Transhumanity: do I really want it? [archives]

[This piece was originally hosted on my now-defunct MA course blog.]

And yet another of my blogposts stems from a book I am reading. This makes me very happy!

The book I am immersed in at the moment is called The Mammoth Book of The Best of Best New SF: The Ultimate Collection – The Cream of Two Decades of Science Fiction.  I’ve read over half the extremely thick book (mostly on the bus going to and returning from university/work) in the last few days, and it has disturbed me quite deeply.

Many of the stories in this anthology have focussed on the concept of transhumanity or transhumanism. (I choose the term ‘transhumanity’ because one of the stories uses that term, and it refers to the collective of the beings, rather than a purely abstract idea.) And their ideas ranged from adapting humans to an eternal life in a modified human body to moving away from flesh into a software-based existence. Some of them took me by surprise with their depth of detail, many of them left me sleepless.

From my previous post [not added to this archive as yet], you might have gathered that I have a rather conservative view on what constitutes nature and life. (Far too conservative for my own liking, I’ll admit.) Despite this view, I have always been fascinated by some possibilities of transhumanism, particularly that of cyborgs. The fusion of man and machine will no doubt turn everyone’s notion of what constitutes life on its head.

But what would happen if we experienced a technology-driven evolution that takes us away from everything that ties us to other forms of life?

I’m not very comfortable with the idea. One of the factors might be the number of stories that dealt with some form of immortality. The reason I am unenthusiastic about the ideas mentioned in these stories, and the reason I lost sleep, is because I don’t think immortality is I something would want. After all, as Agent Smith said, “The purpose of life is to end, Mr. Anderson.”

This, of course, doesn’t mean to imply that I have so little to do that I wouldn’t appreciate a little extra time. But when you have an infinite time ahead of yourself, how would you go about doing things? You wouldn’t need to plan things to fit the tight budget of the minutes of your day. Yes, that would be a relief to many of us, but in what order then would you do the things you had to do? Will there be anything that you have to do, any more?

The transhumans of science fiction seem to be creative and curious and exploratory despite the abundance of time. For me, the temporariness, the perceived lack of time, the fleeting moments passing by that I might fail to notice if I weren’t paying attention, these and other reminders of our mortality are what make life worth living. These are the reasons why I choose to express my creativity (on the rare occasion that I do); these are the reasons why I want to explore all that is around me.

Then again, with an infinity of time on my hands, I could explore the whole universe, couldn’t I? I could explore time, as well as space. I could watch stars evolve, galaxies collide, planets form, life stir in primordial soups with various ingredients. I could paint asteroids, chase comets and watch them change shape and form, study the growth of mountains, dive into deep volcanoes, redefine the constellations.

But, would I?

One of the recurring themes in most of the stories I read is one of the complete absence of what we call love. I think we value our relationships, with our parents, friends, spouses, partners and children, because they, like us, are here for a short while. They might be taken from us in the blink of an eye. Even years spent with them might not be enough. We learn to treasure only that which is precious, that which is rare. And to us mortals, time is the most precious of them all, and all that inhabits this realm of finite time is precious too.

The immortal transhumans share no lasting bonds, and why would they? Even the bonds that appear to last for long time-scales are in fact the result of constant self-induced change in the personality, characteristics and appearance of the people bonded. No one wants to be bogged down spending millennia with someone who stays the same.

As humans, we change too – from birth to death, our appearances and personalities undergo various changes, as a result of our physiology, as well as our reactions to our surroundings. But those changes are mere reminders of our mortality. We age visibly; our bodies bloom and then fade. And through it all, we are reminded of the mortality of the ones we love, we are reminded of our own short stay.

We create out of love. Or out of hate or lack of love – both of which involve love in some way. (Of course, don’t treat this as some blanket generalisation.) The transhumans of science fiction have no mortality-bound definition of love. Their love is transient. Far more transient than I can understand. Even if you spend a thousand years with your lover in an infinite time, that is merely a drop in the ocean that is your lifetime.

What if you want to explore the stars, but your lover is content with spending his or her life growing new lifeforms where you live? Sometimes, I feel that our bonds aren’t formed out of choice, but because we are confined to the same space and time. But I wouldn’t have it another way.

Without doubt, any transhumans we evolve into might laugh at my statements, just as we would laugh if Neanderthals said they were happy with the way they lived their lives and wanted no change. They will find something to captivate them, they will find problems that need solutions, they will redefine the word ‘precious’ to encompass what they believe should be valued.

But would I want to be in their place? No!

“The average man, who does not know what to do with his life, wants another one which will last forever.” –Anatole France

Leave it behind
You’ve got to leave it behind
All that you fashion
All that you make
All that you build
All that you break
All that you measure
All that you steal
All this you can leave behind
– Walk On, U2

On that note: