Category Archives: Values

Human Enhancement is Normal

The ethics of human enhancement are tricky and often the first objection that I hear to technologically improving our minds and bodies is one of morality: why should some people get to become smarter and stronger while others do not? is it right to try to improve our god-given body? isn’t it dangerous to allow such technologies to develop?

Despite these objections the human race seems to be eager to step into this next phase. take exoskeletons for example. a couple of years ago I saw a video of an exoskeleton being tested for military use. Recently a paraplegic woman was able to walk a marathon using an exoskeleton (over the course of 17 days but hey, she can’t move her legs). I also saw that a little girl with a muscular disorder was given a 3d printed pair of arms to help her move.  and here’s another suit made by the Tokyo university of science which allows a person to carry substantially more weight.

No one’s asking if we should be doing this, and no one’s saying this isn’t right or natural. Of course, disabled individuals are the first to be helped by enhancement technologies, but not all of these suits are therapeutic. I think that we’ll see many more disabled individuals using exoskeletons to get around, and factory workers using suits and gloves.

If you’ve looked at some of these links you may have noticed that everyone but the story about the little girl references iron man. I’m not really going anywhere with that point, I just think it’s interesting.

Anyway, human enhancement is normal in our culture and I think there is good reason for this. We’ve really been enhancing ourselves ever since we could make tools and talk to each other, all technological progress has been human enhancement and what we are doing now feel in line with that process. I only wonder when we will reach the point when we realize that our enhancement is now actually radically changing who we are, and our tools are significantly more powerful and worrisome than what’s come before.

I personally experience the normality of enhancement in my own college environment. Study drugs (mostly aderall, coffee too) are widely used by college students to help focus and be more productive. The hyper-competitive academic environment encourages students to find ways to get an edge, and drugs are one of the easiest ways to do this. Students take these drugs without thinking about the moral implications for such actions, how such actions unfairly advantage the individual over the collective, making it so others have to take these drugs to remain competitive, like in professional sports. Of the dozens of students I’ve talked to about the morality of using study drugs, I’m the only one who feels strongly that taking these drugs is an immoral decision. My stance falls apart when people bring up coffee, a societally acceptable stimulant. Well, life is a sliding scale, what are you going to do about it? I prefer that we not ingest stimulants via pills. drinking bean juice seems better than prescription drugs.

So while I’m encouraged that humanity seems poised to jump into transhumanism and an enhanced existence, I’m also discouraged by how normal it is for my peers to take amphetamines. Perhaps this has not become a big enough issue to address, like doping in sports, but I really don’t want us to get to a crisis point in academia where the only way to make a meaningful contribution to human knowledge is by getting high on speed.

The problems I’ve explained here only really come up in the context of a competitive environment, and perhaps there is hope if capitalism collapses and we reorient our system. After all, learning and exploring should really not be a competition.

On the other hand, perhaps we will find a way to make our brains run faster without negative effects such as coming down from a drug or mental damage. It wouldn’t be so bad if we all just kept thinking faster and faster I suppose, I’m just not sure that amphetamines are a step in the right direction.

-Prometheus

Video Games That Make You Realize how Meaningless Life Really is

Recently I’ve found myself wanting video games back in my life. It occurred to me that I didn’t have to get a complicated video game, I could just play one of the many video games available free online. I hadn’t tried out the games on social networking sites yet, so I dove in and started playing Crime City on Google+ (it’s like mafia wars on facebook). What I discovered horrified me.

Crime City is not really a game in the traditional sense. There is no way to lose; it’s all about constant upward progress with no real obstacles, meaning, or end. You are given a certain amount of energy to use, and once you use it up committing crimes and such you just have to wait for it to regenerate. You can’t go to jail or die. Time is the only real commodity, which can be exchanged for money by simply clicking on jobs. You can buy buildings and make your own little crime city, and these buildings will slowly accumulate cash, but they usually don’t pay themselves off for about a year (especially if you upgrade them). The game is a strikingly good example of the nature of capitalism: the constant drive to reinvest, the endless accumulation, and the loss of meaning in life. Looking over the cities of my mafia members, I could see quite clearly the struggle between having a nice looking little town or a cash producing industrial complex. Players are allowed to get two of most every building, a good financial choice but poor aesthetically.  Some players clearly compromised, with a line of meaningless doppelganger buildings on the border of their city and a nicer intentional image in the center. Some just abandoned all hope of a nice town and paved everything over with concrete, shoving all of the buildings to one side.

