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?


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