We are all, with infinite but tiny variations, more or less the same. The human body’s range of attributes and abilities has remained generally constant in the last 10,000 years. The differences that exist between human populations (with statistically insignificant phenotypic differences), even isolated populations, are learned adaptations to environmental conditions. In evolutionary terms, we are nowhere near any semblance of speciation (Leakey 1982; 241).
But this may be changing. Homo sapiens sapiens is remarkable for its prolific development of devices to extend and amplify its physical and mental functions, and for its degree of reliance on those devices (Warwick 2004; 4). The spear, the automobile, and the corporation spring forth from the human mind, augmenting human power and altering the external world, creating, in essence, new environments and unleashing unseen consequences. Each new labor-saving device also comes with a free Pandora’s Box, whose demons, more often than not, craftily beg a technological solution (Postman 1992; 72). Technology, then, could be said to be evolving in our stead. At the very least, its rate of change, now a dizzying inward spiral, far outstrips our own.
In our species’ relatively short tenure on Earth, we have transformed the planet’s surface with human technologies, making our presence felt in every habitable corner of the globe (Leakey 1982; 7-8). The utter dependence of most humans on the technological fruits of modernity (and on the feedback loop of technological change itself) makes the structural homogeneity of the species an important, and often hidden, assumption. Human technologies, as extensions of our particular physical and mental capabilities, are uniquely suited to serve our interests. We certainly would not expect a planet populated by intelligent snails to have evolved technology that we could use, nor would we expect visiting extraterrestrial snails to be able to use a telephone or wear gloves.
While it may seem flippant to bring up giant snails, the point is simply that the human body is a specific design arising out of particular evolutionary pressures (Leakey 1982; 35). If the human body were to change, old technologies would have to adapt to the human body’s new form (Stelarc, 1991). Thousands of years of accumulated knowledge would become obsolete. So it is with some measure of relief that designers of gloves, comfortable recliners and government build upon old designs, confident that the slow, snail-like pace of evolution keeps the human design stable.
But what if technology changes the human body itself in form and in function? What if human inventions begin, not to augment human abilities, but replace them? What if the next phase of human evolution occurs, not over millennia, in random mitochondrial DNA sequences but in intentional sequences of binary code, and in the space of a generation? What would – or rather, what could the human body look like? What would be the consequences, on society, the self, and the planet? And what if it is already taking place?
I intend to show that technological change is part of the human biological imperative, a collection of instincts I refer to as the tech impulse. We are hard-wired to adapt to new environments; each new technology creates a new environment which must be adapted to, and an ideology which treats the new technology as part of the human body. I will illustrate the far-reaching (and usually unforeseen) effects of some well-known technologies upon human behavior and thought. Keeping these examples in mind, I will explore emerging developments in prosthetics and other fields, with some of the potential consequences for the human body and the institutions based on its design.
The Technological Creature
The first technology, which sets us distinctly apart from other members of the animal kingdom, is our capability for language. The externalization of thought into symbols (primarily sounds) was the first technological revolution, and set the stage for every subsequent technological extension. Linguists, following Noam Chomsky’s lead, have concluded that the human brain has evolved an innate capacity for language and grammar (Deacon 1997:103-104). That, combined with a highly developed social instinct (Leakey 1982:51-52), forms the biological foundation of all cultural endeavors. Essentially, the ability to communicate with other humans, along with the desire to do so, was the flint and steel of cultural development.
Other social animals have recognizable calls, of course, but they are, with some exceptions, instinctual and fixed. Birds and even other apes have a fixed repository of sounds whose meanings (“danger”, “food”, etc.) are known from birth. Human language, by contrast, is a kind of “open call” system; there are innate tendencies toward certain grammatical patterns, but the only limits on the content of that speech are the physical capabilities of the human voice, and the human imagination. Our biological ability to adapt individually to new situations and share those adaptations, illustrated by the continual mutation of language, is our primary evolutionary advantage, and the reason that a tropical ape with no claws, fangs or fur now thrives in nearly every ecosystem on the planet. But language not only externalizes thought, it translates thought into, primarily, sound. This aural dimension of language intensifies the roles of the human voice and ear in human interaction. The particular nature of oral/aural communication lends itself to value group activity and cooperation (Postman 1992; 17), essentially making language an amplification of the social instinct.
