Purple Magazine
— S/S 2017 issue 27

Transhumanism

By JOHN JEFFERSON SELVE

Aren’t you astonished by the proliferation of emoticons? At one time, emoticons served to mark a transition, nuance a statement, or add an “emotion” to a phrase. Now, smartphones are suggesting we use them to replace words themselves. They’re becoming a language.

Aren’t you surprised that even as we work our way toward artificial intelligence, we are diminishing our language, reducing its infinite richness — all to satisfy our ever-increasing appetite for the instantaneous? We go faster and faster to say less and less.

Aren’t you somewhat disconcerted when you go on YouTube to watch a cultural or political show from 10 years ago? It needn’t be very old for us to feel that it comes from a former world. People spoke a higher language, employed a richness of vocabulary we’ve now forgotten. As we watch, we feel these recent archives are drawn from a time of subtlety, gradation, and acknowledged complexity.

I’ve been reading a great deal of literature for more than 20 years, and I can see the changes at work in myself and in others. The effects are a drastic shortening of my attention span, diminished concentration, and less reading. Although not afflicted with attention deficit disorder (ADD), unlike so many young people today, I’ll interrupt my reading to check my telephone, and my thoughts will scatter in a hundred other directions as I read. I understand why literature, as an art, has been losing ground.

Isn’t it ironic or strange that human intelligence, even while reaching its technical and scientific apotheosis, should cede its capacity for communication and exchange, and instead mold itself after the machines and networks of its own creation?

This is due in part, we know, to the “big data” and algorithms of GAFA (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple), whose objective is to disrupt. The idea, as the philosopher Bernard Stiegler says, is to proceed faster than societies can evolve, so as to impose on them technical models that destroy their social, cultural, and psychological structures. And this is done for economic reasons — to steer our desires toward consumerist impulses. Essentially, this is commerce, but dangerous commerce, because it attacks our entire behavior with an unsuspected algorithmic power. We are as yet in the dark about the processes under way. Stiegler’s latest book, Dans la Disruption: Comment Ne Pas Devenir Fou? [In Disruption: How Do We Not Go Mad?], is a vitally important work on this subject.

Like some fire brigade of pyromaniacs, GAFA is investing heavily in artificial intelligence. We’ve reached a stage where science and technics are serving economic values alone. This is nothing new, but it has reached devastating proportions.

Transhumanism champions progress in terms of the adapted, augmented man, who is high-performing and profitable. Man made to order, in sum. And thus, GAFA’s interest in ultra-freemarket values becomes clear. “We must smother the genetic cobbling-together that is life,” says Laurent Alexandre, transhumanism’s representative in France. We must rid ourselves of all chance and randomness and look to efficient function.

By this reckoning, liberty seems but a backward notion, a matter of conscience with no further reason to be. And artificial intelligence will be there to prove it. The transhumanists assert that “we will soon be AI’s Labradors” and that our only recourse, lest we fall behind, is to boost our capacities. Opponents see in all this the ultimate Golem, the Terminator, the nefarious HAL of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: the thing that will enslave us when AI achieves technological self-replication and autonomy — as it is well on its way to doing, according to the experts.

What is it that urges man toward the ideology of the non-limit, toward the fear of finitude that, as Hannah Arendt showed, leads to totalitarianism?

In geological time, the Anthropocene is nothing: a few seconds’ worth of an hour. Yet it has been the time of all metamorphoses, the period of man’s deleterious, ineffaceable trace on the earth. But we have a chance to go even further, by speeding up our exit from this era, almost unwittingly.

By creating tools that might lead to immortality, we run the risk, through artificial intelligence, of creating a new species, one that is extra-human, not to say inhuman, insofar as it entails the abolition of conscience, perception, and sensation. Yet the true parentage of robots is literary. They remain a matter of language. But our desire to replace God after having killed him, to remake him as a being in our own image and create an alterity, is already obsolete. Now, with the first quantum computers coming on board, scientists know that nothing further will occur in the spheres of languages. There is no predictive model. We’ve entered the unimaginable, a sidereal void of thought, a black hole that is drawing us ineluctably in.

The tragic paradox, in Antiquity’s sense of the term, is that we perceive all this a minima but find it increasingly difficult to describe the movement. We lack the language, if we consider that politically this is everyone’s affair. Our smileys, our (140-character) Tweets, our likes, and such are, in the end, digging a sort of geological fault and casting everything into its deeper and more impenetrable shadow. We have entered the illegible.

It is incredible that the thing likely to overturn humanity in less than a century has become the affair of a mere handful of decision-makers, an oligarchy of technologists that, in sheer power, is the most dangerous our planet has ever known.

[Table of contents]

S/S 2017 issue 27

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