Features

TECHNOLOGY: Strange new world?

National | Radicals are dreaming of changing human nature through emerging technologies

Issue: "1st-grade murder," March 11, 2000

LSD guru Timothy Leary was online as he lay dying, allowing fans to watch in real-time video. The technology was not quite there for his most ambitious head-trip of all-to cheat death from incurable cancer by uploading his consciousness into the Internet. Radicals are hoping that a number of technologies on the horizon will fundamentally challenge what can properly be said to be "natural" to mankind. Right now, many such technologies are still relegated to the realm of science fiction. But some people are starting to hope that they could become vehicles for altering what it means to be human. For instance:

  • In the book Posthuman Bodies (edited by Judith Halberstam, Indiana University Press, 1995), ultra-radical, postmodern writers and scholars look forward to the deconstruction of actual physical gender. They hope technology will free us from the limitations of the physical body, with a merger of human and machine, both in transferring our consciousness to electronic form and in having brand-new cybernetic bodies. No longer will gender matter, they hope, because our minds, and even sex, will be free of the body. Humans could also be genetically engineered across a spectrum of gender, with the emergent possibility of ever-present "transsexualism" or "transgenderism"-for example, men being able to bear children. An entire "posthuman" artistic movement depicts gross interpenetrations of machine and man.
  • As the Internet and computer technology develop further, there is the prospect of virtual reality (VR). (Think of "holodecks," the computer-generated fantasy rooms in the Star Trek spin-offs.) With pornographic sites often the most frequented on today's Internet, some of today's frenzied attempts to develop VR point to the prospect of virtual adultery. But a recent hit movie, The Matrix, darkly portrayed a fanciful combination of the ultimate extension of VR and artificial intelligence (AI), both now in embryonic form.
  • Another possible danger is "nanotech," which, although only in its infancy, is already standard fare in many science-fiction futures. With nanotech, micromachines would be introduced into the bodies of human beings, and possibly animals and plants, to keep them in good health. One way this might work is that when a baby is born, he "gets introduced" to his own batch of "nanotech warders"-micromachines that will help him avoid disease and grow up stronger, healthier, and more intelligent than he would otherwise be. Sounds sweet, but the possibilities of misuse of nanotech are not difficult to imagine-micromachines programmed to torture or kill, or to massively alter one's mental perceptions, or the possibility of a widespread nanotech "virus" or "plague."
  • Then there's Leary's fantasy of uploading a person's "consciousness" into an electronic virtual reality realm, something like what the radical theologian Teilhard de Chardin called the noosphere. A number of science-fiction books suggest that only religious-minded people would resist such quasi-immortality. This one may very well remain in the realm of fiction, though. The very complexity of the human brain (with its hundreds of billions of synapses or "links") likely will prevent such an upload.
  • A trend toward increasing inter- as well as intra-species genetic engineering may include the attempt to create new life forms.The advances in genetics initially will be powered by the promise of eliminating hereditary defects in the womb. An aging population also likely would appreciate replacement body parts. Part of this trend can already be seen in the mice produced for scientific research, which have genetically human blood flowing through their little bodies, as well as "transgenic" pigs, whose organs are used as substitutes in humans. The political danger these technologies may present is that liberal cultural elites will attempt to extend their authority into the electronic and genetic spheres. Already some say "it would be nice" if genetic engineering could be "used to eliminate racism and sexism." Others who also want to "play God" might try to eliminate other things they don't like. After all, the slogan of the 20th century, when it came to applying new technology, was often, "Just do it."

-Mr. Wegierski is a Canadian writer and researcher

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