GENEWATCH
 
LIBERATION OR ENSLAVEMENT?
By Elaine Graham
 
An extract from Representations of the Post/Human: Monsters, Aliens, and Others, Manchester University Press (2009).

"… the question can never be first of all "what are we doing with our technology?" but it must be "what are we becoming with our technology?" - Philip Hefner, Technology and Human Becoming[1]

 

Chromosome-in-bootsAt eleven o'clock on the morning of 21 June 1948, in a workshop in a tiny side street on the campus of the University of Manchester, a team of mathematicians and engineers conducted the world's first successful electronic stored-program computing sequence on a machine they named 'Baby'. Since then, computer-mediated communications have transformed the abilities of their users to store and process information - and, more widely, they have changed leisure habits, the jobs many people do, and the types of machines that fill offices, shops and homes. Together with the identification, half a decade later, of the structure of DNA, the birth of 'Baby' has triggered a technological and cultural revolution.

I want to focus here on the impact of these technologies, the digital and genetic respectively: not just upon our material and economic existence, but upon our very experiences and understandings of what it means to be human.

The 'Posthuman Condition': Being and Becoming

Reference to the so-called 'posthuman condition'[2] is becoming commonplace to denote a world in which humans are mixtures of machine and organism, where nature has been modified by technology, and technology has become assimilated to form a functioning component of organic bodies. But the impact of digital and genetic technologies is not simply a scientific or ethical issue; it carries a number of deeper, existential implications.

Firstly, the digital and biotechnological age challenges our assumptions about what it means to be human because new technologies are transforming our experiences of things like embodiment, communication, intelligence and disease, even blurring the very distinctions between the 'organic' and the 'technological', between humans, machines and nature. For some, this is not simply a matter of coming to terms with the economic and cultural impact of new technologies, but as the opening quotation suggests, it also challenges the very nature of human ontology - our being and becoming.

Secondly, it raises questions of the kinds of images, discourses, authorities and narratives that will be decisive in helping us to debate the very question of what it will mean to be human in the twenty-first century. I am particularly concerned with the relative influence wielded by scientific institutions and discourses, by the media, by popular culture and by religion in advancing and adjudicating this question. It's intriguing to note how much debate about the impact of new technologies on Western culture involves a further blurring of supposedly impermeable boundaries: between scientific objectivity (the world of fact) and that of cultural representation (the world of fiction).

As Katharine Hayles argues, "culture circulates through science no less than science circulates through culture" - in itself, perhaps, a postmodern acknowledgement of the constructedness of scientific theories, a contention that science does not report on or portray an a priori reality, but is dependent on wider cultural metaphors to weave a narrative about the world. This will often draw on images, analogies, other narratives, to achieve rhetorical effect. Thus, the Human Genome Project is depicted not only as a scientific exercise but as a heroic quest for the 'holy grail' or the 'code of codes'; Francis Bacon's discourse of science rests on an image of the male appropriator seizing nature and forcing her to relinquish her secrets; and witness the continuing potency of the Frankenstein myth in informing public reception of genetic technologies. All of these suggest a creative interplay between science and culture. But similarly, popular culture - science fiction especially - becomes both enthusiastic advocate and critical opponent of science and technology.

Different representations of the 'posthuman' in scientific literature and popular culture may not simply be neutral depictions, therefore, but in fact expressions of deep value-judgements as to what is distinctive about humanity, and what should be the relationship between humans and their tools and technologies. These questions are perhaps not only about viewing technology as 'saviour' or 'servant', but about our own very existence: about the nature of life and death, the potential and limits of human creativity, about humanity's very place in the

created order. And so, if the future is one of augmented, modified, virtual, postbiological humanity, what choices and opportunities are implicit in the hopes and anxieties engendered by the technologies that surround us? What understandings of exemplary and normative humanity will be privileged in the process - and who will be included or excluded from that vision? In what follows, I have sketched out four alternative responses to the dilemma of what it will mean to be human in a technological age.

Liberation or Enslavement?

