H+: Conceptualizing Future Identities

On 16 January 2005, Adriana Iliescu, aged 66, gave birth to a baby girl conceived through in vitro fertilization and donor eggs, making her the oldest known woman to give birth at that time1 . As is the case with stories of postmenopausal women and procreation, this event attracted popular media attention, and a host of controversy. Public response included praise for the technology that enabled this to happen, as well as criticisms concerning Iliescu’s ability to raise a child after she had passed the socially prescribed stage of motherhood2 .

In 2008, British military paratrooper Ian Hamilton underwent a series of surgical procedures to change his sex from male to female. His decision had serious repercussions on his military career, with a series of hostile exchanges between Hamilton and the British Army. It was also detrimental to his family life, with his parents disowning him3 . The controversy that unfolded in the popular media surrounding this sex change seems to have been compounded by Hamilton’s profession and its connotations of masculinity and conservatism, which shows how popular culture conflates psychological disposition, social status, and physical appearance.

These examples illustrate how scientific developments have enabled individuals to modify their physical constitution in a way that re-defines their agency as social subjects, thereby allowing them to lead personally meaningful lives. They also illustrate at best the controversy, at worst the resistance that such actions attract from a society that sees them as serious offences to its myths of linearity, continuity and essence. In narratives of human existence, technology often plays a dual role as a catalyst of the human subject’s actions towards a fulfilling existence, or as an enemy of social cohesion and the preservation of culture.

This is certainly not new. In fact, this ambivalent role of technology and science (and indeed of other forms of knowledge) is attested in narratives and the social currents from which they emerge since ancient times. However, the historical situation in the early 21stcentury has certain particularities. We live in an era where significant advances are made in information technology, imaging technology, nanotechnology and genetics—advances that give us access to areas of human physiology previously hidden from view (such as the functions of different parts of the brain), and that promise to give more control over natural processes previously thought of as unchangeable (such as hereditary traits).  In this context, we need a conceptual framework in which we can theorize and speculate on these advances, both anticipating and suggesting their possible uses, benefits, risks and consequences. In other words, we need intellectual and cultural perspectives from where we can observe, think and talk about these advances. Science fiction is certainly one such forum where technology is conceptualized in cultural terms. I believe transhumanism is another.

This paper briefly examines the contribution that transhumanist ideas make to discussions on the social implications of technology. My aim is to position transhumanism in this context and to indicate the value of its approach in conceptualizing future identities. The first part of the paper discusses transhumanism in relation to the interplay between identity and technology. The second part presents an analysis, inspired by transhumanist ideas, of the science fiction film Gattaca.

Before proceeding any further it is important to emphasize that, in contrast to prevalent misconceptions, transhumanism is not a crystallized and static doctrine, but a set of, often conflicting and certainly dynamic and diverse, approaches to the relations between technology, self and society. In light of this, the working definition that I will use, and which informs the subsequent discussion is: ‘transhumanism’ (hereafter H+, used both as a noun and an adjective) is a general term designating a set of approaches which hold an optimistic view of technology as having the potential to assist humans in building more equitable and happier societies mainly by modifying physical characteristics. Such modifications include cognitive enhancements to increase mental abilities, and genetic interventions to eliminate disease, and prolong life. Some branches of H+ also research methods to transfer consciousness from its physical embodiment to cybernetic forms and so elude death altogether.

A defining characteristic of H+ is that it proposes an “alternative” interpretation and evaluation of science, while maintaining and supporting “mainstream” principles and methods of scientific research. In this respect, it differs from non-technophile “New Age” philosophies because it embraces scientific, or rational, principles. These include the tenets that not all phenomena can be reduced to absolute causes, that randomness is a law of the universe, and that big effects may have much smaller causes. This way, H+ maintains the scientific methods of falsifiability, precision and objectivity, while investigating how they can be put at the service of the human goals of social justice and individual fulfillment.

Those attracted to the H+ movement (which consists of a network of individuals meeting mainly in online fora and some conferences) tend to share an interest in science fiction and in the philosophy of science,  as well as a belief that human design contains flaws that should be corrected for an enlightened society to emerge.

