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.

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