The Techno-Human Condition: Beyond the Fourth Revolution?

“The so-called ‘change agent’—capable of transforming the genetic sequence of living people—could radically alter the world as we know it.”

—Daniel Suarez, Change Agent

Arthur O. Lovejoy once described in his now classic The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea the pre-Copernican Cosmos as:

the conception of the plan and structure of the world which, through the Middle Ages and down to the late eighteenth century, many philosophers, most men of science, and, indeed, most educated men, were to accept without question – the conception of the universe as a “Great Chain of Being,” composed of an immense, or – by the strict but seldom rigorously applied logic of the principle of continuity – of an infinite, number of links ranging in hierarchical order from the meagerest kind of existents, which barely escape nonexistence, through “every possible” grade up to the ens perfectissimum – Of, in a somewhat more orthodox version, to the highest possible kind of creature, between which and the Absolute Being the disparity was assumed to be infinite everyone of them differing from that immediately above and that immediately below it by the “least possible” degree of difference.1

This sense that the universe was fixed and stable, that order reigned and everything from the largest (macro) to smallest (micro) thing in it had its place in the chain, one that put man and the earth at the center of a cosmic House of Being of which both the secular and the religious worlds were reconciled to God and the Absolute. Along with this was the hierarchical relation of power and divine right of Kings descending from the Absolute or God (whether in its secular mode of philosophy as Being, or its religious mode as exegesis of God’s Sovereignty).

Nicolaus Copernicus (1473– 1543) would publish his treatise on the movements of planets around the sun, entitled On the Revolutions of Celestial Bodies (De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, 1543) which would break that chain of Being into little pieces. Copernicus probably did not mean to start a ‘revolution’ in the world of thought that would begin a process of decentering the earth and man from the older cosmology of the ‘Great Chain of Being’. Nonetheless, his heliocentric cosmology for ever displaced the Earth from the centre of the universe and made us reconsider, quite literally, our own place and role in it. It caused such a profound change in our views of the universe that the word ‘revolution’ begun to be associated with radical scientific transformation.2

Another of those innovations would come along with Charles Darwin who under the new Enlightenment’s notions of progress, history, and improvement would develop a theory of human evolution. The second revolution occurred in 1859, when Charles Darwin (1809– 82) published his On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life. In his work, Darwin showed that all species of life have evolved over the years from common ancestors through natural selection. This time, it was the word ‘evolution’ that acquired a new meaning.(Floridi, 88-89)

This great leveling of human to animal would once again cause a great stir in the thoughts and minds of thinkers, both secular and religious that even to this day bring hotly debated arguments on both sides of the isle. The new scientific findings displaced us from the centre of the biological kingdom. As with the Copernican revolution, many people find it unpleasant. Indeed, some people still resist the idea of evolution, especially on religious grounds. But most of us have moved on, and consoled ourselves with a different kind of importance and a renewed central role in a different space, one concerning our mental life. (Floridi, 89)

Philosophers from Descartes to Kant would seek a way of holding onto these old conceptions, not through external chains of Being, but rather by turning inward toward the Mind itself. Seeking some fixed point and certainty, some stable ground from which they could be assured that the world was still as it should be, a place of order and harmony, they turned inward to the dark contours of the Mind. Some have considered Kant’s transcendental idealism as opening a back door onto the older cosmologies by bringing a counter-Copernican Revolution that would allow God and Religion to bolster their old hold on life, humanity, and the cosmos. Despite Copernicus and Darwin, these thinkers and their followers to come after believed they could still regroup behind a Cartesian trench. There, they could boast that we had clear and complete access to our mental contents, from ideas to motivations, from emotions to beliefs. Psychologists thought that introspection was a sort of internal voyage of discovery of mental spaces. William James still considered introspection a reliable, scientific methodology. The mind was like a box: all you needed to do to know its contents was to look inside. (Floridi, 89)

Little did they know that that black box was empty of content, that for some thinkers like Lacan it was nothingness itself: pure lack; and, yet, for still others it was an energetic force field of creativity itself, producing and productive of desire (Deleuze). This tendency between lack and fullness: a nothingness that sought a lost object of desire to make it whole again (Lacan), and a sea of pure energy in touch with the very vectors of the quantum worlds below the threshold of Being, the pre-ontological forces of creation itself would begin a war within thought would eventually lead to a new revolution and beyond.

