Monday, July 17, 2006

I can think of no better way to introduce Eileen Joy

than to admit it has frequently crossed my mind that I'd like to BE Eileen Joy.

Wait, no, that sounds weird.

OK, I can think of no better way to introduce Eileen Joy than to reproduce here her recent post on transhumanism. I lift it from the commentary to the Whoops, there goes humanity! post. It deserves, as Karl observed, to be front-paged, and I think gives an excellent overview of the issues and insights that percolate in her mind.
Given many of the conversations on this blog over the past couple of months regarding whether or not literary studies can have any kind of social impact, whether or not "history matters," how "humanity" is being redefined by the scientists [and what, therefore, should we in humanities disciplines *do* regarding that?], and Karl's and Emile B.'s exchanges on philosophies [medieval, Enlightenment, and otherwise] of "the human" versus "the animal" [and how that might ultimately impact how we formulate, say, human and other types of rights in the future], and finally, thinking again about that quotation from Maslow--that "if the human being is a choosing, deciding, seeking animal, then the question of making choices and decisions must inevitably be involved in any effort to define the human species. . . . The questions then come up: Who is the good chooser? . . . . And beyond that [we have the task] of raising the old axiological questions 'What is good? What is desirable? What should be desired?'"--I finally went to see the Al Gore documentary yesterday, "An Inconvenient Truth," and much like JJC's thoughts regarding extracurricular activities at the New Chaucer Society meeting in NYC went immediately to the fanciful image of a "Cruise of Death," with untenured faculty using tenured, more eminent scholars as flotation devices, I likewise began thinking about all of our recent dialogues in the context of the scientific *fact* that, within 50 years, most of Manhattan and San Francisco and Shanghai, as well as many other sites throughout the world, may very well be underwater, with a new ice age not very far behind.

Of course, I've thought about global warming *a lot* over the past ten or so years, and I've always found certain "doomsday" scenarios [whether involving the break-up of ice shelves in Anarctica or a "dirty" nuclear device exploding in NYC] useful for thinking through the question of the ultimate relevance of doing historical, aesthetic, and more generally philosophical research and writing. The possible impact of global warming is not a fanciful Nostradamus-type prediction, but predicated on "real science," and probably should not be dismissed too lightly. In fact, consider "The Future of Humanity Institute" recently established at Oxford University with millions of dollars already at its disposal and the British Parliament *already* calling upon its Director, philosophy prof. Nick Bostrum, to advise it on certain future-oriented issues [such as "human enhancement technologies"]. Nick Bostrum isn't interested in figuring out ways to extend the life of humans, as they exist now, or even the planet; his assumption is that the existence of *us* and the earth itself is already very near its end, and that is why he has developed his "transhumanism" movement [which, by god, Oxford is funding!], which believes, for one thing, that

"Just as we use rational means to improve the human condition and the external world, we can also use such means to improve ourselves, the human organism. In doing so, we are not limited to traditional humanistic methods, such as education and cultural development. We can also use technological means that will eventually enable us to move beyond what some would think of as 'human'."

Transhumanism envisions future societies, likely situated somewhere else other than earth, in which "regular" humans live alongside "posthumans":

"Posthumans could be completely synthetic artificial intelligences, or they could be enhanced uploads, or they could be the result of making many smaller but cumulatively profound augmentations to a biological human. The latter alternative would probably require either the redesign of the human organism using advanced nanotechnology or its radical enhancement using some combination of technologies such as genetic engineering, psychopharmacology, anti-aging therapies, neural interfaces, advanced information management tools, memory enhancing drugs, wearable computers, and cognitive techniques."

One of the hallmarks of transhumanism is "singularity" [celebrating and further augmenting the absolute and untrammeled freedom of unique individuals] and also "extended life" [i.e. gee, wouldn't it be great if we could live forever?--Nick B. obviously thinks so, and look at his photo on his website--he's such a young lad, and if only he could remain so!].

It goes without saying that Nick B. et al. spend a lot of time calculating all sorts of catastrophic "risk" scenarios for us and our planet, and regularly publish their projections on very eminent science journals such as "Nature" and "Science." Apparently, traditional humanistic knowledges, as far as they are concerned, are not necessary to forumlating the transhuman future, where they will have uploaded themselves after we have perished in the next ice age.

So the question, I think is, do we just laugh at Nick B. and his ilk [and shake our heads at Oxford and even the British government for taking them so seriously], and fume a little at the "third culture" scientists over at Edge who have supposedly appropriated our humanistic discourses because they feel they are better suited than we are to address the "big" philosophical questions, and do we also kind of cluck sadly yet shrug our shoulder's at Al Gore's doomsday projections regarding global warming, OR, do we ask ourslves, *especially* in light of recent conversations on this blog: if, in about 50 or so years, this planet entered a phase of global catastrophe, with 50 or so million persons displaced by rising ocean tides, but probably enough time to live out our own lives before the real "real end," what kind of humanistic work do we want to do? What would be best? What would be most virtuous? Most sane? Most useful? Why is it uncool not to take these questions more seriously? What if you can't preserve the future--how might you preserve the past, anyway? Food for thought.

I love that last paragraph, and when I leave for Bermuda on Thursday morning will contemplate its answers on a pink beach. Welcome, Eileen!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Damn! I'm in England and wasn't aware that you're in Bermuda. You should look up my friend Walter, who works at North Rock Brewrey near the Ariel Sands Beach Resort.