I got to spend some precious time recently with my very dear friend, anarmorphic artist and current artist-in-residence at the Savoy, Jonty Hurwitz. He told me about meeting a bunch of Russian scientists who are devotees of something strange, something that has been steadily gaining traction out there in the world beyond the realm of my immediate influences. It’s called transhumanism.
Transhumanism (abbreviated as H+ or h+) is an international intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally transforming the human condition by developing and making widely available technologies to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities. Transhumanist thinkers study the potential benefits and dangers of emerging technologies that could overcome fundamental human limitations, as well as study the ethical matters involved in developing and using such technologies. They predict that human beings may eventually be able to transform themselves into beings with such greatly expanded abilities as to merit the label “posthuman”.
Attempting to express the concept in layman’s terms can be summed up in a series of pithy questions:
What if Google existed in your brain? What if, like bats, you could use echolocation to navigate? Dramatically improve your ability to see in the dark like a cat? Be able to see ultraviolet light? Or perhaps have the ability of a butterfly – to taste with your feet?
Here’s a the beginning of little story to help you wrap your head around the notion a little further:
A young woman is at a rave, dancing to the summer’s monster hit. Pink LED lights under her skin wink in time to the thump of the bassline. She’s chosen that particular colour of lights today because they go with her clothes and match the fluffy mood she’s in.
A scene where modifying your body for artistic or practical purposes is as commonplace as downloading a new app to your smartphone? It’s not so far-fetched. If you think about it, modifying or enhancing our bodies with technology is already possible and becoming more and more common. Every year millions of pacemakers, cochlear and neural implants are successfully implanted into human bodies in hospitals all over the world. My mother had both knees replaced a few years ago. Now the metal holding her patella in place is giving her gyp. We already micro-chip dogs. Why not ourselves?
It would seem that modern medicine is leading the way into bringing the human body into closer symbiosis with technology. The artist and cyborg activist Neil Harbisson was born with a very rare condition called achromatopsia which meant that he was only able to see the world in black and white. He created an electronic eye that would allow him to hear colour. He is the first person who has been allowed to have his passport photograph taken with a piece of electronic equipment on his head because he managed to argue that his eyeborg was now part of his body. Have a listen to what he has to say about living as a cyborg:
Imagine that, a cyborg actually sanctioned by the UK government! “Cyborg” literally means “cybernetic organism” ie. a being constructed of both mechanical and organic material. Consider the prosthetic limbs of athletes like Aimee Mullins or Oscar Pistorious.
These kind of limbs are becoming more and more robotic and integrated into the human body. It’s making the word cyborg become less the stuff of science fictions like Robocop or Blade Runner. It’s also being referenced a lot by pop stars like Beyonce, the Black Eyed Peas and Lady Gaga. And with the advent of wearable, augmented reality technologies like Google Glass, it lends real credence to Ray Kurzweil‘s prediction that in the near future, we’ll be able to implant internet accessible systems in our head so that we can surf the web through simple thoughts with a small screen implanted in our cornea to view the screen.
Not being constrained by your biology is the ultimate goal of transhumanists. They argue for augmenting human capabilities deliberately, away from restorative technologies and towards deliberate enhancement of human capability through the use of implanted devices, nanotechnology, smart drugs to turbo-charge memory, prolong life, increase muscle strength, combat baldness, enhance morality, end old age….the list goes on. Some people – Grinders, DIY biohackers or garage body mods – are taking matters into their own hands though. The practice of slicing up your own flesh has apparently become so commonplace that one tattoo artist recently stuck four magnets under his skin to hold his iPod nano in place.
Essentially, I’m a modern machine. I like to think I’m intrepid enough to move with the times by embracing this brave new world. I can buy having a microchip implanted in the base of my skull to sharpen my synapses but I really can’t see myself giving up a good working limb just so that I could replace it with an upgraded appendage that can smell for itself. Mind you, ask me the same question in another 20 years when my knees have succumbed to wear and tear and I’m considering knee replacements…. I might be saying something very different then.
Ethical, religious, political and economical issues surrounding the premise of transhumanism abound but a world in which our non-biological forms of intelligence (eg. our data in the form of knowledge and memory) communicate in the cloud might not be as far off as we think. We may balk at the idea of downloading our memories into a computer but our children (who can use smartphones at the age of 2 years old) will think nothing of it.