by Steven Best

 

I. Introduction: The Great Transformation

We’re in the midst of a great transformation as momentous as that which produced capitalist modernity. Like (eighteenth through mid-twentieth century) modernity, three main engines of change drive postmodernity: science, technology, and capitalism. Once unleashed without restraints in the modern era, they produced perpetual changes and innovations, which in turn created profound resistances.

The same dynamics that drove the modern adventure propel the postmodern adventure, but the co-evolution of science, technology, and capitalism create a qualitatively new world and with it new paradigms of art, theory, science, and reality itself.

We are quickly morphing into a new biological and social existence that is ever-more mediated and shaped by phenomena such as computers, mass media, and biotechnology, all driven by the logic of capital and a powerful emergent technoscience. In this global context, science is no longer merely an interpretation of the natural and social worlds; rather it has become an active force in changing them.

Postmodernity is characterized by novel phenomena such as electronic media, computers, artificial intelligence, robotics, virtual reality, nanotechnology, genetic engineering, cloning, stem cell research, and synthetic biology, all developed in the context of the global reorganization of capitalism. Our world, moreover, is marked by increasingly rapid and radical change.

If as Max Weber and Jurgen Habermas have noted, modernity is a differentiating structure that separates different realms of thought and social life, then postmodernity is a dedifferentiating or implosive structure. Parallel to postmodern philosophy, postmodernity elides key dualisms and boundary lines that have been fundamental to Western thought and culture, but does this more radically by working at a level of practice that transforms not only ideas but the world and the Western reality principle itself most generally. Classical distinctions between subject and object, human and nonhuman, organic matter and inorganic matter, the natural and artificial, the born and the made, and biology and technology, have been erased.

The postmodern adventure is all about transgressing boundaries and limit conditions, but some are crossed at great peril. Our world, moreover, is marked by increasingly rapid and radical change, but these mutations bring both potential risks and benefits that need to be sort out as key traps and dangers need to be anticipated and avoided. Ultimately, the design we are speaking about here is the design – or re-design – of the entire natural world, from microorganisms and plants to animals and human beings – and some things like synthetic biology we are designing virtually from scratch.

In the last few decades, we have witnessed dramatic implosions between biology and technology, such that animals and human beings are being technologically redesigned and reworked through technology (e.g., genetic engineering, cloning, and cyborg developments in the human body), as technology increasingly takes on organic or human properties (e.g., DNA computer chips, artificial intelligence and self-organizing computer systems, increasingly lifelike and emotionally interactive robots). In a world of Petri dish babies, neural implants, virtual reality, nanotechnology, neural implants, wearable computers, bionic implants, modified genes, designer species, human-animal chimeras, and artificial intelligence and life, reality has morphed into surrreality and science fiction becomes science fact. Science and technology undermine the erection of any firm boundaries between reality/unreality, natural/artificial, inorganic/organic, biology/technology, human/machine, and the born and the made. Between the revolutionary developments of quantum mechanics and the practical transformations effected by technoscience, reality just ain’t what it used to be. For many the age of humanism is over as well, we are rapidly morphing into a new posthumanist/transhumanist condition.

Through both empirical mappings and the works of science fiction visionaries, I will chart a number of implosions that call into question human identity, traditional mappings and boundary lines of Western reality. The ambiguity of the present moment is that the science and technologies which could bring stunning benefits to the humanity race also engender new forms of domination and destruction. The outcome depends upon whether individuals and communities can democratically restructure society and culture to avoid the destructive consequences of uncontrolled growth and development.

II. Homo faber: The Technological Animal

Human culture — the willful product of language and intelligence — has been spawned from the womb of technology since the beginnings of history. As argued by many anthropologists, the use of tools was crucial in stimulating human intelligence and linguistic capacities, and thereby for creating culture. It is now established that human beings do not evolve through an innate telos that unfolds in an evolutionary process, but instead in and through relations with the complex world of objects, technologies, institutions, and norms they create. The key principle of Marxian dialectics is that as we change and shape the world, we change and shape ourselves. For Marx and Engels, the primary means whereby human beings construct and reconstruct their world and own nature are through technology and the tools and inventions they use in the process of production.[1]

Similarly, Marshall McLuhan emphasized that the technologies humans created, in turn shaped human thought and behavior. McLuhan saw each technology as an extension of different facets of the human body and senses, with the spear as an extension of the arm, the wheel an objectification of the foot, and the computer a translation of the brain and nervous system. Yet McLuhan also saw that these technologies in turn work us over, changing our thoughts, worldviews, values, sense experiences, and bodies.[2]

The human-technology dialectic has progressed to the point of an implosive condition where subjects are imbricated with, penetrated by, and reconstructed through objects and technologies. Given the dialectic theorized by Marx and McLuhan, it follows that the faster our technologies change, the more rapidly we ourselves change. Since its inception, Homo sapiens has catapulted itself from slow-moving biological time into the exponentially quickening time of technological evolution. Nevertheless, technology develops faster than we do, often more rapidly than we can map, understand, or control.[3] The blinding speed of developments in computers, mass media, and biotechnology are cases in point

We are second nature, a product of first nature, and we are producing other levels of evolutionary change. Our intelligence has produced artificial intelligence, such that we now have computers that can far surpass human thought in many ways, and which can self-organize and operate autonomously to the extent they can generate novel information and not merely what they are programmed to do. “Intelligence” can no longer be seen as strictly a human property, as researchers finding reason and learning processes in both animals and machines. Even “machines” are no longer mechanisms as traditionally described, since they are ever more closely approximating the biological operations of the brain through neural nets, parallel processing, evolutionary hardware, and the like. And our “mind children” (Morevac) themselves have offspring, as for example we have designed computers that design artificial life forms and robots that can create things, possible even superior forms of life that challenge and decenter us.[4]

Thus, all cultures are more or less technological, but no culture until the twentieth century has been as dominated by technology and technological thinking as Western modernity, especially in the passage to postmodernity. We live in a unique technoculture which arises when human culture is defined more by technology than by religion, ethics, or the humanities; when face-to-face, concrete relations rooted in the family and neighborhood community become abstract and electronically mediated; when science and technology become the new Gods, and Progress the new religion. But this secular fundamentalism and Salvationism is delusional in its belief that science and technology offer solutions to all problems – whether overcoming disease or resource scarcity – and fails to realize that technoscience has unintended consequences which cannot be fully predicted or controlled.

Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein, written in 1818, provides one of the first and most prescient critiques of modern science and technology out of control. The novel continues to shape our fears and suspicions of technology, and subsequent sci-fi texts and films have warned, time and time again, that the unharnessed development of science and technology may bring disastrous results to human beings, other life forms, and the earth as a whole. Her theme of “technology out of control” suggests that technology is a complex system that does not lend itself to deterministic schemes of predictability.[5]

Hardly just a romantic yarn or dark Gothic adventure tale, Frankenstein is a book of ethics and a warning that raised, before the currently available nuclear and genetic technologies, a crucial question that is facing us today: Should human beings attempt to control, alter, improve, or, most extremely, create life through technological means? This question becomes all the more urgent to the extent our powers of creation and manipulation become greater, and is imperative to interrogate in a world of atomic and nuclear technologies, synthetic biology, nanotechnology, genetic engineering, germ-line engineering, and cloning.

Frankenstein is best read not as a technophobic attack on technoscience per se, but as a dissection of the hubris of ethically irresponsible and inhumane technoscience, of a technoscience in the grip of obsession with the control and manipulation of life. Scientifically brilliant, but emotionally and ethically crippled, Dr. Frankenstein proved himself to be the real monster, as the “monster” emerged as far more human. The novel confirms Ashley Montague’s insight that “an intelligence that is not humane is the most dangerous thing in the world,” as well as Kant’s emphasis that knowledge divorced from the “good will” is a vice not a virtue.

Frankenstein thus deconstructs the line between the natural and artificial, persons and things, the born and the made, and presents the sensitive creature as a physically and mentally superior being. Shelley thus anticipated the immanent arrival of an era when science acquires the powers to create life, and Dr. Frankenstein’s out-of-control monster represents the dangers this project carries, as a new species can easily escape human control and wreak havoc on the environment and humankind.[6]

With computers and new technologies becoming increasingly sophisticated, ubiquitous, powerful, and autonomous, it is not surprising that a running motif throughout science fiction and much popular culture is a fear of technological takeover. Hence, since Frankenstein, there have been a proliferation of visions of technology rebelling against human creators, most notably in Isaac Asimov’s stories where robots acquire self-consciousness and an independent will and defy the laws of their programming; in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the computer HAL refuses to follow human orders and kills a crew member; and Philip K. Dicks Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, later filmed as Blade Runner, where “replicant” androids return to earth in a quest for longer lives and freedom from human slavery. Also, in the Terminator series, the Skynet computer system evolves to self-consciousness and sends cyborgs back in time to destroy the seeds of future human resistance. William Gibson’s cyberpunk trilogy presents forms of artificial intelligence who appropriate human beings as means to their ends, and The Matrix conjures up a grisly post-holocaust world where computers enslave human bodies as energy sources, while their minds dream away in a cyberworld they take for reality.[7]

III. The Implosion of Humans and Machines

But to paraphrase Baudrillard’s 1990s remark about the year 2000, Frankenstein is already here, as technoscience has unequivocally embraced the project of transgressing boundary lines, of reshaping reality for human purposes, and of creating new forms of life. The lone scientist is now a mega-corporation and the experiment in a basement is now carried out throughout the world, in multiple levels simultaneously and with as much review as Dr. Frankenstein himself had.[8]

Put generally, we can say that the implosive dynamics of postmodern technoculture create, on one side, the biologization of technology and, on the other, the technification of biology. Let me give just a few of a treasure trove of examples and examine their meaning and implication for human identity, ontology, and social life.

          The Biologization of Technology

Increasingly, humans are becoming surrounded by a “smart” world of talking gadgets and interactive technologies that respond to our commands. Our cars, offices, homes, and clothing are being wired with computers for maximal interactivity, as ever-deeper connections are established within the object world itself, creating an emergent intelligence within machines. Our cars, cell phones, and other technologies talk to us and become subject-like, as we become ever-more object-like, in a process that Marx called “commodity fetishism.” Or, as Donny Haraway described the subject/object implosion in the context of consumerism and the society of the spectacle, “Our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves are frighteningly inert.”

Revolutionary developments in the field of artificial intelligence are paralleled by breakthroughs in “artificial life,” whereby computer programs simulate not only human intelligence but also evolutionary processes.[9] Starting with a given condition and some basic programming rules akin to the constraints of nature, AI programmers have found that the numbers and shapes evolve toward greater complexity and even compete, reproduce, age, and die. For some AI designers, “digital DNA” satisfies every traditional biological definition of life, and therefore is alive in some substantive sense. Artificial intelligence and artificial life implode subject/object distinctions and cross the divide between the organic and inorganic, living beings and computers, in grasping that both are information systems governed by the operationalization of codes, whether DNA or binary networks. Since both biological organisms and machines are cybernetic systems of communication and information processing, we should dissolve any ontological dualism or dichotomy in our formal understand of machines and organisms.

Posthumanism unfolds as a symptom of an implosive culture where the distinction between biology and technology, never absolute, blurs significantly, resulting in both the technification of biology and the biologization of technology.

