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Ray Tallis peers into the future, without fear.
“Tereza is staring at herself in the mirror. She wonders what would happen if her nose were to grow a millimetre longer each day. How much time would it take for her face to become unrecognizable? And if her face no longer looked like Tereza, would Tereza still be Tereza?”
The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera.
There is increasing concern amongst a wide range of commentators that human nature is in the process of being irrevocably changed by technological advances which either have been achieved or are in the pipeline. According to a multitude of op-ed writers, cultural critics, social scientists and philosophers, we have not faced up to the grave implications of what is happening. We are sleep-walking and need to wake up. Human life is being so radically transformed that our very essence as human beings is under threat.
Of course, apocalypse sells product, and one should not regard the epidemiology of panic as a guide to social or any other kind of reality. The fact that one of the most quoted panickers about the future is Francis Fukuyama, who has got both the past wrong (The End of History) and the present wrong (recovered neo-con Pentagon hawk), should itself be reassurance enough. Nevertheless, it is still worthwhile challenging the assumptions of those such as Fukuyama who are trying to persuade us to be queasy about the consequences of the various technologies that have brought about enhancement of human possibility and, indeed, want to call a halt to certain lines of inquiry, notably in biotechnology.
The most often repeated claim is that we are on the verge of technological breakthroughs – in genetic engineering, in pharmacotherapy and in the replacement of biological tissues (either by cultured tissues or by electronic prostheses) – which will dramatically transform our sense of what we are and will thereby threaten our humanity. A little bit of history may be all that is necessary to pour cooling water on fevered imaginations. In 1960, leading computer scientists, headed by the mighty Marvin Minsky, predicted that by 1990 we would have developed computers so smart that they would not even treat us with the respect due to household pets. Our status would be consequently diminished. Anyone seen any of those? Smart drugs that would transform our consciousness have been expected for 50 years, but nothing yet has matched the impact of alcohol, peyote, cocaine, opiates, or amphetamines, which have been round a rather long time.
It was expected that advances in the understanding of the neurochemistry of dementia in the 1970s would permit us not only to restore cognitive function in people with Alzheimer’s disease, but also to artificially boost the intelligence of people without brain illness. The results have been a little disappointing, as the recent judgement by the National Institute of Clinical Excellence that anti-dementia drugs have only modest benefits reminds us. Gene therapy that was going to deliver so much in the 1980s is still waiting to deliver.
So don’t hold your breath; you’ll die of anoxia. Of course changes will come about eventually. But it is the pace of change that matters. We can individually and collectively adapt to gradual technological changes; that is why they never quite present the insuperable challenges some doomsayers and dystopians anticipate. In Victorian times, it was anticipated that going through a dark tunnel in a train at high speed (30 mph) would be such a shocking experience that people would come out the other side irreversibly damaged. In one of his last poems, published in 1850, Wordsworth opined that the infantility of illustrated newspapers – the first tentative steps towards the multimedia of today – would drive us back to “caverned life’s first rude career” (‘Illustrated Books and Newspapers’), and he felt that the endless influx of news from daily papers would incite us to a level of unbearable restlessness.
Railway journeys and tabloid newspapers have not had the dire effects that were predicted. Even the most radically transformative technologies have not had the impact we might have expected. The dramatic electronification of everyday life that has taken place over the last few decades has not fundamentally altered the way we relate to each other. Love, jealousy, kindness, anxiety, hatred, ambition, bitterness, joy etc, still seem to have a remarkable family resemblance to the emotions people had in the 1930s. The low-grade bitchiness of office politics may be conducted more efficiently by email, but its essential character hasn’t changed. Teenagers communicating by mobile phones and texts and chat rooms and webcams still seem more like teenagers than nodes in an electronic network. I have to admit a little concern at what we might call the e-ttenuation of life, whereby people find it increasingly difficulty to be here now rather than dissipating themselves into an endless electronic elsewhere; but inner absence and wool-gathering is not entirely new, even if it is now electronically orchestrated. It just becomes more publicly visible. What’s more, there is something reassuring about electronic technology: because it is widely and cheaply available and because it is so smart, it allows us to be dumb, and so compresses the differences between people.
Of course, people are worried about more invasive innovations; in particular, the direct transformation of the human body. And this is where the gradualness of change is important, because as individuals we have a track record of coping with such changes without falling apart or losing our sense of self entirely. After all, we have all been engaged all our lives in creating a stable sense of our identity out of whatever is thrown at us. This idea is worth dwelling on.
We humans are unique among the animals in having a coherent sense of self, and this begins with our appropriating our own bodies as our own. This is our most fundamental human achievement: that of transforming our pre-personal bodies – with their blood and muscles and snot and worse – into the ground floor of our personal identity (see my forthcoming book, My Head: Portrait in a Foxed Mirror, Atlantic Books). Looked at objectively, our bodies beneath the skin are not terribly human; indeed, they are less human than our human technologies. There is very little in my purely organic body that I could say is me. Most of the meat of which I am made and which I assume as myself is pretty alien: “our flesh/ Surrounds us with its own decisions” as Philip Larkin said in ‘Ignorance’ in The Whitsun Weddings. On the whole, those decisions are not very pleasant.
At the root of humanity is what in I Am: A Philosophical Inquiry into First-Person Being I have called ‘the Existential Intuition’ – the sense that ‘I am this’; our appropriation of our own bodies as persons who participate in a collective culture. Even at a bodily level, this intuition withstands quite radical changes. And by this I don’t just mean coping with a wooden leg or a heart transplant, or being able to reassume ourselves and our responsibilities each morning when we wake up or when we come round from a knock-out blow. I mean something more fundamental – namely, normal development. We grow from something about a foot long and weighing about 7 pounds, to something about 6 foot long and weighing about 150 pounds, and for the greater part of that period we feel that we are the same thing. We assimilate these changes into an evolving and continuous sense of our own identity.
This is possible because change happens gradually and because it happens to all of us. Gradualness ensures continuity of memory alongside an imperceptible change in our bodies and the configuration of the world in which we live. That is why my earlier reassurances emphasised the gradualness of technological advance. If I look at myself objectively, I see that I am the remote descendent of the 10-year-old I once was, and yet my metamorphosis is quite unlike that of Kafka’s man who turns into a beetle. My dramatic personal growth and development is neither sudden nor solitary; and this will also be true of the changes that take place in human identity in the world of changing technologies.
Yes, we shall change; but the essence of human identity lies in this continuing self-redefinition. And if we remember that our identity and our freedom lie in the intersection between our impersonal but unique bodies and our personal individual memories and shared cultural awareness, it is difficult to worry about the erosion of either our identity or our freedom by technological advance.
If, as I believe, the distinctive genius of humanity is to establish an identity which lies at an ever-increasing distance from our organic nature, we should rejoice in the expression of human possibility in ever-advancing technology. After all, the organic world is one in which life is nasty, brutish and short, and dominated by experiences which are inhumanly unpleasant. Human technology is less alien to us than nature (compare: bitter cold with central heating; being lost without GPS and being found with it; dying of parasitic infestation or spraying with pesticides). Anyone who considers the new technologies as inhuman, or as a threat to our humanity, should consider this. Better still, they should spend five uninterrupted minutes imagining the impact of a major stroke, of severe Parkinson’s disease, or Alzheimer’s disease on their ability to express their humanity. Those such as Fukuyama who dislike biotechnology do not seem to realise that the forms of ‘post-humanity’ served up by the natural processes going on in our bodies are a thousand times more radical, more terrifying, and more dehumanising than anything arising out of our attempts to enhance human beings and their lives. Self-transformation is the essence of humanity, and our humanity is defined by our ever-widening distance from the material and organic world of which we are a part, and from which we are apart.
L’homme passe infiniment l’homme. (Blaise Pascal, Pensées)
In short, do not be afraid.
© Prof. Raymond Tallis 2007
Ray Tallis is a physician, philosopher, poet and novelist. His novel Absence has recently been published in paperback.