A TERRIBLE SHAME

Technology in its widest sense has shaped mankind’s evolutionary journey.  Our brains, bodies, metabolism, society and culture have co-evolved along with technology.  Ever since our cave dwelling progenitors first picked up a stone to crack open a nut, a bird’s skull, overwhelm an angry predator or a rival in love, mankind has used technology.

 The 4th century BC philosopher Plato railed against a radical new technology in his book Phaedrus.  He was worried that the invention of writing would prevent us using our memories.  “This discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls because they will not use their memories.  They will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.  You give your disciples not truth but only the semblance of truth.  They will be hearers of many things and they will have learnt nothing.”  Today, however, the inability to write even your own name brings upon the individual a terrible shame which many attempt to hide from others. 

 Technological tools proliferate in all cultures, poor and rich alike, with most of us in affluent parts of the world using digital gadgets of some or all kinds.  It would be difficult for us to conduct our daily lives without our smart phones, sat.navs., tablets and laptops.  Technology expands what it means to be human creating things that possess capabilities we thought unique to humans; reason, ethics, learning and intelligence.  Technology today both mirrors us and challenges us.

 Micro-chip implants allow a kind of internal technology that link us to our machines.  Not only do surgical implants keep us alive and moving, but chips inserted into our bodies beneath the skin can enable us to operate remote machinery; to communicate with distant loved ones; or provide information to our homes which ensure a warm welcome every time the computer opens the front door.  

 Why should we resist  outsourcing or integrating with machines, surely that would  make us Luddites?  If we do link with technology can we ensure mankind stays in the driving seat?  If we upgrade our bodies will we stop being human?   What if we discard our bodies but insert our brains into robots will we lose our humanity and become just another cyborg?

 A lot of our illnesses are due to our bodies wearing out, if we didn’t have a physical body we wouldn’t have a problem, would we?  When do we stop being human?  Would we be happy living longer, being integrated with a machine, having enhanced powers and anyhow, do we need more people living longer on this crowded plant?

 We should remember Plato and keep our critical faculties sharp, questioning new developments and valuing what we already have. But for us to move forward in this interconnected new world and continue our evolutionary journey safely, we will need some time apart, un-plugged and on our own.  Plato’s words could just as easily be used today to criticise the widespread use of satellites to navigate when we used to read maps; computer reminders of appointments when we used to write in our diaries; dialling our friends when we used to remember their numbers; sending automated from computer generated lists when we used to empathise with loss or celebration face to face. 

 Not knowing how to use our new devices probably will, some day, also mark us out as deficient and the non upgraded human will probably wish to hide their shame much like those people today who cannot write.  Furthermore what will happen to the humans who don’t upgrade, will ‘ordinary’ humans become something of a sub-species?  Future cyborgs will be far more intelligent than the un-enhanced.  The hybrids will have new ways to communicate, new sensory inputs, they will be superior.  If we want to stay part of the action will we have to upgrade? 

 It seems that we should value what we have, our brains and their un-enhanced capacity to analyse.  Take some time apart.  Reflect honestly.  Adhere to our own moral codes, as some things must remain sacrosanct.  It would be a terrible shame if progress were to pass us by, or hastily welcomed without all our critical faculties fully engaged. If we don’t embrace mankind’s new technological advances it could be a terrible shame. 

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AVATARS

November 2014

Yesterday I heard a very interesting radio 4 programme about Avatars.  Apparently the word Avatar was not conceived by a Hollywood film producer but comes from the Sanskrit word for ‘descent’.  It relates to when a deity manifests itself in an earthly embodiment.  In Christianity ‘incarnation’ describes the coming of the divine in bodily form to the world in which we inhabit.  Does this make Jesus an Avatar?  Some Hindu’s believe he was, along with Krishna and Rama, and the programme explored the parallels and distinctions between the two.

Also as new technologies offer the prospect of digital Avatars able to simulate our personalities in the online world after death, they discussed what such developments tell us about contemporary attitudes to life after death and immortality.

Millions of us interact with Avatars through computer games and online virtual worlds like ‘Second Life’ and it has become the buzz-word’ for a secular age. In a very subtle shift from the religious connotations of an Avatar being God taking human form to re-establish ways in which we can connect with him, to the contemporary meaning where we can be represented in a virtual environment through a simulacrum which can be considered the real us in a virtual existence in which we can live vicariously.

The logical progression of this will be creating our own Avatars and, the programme maintained, the technology will soon exist (estimated at within twenty years) to enable us to preserve our personalities and life stories, digitally.  It is not too far fetched, they said, for us soon to curate our own legacies which our children and grandchildren can access after our death so they will be able to react with us long after our own physical demise.

There are already 25, 000 people signed up to a library of clones site that promises to preserve their thoughts some time in the future.  At the moment this is just a matter of collecting information to store for when the time comes and robotic answers can be found to preserving their ‘real selves’.  So many questions arise from this prospect.  Is it actually desirable?  Who would ensure that these Avatars are authentic or just idolised personas? Who decides what part of our personalities are preserved?  And would this ‘break-through’ actually just perpetuate the grieving process preventing us from letting go of the dead?