Some argue that H+ idealizes technology and overlooks its limitations and the dangerous consequences it may have4 . Yet, debates on possible effects of scientific developments and on the equitable social regulation of technology proliferate in H+ circles. In fact, the concern with implications and effects is evident: one definition of H+ is “The study of the ramifications, promises and potential dangers of the use of science, technology, creativity, and other means to overcome fundamental human limitations.”5

Indisputably, science and technology do not offer absolute answers to existential questions. One reason for this is that personal meaning comes from an experience of one’s subjectivity in interaction with the objective world. It is therefore not assessable in quantifiable terms. Science, on the other hand, deals with probabilities and statistical averages. This makes many scientific tenets and declarations irrelevant when applied to individual everyday experiences. In other words, the truth of science not only does not answer the question ‘what is it to me?’ it can also be dismissive of the self-focus that such a question implies. As proponent of positive psychology Mihaliy Csikzentmihalyi says, “science can promise truth, but its version of truth is as often harsh as it is soothing” 6. Thus, for example, biology can tell me what the odds are that I will exhibit a certain trait, but it cannot tell me if and how this trait will manifest, or what meaning I will attribute to it—whether I will be proud of it, merely accept it, or be ashamed of it. In the final analysis, how I, and others, experience my genetic trait depends on cultural and individual values, social opportunities, and that arch-enemy of control seekers, chance.

At the same time, however, technological developments can change drastically the human experience of life, and the personal meanings and subjectivities that go with this, both by modifying the material world (not many would dispute that living in a modern house is more comfortable than living in a cave), and by adapting human faculties for better performance and resilience in living in this world. In the past 200 years, human societies have been radically altered by scientific developments, which are now so pervasive they are almost transparent. To mention just a few examples,  the contraceptive pill has liberated women from the demands of reproduction and changed the structure of the workforce, making possible living arrangements and experiences that were previously so impractical they were almost unimaginable; antibiotics have radically changed attitudes towards disease and have contributed to extending life spans; and aviation technology has enabled rapid global travel, facilitating access to different parts of the world, and therefore to different experiences. Such developments are not just add-ons to an unchanging human “essence.” They lay the groundwork for the creation of different metaphors, discourses and representations, and change the ways in which identities and relationships are perceived and enacted.7

This situation motivates an interplay between personal identity and technology that can be constructed and represented in different ways. The texts and narratives that emerge in this context often stage the dilemmas, enablements and conflicts of individuals in a technologized society.  So, returning to the example of global travel, although from one perspective the technologies involved can be seen as a breakthrough that enables freedom of movement, trade possibilities and easy international communications, from another perspective such a development is devoid of value per se, and can only be evaluated through the lens of the individual experiences that it grounds. So, global relocation can signify freedom from confining social situations, persecution or poverty, and possibilities for career and educational development for some, but it can also signify the centralization of capitalist globalization, separation from loved ones, exile, culture-shock, alienation and tourist pollution for others (as well as, of course, a combination of these). Thus, the scientific development, as a social artifact, becomes meaningful only in relation to the individual performances that it underpins and, to use an existentialist term, to the ‘states of being’ that these performances generate.

When thinking about this, we have a choice: we can focus on the negative consequences of technology and lament the mindless arrogance of people who allowed them to develop (as much dystopian science fiction as well as techno-phobic, or “bio-conservative,” discourses do), or we can attempt to trace and analyze the elements that produce positive effects and speculate on ways to maximize these—which is what many H+ texts do.    

H+ has two distinctive features that, I believe, are pertinent here. First, it begins with human experience and then looks to science (as a body of knowledge based on rational discovery) to find how it can be used by humans to affect this experience. In fact, many H+ writers emphasize that the ultimate goal of technology is to enhance the well-being of all humans – and, indeed, of all sentient creatures as the H+ declaration states.8

It is not our human shape or the details of our current human biology that define what is valuable about us, but rather our aspirations and ideals, our experiences and the kinds of lives we live. To a transhumanist, progress is when more people become more able to deliberately shape themselves, their lives, and the ways they relate to others, in accordance with their own deepest values.9

Second, it complements approaches that examine the social causes of human suffering and injustice, because it focuses on the physical limitations of the ‘human’ itself. For H+, a benevolent welfare society coupled with individual will-power and discipline are not enough to guarantee realization of potential, fulfillment, fairness and diversity. Incidentally, this situation in which well-being is mistakenly equated with good-will is satirized in Rob Grant’s humorous novel Incompetence10 set in a politically correct future society where equal opportunity is the highest value. In this society, policy dictates that no one can be refused the job s/he desires, regardless of the person’s qualifications and ability. Inevitable results of this misplaced benevolence include airline pilots who suffer from vertigo, octogenarian male strippers and blind nightclub bouncers. According to the H+ approach, besides social revisions, we also require modifications to the human constitution to allow different possibilities of perception, thought and action to emerge. As Patrick Hopkins explains,

The first element of a transhumanist moral vision is that the effort to address the human  condition requires that we change the physical facts that in part generate the human condition. Curing the human condition requires altering the “human” part of the equation.11