It was Sigmund Freud (1856– 1939) who shattered this illusion through his psychoanalytic work. It was a third revolution. He argued that the mind is also unconscious and subject to defense mechanisms such as repression. Nowadays, we acknowledge that much of what we do is unconscious, and the conscious mind frequently constructs reasoned narratives to justify our actions afterwards. We know that we cannot check the contents of our minds in the same way we search the contents of our hard disks. We have been displaced from the centre of the realm of pure and transparent consciousness. We acknowledge being opaque and blind to ourselves. (Floridi, 89-90) Our brains work by way of ‘medial neglect’: that is, it only provides consciousness with the minimal data for purposes of reproduction and survival. All else is excess fantasia and a realm of affective imagninaries. Of course psychoanalysis as a science was shown to be mere fantasy in itself, more opinion that theoretical and has drawn extreme forms of differences of opinion ever sense. And, yet, ever after it has displaced even the Mind from that hallowed sphere of the centre.

As Luciano Floridi asks “After the three revolutions, was there any space left where we could entrench ourselves smugly?” One such path is Pascal’s Wager. The French philosopher and theologian Blaise Pascal (1623– 62) had poetically suggested in a famous quote, that

Man is but a reed, the feeblest thing in nature, but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapour, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be nobler than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage that the universe has over him, the universe knows nothing of this. All our dignity then, consists in thought. By it we must elevate ourselves, and not by space and time which we cannot fill.

For Pascal it came down to the dignity of Man, the exception to the rule, our special place in the universe was assured. As Floridi remarks ever since Pascal the defence of our exceptional place in the universe was still standing on the ground that Intelligence was, and still is, a rather vague property, difficult to define, but that we were confident that no other creature on Earth could outsmart us. Whenever a task required some intelligent thinking, we were the best by far, and could only compete with each other. We thought that animals were stupid, that we were smart, and this seemed the reassuring end of the story. We quietly presumed to be at the centre of the infosphere, joined by no other earthly creature. (Floridi, 91)

This belief that we were and still are the top of the pyramid in intelligence on earth, and possibly in the universe, that we were set apart from all other animals, plants, insects as carriers of this higher intelligence. All this would come crashing down when Alan Turing, the father of the fourth revolution brought forth the first intelligent machines. According to Floridi and other scholars Turing displaced us from our privileged and unique position in the realm of logical reasoning, information processing, and smart behaviour. We are no longer the undisputed masters of the infosphere. Our digital devices carry out more and more tasks that would require some thinking and decisions from us if we were in charge. We have been forced to abandon once again a position that we thought was ‘unique’. The history of the word ‘computer’ is indicative. Between the seventeenth and the nineteenth century, it was synonymous with ‘a person who performs calculations’ simply because there was nothing else in the universe that could compute autonomously. In 1890, for example, a competitive examination for the position of ‘computer’ by the US Civil Service had sections on ‘orthography, penmanship, copying, letter-writing, algebra, geometry, logarithms, and trigonometry’.  It was still Hobbes’s idea of thinking as reckoning. Yet by the time Turing published his classic paper entitled ‘Computing machinery and intelligence’,  he had to specify that, in some cases, he was talking about a ‘human computer’, because by 1950 he knew that ‘computer’ no longer referred only to a person who computes. After him, ‘computer’ entirely lost its anthropological meaning and of course became synonymous with a general-purpose, programmable machine, what we now call a Turing machine. (Floridi, 93)

So if we think about it there is a pattern here, one that retroactively we are bringing to awareness. For Floridi and other scholars like him the previous three revolutions, and this fourth revolution have removed a misconception about our uniqueness to life, the universe, and our secular and religious pretensions, and also provided the conceptual means to revise our self-understanding of ourselves and our place in the cosmos. As Floridi puts it:

