A Lens to Amplify Failings

Before we look forward to an impending golden age of enhanced post humans, we need to pay attention to the lessons of the past. Since the 70s, there was an undercurrent in Silicon Valley that if humans were linked by webs of computers, they would be able to create a self-stabilizing system. The 90s’ evolution of this concept was The Californian Ideology – a vision that the world was an interconnected system and that nation states were irrelevant. Desire for self-determination and freedom, facilitated by the internet, could be seen in the revolutions of throughout the 2000s. But like numerous leaderless experiments that preceded them – from revolts to communes – the original imperative was usurped by its complete inability to deal with power and politics in the aftermath.

Whether in nature, culture, or computer models, complex sustained equilibrium systems are theoretical vs. viable. An example can be seen in the late 90s Asian financial crisis which was propagated by sophisticated computer algorithms designed to be the crux of a global self-sustaining system. The programs generated risk-based lending rules balanced by hedges that helped create speculative bubbles. Blunt instruments like the IMF protected western investors at the expense of the East. Ten years later, the next iteration of algorithms reestablished the free flow of higher-risk, cheap lending that lead to the global financial crisis. A key takeaway is that computer networks haven’t systematically distributed and democratized power – they have merely shifted it.

The tantalizing prospect of applied genetics will allow for us to repackage/sell the realistic equivalent of eugenics. This concept has been around since 1883 and was coined by British scientist Sir Francis Galton under the auspice of “a moral philosophy to improve humanity by encouraging the best and brightest to breed.” Initially, it was leveraged to justify the primacy of the British monarchy, but unsurprisingly fell in misuse/disgrace with the applications of sterilization programs and the terrible results of Nazi ideology. In the 90s, one of the most celebrated scientists of the time, Bill Hamilton, asserted that using western medicine to prolong life was wrong, as it would allow genetically inferior people to live and weaken/degenerate the species. With the prospect of applied genetics, the inevitable debates (and dangerous precedents) of group vs. group ideologies will once again come front and centre.

The UK’s Ministry of Defence, in their 2014 Global Strategic Trends document addresses the cultural concerns of near future technological advancement. “Many of the transhuman advances will almost certainly be expensive (at least initially), leading to the prospect of poorer people being excluded from the benefits that technological enhancements may provide. Such inequality could lead to disaffection and instability when such groups perceive themselves as being marginalized.” An earlier version of the document lent a more macro view. “A more permissive R&D environment could accelerate the decline of ethical constraints and restraints. The speed of technological and cultural change could overwhelm society’s ability to absorb the ethical implications. The nearest approximation to an ethical framework could become a form of secular utilitarianism, in an otherwise amoral scientific culture.” 

Aldous Huxley warned in a 1962 that the “ultimate revolution” will enable the controlling oligarchy to get people to love their servitude. He spoke of the research from the previous decade whereby rats famously/feverishly flipped a switch to electrically stimulate the pleasure centres of the brain, choosing starvation rather than lose the ability to self-stimulate. Similar research from the early ‘70s (trying to “cure” homosexuality) had a test subject self-stimulated pleasure centres 1,500 times inside 3 hours. The Deep Brain Stimulation project in 1996 involved compulsive pleasure-manipulating behaviour that superseded self/social neglect, ultimately ended with anxiety, depersonalization, psychogenic polydipsia and inactivity. More of the same in a separate 2005 study as well. Left to our own devices, humanity doesn’t have a terribly good track record at impulse control or moderation. Same with creating equilibrium systems (or even functional ones).

The modern age is already seeing an incredible disparity of affluence that will soon become exacerbated. The “big losers” in a transhuman future would be those not sufficiently affluent to become a member of the rising technocaste. Culture will invariably stratify into factions of “techno progressives” and “bio conservatives” with splinter groups therein.

Personally, I’m a (very cautious) proponent of a transhuman future, but also a realistic one. I acknowledge that converging technology with humanity is predicated on the radical change of societies across the world – something we’ve had a historically terrible run with. Perhaps it’s time we all started to take an interest before path dependency takes over and the dreams of a better tomorrow lock in the worst of today’s precedents.

Photo: morgueFile