Technological Revolutions – shaping human behavior
To gain an understanding of how technologies reshape humans’ interactions with the world, it is perhaps helpful to examine a few technologies in use around the world. Indeed, the use of technologies account for how humans got around the world in the first place. So it is only fitting that a discussion of human achievements begins with Prometheus’ original gift to mankind.
The mastery of fire by early humans was a gigantic step. Fire was useful for a variety of purposes, expanding the ways in which humans could interact with their environment, most notably by expanding the human diet. The heat it provided was an invaluable augmentation of the digestive system, softening certain tough foods to make them more edible and helping to preserve meat (Goudsblom, 1994; 14, 35). Some archaeological evidence suggests that in many cases fire and smoke were useful for acquiring food as well; one cooperative hunting tactic involved lighting a fire, thus driving prey into nearby bogs or off cliffs (Goudsblom 1994; 27).
In addition, fire’s heat helped humans survive weather that would otherwise be uncomfortable or life-threatening, and discouraged would-be predators from approaching too closely. The life-preserving qualities of fire (as well as the potential for havoc) encouraged social organization, communication, and self-control (Goudsblom 1994; 18), and the light and heat of a nighttime campfire provided “a unique social focus” (Leakey 1982; 122) that reinforced group identity.
In any case, several thousand generations of fire dependence have made us pyrophytes, at least in a metaphorical sense (Goudsblom 1994; 194). It is difficult to conceive of a human society that does not make use, and extensive use, of fire.
Still, humans evolved as an equatorial creature, suited to specific climatic conditions of the African savanna. Fire or no, human habitat was limited to regions with appropriately warm conditions to sustain life without fur or feathers. Genetic studies of lice indicate that approximately 50,000 years ago, humans hit upon the ingenious notion of wearing other creatures’ skins for warmth (Travis). This innovation allowed a massive expansion of the habitat range of humans (as well as that of lice, who subsequently divided into two species) by creating “micro-environments suitable to the survival of a tropical creature under widely varying conditions.” (McNeill 1976; 24). Housing applies the same concept of heat control, but on a collective scale. Both technologies, by conserving the body’s heat, free up energy for intensified social activity (McLuhan 1964; 126). They are so deeply woven into the collective fabric that those who lack (or eschew) either clothing or housing find themselves socially incomplete; ineligible to participate in many social activities, not to mention the targets of moral outrage.
If one is naked in a 7-11 without shoes and shirt, what term describes the state of a pedestrian on the freeway? The automobile is another covering of the human body which substitutes feet for wheels, and places the soft human core in a climate-controlled steel cocoon while it races at speeds faster than any living creature, extending the human habitat to any place with roads. It has become such a fixture of modernity that it is arguably the dominant life form; the amount of space devoted solely for the use of automobiles long ago outpaced that reserved for automotively naked humans, and continues to erode the subhuman-seeming pedestrian as the focal point of urban areas (Horvath, 1974). In China, increasing numbers of vehicle owners have led to restrictions on pedestrians and bicyclists, who apparently can no longer compete in a paved ecosystem designed for motorized vehicles (Dahl, 2005). This corresponds with the car’s introductory decades in the United States, where the “devil wagon” literally frightened muscle-powered (horse, bicycle and foot) mobility off the thoroughfares while toppling a social fabric built on the assumption of horse-and-buggy transport (Kline and Pinch, 1996). The fact that an estimated 1.3 billion automobiles will clog the world’s roadways by 2020 is grim tidings, accelerating not only urban air pollution (already at critically toxic levels in developing nations) (Davis 2006; 132-133), but also suburban sprawl, the epidemic of traffic deaths, and geopolitical instability for both oil-rich and oil-dependent regions (Dahl, 2005). In other words, humans are reshaping their own environment to make it more hospitable for automobiles, even though that new environment is toxic to humans. Perhaps, as Samuel Butler intimated in his 1872 social satire Erewhon, humans are merely the sexual organs of technology (McLuhan 1964; 116).
Part of the reason for this seemingly unstoppable march – or rather, drive – toward automotive catastrophe can be attributed to the American export of consumer culture, which places the car as the most important extension of individual identity, “without which we feel uncertain, unclad, and incomplete in the urban compound” (McLuhan 1964; 217). McLuhan also points out that for the American teen, getting a driver’s license has long been a more vital rite of adulthood than voting. Sleeping industrial giants like China and India are waking up to a clamoring consumer class, who want their own personal carapace (Dahl, 2005) so that they may become as fully human as any American teenager.
