Friday, April 4, 2014

Theory and Practice When Your Life Feels Like Science Fiction

Mindful Cyborgs, from
Will humanity evolve into another species?  Are we becoming cyborgs?  Are the lines between humans, animals, and machines breaking down?   Have these always been false borders related to the maintenance of race, gender, and class hierarchies?  Does the ecological crisis demand that we rethink what it means to be human, in ways that challenge our assumptions of human supremacy over other species (what some call speciesism) ?   Do non-human beings have agency, self-organization, and intelligence in ways we thought were exclusively human?  Would there be space migration in a new society?  How could this be different from space colonization?  Is it possible or desirable to live indefinitely?  Is it even possible to define a firm border between life and non-life?

These are some of the intense questions that philosophers are wrestling with, exploring a contemporary moment that feels increasingly like a science fiction movie.  As Gilles Deleuze puts it, philosophy is about creating concepts that help us ask the question "how might one live"?  This is very similar to what science fiction writers and directors do.  Past revolutions often drew from cultural upheavals that generated their own philosophies, utopias, and dystopias as they posed these questions.  Perhaps we are going through a moment like that now, a prelude to a future revolution?

Francesca Ferrando's new article in the Existenz journal is a decent summary of the creative upheavals going on in philosophy today, covering trends like post-humanism, trans-humanism, corporeal feminism, and the new materialisms.  It's written in a confusingly academic way, but it's short and to the point.

She focuses on the difference between trans-humanism and post-humanism.  Trans-humanism seeks the enhancement and evolution of human life through anti-aging technologies, cybernetics, space travel, and so on.  However, it doesn't criticize the ways in which the concept "human" has been used to justify capitalism and colonialism, for example by defining rich white men as human, working class people as machines, and indigenous women as animals.  In practice, transhumanism risks reproducing these oppressions, creating a technological elite that plays with the limits of our bodies while the rest of the world still struggles with basic survival under conditions of artificial scarcity created by capitalism.  The dystopian movie Sleep Dealer shows what might happen if the borders between human and machine break down but the borders remain between the imperial metropolis and its racialized zones of exclusion.  Undocumented refugees of ecological destruction and political repression have no where to go unless they plug their bodies into a network to operate robots who have replaced workers on the other side of the border wall:

Like the directors of Sleep Dealer, post-humanist theorists start by critiquing these capitalist definitions of humanity and progress, and arguing that human thinking, technology, and culture are part of a broader web of self-organizing ecological life that defies borders, uniformity, and hierarchy.   Thus, if we are going to evolve  we can only do this together with biodiverse life forms on the planet, and that requires reversing the destruction of non-human life, and the exploitation and oppression of some humans by others, which drives and secures it.

None of these discussions are simply academic posturing; in fact, these questions are frighteningly relevant.  It is important that everyday people jump into the debates in theory and practice so that the future of the species is not decided unilaterally by people like CEO Jeff Bezos.  He, Bill Gates, and other techno gurus seem perfectly willing to treat humanity and the ret of the planet like a giant science fair project where they can test out their pet delusions.  It seems like they imagine a transhumanist future similar to Sleep Dealer, where drones replace workers, a new elite owns the drones, and the rest of us serve them or are displaced and locked up as a surplus population.

 Many people want to answer this dystopia by creating a post-humanist future, where humans co-create in respectful interrelationship with non-human life, and where technology enhances ecological complexity, connection, and diversity, instead of colonizing human and non-human life.

The clash between these two visions was evident recently when masked protestors challenged Bezos in a blockade outside Amazon's headquarters in Seattle:

These protesters are not new Luddites, attacking technology in the name of returning to a mythic past.  This is part of an emerging attempt to answer some of the questions the human species faces as we seep and mutate out of our increasingly decrepit identity as self-proclaimed lords of the universe.