I struggled with this dichotomy for some time in the game, between making money and having a pretty home, and each time I had this struggle I realized that there was absolutely no point to the game. Was I supposed to make money? Have the best looking city? Have the highest stats? Kill the most people? Every accomplishment became a means to more accomplishments and thus lost value. Eventually I sold all of my buildings and put down grass and dirt where the concrete used to be, and I remade my crime city into Crime Park. The ironic thing about my park is that now that I’m not constantly looking for buildings to reinvest my money I have more money than I know what to do with, and once again I realized how pointless the game is.

Looking around, almost every single game on social networking sites follows this model (even the Real time strategy games and The Sims Social). It’s a good model because it creates an opportunity for the game creators to sell you things in the game for real money. I didn’t think people would fall into the trap, but probably about 20 out of 450 of my mafia members have used real money in the game, and I have seen a person who spent at least $300 on his city. To reiterate, someone spent enough money to feed a starving child for a year on fake buildings in a meaningless game.

The point of the game, in the end, is status. Just as with capitalism. It’s not about what makes you happy, it’s about what makes other people jealous of you; it’s about your jealousy of others. After helping a less powerful mafia member kill a boss he told me “Wow, I’ll be so happy when I can do as much damage as you.” Of course, the game scales up with your power, such that you always feel less than adequate, needing something more. You’ll never be happy in such a perverse system.

Video games don’t have to be this way, and they shouldn’t be this way (and the same goes for real life). This contemporary iteration of meaningless social games is a reflection of our social ills: we are looking for games not to enhance our lives, but to take up time, be addictive, and provide symbols of status. We are looking for games that are trying to sell us something. One mafia member renamed his city “Capitalism is Crime.” I would also say “Crime City is Capitalism.”

-Prometheus

The New ’60s

About a month ago my girlfriend got me to watch No Impact Man, a documentary about a guy you probably know about. He gradually reduced his impact on the environment over the course of a year, eventually excluding electricity and toilet paper, and eating locally all within New York City. He was talking to an aging hippie who had an urban garden, about how he felt that there was a sort of revival of the ‘60s and ‘70s going on right now, with the local food movement and environmental concerns. This time though, it has a more professional edge, a seriousness about it.

I’ve thought this way as well for some time, and I would add that increased usage and acceptability of psychedelic drugs—especially marijuana—are a part of this movement. Legalization of marijuana in this country seems drastically more feasible every year, and I’m seeing more and more studies on psilocybin mushrooms and LSD, their benefits in treating depression and alcoholism, amongst other qualities. The US government reacted very harshly to the drug culture of the ‘60s because of the perceived threat they posed: drugs spread fast, encouraged radical thinking, and were mysterious.

So then we had the “war on drugs,” which has turned out to be a ridiculous mess.  We’ve managed to prove that our country’s insatiable desire for drugs can cause massive social damage at home and abroad under the “right” conditions. We cause drug wars in Mexico and we fill our jails with young minorities. Now however, we are beginning to realize that this has been a colossal mistake.

Just as we are beginning to see that the way we’ve treated our planet has been a colossal mistake, and the way we’ve been producing our food, and organizing our social system, and thinking about how we relate to the cosmos. It’s all happening in a more fantastic and real way than even the 60s.

There is no decade you can ascribe to the “new ‘60s”, and that is because the ‘60s are now a permanent part of our cultural consciousness. The ideas embodied by the ‘60s received a harsh reaction, but now they are back and will continue to become more relevant. Ahead of us is permanent and increasing change, and the increasing realization of our ideals. It’s a good thing.

The other reason we can’t ascribe a decade to the “new ‘60s“ is that we haven’t had a nameable decade since the 90’s. the 2000s? the ‘10s? teens? Last century things didn’t really get interesting until the roaring ‘20s.  that isn’t even true, there was a war to end all wars the previous decade, but the decade can’t be called anything so it becomes that much less important to us. In conclusion, the ‘20s are going to be great because they’ll have a name. I can’t wait.

-Prometheus

Alright, who’s trying to hack my email account?

I got an email 2 days ago:

Prometheus,

Someone recently tried to sign in to your Google Account, psychesingularity@gmail.com. We prevented the sign-in attempt in case this was a hijacker trying to access your account. Please review the details of the sign-in attempt:

May 9, 2012 5:29am GMT
IP Address: 37.152.7.132
Location: Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan

If you do not recognize this sign-in attempt, someone else might be trying to access your account. You should sign in to your account and reset your password immediately. Find out how at http://support.google.com/accounts?p=reset_pw

Sincerely,
The Google Accounts Team

I of course reset my password. I know I’ve said that we need to accept a degree of loss of privacy in this transition, but this isn’t cool. The email doesn’t specify, but I would assume that this person in Jordan has my password, or I wouldn’t be warned about it.

