Sep 16 2011

Where’s The Desperate Joy?


The grand old website Slate has been featuring a debate about transhumanism (human enhancement). Since it is the sort of site that is read by the “intelligentsia,” this means that a lot of writers and “opinion leaders” are becoming cognizant of the need to look at how technology seems to be inextricably moving us towards a confrontation with our potential to technologically alter in radical ways.  (As a side note, we have reached such a decentralized cultural overflow that probably the only people who think serious intellectuals are “opinion makers” are those striving to be “opinion makers” themselves, a life option that is probably being foreclosed by technological changes just as the option to become a college professor is being foreclosed by political ones.  Anyway, the reality is that the actual influential opinion makers in our time are braying  lunatics and halfwits who have massive audiences that serious intellectuals pay no attention to.)

While the discussion is interesting and entertaining enough, what is missing for me is a sense of desperation.  To wit: civilization has evolved technologically in the philosophical shadow of Malthus and it has come to be broadly understood by most intelligent observers that a technologically static humanity will reap apocalyptic results from population growth.  It may seem a bit of a leap to assume that the pursuit of human self enhancement falls into the same category as the need for technologies for human sustenance, but I’m quite certain that it does, both in terms of real practical developments (think of nanotechnology as one of the great hopes for clean energy and hyperlongevity) and in terms of the spirit of the age (the Space Age defining a sort of optimism that energized people as opposed to, say, the Pinched Mean Shriveled Age in which people resent having to save the life of a poor person in need of medical care, ad infinitum).

I’m not going to unpack my entire argument on this lovely Friday afternoon, but I do think an expansive human species is a humane and generous species.  This may not necessarily be always manifest today in the transhumanist discourse, but it is a Zeitgeist Spirit that we caught a glimmer of in the 1990s and that we may yet see rise again, technology and weather permitting.