Higher Faster Further
Technik auf den Leib gerückt
This is the outlook we are confronted with if we listen to the technological visionaries of Silicon Valley. In the pictures they paint of the day after tomorrow, the merging of man and machine seems imminent. Most popularly, this future utopia is propagated by Raymond Kurzweil, the multiple-prizewinning inventor currently working as engineer-in-chief for Google. He is known less for his inventions than his controversial ideas on the future of humanity. In Kurzweil’s view, the convergence of bio-, nano-, and information technologies will lead to people transforming step by step into cyborgs, synthetic humans integrating technology into their bodies to overcome the inherent limitations of Homo sapiens.
Kurzweil is not the only one. Behind the keyword transhumanism, a globally networked school of thought has emerged that has inhaled a heady dose of Californian technological utopianism. Its programme is called: human enhancement, the improvement and optimisation of human abilities by means of technological redesign. Transhumanists bring possible modifications of the human body into the discussion that are intended as enticing promises, designed to seduce individuals into imagining their technologically extended future selves.
Whether this vision of a prosthetic god in the literal sense fascinates or terrifies us, it certainly appears radical. For some utopian transhumanists, however, cyborgisation is just the first step in a transformation of human nature culminating in the transferral of human consciousness into the machine. Once the brain has been uploaded, man would be free at last from the bonds of biology, could reprogramme himself, copy himself, and combat the risk of being deleted by making regular backups. He would become technologically immortal.
The Future in Action
It would be easy to dismiss such visions of the future with a shrug of the shoulders, to demonise them from the viewpoint of the enlightened European intellectual as the bizarre offshoot of an unshakable faith in technology, banishing them from the realm of serious thought. For sure. Nothing would be easier. But instead of viewing these technological utopias as a strange other that can be confidently waved aside, we need to understand and take them seriously as an expression of our culture. I say “our culture” quite deliberately. For it would be a backwards-looking misconception of the present if we were to simply dismiss such ideas as the outpourings of a specific and distinct technology-loving subculture with which we have no links. There are two reasons for this: the first is that with datafication and the networking of the world, Silicon Valley is coming to us, into our homes and into our pockets. Even if we do not share the dreams of this culture, they are entering our everyday reality in a materialised form. Technological visions are not just being dreamed up, they are being put into action. On the one hand, the “eternal truths” of technological development include the fact that innovations rarely fulfil expectations: often enough, things do not go at all as planned – not least because it is impossible to predict how the technology will be adopted by its users. In this light, it is doubtful whether the cyborgisation will ever come to pass as anticipated in the transhumanist dream. Nonetheless, attempts to make this dream a reality will be translated via complex and meandering paths into material products that will find their way into our everyday lives.
There is also a second reason why we can hardly distance ourselves from the vision of the transhumanists without simultaneously disavowing our own modern culture. In my view, such visions are explicit and extreme projections onto our bodies of something that is present in the culture of modernity as a whole: a tendency to increase options and break down borders. In modern thought, the future is seen as a time when existing limits can be overcome by human intervention. The present, on the other hand, is just a staging post on the way to a better world. The key player in this narrative is man in his role as a shaping force – shaping himself and his surroundings.
We Have the Technology
Industrial technology has proven to be a key instrument in shaping the environment. We now speak of the Anthropocene to reflect man’s shaping influence on the planet. What we actually mean by this, however, is a world permeated by technology: from road networks covering the land, tides of plastic making their way across the oceans, cities that seem to resemble artificial super-organisms, supplied by industrial agriculture and a titanic energy infrastructure.
While the reshaping of the environment has for some time now been the purview of advanced technologies, reshaping the self is still viewed primarily as, on the one hand, a spiritual and moral objective to be achieved via education, disciplined thinking, and ethical reflection, and, on the other, as an aesthetic task calling for sporting activity, good hygiene, and beauty care. Following Foucault, these forms of work on body and mind can be understood as “technologies of the self”. Nonetheless, the techniques of the self we have tried out on ourselves in the past, from time immemorial to the industrial age, appear in retrospect to be strangely disconnected from the scientifically informed material technologies used by man to make the world his own. The history of modern society may be, among other things, crucially a history of shaping the self, but this process hardly involved the advanced technologies with which we domesticated the non-human nature before reshaping and supplanting it with built, artificial structures.
In the visions of the transhumanists, this gap is now being closed. The materialisation of these visions seems already to have begun. One hears about pharmaceutical products that enhance wakefulness, memory, and concentration. At tattoo parlours, one can have magnets implanted that promise expanded sensory capacities and new abilities. As well as picking up paper clips and pins, they are said to be good for sensing electromagnetic fields, thus enriching the spectrum of the senses. Also, prostheses used in sport are no longer viewed merely as a way of compensating for physical disabilities, but as technical upgrades that may even bring competitive advantages. With the right sport prostheses, supposedly disabled athletes may be faster and stronger than those with no such supposed handicap.