Computer-based problem solving systems today are thoroughly informed by evolutionary premises and analogies. In order to reach the optimal result for problems ranging from the most effective chess playing strategy to manufacturing more efficient engines and better medicines, while obtaining solutions which no designer could dream up, engineers allow the systems to go “out of control” and use methods based on the “evolutionary algorithm,” “genetic programming,” and natural selection. Even computer chips, once thought unmodifiable in their silicon wiring, are pursuing the path of evolution in the form of “evolvable hardware” and “evolutionary electronics.” Through “genetic algorithms” computer chips rapidly develop new sequences, changing their wiring in a few billionths of a second, akin to the way living creatures evolve but much faster. Different sequences in a given “population” combine or mutate for thousands of “generations,” producing “offspring” from which the programmer selects those most “fit.”[10]

Having overthrown the dogma of top-down programming as the only way to design an intelligent machine, robotics today employs bottom-up programming that allows robots to learn novel behaviors, while emergent visual technologies approximate the sophistication of human senses and movements. Robots like “Cog” and “Kismet,” built in the Massachusetts Institute for Technology’s AI lab, are becoming increasingly human-like with abilities to learn and improvise varied behaviors. Engineers are building robots like Kismet which have sensory systems that can detect human emotions and interact with expressive faces that project “moods” of their own.[11]

Dramatically advancing trends in computer evolution toward miniaturization, nanotechnologists seek to create microcomputers based on the model of protein synthesis. They are experimenting with the design of a “biological computer” that applies biological principles to the construction of integrated circuits.[12] Since DNA is allegedly an incredibly fast information-processing biocomputer, its incorporation into a chip could bring vast new powers of speed and computation, and greatly aid in diagnosing diseases like cancer and leukemia. Moreover, scientists are developing neurochips — combinations of living brain cells and computer chips — with the goal of inserting them into the brain to restore broken connections that arise with paralysis, stroke, and memory loss. Through such technologies, bioengineers believe that they will be able to create an actual interface between technology and the body, machines and living tissue, such that, for example, the blind could be able to see and intelligence could be tremendously enhanced through biomachines implanted in the brain. Such a biocomputer, engineers feel, would not in fact be an implant, “but a symbiote, living from the cells it inhabits and giving them, in turn, the chance to evolve into a higher intelligence.”[13]

The Technification of Biology

Thus, the converse of the biologization of technology is the technification of biology, and we have two dramatic examples of this in the cases of biotechnology and the human as cyborg, part-human, part-machine.[14]

A quintessential form of the technification of biology involves the genetic engineering of life. With genetic engineering, we’ve embarked on the most radical experiment humankind has ever attempted, creating entirely new species of plants and animals, cloning animals, and now we are poised to redesign the human genome.

We’re in the midst of a second genesis governed by the mentalities of profit, property rights, scientific reductionism, and the domination of nature; the industrial engineering paradigm has become universalized, applied not only to inanimate objects but also to animals and human beings. Scientists and capitalists are greatly dissatisfied with the natural order — nature is not fast, big, perfect, or profitable enough, and thus it needs to be redesigned. The Futurist magazine, for instance, boasts: “We will no longer have to wait for nature’s relatively slow natural selection. Genetics will bring the capability of speeding and redirecting evolution along paths of our choice.”

Whereas genetic and cloning technologies have some potential to benefit human beings, they have also been appropriated by the meat and dairy industries for purposes of increased profit through the exploitation of animals and biotechnology. It’s the nightmarish materialization of the H.G. Wells scenario where, in his prophetic 1904 novel The Food of the Gods, scientists invent a substance that prompts every living being that consumes it to grow to gargantuan proportions. Having located the genes responsible for regulating growth and metabolism, university and corporate researchers immediately exploited this knowledge for profit. Thus, for the glories of carcinogenic carnivorous consumption, corporations such as MetaMorphix and Cape Aquaculture Technologies have created giant pigs, sheep, cattle, lobsters, and fish that grow faster and larger than the limits set by evolution. Amidst the surreality of Wellsian gigantism, cattle and dairy industries are engineering and cloning designer animals that are larger, leaner, faster-growing value producers. With synthetic chemicals and DNA alteration, pharmers can produce pigs that mature twice as fast and provide at least twice the normal amount of sows per litter as they eat 25% less feed, and cows that produce at least 40% more milk.

A few global biotech corporations like Monsanto and Du Pont scrambling to buy up the patent rights to the DNA of all life — and yet there is no significant public debate, media coverage, or legal regulation of this dangerous revolution that will make reality as we know it obsolete.

Whereas the media can slice and dice reality in anyway they please, genetic engineers literally are doing this; they are inserting, deleting, rearranging, editing, and programming genetic sequences within species and between different species as they please, but not without consequence. Strolling through the new zoo of scientific surreality, one finds a menagerie of bizarre “transgenic” species, including: firefly genes inserted in tobacco plants that now glow, antifreeze genes inserted in fish and tomatoes so they can withstand cold temperatures, chicken genes inserted into potatoes (get meat and potatoes in one dish!), cattle genes placed into chickens (to obtain the “macro-chicken”), and human genes placed into pigs to lessen the chance of organ rejection. Scientists have implanted a spider gene into goats, so that their milk produces a super-strong material — BioSteel — that can be used for bulletproof vests, medical supplies, and aerospace and engineering projects.