(a) Creation out of control

In the mid-1990s, public concern over the effects of genetically-modified crops was accompanied - and fueled - by media references to 'Frankenstein Foods'. Even Monsanto, the multi-national biotechnology corporation, saw fit to counter what it regarded as the negative publicity this occasioned.[3] Associations with mad scientists and monstrosity evoke (deliberately?) a reaction of horror and suspicion - of creation turning on its creator who dares to 'play God'. The alliterative quality of the term adds to its impact; but in comparison to more neutral terms such as 'geneticallymodified crops' we are presented already with a powerful set of allusions and associations. Science and popular culture/myth are interwoven in the way these issues are represented.

Note also how theological themes are evoked, however incoherently: the notion of 'playing God' plays on fears that humanity has in some way usurped the creator, which is of course a long-standing theme in cultural engagement with technologies. The subtitle to Frankenstein was, after all, "The New Prometheus"; Mary Shelley evoking the Greek myth of the mortal who stole fire from the gods and who was punished as a consequence.

(b) Dehumanisation

Fritz Lang's Metropolis, made in 1926, articulates both the wonders of mechanization, but corresponding fears too. Set in the year 2000, the city from which the film takes its name is fatally divided. Whilst the sons and heirs of the factory magnates disport themselves in a roof-top garden of delights, the working populace is enclosed in a subterranean world of unremitting drudgery.

The opening scenes of the film depict 'The Day Shift' as a human collective robbed of individual will or personality. The lethargy of the workers, their movement as one, suggests a fear of the loss of individuality in the era of mass production and central planning. Interspersed with shots of the pumping of pistons and the spinning of cogs and wheels are pictures of a futuristic, decimal clock-face, a juxtaposition which communicates how the relentlessness of time, the rhythms of machinery and the imperatives of productivity take precedence over human need.

So the wealth and technological sophistication of the city has its downside: and the workers in their underground labyrinth have become dehumanised by their routine, slaves to the relentless demands of the assemblyline. Like the robot Maria, designed to suppress a workers' cult, the underground masses have become automata, driven only by the imperatives of machinery and efficiency. There is also a contrast in the film between the workers' factory workplace and their subterranean home, where Maria the preacher-prophet propagates values of the heart, affectivity and spirituality, in contrast to the dehumanising forces of industry. This expresses an important theme, therefore, of technology effecting a kind of disenchantment; not only the erosion of something distinctively human, but the loss of some spiritual essence of human nature.

(c) Technocracy

This is a third position, in which technologies are neutral instruments, merely means to an end. It is often allied to an unreconstructed futurism, in which technology solves our problems, grants us unlimited prosperity, guarantees democracy, fulfils our every desire, and is very pervasive in the media and other representations of popular science.

In his book Visions, the Japanese-American physicist Michio Kaku predicts a world of microprocessors that will be so cheap to manufacture that we will treat them like so much scrap paper in 2020; there will be 'smart' machines that think and anticipate our needs; by 2050 there will be intelligent robots and by 2100 self-conscious, sentient artificial intelligence. Technology is elevated to mythical status: "The Internet will eventually become a 'Magic Mirror' that appears in fairy tales, able to speak with the wisdom of the human race."[4]

Similarly, in describing his own (temporary) trans¬formation from organic human to cyborg via the implantation of a silicon chip transmitter in his forearm, Kevin Warwick is expansive in his speculations about the potential of such technological enhancement. 'Might it be possible for humans to have extra capabilities, particularly mental attri¬butes, and become super humans or, as some regard it, post humans [sic]?'.[5] His enthusiasm encapsulates perfectly the vision of those who see the promise of cybernetic technologies as going beyond mere clinical benefits to embrace nothing less than an ontological transformation. Warwick sees no limit to the transcendence of normal physical and cognitive limitations, an achievement that for him signals nothing less than a new phase in human evolution.

