Monthly Archives: February 2016

Personhood: Transhumanism

By Meryn Lobb

With the consistent development of new and increasingly complex technologies, a movement known as transhumanism has emerged. Transhumanism aims to help the human race evolve and transform beyond its current limitations, using science and technology to enhance both mental and physical capacities. Transhumanist technologies can range from simple hearing aids to complex virtual realities, or perhaps even something to increase the longevity of a human life. https://lifeboat.com/ex/transhumanist.technologies

For the average person who might want to improve their life and better their body, the movement seems ideal. But is it too idealistic? Transhumanist technologies can be used not just to enhance the human body further — they can also help those with disabilities become more ‘normal’. Oddly, however, these people stand very divided on the issue. Many feel that money is being funnelled into pursuing transhumanist ideals when too many still don’t have access to basic things such as wheelchairs. They also claim that by doing this, society is almost trying to force them to be normal, assuming that anyone with a disability cannot be fully happy with themselves and that anything they do accomplish is amazing and inspirational. The problem here is that society keeps trying to fix people rather than just accepting everyone as equal and ensuring equitable treatment. As author Eli Clare writes in a text about her life with cerebral palsy, the natural human body is ‘home’ and we need to be able to find and accept ourselves within it, just as it is. Some fear that to do otherwise could result in a movement similar to eugenics, separating people from their natural roots and involving full-fledged conflict. http://karljahn.tripod.com/trans.html

Others, such as Stelarc, believe that we as humans are developing so rapidly with the help of technology that “the desire to locate the self simply within a particular biological body is no longer meaningful (and) what it means to be human is constantly being redefined.“ They are focused on moving beyond the simple notion of humanity today in order to improve lives and knowledge. Those with disabilities need not be different and inhibited anymore. Some people argue that transhumanism need not be feared; they have compared transhumanist enhancements to plastic surgery, in that everyone has a choice and may choose their own type of enhancement (or none at all). https://biopinionated.com/category/transhumanism/

Undoubtedly, transhumanism has the potential to completely change humanity. It has people concerned because they are afraid of change, and afraid of creating an even greater divide in the inequality that already exists between people. Who will be able to afford transhumanist enhancements? — the ones that already have the money to afford all the newest advances in technology. However scary the notion is, people need to stop seeing the transhumanist movement as something that abounds upon the world all at one time. Like every new scientific or technological advancement, things happen in stages, often slowly enough that there is more than enough time to get used to one thing before something new emerges— it’s already happening! Think about our world now from the perspective of someone one hundred years ago, or even fifty years ago. What might have seemed a crazy and terrifying concept then is now the norm in present society.

It seems to me that the best thing to do is just let transhumanism progress as it may and take the ‘natural course’ that every new concept has to follow. Yes, there is the risk of potential consequences, but what great movement doesn’t have the risk factor? Rather than trying to see the whole future all at once, just sit back, relax, and let things play out. Humans are inherently great at adaptation, and before you know it, transhumanism could be a worldwide phenomenon.

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Rigging the Genetic Lottery

Melanie Taylor

According to Stelarc, an Australian performance artist who focuses on the idea of enhancing the body, “Technology is what defines the meaning of being human, it’s part of being human”(Read the interview here). Technology is and always has been part of my life and has shaped my experiences and how I perceive the world around me. I have been in contact with some form of technology every day of my life and accepting that my body is “biologically inadequate” in this information age seems to be just the next logical step in allowing technology to define me as a human being. By erasing the skin as a barrier we open our bodies up to a different kind of vulnerability. Attaching mechanical limbs or inserting micro-robots is just the very beginning of the possibilities of human enhancement.

After our lecture and discussion on human cyborg and genetic manipulation I began to fully realize not only the great potential, but also the great threat of genetic enhancement to our society. I find that I sit somewhere in the middle of the debate on whether or not we should resist the technology that will allow us to design our offspring and tamper with natural gene distribution. On one hand it seems a necessary and obvious next step in technological and human evolution, but on the other it brings up several moral qualms and has the potential to change our society in massive, and possibly irreversible, ways. Whether or not we are prepared to make these choices and face these changes is not yet entirely clear to me, but considering the implications and possible outcomes of these very real possibilities is important as they slowly become realities.

Some scientists and naturalists would claim that as a species “we have reached stagnation”(Read this article about Sir David Attenborough) and “that we’ve stopped evolving”(or check out this article). Sir David Attenborough, a naturalist and celebrated broadcaster, believes that because “we are now able to rear up to 99 percent of our babies… we are no longer subject to Darwinian theories of natural selection”. However, evolution may not be limited to natural selection. With the development of medicine and technology humans will evolve as cyborgs as we “directly intervene in our own evolution, using cloning and gene therapy”(Peter Ward). In this sense, genetic intervention is attractive and it seems obvious that we must push to advance the evolution of our species if we have the ability to do so.