In 1998, University of Minnesota scientist Jose Cibelli announced that he had pursued a secret experiment where he cloned (and then terminated) a human embryo by mixing his own DNA in the egg cell of a cow.[15] This is an extraordinary development in the history of biotechnology because it suggests that we can create new human-animal species, or chimera, in the manner of Dr. Moreau or the Greek legends. A myriad of chimeras is beginning to sprout everywhere. Following an earlier experiment at the University of Hawaii that mixed jellyfish genes with the sperm of mice, for example, researchers at the University of Oregon announced in December 1999 that they successfully inserted jellyfish genes into monkey embryos to create a transgenic model to study human fertility and diseases.[16] Unlike the more conservatively constructed Dolly, the sheep “Polly” is both cloned and genetically engineered, designed to have a human gene in her biological code in order to produce a human blood protein. Sheep, pigs, cattle, fish, and mice are some of the animals that now bear human genes, becoming “humanimals, as humans prepare for an onslaught of animal genes to enter their body. In the age of radical hybridization, where the boundaries between plants, insects, animals, and humans are scrambled, all genetic information is recodable and transposable. Most scientists want to produce such embryos only for research, and oppose experiments that would allow human-animal chimeras to be brought to term, but what is some chose to allow this? I am not unconvinced there is not an “Island of Dr. Moreau” in some madman’s basement.

Biotechnology is the new scientific utopia and metanarrative of the postmodern world; the corporations and governments tell us that biotechnology will do everything from curing diseases to solving the world hunger problem; we are told there are no dangers to genetic technologies since they allegedly are not different in kind from traditional ways of breeding improved species through hybridization and artificial selection. They willfully obscure the fact that genetic engineering is radically new, for never before have we been able to cross such disparate species boundaries or to engineer biological changes so rapidly, doing in a single generation what previously took decades to accomplish; never before have we been able to cross species boundaries, to directly mix the DNA from different species, and never before have the consequences of altering nature been so portentous, as we cannot recall a modified organism from the environment.[17]

Given that we now have the technologies to steer evolution according to human design, Mary Shelley’s question resurfaces in a much more dramatic and urgent context: are scientists ethical and wise enough to design new life forms and understand the full implications of the changes is nature we are already creating?

There is no reason or caution involved in the genetic revolution because it is driven by profit; we are now witnessing a mad gene rush akin to the gold rush of the nineteenth century; scientists and thousands of biotech corporations are scrambling furiously for patents on life that can bring billions of dollars in profits; consequently, a new colonialism has emerged: biopiracy, which exploits the genetic resources of indigenous cultures for rare pharmaceutical products, plant DNA, and human cell lines they can patent.

The relevance of the category of “species” as a natural kind is now questionable. What we call “reality” is up for grabs and it is now almost whatever we make of it, giving social constructionism an entirely new meaning. Biotechnology dissolves boundaries between organic and inorganic matter, and among every conceivable species and life form. Genes are promiscuously exchanged among plants, animals, and humans. The current implosion of “pharming” (pharmaceutical farming) involves the genetic engineering of animals to transform their bodies into drug-excreting and organ-making factories to treat human diseases. The process is just getting underway as genetic engineering merges with xenotransplantation and new drugs come to market. With the birth of Dolly in 1997, it became clear that adult mammal cells could be cloned, allowing the mass production of a genetic type. These changes bring potent medical advances as they raise the specter of introducing frightening diseases into the human population, as well as ethical issues concerning animal exploitation. They raise two other serious dangers regarding human society:

Biotechnology has completely scrambled the codes of the real. The relevance of the category of “species” as a natural kind is now questionable. What we call “reality” is up for grabs and it is now almost whatever we make of it, giving social constructionism an entirely new meaning. The definition of Homo sapiens, never clear, is becoming more confused as develop pre-implantation genetic diagnosis and begin to alter the human genome. In an era where life can be created and redesigned in a Petri dish, and genetic codes can be edited like a digital text, the distinction between “natural” and “artificial” is greatly troubled. The very concept of evolution as something driven by the natural world with the human social world as its passive clay to be shaped must change as we ourselves begin to actively direct evolutionary processes, and do so in rapid time.

Cyborgs and Technobodies

More specifically, the technification of biology involves the creation of the technobody, a cyborg that is part human, part machine, relating to others and the world through an intense technological shaping and mediation. The technobody involves not only the mediation of biological existence through technological processes and communication systems, but also the fusion of the body and technology.

Besides the now mundane use of: pacemakers, artificial heart valves, limb prostheses, hip and knee replacements; breast, penis, and hair transplants; calf inserts, lip enhancement, nose jobs, face lifts, chemical peels, Botox injections, liposuction, and body contouring. Los Angeles is the Mecca for the eerie, posthuman, alien-like form of the technobody, the surgically altered, hyperreal body, designed from a computer program that constructs before the customer’s eye the suitable Platonic archetype of beauty and perfection. But there are also bold new developments, and so today’s cyborg could have battery-powered hands, Cochlear ear implants that stimulate the auditory nerve, and vision chips that send wireless images from an eyeglass-mounted camera to electrodes grafted onto the brain. Artificial retinas, eyes, noses, teeth, and ears round out the technobody, along with fake veins grown on collagen scaffolding taken from a pig’s intestine to replace clogged coronary arteries. Imitation muscle made out of carbon nanotubes flexes when stimulated by an electrical charge and is stronger than natural muscles; useful to make fingers and limbs for microrobots, it may someday serve as a replacement heart, limb, or valve for human beings. In a union of nature and technology, the prosthetic limbs of amputees can be controlled by the brain, using electronic sensing devices and evolvable hardware chips. Scientists can grow sheets of artificial skin and cartilage, and are obtaining dramatic results in early experiments making organs, wombs, and other body parts using biodegradable polymer scaffolding that slowly dissolves to leave intact new tissue. In the new field of stem cell research, scientists are learning how to program these undifferentiated “master cells” of the body to grow into any type of cell, tissue, or organ the body needs, suggesting a future post-Fordism where everyone could freeze and store their own stem cells to create a “body repair kit” to be used for everything from curing Alzheimer’s disease to replacing a lost limb. Stimulators and electrodes planted under the skin help paraplegics regain limb motion. Advances in microprocessors, batteries, and biomaterials are bringing about a viable mechanical heart, and artificial chromosomes are being developed that could permit the customization of genetic traits.

