H-: Of Which Human Are We Post?

Human? Posthuman? Transhuman? Did all this bother arise with Foucault? In The Order of Things, he claims:

Man is neither the oldest nor the most constant problem that has been posed for human knowledge…taking European culture since the 16th century...man is a recent invention within it…in the midst of all the episodes of …that… history [and] now perhaps drawing to a close, has made it possible for the figure of man to appear….As the archaeology of our thought easily shows, man is an invention of recent date. And one perhaps nearing an end.1

That is, if one accepts a Foucault-like disjunctive-frame episteme account of history, then man—how outre, since feminism it must now be human—can be invented, and if invented, disinvented or deconstructed. I open in this way because the issues of the human, the posthuman and the transhuman revolve around distinctive narratives, and these are often highly slippery. I must forewarn you that, as a philosopher, I am highly skeptical of slippery slope arguments of any kind. At the same time, I am not unfriendly to the notion of ‘posts’ since I have described, and others have described, my style of analysis as postphenomenological.

What is the human? Biologically, modern humans, homo sapiens sapiens, are reckoned to be between 100,000 and 200,000 years old. How modern can you get? This is to say that biologically we differ very little from our ancient African ancestors. But is this nature? Not entirely. Physical anthropologists argue and recognize that many of what once would have been called cultural practices are involved with our own human evolution. Tool use technologies, created and used by our pre-sapiens relatives, preceded us by more than a million years. Tool use technologies involving complex eye-hand bodily actions are part of the way in which our brains were formed. More recently, a very provocative thesis has been put forth that the practice of cooking may be highly important in the evolution of our physiognomy! Cooking is a sort of ‘external digestion’ technology—as Ernst Kapp, the very first philosopher of technology, already claimed in 1877. Such pre-digestion provides for two conditions for biological selectivities which help define modern humans: smaller teeth, a key physiological difference between us and most earlier humans, and the loss of the skull crest to which much stronger jaw muscles were attached for chewing. And, as these anthropologists also claim, cooking hearths go back precisely to such early modern sites, but the evolutionary process begins earlier in that charcoal heaps without hearths do go back to pre-sapiens sites. I suggest that what is neat about this analysis is that it is much closer to a ‘natureculture’ or ‘culturenature’ notion, as described by Donna Haraway, rather than the too clean division between nature and culture which presumably defines the ‘modern settlement’ ‡ la Bruno Latour. It also gives a new meaning to: “We are what we eat.”

Or, is the modern human the one who was invented at the beginning of the early modern scientific era of the 17th century? This would be the Cartesian-Lockean human—the subject in the camera obscura mechanical body box, but individualized and a subject epistemologically, and also one who has inalienable rights to private pleasures, freedom and happiness in the social-political arena. Surely, this version of ‘human’ is enigmatically being called into question in a postmodern era—on the one side the notion of extreme autonomy, without social relations and networkings, but on the other the possible loss of or weakening of civil liberties—posing an ambiguous threat to hard won Enlightenment values. Can we have a less self-enclosed, less autonomous, even closer-to-the-animals human, without losing the important political gains made in modernity? The transcending of a now four century old interpretation of the ‘human’ is certainly timely and important.

If we are then at a crucial juncture, a time-warp in which we, as self-interpreting animals, must re-assess ourselves, then there is a type of parallelism which stretches back to the beginnings of our ‘modern’ era. As it turns out, this summer one of my commitments was to do a number of entries for a forthcoming Blackwell Companion to the Philosophy of Technology volume, one of which was an introduction to a section on science and technology. In the process, I returned to one of the pioneers of that modernity, Francis Bacon, who in his Novum Organum was aware of a turning point in his historical time and who developed the notion of four idols to be avoided in entering the new era. It occurred to me that this device could serve a good purpose for precisely this theme as well. So I shall talk us through four new idols in discussing the human, the posthuman and transhuman issues here. My idols are:
 

  • The idol of Paradise. This is the idol of much technofantasy which often underlies much of the discussion context we are engaged in.
  • The idol of Intelligent Design. This is the idol of a kind of arrogance connected to an overestimation of our own design abilities, also embedded in these discussions.
  • The idol of the Cyborg. Cyborgs, made popular since mid-century, are hybrid creatures of human, machine, and animal combinations, but what do they imply?
  • The idol of Prediction. Projections of futures are always involved in era shifts, but if past projections are taken into account, this turns out to be a very dicey practice.

