In his Hello Anthropocene, Goodbye Humanity, post-phenomenologist, Richard S. Lewis delves into the antagonism between the mutually exclusive philosophies of transhumanism and bioconservatism. He lays out six philosophers representative of each camp; the transhumanists: Bostrom, Kurzweil and Moravec; and the biocons: Fukuyama, Habermas and Sandel. Lewis notes that each group operates out of a deep sense of fealty to their own competing idea of what is best for humanity. The obvious question: Who is right? Here it is pertinent to interject a line of argumentation which was not made in Mr. Lewis’ paper, namely, that the principal argument against bioconservatism should be that it is (given sufficient time scales) intrinsically anti-adaptational. Biological changes are required for successful adaptation (survival and thriving of a species). Humans have been modifying themselves and their environment for as long as they have been able to do so (through the utilization of early prosthetic devices, spyglasses, dietary regimes, etc). The only salient distinction between evolutionary change and human-directed change is the speed, scale and magnitude of transformation; this is to say that a mantis population which migrates to an area with high predation and dense foliage will have to take on the coloring of the foliage, or face re-migration or being hunted to extinction. Given a long enough period of time – even in utterly pristine conditions – humans will cease to exist; this does not mean that our progeny will cease to exist but that, even without interbiomechanical engineering, the process of evolution, that is, bio-environmental adaptation, itself necessitates biological transformation; organ augmentation, metabolic re-modulation and so on. Thus, though there is certainly the possibility for destructive rupture due the transhumanist project (indeed, some traumatic disruption will be required for the project to extropically succeed), they are moving with the evolutionary current whereas bioconservatives wish to move against it, which obviates, at every turn, potentialities for survival enhancement. However, this is merely an aside, which does not bare upon the central framework espoused by Lewis in his paper.
What makes Lewis’ paper interesting is not merely its deft excavation of bioconservativism and transhumanism’s metatheoretical assumptions (as that has been extensively debated elsewhere), but rather, that it attempts to ground the discussion in postphenomenology as opposed to the dominant discourse of logical positivism or critical rationalism or less dominant but useful discourses such as eliminativism. His first critique surrounds the shared view between biocons and transhumanist: subject/object duality. He writes, “Currently, the human enhancement debate is framed primarily as transhumanists versus bioconservatives around the NBIC1 technological convergence idea. Postphenomenology can reframe the human enhancement debate, identifying the fundamental flaws to the transhumanist approach and demonstrating that a more realistic and empirically grounded understanding of human enhancement is possible. Sharon (2014) pointed out that both the transhumanists and bioconservatives share the idea of the human ‘as an autonomous, unique and fixed entity, that is separate from its environment in a distinct way’ (3), believing that there remains a clear subject/object duality. Postphenomenology can move the discussion away from what feels like utopian versus dystopian views to pave the way toward a new transhuman framework. The ideas of technologically embodied relations, non-neutrality of technology, enabling / constraining, and transparency are the tools most beneficial to creating a new discursive framework for transhumanism.”2
Thus Lewis, following Ihde3, sets himself in alignment with the transhumanist project but against their methodology, namely, he is opposed to the transhumanists’ instrumental approach to technology (the view that technology is a tool for human use and nothing more). In distinction to the instrumentalist view Lewis posits four additional attributions of technology: embodied relations, non-neutrality, enabling/constraining and transparency. Of the four, embodied relations are – in Lewis and Ihde’s schema – the most important to consider, as all other human-technological relations are determined by their level of integration. A embodied relation is the degree to which any given piece of technology becomes (or is perceived to have become) a direct and immediate4 extension of the human body (such as a pair of glasses, a coffee cup or a bionic arm). The level of embodiment is described as the relational transparency; for example, a uncomfortable pair of glasses is less transparent (more opaque) than a form-fitting pair of glasses (because it fades more easily into the background of awareness to such a degree that one may forget that one is even wearing them). Non-neutrality denotes the inability for any piece of technology to be solely useful; no matter how practically useful a given piece of technology happens to be, it will always potentate unintended consequences (like anything else), some of which will be negative (hence, it is not neutral – a point with which I would strongly agree, as nothing, given a sufficient period of time, is truly neutral in relation to anything else). Enabling / constraining relations are those aspects of the human-technological relation which magnify one aspect of the human but diminish another; Lewis gives the example of a telescope which enables the viewer to see object(s) at a greater distance than the human eye, but at the same time limits the range of vision, isolating the spied object(s) from its surroundings.
Lewis quotes Ihde lampooning “technofantasy” at length to reinforce his point: “I want the transformation that the technology allows, but I want it in such a way that I am basically unaware of its presence. I want it in such a way that it becomes me. Such a desire both secretly rejects what technologies are and overlooks the transformational effects, which are necessarily tied to human-technology relations. This illusory desire belongs equally to pro- and anti-technology interpretations of technology…. In that sense, all technologies in use are non-neutral. (Ihde, Lifeworld 75-76).”
