This is a place for exploring Singularity related ideas and inspirations.
This includes Transhumanism, Posthumanism, The Nature of Technology and the Technology of Nature. It is a basic assumption here that innovation is in strata and built on the ground of previous innovations, though sometimes obscured.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

An Integral Model of Transhumanism

An Integral Model of Transhumanism

I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
programming harmony
like pure water
touching clear sky.

Richard Brautigan
All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace

The ancient Sumerians had a tradition of rebuilding the crumbling ziggurats of mud bricks that were the dwelling places of a city's patron deity. They repeatedly reconstructed the glazed facades of their tiered mountains upon which the stood temples where priests could more closely watch in awe and map the movements of stars. Nowadays our civilization tends to deify the crumbling temples, walls and pyramids of the past as though there is something sacred not so much in their inspiration and connotation but in their original materials and construction. In the Sumerian creation myth the Enuma Elish the young gods overthrew the old and took their place in the ruling and shaping of the world. The Ancient Greek and Hindu mythologies had a similar palimpsest of the new overwriting the old. In modern post industrial culture the foundational documents, stories and heroes of past are sacred and awe inspiring. While many are looking backward despite the rising tide of change covering our feet, some of us are looking forward.  While Prometheus looked forward, his brother Epimetheus looked back. The creative power embodied in the fire stolen from Hephaestus by Prometheus, and now directed by human knowledge we can call Techne.

At first examination Transhumanism is a complex and quickly evolving Promethean school of thought loosely woven together with a variety of conversations and points of view. It is kind of a crazy quilt of ideas and technologies in which it is difficult initially to discern much more than a common definition. It seems there are already a few manifestos still glowing from Hephaestus' forge. There is some uncertainty, at least in my own mind where the movement begins and ends. The history of Transhumanism is bound inseparably to the history and evolution of technology from the Paleolithic tools and crafts on through printing presses and mechanical looms and onto smartphones, gene therapy and military drones. The Transhuman Self is a part of the self organizing system of the Technium, the self reinforcing and self organizing ecology of technological innovation. The more we dig into the definition and movement the more it calls into question our place in the natural world, the nature of human evolution and where technology fits into the natural order of the Earth community and cosmos as a whole. Max More defined the movement nicely as the "using of reason, science and technology but by good will to overcome fundamental human limits to live longer than we've ever lived, to become smarter, to become emotionally better than we have ever been."

This is a good start though I would like to expand the definition and explore an integrative vision of human evolution that incorporates physiology, psychology, spirituality, culture and environmentalism. Since I am new to transhumanism, having only learned of the movement in the past year I have needed an intelligible and digestible framework to put all of the disparate ideas into. As a result I've constructed an outline of Types of Enhancement and Categories of Technology that I'd like to begin to explore here. Though the various definitions of Transhumanism seem to be longhand for Human Evolution, especially in relationship with technology, it's focus seems primarily on biology with little concern for Evolutionary Psychology. Likewise, spiritual development generally seems to be somewhat of a dirty word, which is a curious thing that I will begin to address later. I must admit here that I am partial to Terence McKenna's so called Stoned Ape hypothesis and a kind of techno-shamanism.

My own fascination with evolutionary science and technology originated in watching the first landing on the moon, reading R. Buckminster Fuller's works, browsing the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, carefully digesting Toffler's Future Shock, studying cosmology and various works of science fiction. My educational background was in the study of Transpersonal and Ecopsychology and I'm fascinated by the intersection of psyche, technology and nature. More recently I've been reading, thinking and reviewing the innovations and ideas of Artificial Intelligence and Transhumanism presented in various novels, articles and discussions online from Google+ and various blogs as well as watching a few engaging documentaries, interviews and reading a few books still made of real paper. Writing a novel that explores some of the implications of neural implants, nanotechnology and A.I.was an opportunity to try to put all these innovations together into a coherent story. This article is a similar exploration without the art of prose and the play of narrative.

Types of Enhancement:
Performance, Cosmetic, Health, Intelligence

Performance enhancements include cardiovascular, muscular, skeletal modifications for the purpose of increasing capabilities and pushing competitive limits. Artificial red blood cells for runners, biking and swimming, carbon fiber reinforced skulls and bones for football players, increased hand eye coordination for baseball, hockey and most competitive sports.

Cosmetic enhancements include adjustments to appearance that could vary from height, muscle size, skin tone and coloration, fur and hair, shape and color of teeth and nails. I can easily imagine that people will not only want to be healthy but also adjust their appearance so they look as young, robust and healthy as they might feel. And if the ability is there, why not have leopard like fur, camouflage pigmentation, chameleon like chromatophores or even photosynthetic skin?