The idol of Paradise:

Anyone familiar with much history of the literature on paradise knows that one problem with paradise is that it is likely to be boring. From singing angels on a cloud, to the discovery that seventy virgins may turn out to be seventy raisins due to a mistranslation, to Dante’s dull paradise in the Divine Comedy compared to his imaginative levels of Hell,all point to the difficulty of making any utopia exciting and stimulating. I have always argued that to ‘imagine up’ is much harder than to ‘imagine down.’ Take, for example, science-fiction presentations, particularly those such as “Star Trek,” “Battlestar Gallactica,” and other series. When the humans and their allies, sometimes quasi-humans from other planets, come into the presence of a ‘superior’ set of beings, what do they find? The two most popular variants are these beings have either superior technologies or extraordinary spiritual and mental capacities (i.e., they can see futures, meld with other minds, communicate without technologies, and are usually peaceful mediator types). All of these superior technologies, by the way, can be found in ancient literatures in non-technology forms: powers of invisibility (now a type of electronic shield, then a cape of invisibility); powers to change forms (now into a transformer or a tech exo-skeleton, then into a dragon or a spider); and so on. From flying carpets to warp speed, I note there is little new in such fantasies. The difference is that since modernity the fantasy embodiments have tended to be technological rather than organic, animal-like, or supernatural. Contrast Bruegel’s organic animal, supernatural tormentors in his paintings with da Vinci’s fantasy technologies and you get something of the shift.
 

I have earlier argued that fantasies take shape and form in relation to the relative lifeworlds of the inhabitants.2 Thus, if one lives in a world in which daily life includes frequent and existentially important interactions with animals, and for that matter, plants, as in hunter-gatherer cultures, then the wish fulfillment fantasies will take the shapes of animal fantasies, dreams, stories, or of plant cycles and growth and decay metaphors. However, if your lifeworld is one saturated with a technological texture, then you get the more ‘modern’ versions suggested above. The technologies will provide the magic answers. Our myths are indexed to our experiences.

Clearly the implication is that our current debates concerning human/posthuman/transhuman take this current techno-mythological shape. Let me begin minimalistically with enhancement desires: Do we want more muscle power? Bigger breasts, fuller lips or tighter buttocks? Larger penises or better erections? Steroids, breast implants, Botox, liposuction or tucks, penis surgery or Viagra—this drill is apparent on television and in spam email. (Ironically, my wife gets more penis enlargement spam than I do). This has led to changes in time awaiting the doctor, in which time is shorter for Botox injections than wart removal. This in turn is related to capitalism, in the sense that injections are profitable and easy and wart removal is limited by insurance. All this is part of “Modern Times” in the post-Charlie Chaplin movie we live in. All these techniques work—but not without unintended consequences. Steroids increase the risk of early heart problems; silicone implants can leak and seem to be implicated with auto-immune diseases; long term Botox use has toxic effects; and in the wrong mix Viagra can cause critical low blood pressure or blindness. Paradise is not to be found here; calculated risk and trade-off compromises are to be found here.

Here, then, is my thesis: The desires and fantasies are ancient. Historically, they appear in our literatures, our fairy tales, and in our art. The fantasies and desires then want some kind of magic to fulfill the desire-fantasy. But the form of the magic differs, according to my thesis, by the textural patterns of historic lifeworlds. From magic potions to magic injections, from an age of alchemy to one of chemistry, the fulfillment technique will differ. But why do I call it magic? Because magic, unlike actual chemistries and technologies, does not have ambiguous or unintended or contingent consequences—trade-offs are lacking, only the paradisical results are desired.