In her article, “Wrestling with Transhumanism,”12 N. Katherine Hayles claims that H+ texts ‘perform decontextualizing moves that over-simplify the situation,’ and offers science fiction as a contextualizing forum.   I concede that a significant part of H+ discourse constructs reductive and technical models of analysis that could be interpreted as favoring a minimalist version of the human.  However, this could also be seen as a reflection of the rhetorical structures used in the discourse communities of many H+ writers (who have science backgrounds). As the H+ movement grows, it is likely that it will benefit from a wider diversity of supporters, and a proportional increase in the kinds of discourses used.  In the meantime, motivated by Hayles’ claim, I will attempt a H+ reading of the film Gattaca, directed by Andrew Niccol in 1998.13

Gattaca contextualizes the interplay between the affordances and constraints of a technological society and the personal motivations of the individual, by speculating on possible effects of human genetic engineering. Developments in genome research suggest that, when the genome is fully decoded, an individual’s genetic constitution will become a blueprint of the biological qualities that make this individual unique, and motivate his/her behavior and physio-psychological condition. As with other scientific developments, one can expect this to have both positive and negative consequences. For example, It could allow for the customized treatment of diseases for each individual, thereby minimizing adverse side effects, as well as for the modification of specific genes to prevent diseases or physical weaknesses from being passed on to future generations. At the same time, it could “brand” individuals as specific types, which is very likely to lead to the exclusion and “scapegoating” phenomena that most often accompany the creation of stereotypes. Gattaca thematizes this situation.

 Described briefly, the story is set in a society where power and authority rest with those citizens who are born through genetic engineering (‘GATTACA’ being the transcription for human DNA). These privileged citizens have been engineered to possess skills that enable them to work in specific professions. In this context, social mobility is a predetermined system with fixed criteria: job interviews, for example, are based solely on DNA sampling and have no personalized or negotiable aspect. Those unfortunate to have been born through natural means form an underclass of outcasts, restricted by their inherited weaknesses and confined to menial tasks. The film presents a social setting where identity is defined in terms of social functionality as this is perceived to be determined by genetics.

The main character, Vincent Freeman (the name itself signifying  “winning” and “freedom”), a natural-born with inherited “defects”, such as a weak heart and bad eyesight, finds his desired socio-professional status to be unattainable as he is forbidden to pursue the aeronautic career that he values. However, since every time a rule is created, the means to break this rule also emerge, Gattacas society includes “identity brokers” who help the so-called “invalids” construct a new and more successful identity, by finding socially acceptable specimens who are willing to trade their identities with the genetically less fortunate. In order to realize his dream, Vincent finds just such an accomplice, Jerome Morrow, and he gradually assumes his identity. In the technological society of Gattaca, where citizens are repeatedly blood and urine-tested to confirm their genetic identities, this exchange of identities entails much more than a forging of documents. Vincent has to carry samples of Jerome’s blood, urine, nails, skin and hair for the daily DNA tests.

Although at first sight this may seem like a standard dystopian story, a closer look at the construction of the main character reveals a different picture.

Firstly, Vincent is not the usual dystopian hero whose actions are directed at finding his “true” self, or discovering his “original” identity. In fact he is a de-centered and transformational agent, whose actions are directed at dismantling an enforced, inherited, identity and creating one that is more amenable to his desired existence. He is happy to shed his identity (quite literally in this case, since he scrubs off the outer layer of his skin every day), if this identity is an obstacle to obtaining the experiences that he desires. Secondly, Vincent does not intend to destroy or change his technological society for a more “natural” existence, but wants to re-negotiate his position in it. Also, he relies on the technology of the system to fulfill his aspirations. His transformation itself is aided by technology (he has surgery to become taller, wears contact lenses to correct vision and change the color of his eyes, etc), and his ideal career is in the high-tech profession of inter-stellar navigation.

By presenting the main character this way, the film’s ideology stands in contrast to the ideology widespread in much popular culture that the be-all and end-all of the quest for personhood is to achieve an integrated and unified identity, usually by accepting some limitation, or by finding a hidden, true self. Instead, the main criterion by which to evaluate personal identity becomes here the criterion of happiness.  Since Vincent’s socially- defined identity constrains him, the narrative allows him to use technological means to shed it like discarded skin. This alone, I believe, would qualify him as a H+ hero.

