Astrogator's Logs

New Words, New Worlds
Artist, Heather Oliver             

If I Can’t Dance, I Don’t Want to Be Part of Your Revolution!

(incorrectly but fittingly ascribed to Emma Goldman, feminist, activist, trouble-maker)

This post first appeared in George Dvorsky’s Sentient Developments, where I’m his guest this month.

Those who know my outermost layer would consider me a science geek. I’m a proponent of genetic engineering, an advocate of space exploration, a reader and writer of science fiction. However, I found myself unable to warm to either transhumanism or its literary sidekick, cyberpunk. I ascribed this to the decrease of flexibility that comes with middle age and resumed reading Le Guin’s latest story cycle.

But the back of my mind gnawed over the discrepancy. After all, neither transhumanism nor cyberpunk are monolithic, they come in various shades of… and then it hit me… gray. Their worlds contain little color or sound, few scents, hardly any plants or animals. Food and sex come as pills, electric stimuli or IV drips; almost all arts and any sciences not related to individual enhancement have atrophied, along with most human activities that don’t involve VR.

And I finally realized why I balk at cyberpunk and transhumanism like an unruly horse. Both are deeply anhedonic, hostile to physicality and the pleasures of the body, from enjoying wine to playing in an orchestra. I wondered why it had taken me so long to figure this out. After all, many transhumanists use the repulsive (and misleading) term “meat cage” to describe the human body, which they deem a stumbling block, an obstacle in the way of the mind.

This is hoary dualism disguised as futuristic thinking, augmented by healthy doses of queasiness and power fantasies. Ascetics of other eras tried to diminish the body by fasting, flagellating, abstaining from all physical gratification from washing to sex. Techno-monks want to discard it altogether. The goal is a disembodied mind playing World of Warcraft in a VR datastream. If a body is tolerated at all, the ideal is a mixture of metal and ceramic, hairless and poreless, though it still retains the hyper-gendered configurations possible only in cartoons.

Is abandonment of the body such a bad thing? As anyone who lost a limb or went through a major illness can attest, it’s a marvelous instrument whose astonishing abilities become obvious only when it malfunctions. On the other hand, it’s undeniably fragile and humans have lost patience with its shortcomings as technology has overtaken nature. Transhumanists extol such prospects as anti-aging medicine; advanced prosthetics; radical cosmetic surgery, including sex changes; nootropic drugs; and carbon-silicon interfaces, from cyborgs to immersive VR.

I don’t know many women who, given the choice, would opt to retain menstruation, pregnancy or menopause (though few would admit it openly). And few people, no matter how stoic, can face the depradations of chronic disease or age with equanimity. The neo-Rupturists who prophesy the coming of the Singularity can hardly wait to exchange their bodies with versions that will never experience memory lapses or fail to achieve erections at will.

I’m no Luddite, bio or otherwise. I am glad that technology has enabled us to lead lives that are comfortable, leisured and long enough that we can explore the upper echelons of the hierarchy of needs. However, we demean the body at our peril. It’s not the passive container of our mind; it is its major shaper and inseparable partner. If we discard our bodies we run the danger of losing context to our lasting detriment – as we have already done by successive compartmentalizations and sunderings.

Humans are inherently social animals that developed in response to feedback loops between the environment and their own evolving form. Like all lifeforms, we’re jury-rigged. Furthermore, humans are mediocre across the entire spectrum of physical prowess, from range of vision to maximum running speed. Yet this mediocrity probably enabled us to occupy many environmental niches successfully before technology allowed us to impose our wishes on our environment. Optimizing in any direction may push us into dead-end corners, something that has happened to many species we engineered extensively.

This also holds true for our brains. It’s a transhumanist article of faith that intelligence can and must be augmented – but there are many kinds of intelligence. A lot of learning is mediated through the body, from using a screwdriver properly to gauging complex social interactions. Short-circuiting this type of learning results in shallow knowledge that may not become integrated into long-term memory. There is a real reason for apprenticeships, despite their feudal overtones: people who use Photoshop, CAD and laboratory kits without prior “traditional” training frequently make significant errors and often cannot critically evaluate their results. Furthermore, without corrective “pingbacks” from the environment that are filtered by the body, the brain can easily misjudge to the point of hallucination or madness, as seen in phenomena like phantom limb pain.

Another feedback loop is provided by the cortical emotions, which enable us to make decisions. Two prominent side effects of many nootropic drugs are flattening of the emotions and suppression of creativity. Far from fine-tuning perception, the drugs act as blunting hammers. Finally, if we evade our bodies by uploading into a silicon frame (biologically impossible, but let’s grant it as a hypothesis), we may lose the capacity for empathy, as shown in Bacigalupi’s disturbing story People of Sand and Slag. Empathy is as instrumental to high-order intelligence as it is to survival: without it, we are at best idiot savants, at worst psychotic killers.