How, then, does this relate to the human-posthuman-transhuman discussion? The answer is simple in one respect—to locate the desire-fantasy, look for the hype. Technofantasy hype is the current code for magic. Switch examples now from personal enhancement desires to technologies which will fulfill our social energy desires. Remember the time when the world community, fearful of a nuclear holocaust, hyped the ‘magical’ transformation of that power into peaceful uses? One was the technofantasy of limitless, almost free, nuclear supplied power.

This is precisely an example of magical thinking, the hype which projects a non-contingent, non-consequential, non-trade-off solution. The ‘infinitely inexpensive’ projection did not take into account the need for safety redundancy, for security factors, and for the still problematic need for hundreds of thousands of years safe waste storage, all of which complicate ‘paradise,’ and all of which need to be calculated into the costs of this non-neutral technology. Please note here that I am not arguing a dystopian view. It may be possible with very careful planning, with contingency considerations and new technologies to make such an energy source less long range dangerous than it now is. Rather, I am arguing that magical thinking disregards the ambiguous, non-neutral character of actual technologies. Desire-fantasy, with respect to technologies, harbor an internal contradiction. On the one side, we want the super-powers or enhancements which technologies can confer—long range vision with telescopes, mountain moving capacity with earth movers, supersonic speed with jet power—but on the other, the technofantasy is to have this enhancement be so totally transparent that it becomes us. This is a Superman technofantasy; to have and to be the power embodied. Such then are the dynamics behind the idol of Paradise.

The idol of Intelligent Design.

Most of you are familiar with this term from the currently raging evolution/creationist debates popular in the United States. In that context, “intelligent design” is the notion that various natural phenomena, particularly forms of life, are too complex not to be intelligently designed. The implication, of course, is a throw-back to the old teleological argument for God, that smart design implies a smart designer. Now, were I to plunge into the evolution/creationsist argument, I would in my usually perverse provocative way, probably invert the proposition and argue that evolutionary results are in fact too complicated to have been designed! And I would look at the current state of robotics as a very good illustration of this inversion. To date there are no robots with the gracile motility of even insects-in-motion, let alone simulacra of upright posture humans playing tennis. Beetles are better at negotiating chaotic terrain than robots and in terms of flight, bumblebees and humming birds make mockery of the smart bombing “Predator” of Iraq War fame. Once again, let me warn you that my ironic gestures against this sense of intelligent design are not indicators of a lack of appreciation for technological innovation and modeling-simulation experiments. To the contrary, one of the most delightful and amusing of my observational side-lines over the years has been to witness the way a lone phenomenologist, Hubert Dreyfus, so provocatively influenced the trajectory of both AI (artificial intelligence) and robotics.

Dreyfus’ application of Heidegger, picked up by Terry Winograd and Samuel Flores, in programs called ‘ontological design’ changed office systems to much more user-friendly platforms, but in robotics, the Merleau-Pontean notion that bodily motility underlies all intelligent behavior has deflected design notions regarding robot motility. For example, the old dicta regarding a central nervous system centralized in a sort of brain-in-a-vat model for deciding and directing robot motion, has gradually begun to be replaced by ‘smart insect’ models of less self-conscious motility leading to better abilities to locate obstacles and such. Both directions are bodily-being-in-environment models with greater reliance upon perceptual analogs than upon calculation machine capacities. Perhaps embodied beings are less calculational machines and more sentient animals than modernity usually thinks?

Permit now a shift of example. In this case human intelligent designers, recognizing the gracile motility of our fellow beings and in line with the previous desire-fantasy dreams, now wish to fulfill the ancient desire for flight. As I have suggested, the earliest stages of modernity began to shape such desires into technological forms, and whereas most of the imaginations pre-renaissance used large birds, dragons or other flying animals—or sometimes out-of-body dream flights—Leonardo da Vinci began to visualize different flight technologies. Some were quite naively amusing, such as his presumed anticipation of a helicopter, a ‘flying screw’ machine which, of course, could not possibly work! However, he was also an avid observer of birds, and birds have always been icons for the human desire to fly. Leonardo was a keen enough observer to note that bird wings contain curvatures in form which we now know allows for lift, and he incorporated this into his drawings of winged flight machines. None, again, could have worked. But why not? Some have argued that the conceptual design was good, but the lack of light weight materials and the lack of tensile strength of materials prevented such possibilities. Indeed, when I made remarks of this sort not long ago in a review in Nature, I was taken to task by an editor who pointed out that a designer inspired by da Vinci, had indeed built a hang-glider along da Vinci lines, which did glide. However, when I examined this design, I discovered that a whole series of design modifications totally unknown to da Vinci had been incorporated. In either case, once again the properties and capacities of the technologies needed to be taken into account.

