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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.

Monday, May 15, 2006

"The Last Stand" in a Cultural War Most of Us Don't Know Is Happening

In watching this preview of X3: The Last Stand, you could be excused for thinking the conflict at the heart of the film -- the desire of normal humans to prevent or "cure" the exceptional abilities of the protagonists and other "mutants" -- is not only fictional, but completely far-fetched. But the strange thing about many science fiction and superhero films, television and comics touching on these themes is how well they have predicted some public reaction to potential "superhumans." Many observers would expect such foresight from science fiction novels and short stories -- the field is renowned for its prescience, and there are thousands of volumes of SF work related to transcending human limitations.

But, because television shows and comic books tend to cover just one overarching story line, and even over the course of a series may only produce a hundred or so episodes or issues, we don't really expect comics, movies and TV to cover too many social or philosophical subjects. But here's the irony -- pulp science fiction and superhero fiction frequently anticipates that "ordinary humans" will hate and fear that which they do not understand, or which is vastly more powerful or superior to them. And in the real world, this attitude is far more prevalent than you might expect.

Many "bio-conservatives" erupted in op-ed fury over government funding of ethics studies for "human augmentation" -- the field of improving humans beyond their normal limits, often using biotech. This isn't the first government project to talk about enhancing humans, indeed, there's at least one serious proposal by the National Science Foundation and the Commerce Department stating that a major push to make citizens superhuman should be considered as a national priority. But this recent bit of funding may have looked like a step towards making human augmentation research broadly acceptable, and given the Pentagon's many related projects, this might have looked like the floodgates opening to some activists.

A common argument of "bio-conservatives" is that radically improving human abilities in areas such as intelligence could undermine our basic humanity. Another, less absolute caution expressed by many observers is that specific, dramatic improvements should be weighed carefully lest we unknowingly wipe out a valuable "human" attribute. Another caution is that even if these criticisms are generally inaccurate, they are a useful mirror to hold up in turn to each augmentation project that emerges. Why? Because while the field as a whole may not be "dehumanizing," "creating an unnatural elite," "ego-driven," "too narrowly focused," etc, particular individuals and groups backing such research could easily move in these directions. Given the diversity of human attitudes and goals, why not?

Blocking this research altogether would be very difficult -- there are constant examples of therapeutic research that could have enhancement applications. Unless you stop trying to cure disease and improve human health, you are inevitably going to learn "too much" about improving human health.

So where do comics and superhero movies come into all this? Ironically, the idea of religious conservatives being generally opposed to biologically enhanced people whom they no longer consider human has been a common theme in comics -- particularly the famous X-Men -- for decades. Perhaps the idea that superhero stories seem to have a monopoly on this discussion should not come as any great surprise; people of effectively superhuman or near-superhuman talents have been an increasingly common element in movies and television for years, particularly as special effects and stuntpeople have improved.

On this subject, NPR recently produced a piece on Marvel Comics' "Civil War" story (story previewed here, interview spoofed here). The idea behind "Civil War" is that some young superheroes blunder catastrophically on live television, a lot of people die, and even though the villains of the piece are actually at fault, there is a public outcry to do something, anything, about the superhero menace.

So Congress proposes the Superhero Registration Act, a law essentially demanding that everyone with superpowers or supertechnology in America either go to work for the government, or go to jail. Needless to say, superbeings with inborn or irreversible powers -- who don't have a choice about whether or not to be superhuman -- don't necessarily like this kind of near-enslavement (like the draft, only lasting for, well, forever).

Why is this relevant to real-world questions of human augmentation. Two reasons. One, the general argument that radically enhanced people are "no longer human" opens up enormous potential for abuse of people who are unusually gifted (or just "different"), not to mention the potential for alienating incredibly talented and potentially powerful individuals by telling them they're no longer part of our species, and have sharply limited rights under our laws (if any at all). And two, while the above storyline may not sound Shakespearean, it does delve into the potential for disastrous consequences in the event of poorly conceived laws aimed at controlling or singling out a particular segment of the population based on their biology or specific talents.

How useful could these pop culture musings be? Immensely useful, if they help get the public as a whole talking about issues that would otherwise fall below the radar, even for many policy makers and even science fiction and biotech enthusiasts. Oddly enough, many of the responses to the presence of mutants in Marvel Comics' version of Earth echo other potential scenarios in the real world. For example, machines -- either robots or cybernetically or mechanically augmented humans -- are often portrayed as the only plausible counterforce to superhuman dominance (or even superhuman lawbreakers). Conversely, superhumans (often with skill- or biotech-based enhancements) are frequently put forward as the only defense against out-of-control AI supercomputers or renegade robots. (Often the same robots, called Sentinels, designed to hunt down mutants.)

My point? The freewheeling pop culture realm of comics, TV and film is sometimes not only the only place you see such discussions, but commonly the only place you could see such discussions. Because the suspension of disbelief is already so great when you start a discussion near-future human augmentation or near-future superintelligent AI or near-future cybernetic enhancements, it's almost impossible to get people to seriously weigh several radical possibilities simultaneously, much less to let go of their assumptions about how each such technology must inevitably evolve.

During a discussion of the upcoming X3 film, actor Patrick Stewart's interviewer had the following question for him. "Up until a few years ago when all these comic book movies American comics had the ill fitted reputation for being silly. But in things like X-Men and in Star Trek as well, the characters experience so much and have such full story arcs. Do you see these tales as…well, more Shakespearean than popcorn?" Stewart replies:
You’re probably aware that there was a time when I started making these comparisons between the world of classical theater and Star Trek because I saw so many overlapping areas.

People have asked me “Why are people like Kelsey [Grammer] and you and Sir Ian and Hugh Jackman, who has a significant stage background, want to be in these movies? I don’t believe it is accidental. There is, whether it’s science-fiction or fantasy, and especially those that are based on a comic, a heightened naturalism about everything. We’re not making Capote here when we make these movies. We’re not making Brokeback Mountain. This is not that kind of detailed naturalism. It’s not a recognizable world that’s right out there. Everything is larger than life. Everything is heightened. Even the language is heightened. If you listen to Halle’s speech at one point in the movie you realize somebody wouldn’t talk like that if in a modern naturalist movie.

But this over-the-top style may prove critical in getting important ideas out to a larger audience (even if that isn't the point of the film). We shall see what impact this movie has on the larger discussion. In the meantime, watch out for Sentinels.

Bio, SF, Soc, Super
Future Imperative


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