Humanity: technology’s prosthetic?
The modern world, as Neil Postman has noted endlessly, is notable for its utter submission to the cycle of technological “progress”, regardless of whether that change actually improves human life (1992; 60). The immediate benefits of a new technology may blind us to the social consequences of adopting it, at the expense of older ways of being (Malinowki 1964; 41). Those social consequences create new problems, problems which might easily be solved by simply getting rid of a technology. But incorporating a new technology into a society is vastly easier than getting rid of it, regardless of the social ills it may produce (Harvey 2005; 68-69). Instead, the solution usually proposed is a new technology, one with its own benefits and dangers. And so the cycle gradually gains speed, as innovation extends and accelerates human abilities, rendering meaningless even our conceptions of time, space, and selfhood. This pattern of change and unseen hazards should make us more wary of new gadgets, not less. But the entrenched structure of global capitalism, a technology that itself favors accelerated technological development would be difficult to halt or slow down, as long as a globally connected transportation and communication network exists (Bakan 2004; 21-22).
Prosthetics, the technology which restores a human function with an artificial device, has long been a rather crude back alley of medicine. Archaeologists recently discovered a wooden big toe that may have restored a normal gait to an Egyptian amputee as early as 1000 B.C (Dell’Amore), and the Etruscans produced the first-known false teeth, though some suggest they may have been for decorative, rather than dietary purposes (Becker 1999). Still, social beings that we are, replacing such an important part of the body with an artificial proxy, even a less functional one, implies that a sense of bodily wholeness is important enough socially to use such devices to mimic wholeness through a kind of cybernetic fiction (O’Connor 1997).
The limitations of technology kept prosthetics simple and generally single purpose until recently. War, which provides humanity with a steady supply of amputees, was a catalyst for developments in prosthetics (especially when 20th century anesthetics and antibiotics increased survival rates), although the rise of industrial production helped swell the ranks of the disfigured (O’Connor 1997). A stout stick could provide a crude leg substitute, and a hook could replace a missing hand for simple grasping. But the remaining stump of the former whole body part was transformed; its new purpose was to facilitate the use of its replacement, which often required extensive retraining of the limb. In other words, the biological was put to use serving the mechanical (O’Connor 1997).
Wheelchairs replace the functions of the legs, sacrificing maneuverability for arm-powered (or electric) speed and some measure of mobility (Kamanetz 1972). While disabled people have long been stigmatized as somehow less than human when in the company of walking humans (Cahill and Egglston 1995), the wheelchair-bound population of the U.S., perhaps not quite so out of place in an automobile-bound society, has successfully organized politically since the 1960s, and many public and commercial spaces reserved for human traffic must now accommodate wheeled cyborgs, dependent on paved, continuous surfaces, as a matter of civil rights (Harvard Law Review 2003). They are human, after all.
As technology advances, prosthetic devises are being perfected which are functionally equal the performance of their biological predecessors. Cochlear implants utilize digital processor technology to restore hearing to the completely deaf, in some cases even to those born without hearing. Some have argued, however, that for pre-lingually deaf children (children who are born deaf or deafened before they acquire normal oral skills), the introduction of a cochlear implant, and thus a sudden disruption of sensory ratios, may cause psychological harm that outweighs the lack of hearing (Crouch 1997).
In the realm of athletics, some amputees, armed (or legged) with specialized prosthetics made of space-age materials are equaling or surpassing their “whole” counterparts. Warren McDonald, a mountain climber whose legs were crushed up to mid-thigh by a falling boulder, had tiny carbon-fiber legs constructed for him, specifically made for climbing (Powers 2006). Standing on those legs, which are equipped with a variety of cleats and spikes for climbing in ice and rock, McDonald stands at a height of 4’4″, though he is the first amputee to climb both Mount Kilimanjaro and El Capitan, notoriously difficult peaks to scale for anyone. Clearly, with specialist legs, McDonald is not disabled as a mountain climber, and as a “disabled climber”, he ranks among the most accomplished (Powers 2006). As a runner, perhaps, he might be disabled, but as a hyper-specialist cyborg he is exceeding human norms.