Anyway, I’m glad Google was on top of this.

The Just World Hypothesis

Wilt thou hunt the prey for the lion? or fill the appetite of the young lions, when they couch in their dens, and abide in the covert to lie in wait? Who provideth for the raven his food? when his young ones cry unto God, they wander for lack of meat.

-God (Job 38)

What you get for helping people

It amazes me that many people today still cling to an outmoded and dangerous way of thinking, a view of the world which can be summed up as the “just world hypothesis.” (I think I got the phrase from Richard Dawkins). The hypothesis, or assertion, is that the universe obeys laws of justice, that what goes around always comes around, in short: life is fair.

This problem of justice and the universe drives at the core of our being. Our discussion of this topic likely goes back in history as far as our sense of humanity. One of the oldest texts on the matter is a wonderful book from the Old Testament, the Book of Job. I’m sure many of you know the story since I expect I am writing largely to a Western audience, but I’ll summarize the story so we’re all on the same page.

There was a man named Job who lived in the land of Uz (somewhere in the Middle East). Now, Job was an upright and honest man, and faithful to god. He sacrificed some of his many animals daily to God (back when that’s what God wanted), even sacrificing some so that God might forgive Job’s children if they happened to sin. Job was good to God, and God was good to Job: he was the wealthiest man in the land, and quite happy.

Then an adversary in God’s court (not actually Satan as many claim, but more of a devil’s advocate) challenges this wonderful setup, telling God that the only reason Job is righteous is because he is given wealth and prosperity. So god tries to prove the adversary wrong by unleashing plagues upon Job in quick succession:  his cattle are slaughtered by marauders, his house collapses and kills his family, and he is stricken with boils. For weeks he suffers immensely as his friends (“sorry comforters” as he calls them) come to him and in turn offer their view of why he is suffering, saying that he must have sinned against God to deserve what has happened. Through this Job refuses to repent for any sin, because he knows that he has not sinned, and that in a sense what he is experiencing is unjust. The conversation with the friends is quite a bit more complex than I am presenting it, but that’s the gist. After a while Job starts calling for God, or at least a heavenly mediator, to explain what is happening. Finally at the end God shows up and speaks to Job (the longest speech of God’s in the Bible). God doesn’t acknowledge either side of the argument, but instead puts Job in his place, telling him that he doesn’t know how the universe was stitched together, That Job’s not responsible for feeding a starving lion cub with the flesh of another animal. God describes a universe that isn’t ruled by laws of Justice at all, but something more nuanced and complex: a world of titanic forces which must be kept at bay, a world in which suffering must occur regardless of our puny human notions of “Justice.”

It was horrifying to me to discover that the Quran treats this story as if Job acted righteously and was rewarded as such, end of story. In Islam the world is described as Just, wicked people get punished and the righteous are rewarded. It’s amazing that they backtracked so much from a good lesson from a good book. It was quite obvious even at the time of writing the book of Job that wicked people prospered and the innocent suffered. This was so fundamentally upsetting to humankind that we had to create the concept of heaven and hell so that God still has a role in dispensing justice, so that the universe could still be ruled by Justice. Unfortunately this mode of thinking is at its best misleading, and at its worst damaging and poisonous to mankind.

When we believe that everyone gets what they deserve, how do we justify something as horrible as the holocaust? The moment you begin to justify that episode in our history you have insulted the memory of millions of tortured and dead humans. Would you look a child in the eye and tell them there is a reason that they have been forced to witness the murder of their friends and family and then be subjected to torture and death themselves? Any reason you give is not good enough. Any reason that God could give isn’t good enough. There is no reason for innocent suffering.

When we believe that everyone gets what they deserve, there is no need to help anyone. The poor are where they are because they weren’t motivated enough and the rich got to where they are by hard work and service to God. This is how I’ve previously characterized a Libertarian mindset.

Human history has been our slow and increasing realization of ourselves as God, as the only force of Justice in a cold, uncaring universe.  In a sense what I am saying contradicts itself: I call the universe uncaring, yet we are the universe, and we care. I do believe that there is a force of Justice in the universe, and it is us. We created God in our image, not the other way around. The onus is on us, we must do everything in our power to make of this universe what we want it to be: a place where the wicked suffer and the righteous prosper.

-Prometheus