Health enhancements seem the most obvious and maybe highest priority. The focus here is medical technologies for treating dis-ease such as repairing genetic defects, binding nanoscale molecules to cancer surface receptors, RNA interference, fighting viruses, repairing, replacing and growing organs and limbs, combating aging and reaching optimum health.

Intelligence enhancements. Neuron growth, brain implants, and smart drugs. It's not difficult to imagine direct neural access to the vast stores of information hosted on the web. Our species has been ingesting various organic chemical substances for millennia to enhance our pattern recognition and processing, creative innovation and sensorial capacities. Mushrooms may have enhanced neuron growth and the development of language and imagination. Other substances such as peyote, cocoa leaf extract, marijuana, opium, fermented barley and grapes, tea and coffee have all had profound influence on our civilization. The influence of psychedelics alone on our modern technology and arts is well documented and without caffeine and sugar our hyper-modern civilization would probably collapse.

Categories of Technology:
Orthotic, Prosthesis, Simulation, Substrate

It is in some ways difficult to map out stages of development in Transhumanism since some categories of technology do not become fully obsolete. Kevin Kelly noted this tendency in What Technology Wants. In this sense it might be better to think of these as domains or categories of technology.

Orthotic: Externally applied Structural or Functional devices made to control, guide, restrict or assist movement, to correct shape and function or reduce pain. Classic examples are braces for teeth, podiatry, combat armor, sports padding, helmets and cleats. Then there are mechanical exoskeletons being experimented with for military uses and assistive technology for the elderly and disabled. There are also cognitive orthotics to assist with memory loss and mental impairments. Since I can't effectively function without the calendar and address book imbedded on my iPhone, not to mention my obsessive use of Wikipedia and Google I would argue that such a precocious little device as a smart phone as well as search engines and a dynamic encyclopedia of knowledge falls into this category of an intelligence orthotic as well.

Prosthesis: An artificial device to replace a body part... Here humans become bio-synthetic hybrids. Simple limb replacements have been used from the time of the ancient Greeks and Egyptians. Some great contemporary examples are metallic knee replacements, pacemakers, cornea transplants, retinal implants, cochlear implants, microprocessor controlled knee-joints, bilateral carbon fiber leg blades, myoelectric or robotic arms and hands controlled by targeted muscle reinnervation, artificial hearts and deep brain stimulators to treat Parkinson's disease.

Simulation: The imitation of real world processes... Some contemporary examples are the use of crash test dummies, scale models and wind tunnels, digital and analog music reproduction, under water spacewalk training, voice recognition software, gamepad vibration feedback, haptic interfaces, flight and combat simulators, motion capture suits, video games characters, avatars in virtual reality worlds, audiovisual chatbot avatars, software based artificial life, neural networks and the Whole Brain Emulation project.

Substrate: Human consciousness may be migrated from our modified biological substrate into an enhanced smart biology. Transfer to robotic bodies or uploading into computational simulated environments are possible but debatable scenarios. And then there are visions of the transformation of the dumb matter of the Earth and cosmos into computronium and the transfer of consciousness into the larger ecology of this and other universes.

All of this begs the question though of what is this conscious identity, this self that we long to immortalize?

The Substrates of Self
Personal, Transpersonal, Ecological, Socio-Cultural

Who we are is clearly larger than the lens and mirror of our conscious mind can take in all at once. I've come to think of growth and identity as a more dynamic nonlinear system. Most of the models of development I grew up with and was educated with were more distinctly linear. First this stage then the next one and the next one. But maybe our psyches are shaped more like trees with different limbs and we grow in different capacities at different rates. At some times in our lives we grow more along the personal limb, at others the socio-cultural, at still others our relationship with our environment or our spiritual capacities are predominant. The Self is not bounded simply by one's own skin but is more of a nexus in a complex system of distributed identity in development. This works well with the insights of Depth, Transpersonal and Ecopsychology. 

Personal: This is the domain of what we normally think of as psychology, personal and interpersonal. It is one's personal identity and one's place in a context of relationships from the family system to one's friends and work place. The old notions of the atomistic self lay here, though self consciousness is a limited portion of the psyche as a whole.

