when there will be intelligent creatures that are, in some sense, our successors - but with capacities greatly different from ours. These are usually imagined as enhanced capacities: these beings might be (for example) smarter, stronger, healthier, and/or longer lived than we are. Their bodily morphology might differ from ours, or, in the extreme, their intelligence might "run" on an entirely different material substrate from our carbon-based bodies. A wide range of possibilities can be identified, but no one that I know of within the transhumanist movement is arguing that such creatures already exist. At most, they argue that we are in the process of altering ourselves technologically to the extent that it makes sense to think of us as now in transition between our evolved human form, nature, and capacities and those of so-called posthuman creatures.

On this view, we are not "post" any kind of human at all ... yet.

But perhaps this is a side issue. Most of Ihde's article does not discuss transhumanism in any direct way, but rather makes more general observations about the development and reception of technology. These observations are far from original to the article, but Idhe has been around for a long time, and perhaps he was saying such things before they became so familiar. Moreover, they are points that are worth bearing in mind - and I'm sure that many sophisticated transhumanists could agree with most or all of them if they were stripped of some slightly nasty rhetoric. Most of them are along the lines of that well-worn cyberpunk catch-phrase (courtesy of William Gibson), "The street finds its own uses for things." Gibson is surely right about this, and there's a large amount of truth in Ihde's analysis.

The significant points that I extract from the article are as follows:

1. In the real world, technological advances involve compromises and trade-offs.

2. Technological advances take place in unexpected ways and find unexpected uses.

3. Implanted technologies have disadvantages as well as advantages: e.g., prostheses and implants are often experienced as imperfect and obtrusive, and they wear out.

4. Predictions about future technologies and how they will be incorporated into social practice are unreliable.

None of these points are laws of nature, but they are useful pragmatic generalisations based on historical experience. One of the features that made early cyberpunk fiction so appealing was its implicit (and sometimes explicit) acknowledgment of such points. Although Idhe argues for each one at considerable length, there was no need for it in my case. Indeed, I made some similar points (citing Gibson as I tend to do) in an article first published in Quadrant magazine ten years ago, "Singularity Shadow". It should not even be necessary to make such points, since anyone who is at all sophisticated in thinking about such issues, is already well aware of them. As with the editorial introduction, I am surprised that so much effort has gone into findings that - to the extent they are true - are rather obvious.

However, I will grant Idhe this much: although the four points I listed above are well known, they are often overlooked, so they probably bear repeating. Some transhumanists and others associated with the transhumanist movement could do with being reminded of them from time to time. Surely there is at least some tempation for transhumanists to imagine perfect, zipless enhancement technologies that are unlikely to come to pass. However, it by no means follows that we should abandon or forbid all attempts to devise enhancement technologies, any more than our inability to emulate the grace and freedom of birds was a reason to abandon or forbid efforts at powered, heavier-than-air flight.

None of Ihde's points - or their combination - entails that attempts to ameliorate the human condition or to enhance human capacities are doomed to futility. At most, such points entail that we should take highly specific predictions, especially those involving short timelines, with a very large grain of salt. I already knew that much, but I don't mind someone like Ihde reminding us all now and then.

However, I do mind some of the rhetoric that Ihde uses. He imagines that his four points are often ignored (well, perhaps they are by people who are too optimistic and need a reality check). However, he is not content to argue that to overlook such points involves error (or even to argue that transhumanist need to inject a degree of realism into their positions, which is often true).

Instead, he characterises people who fail to appreciate his four points as worshipping idols. He describes the so-called idols like this:

The idol of Paradise. This is the idol of much technofantasy which often underlies much of the discussion context we are engaged in.

The idol of Intelligent Design. This is the idol of a kind of arrogance connected to an overestimation of our own design abilities, also embedded in these discussions.

The idol of the Cyborg. Cyborgs, made popular since mid-century, are hybrid creatures of human, machine, and animal combinations, but what do they imply?

The idol of Prediction. Projections of futures are always involved in era shifts, but if past projections are taken into account, this turns out to be a very dicey practice.

I don't believe that I need to comment too much on the language here - the hostility in such word and phrases as "idol", "technofantasy", and "a kind of arrogance" is rather obvious, and there is plenty more of the same. I see no reason why he should adopt such a tone when discussing mistakes that some well-intentioned people may or may not fall into (and which I'm sure that many in the transhumanist movement are well aware of).

Nonetheless, we can draw the more reasonable conclusion that some thinkers associated with the transhumanist movement have a propensity to ignore the gritty realities that cyberpunks such as William Gibson and Bruce Sterling have always portrayed (whatever the other pros and cons of their work). We needed no ghost come from the grave to tell us that, but it's a fair point, as far as it goes, and it would be churlish of me not to acknowledge it.

Edit: Spelling of "Ihde" corrected.

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