Again, the recognition of non-neutrality is a fair point and is of considerable practical importance (in mitigating recklessness and better accounting for ancillary effects). However, these are all additions to instrumentation, the technologies must still be useful to us to some degree to make the aforementioned considerations of any importance whatsoever. Indeed, it is precisely because technologies are useful principally to us (humans) that they are not neutral. Further, there is no reason why one cannot incorporate Ihde and Lewis’ conceptual schema into the classical instrumentalist view given that it is a extension of it. This, however, is relatively minor issue given that to fully reconceptualize our relationship to technology as wholly noninstrumental would obviate any further reason to continue using or creating it (which would be ridiculously foolish).
A much more significant issue arises towards the end of his paper where Lewis suddenly pivots (by way of Idhe) to what I would posit is the central problem of his piece (born from faulty reasoning, not faulty methodology): the impossibility of perfectly transparent technology. He concludes, “New technologies such as 3D printing of body parts and genetic engineering bring about both exciting and potentially disturbing scenarios and repercussions for the future. Transhumanists and bioconservatives bring opposing views to this human enhancement debate. However, both parties start from a dualistic point of view, keeping the subject and object separate. The philosophical field of postphenomenology is a beneficial approach, which pragmatically and empirically grounds the human enhancement debate, providing tools such as embodied technological relations, the non-neutrality of technology, enabling and constraining aspects of all technologies, and the false dream of a perfectly transparent technology.”
This is a peculiar thing for him to end on given that it directly contradicts an earlier section of the paper wherein he writes, “An example of a seemingly transparent technology is genetic modification. Biotechnology such as CRISPR5 (Mulvihill et al.) makes it possible to not only modify a person’s genetic code, but to also allow the possibility for germline editing, which would cause those changes to be passed down to future generations. This technology is quite invisible to the person and can
thus be considered fundamentally transparent. However, enabling and constraining issues remain aspects of this technology. Replacing one gene with another may remove the previous functionality that we are aware of, but some of the functionality may not be known currently. The complexity of genetic and epigenetic systems and the details of how they manifest the human being is far beyond our current comprehension. Additionally, the designer’s fallacy states that many technologies are not used in the way they were originally designed. With genetic manipulation, it could be many years before the effects of removing and splicing in new genes are revealed. Though many of the effects can be positive (i.e., for removing genetic defect), there will still be constraining effects, some of which might not be discovered right away.”
He is of course correct that there will always be side-effects which are unaccounted for in the utilization of any given piece of technology, indeed, even before that, in the theoretical construction of those ideas which serve to bring any given technology about, there are unintended consequences. Yet, does not necessarily have anything to do with transparency (it could or it could not).
Lewis contends that a perfectly transparent technology is impossible but also that a fundamentally transparent technology is actualizable. I confess the distinction between “perfect” and “fundamental” is lost on me. Laying issues of “perfection” aside, I would contend, that the impossibility of fully integrated (completely transparent) technology is clearly false, not just speculatively or theoretically, but objectively. For instance, researchers from the University of Texas recently devised a technique whereby they could 3D print human musculoskeletal tissues6. The process involved extracting stem cells from a patients fat cells and then 3D printing them via a 12 channel printhead into a hydrogel which would be grown in a culture into tendons or ligaments after implantation into a patient’s body, in the same way as normal human ligaments or tendons. Because the musculoskeletal tissues are human and grow in accord with the human body, they would be completely transparent to the patient. Gene therapy is yet another example of complete transparency in the postphenomenological register. Therefore, complete (not perfect) transparency is not impossible, but already actual.
Regardless of Lewis’ somewhat imprecise wording and argumentation, his (and Ihde’s) conceptual schema is worthy of serious consideration given its potentiality towards technological risk-mitigation, positive utilization and impact intensification.
- David Ede, Nikki Davidoff, Alejandro Blitch, Niloofar Farhang, Robby D. Bowles. Microfluidic Flow Cell Array for Controlled Cell Deposition in Engineered Musculoskeletal Tissues. Tissue Engineering Part C: Methods, 2018; 24 (9): 546.
- Don Ihde. (2003) Postphenomenology – Again? The Centre for STS Studies.
- Lewis, R. S. (2018) Hello Anthropocene, goodbye humanity: Reassessing transhumanism through postphenomenology. Glimpse, 19, 79-87. Page 4.
Kaiter Enless. (2018) Expanding The Technological Register. Notes On Lewis’ Hello Anthropocene, Goodbye Humanity: Reassessing transhumanism through postphenomenology. Logos.
1NBIC is an acronym which stands for Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Information Technology & Cognitive Science.
2Lewis, R. S. (2018). Hello Anthropocene, goodbye humanity: Reassessing transhumanism through postphenomenology. Glimpse, 19, 79-87. Page 4.
3Don Ihde: American philosopher and the founder of postphenomenology.
4We here add “direct and immediate” given that every piece of technology is – of necessity – a extension of the human body.
5CRISPR-cas9 is a tool for genome editing which is extremely versatile. It operates by utilizing Cas9 and gRNA to induce mutations into a subject’s DNA.