(d) Evolution

For some, technologies promise the evolution of homo sapiens from organic to silicon-based life. This perspective is sometimes known as 'transhumanism'. Transhumanists argue that, augmented and perfected by the latest innovations in artificial intelligence, genetic modifications, nanotechnology, cryonics, the human race will be liberated from the chains of poverty, disease and ignorance, to ascend to a better, higher, more superior state: the 'posthuman' condition. With the aid of technological enhancements, human beings can guarantee themselves immortality and omnipotence (Regis, 1990; More, 1998). Machinic evolution will complete the process of natural selection.

The apotheosis of the transhumanist ethos is to be found in a group known as the 'Extropians', their name encapsulating their quest to defy entropy as expressed in human bodily deterioration such as disease and aging. The transhumanist spirit of technological and evolutionary inevitability expels defeatism and negativity, qualities that have no place in the Extropian world. One of their leading gurus, Max More, puts it this way:

No mysteries are sacrosanct, no limits unquestionable; the unknown will yield to the ingenious mind. The practice of progress challenges us to understand the universe, not to cower before mystery. It invites us to learn and grow and enjoy our lives ever more.[6]

Yet this is not a human distinctiveness grounded in embodiment or even rational mind per se so much as a set of abstract qualities enshrined in a human 'spirit' of inventiveness and self-actualization:

It is not our human shape or the details of our current human biology that define what is valuable about us, but rather our aspirations and ideals, our experiences and the kinds of lives we live. To a transhumanist, progress is when more people become more able to deliberately shape themselves, their lives, and the ways they relate to others, in accordance with their own deepest values.[7]

While many of transhumanists' proposed technological developments are yet to be realized, it may be more appropriate to regard transhumanism, like all other posthuman thinking, as another kind of thought experiment, which, like fictional representations of technologized humanity, serve to illuminate and refract deeper hopes and fears. What makes transhumanism such a vivid example of posthuman thinking is the way in which it articulates a particular set of humanist ideals and transposes them into the technological sphere. Transhumanists deliberately harness the aspirations of Enlightenment humanism and individualism as a philosophical underpinning for their endea¬vours. In its endorsement of human self-actualization unconstrained by fear, tradition or superstition, transhumanism exhibits a secular scepticism towards theologically-grounded values, arguing that these serve to rationalize passivity and resignation in the face of human mortality and suffering.

As to technology, I think we can see how this tendency regards it not as threat but promise. Implants and prostheses, artificial intelligence, smart drugs, genetic therapies and other technological fixes will compensate for our physical limitations, overcoming even the existential challenge of mortality. Technology thus furnishes humanity with the means to complete the next phase of evolution, from homo sapiens to 'techno sapiens'.

Conclusion

So, new technologies promise to enhance lives, relieve suffering and extend capabilities, yet they are often also perceived as threatening bodily integrity, undermining feelings of uniqueness, evoking feelings of growing dependency and encroaching on privacy. But whether advanced technologies are to be regarded as essentially bringing enslavement or liberation will be shaped by implicit philosophical and theological convictions about what it means to be human, what the purpose of humanity is, what will contribute to human flourishing, what threatens human integrity, and so on.

The various representations of the posthuman are a tribute to humanity's propensity for constructing new technological worlds, but reveal also our tendency to invent other worlds of meaning and value, and to invest these creations with diverse hopes, fears and aspirations. For embedded in the various representations implicit in new technologies are crucial issues of identity, community and spirituality: what it means to be human, who counts as being fully human, who gets excluded and included in definitions of the posthuman - and in our understandings of the nature of the God in whose image we have been formed. How we conceive of God will, even in a supposedly secular age, still impinge on the kinds of normative and exemplary models of divine nature and human destiny that fuel our technological dreams.

Exercising some control over the posthuman future will necessitate not just ethical debate, but, I contend, a theological orientation also. That's because, in thinking about the values embodied in these representations, we are effectively asking a theological question: in a digital and biotechnological age, what choices, destinies - and ideologies - has Western culture chosen to elevate as its objects of worship?

Elaine Graham, PhD, is Grosvenor Professor of Practical Theology at the University of Chester.

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