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Future Imperative

What if technology were being developed that could enhance your mind or body to extraordinary or even superhuman levels -- and some of these tools were already here? Wouldn't you be curious?

Actually, some are here. But human enhancement is an incredibly broad and compartmentalized field. We’re often unaware of what’s right next door. This site reviews resources and ideas from across the field and makes it easy for readers to find exactly the information they're most interested in.

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The future is coming fast, and it's no longer possible to ignore how rapidly the world is changing. As the old order changes -- or more frequently crumbles altogether -- I offer a perspective on how we can transform ourselves in turn... for the better. Nothing on this site is intended as legal, financial or medical advice. Indeed, much of what I discuss amounts to possibilities rather than certainties, in an ever-changing present and an ever-uncertain future.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Of Saviors and Supermen... -- SF, Soc, Super

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Someone watching this new online trailer for Superman Returns might be forgiven for seeing a bit of messiah-like symbolism in the words of Superman's celestial father.

"...They can be a great people, Kal-El, if they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all -- their capacity for good -- I have sent them you, my only son."

Oddly enough, the question of how ordinary people would view a superman figure was of great interest to the science fiction writer Frank Herbert, author of Dune. Herbert spent essentially his entire literary career speculating about how humans could transform themselves into superhumans, and how ordinary people would respond to an obvious superman. The book Frank Herbert by Tim O'Reilly delves into this concern in interviews with Herbert and in depth reviews of most of his works.

O'Reilly remarks "One of his central ideas is that human consciousness exists on--and by virtue of--a dangerous edge of crisis, and that the most essential human strength is the ability to dance on that edge. The more man confronts the dangers of the unknown, the more conscious he becomes. All of Herbert's books portray and test the human ability to consciously adapt. He sets his characters in the most stressful situations imaginable: a cramped submarine in Under Pressure, his first novel; the desert wastes of Dune; and in Destination: Void the artificial tension of a spaceship designed to fail so that the crew will be forced to develop new abilities. There is no test so powerfully able to bring out latent adaptability as one in which the stakes are survival."

Oddly enough, other techniques and technologies are employed in the Dune series to create augmented humans -- the Spice, the Water of Life and the Juice of Sappho are redolent of modern nootropics, the mental disciplines of the Mentats and the Bene Gesserit mirror accelerated learning, martial arts and meditative techniques, the Tleilaxu are masters of genetics and cloning, the Bene Gesserit have their vast eugenic breeding program, and the machine world of Ix touches on limited AI and cybernetics. But this particular method, learning to deal with uncertainty, chaos and life-threatening danger, seems to be a key element -- in combination with other techniques -- in creating Herbert's "true" superhuman, the one who is markedly better than all lesser attempts.

Paul Atreides (and later his son Leto) manages to dwarf all potential contenders when he comes into the full use of his abilities, but finds himself trapped by his absolute knowledge of the future, on the one hand, and his complete dominance over the human race on the other, two factors that combine to make his own legend the greatest bane to everything he is trying to accomplish, and the source of unimaginable suffering for the entire galaxy.

Herbert himself comments, "I had this theory that superheroes were disastrous for humans, that even if you postulated an infallible hero, the things this hero set in motion fell eventually into the hands of fallible mortals. What better way to destroy a civilization, society or a race than to set people into the wild oscillations which follow their turning over their judgment and decision-making faculties to a superhero?"

Needless to say, individuals will have different ideas about what constitutes an actual prophet, much less the validity of particular forms of revealed wisdom such as religion. But given present strides in the realm of human augmentation -- in terms of biotech genetic enhancements, nootropic drugs and nutrients, cybernetic and AI tools, and mindtech and accelerated learning options -- the question of "How do we deal with a real 'superman'?" may be more relevant every day. Ours will likely be a material superhuman rather than a spiritual one, but ironically, it is our prospective transhuman or posthuman's morals and humanity's feelings of reverence or antagonism towards them that raise the most immediate issues.

Some writers such as Tom Friedman of The New York Times talk about the modern-day power shift going on as "super-empowered" small groups and individuals discover they can exert influence on a global stage. And the threat created by frustrated, violent super-empowered people when they use their newfound power to destroy.

Needless to say, a "superpowered," super-empowered group or individual could shake the foundations of the world far more effectively than 19 hijackers with small knives, yet we're still dealing with the consequences of that particular earthquake. And if an ultimately mortal, even somewhat limited leader can inspire burning loyalty in his or her followers now, imagine what someone of superhuman charisma and political talent could achieve.


Future Imperative

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