Saving Our Metaphors: Transhumanity and the Posthuman (Part 1 – The New Feedback)
We make our way over to the science and technology section of the bookstore. A large book with a flashy and cryptic cover catches our attention. It ominously reports to us, as if we were out of the know: The Singularity is Near. We flip through the pages and arrive at a chapter where the author, esteemed inventor Ray Kurzweil, argues that it will be possible, by the turn of the century, to “capture a person’s entire personality, memory, skills and history” and store it on a silicon surface. The premise is seductive, as evidenced in our recent cultural imaginings and Matrix-style fixations.
And better still for the proponents of Kurzweil’s idea, the ability to up-and-download the human mind is something we are being conditioned to consider with each increasingly larger generation of USB based flash-memory stick. We type an essay on Microsoft Word or draw an intricate picture on Adobe Photoshop and save the informational code to a stick of flash-memory that can retain data without an internal source of power. When we need to reinstantiate our intricate picture or our essay we simply resuscitate it on the plasma surface of our laptops where we can edit or touch it up. As we shall notice shortly, the image or essay turned into informational code and transposed onto the flash-memory stick might be understood as something akin to the cryogenic subject of science-fiction who dreamily waits its thawing in a future world.
What is the best way of beginning a discussion of something as awkward and impossible as Kurzweil’s (and Hans Moravec’s) notion of uploading the human mind and dwelling as a virtual body? How do we go about discussing such a far fetched and unreal procedure? The answer of course, is that we begin by looking at the procedures that are nearest and most real to us. In considering the nature of such abstract notions of technology and virtuality we turn initially to the nature of our current technical relationships.
I often wonder about the way we are coming to understand ourselves as we interact with technologies such as Nintendo’s Wii system. The Wii hardware is remarkable in that it is the first gaming device, aimed at the mass market, to successfully immerse the human body into the software that it is interacting with. It blurs physical and virtual space far more deeply than its predecessors did. The controllers for the Wii respond to physical motion and are based upon virtual reality. When the user moves his hand a virtual screen character moves its hand or tentacle or sword with a tremendous degree of precision. The motion sensors respond to how quickly the player moves their arm or hand, enabling games such as Wii-Tennis and Wii-Bowling to require physical qualities such as speed that we rarely associate with virtual gaming. Last month I was involved in a Wii-boxing match where the movement of my body was immersed into the game. After a half hour I threw down the controllers in exhaustion. It was then that I began to think how strange and unprecedented it was that the newest generation of video games require the user to move their entire body. This is, of course, in opposition to the historically idle contemplative sitting position we are accustomed to associate with the archetypal video-gamer.
The construction of increasingly realistic virtual environments has been another of the most noticeable technological trends I can recall. Looking at the complexity of a current graphics engine over one ten years its prior reveals the increasing worldliness of our virtual creations. Over the last few years virtual spaces and online communities such as Second Life and World of Warcraft have been influenced by these impressive graphics and software based physics engines. Such physics engines are able to produce the effect that when we drop a ball off the top of a building in Second Life, it bounces as a ball would to the forces of gravity had it been dropped from the roof of a library.
The realistic environments of these virtual worlds possess similarities to those of the Nintendo Wii. While Nintendo has successfully rendered physical motion compatible with virtuality, the graphically impressive virtual worlds I spoke of above are coming to look increasingly less different than real world. When we play tennis on the Wii, swinging our hands back and forth in our living room, there is a moment where our sense of ourselves becomes projected onto the virtual character whose arms we see swinging on the screen before us. An interested sensation to be sure, and one that feels strange and lingers with us for some time once the game is ‘over’. Likewise, the realistic virtual worlds that we, through our avatars, create and build the infrastructure and environment for cause us to pause and think: When the avatar turns and views a virtual sunset, do we project ourselves as well onto the avatar and view that very sunset?
Surely there is growing in our culture a sense of confusion as to the whereabouts of the human in such encounters. Somewhere amidst the cyberpunk mythology of The Matrix, technologies such as the Nintendo Wii, increasingly larger flash memory sticks and our time spent immersed in virtual worlds we find the danger of being sucked, or suckered, into Kurzweil’s Singularity.
We see around us a proliferation of medias that, by no fault of their own, provide a degree of confusion that allows the clergy of Progress to market their dangerous and confused promise of a coming technology induced Rapture. The danger lies in a generation who believe that given the right myths, impeccable graphics, faster processing power and the continued blurring of physical and virtual space there lays a route to achieve the ancient dream of transcending their bodies by uploading themselves onto something akin to flash-memory device.
———————–Cybject is only a thought experiment————————–
~ by dccohen on December 25, 2009.