With developments in bionics, human beings are not only surrounded by technology and incorporate it into their identities, their flesh literally is fused with plastic, steel, wiring, and computer chips In addition, bodies are surgically reconstructed with scalpels and lasers into hyperreal images constructed from the Platonic forms of the fashion world, available for pre-screening and design through a computer.

Moreover, scientists are developing neurochips — combinations of living brain cells and computer chips — with the goal of inserting them into the brain to restore broken connections that arise with problems such as paralysis and memory loss. Similarly, in a potentially dramatic co-construction of science and technology, gene therapy might be advanced through the development of a “cell-chip” device that merges a human cell with an electric circuitry chip. Controlled by a computer, it could open up cell membranes to insert new DNA, extract proteins, and administer drugs with great precision. Should the formidable obstacle of tissue-material interacting be overcome someday, as bioengineers build entire circulatory systems on silicon wafers seeded with vascular cells, television’s fantasy of a six-million dollar man, completely reconstructed into a cyborg after a devastating plane crash, could become reality rather than mere fiction.

Postmodern technology is bringing a future where bodies come ready-made with computer chips. In the vision of “cybergenomics,” a chip implanted in each person’s body can produce a complete DNA reading of the body to assess risk for any disease, and the information can be sent via computer to one’s doctor. Nanotechnology may bring us micro-robots that constantly survey the body, monitor the temperature and blood chemistry, assist the immunological system, and release drugs when needed. If cyberpunk visions such as Neuromancer, Johnny Mnemonic, and The Matrix are on target, people in tomorrow’s world will augment their memory, senses, and intelligence through implants that interface directly with their brain. Already, chronically depressed people are using electronic nerve stimulators to alter moods and induce feelings of happiness. The next step is to implant them directly into the brain.

Thus, Marshall McLuhan’s scheme (1964) has to be radicalized: technology is no longer merely the extension of human senses — as the wheel is an extension of the foot, the spear an extension of the arm, and the computer an extension of the brain — it is inserted into and grafted onto the body.[18]

Self-styled cyborgs live among us now. such as Steve Mann, a pioneer of wearable computers, who strolls the streets with battery packs, video camera, and modem connections.       From 1980 to the present, these devices have shrunk from bulky apparatuses to microtechnologies that fit in the lining of a suit and palm of a hand, making the transition from one world to another all the more seamless as the technology disappears into the clothes and the body. As we enter the “fourth wave” of computing, a progression from mainframes to minicomputing, PCs, and wearables, the distance between the body and technology collapses simultaneously.

Doing Mann one better, Kevin Warwick, professor of cybernetics, implanted an electronic glass capsule under the skin of his arm, so that as he entered his building at the University of Reading, his office lights turned on, doors opened, and his computer booted up, while tracking his movements throughout the corridors.[19] His next experiment seeks to create an even more intimate interface between human and computer, through surgically attaching a device to the nerve fibers in his arm designed to transmit and receive signals from his brain to his computer. Warwick’s experiments portend a future where humans beings communicate to computers and the object world directly through their minds, and a new type of subject whose senses are augmented and enhanced through electronic information systems.

Whereas cyborg and posthuman approaches tend to slide into a neo-Cartesianism that makes mind the essential reality and substance, this is not the case with performance artist Stelarc explores the limitations of the “obsolete” human body as he seeks to enhance the senses and flesh through technological means. Infamous for suspending his body with wires, building artificial hands and virtual arms, and swallowing an illuminated, sound-emitting, video-reporting capsule for a “stomach sculpture,” perhaps his most provocative performance linked his nervous system to a distant audience through a computer, whereby he could send and receive long-distance neural messages. The human brain has entered the computer, and the computer is an extension of the brain; a new community of intermingling bodies and brains opens up within virtual reality.

Like Chronenberg, McLuhan, Kurzweil, Morevac, and the transhumanists, Stelarc believes that the pace of the information age has overtaxed and overrun the nervous system, such that the brain can no longer adapt to the rush and intensity of data flow. Thus, the biological given of the body is inefficient and inadequate for its technological future, and can only survive through extension with the technological forms that make it outmoded.[20]

A prevailing ideology of technoculture is that the mind and body are deficient, inadequate, too frail and slow, unfit for a buzzing and blooming cyberworld saturated with computers and information.[21] Transhumanists seek a better body, while posthumanists like Stelarc declare the mind and body inept and obsolete, and that its only viable future is through massive technological augmentation. The life of a postmodern cyborg could be enhanced through plastic surgery, hormone therapy, psychotropics, “mind machines” that increase relaxation and promote brain development, and life extension programs that promise to normalize living past the century mark.[22] These issues raise the question of how far the implosion between technology and the human can go before new posthuman life forms emerge.

 IV. Conclusion: Toward a Critical Theory of Technology and Society

Through the micro-revolutions of biotechnology and nanotechnology, human beings can now manipulate the natural world atom-by-atom, gene-by-gene, and even reconstruct nature according to new designs. A key part of the postmodern adventure is transgressing limits and boundary conditions, and technoscience is altering forces previously thought to be unyielding “laws.” This brings about a new era of increased freedom, but also increased responsibility.

What we call “reality” is up for grabs and it is now almost whatever we make of it, giving social constructionism an entirely new meaning. And as we move beyond previous limits and boundary conditions, humanism mutates into posthumanism.

As a dynamic construct of natural, social, scientific, and technological evolution, the meaning and structure of the human changes and evolves through time. Whereas the modern adventure brought a new definition and experience of subjectivity in the form of humanism, the postmodern adventure deconstructs and reconstructs the concept of the human through new philosophies and hybridized forms of existence that bring the subject ever deeper into the matrix of technology, preparing the way for a posthuman turn.