Humans can be stubborn, so the dream of human powered flight persisted. We look back at the funny home movies of the clumsy attempts at flight technologies at the end of the 19th century, and when flight succeeds—with modified bicycle parts and finally a non-human engine—a quite different trajectory is born. The finally successful powered flight, the Wright flight in 1903, was actually a combination of many hybrid technologies, light and flexible, strong materials, control designs for fixed wings, a small internal combustion engine and propeller (a variation on the ancient screw machine), and an abandonment of the bionic ‘bird model’ of da Vinci. Rather, the developmental history points to what Andrew Pickering calls the “dance of agency.” That is, through much human-material interaction, from which emerged new design and trajectory factors, came today’s very non-animal like flight. So, when finally one successful human-powered aircraft does appear, the “Gossamer Albatross”, powered by a highly trained bicycle racer with similar technology driving a large, slow propeller, in a mylar-plastic airframe, which flew across the English Channel in 1979, the stubborn fantasy was fulfilled. Yet it was fulfilled only in ideal, limited conditions and with the appearance of a sort of clumsy, anachronistic success.

Once again the idol of intelligent design gives way to a human-material or human-technology set of interactions which through experience and over time yield to emergent trajectories with often unexpected results. The fantasy model of an intelligent, autonomous designer—working out an intended result upon a purely ‘plastic’ material—gives way to the more realistic notion of human-material interaction, through experienced ‘resistances and accommodations’ in a ‘dance of agency’ ‡ la Pickering, or the invention of an entirely new set of uses for a useless ‘glue’ as in Latour’s description of the Post-it.3

The idol of the Cyborg:

Although it was probably Donna Haraway who made the figure of the cyborg into its best known form, as the non-innocent hybrid of human-animal-and-machine moving amidst the techno-science naturecultures of postmodernism, the cyborg was gestated in the cold-think of World War II and then the Cold War. From Clynes to Wiener to von Neumann to Herman Kahn, the technofantasies of moving beyond the humanistic were configured. First, in the Manhattan Project and thinking the unthinkable, then on to its ‘peaceful’ uses—such as creating huge atom-bomb produced harbors in Alaska—cold-think prided itself on machinic thinking replacing human thinking. One of the main technologies of cybernetics, after all, was to create a non-evadable aircraft artillery fire.

But the slippery slope fantasies are perhaps better seen when science-fiction and its filmic expressions are introduced, as in “Terminator,” “Robo-Cop,” and the variations upon ‘bionic’ men and women. It is here that a history and phenomenology of prostheses can be informative: Prosthetic replacements for limbs and other body parts have an ancient history. Wooden teeth and detachable artificial limbs go back to ancient mummies. In experienced use, these prostheses fall into what I have earlier called embodiment relations, that is, we humans can use technologies through which we can experience our environment by ‘embodying’ such devices, and while in use, such devices are ‘experienced through’ in a partial transparency or partial withdrawal. We do not attend to our eyeglasses, or better, our contacts; Merleau-Ponty’s lady with the feathered hat or the blind man with a cane, can ‘feel’ through these extensions for bodily motility in an environment. But, the withdrawal or transparency comes with both a partial incompleteness, and more, with a selectivity such that what is experienced through the prosthesis is both magnified in some aspects and reduced in others. The peg leg, or its high tech, Iraqi War hydraulic leg replacement, cannot ‘feel’ the hot, sun-baked surface of the sidewalk the way one’s bare foot can. But through the prosthesis one might be even more sensitive to slipperiness or rough texture. Once again, it is the sensitivity to the materiality of the prosthesis which slippery slope fantasies forget. Prostheses are compromises; we may have them, but we fall short of experiencing a total transparent embodiment. At a very low and simple level, with a tooth crown, there may be a very high transparency, we are rarely aware of which tooth is crowned. But at a more complex level—say hearing aids—it becomes obvious that transparency is at best partial. In my own case, such painful occasions ranging from dinner parties to a bar, the background noise cannot be dampened even with my hi-tech digitals and remote with ambient sound suppressing programs. Nor is music, either live, or worse on the radio, what I can remember it once being.