I do believe that our bodies can be improved. Nor does everything have to remain as it is now. I wouldn’t mind having wings that could truly lift me; even less would I mind living without fear of cancer or diabetes. Yet I’m fairly certain that we have to stick with carbon if we want seamless form and function. When I hear talk of “upgrading” to silicon or to ether, I get a strong whiff of cubicleers imagining themselves as Iron Man or Neo. Being alone inside a room used to be a punishment. Being imprisoned inside one’s head is a recipe for insanity. Without our bodies, we bid fair to become not exalted intellects but mad(wo)men in the attic.

Images: Top, still from Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell.  Bottom, Jump by Sergey Kravtsov.

15 Responses to “If I Can’t Dance, I Don’t Want to Be Part of Your Revolution!”

  1. intrigued_scribe says:

    This is wonderfully written, and effectively speaks volumes about the detriments of undervaluing the body or abandoning it altogether, especially as a good many in the transhumanist school of thought suggest. Also, the highlighting of the importance of emotion to intelligence casts that much more emphasis on the hazards posed by the absence of it (the society in Equilibrium is just one example that readily comes to mind).

  2. Athena says:

    I’m glad you appreciated the essay, Heather! Our bodies may be burdensome sometimes, but they are also our conduits to the universe.

    Thanks for mentioning the Equilibrium film — I hadn’t heard of it before. It sounds like a cross between The Matrix and Fahrenheit 451. I must look it up!

  3. Walden2 says:

    But what if one day we can make “bodies” with sensors even
    better than what our biological versions have now?

    If genetic engineering or technology can improve our senses
    and especially extend our lives, so long as our minds can
    remain intact then I for one have little problem abandoning
    what nature gave us if we can improve on it. I used to have
    an okay exterior but it is slowly degrading due to age and I
    want to trade it in for something better before it is too late.

  4. Athena says:

    Larry, having a fast-degrading body myself, I share both your fears and your desires for a better conduit to the world. Since you have read my book, you know that I believe we can improve this situation drastically by genetic engineering. We may even be able to add bells and whistles, like improved vision and dexterity. Where our intrinsic characteristics draw the line is mind uploading: that is, transferring our consciousness to a silicon frame or living as “pure energy”.

  5. I am interested in another aspect that is short of “uploading”. I often think about the emotions that drive us and often override our intellect. Those evolutionary spectres that control us more than we think. If we were to “engineer” some of those out of ourselves in an effort to shed some of that old baggage that leads us to some of our more senseless behaviours, would we still be human? Or is the combination of those things the very essence that all our intricacies derives from. I’ll probably be pondering this one for several years 😛

  6. Athena says:

    I strongly suspect the answer to your question is that we won’t be human after such a change. We will be a closely related species that will continue to diverge from the parental strain, because a major change in our emotional wiring will also affect our mating preferences, kinship partners and ways of re/acting.

  7. Maybe human wasn’t the right word. I would welcome divergence of our species to something new. I guess what really boggles my mind is thinking what if that emotional wiring is a prerequisite or crucial building blocks of intelligence and creativity.

  8. Athena says:

    The studies of people with autism or with deficiencies from either accidents or strokes indicate that emotion is tied to intelligence — and the connection between depression and creativity is very well documented. So indeed, it seems that the good and the bad are so tightly intertwined that by tweaking one we may unavoidably tweak the other. No easy way to perfection — but perfection leads to dead ends in biology!

  9. Walden2 says:

    Athena and the rest, you may find this article and the interview
    it links to of interest:

    I just wish people would stop assuming that Artilects will automatically
    somehow wipe us out à la the Terminator films. If they are really smart,
    and they will be, they will probably do their utmost to get off this rock
    and away from us ASAP.

    With a whole Cosmos out there to explore, why remain here? This
    may also explain why ETI aren’t trying to contact or visit us.

  10. Athena says:

    Larry, the point you make was actually the weakest link in Bladerunner. Why would the replicants want to return to Earth, instead of gaming their makeup to lengthen their life and explore the wonders of the universe? As Roy Batty says, “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tanhäuser Gate.” Instead, they’re literally dying to return to a soggy, smoggy LA? But then again, even smart humans often make stupid choices for all kinds of reasons.

  11. Walden2 says:

    I agree about your view on what the Replicants in Bladerunner
    should have done, but the reason they came to Earth was to
    get their lives extended beyond the standard four years;
    apparently the LA-based Tyrell Corp. was the only place that
    could do this for them (but didn’t want to).

    Tyrell rightly feared their creations, who could have easily taken
    over the place. If they could have lived longer – and Tyrell could
    make them last for ages as Rachel proved – they probably would
    have headed off to some world to make their own colony.

    Was it ever said if Replicants could reproduce like humans? I
    do not recall and I did not read the SF novel, which I do know
    differed a lot from the 1982 film.