The biggest problem we might face if we choose this method of enhancement is deciding where we should draw the line when it comes to playing with our genetics. In The Case Against Perfection, Michael J. Sandel suggests “ The moral quandary arises when people use such therapy not to cure a disease but to reach beyond health, to enhance their physical or cognitive capacities, to lift themselves above the norm.” The “norm” or average will rise higher and higher as parents gain access to the selection of a child’s appearance, likes and dislikes, traits, and abilities, leading to a rat race caused by crossing the fine line between remedy and enhancement. It seems to be no longer a question of whether or not we can do it, but instead a question of whether or not we should.

We need to ask ourselves if we want to live in a world where our children are “products of deliberate design” and where rigging the genetic lottery means overriding our children’s’ natural capacities. Although we all may have our own opinions on the topic, once genetic modification of physical and cognitive capacities beyond remedy is in practice, our opinions matter less and less. Our offspring, if not genetically modified, may not be able to compete with those who are enhanced. Those who choose against genetic modifications, or those who may not be able to afford them, might be left behind in the evolutionary race.

Read a transhumanist’s prespective at http://link.springer.com/article/10.1023%2FB%3AINQU.0000019037.67783.d5?LI=true#/page-1 

 

 

 

Ableism, Autism, and Transhumanist Ethics

Levi Hord

 

A few days ago, an Autistic transgender man named Kayden Clark was shot by police during a mental health crisis. Besides leaving both the disability- and trans-rights communities in a state of grief, Kayden’s murder has reminded us that both ableism and transphobia permeate our society on the deepest levels. Though I usually focus on queer oppression, I want to talk today about some different issues: ableism, autism, and the transhumanist struggle.

You’re probably familiar with the concept of ableism because you encounter it every day when you use buildings that are meant for those with uncompromised mobility, when you hear the words “crazy”, “insane”, or “retarded” nonchalantly used to describe the weather, or when you attend or work for an institution forwarding an definition of success that obviously is not meant to be accessibly achieved by everybody (yes, University, I’m looking at you).  But, in case you didn’t know it means, here’s the scoop: ableism is the social assumption that people with physical, developmental, or psychiatric disabilities are worth less than those without. Ableism is also the very real the set of principles, practices, standards, and treatment that makes these ideas permanent fixtures in society through making our world based around a notion of “normal” that excludes everyone but the able-bodied and neurotypical (the website “Disabled Feminist” is a good resource to check out if you have questions.) It’s important to understand, as we see through Kayden’s case and many others, that ableism can be deadly. Individuals aren’t only murdered, assaulted, neglected or abused on an individual basis, but the community has also endured a painful history of forced sterilization and eugenics.

“Eugenics?” you may ask. “Wasn’t that what the Nazis did?” Well, yes. But we may be doing it too.

When you google “autism”, the first non-ad result that comes up is the homepage for Autism Speaks, an organization that claims to be a world leader in “research into the causes, prevention, treatments and a cure for autism” while also advocating for the needs of Autistic individuals and their families. However, many Autistic folks (and their allies) claim that Autism Speaks hasn’t been advocating for them at all… it has been advocating for their erasure.

Autism Speaks is one of the many organizations that is funding research into prenatal testing for autism spectrum disorders, with the hopes of being able to terminate or not even begin pregnancies in which the child is ‘at risk’ for developing autism. But what message is this sending to Autistic people? The problem with this organization (and countless others like it) is that it forwards the rhetoric that the lives of Autistic people are tragedies (all the time, no exceptions), that they are not worth living, and that it would be better for them and for their families if they had never been born. If you want to know more, and see what Autistic people are actually saying, you can find anti-Autism Speaks rants here and here.

So, why is this important? It is arguable that life would be easier if you didn’t have to live with any impairment, and it isn’t like we’d actually be ending the lives of people with autism or any other disorder, we would just be ceasing to create them. This isn’t exactly a superfluous “designer baby” approach, this is an improvement for standard of living. Is this apparent erasure of suffering still problematic? Would we think about it the same way if we could eliminate bad eyesight, or cancer? I argue that we wouldn’t, for the simple reason that things like autism (and any variation that effects cognitive or psychological processes) become identity-based rather than an impairment that you can detach from your personality. Sure, things like physical impairments change your outlook on life or your philosophy, but cognitive and psychological differences are your outlook on life, they are how you see the world.

