Perfecting People, Pt. 1

Posted in 2011 The Gnovis Blog

If a technology sounds too weird, we just won’t care about it. This is one of the first concepts proffered by journalist Joel Garreau in his lauded 2005 book Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies — And What It Means to Be Human (new window). Despite the simplicity of this concept, it’s surprisingly true.

We appreciate weird stuff — weird news, weird celebrities, weird gadgets — and every day, thanks to Moore’s Law, the standard for what is “weird” is being lowered as better technology desensitizes us to constant exponential progress, or “The Curve” as it is known in the forecasting business. However, if something is too far out there, we dismiss it as irrelevant.

Garreau calls this disparity between what people assume is impossible and what scientists are discovering is achievable “the first challenge to making sense of this world unfolding before us” (3). We as a species expect progress but still apparently hold certain truths to be self-evident, associating these truths with what it means to be human. Just what does it mean to be human? The answer to this question is ever in flux.

For instance, as Garreau points out, some people “recoil” at the thought of living to 150 years of age: 92 seems the ideal cut-off point (new window), and in a recent class of mine (new window), when a guest lecturer asked how many people would like to be centenarians-and-a-half one day, less than a third of the room raised its hand. This suggests that what makes us human is as much cultural as it is biological. Even if technology did give everyone centuries to live — or telepathic powers, or Olympic runner speed, or whatever — we’d first have to change our mindsets individually and collectively in order for these advancements to matter. Certain establishments in society and assumptions about life would have to be uprooted. If everybody is Superman or Wonder Woman, what good are the Olympics? Are wars really so bad if indestructible robo-people are fighting them? Every day these questions become less and less rhetorical, and we are forced to grapple with issues once dismissed as fantastical.

Some of the most powerful arguments against techno-perfecting human beings are romantic and ideological, since imagining The Human Condition (TM) without pain and blood and wounds is very hard — almost everything we do and have always done revolves around avoiding death and suffering, which is why Shakespeare and Greek tragedies still speak to us. But another scary thought involves the “Singularity” notion (new window) proposed by computer scientist Vernor Vinge. Vinge famously holds that one day technology is going to increase so quickly and so intensely we will no longer be able to make sense of our world; that past a certain point current rules no longer apply, which makes forecasting the future impossible. “We have crossed some line,” Garreau writes, noting that for the first time in human history we wake up in the morning, go about our day, and expect the universe to somehow be different by the time we go to bed (60).

How long until the definition of “humanness” changes before our very eyes — or worse, so quickly we don’t even notice?

More thoughts to come in Part 2.