Transpersonal: Our connection with the sacred and that which inspires awe. It matters not what the source of mystical experiences are, they are an integral part of being human. Deep states of being, peace and bliss arise from mindfulness and meditation. Psychedelics and entheogens open us to profound experiences of communion, energy flow, understanding and extraterrestrial states of being. Breathwork and dance generate deep archetypal somatic and symbolic experiences. Being in nature brings experiences of peace and wisdom.

Ecological: As Gregory Bateson said, the basic unit if evolution is an organism and it's environment. Sense of place. Many Indigenous peoples around the world have discussed their deep connection with the landscape and the fight for land claims persists not simply for access to resources but because of a deep identification with the land. The term Solastalgia has gained some recognition, defined as the pain one feels when one's place is under assault. Despite the ideological confusion engendered by the church in previous centuries it seems obvious now that were are as a species an integral part of the biomes and biosphere we inhabit.

Socio-Cultural: The multigenerational transmission of the shared repository of knowledge, stories, arts, crafts, language, laws, rituals, food and customs. Every individual emerges out of a distinct culturaheritage and participates in a modern society of hybridization. Myths, ideas and memes take root in us, shaping the way we live and think and are transmitted around the Earth and through the generations. I've long held the notion that there are culturally preferred states of consciousness that are reinforced by the narratives we are surrounded by and ingest on a daily basis. Culture shapes consciousness, innovation and creativity. In that sense, Transhumanism and Posthumanism are new forms of cultural narrative that we are growing in our literature, conversations and actions.

Digital: The digital strata of the Technium may have emerged out of the Socio-Cultural substrate but has gained a unique distinction, power and presence in our psyches. While working in trades our identity becomes entangled with specific tools. That specific hammer, line tester, wooden spoon, pan or spatula become a part of who we are just as certain clothing, jewelry and colors become our own. On websites and online worlds we establish primitive avatars and in video games we identify with and play specific characters of certain races, with preferred orientations and abilities. I've lost track of how many times have my kids argued over who got to play Mario or who gets to be Player One. The adventures of game characters like Link in The Legend of Zelda series have become a part of my family's personal history and sometimes game adventures become metaphors for our own Real Life situations.

The digital substrate is so complex now that it's no longer a simple matter of which operating system is best or which graphics program, web browser, word processor or cloud we use. What is of greater distinction is the communities and sites we inhabit on a regular basis and the media and conversations we steep ourselves in. Smart phones are good tools for grabbing and throwing bits of information, tablets for relaxed media consumption and computers for churning out work on a secure network. Our presence and writing voice differs sometimes frustratingly between turned based text messaging conversations, emails with carefully manicured tones, more dynamic blogs, online dating profiles, and rapid social media exchanges. Google+ is where I strive to have intelligent conversations but Facebook (that carefully watched walled garden) for seeing where old friends are going, what they're eating, making smart ass comments though others enjoy their personal pep rallies. I have four email addresses, each for different purposes that have different orbits and rotations in my life including one so distant I usually ignore it. 

As our neural interfaces mature and move from Orthotics to Prosthetics the depth and complexity of how we inhabit the Digital will continue to increase in subtlety and complexity. This will become much more apparent as we shift away from screen bound websites and into our increasingly augmented world suffused with information, anchored and oozing from in every nook and cranny.  As our glasses give way to neural implants the flat page will increasingly go the way of the Dodos and the DVD  and virtual worldsites will bloom in our collective imagination.

The Promethean Self then that is sought to be preserved in Transhumanism is a dynamic system unfolding out of a unique integration of various substrates. The brain itself is not a single organ but a complex organ system that evolved to collaborate fairly effectively over millions of years. Further, human consciousness does not depend simply on a particular configuration of neural patterns but extends into the organ systems of one's body and extends into all of the different substrates that are woven together into one's whole being. This fits nicely with Professor Anthony Miccoli's ideas of Posthumanism in which the Self is composed of a kind of distributed cognition that extends into the various topologies we inhabit, including the spaces we occupy and the wetware of the brain. And so like the Ship of Theseus we can indeed progressively modify and replace our component parts though the Self we end up with will not be the same Self we started off with. Such is, I guess the nature of human development and evolution.

Author's Bio

Stephen Kagan is an author of contemplative poetry and the speculative fiction novel Augmented Dreams. With over 20 years of work experience in IT he currently works at the University of Victoria in beautiful British Columbia. He studied at Goddard College in Vermont, the Library of Tibetan a Works and Archives in Dharamsala, India and has an MA in East West Psychology from CIIS in San Francisco. He has a long standing interest in the psychology of consciousness, ecopsychology and the melting point of psyche, technology and nature. &

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