Philosophical explorations of this sort bring us to transhumanism: the idea that we can and should transform the human condition for the better by augmenting it with technology (which can encompass everything from prosthetics to implants to prenatal testing). While elevating our experiences beyond our natural abilities may seem like a great thing, there are some criticisms of transhumanism that we can forward, including the fact that it doesn’t respect diversity (those with augmentation will always be superior to those without), it is based on a neo-liberal capitalist agenda (only those with money will be able to achieve transhuman status), and it puts forward an even more homogeneous and problematic conception of what ability should look like. It also flies in the face of what the disability rights movement has been trying to accomplish for years – the acceptance of all people, no matter their abilities or how they choose to live with them.

Philosopher Michael Sandel talks about the ethics of transhumanism, something that he thinks our society hasn’t fully thought through. Though he doesn’t talk specifically about autism or other cognitive disorders, he does make the case that eliminating variation erases specialness, and the opportunity for things to develop as they will, which can be a fulfilling experience. He describes transhumanism as a type of privatised, free-market eugenics, calling to mind the morally reprehensible practices of old which our country is still reconciling. So yes, there are benefits to the transhumanist approach, but I challenge anyone to make a case for it that isn’t tainted by the ethical issues of eugenics that we still haven’t fully acknowledged or dealt with.

To wrap up this post, I want to return to autism and consider a specific case. In class we discussed whether or not we should measure the accomplishments of differently-abled people against able-bodied people, and whether we should also include those with assistive technology in the same “races”. I think it’s particularly important extension to consider how this would work in our education system. Some argue that it would be beneficial to have separate accommodation for autistic children in primary schools, and that we should cater to the way their brains work and not try to assimilate them to a neurotypical definition of success. However, how would this play out when students from the “accommodation” schools decided that they wanted to move onto post-secondary institutions? Would we continue with the “separate races” dialogue, or would the inherent stigma against people that come from these institutions be too much of a barrier? If so, how would we bridge the gap and be able to include neuroatypical people in a system that isn’t built for the way that they think? Another line of questioning: should we forget about accommodation altogether and create some sort of technology that allows autistic people to think in the “normal” way? Or, returning to the transhumanists, should we just get rid of the problem?

No matter how Autistic folks are interacting with the world around them, I believe our place at this moment in time is not to pass judgement on that or try to regulate it based on the tenets of a philosophy. How Autistic people would like to participate in these races should be entirely up to them. Besides, I do believe that there are some ethical considerations and history lessons that we need to internalize before we decide to meddle with fate or create “normal” in our image once again.

 

Notes:

Learn more about disability politics in Eli Clare’s wonderful exploration of ableism and experience

See the transhumanist/disability rights activist debate play out in Fixed

Check out the Autism Self-Advocacy Network for more resources and information

Many thanks to my partner for their personal input on issues of autism and education.

 

What it means to be human

Leya De Nil

Technology is a field that is always changing and advancing. Every time a new type of gadget is created, it’s extremely interesting to see what it can do and how it is able to help us in our everyday lives. Think about glasses. Today we do not think of glasses as a strange kind of technology because we have become so accustomed to their presence that we barely even notice them. To the people constantly using a particular form of technology, it quickly stops being an alien part of them and becomes an extension of their individuals. I remember after picking out my first pair of glasses, I was sitting in the car on my way home and the presence of the frames on my nose felt strange and somewhat uncomfortable. This was a form of technology that was helping me, but one that I didn’t consider as part of my being. In the present day, I barely notice the presence of my glasses on my nose or behind my ears; they have become a part of my identity and an extension of myself.

It is undeniable that technology has a constantly increasing presence in our everyday lives. There is so much technology that we take for granted, and no longer truly consider “technology”. It surrounds us causing us to become so accustomed to it, that we no longer consider it as unnatural. As humans we adapt to these changes and advancements in technology and to us, the notion of them as gadgets diminishes quickly and they merely become a part of us. I have grown up in a generation that is constantly aware of the changing technology. There is so much rapid technology enhancement and improvement that the rate at which we are becoming accustomed to these changes is constantly accelerating. Technology surrounds us and it has come to play an extremely prominent role in my life and I am not ignorant of the fact that it has altered the way in which I live my everyday life and the lens through which I see the world.

During our Tuesday night class, conducted by Professor Samantha Brennan, we watched the documentary FIXED – the Science/Fiction of Human Enhancement, which spoke about the technological advancements, focusing on its effect on individuals with disabilities. The documentary showed both people born with disabilities and individuals who acquired disabilities later in life, using technology to help with movement. For us, the technology being shown, such as the use of mechanical legs, seems much more advanced than owning a pair of glasses, but in the future, who is to say that we will not consider these creations the glasses of today? Technology that is initially being developed to assist those with disabilities will come to pave the way for technology used by everyone.