Returning to limb prostheses, today the attempt to have the artificial limb mimic likeness to the original or missing limb has sometimes given way to a different variation entirely. In a trajectory away from similarity and away from the contradictory having and not-having, a technological self is the move to have a different kind of prosthesis. Aimee Mullins, who played ‘Cheetah Woman’ in Matthew Barney’s Cremaster 3, learned to use from childhood a set of spring like legs. She was born with fibular hemimelia, a birth defect of being born without fibula bones, and underwent stump amputation at age one. The spring legs, subsequently used by a number of athletes with the same defect, are not like human limbs, but give a selectivity which magnifies spring-powered speed capacities. Oscar Pistorius, a South African with spring powered transtibial prosthetic legs runs almost as fast as normally legged runners, but was denied Olympic entry in part because some feared such hi-tech devices might give an advantage. This is a trajectory which, while not returning our sentient bodies to us, allows us different capacities than before.

Even more internalized, knee, hip, shoulder and other implants work and work better than damaged parts, but implants, unlike the fantasized eternality of perfect machines, also wear out! Metal and plastic ‘ages’ and must be replaced every seven or more years, and because more bone must be cut away for the replacement part, this leads to diminishing returns. Here, again, is contingency and trade-offs, and it is better not to have to undergo such procedures unless necessary and hopefully at older ages. The cyborg, when critically examined with a concern for its materiality, does not display its science-fiction technofantasy form. The cyborg, too, can be an idol.

The idol of Prediction:

In the same narratives concerning the human, the posthuman and the transhuman, both dystopian and utopian predictions produce idolatrous technofantasies. Here I could wax eloquent for pages, but I select a few predictions some of which are made by prominent scientists, others by those extolling utopic virtues in magazines, most selected for deliberate irony by current lights:

  • Lord Kelvin, 1895, “Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.”
  • Ken Olson, 1977, of Digital Equipment, “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”
  • Recall the above cited infinitely cheap atomic energy prediction—this era included other predictions including the atomic car which could go 500,000 miles without refueling.
  • Or extolling modern magical materials such as the beautification of walls with white lead paint; the amazing material, asbestos, for floor tiles, roofs, insulation and decorative interiors.
  • How about radioactive suppositories? So every tissue in the body could benefit from healthful radiation.

These are examples from Follies of Science (2007).4 These can more than be matched with lists from Tenner’s Why Things Bite Back (1996), when he cites Toffler’s famous prediction of how the electronic society would be the ‘paperless society,’ and how home security systems, by generating false alarms, tied down the equivalent of 58 police officers full time answering 157,000 calls when only 3,000 were genuine, thus likely diverting attention to other crimes. And the list can go on.5

David Nye, in Technology Matters (2006) points to an in-depth survey of predicted technologies, 1890-1940; 1500 predictions, and less than one-third occurred. This, by the way, concerned what technologies would be invented, not what uses, unintended consequences, what reversals would occur. Chiding me for pointing this out in Nature and claiming these are pretty good odds, my response is that 50% odds are normal for a penny toss, and these are less than that!

