The Technium

Who Should We Be?

[Translations: Japanese]

The technium is not an inert surface, but an active force in our lives. Our inner lives are shaped by our language and alphabet, by our tools of seeing, by our notions of laws and justice – all of which we have invented. Once invented, they push back against us. The internet and all the other tools we have created in the last 100,000 years allow us to remake ourselves.

Into what? That’s the ongoing mega-question of the next several centuries at least. What are we? What can we be? What should we be?

Every new technology we create, such as the web or cloning, forces another iteration of this refrain: who then shall we be? To answer it we will dive deep into our natures, our traditions, and most of all into new technologies.

•  We first search our own human behavior for answers for who we can or should be with this new stuff. We go back into our animal evolution to see what powers we have. Or we delve into our social history and look to the things we have accomplished in the past. We point to the best of humanity (everyone will have their own list), and say to ourselves: we can be more of that! So, “more of the best of humanity” is one answer to what we might aim for.

•  We can also search our fantasies. The myths of superman, frankenstein, the singularity, X-Men, and science fiction aliens are attempts by our collective unconscious to imagine future versions of our species. I think it would be a wonderful exercise for some social science graduate student to round up all the examples of aliens in science fiction, and then categorize and analyze what powers they have in order to gauge the contours of desire for future humans. (Let me know if such a collection has been done.) The possibilities of a trans-human species are vast, and after only a few hundred years of a speculative fiction industry, we have probably only begun to dream up the ways we could be different. The reservoir of our imagination is immense, and will remain a prime source for what we want to be.

•  Finally, we can also search technologies to see what powers are latent within them which might transfer to us as we meld with it. As we use technology to engineer our genome, or to keep us alive, we can’t help absorb some of the dynamics of technology (just as technology can’t help absorbing the dynamics of nature when we import evolution and adaption into their creation). We might discover entirely new powers or potentials that exist only in new technologies and decide, yes, let’s be like that. As a trivial example, because of the scroll back bar, I feel it is essential that future humans should be able to scroll back life on a whim. So by listening to what technology wants, we may see answers to the question of what we could be, or what we want to be.

However as wide and deep as these pools of possibility are, I don’t think humans can remake ourselves into ANYTHING we want. Some folks like the transhumanists, who take the challenge of remaking humans seriously, occasionally declare that humanity is a blank canvas and that with the assistance of technology, we can mold our species — or at least individuals — into any form we desire. The supposed super-power of the singularity is the secret sauce some believe will enable this transformation (although others don’t require it). In this framework there is no limitation to what the mind can do (I call this thinkism) given enough time. We know for certain, as Arthur C Clarke stated, that  if we say some technology is impossible we are likely to be wrong.


From the World Transhumanist Association

But at the same time, the universe is real ONLY because it is limited.  Real things are real because the materials, physics, laws and other foundations constrain possibilities in a certain direction. Otherwise anything could happen, like magic. This means while we can imagine all kinds of things, the constraints of reality will prohibit some of them from ever being real.

In the short long-term, we are not close to exhausting all the possible ways we could evolve as humans. We might be able to bestow upon ourselves biological immortality, telepathic prowess, infallible memory, immunity to colds, better backs, painless births, and so on. We might even self-engineer our bodies to have incredible plasticity, so each person can dial their own tradeoffs in abilities.

But I think deciding what we want to be (or “should” be) is a much greater challenge. We know that reality is a tradeoff machine. Anything that  consumes energy or information requires a tradeoff. New powers will generate new problems, and incur new costs elsewhere. You can’t be infinite in all directions.

As we imagine what we want humans to be, several large questions loom:  Will (should) we remain one species or many? Is it important that we go as a group where ever we are headed? Should we even remain human? Is humanity (whatever it is) worth keeping? How far could we evolve and still call ourselves human? Will it remain whatever the average person is? Or will we define ourselves by the outliers, the extreme versions, the future mega Einsteins and Mozarts?

Lastly, some would argue that humanity has less to do with powers or abilities and more to do with morality, and that the core of “what humans are” lies in the heart, and that the evolution of greater morality may not even show up in our bodies but in our societies. How we do things may be more important than what we do.

We are already deciding who we want to be as a species. Older new parents routinely get genetic counseling. Their choices have subtle but real downstream impact on the genetics of future generations. Environmental chemicals also affect our genes but in currently unknown ways. Prosthetic technology such as glasses, braces, and Google morph our selves in certain directions at large scale.

We are reshaping ourselves. But we are doing it without asking the question, who do we want to be? What are humans for? Who should we be?

  • Stefan
    • @stefan; That’s a very interesting paper. I’ll have to digest it. Thanks.

  • vanderleun

    Perhaps the question has been asked and answered for us.

  • Robin Good

    Well said Kevin.

    That’s why learning early how to make great, valuable questions, is in my opinion our key to a different future.

    Until schools direct our kids to identify truth by passing a test or answering a quiz or memorizing whatever school sets to be the correct truth, you ain’t going to get more friends to this party.

  • haig

    What you call human I call transprotohuman, or maybe postprotohuman. Biology has been transcending its boundaries ever since the first self-replicating bundle of molecules told entropy to go screw itself. This transcendence is not something we’re just starting to face, we are a product of it. Morality itself is a product of this process. To stop this process, then, would be immoral. ‘Humanity’, not homo sapiens, but the abstract idea of us intelligent creatures, is not defined by its morphology or energy cycle, but in its continual expansion of possibility space. Life and intelligence (consciousness?) is the universe rearranging itself to create ever more possibilities.

  • Tom Buckner

    What you are talking about in this particular essay has been termed Coherent Extrapolated Volition by the always-brilliant Eliezer Yudkowsky. Yudkowsky, one of the leading Singularitarians, believes superhuman AI is probably inevitable (yes, he’s a thinkist, I’m pretty sure) and has made the important contribution of obsessing about how to make AI Friendly.