Another, more controversial cyborg achiever is Oscar Pistorius, the South African sprinter whose legs were amputated at 11 months of age. Pistorius had springy prosthetic legs specifically made for running (he wears different legs for walking around), and has been handily breaking records for disabled sprinters at the Paralympics, taking a gold medal at the 2004 Paralympics. His attempts to participate in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing have been rebuffed so far, because the Italian body that governs track and field events, the I.A.A.F., has ruled that his legs give him an unfair advantage. The New York Times noted that Pistorius’ case was stirring up debate about transhumanism in the worlds of medicine and sports, where strong economic pressures work in the favor of human improvement technologies:
“A sobering question was posed recently on the Web site of the Connecticut-based Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. ‘Given the arms race nature of competition,’ will technological advantages cause ‘athletes to do something as seemingly radical as having their healthy natural limbs replaced by artificial ones?’ wrote George Dvorsky, a member of the institute’s board of directors. ‘Is it self-mutilation when you’re getting a better limb?'”
In our rush to progress through technological wonders, we may have built a world for which the human body is no longer an appropriate form (Stelarc 1991). Roboticist and artist Stelarc explicitly called for an updated human form in the opening words of his posthumanist manifesto, Prosthetics, Robotics and Remote Existence: Postevolutionary Strategies:
“It is time to question whether a bipedal, breathing body with binocular vision and a 1,400-cc brain is an adequate biological form. It cannot cope with the quantity, complexity and quality of information it has accumulated. It is intimidated by the precision, speed and power of technology, and it is biologically ill-equipped to cope with its new extraterrestrial environment.”
Luckily (or ominously, depending on one’s position), new developments in prosthetics, genetics, and information technology are for the first time beginning to change the form and function of the human body, rather than simply adding a layer of technology. We are approaching a world in which we may choose our shape, and decide exactly what senses we want, thus choosing the kind of world we wish to interact with and how. In fact, people like Stelarc are actively working to strip the biological body of any more significance than a blank canvas:
“It is no longer meaningful to see the body as a site for the psyche or the social but rather as a structure to be monitored and modified. The body not as a subject but as an object- NOT AS AN OBJECT OF DESIRE BUT AS AN OBJECT FOR DESIGNING.”
The potential ramifications of this are nothing short of revolutionary, when one considers, as Richard Leakey does, how humans construct the world from sensory information:
“The ability to act intelligently in the real world depends totally on the perception of that world. Yet the picture of the outside world you carry in your head is totally artificial. It is created by the mechanics of your brain, the information-collecting systems: eyes, ears, fingers, skin, nose – and memory (1982:171).”
Obviously, if we alter those information-gathering systems, we alter the artificial vision of the world we each accept as reality. But societies are bound together by, if nothing else, our common illusions. What happens when evolution stops and individuals, no longer bound by flesh, begin modifying themselves with custom parts to excel in their daily tasks? If Pistorius and McDonald can augment themselves for specialist success, why shouldn’t a stock broker have a chip in his head with that instantly feeds him the latest prices?
Cybernetics professor Kevin Warwick, of the UK’s University of Reading, believes this kind of intentional augmentation is not only inevitable but vital to human survival. He has garnered no small amount of notoriety for a 1998 experiment with chip implants linking him to the central computer in his laboratory, which, sensing his presence, would open automatic doors and even greet him when he approached. Currently he is experimenting with another chip implant which records information from the nervous system; various emotional states, even physical pain, as electrical impulses. These impulses are then transmitted via the Internet to a similar chip implanted in Warwick’s wife, thus in theory, feeding her nervous system information without communication in a kind of technotelepathy (Vogel 2002).
One of his explicit goals is to bypass the oldest technology, the spoken word, which he considers slow, prone to errors of interpretation, and ultimately obsolete in the Information Age. In addition, Warwick envisions using technology to expand the sensory range of humans, allowing us to see into the infrared and ultraviolet spectra. Considering the difficult adjustment experiences of cochlear implant recipients for whom hearing is not restored but suddenly added (Crouch), one should give careful thought to altering or adding new sensory input. How difficult would it be to function with a sudden, involuntary increase in information to the central nervous system?
Warwick believes the rapid increase in computer intelligence, which he estimates will overtake human intelligence in the next two decades, is a potential danger to human survival (Warwick 2004; x). The solution, of course, is for the human species to merge with technology.
