Incoming Transmission: Transhumanism and the Future of the Body [Part 1: What Future?]

**A series of blog postings called Incoming Transmission: Transhumanism, Posthumanism and the Future of the Human Body will be posted over the next few weeks. My task  is to explain the connections between Transhumanism, our contemporary revulsion with dying/aging and our interest in biotechnology.**

Thanatophobia, the fear of death or dying, runs deep in our cultural psyche. It runs so deep and is so traumatizing that we have resorted to coping mechanisms increasingly focused on obscuring and denying death altogether.

For example, I recall that in 2007 when the Economist’s posted its “World In 2007” publication, a selection of predictions for that year, thinking about the extent that thanatophobia is increasingly pervading our lives. The first article in the ‘science’ section of the publication was titled ‘Towards Immortality: The Growing Power to Change Human Nature’. It is a brief article that begun: “Science can be a little scary. Its potential to transform life itself has led to predictions that we might re-write our own genetic make-up or merge our minds with machines. But 2007 will show us that it is not these sci-fi possibilities that are of immediate concern”.

The article goes on to describe a scientific movement called Transhumanism. Transhumanism has been defined as:

”]“…a way of thinking about the future that is based on the premise that the human species in its current form does not represent the end of our development but rather a comparatively early phase. We formally define it as follows:

(1) The intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally improving the human condition through applied reason, especially by developing and making widely available technologies to eliminate aging and to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities.

(2) The study of the ramifications, promises, and potential dangers of technologies that will enable us to overcome fundamental human limitations, and the related study of the ethical matters involved in developing and using such technologies.

I remember thinking about how misleading the Economist article was. It did not seem to recognize or have read the definition (above) by the World Transhumanist Association president and Oxford professor Nick Bostrom. While the Economist suggested that “re-writing our genetic make-up or merging our minds with machines” is not of immediate concern for Transhumanism, such tasks do represent the dreams of transhumanism.

For example, Modafinil, the cognitive enhancement drug described in the Economist article would allow users to skip sleep and attain a greater degree of concentration. But, if you ask a Transhumanist, a drug like Modafinil represents an improvement of the species via applied rationality. Such enhancement drugs are not merely symbolic of the quest for lab created elixirs and procedures that will allow humans to live an extra couple years or a fad for aging boomers and followers of new age therapies. Rather, the Transhumanist hopes that cognitive enhancement drugs are the tip of an iceberg whose total weight contains the hope for “total consciousness uploading and mental restructuring”, “integration of human and “artificial intelligence”, and what has been referred to as “technological singularity”.

It is curious, I remember thinking, that the Economist article claims that Transhumanism has no greater goal than the “conquest of death”… I thought it was not concerned with sci-fi possibilities… This seems extremely sci-fi.

Michelangelo's rendering of the Cumaean Sibyl

Our increasingly embrace of Transhumanist thinking has something to do with our acute cultural thanatophobia, our postmodern orientation toward our bodies and the idea of death. This orientation, as will be discussed throughout subsequent posts, regards death as having a divergent role within the order of life. It is an imposition, a disturbance, increasingly something intolerable.  Our mechanisms for coping with death are manifest most prominently in the fields of biology and biotechnology.

As we consider an idea like Transhumanism, we find ourselves in an anxious bind: at once imagining the techno-dream of immortality or radical life extension and then stumbling upon past lessons, finding ourselves face to face with the Cumaean Sibyl hanging in her jar, asking her, “Sibyl, what do you want?” and her answering: “I want to die.”


Cybject is nothing more than a thought experiment.


~ by dccohen on December 7, 2009.

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