To a certain extent, the usage and increasing presence of technology in our lives makes me uncomfortable. How drastically is this constant increase in usage and decrease in awareness of technology going to affect our lives and what it means to be human? I cannot help but wonder if the use of technology is taking away from our humanity or if it is merely increasing the extent to which we are able to be human. I continue to become increasingly aware of how much I rely on technology and I remain uncertain of its benefits. What scares me the most is that if technology allows us to become a form of “superhuman”, being merely our natural selves is no longer going to be enough. I do not deny that technology is fascinating and provides positive advancements for society, however it is when this technology is commonly used that I start to weigh its benefits and its consequences. I suppose that this is what people living one hundred, or even fifty years ago wondered as well, and we still consider ourselves just as human as them. I’m curious to see where these constant technological advancements lead us and to see if they have affected what it means to be human in fifty years. Only time will tell.

This is a great link to read more: http://www.makeuseof.com/tag/technology-may-influencing-human-evolution/

Jury Duty and Jigsaw Puzzles: On Transhumanism, Briefly

Noelle Schmidt

Philosophical, moral, and ethical debates are a lot like how I imagine jury duty to be. You have your expert witnesses presenting the facts as they see them, the way that their field and expertise demands is the truth. You have your character witnesses, who maybe aren’t experts the way that we understand them, but speak from personal experience that can be very compelling. You’ve got evidence that sometimes isn’t really all that clear as evidence, and evidence that isn’t evidence at all, and evidence that you can’t see, and sometimes they don’t even have any evidence at all. You’ve got your lawyers, twisting and turning words to convince you to call the verdict their way. And in the end, you’ll still never be sure if you made the right call.

I think I would be one of the worst people possible to put on a jury – indecision is a fault of mine. I often find myself floating in the grey area, trying to reconcile the fact that I believe a slew of different sides of a debate at one time. I took an English class, my first year of university, called “The Rise of the Machines” focusing on Science Fiction. When we read William Gibson’s Neuromancer, we talked in class about cybernetic implants and human enhancement, and a friend of mine who was in the class with me visibly recoiled, horrified by the thought of implanting technology in the human body. Frankly, I was a bit shocked because when it comes to transhumanism, my immediate reaction is ‘hell, yes.’ Clark’s Third Law states that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” and as a lover of magic of all kinds in fantasy books and movies, I am just plain excited about the idea of being able to do “magic.” If you could offer me reliable, working technological enhancements, I would take them.

I’m not terribly bothered by the fear that some people seem to have about technology breaching the barrier of the human, letting it into my body and my humanity. I think it already is – maybe not physically, but technology is a huge part of how I live my life. It’s in my everyday routine, the way that I perceive the world, the way that I experience life. So breaking the physical barrier doesn’t seem like such a big deal.

What niggles at me has nothing to do with philosophical concerns of humanity. It’s the memory of the ‘blue screen of death,’ every time an unfamiliar box pops up with instructions or information I don’t understand on my computer screen, when it goes haywire for no reason. I am a child of the technological generation, but while I can operate a computer just fine, and am even learning how to code HTML, I’m not actually all that tech-savvy. What happens when the tech that I don’t fully understand is part of me? But is that really any different than how it is now? I’m not a doctor and when it comes down to it, I don’t know how my body functions, how to figure out if something is wrong, or how to fix it. So really, it’s the same problem we’ve always had, just a different permutation of it. And then there’s the stories of internet hackers, and my concern there has nothing to do with machines breaking the physical barrier of my body, and everything to do with the idea of other people breaking into me. No matter how good the security they could make would be, it will never be unbreakable. It could be a whole new frontier for thieves, and hackers. Even with these concerns though, I can’t help coming back to my optimism, my enthusiasm for what transhumanism could bring.

But this is my opinion in a vacuum, how I personally feel about transhumanism and how it would affect me and my humanity. The fact is that there is no vacuum. There are issues at stake here greater than the scope of the opinion I’ve expressed above, issues that make what I’ve said seem simplistic. When I try to reach beyond the tiny corner that is the scope of the opinion I hold, that’s when I fall back into indecision, floating in that grey area.