Genetic changes offer short term, slight modifications. However the step to Cyborgs offers humans a natural, technological upgrade in the technological world we have instigated. Yes I feel it will be the next evolutionary step. Indeed we will need to do it if we are to compete with intelligent machines.
Other futurists wax philosophical about extending the human lifespan, which becomes more possible as human parts are discarded for replaceable machine parts (Stelarc 1991). It has been posited that mankind will need to go through a cyborg metamorphosis to withstand the rigors of extraterrestrial travel, with low gravity, decades-long commute times and entropic cold. The result will by all accounts be something very different from what we regard today as human, including the possibility of transferring one’s consciousness to an immortal digital format that can be downloaded to any appropriate hardware. “The body must burst from its biological, cultural and planetary containment,” Stelarc says, adding somewhat dramatically that “the first signs of an alien intelligence may well come from this planet.”(1991)
Last century’s considerable increase in lifespan due to improved medicine and pest control had profound effects, breaking down old systems of marriage and kinship in industrialized societies (Pinsof 2002) and leading to a population boom around the world (McNeill 1976; 248) that is now reaching troubling proportions. The abolition or massive postponement of death could have implications at least as profound, although in theory population could be controlled if the biological imperative to reproduce were also tampered with. But if one is going to redesign the wheel, or the human body, small adjustments may not be enough. The tech impulse that has now seemingly turned its attention to improving the human body will only accelerate, and the whole system will need to be redesigned, until being a ‘mere’ biological human will seem as foolish and worthy of contempt as a pedestrian on the freeway. And if the human body becomes increasingly replaceable and obsolete, and lifespan stretches on limited only by access to parts, what will be the effect on society’s vision of mortality, gender, religion and ethics? More to the point, when cyborg humans are untethered by current ranges of form, function, or ability, and may choose their form individually as they now choose cars or clothes, will there be such a thing as ‘society’?
Conclusion: The Posthuman world
Human beings stand on the cusp of a potential revolution more profound than any since the slow emergence of language that set us apart from other creatures. Every part of the human life cycle stands to be affected. In a world where humans are spawned in factories and reshaped by bionic hardware inside and out, where digital disembodiment is just another way of being, what happens to all the ways of being that stem from the age-old condition of being trapped within the body? When reproduction is all artificial, does gender become obsolete? As du Preez notes, “If women and bodies have been perceived (and remain to be perceived) as inseparable categories, what is at stake for women specifically when bodies are dissolving into information networks?”(2002) What happens to the idea of observation or consensus, when everyone is capable of sensing different parts of the spectrum, or able to ‘feel’ other people’s thoughts without interacting physically?
Still, the whole jumble of ideas seems faraway, like a ludicrous science fiction novel. But the rate of technological saturation, especially for useful technologies, is somewhat disconcerting. Consider that cellular phones, first invented in 1973, have exploded into ubiquity in the last 15 years. The number of cell phones worldwide recently topped two billion, roughly one third of the human population (Farley 2007), revolutionizing warfare, interpersonal communications and our concepts of privacy.
Clearly, technologies that seem farfetched now could be on shelves (or within your body) without warning. Science fiction writers like Warren Ellis, William Gibson, and the late Philip K. Dick imagine the environments that technologies create, and their social and ethical implications. Meanwhile, scientists like Kevin Warwick bring these technologies to fruition, brushing aside possible dangers with deterministic sloganeering about the inevitable march of progress.
Not everyone will have access to enhancement technologies. It would hardly be in the interests of power for otherwise powerless people to suddenly be equal with physically or mentally enhanced elites. Most likely, technologies that make human functions obsolete will remain too expensive for any but the wealthy and powerful, thus helping solidify class distinctions. Meanwhile, the vary fact of enhancement may socially begin to create different kinds of class distinctions. How will the digitally disembodied stock broker interact with the cloned super-soldier on a social level? And what of the inevitable ‘bio-Luddites’ who refuse any enhancements or increased lifespan? Will they be respected as pure, or looked down upon as anachronistic threats to the new order?
Each new technological device comes with a mixed bag of benefits and drawbacks, but they all bring change. A change to the body itself would likely bring with it social upheaval unlike any seen previously, as old social institutions, based on the old body, struggle to survive in a world that no longer needs them. We must carefully consider what parts of us we wish to keep, for we may soon be offered replacement parts.
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