Is it morally right to continue our existence beyond what it is supposed to be?  Death is important for life, because the fact of the finite time we have, forces us to make important decisions about what sorts of people we are here and now.  Death is not just extinction but an important boundary about what sort of person we want to be and forces us to behave and interact in a world that ensures we are those people.  If there was always a possibility that anything we physical did could be overwritten by this programme with the profile of an unfeasibly perfect person, who is to say some of us will not just cut ourselves off from the world and concentrate on fabricating a totally fictional character?

Moreover will we become scared of death, will we hide from it and immune ourselves to it?  Do Avatars, in fact, tranquilise us from the fact of death?  For me the question must be, what is in it for me?  And the answer can only be nothing, because even though our Avatars will contain our thoughts, personality and experiences, once we are dead will we not experience the relationship our loved ones are having with our Avatars, so what is the point?  I would much prefer to live my fallible life and let my friends and family remember me for the flawed human being I really am, and surely it would be better for them to come to terms with my death as quickly as possible and not prolong the parting with agonising conversations with what sounds like me but is in fact a simulacrum of me.  I will be far gone.

THE INHUMAN CONDITION

entire Cyborg

I have been thinking about cyborgs recently.  Are we that far from the science fiction notion of becoming half human, half machine? A pacemaker for my dodgy ticker, well that’s mainstream these days.  Maybe I’ll chuck out the glasses and get some new eyes that can automatically enhance the information  sent to my brain and adjust to different light qualities?  Or a chip that can hear colours transforming the frequency of light to that of sound and hear it through bone conduction.  A new hip perhaps, (a hip chip?) with a chip in it that makes it possible to ride a bike for longer periods over harsher terrain?  New hands to replace useless arthritic claws, strong enough to open the devilish packaging now mandatory for food producers, or impervious to extreme temperatures but delicate enough to enable me to incise into my etching plates?  At what stage do these enhancements change us from human to cyborg, or in fact make us posthuman, even transhuman?

The term cyborg is a little outdated as these days we can readily accept the intrusion of technology into our bodies, seeing those springy appendages of Oscar Pretorius as something to envy – only his legs mind you. The definition of a cyborg used to be a body which was dependant on something electronic or mechanical to exist, nowadays I cannot envision existing without my electronic devises, I feel diminished without them.

It seems that if the technology is good for the person and doesn’t threaten his/her humanity then it is acceptable but if it helps to make a person achieve beyond their human capabilities then this is perceived as threatening. Man as superman belongs in the comics or with Nietzsche, not our everyday lives.  The ethical choice is that I have a right to enhance and you have a right not to enhance.  It’s your body, your right to enhance as long as it doesn’t harm anyone, but there must be no coercion to enhance, or not to.

The tendency is to think that technology outside ourselves, when  it can be turned on or off,  is acceptable.  I find myself sometimes making cyborgian assumptions, like the phantom rumble in my pocket where the phone usually resides even when it’s not there. Trying to scroll down a paper page. Searching my brain like it was a Google Search. Trying to pinch zoom the view like it was a screen when I just wanted to see a sign somewhere far away.  So I suppose that most of us can be termed everyday cyborgs – when we wake up in the morning the first thing we do is check our mobiles, the device is the life-blood of our social reality, they symbiotically exchange information with the world.  We don’t notice the device, we achieve social union using technology. We meld into the computer and become part of it.

And then, if our bodies are beyond helping what about our brains?  Can our brains keep on living even after our body dies? Sounds like science fiction to me, but celebrated theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking recently suggested that technology could make it possible.  “I think the brain is like a programme in the mind, which is like a computer,” Hawking said, “so it’s theoretically possible to copy the brain on to a computer and to provide a form of life after death.”

Some people are actively working to develop technology that would permit the migration of brain functions into a computer. Russian multi-millionaire Dmitry Itskov, for one, hopes someday to upload the contents of a brain into a life-like exoskeleton as part of his 2045 Initiative.  And a separate research group, called the Brain Preservation Foundation is working to develop a process to preserve the brain along with its memories, emotions and consciousness, called chemical fixation and plastic embedding, the process involves converting the brain into plastic, carving it up into tiny slices, and then reconstructing its three-dimensional structure in a computer. This then offers the possibility of a machine which is dependant on human consciousness to exist – a reversal of our initial definition of a cyborg yet no less valid or frightening.  I must ask, is this an attractive promise of possible life after death?

But are we not moving ever closer towards some kind of symbiotic relationship with the technological other?  The technological construct now enters the flesh in unprecedented degrees of intrusiveness and the nature of the human-technological interaction has shifted towards a blurring of the boundaries between genders, races and species, following the trend of the contemporary inhuman condition.  The technological other today – a mere assemblage of circuitry and feedback loops – functions in the realm of an egalitarian blurring of differences. Has cyborg tendencies inspired a philosophy that seeks to make us so superhuman that we will not die?