We are slowly accepting the post-Turing idea that we are not Newtonian, stand-alone, and unique agents, some Robinson Crusoe on an island. Rather, we are informational organisms (inforgs), mutually connected and embedded in an informational environment (the infosphere), which we share with other informational agents, both natural and artificial, that also process information logically and autonomously. And we are also discovering that such algorithmic agents that with our help are emerging out of the general intelligence of the network societies we’ve embarked on are not intelligent like us, but they can easily outsmart us, and do so in a growing number of tasks. (Floridi, 93-94)

Because of this many are turning to the naïve belief that we can merge with our machinic progeny, that we can use therapies, pharmaceuticals, implants, are any number of technologies, meditative, medical, and other praxis to enhance ourselves and keep up with the machines, remain a step ahead on the intelligence index of profit. As Allenby and Sarewitz in The Techno-Human Condition comment,

The more we look at transhumanism as it is currently teed up by proponents and antagonists, the more it reveals itself as something that almost approaches its opposite – a flight into tradition barely disguised by the language of high technology. Rather than some grand prognostication about real future states, transhumanism turns out to be a conflicted vision offering a remarkable opportunity to question the grand frameworks of our time, most especially the Enlightenment, with its focus on the individual, applied reason, and the democratic, rational modernity for which it forms the cultural and intellectual foundation, and the technological New Jerusalem toward which it is flinging us.3

In this sense the notion of human enhancement or transhumanism is seeking like many of the previous thinkers and scientists to revert to some form of human exceptionalism. As Nick Bostrom a proponent of human enhancement remarks “Over the last decade, human enhancement has grown into a major topic of debate in applied ethics. Interest has been stimulated by advances in the biomedical sciences, advances which to many suggest that it will become increasingly feasible to use medicine and technology to reshape, manipulate, and enhance many aspects of human biology even in healthy individuals. To the extent that such interventions are on the horizon (or already available) there is an obvious practical dimension to these debates. This practical dimension is underscored by an outcrop of think tanks and activist organizations devoted to the biopolitics of enhancement.”4

It would be none other than Michel Foucault in the first volume of his unfinished History of Sexuality who would introduce ““bio- politics of the population”.5 For Foucault biopolitics is foremost the “political” administration of the changes and new possibilities afforded us through the use of the new technics and technologies of the life sciences, predominantly of biology and genetics.1 As one scholar puts it for Foucault, biopolitics is a modality of power that in a precise historical moment overdetermines the other modalities of power. Therefore he proposes a genealogy of power that does not aspire at unveiling transhistorical or structural elements or at discovering the original and foundational scene of power in general, but at analyzing concrete constellations of power– knowledge as conditions of possibility of the constitution and imposition of specific forms of governmentality. (Lem and Vatter – below see: Maria Muhle, A Genealogy of Biopolitics: The Notion of Life in Canguilhem and Foucault, p. 77-)

Those within the human enhancement or transhumanist movement in this vein side with the same arguments as abortion rights advocates, that we have a right to govern our bodies as we see fit. For Foucault the specific status of the human population as natural–artificial hybrids is spelled out through another central notion, the “milieu,” a term he would take over from Gilbert Simondon. The milieu in Foucault’s use of that term is part of the biopolitical or governmental dispositif since it permits a non-direct—a disposing—access to the living. It is by intervening in the milieu that the population is regulated: “What one tries to reach through this milieu, is precisely the conjunction of a series of events produced by these individuals, populations, and groups, and quasi natural events which occur around them”. The living are not exposed directly to power mechanisms, but these get to the living through the milieu that is manipulated in order to secure the development of the population: post- sovereign power strategies create a milieu, in which the population can unfold its living dynamics, so that the means of self- conservation are held at the disposal of the living and life can regulate itself. (ibid.: 92)

When used in the context of the human enhancement movement this notion of the logics of an unfolding living dynamics brings with it the self-governing and self-regulation of our evolution. The notion that humans are not in control of their own evolution rather than the external forces of natural process, that instead by way of artificial and technological forms evolution and adaptation, artificial selection through biogenetic editing and transformations we can enhance our progeny to alleviate inherited genetic disorders, as well as to enhance intelligence, physical and mental features and qualities of the human condition.

