Moral Questions in the Ancient Art of Human Enhancement (Now With Venn Diagrams)

Electric flesh brushI've been named an “Affiliate Scholar” at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, so I thought I'd think about where I fit in the Humanist/Transhumanist matrix. Then I thought I'd draw a Venn diagram or two.

Somewhere along the line we've developed the habit of announcing that, thanks to new technology, we're forever on the verge of revolutionizing what it means to be human. Maybe it came in with the Industrial Revolution and our parallel discovery of modern medical science. Whatever the source, consider this 1933 quote from British engineer Allan Young, in his book Forward From Chaos. As Jo-Anne Pemberton noted in her book Global Metaphors, Young heralded the dawn of what he called the 'Electric-Machine-Power Age' as follows:

“The advent of radio art has provided a revolutionary change in the method and rate of thought dissemination. The human voice is now able to encircle the globe in the twinkling of an eye … It is thus possible for me to project my thoughts instantly into the mind of someone living on the opposite side of the planet …”

“The evolution of the radio machine … seems to be one of the very biggest happenings in our civilization … I stresss the importance of the great acceleration we are now witnessing in the whole process of translating thought into action …”

To which the modern mind can only add, “Really? From radio?” If he were alive today, Allan Young would probably be a Transhumanist like most of my friends at the IEET. In 1933, as in the decades before and since, people have been announcing that technology is about to radically alter the scope, power, and nature of human existence.

And the funny thing is, then it actually does. Humanity was transformed by radio – and by what Young called “the aeroplane.” By the time these transformations became ubiquitious, however, they had also become ordinary – even boring. The truth is that we've been transforming our minds and our bodies for generations. Take life extension, a favorite topic for Transhumanists: Life expectancy increased from 18 years in the Bronze Age to 25 years in Colonial America (although infant mortality affected the numbers significantly), and it approaches 80 years in that country today. Medicine and public health lowered infant mortality in London from nearly 75% before the Industrial Revolution to 31% afterward[i]. But these advances have been unequal. Life expectancy in the poverty-stricken Calton area of Glasgow, for example, is 8 years less than in the Lenzie neighborhood less than ten miles away.[ii]

Somebody already engineered the human lifespan – but they did it with the (often unequal) distribution of resources like food, shelter, disease and accident prevention, and medical care.

Blogger Dale Carrico calls IEET a “robot cult outfit,” presumably for its support of Transhumanism and its interest in topics such as life extension and human/machine interfaces. But Allan Young became a human/machine hybrid when he picked up a radio microphone, just as his ancestor did when he picked up a club or an axe. The most common mistake made by both Transhumanists and their opponents is to present the divide between them as black and white or binary. Except for the most extreme deep ecologists and “off the grid” types, almost everyone involved in the debate over the human future accepts some degree of technological intervention over human destiny, whether its vaccines, antibiotics, or eyeglasses. It's only when we get to radical life extension or uploading brains into computers (if that's possible) that things get iffy for some folks.

Carrico's characterization of IEET as “white guys of the future” is a little unfair, given the presence of women and at least one person of color there, but he has the beginnings of a point anyway. There are an awful lot of white males involved in this discussion, including me and (presumably) Carrico. That's probably a cultural artifact, but it needs to change. My own interests include the impact of new human technologies of black, brown, poor, and Third World people (see “Mesothelioma As Metaphor” for an example), and the participation of a more diverse group is necessary to deepen my understanding of the issues. But the discussion has to start somewhere, and this white-guy-dominated group seems like a reasonable place to start talking.

I had a dinner conversation with Natasha Vita-More, a leading Transhumanist, when I gave a presentation at an IEET seminar last year. I told her that I wasn't a Transhumanist but that, since I didn't understand the label or see the point of it, I couldn't be a non-Transhumanist either. “What will you do in the future?” she asked. My answer was: “Whatever seems like the next right thing at the time, I guess.” Which is where the Venn diagram comes in …

Most people essentially divide human enhancement, past and present, into two categories. They do this whether they realize that they're doing it or not. These categories are “good” and “bad.” Most people consider pacemakers a “good” enhancement, for example, while some would consider extreme plastic surgery a “bad” enhancement. I would add a third category of enhancement: “inevitable.” That results in a Venn diagram that looks like this:

3 categories of enhancement

Some enhancements will be “inevitable,” whether or not they're seen as good or bad. For example, future enhancements in cosmetic surgery and sexual performance improvement are unavoidable. The fact that one may consider them positive or negative additions to the human experience will not slow down the economic and cultural forces that are making them inevitable. So the social debate that should be underway today – but isn't – should involve working toward commonly accepted definitions of which are “good” and “bad” enhancements, and should include creating policies that anticipate the impact of the ones that are inevitable.

It should be noted, by the way, that some of the enhancements we label as “bad” today will be ones we think very differently about in the future. If someone had asked me thirty years ago to categorize PDAs, laptops, emails, and other technologies that bind you to your work life 24 hours a day, I would have absolutely considered them negative. Jacques Attali wrote in the 1980s of “global nomads” chained to their professions by laptop computers wherever they go, and I was appropriately horrified. Yet without my iPhone, I become restless and uneasy. Yesterday's “bad enhancement” is today's necessity … and tomorrow's addiction.

Here's one more Venn diagram:

Economic categories of human enhancement

Consider cell phones: They were once an elitist technology, available only to the wealthy, but lower production costs have made them an egalitarian tool available to many Third World people. They've also become the source material for a new category of craftsman/entrepreneur, as I saw firsthand when I went to Africa several years ago:

Mobile buzz ghana

Cell phones have become an “egalitarian” technology. This was predictable, because this type of technology becomes less expensive over time. Other forms of tech are less likely to become more affordable as time passes, uses for economic and political reasons rather than technical ones. (Pharmaceuticals come to mind, as well as technologies based on closely-held natural resources.) Some of the technologies in each category, both egalitarian (low-cost) and elitist (high-cost), will be socially controlled – through public insurance programs or national regulations, for example. I would argue that one role for public debate is to encourage research into potentially egalitarian technologies, while ensuring there is an adequate social framework for distributing those whose unavailability would lead to increased inequity and social injustice. Libertarians would no doubt vehemently disagree, arguing that government shouldn't socially control any technologies … that is, until the subject of terrorists with nukes comes up.

These two Venn diagrams represent my first crude attempt to frame a context for discussing the impact of human enhancement technologies on people at all economic and social levels. They're not much, but they're a start. And if you give me a radio, I'll be able to project them instantly into the thoughts someone on the other side of the globe. Allan Young would be proud.

[i] Mabel C. Buer, Health, Wealth and Population in the Early Days of the Industrial Revolution, London: George Routledge & Sons, 1926

[ii] World Health Organization (WHO) survey, 2008