Langdon Winner‘s article “Resistance is Futile: The Posthuman Condition and Its Advocates” really hit the mark for me in terms of finally giving the theories of posthumanism a fair critique. Winner, unlike some of the more well-known (or more oft-cited) posthuman theorists and critics, sees that while the exciting and imaginative notions of a posthuman world are popular in the industrialized world, they don’t make much sense in places like Africa, Central America or the Middle East, where so many people struggle for the basic necessities of life, never mind for advanced artificial intelligence or the possibility of purchasing techno-biological upgrades.

As the new millennium begins, projects in this genre–variously called posthuman, metahuman, transhuman, ultrahuman, or cyborg–are widely cherished as a marvellous intellectual challenge, a path to future profits, an opportunity for artistic fulfillment, and an occasion for exquisite personal transcendence. Although sentiments of this kind are increasingly common in writings about science, technology, and humanity, they remain minority views among intellectuals and within the world’s populace. (Winner 386)

Later in his article, Winner gives a couple of statistics that explain exactly why few philosophers take much stock in transhuman and posthuman theories. He says that 70% of the world’s population have never used a telephone and that “a total of 2.8 billion people (roughly half the world’s population) live on less than $2 a day” (407). I would like to add that 80% of the world’s population consider themselves “religious” (an approximate number I got from one of my religion courses), and believe in something greater than humanity. But “within three prominent domains of contemporary posthumanism–the natural sciences, social movements, and social theory–one finds levels of self-indulgence and megalomania that are simply off the charts” (405). James Watson has said, “if scientists don’t play god, who will?” (388). This quotation from Watson seems to summarize precisely why scientists are driven to discover and/or create an improved life for, or version of, humanity. Since Darwin’s famous thesis and the acceptance of the theory of evolution by the scientific community, the world has increasingly fallen away from faith, leaving us very alone in a system/universe/space greater than anyone’s comprehension.

In order to create a greater meaning for themselves, some scientists have attempted to find ways to create life forms of their own, and to become “gods” themselves. Winner provides us with some examples of these theoretical man-made creations, including “metaman.” Metaman isn’t really human at all–he’s a man-made construction, a robot with biological parts. One of the requirements of being labeled human–or more specifically, living organism–is that you must be able to reproduce yourself (or a version of yourself). While creating human offspring or clones in labs is indeed a form of reproduction, the addition of technological means alters the meaning of biological reproduction, and I don’t think that Gregory Stock‘s idea of the metazoan as a changed human being is accurate. Man cannot “change” biologically in the ways Stock suggests without scientific tampering. Take for instance the banana tree. I have heard from multiple sources that the banana tree is becoming extinct due to the fact that nearly every living banana tree is actually a clone and not a distinct organism. This has inhibited the banana tree from evolving to fight disease and other threats that conversely have adapted to take advantage of the banana tree. A similar fate could be expected for the human race if we too are diminished to clones or modified cyborgs. Rather than simply allow our immune systems and evolution take care of biological threats, we would have to be able to handle them ourselves artificially, or a pandemic could wipe us out once and for all. Now I suppose robots could make modifications to their “offspring,” and simulate the process of evolution, but each of those modifications would be a decision and not a naturally-occurring event.

Metaman is a biological construction, but also discussed in Winner’s article are the technological constructions of machines, similar to the machines depicted in movies like Terminator. Hans Moravec explains:

Today, as our machines approach human competence across the board, our stone-age biology and information age lives grow ever more mismatched… Our artificial progeny will grow away from and beyond us, both in physical distance and structure, and similarity of thought and motive. In time their activities may become incompatible with the old Earth’s continued existence. (389)

Winner explains that machines have become solution to problem of desiring better service at a lower price. But if all work was done by machines, how does society split the pot? Who is worth more than who? If no one supplied any work themselves, the human condition would lead humanity to total war, and the machines would be left to fend for themselves. Moravec’s idea that in this scenario humans would only work to amuse other humans makes perfect sense.  If you thought the sex trade is bad, and that athletes are overpaid today…

Despite the fact Winner entertains Moravec’s theories (and those of others) in his article, Winner’s ultimately concludes by saying theories like Moravec’s don’t help anyone today. For Winner, there are two varieties of posthumanism:

1) its purpose seeks freedom and social justice for all human beings, with people regarded as being fundamentally equal… Always key to these efforts was the elimination of oppressive institutions and the creation of better ones.

[-and-]

2) a Nietzschean Ubermensh or other superior creature, is an accomplishment well worth seeking. Hence, the focus of revolutionary aspirations no longer rests on cumbersome institutions so notoriously difficult to change, but rather on the physical composition of the body one inhabits. The recent shift in social theory away from concerns about justice and the retailoring of human institutions toward narcissistic concerns about achieving a revolution in the body points to a definite weariness about the strategies for change advocated in earlier decades–organizing unions and resistance movements, for example. (404)

Without question, Winner falls into his first category. He would like to see equality for all human beings on Earth–a utopian vision that people have dreamed of for hundreds (maybe thousands) of years. “Perhaps those now enthralled with cyborgs, hybrids, extropians, and posthumans will find such information [about world poverty] insufficiently novel or thrilling to deflect their ambitious philosophical and research agendas,” says Winner, “but the rest of us should take notice” (407). “Many seem eager,” continues Winner, “to announce to persons living on less than one dollar a day that their bodies, abilities, and identities have been superseded by new products, new hybrids, produced in European and U.S. high-tech labs and social theory seminars” (407-8). I think we can all learn something from this statement. Those of us living in the industrialized world (and, if you’re reading this blog, you are more than likely included in this)  take a lot of things for granted. We should remember that despite our fascination–our obsession–with technology, “most of the world still consists of things and creatures that neither scientists, business people, nor social theorists had any hand in making” (402).

– Dyldebeest

Source:

Langdon Winner, “Resistance is Futile: The Posthuman Condition and Its Advocates.” In Is Human Nature Obsolete?: Genetics, Bioengineering, and the Future of the Human Condition. Ed. by Harold W. Baillie and Timothy Casey. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2005.

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