Whereas Humanism tends to rely exclusively on educational and cultural refinement to improve human nature, the transhumanists want to apply technology to overcome limits imposed by our biological and genetic heritage. Transhumanists regard human nature not as an end in itself, not as perfect, and not as having any claim on our allegiance. Rather, it is just one point along an evolutionary pathway and we can learn to reshape our own nature in ways we deem desirable and valuable. By thoughtfully, carefully, and yet boldly applying technology to ourselves, we can become something no longer accurately described as human – we can become posthuman. Becoming posthuman means exceeding the limitations that define the less desirable aspects of the “human condition.” Posthuman beings would no longer suffer from disease, aging, and inevitable death (but they are likely to face other challenges). They would have vastly greater physical capability and freedom of form – often referred to as “morphological freedom”. Posthumans would also have much greater cognitive capabilities, and more refined emotions (more joy, less anger, or whatever changes each individual prefers). Transhumanists typically look to expand the range of possible future environments for posthuman life, including space colonization and the creation of rich virtual worlds. When transhumanists refer to “technology” as the primary means of effecting changes to the human condition, this should be understood broadly to include the design of organizations, economies, polities, and the use of psychological methods and tools.6

Daniel Suarez in his recent SF novel Change Agent will explore some of these notions of technology, human enhancement, the legal and social ramifications, the criminal misuse and profiting by multiconglomerates outside the sovereign nexus of any global justice system. In fact at the hear to his novel is an identity crisis for humanity, the notion of a “post-identity world”. As one of the characters reflects on the metamorphosis and transformation that has left him changes into another person by way of DNA edits upon his genetic codes at the hands of a criminal organization:

…it was Marcus Wyckes who had done this to him, and if this Thai cartel could somehow reverse engineer the Huli jing’s in vivo edits, rewriting him to his original DNA—what then? Wasn’t he giving this gang the ability to do in vivo edits as well? Like Desai said: this was worth hundreds of billions. Trillions. He would be helping this technology to spread. A technology that could destabilize the world by rendering identity itself obsolete. Creating a post-identity world. What then?7

Suarez makes us think through the use and abuse of these new technologies, the laws and enforcement of regulations we will need, the ethics of such modifications and what it may portend, the birfurcation into sub-species, of trans-gender and trans-animal or trans-plant mixing of biogenetics, and a number of other even more dangerous aspects of this process such as anti-human strains in which the genetic breeding of mirror DNA that would manufacture unlife as life. One of the main characters is a creature that mirrors negatively the life of a human, a perfect mirror in negative, a true unlife. I want spoil the novel by relating what this enables but the prospects are apocalyptic.

The characters discuss this anti-life or mirror creature this way:

“He’s an enantiomorph.” Durand kept staring. “Mirror life. That’s why he isn’t affected by biotoxins. He wouldn’t be affected by human viruses or parasites or diseases, either. Because he is the opposite of life.”

“I don’t understand.” Frey snapped his fingers, searching for words. “Chirality. Handedness. Molecules, like amino and nucleic acids, have a ‘handedness’—not literally hands, but orientations of a molecule’s atoms. They can be reversed—from left to right, to right to left. They could have the same chemical formula, but be mirror images of each other. And thus have different interactions, even though they are technically the same compounds.”

“So you think this man—”

“Is an opposite. All complex organisms on earth are comprised of left—or levo—amino acids. Nobody is entirely sure why that is, but that’s the way life evolved.” Frey pointed at the screen. “I think the Huli jing created an opposite form of life.” (Suarez, KL 4191)

Suarez’s novel takes us to the extreme edge of the transhuman into inhuman, the point where life and anti-life meet in the dead zones of our futurial dangers. Synthetic humans, biogenetic monstrosities, cross-breed hybrids of animal, plant, and inscectoid life forms that could emerge in military black projects, or in the dark enclaves of criminal hives of black market profiteers and skin trade, organ donors, and bio-slavery. The future Suareze develops could go either way if we are not careful. Unregulated capitalism and profiteering greed could lead us to a world filled with sub-biogenetic hybrids and monstrous creatures out of our worst nightmares.