Now, you will note that I have not addressed many of the famous predictions coming from post- and transhumanists, for example, those issued by Hans Moravec, concerning downloading a human mind into a computer, and Ray Kurzweil, concerning the age of intelligent machines. Do these worshippers of the idol of prediction have credibility? Pause for a moment: Just what of a human mind would, should, could be downloaded? The internet, which plays a strong role in Kurzweil’s fantasies, turned out to have some very unpredictable outcomes in relation to its original design and intent. As everyone knows, the decentralization and distributive network technologies of the early internet—largely restricted to the Cold War university cold-thinkers and the military—were designed to be non-defeasible by nuclear attacks. No central authority or power could overcome the distributed networks. Yet, once access was expanded—and is still expanding—this lack of central ‘nervous system’ analog control has led to all sorts of unintended consequences. From Andy Feenberg’s analysis of the French minitel with its dating game results, to the current American obsession with hide and seek and avatar sting operations for catching pedophiles, non-defeasibility has turned out to have lots of unintended consequences. Thus, Kurzweil’s almost accidentally correct prediction than the Soviet Empire would fail due to the corrosive power of rising internet-communication-distributed networks did point up the potentially democratic effect, or subversively democratic effect, of this technological complex. But, then, turn this back to Moravec’s notion of downloading the human mind into a computer—and by extension onto the internet—and what do we have? Were we all merely cold-thinkers as per von Neumann and Herman Kahn, this might be bad enough, but how about pedophiles, and all the rest of the Freudian ‘unconscious’ aspects of the human mind, downloaded and distributive through the internet? What does it mean to download a mind? If it means downloading all the ‘bad’ parts along with the ‘good’ parts, are we not back at the copying machine, which is, after all, the perfect reading machine that faithfully reproduces precisely the page it is given. Were Moravec himself downloaded, would he be any better than he now is? And, if not, are we stuck with a possibly flawed Moravec now and forever?

Note here that my worries are not at all those of romantics, objecting because this is ‘unnatural,’ nor are they those of the theistically inclined, concerns with human hubris, overreaching our natural human limits. They are, rather, worries about unintended consequences, unpredictability, and the introduction of disruptions into an ever growing and more complex system. They are worries about how ‘normal accidents’ get built into systems as per Charles Perrow. My worries arise precisely from what I have learned about technologies in the now nearly four decades of thinking about technologies. My worries focus upon precisely the disregard for the materiality of technologies, the ambiguity of technologies, the multistability of technologies, and above all, the intimate role of humans with technologies. Thus I will conclude with another narrative, which I hope will capture the sense of what I have been talking about.

John Henry and Big Blue:

The American ‘John Henry’ legend expressed in songs and tales reflects an earlier era in which technologization was feared with respect to replacing humans, but in this case laboring humans. John Henry was depicted as a big Black man, known for his exceptional skills at driving spikes for setting up rails for the advancing railroad—in another version, he was depicted as a tunnel digger. In both cases, an invention—of a steam powered spike driver in the first, or a steam powered digger in the second—threatened to outdo and replace John Henry. So a contest is set up between John Henry and the steam machine, and with superhuman effort, John Henry scores a very tight victory over the steam machine. However, his efforts ended with a heart attack and he collapsed at the finish line, dead.
Of course, we know the outcome. The machine actually wins, since once driving spikes or digging tunnels became automated, steam machines replaced human muscle power. And as the moral of the story goes for labor unions and a social left, the armies of Coolies who did that work on our 19th century railroads were left unemployed. But fast-forward to today: Who today bemoans the replacement of hard, ‘chain-gang-like’ labor with efficient machines?

I switch to my observed version from two events at my retreat in the Green Mountains of Vermont. Now almost a decade ago, a devastating ice storm coated the forests of my region and mountainside, damaging many trees and downing others. I have a managed forest plan and, on the advice of my forester, accepted a selective cut. The end result was that seven double truck loads of logs were cut and sold, and the stumps cut down to the ground and brush burned or removed. How did this happen? With one tough old Vermonter, armed with a large chain and a four wheel machine, complete with road making blade, chain saw in hand by himself—no, by himself plus his technologies—who in a matter of weeks completed the task. Then, again this summer, this time wanting selective trees which had grown up in my lower meadow and apple orchard, now threatening my highly taxed view (there is a view tax in Vermont!) I had my meadow mowing Vermonter do the job. This time, with a large excavator with clasping arm, dozer blade, and another of the large four wheel machines—again by himself, no, by himself with the large machines—he does the job in a few days. I imagined a century ago when both these jobs would have called for a gang of Vermonters, horses and sledges, and hand powered two-man saws, undertaking what would have been a month’s work. So what is my point? The technologies did not replace the humans; rather, different technologies plus the humans changed the nature of the task.