A veritable movement of cyborg activists has entered the political arena who view prostheses not (only) as repairs of the body, but as improvements. The German cyborg pioneer Enno Park, for example, stresses that his cochlea implant not only compensates for his hearing deficiency but also allows him to control his hearing in ways not available to technically unmodified humans – such as switching off unwanted background noise.
At the same time, the debate on potential optimisations is being fuelled by recent innovations in biotechnology. There is talk of genome design, of red lines that must not be crossed, of the last bastion of naturalness.
Next Stop: Enhancement Society?
This naturalness, however, has become fragile. We are clearly already on the path towards self-optimisation via advanced technologies. Although the radical future scenarios of the transhumanists are still a distant prospect, the enhancement society already seems to have been partially realised. But this impression is deceptive in two ways.
Firstly, the dream of human enhancement that uses advanced material technologies (at last!) to extend the capabilities of humans beyond what was previously possible is deceptive because it concentrates naively on the body. Its fascination is based entirely on modification by medical prosthetics – ignoring the fact that we have already long since become artificially extended humans, for example, via our smartphones.
Smartphones help us to orient ourselves in time and space; they remind us of appointments; they act as devices for recording and dictation; they store data and give us access to these data anytime, anywhere; they can be ticket machine, pocket calculator, fitness trainer, shopping list, and newspaper kiosk in one. Smartphones connect us with the world around us and with other people. And they change the way we interact with the natural and social world. Today, one cannot imagine any area of life that could not be mediated and transformed by smartphones.
If one considers the smartphone as an innovation in the context of the enhancement debate, one gains the following impression: while talk of the technological transformation of the body was enchanting and terrifying both experts and the general public, behind their backs a technology was spreading that already fulfils some of the promises currently being made in the name of drugs and implants.
We are already technologically extended beings. Not only via smartphones, but through the entire range of everyday technologies that open up new realms of experience and action. Socialised human nature is technological in itself. To paraphrase the French technological sociologist Bruno Latour: “We are our own technology.” In his view, if all technology was to be removed from the environment inhabited by humans then our ways of relating to ourselves and the world, our social relations and experiences, would hardly differ from the reality of baboons.
Secondly, the idea of an emerging enhancement society is deceptive because it falls for the transhumanist narrative of perpetual improvement – whereas the history of modernity has taught us that advances in technology always involve (sometimes invisible) costs and consequences. It can hardly be told as an unbroken history of improvements, as the talk of human enhancement suggests. This is illustrated by the simple case of a technology which, like the smartphone, can be interpreted as an extension of human capabilities: the automobile.
Driving has been and remains an expression of modern freedom, but this freedom comes at a price. Humans must learn to adapt to cars – as drivers and as road users affected by other motorists. In a world of drivers, numerous rules and signs must be learned. Town and country must be reshaped so that cars can get around – and people still end up in traffic jams. Driving is also dangerous. Cars expose the human body to the risk of new, previously unknown kinds of accidents. As well as being liberating, technologies are also deeply ambivalent. The notion of an enhancement society ignores these ambivalences by interpreting technological developments only as improvements and optimisations.
Considering advances in technology as liberating is a risky misconception. Like the automobile, smartphones optimise our lives in many ways. But do they make us freer? Of course they do. At the same time, however, we are also more tied up in technological networks. Like the traffic networks for cars, digital networks pose new challenges, create new problems, awaken new anxieties – for example concerning a new fragility of the private sphere in the context of a digital loss of control or the terror of constant reachability and non-stop activity.
Technological extensions come at a price, regardless of whether they are built into the body itself or reshape our lives in a creeping but far-reaching manner via the design of intimate interfaces (like the touchscreen or the steering wheel).
We are not the self-assured designers of our environment and our own bodies. We shape and are shaped. Our technologies shape the ways we act, think, and feel. The history of modernity allows us to make a prediction that is not especially bold: we will continue to accept the technologisation of our world and ourselves – and we will have to learn to live with the consequences.
Sascha Dickel is a sociologist specialising in science and technology. His PhD thesis on enhancement, written at the Bielefeld University, was awarded the 2014 Philosophical Book Prize. At Munich Technical University’s Center for Technology in Society, he is currently working on the conditions and consequences of digital media and the production of visions for the future. “Dezentralisierung, Demokratisierung, Emanzipation. Zur Architektur des digitalen Technikutopismus” [Decentralisation, Democratisation, Emancipation. The Architecture of the Digital Technical Utopia], his recent essay with Jan-Felix Schrape, was published in 2015 in Leviathan volume 43, issue 3, a Berlin periodical for social science.