A crucial fact of the postmodern adventure is that human beings are now seizing the reins of evolution as they prepare to dramatically step up the pace of technological and biological change through computer interfacing, genetic engineering, and nanotechnologies. If and when the day comes that direct links can be established between the brain and computer, such that massive amounts of learning could transpire in minute periods of time, evolutionary change would be ratcheted up to unimaginable levels, and the distinction between virtual reality and real life, already shaky, would be meaningless. Further, as genetic engineering becomes more sophisticated, and coevolves with computer technologies, human beings can design and redesign themselves in a matter of generations rather than millennia. Thus, some think that human conception is shifting from chance to conscious design,

As we enter the era of intentional evolution, an era to be fraught with unintended consequences, the greatest of all adventures is underway, with the outcome undetermined: will we make improvements in the natural world and our own existence, or will we wreak irreversible havoc in the codes of life? Will we shift from correcting defects in our genes to trying to improve our looks, intelligence, and athletic abilities? If so, will this lead to greater freedom and diversity, or normalization and eugenics?[23] With germ line engineering, will we split into two different species, the Gen-rich and the Naturals? What will happen to “human nature” as we begin to merge more intimately with animals and machines? What becomes of our species identity as we acquire new means of birth and conception and more power in determining our evolution?

The ambiguity of the present moment is that the science and technologies which could bring stunning benefits to the humanity race also engender new forms of domination and destruction. The outcome depends upon whether individuals and communities can democratically restructure society and culture to avoid the destructive consequences of uncontrolled growth and development.

If, as Gregory Stock says: “The real question is not whether these technologies will appear, but when they will, who will have access to them, and how we will use them,” then we must make sure the public and public good is deeply involved in their development. As science become more important to society, it is equally urgent that society becomes more important to science.

The global battle over biotechnology is rapidly escalating and could go either way – toward colonization or regulation that may bring about moratoriums on many applications of biotechnology.[24] We have entered a new moment in history that involves nothing less than a struggle for who determines the genetic basis of life and evolution. The path ahead is not through the fallacies of reductionistic life sciences, but rather through a postmodern paradigm shift in science, education of both scientists and the public, and citizen involvement in the development of science.

Notes


[1] Our evolution, therefore, is inseparable from the evolution of our tools and technologies, a fact that we commonly recognize in referring to past “ages” such as the Stone Age, Iron Age, and Bronze Age in terms of their dominant technologies.

[2] “[P]hysiologically, man in the normal use of technology (or his variously extended body) is perpetually modified by it and in turn finds ever new ways of modifying his technology” (1964: 55-6). This process culminated, McLuhan believed, in the creation of a global electronic village, a huge wired brain, where the fragmenting effects of industrial technologies were overcome in a vast communications hive, as a “new man” was created in the electronic sensorium.

[3] Clearly, for some time human evolution has been driven more by technological than biological dynamics. The human genotype and phenotypes have changed negligibly in the last 40,000 years; in contrast, technology has changed at an incredibly rapid pace, and has been a driving force in the evolution of human societies, cultures, and consciousness.

[4] There exists the possibility that machines might be created that are more intelligent than human beings. In one variant of this scenario, humans will assimilate technology that will dramatically increase their intelligence, longevity and powers, thus in effect creating a new superior posthuman species. In another scenario, humans will create machines, “mind children” (Morevac), or “spiritual machines” (Kurzweil), which will constitute an ascendant species of intelligent life (see the discussion in the following section). In these visions, human beings either merge with the computers and robots they are creating, or they become inferior and obsolete.

[5] Shelley’s vision concerned more than just the delusions of one mad scientist, it involved the Frankenstein syndrome — the obsession with control over natural processes, and the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, divorced from a careful consideration of ethics, politics, and potential consequences. The lesson of Frankenstein highlights the need to carefully reflect upon the consequences of new technologies, to closely monitor their effects, and to accept accountability for scientific and technological undertakings. However, there are many scientists and engineers today who embrace unlimited technological innovation without ethical accountability. Humanity may certainly improve its world through technology, Shelley suggests, but there are limits to technological intervention in nature. Shelley draws the line at the human creation of life, a line we have already crossed with genetic engineering, cloning, nanotechnology, hybrid species, and synthetic biology; while the religious often argue that we not “play God,” we can rephrase the argument to say that we suffer from an overweening hubris and lack the wisdom necessary to control technoscience by shaping it toward positive ends. Certainly, there are many scientists today who embrace unlimited technological innovation. Devouring the tree of knowledge, accepting no legitimate boundaries of human intervention in nature, championing genetic engineering and cloning, they would find Shelley’s vision to be atavistic and “romantic” in the worst sense of the term. Indeed, I would argue, blanket prohibitions against human intervention in nature and playing God are problematic and potentially reactionary. Since their origin, and by their very definition, Homo sapiens have used language, intelligence, and technology to manipulate their world for their advantage, employing increasingly complex and ingenious means. Bacon’s call to “command nature” is fully understandable in the context of a society that is still scientifically and technologically primitive, one beset by plagues, hunger, and violence. The proscription against “playing God” stems from a theological framework that itself has no validity: if there is no God, only natural processes of evolution, then there is no “game” to play; there is only the exercise of an intelligence that may or may not be applied wisely and should be proscribed, if at all, on pragmatic and ethical, not religious, grounds. Nowhere do the symbols and syndrome of Frankenstein apply more readily today than in the case of nanotechnologies, stem cell research, germ-line engineering (which makes permanent alterations in a genetic code), and cloning, all involving the manipulation of microcosmic natural forces. Having dispelled the mystery of the atom, scientists are now unlocking the secrets of the gene, and a dizzying array of benedictions and curses await us. Arguing that scientists must assume responsibility for their productions, Bill Joy warned that humans should be very careful about the technologies they develop, which may have unforeseen consequences. Joy noted that robotics was producing increasingly intelligent machines that might generate creative robots that could be superior to humans, produce copies of themselves, and assume control of the design and future of humans. Likewise, genetic engineering could create new species, some perhaps dangerous to humans and nature, while nanotechnology could create horrific “engines of destruction” as well as of creation.

