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.
I have decided to slowly revamp the video section on this blog. Eventually it will all be sorted well and contain all sorts of interesting things that you can procrastinate for hours watching, getting lost in the future when you’re bored with the present. For now here’s a nice new video from “Russia 2045” (the video will explain who they are, or you can go to 2045.com) 2045 is often the date people ascribe to the singularity, though interestingly enough the video and website never uses the word “singularity.” Anyway, here it is:
Did you notice that:
-the narrator says we are moving forward into the depths of the stars and “the infinite universe of our inner world”?
-they used the phrase “neo-humanity” instead of “post-humanity”?
-that spiritual development is seen as the focus of progress?
-that the avatar is shown dancing in nature?
-that the predictions end in after 2045?
from the predictions in the video, it really seems like the singularity will truly have happened before 2045, that all of the crazy things we can imagine will happen in 30 years or so. What happens after that is pretty much impossible to say.
And neither do I. I was talking about the singularity with some friends, one of which had just begun to think about the mind blowing implications of this transition, a friend who is very interested in music. He inquired whether I thought that after the singularity digital music will be able to perfectly simulate live analog music, and before I was able to reply “most definitely yes,” another friend did one better. He said that it’s not just that digital music will exceed the quality of live music, it’s that we will be able to augment our minds so that we can turn on music in our heads whenever we want to, and hear anything we want to.
This basically typifies the singularity. It is when the line between reality (analog) and the virtual (digital) stops existing, when computer simulations become real and our experience becomes anything we want it to be. X-ray vision, fine tuned hearing, eyes miles or light years away, these are all possibilities, and only the beginning. We will be able to do anything we imagine, and I am quite serious about this, because even if it’s not physically possible, we can construct a physical universe where it is possible. But it gets even crazier, because when you think about it, our brains are puny compared to what they will be after the singularity (down the line a bit), and our imaginations are stunted by the world we were born into. When we start crafting our own worlds in our own minds, we will be able to do more than we can imagine now.
People are talking about exoskeleton suits that soldiers will wear in the future, and others are looking further to talk about augmenting our very bodies to be more impenetrable, becoming invincible conscious robots. But it’s even crazier than that, the singularity is about transcending matter in ways we don’t understand yet, existing as pulses of information which augment the universe with no discernable bodies. People talk about us becoming like gods of Greek mythology, being able to wield great power to create and destroy, but it’s even crazier than that. Down the line consciousness will permeate the universe to such an extent that we may be the God of Christian mythology, a creator of everything, an omnipresent force which encompasses all that is, a universal consciousness.
That may not happen, but as I said before, my brain is currently too small to know what the possibilities are, and if it’s not possible in this universe, it will be in a universe we create ourselves, in our own minds.
I don’t wear shoes first and foremost because my older brothers didn’t wear shoes when we were growing up, and we all continue to not wear shoes. This practice has been slowly transformed from childish playfulness into conscious lifestyle choice, and now I’m prepared to tell you why I am a barefoot man, and how this relates to the singularity.
Shoes are gloves for feet. They are extremely useful inventions, allowing us to walk over all sorts of sharp things, and generally not worry about what we’re stepping on. Shoes protect us and make us more productive, and therefore sound exactly like something I would like. But there are certain disadvantages to this technology for our spiritual well-being that I am not prepared to accept.
Most of the time our only physical contact with the ground beneath us is through our feet. It is through our feet that we directly feel our connection to the earth, by actually feeling the earth. Everything we step on is a load of experience, information that most have deprived themselves of with shoes. As we’ve taken up this technology of shoes, like any technology, we have come to rely on them. Our protected and coddled feet are to tender to walk on rocks or hot sand, and so we continue to wear shoes, worsening our state and driving us further from the earth we came from.