The transhumanist movement is all tangled up and inseparable from disability and impairment, ableism and discrimination, poverty and classism. When have I ever had to face disability? When have I ever faced ableism? I haven’t. Nor have I ever had to personally confront poverty or classism. People say to write what you know – this is something that I don’t know. I can read and research all that I like, but the fact is that I will still never really understand disability, what it is to live with impairment in an ableist society. And that means that I am completely cut off from a critical factor in the debate about transhumanism. Any opinion of mine is drawn from incomplete data, a solution to an equation without all the variables, and therefore irreparably flawed. Knowing that my opinions are flawed in their basis, how can I put them forward?

Except of course, that nobody can say that they have experienced everything. Everyone will always be drawing conclusions from incomplete data sets, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t speak, or that their opinion is necessarily wrong. It means that we must remember to always be aware of our limitations, and understand that we are not the only piece of a debate. Truth, morality, ethics, these are jigsaw puzzles that must be assembled taking into account all sides of the debate. So yes, with the entanglement of disability and transhumanism, the opinion of those who have experienced impairment or ableism must be respected, and that of those experiencing poverty and classism, but that doesn’t mean that the rest of the world can’t comment – we just have to make sure our privilege doesn’t distort the jigsaw.

So what’s your piece of the puzzle?

 

p.s.

Check out this blog post about technology as magic according to Clarke’s Third Law: http://at.blogs.wm.edu/is-technology-indistinguishable-from-magic-the-dangers-of-clarkes-third-law/

Or if you really want to get into the transhumanism thing, check out the book H+/- Transhumanism and Its Critics by Gregory R. Hansell and William Grassie.

Validity of the Extended Self

Celina Bussolaro

Following my reading of Marya Schectman’s article The Story of my (Second) Life: Virtual Worlds and Narrative Identity, and my attendance of the lecture conducted by Professor Samantha Brennon Boundaries of Personhood, I have been thinking about the validity of the extended self. In the lecture, we questioned what defines personal identity, looking at multiple theories to explain this: we looked at a psychological view, a biological view, a narrative view, and a “no deep fact” explanation. When we think about the extended self from these multiple points of view we get multiple explanations and further lines of questioning, as I am not an expert on these views I will explain my perspective on this topic of personal identity and the extension of the self. I believe what I am about to talk about is relevant to the public as I am going to question when, how, and if, we are expected to validate other’s extension of the self even if we do not agree with another person’s definition of “the self”.

I argue that every individual defines themselves and their personhood differently, and beyond that, differently at various stages of their lives. For example, infants and children may develop a connection to a certain object (for example a teddy bear, or even a pacifier) and their extreme unhappiness or discomfort when that object is taken away could possibly be attributed to the idea that they have come to think of that object as an extension of themselves. In another example, as teens or adults we may feel an unwarranted connection to our cell phones, feeling “off”, or in more extreme cases unable to function, without the direct connection to our phones. My first reaction in both of these scenarios would be to say that both the child’s object and the adult’s cell phone is not a true extension of the self, and instead we have simply built it in our minds to be so, we have created a dependence. However, when turning our attention to the world of Second Life, as discussed in Schectman’s article, we see another example of where people have formed a personal attachment to an object or virtual animation that is beyond their physical person. In class we discussed the many ways in which Second Life can and does have very real effects on “real life”, although this is only for a small group of people that allow it to be that way; the Second Life avatar only becomes an extension of a person’s self if they allow it to. With this understanding, it would be wrong to say that Second Life is equivalent to real life, or avatars are an extension of the self, because that is not the case to everyone that is involved in the simulated world. Can it then be said that “the self” and what is encapsulated within “the self” (i.e. the extensions, which can be argued to have very real effects) do not have any strict definition, and instead differ from person to person? My idea of what makes me “myself” might be very different from what someone else defines as their “self”. For example, I may define myself by the personal and physical relationships in my life, while the next person may feel that they have a deeper connection to the relationships they have formed in an online space.

I then come back to my original question: are we expected to validate other’s extension of their selves, even if we may believe those extensions to be “ridiculous” or otherwise “incorrect”? I believe the class discussion during Professor Brennan’s lecture really showcased this issue; people were arguing about how it was “ridiculous” to believe an avatar to be an extension of one’s self, however who are we to judge what is “ridiculous”, or even what is “true” and “real” when defining the self? As much as we can speculate about our definitions of personhood, we will never truly have a definitive answer that can be agreed upon by all. This is why it is my opinion that, unless it brings harm to another individual, the definition of one’s self and what they believe to be extensions of themselves, should be respected by others. Who am I to tell you your version of reality is invalid? Who are you to tell me the same? I believe in the interest of the public we should understand that definitions of the self vary from person to person, and in order to maintain a happy and healthy society we need to RESPECT other’s sense of self and personal identity.