As Durand the main protagonist who has been genetically altered to become the very criminal master mind he was invoked by Interpol to track down reflects on his strange metamorphosis:

“Epigenetics. Gene expression. Turning genes on and off. That’s what happens during the butterfly’s metamorphosis. It builds a chrysalis and secretes chemicals that cause it to fall into a comatose state as its body changes.”

“Like my coma. After they injected me.” Frey nodded.

“I think that’s what the Huli jing discovered—not only how to edit DNA, but how to turn genes on and off on demand, not simply write them into the chain. After all, computer code doesn’t do anything unless you execute it.” He stabbed at Durand’s butterfly tattoo. “I think this was the butterfly species that helped them figure it out, and why Wyckes and Otto wear it as a tattoo: Archon apollinus. The False Apollo.”

“What did you just say?” Frey turned to him. “Archon apol—” (Suarez, KL 4239)

What we’re left with is the eerie sense that humans are creating  through the very technological success of their slow denaturalization into artificial life the very technologies that will soon destroy homo sapiens at the hands of techno sapiens. David Roden in his Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human remarks,

 From a vital posthumanist perspective, life is equivalent to the agentive power to enter into intense, functional couplings that can fundamentally alter the powers of living systems. Disconnection is simply a further expression of the capacity of living systems to enact “lines of life beyond organic or living purposiveness”.8 One of the detriments of this biogenetic future of synthetic post-humanity Roden tells us is that highly functionally autonomous entities – human or posthuman – would be more likely to flourish or even survive in the new dispensation than those less able to acquire new values and functional affiliations. If functional autonomy were very unevenly distributed between powerful groups and much less powerful groups existentially challenged by the new world, it could be disastrous for the latter since skills and practices that had sustained them prior to disconnection might be inadequate in the new dispensation. (Roden, 191)

This brings up the debate, a political debate of the anomalous structures of power and knowledge that will come into play in such a dispensation of enhanced and post-singular humanity. The divide between old humans (normals) and the new enhanced of Humanity 2.0 hybrids (abnormals) will entail a rethinking of our secular, religious, ethical, and sociological categories. How will we deal with superior intelligences, or enhanced athletes? The ethical dilemmas facing humanity as it enters this brave new world are all on the table. We must think long and hard because even now large government institutions and multiconglomerate corporations, not to mention the black market and black ops programs that no one can be sure of, are all pouring hundreds of millions if not billions into these new technologies of enhancement. As Nick Bostrom and colleagues ask:

 When somebody proposes an intervention alleged to enhance some biological function of capacity, we should pose ourselves the following challenge: ‘‘Why, if this intervention is such a good thing, have we not already evolved to be that way?’’. (Savulescu/Bostrom, 17)

A good question to start with…

  1. Lovejoy, Arthur O. The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea. Harvard University Press (June 30, 2009) (Page 59).
  2. Floridi, Luciano. The Fourth Revolution: How the Infosphere is Reshaping Human Reality (p. 87). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
  3. Allenby, Braden R.; Sarewitz, Daniel. The Techno-Human Condition (p. 11). The MIT Press. Kindle Edition.
  4. Savulescu, Julian; Bostrom, Nick. Human Enhancement (Page 1). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
  5. Vanessa Lemm (Editor), Miguel Vatter (Editor). The Government of Life: Foucault, Biopolitics, and Neoliberalism. Fordham University Press; 1 edition (March 5, 2014) (p. 77)
  6. The Transhumanist Reader: Classical and Contemporary Essays on the Science, Technology, and Philosophy of the Human Future (p. 4). Wiley. Kindle Edition.
  7. Daniel Suarez. Change Agent (Kindle Locations 3390-3394). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
  8. Roden, David. Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human (p. 190). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

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