By now I sound like a pessimist, talking about how dehumanizing technology is. Well, I admit it, technology is dehumanizing, but as I’ve said before it doesn’t have to be. If I could extend my nerves into my shoes so that I could be protected and also feel the earth beneath me, I would wear shoes. When the singularity roles around and we begin to transcend our bodies, we’ll likely see people replacing entire limbs with stronger, better ones. I think that I would love to have a much stronger arm, but if it isn’t as sensitive or more sensitive than my previous arm, if it doesn’t feel, then it’s worthless to me. I already have tools that are much more powerful than my arm that I can’t feel, but I wouldn’t trade my arm for a hydraulic lift, so why should I trade it for a prosthetic that can’t feel?
These values are fragile, of course, and I have no idea how feelings will survive after the singularity. I also know that if shoes were invented today, I would probably get them because they would improve my productivity, and I really am just desperately holding onto one aspect of primitive humanity in a world of modernity.
This desperation has occurred to me, and I have often wondered if our drive for efficiency and perfection will inevitably lead us to stop feeling, to fade ourselves out of existence. This is a question that I simply have to think more about.
But moving on, being barefoot is a consciousness expanding experience for more reasons than the added sensory information and personal connection to the earth. The choice not to wear shoes is an odd one in this society, and therefore puts me in situations which are challenging and, as a result, also mind expanding. People are genuinely surprised to see me barefoot, and often inquire about it, wondering how I manage to go without shoes. Mostly I just remind them that humans lived for millions of years before inventing shoes, so it’s obviously possible. Other people get downright angry about my expression of difference (or indifference). Last year I was eating at a chipotle for lunch and a middle aged lady walked up to me and told me it was illegal for me to not wear shoes in a place which serves food, and that “my husband is a cop and he could give you a ticket for that.” I had no idea how to respond, between saying “fuck off” and laughing at her.
What I have learned through this interaction and other similar ones is how confused most people are about hygiene (and this is something I will definitely write about later). Somehow people believe that a lack of shoes is unhealthy, and I’m not entirely sure why. After all, everything that I have on my feet would be on my shoes and therefore the floor if I was wearing shoes, so there’s no conceivable harm I can cause to others unless I somehow have a communicable foot-disease. I understand when I get kicked out of a store because they are afraid I might get harmed by a piece of glass on the floor or something (though In all my years I have never been cut by glass on my feet), but I’d rather take that responsibility unto myself.
And yes, I do get foot injuries. I get an average of one bee sting on my feet every two years, I step on thorns almost every day, I cut myself on sharp rocks, and people step on my feet because they have shoes and therefore don’t need to care about what they step on. Suffering is a part of life, and you cannot separate it from existence, it serves to remind us of how wonderful it is to not be suffering. I take the bee stings and am thankful for every day I don’t get one.
As for restaurants, I’ve learned to pick my battles and wear shoes where they are required by law (at least where it will probably be enforced). After all, it is unfair of me to put workers in the awkward situation of having to enforce a rule against someone that they might not even agree with. The rest of the time I try to change those rules by making people more aware that not wearing shoes is OK. I’d like to finish with a pertinent quote from Gandhi, a man who I, like most people, admire greatly. It comes from his autobiography, where he recounts the experience of gaining admittance into a law court in South Africa. Lawyers usually were required to remove their turbans to enforce a dress code which was discriminatory toward Indians:
“You must now take off your turban, Mr. Gandhi. You must submit to the rules of the Court with regard to the dress to be worn by practicing barristers.”
I saw my limitations. The turban that I had insisted on wearing in the District Magistrate’s Court I took off I obedience to the order of the Supreme Court. Not that, if I had resisted the order, the resistance could not have been justified. But I wanted to reserve my strength for fighting bigger battles. I should not exhaust my skill as a fighter in insisting on retaining my turban. It was worthy of a better cause.
Sheth Abdulla and other friends did not like my submission (or was it weakness?). They felt that I should have stood by my right to wear the turban while practicing in the court. I tried to reason with them. I tried to press home the maxim, “when in Rome do as the Romans do.” “it would be right,” I said, “to refuse to obey, if In India an English officer or judge ordered you to take off your turban; but as an officer of the Court, it would have ill become me to disregard a custom of the Court I the province of Natal.”