Let A Hundred Futures Bloom: A Both/And Survey of Transhumanist Speculation
Mention the word “transhumanism” to most of my friends, and they will assume you mean uploading people into a computer. Transcendence typically connotes an escape from the trappings of this world — from the frailty of our bodies, the evolutionary wiring of our primate psychologies, and our necessary adherence to physical law.
However, the more I learn about the creative flux of our universe, the more the evolutionary process appears to be not about withdrawal, but engagement — not escape, but embrace — not arriving at a final solution, but opening the scope of our questions. Any valid map of history is fractal — ever more complex, always shifting to expose unexplored terrain.
This is why I find it is laughable when we try to arrive at a common vision of the future. For the most part, we still operate on “either/or” software, but we live in a “both/and” universe that seems willing to try anything at least once. “Transhuman” and “posthuman” are less specific classifications than catch-alls for whatever we deem beyond what we are now…and that is a lot.
So when I am in the mood for some armchair futurism, I like to remember the old Chinese adage: “Let a hundred flowers bloom.” Why do we think it will be one way or the other? The future arrives by many roads. Courtesy of some of science fiction’s finest speculative minds, here are a few of my favorites:
By Elective Surgery & Genetic Engineering
In Greg Egan’s novel Distress, a journalist surveying the gray areas of bioethics interviews an elective autistic — a man who opted to have regions of his brain removed in order to tune out of the emotional spectrum and into the deep synesthetic-associative brilliance of savants. Certainly, most people consider choice a core trait of humanity…but when a person chooses to remove that which many consider indispensable human hardware, is he now more “pre-” than :post-?” Even today, we augment ourselves with artificial limbs and organs (while hastily amputating entire regions of a complex and poorly-understood bio-electric system); and extend our senses and memories with distributed electronic networks (thus increasing our dependence on external infrastructure for what many scientists argue are universal, if mysterious, capacities of “wild-type” Homo sapiens). It all raises the question: are our modifications rendering us more or less than human? Or will this distinction lose its meaning, in a world that challenges our ability to define what “human” even means?
Just a few pages later in Distress, the billionaire owner of a global biotech firm replaces all of his nucleotides with synthetic base pairs as a defense against all known pathogens. Looks human, smells human…but he has spliced himself out of the Kingdom Animalia entirely, forming an unprecedented genetic lineage.
In both cases, we seem bound to shuffle sideways — six of one, half a dozen of the other.
By Involutionary Implosion
In the 1980s, Greg Bear explored an early version of “computronium”— matter optimized for information-processing — in Blood Music, the story of a biologist who hacks individual human lymphocytes to compute as fast as an entire brain. When he becomes contaminated by the experiment, his own body transforms into a city of sentient beings, each as smart as himself. Eventually, they download his whole self into one of their own — paradoxically running a copy of the entire organism on one of its constituent parts. From there things only get stranger, as the lymphocytes turn to investigate levels of reality too small for macro-humans to observe.
Scenarios such as this are natural extrapolations of Moore’s Law, that now-famous bit about computers regularly halving in size and price. And Moore’s Law is just one example of a larger evolutionary trend: for example, functions once distributed between every member of primitive tribes (the regulatory processes of the social ego, or the formation of a moral code) are now typically internalized and processed by every adult in the modern city. Just as we now recognize the Greek gods as embodied archetypes correlated with neural subroutines, the redistributive gathering of intelligence from environment to “individual” seems likely to transform the body into a much smarter three cubic feet of flesh than the one we are accustomed to.
Then again, there might be systemic constraints to just how far tech will take us. Charles Stross’s Glasshouse offers a rare perspective on the possible consequences of nanotechnology: once we all rely on computers to back ourselves up and store ourselves for interstellar transit, those computers become the targets for a new level of informational warfare. In a world where people can be rebuilt at whim, murder is effectively obsolete. No one can be killed, but everyone is at constant risk of being hacked. Suddenly you wake up working for the enemy, and loving it. Selective memory erasure programs saturate the network and prevent any further development from crossing communities and achieving universality. History is routinely wiped, so no new wisdom can accrue. Once again, humanity is splintered into countless isolated physical and mental regions, and some of them respond by choosing to eschew high technology entirely, living and dying on the clock of some long-forgotten world.
In other words, what we normally imagine as a linear continuum might instead be a wave of progress that ebbs and flows, a cycle of Light and Dark Ages distributed capriciously through space-time.
By Hyperdimensional Intervention
The idea that humankind will be “initiated” into a new and higher mode of being by some other race of transcendental entities has been circulating for thousands of years. Perhaps there is a common trajectory for the development of sentient species, and we receive intermittent, minimally-intrusive guidance by those who came before us. It is an idea that has certainly found its way into common sci-fi discourse — be it through Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001 or Stephen Baxter’s Manifold. Were we to take seriously the growing ranks of exopoliticians, exobiologists, and exolinguists, this in fact is happening. Descartes was given his famous plane — practically the emblem of rational modernity — by an angelic vision. Francis Crick (co-discoverer of the double helix) and Carey Mullis (pioneer of the Polymerase Chain Reaction) both admitted to interfacing with LSD when their Nobel Prizewinning finds came to them. Crop circles form overnight in muddy fields with no footprints, bearing strange radiation signatures and seeming to encrypt dense information about the structure of the quantum vacuum and the movement of celestial bodies. This pattern is almost universal among species-changing creative eruptions (or are they irruptions?) throughout history; even Moses had his burning bush. In every instance, these revelations drew our species closer to what we might call transhuman. Were “getting the message,” but who is doing the talking?
By Natural Quantum Evolution
One option in particular seems to get short shrift by a community that tends to believe we will lift ourselves up into a posthuman order by our own bootstraps… but if the future even modestly resembles the past, then we cannot neglect the possibility that nature will do the heavy lifting for us. recent research at UC Berkeley and Washington University has demonstrated that photosynthesis is 95% efficient because it uses quantum computation to retroactively decide upon the best possible electron paths. Johnjoe McFadden at the University of Surrey has suggested that this very same process may have been how life emerged in the first place, and other scientists have noted similar, strangely intelligent mutation responses in lab cultures. Egans novel Teranesia runs with this new model of smart evolution, suggesting that we may see posthumanity spontaneously self-organize out of the quantum superposition of all possible futures — as if good ideas reach backward in time to organize their necessary histories. Given the uncanny prescience of some sci-fi speculation, this might not be too far from the truth.
All Of The Above
As our options increase, humanity — and whatever else might call us their ancestors — will probably continue to take every form available: flesh, metal, and software; post-linguistic and pre-linguistic; evolution by self-mastery and deus ex machina. If it can happen, it probably will. This is the world in which we live, and every step we take into the future makes that increasingly, painfully obvious. Transhumanism, as best as I can define it, is the story of “and.”
This article originally appeared in H+ Magazine on 15 June 2009.
Paleontologist turned poet-philosopher, Michael Garfield’s multimedia maps of the evolutionary landscape and our place in it help us write new myths for our accelerating age. Learn more about Michael’s writing, art, and music, as well as Future Fossils Podcast: