By PJ Manney
“Do not imagine that Art is something which is designed to give gentle uplift and self-confidence. Art is not a brassière. At least, not in the English sense. But do not forget that brassière is the French for life-jacket.”
Julian Barnes, Flaubert’s Parrot
The most important issue of the 21st Century will be how humankind deals with the accelerated advances in technology and how that will affect us and our world. Chief among the changes are those possible from the present Bio-tech Revolution on the human species itself. As we gain abilities to transform ourselves through the converging technologies of nanotechnology, genetic engineering, information technology and robotics, we will confront fundamental existential issues about our identity, purpose, consciousness, etc.
Those who believe that we should pursue transformative technologies for both therapeutic and enhancement purposes and as a means to accelerate human evolution are often called transhumanists. Transhumanism is seen by a small, but growing group of people around the world as a goal we as humans should aspire to. In truth, most people wholeheartedly accept these therapies and enhancements when they enter the marketplace, without putting much thought into where their inclusion in our lives has moved us along the evolutionary ladder, whether they come as anti-depressants and erectile dysfunction drugs, laser eye surgery and pacemakers or Blackberries and virtual reality headsets for videogames.
However, instead of ‘transhumanism,’ I prefer the term “H+.” I personally see a degree of difference between what I would term classic transhumanism and H+, although I do not assume those who call themselves either transhumanists or H+ers would agree with me. To me, H+ is a clean, positive symbol which means we’re still human, even while we are redefining what human is. We are not rejecting our past or present. We are embracing our future.
Unfortunately, transhumanism is often interpreted by some as a movement whose proponents desire all the positive change the future could possibly offer and revel in the choices available, while downplaying the possible negative effects. Also, transhumanism is a big word that could make one envision the transhumanists as the handful of guys who run fast enough to leap on the moving train of radical evolution, while the vast majority of humankind is left behind on the platform. However, transhumanism is simply the new word for techno-utopians and as long as technology has existed, there have been techno-utopians. I’m sure some Mesopotamian guy in the 5th Century BC took a look at the first wheeled vehicle and thought, “This is going to not only change everything, it’s going to bring peace on Earth and good will to men by bringing us together more easily!” Of course, there was the guy next to him who only saw the potential for a war chariot that would get him to his enemies quicker to slay them… Nowadays, we call those guys defense contractors.
Transhumanists are by no means the first techno-utopians, nor will they be the last. I do not see their existence as a problem. I see them as an inspiration, pushing us forward to redefine ourselves and our purpose on the planet as techno-utopians always have, even though history does not support the use of any technology as the means to any utopia. In reality, with the good comes the bad, as it always has.
Even though there is an evangelical fervor, an air of millennial expectations with some transhumanists that I personally find difficult to justify in my own life, most of them do understand the pitfalls inherent in these new technologies. Many in the H+ community devote themselves to just such analyses of ‘existential risks’ (risks which are both global and terminal for humankind). They simply would like to believe that mankind has it in them to overcome them. I would have to agree with them. To that end, I see H+ as the road to a variety of possible transhumanities or posthumanities, because it allows the questions that need to be asked to be asked and doesn’t commit us prematurely to any course of action. It doesn’t assume that just because a desired future outcome will be possible, that it will be good in the long run for the individual or society.
I personally see myself as one who is both pragmatic and yet intellectually curious enough to consider the varied sides of an argument. I am not dogmatic, nor do I have psychological, physical or emotional needs that I hope will be fulfilled through my H+ future. I am really just along for the ride of my lifetime, so I have embraced H+ as a more grounded, but none-the-less intellectually rigorous approach that balances our future possibilities with living one’s life in the real world.
Dealing with the H+ future head on is crucial, because in all of human history, we have never been able to successfully suppress unwanted progress in the long term, be it technological, social or biological. We might fight wars, we might pass laws, or we might create social mores to try to halt it, but eventually, we evolve and adopt the meme. For the most part, these advances have been positive. I say that, because we’re still here, on this planet, alive, loving, working, creating, connecting. None of the big bad wolves of super-plagues, nuclear war or genetically modified organisms have gotten us yet, so by my definition, we have more in the plus column of progress than the minus column. It’s not that these things or a host of others won’t get us eventually, but we’ve figured out how to dodge those bullets so far. In fact, we have danced to the gunshots aimed at our feet at the edge of the speciel precipice for 200,000 years. However, the bullets will come with more frequency now and our steps will have to be quicker and more precise. But at least we’re still dancing…
Could we deal with the potential boogie-men of extinction better? Of course we could. And we’ll have to, as the acceleration of change sweeps away everything we thought we knew about our society, our families and ourselves. This is why I believe in participating in the H+ future, using whatever creative and analytical skills I possess, instead of viewing it from the sidelines and hoping for the best.
Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock has come to pass. We see the effects Toffler predicted as our society becomes increasingly plugged in, switched on, turned off and stressed out with social, medical and psychological maladies unique to our time. And the stress will only increase as the years go on. If contributing to the H+ movement helps bring people into the future informed and participatory, it can only be a good thing for them and those around them. Knowledge and a sense of purpose will help dispel the future shock and give everyone a feeling of investment in an uncertain future.
And how does all this futurology relate to Barnes’ figurative lifejacket of the creative arts in the opening quotation? This is something I know a little bit about firsthand. Raised in the fine art world, trained as a child in the performing arts, and now a professional writer in both television and print, I have made an honest attempt (whether successfully or not) at virtually every form of artistic expression. And I have seen the power of artistic endeavors to alter society first hand.
As a writer, I know how powerful media messages can be. As a parent, I know my children will grow up to live in a very different world than the one I live in now and I want that world to be a positive one. And as a citizen, I have learned that most leaders are not visionary; they are reactionary, incapable of doing anything beyond promoting themselves or their supporters. Instead, it has been my experience that it is the artists who are the true visionaries. They are the canaries in society’s mine shaft, sensing the dangers long before others and they have the capability of sending both the warnings and the positive, constructive message, instead of feeding into irrational fears and sabotaging the culture all in the name of pandering to the masses or appealing to threatened intellectual elites. Therefore, I believe it is my responsibility as an artist, a parent and a citizen to help ask the questions and craft the messages before it’s too late. I have always hoped to live by the words of Hillel the Elder: “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And when I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” When, indeed.
I have lost faith in many things, but I have never lost faith in the transformative power of art. Bertolt Brecht reminds us that “Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.” And hopefully, that will be the role of art well into the post-human era, allowing me to use whatever meager talents I possess to help usher in the H+ future in the most beneficial way possible to the largest number of people possible, for as long as possible.
The future comes, ready or not. Let’s be ready for it.