[6] Shelley’s fable also suggests that human creations might themselves breed and produce a new, even more intractable species, as suggested in the subplot of the mutant seeking a wife and family. Hence, Shelley previews key aspects of the fifth discontinuity, where the creation of a new species threatens to rebound against humanity, and to decenter the human, robbing it of its prerogatives, uniqueness, and claims to the pinnacle of evolution. Frankenstein’s “monster” remains an enduring symbol for any potent technology that human beings create which escapes their control and threatens their survival. What I call the Frankenstein Syndrome — the obsession with control over natural processes; the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, divorced from a careful consideration of ethics and potential consequences; and blindness to unforeseen and uncontrollable consequences of technology — continues to be an obsession of popular culture.

[7] Throughout the modern literature on human inventions — whether robot, androids, cyborg, a Frankenstein being made out of flesh and human parts, or computers like HAL and Skynet — one finds the same ambiguity: Are these creations friend or foe? Servants or master? Can we subordinate them to human will and purpose, or will they acquire a will and purpose of their own, and fight against us? Are they smarter or better than us? In the human imagination, we find a constant fear that machines will breed out of control and take over — e.g., Dr. Frankenstein’s monster wants a wife, Asimov’s robots acquire self-consciousness and an independent will, the dinosaurs at Jurassic Park spontaneously reproduce, and the computer system in the Terminator seeks to eradicate superfluous humanity.

[8] And so, playing out the scenes in Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory, technoculture increasingly erased the line between biology and technology, the natural and the artificial, and the real and the made. As human bodies are fitted with pacemakers, artificial limbs, and other prosthetic devices; as species boundaries are routinely crossed, producing “transgenic” species such as “geeps” (a cross between a goat and a sheep) and mice mixed with human genes; as xenotransplantation practitioners take the huge risk of implanting animal blood and organs into human bodies; as scientists have successfully performed a “full body transplant” (grafting the head of one individual onto the body of another) on monkeys and hopes to do so with humans; as bionics becomes sufficiently developed to mass manufacture synthetic skin, and perhaps soon entire human organs and limbs; as body organs are hawked like drugs on the global market; as technologically designed species can be owned, patented, and commodified by corporations; as farmed animals have been genetically modified and cloned for human food consumption; as scientists are actively working to clone human beings and to create mutants that are half-human, half-ape for medical and experimental purposes. In the midst of all this, we are taking decisive steps toward becoming mutants and cyborgs, no longer species “originals,” but rather pastiches of DNA, flesh, and organs (both animal and human), technological implants, prosthetics, and perhaps cloned cells

[9] The new field of “artificial life” undercuts the distinction between inorganic and organic matter, nonliving and living processes, by simulating evolution with the natural selection of numbers or visual forms. Starting with a given condition and some basic programming rules akin to the constraints of nature, AI programmers have found that the numbers and shapes evolve toward greater complexity and even compete, reproduce, age, and die. For some AI designers, “digital DNA” satisfies every traditional biological definition of life, and therefore is alive in some substantive sense.

[10] For a useful overview of these new computing strategies, see “Evolving a Conscious Machine,” by Gary Taubes (www.britannica.com/bcom/original/article/0,5744,2405,00.html).

[11]” The Robot That Loves People,” Discovery, October 1999, pp. 66-73. Also see “The Cog Shop” (http://www.ai.mit.edu/projects/ cog). Through a series of moving gears, a video camera, and a computer, the robots are programmed to identify and respond to human facial expressions. Scrutinizing the expressions of a worker, the robots — adorned with aluminum heads, wigs, false teeth, and phony eyes — mimic what they see and, the scientists hope, will make the workers feel more comfortable with their technological rivals.

[12] Realizing the ability of proteins to organize a vast array of biochemicals into a living organism, nanotechnologists seek to design synthetic proteins that would be able to handle a similar level of complexity, and, indeed, they have actually used real proteins in certain designs.

[13] Controlled by a computer, it could open up cell membranes to insert new DNA, extract proteins, and administer drugs with great precision.  One new form of the biochip is known as a “critter on a chip,” which combines bioluminescent bacteria with silicon to detect pollutants and explosives. Should the formidable obstacle of tissue-material interacting be overcome someday, as bioengineers build entire circulatory systems on silicon wafers seeded with vascular cells, television’s fantasy of a six-million dollar man, completely reconstructed into a cyborg after a devastating plane crash, could become reality rather than mere fiction.

[14] Through artificial birth and cryogenic technologies, for example, the process of birth and death are no longer strictly natural events and are intensely mediated by medical technologies. Wombs that could not spawn or support embryos can now do so with the aid of Petri dishes, test tubes, fertility drugs, and other wombs for rent. Life extension programs promise to normalize living past the century mark, a process some would define not as artificially lengthening human life but realizing its natural span. With the growing industry of cryogenics, however, which places the body in a state of frozen suspension, as well as new discoveries of telomerase which can maintain cell division, we are promised immortality, what Condorcet took to be the ultimate realization of Enlightenment reason. Genetic engineering and cloning technologies now allow human beings to manipulate DNA itself, to collapse previously firm species boundaries, to design entirely new species, and to clone individuals of any species, perhaps human beings included, innumerable amount of times. From pre-conception to death, the postmodern subject is constructed as a cyborg. Imagine this all-too-plausible scenario involving artificial birth technologies: an infertile woman who wants to conceive withdraws semen from a sperm bank (since only the best will do, she purchases from Nobel Prize winner donors), fuses it with another woman’s egg in a Petri dish (donated by a supermodel, perhaps one of “Ron’s Angel’s,” a site which once sold supermodel eggs), uses gene therapy to monitor its development for any possible diseases which are zapped on the spot, and implants the embryo in a rented womb pumped up with fertility drugs. Who is the mother and father of the baby? Is it a biological or technological product? Or both? Even death is becoming a technological event as ever more individuals freeze their bodies for a possible cryogenic resurrection. Through the ability to freeze and store sperm, eggs, and somatic cells, and to clone humans, posthuman ideologues claim that we have entered the age of immortality.