    Which leads to the idea of CEV; can the will of all humanity be coherently divined and carried out, without tyranny, error, or dead ends? (Me, I think there will always be a few people who want things so wrong that you just have to force them to go along: the KKK for example). Like most subjects in the sl4 discussion, CEV led straight into many an unsettled argument, which tells me that the problem may be beyond our best minds.

    It seems to me that the myth of the wish-granting genie is a key metaphor for the idea of technology. And I’ve noticed that, especially in the realm of jokes, the humor almost always lies in someone making an ill-thought out or badly worded wish: often bawdy, too. “Oh God! I asked to be hung like my horse, but I was riding the mare!” “But the elf maid was so cute, I just told her I’d like a little head.”

    So it’s clear that humans have instinctively sensed the outlines of this looming problem for centuries.

  • Brian Hayes

    I think John Lilly said in ‘Programming and Metaprogramming the Human Biocomputer’ [ Wiki – ], “What one believes to be true either is true or becomes true within limits to be found experimentally.” There’s plenty of platitude AND latitude in this statement!

  • kschnake

    you wrote: “We are reshaping ourselves. But we are doing it without asking the question, who do we want to be? What are humans for? Who should we be?”

    Is it even possible to make progress on such questions without consideration of God’s role as our creator and of God as the epitome of all that is good?

    I have long since abandoned the idea that I can reshape myself with accepting God’s grace.

  • kschnake

    Oops. Serious typo. I should have written:

    I have long since abandoned the idea that I can reshape myself without accepting God’s grace.

  • Todd Gailun


    Did you happen to see that Richard Jones, a leading nanotechnologist, cited your book, “Out of Control” as one of his three favorite technology books?

    • @ Todd: I didn’t know. Thanks for the pointer.

  • zyxo

    Asking ourselves what shall we be, we will allways come up with an answer that us outdated. Before we really can make us in what we will be, our knowledge and way of thinking an seeing the world will have totally changed. It is a bit like building a house very slowly, to discover at the end of, say 5 years, that the finished house is not wat you would want to build now.

  • glory – ‘How Shall We Be?’ PKD answered with kindness and empathy…

    echoed by DR – “Without getting spiritual or mushy, we can agree that there are self-perpetuating cycles of greed and generosity in which we can participate. The more we commit to one or the other, the more of the world conforms to its rules.”

    so without getting “spiritual or mushy” we can actually put some physics behind it…

    re: the anthropic principle [viz. & (cf. wolfram’s ‘computational equivalence’ in ANKoS, altho it has its detractors – i.e. it’s trivially true)] – “I believe that what we do today depends on our image of the future, rather than the future depending on what we do today.” – “Understanding how people understand the present from the point of view of what we’ll say about it in the future is something that we do all the time.” e.g. ‘subjunctive thinking’, ‘counterfactual reasoning’ and ‘nonmonotonic logic’ :P – “The only difference between a probabilistic classical world and the equations of the quantum world is that somehow or other it appears as if the probabilities would have to go negative” – “These are forms of probability theory that share many of the usual axioms of probability theory but in which the probabilities themselves lie in a set other than the non-negative reals eg. the complex numbers, the quaternions, or even the p-adics. The primary motivation is that classical mechanics plus complex probabilities looks a lot like quantum mechanics, and so if you believe in complex probabilities you no longer have to worry about things like wavefunction collapse. Unfortunately it’s all a bit confusing if you’re a frequentist.”

    like I could go on and on re: ‘information conservation’, but basically what’s interesting I think is whether ‘counterfactual truths’ count as information in Bayesian probability, cuz if new evidence or information can be made available and admissible by going through hypothetical situations, then I think that’d make the world (or the interpretation of it ;) more Bayesian, as opposed to frequentist! (deductive v. inductive) like by raising hypotheticals to update background knowledge (prior distributions) or frames of reference, must the process inherently act within the realm of belief? or perhaps one doesn’t have to reserve a frequentist interpretation of probability — holding for a class or population — if the principle of (belief in!) maximum entropy is adhered to – “When one has only partial information about the possible outcomes one should choose the probabilities so as to maximize the uncertainty about the missing information.”

    btw – “The Observer at the End of Time” viz. or simmons’ _hyperion_

    also see for more recent examples of ‘reflexivity’

    also re: your post on xtianity there was a recent show on NOVA that’s worth checking out, and helping place it in context, like xtianity (and religion in general) as myth, which is not out of sync with lewis* or tolkien** (or herbert*** for that matter, or vance…)

    * – “The Myth That Is Fact”

  • Steve Witham (prototype transhuman)

    Kevin, I liked the TED talk where you (among other things)

    o asked what Van Gogh would have been without the technology of cheap oil paints

    o said “Your mission is to spend your life discovering what your mission is.”

    I like your laying out some places we look when asking what we want to be.

    I’m a little surprised you accuse us of not “…asking the question, who do we want to be? What are humans for? Who should we be?” Jeez, Kevin, you seem to be asking it grandly. I certainly ask myself.

    zyxo: Of course our ideas about what we want to be become outdated. But that’s not as bad as never having thought about it.

    To the vanderleun and kschnake, who mentioned God’s answer and God’s help getting there: yup, that’s another way to approach the question. Of course you still have to sort out, what is God saying, what are people *telling* me God is saying, what am I fooling myself with?

    I love the 1 Kings 19 story where depressed Elijah retreats to a cave in the mountains, and a “still small voice” speaks to him, he answers with a big sob story, then hallucinates three false apocalyptic prophesies to himself just to avoid hearing it, until finally he settles down and it repeats: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”