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?
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.