Today, here in the context of the human, posthuman, transhuman narratives, the variant is, once again, the humans versus the machines, this time not with respect to muscle power, but with respect to calculating power. AI, VR, and the range of more ‘mind’ related technologies are again mythologizing the human versus machine myths long embedded in our culture. Now, frankly, were my computer able to simply ingest all my tax related data for my annual income tax report, and spit out a legal and yet maximal result for me, I would cheer and accept giving up the task entirely. That is, of course, not the way it happens. Instead, it happens—if I borrow from Latour’s human-and-non-human collectives notion— more like this: I collect and organize my now enormous and complicated annual data, and turn it over to my tax advisor. He, now with four others in his office, format it for the programs which are responsible for analysis, and last year he said he tried some seven variants to produce the most effective result. This is a simulation and modeling process now so common for complex phenomena problems for which such calculation machines are at their best. However, again, it is clearly not human versus machine—it is humans in conjunction with machines that produce the result.

And this is where I finally turn to my last legend, the 1997 presumed defeat of champion chess player, Kasperov, by the IBM computer with the Big Blue program. The PR—and the Minsky’s and Moravecs and all the other technofantasizers—hyped this occasion as the ultimate, inevitable result of yet another mythical ‘machine-beats-human’ contest, a mental and century later version of “John Henry.” However, that is not what happened and the history of the event not only is different from its mythical version, but precisely needs to be reframed in human plus machine interpretation. From the first, of course, it is human plus machine in the creation of the software. The software did not create itself, it was honed and refined by many skilled programmers, as per the previous tales in amongst the idols, and gradually perfected through resistances and accommodations and the dance of agency peculiar to computer programming. But there is more: During the match, after each game, but behind the scenes, somewhat like the gang of water dabbers and cleaners at a boxing match, Big Blue was aided by its programmers who tweaked and re-tweaked its programs before the next round. This was not machine versus Kasperov, this was the collective machine plus programmers, a collective versus Kasperov! Is it then any wonder that Kasperov is as much exasperated by the behavior of the ‘machine’ as he is by the lightening quick moves it can make with hyperspeed calculations?
 

I suggest here, that only if humans are stupid enough to end up worshiping the very idols they create, could the fantasized replacement of humans by machines take place. The changing technologies with which we interact, form collectives, and experience the dances of agencies, do forecast vastly changed conditions of work and play (and even love), but it is not them versus us. In Long Island, my living room has a number of pieces of ‘art’ from the Sepic River region of New Guinea. I bought these pieces while in Australia, from a shop in Sydney which specialized in this sculpture ‘art.’ Now, in their own cultural context, such pieces were not at all what we would think of as ‘art,’ but were simultaneously more a sort of ‘practical religious’ set of objects. They served fertility, ritual, healing, and many other social functions; they were what older anthropologists might have called ‘sacred’ objects—or idols. However, if they are sacred, how could I acquire them? The answer is one which I find appropriate for my conclusion here. These sacred objects, idols, are in their original context, thought to gradually lose power, to deteriorate, even to break-down—amazingly just like technologies—so when they reach a certain stage of uselessness, they are discarded. And so I have collected some of these discarded idols and re-formulated their use into ‘art objects’ in my home. Here lies the moral of my tale concerning the human, the posthuman and the transhuman.

 

Endnotes

1 Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (Vintage Books, 1973), pp. 386-7.

2 See my “Technology and Human Self-Interpretation,” Existential Technics (SUNY Press, 1983).

3 Bruno Latour, Science in Action (Harvard University Press, 1987), p. 140.

4 Eric Dregni and Jonathan Dregni, The Follies of Science (Speck Press, 2007).

5 Edward Tenner, Why Things Bite Back (Alfred A. Knopf, 1996), p. 7.

Join Metanexus Today

Metanexus fosters a growing international network of individuals and groups exploring the dynamic interface between cosmos, nature and culture. Membership is open to all. Join Now!