    They probably could not, so that would be another potential
    dilemna for their long-term survival, assuming they wanted
    offspring in the first place. If you can live for centuries or
    longer, do you want or need future copies, who could become
    your competition down the road?

    In any event, people need to get over this fear of Artilects
    and advanced ETI. If they leave us alone because there are
    more interesting things to see and do, then there is no real
    problem for us. If they do want to destroy us, I don’t think
    Will Smith with a tube full of nanotech is going to save us so
    it won’t matter anyway.

  12. Athena says:

    It’s unclear if replicants can reproduce — I suspect the answer is no, since they’re scheduled to die within a few years of “awakening”. Of course, the most bizarre thing is why Tyrell et al bothered to imprint them with memories, if they are to die so soon.

    As for advanced ETI behaving as you describe, I couldn’t agree more!

  13. That interview with Gerald Edelman was very interesting. I had heard about the brain based device they created, but the blurb I saw lacked the most important enlightening details from the interview. Thanks for posting that Walden2.

  14. Walden2 says:

    Athena, in Rachel’s case at least Tyrell gave her his niece’s
    memories so she would think she was a human and not a
    machine, which seemed repugnant to both humans and the
    Replicants despite the latter’s superior capabilities.

    I do not think the other Replicants, at least the ones we met
    in the film, had implanted memories, as they seemed to be
    aware of who and what they really were, including the fact
    that they only had four years to live. Or maybe they did have
    memories but they saw through their falseness. Then again,
    at least two of the Replicant group were not designed to be
    very bright, so that may have been another “control” factor.

    Not the trend in SF, especially television and film, where if the
    AI aren’t spending most of their time trying so hard to become
    human despite their overall superiority (Data from Star Trek),
    they seem to spend a lot of time and resources trying to get
    rid of us.

    Take the Terminator and Matrix series, for example. The AI
    in both series seem really fixated on either killing humans or
    keeping us down, which of course fails despite their superior
    intellects and weaponry. Why aren’t they building spaceships
    and flying off into the galaxy?

    Even though what I consider to be the best depiction of how an
    AI might act in SF cinema, The Forbin Project from 1969, has
    Colossus taking control of humanity, in this case at least the AI
    was not doing this out of a sense of maliciousness but was
    actually following the very programmed orders its human
    creators gave it. The problem for humanity was, it could not
    have its cake and eat it too as it wanted.

    Colossus not only took the realistic course of action, it also
    could not be fooled or shut down as would have happened in
    any other typical Hollywood production because its superior
    mind anticipated all possible actions by the humans well in
    advance and accounted for them. This did not lead to the
    standard happy Hollywood ending, which along with the fact
    that HAL 9000 had come out just one year earlier, did not
    help TFP at the box office. Plus they really don’t make great
    SF cinema like they did in that short period before Star Wars
    came along and dumbed everything down.

    I have read that they are going to remake The Forbin Project.
    Get read for Will Smith to inject nanoprobes into Colossus at
    the critical moment despite the overwhelming odds and save
    the day while getting the girl scientist.


  15. Devon Fowler says:

    Hi Athena! Great article, and you write so well. I think you make a wonderful argument but I would imagine if we can get to a point where we can cybernetically fuse our brains with nanotechnology then we can override the deliminating factors such as not having heightened senses and emotions that give rise to great artists and help us appreciate fine wine and music.

    We must, therefore, make it a priority to replicate the great things that we so love about humanity with transhumanist technologies. I think most of us in these communities would want that and would strive to ensure that we keep these things.

    As a sufferer of depression, and the severe cognitive problems that went along with my depression I know how much I can hate the human condition. When things “don’t go right” with the human condition we often feel fear and anger at what we cannot do as a result. This is my main motivating force behind why I am open even to uploading. I just cannot bear to live with the problems that go along with being a vulnerable human.

    I want to find anyway possible to better myself and reduce the suffering I often feel. It can really “suck” to be human, for lack of a better word. It’s immensely frustrating to see your mind and body decline with age, and I dislike strongly the selfish and mean parts built into our fragile Darwinian produced brains.

    I keep thinking, there is just 3 pounds of meat in our skulls that produce such fantastic abilities for us to think and feel, and just imagine if we had a complex network of nanotech neural networks! We could solve any puzzle and feel amazing emotions. One of my new friends is David Pearce whose ideas I think are right up your alley. He thinks transhumanism should focus on obliterating human suffering and believes that one day the last bit of suffering could be a documented experience.

    And I saw nothing in the article you wrote that went against this philosophy. Eradicating human suffering should be the priority for all of us who have this philosophy. And along with that we could literally design better brains capable of feeling the most intense emotions. One day it will just be a matter of deciding what emotions are worth keeping and what emotions are not. But this could get scary as we are just not familiar at all with what it would be like not to feel anger, pain, sadness.

    So in closing, your argument is a good one as we don’t want to have a nation of robots incapable of enjoying the simple pleasures we have grown to love and enjoy.