[15] Partially human hybrid embryos have been created by fusing human cells and animal eggs, and partially human chimeric embryos have been created by injecting human embryonic stem cells into animal embryos. Most scientists want to produce such embryos only for research, and oppose experiments that would allow human-animal chimeras to be brought to term.

[16] Scientists transferred seven transgenic embryos into the wombs of rhesus monkeys, leading to one successful birth named “George.” While the experiment may further scientific understanding, it may also pave the way for designer babies and a eugenic society, as it furthers the knowledge of how to add genes to human embryos to create desired life forms. The troubling implications of this scenario, of course, were a core preoccupation of Aldous Huxley, who continued Wells’ speculations on a genetically-engineered society and creation of new species. Indeed, with only trivial qualifications, Huxley’s Brave New World of genetic engineering, cloning, addictive pleasure drugs (soma), megaspectacles, and intense social engineering has arrived. Huxley thought cloning and genetic engineering were centuries away from realization, but in fact they began to unfold a mere two decades since his writing of Brave New World (1931). Technocapitalism cannot yet, for instance, biologically clone human beings, but it can clone them in a far more effective way — socially. Whereas biological clones would have a mind of their own, since the social world and experiences that conditioned the “original” could not be reproduced, cloning a person according to a given ideological and functional model is far more controlling. That is why Huxley’s sequel work, Brave New World Revisited, focuses on various modes of social conditioning and mind control.

[17] The biotech industries assure us there are no dangers to genetic engineering technologies, that they are not different in kind from traditional ways of cultivating and breeding new and improved species of plants and animals. But they vastly understate the revolution they are ushering in, and fail to see that while humans have manipulated the plant and animal worlds for 10,000 years, genetic engineering truly is unprecedented in its nature and power, Never before have we been able to cross species boundaries, to directly mix the DNA from different species, and to engineer biological changes as rapidly as we are doing today. Given that we now have the technologies to steer evolution according to human design, Mary Shelley’s question resurfaces in a much more dramatic and urgent context: are scientists ethical and wise enough to design new life forms and understand the full implications of the changes is nature we are already creating?

[18] Let it be clear that I am not condemning the technobody in all cases, nostalgic for an earlier “natural” body afflicted with tuberculosis, arthritis, and the plague. Exciting new frontiers of health are beginning to open with scientific advances in the understanding of disease, aging, and intelligence which can be utilized for the improvement and extension of human life. It is now possible, for example, to technologically enhance human intelligence, not only through herbs, psychotropics, and hormone therapy, but also through sophisticated “mind machines” that increase relaxation, facilitate quicker and clearer thinking, and promote brain development. Only the most incorrigible victim of naturalist metaphysics would not embrace such a “hyperreal” body — a technologically-enhanced body that is “realer-than-real” — and avoid, as long as possible, the process of mental and physical entropy. The body of the future will still require relaxation techniques, rest, exercise, good nutrition, herbs, and natural therapies, but it will also survive and thrive through technological enhancements and extensions. It will be, in short, a cyborg.

[19] Warwick was apotheosized by Wired which featured him in a cover story celebrating his achievements; 8.2 (February 2000: 144-151). Interestingly, Warwick put his experiments in a posthumanist context, opening his article with the words: “I was born human. But this was an accident of fate — a condition merely of time and place. I believe it’s something we have the power to change. I will tell you why.” See also his University of Reading website: http://www.cyber.rdg.ac.uk.” and your values and judgment will change” (http://www.salon. com/tech/feature/1999/10/20/cyborg/html).

[20] “It is time to question whether a bipedal, breathing body with binocular vision and a 1400cc brain is an adequate biological form. It cannot cope with the quantity, complexity and quality of information it has accumulated; it is intimidated by the precision, speed and power of technology and it is biologically ill-equipped to cope with its new extraterrestrial environment” (www.stelarc.va.com.au/obsolete.html).

[21] The technobody is not a deficient body, rather it is a hyperreal body that is “realer-than-real” (Baudrillard), superior to the Rube Goldberg contraption jerryrigged by nature. Not only does technology work to cure disease and overcome deficiencies, it surgically, chemically, and electronically augments and expands physical reality to make the body stronger and better than the natural thing.

[22] For a dossier on “The Exploding Science of Superlongevity,” see Wired 8.01 (January 2000): 184ff.

[23] If so, we have a chilling past episode of eugenics in our recent history that led to the sterilization of tens of thousands of people, restrictive immigration laws, a racist mythology, and inspired Hitler goal of a “final solution: to what he perceived as genetic pollution.

[24] After 1999, protests against genetic engineering began to mount in the U.S. and around the world, resulting in anti-biotech groups bringing legal suits against biotech companies, eco-guerillas sabotaging biotech test crops, and countries throughout the world demanding genetically altered food be labeled or rejecting it altogether. Farmers have awakened to the fact that they have been had; they see crop failure, crop contamination, closed markets, loss of seed stock, and more bureaucratic control. People are so skeptical of biotechnology and corporations like Monsanto that Zambia, suffering from terrible famine, continues to refuse genetically altered food as aid because they do not want to be a dumping ground for genetically altered crops and they rightly fear losing their political, economic, and agricultural sovereignty.