Vincent challenges the system, by exploiting its weaknesses. So, what then are these weaknesses and what do they show about the possible dangers of technological advancement?   Arguably, the most prominent danger exposed by the film is human prejudice. Vincent suffers not because of his actual physical constitution, but because of the attitudes towards stereotypes that he has to endure. His society has laws against “genoism”, but, as Vincent points out “no one takes the law seriously.” This parallels the situation in our present early 21stcentury society (not to say all known societies), where legislation does not reflect social attitudes, and where change can only occur in any substantial sense when new meanings, and not just new laws, are created.

Interestingly, although the society of Gattaca is focused on matching abilities with social function, the abilities of objectivity, judgment and empathy (which could counteract prejudice) are not evoked in any of the social roles presented in the story. The director of the aeronautic institute declares that “no one exceeds his potential; it would mean that we didn’t accurately gauge his potential in the first place,” but no other mention is made of the processes used to assess abilities and match them with actions, or of the reasoning and ideologies that underlie these processes. Therefore, from this story we learn that understanding human prejudice and the forms it can take should be part of the program of conceptualizing future, technologized, identities. 

The second danger, closely related to the first, is anachronistic concepts and definitions. The film shows what might happen with technological advancement, if other factors (especially discursive and conceptual factors) are not updated to keep up with this advancement. It does this through the textual strategy of constructing a society where genetic engineering has progressed considerably since the late 20thcentury, but where everything else seems to be lagging. For example, the definition of “physically fit” remains exactly the same as the one used in the late 20thand early 21stcenturies.  Vincent is barred from his desired profession because he is deemed to be not physically fit. Yet, after a while one begins to wonder why he needs perfect vision and a strong heart for the kinds of tasks his job requires. The fact that he succeeds in them, despite his “defects,” shows that the definition of the agent does not match the actions of the agent. It is also interesting that “keeping fit” is still imaged as running on a treadmill, which suggests that concepts and metaphors of physicality have not changed. So, another valuable lesson of the story is the importance of the ways people think and talk about things (as manifest in concepts, definitions, metaphors, and other discursive strategies), in enabling new forms of identity to emerge.

In this paper, I attempted to contextualize H+ approaches to the interplay of personal identity and technological society.  I hope to have shown that, at the very least, H+ ideas expand the scope of discussions on social and personal implications of technology by suggesting two questions:  “What narratives would we get if we cast technology in a helper’s role?” and “What do these narratives show about our (human) hopes, aspirations and fears?”


Endnotes

1 Kristen Philipkoski, “No magic for older moms,” Wired, January 19, 2005.

2 The popular British newspaper The Telegraph set up an online forum eliciting public responses on Iliescu’s status as a post-menopausal mother, www.telegraph.co.uk.

3 See Jane Preston’s Channel Four documentary, Sex Change Soldier, first aired on 20 March 2008.

4See for example, Ted Peters “Transhumanism and the posthuman future: Will technological progress get us there?” The Global Spiral June 2008, Vol. 9, issue 3. Available at http://www.metanexus.net/magazine/tabid/68/id/10546/Default.aspx

5 The Transhumanist Frequently Asked Questions, section 1.1. Available at http://www.transhumanism.org/resources/FAQv21.pdf

6 M. Csikszentmihalyi : Good business: Leadership, flow and the making of meaning. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2003, p. 8

7 For a discussion on metaphors of technology in describing human activity, see, for example, George Lakoff’s classic text, Women, Fire and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind,  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990; and Ulrike Schultze and Wanda Orlikowski’s article on organizational discourse, “Metaphors of Virtuality: Shaping an Emergent Reality,” in Information and Organization, Volume 11, Issue 1, January 2001, Pages 45-77.

8 Principle 7 of the Transhumanist Declaration states: “Transhumanism advocates the well- being of all sentience (whether in artificial intellects, humans, posthumans, or non- human animals)…”  Available at, http://www.transhumanism.org/index.php/WTA/declaration/

9The Transhumanist Frequently Asked Questions section 1.1. Available at http://www.transhumanism.org/resources/FAQv21.pdf

10 Rob Grant, Incompetence, London: Orion, 2003.

11Patrick Hopkins, “A Moral Vision for Transhumanism,” in Journal of Evolution and Technology - Vol. 19 Issue 1 ,September 2008 ,page 4. Available at http://jetpress.org/v19/hopkins.pdf

12 Katherine Hayles, “Wrestling with Transhumanism,” The Global Spiral, June 2008, Vol. 9, issue 3, n.p. Available at http://www.metanexus.net/magazine/tabid/68/id/10543/Default.aspx

13 For a more detailed analysis of this film, see Sky Marsen, “Against Heritage: Invented Identities in Science Fiction Film,” Semiotica 2004,,150-1/4, pp. 141-157.

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