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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.


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.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Aeon Flux, or... Why Are Supergeniuses So Much More Threatening than Superwarriors? -- Bio, AL, CPS, Rev, SF, Soc, Super

Yes, this article will contain spoilers for the movie, Aeon Flux. Not many, though.

So, I saw Aeon Flux the other day, and it reminded me of a question that often crosses my mind in discussions of human augmentation. Why is it that the public seems to find the idea of superhumanly brilliant people disturbing but consider superhumanly swift, tough and/or talented supersoldiers (of whatever origin) great, popcorn crunching fun?

I'm not trying to insult the film, by the way. It may have deviated a bit from the cartoon shorts and TV series it was based on, but they produced an interesting story. Not every surprise rocked me back on my heels, but they had a nice biotech/bioethics twist or two that'll be amusing for people who follow such things.

But here's my point, a surprising number of Americans seem to be leery of just about any form of radical human enhancement, be it a dramatic increase in intelligence, beauty, personal talent, intuition, etc. Normally you might assume a bio-conservative bias against augmented humans is the result of various related and unrelated groups making common cause, whether anti-GM environmentalists, religious fundamentalists, champions of intelligent design*, opponents of stem cell research, political opportunists or just plain old bio-conservatives who want to preserve some ephemeral quality of humaness against the "coming genetic/cybernetic storm." You might imagine that impulses like these might lead to a knee jerk reaction against "transhuman" or superhuman figures.

Yet a large number of our most popular pop-culture characters are clearly superhuman. The movie and video game industries are flooded with such figures, but most of them are basically warriors. And no one seems all that worried about them.

Examples of these characters include not only the traditional superheroes who bring us blockbusters like the Spiderman, X-Men and Batman films, but a large swath of action heroes in both conventional thrillers and science fiction stories. These latter heroes may be technically human, but they often possess superhuman strength, stamina, speed, fighting skills, psychic abilities or other gifts that make them blatantly more than human. Resources such as powerful weapons (rocket launchers, energy rifles, exoskeletons (powered armor) and faster-than-light starships), cybernetic enhancements and other ultratech (time machines, nanites) only add to their mystique.

But again, it goes beyond simple anti-intellectualism to fear the implausibly intelligent (or the beautiful, the talented or the perceptive) while embracing people capable of beating up or killing dozens if not thousands or millions of lesser beings -- you and me, that is. Now of course, you could perceive this bias as simply a result of many of these people being cast as heroes. But quite a few are actually portrayed as the villains, or rather lacking in honor, compassion or morality, and yet the talents of those individuals are often put forward as something to be respected, even admired.

Honestly, I suspect there are a number of reasons playing into these preferences, where they actually exist. (Someone must admire intellectuals like John Nash of A Beautiful Mind more than Blade or Rambo. Even there wasn't room to turn him into a franchise.) One of the top reasons is probably hostility to the very real power the very bright or otherwise gifted often have over the rest of us, while people of tremendous physical power beating up their enemies is something many of us can identify with, no matter how out of shape they actually are.

Realistically, one possibility is a fantasy. The other, if actually real, would play into fears of inadequacy that many people have and even more would suffer from if we had actual superhumans wandering around. And many people have a gut instinct that augmentation resources wouldn't really be available to them -- that they would probably go to the rich, or scientists, or dedicated athletes, or vital professionals, or brilliant college students, or first-generation super-soldiers, or fanatical experimenters, or dedicated hobbyists. (Like accelerated learning enthusiasts, for example.)

In other words, there would be an assumption that the Gifted would probably become a new caste of the gifted (or rich) which would further stratify the world, and most people realize that if there is an elite caste, the track record of their lives suggest they won't be in it. Especially if it takes the shape of a pyramid, with minor enhancements being available to the middle class and increasing levels of enhancements being available to those with more and more money. Suggesting that the rich and powerful (or absolutely critical "conventional" geniuses) will be the only ones to get the best augmentations, whatever they are.

You can argue what the actual results of such breakthroughs might be. But the reality remains, many people, when confronted with someone they perceive as far better than themselves in an area they feel weak in, often respond with some level of hostility. It's probably an instinct to protect oneself against a powerful competitor who doesn't seem to be a natural part of one's "tribe." But it's also extremely self-destructive. And incredibly ironic, given the "powerful figures," both real and fictional, that we do admire.

In fairness, there's a good reason why armies, and businessmen, embrace anything that gives them a competive edge. Both groups are engaged in fierce, ongoing competition. If businesspeople lose their fight, they can lose everything, at least financially. If soldiers lose their fight, they'll die. And neither group knows when the next "life or death" conflict will arise. Only that they have to be ready.

For this reason, audiences may cut people in conflicts with few or no rules some considerable slack. Especially if those warriors are supposed to be fighting on our behalf. But it's still interesting to watch the results of these beliefs. Especially the idea that a true hero should be more of a fighter than a thinker.

Here's the rub. If you're extremely dissatisfied with your situation or your presumed "station in life," what does it do to you if you think you can sweep away your problems through dramatic violence -- and no other avenue?

Maybe, a school shooter? A suicide bomber? An insurgent with an RPG or a member of a hate group? Or just an armchair warmonger -- who'd like someone else to go out and do the actual fighting on their behalf?

A worldview that perceives violence as, if not the only answer, then the only answer within reach, has some serious downsides, whether it arises in the West or in more traditional societies. But there's also a terrible weakness that comes with dismissing other forms of power as somehow weak or cowardly or useless. Much of what makes a modern nation prosperous and competitive is how bright, talented and industrious it's citizens are, and how creatively they apply their abilities, not how many faceless enemies they can mow down with automatic weapons or crush with their bare hands.

Many peoples around the world have already grasped this fact (at least great swaths of their citizenry have), particularly in Asia, and those countries have a considerable advantage over others. But it's not just a matter of your homeland's relative prosperity, or even your personal economic well-being. If you cut yourself off from developing your fullest potential, you're making your life so much less than it could be. And for no reason at all.

Future Imperative

* A Washington Post op-ed writer just wrote about the way intelligent design was discussed in 19th Century text books. He comments:

These textbooks seem also to have been intended to provide solace for the existentially anxious. All of them offered in one form or another the reassurance that "Geography teaches us about the earth which was made to be our home." Earth by itself "could not be the abode of man," advised one. "Therefore, two indispensable agents are provided -- the sun and atmosphere." The entire vast history of the planet was summed up as the "gradual formation by which it was made ready for the reception of mankind." The lay of the land had been thoughtfully arranged for our benefit: "As the torrid regions of the earth require the greatest amount of rain, there are the loftiest mountains, which act as huge condensers of the clouds." Because the breezes that blew down mountainsides cooled the inhabitants below, the highest were located in the hottest parts of the world "for the same reason that you put a piece of ice into a pitcher of water in summer, rather than in winter."

Curious, of course, but I'll go into this interesting subject in a later post.