Last couple of weeks of my research for the Final Major Project has been dedicated to understanding what ‘transhumanism’ is and how it blurs the line between being a human or a robot (possibly). My friend Loven, introduced me to the movie Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence and boy did I love it! Essentially not the regular Manga or an icecream-popcorn movie, it talks about cyborgs being controlled by the human soul capable of choosing to kill itself as well as those around it. Quite a deep movie this. Also raises valid points about how evolution could proceed given our dependance on technology.
When machines learn to feel, who decides what is human…
It is that time of the year again! Gearing up for my major project and dissertation I wrote this little piece defining my area of interest. Wearable technologies and ‘trans-humanism’ has always interested me, hence the decision to focus on the subject. Though I do not know yet what the final project is going to be, I think am treading towards it … slowly.
Wearable technology has come a long way. In the past, what was referred to as body-borne computers capable of performing calculations and processing information has now become ubiquitous computing. It is assumed that the developments brought about by converging nanotechnology, biotechnology and information technology within the field of cognitive science will usher in revolutionary applications. In the words of Neil Harbisson
), “It’s a very exciting moment in history that allows us to perceive reality in a greater way. Instead of using technology or wearing technology constantly, we will start becoming technology.” In this new world thus, humans must negotiate between the theory of ‘already and always disabled’
(Gregor Wolbring, 2010) and that of technology as a solution for problems. Technology, then, redefines the terms, ‘disabled’ and ‘differently-abled’ for us. While the realm of ‘cyborgs’ is upon us, we debate the dichotomy of an optimistic allegiance or an unexamined techno-fetish. Body hackers or trans-humans as they otherwise call themselves, look at the human body not as a machine but ecology, treating wearable technology or prosthetics as pieces of body art. I use the term ‘prosthetics’ loosely here because IVF babies with genes from three different parents or performance-enhancing drugs in sports also essentially belong to this trans-humanism movement. Coupled with the growing popularity of ‘making’ and DIY, I question if trans-humanism is the result of our expanding need for personalised products. Fields of study for this research project primarily includes computation and system science with social sciences and psychology. Information theory, cybernetics, ergonomics, ubiquitous computing, artificial intelligence, digital humanities and human computer interaction are the core of the project.
Philosophy of artificial intelligence, bioethics, moral psychology, descriptive ethics, value theory, epistemology and ontology are also included. Technological history as well as semiotics, semantics and pragmatics play an important role in understanding the transmission of meaning depending not only on structural and linguistic knowledge of the wearers of technology, but also on the context of any pre-existing knowledge about them. Disability studies, humanistic psychology, human behavioural ecology help understand the evolutionary theory and its emphasis on and creativity. Cultural studies in sociology which evaluates the dynamics of contemporary culture and its historical foundations and forces from which the whole of humankind construct their daily lives should be an interesting field to look at. Social choice theory aggregates preferences and behaviours of individual members of society. Using elements of logic for generality analyses proceeds from a set of seemingly reasonable premises of social choice to form a social welfare function. Interestingly, acceptance of wearable technology in the present day society is a raging debate since a woman was attacked in a San Francisco bar for wearing Google Glass (Dezeen, 2014). Professor Steve Fuller(2011) speaks of sub-speciation of humans, societal acceptance of such ‘humans’ with embedded wearable technologies. Fuller argues that the pursuit for enhancements is based on a need “to create some distance between us and the other animals.” The Shifting Balance Theory is a theory of evolution proposed in 1932 by Sewall Wright, suggesting that adaptive evolution may proceed most quickly when a population divides into subpopulations with restricted gene flow. Explore Evolution: The Arguments For and Against Neo-Darwinism(2007) is a controversial biology textbook aimed at helping educators and students to discuss “the controversial aspects of evolutionary theory that are discussed openly in scientific books and journals but which are not widely reported in textbooks.”
“Not everything that can be counted counts, And not everything that counts can be counted.” — Albert Einstein
Research tradition that best suits this project pursuit is social science model. Since qualitative research is concerned with understanding human behaviours based on observations to explore attitudes, behaviours and experiences, methods such as interviews or focus groups attempt an in-depth opinion from participants. Field notes, interviews, questionnaires can help formulate the ‘insider perspective’ of the project. Qualitative research is subjective and focuses on a dynamic reality and not universal claims. With its roots in phenomenology, hermeneutic, axiological, ethnographic, culture, experiential, dialectic strategies, qualitative research could help understand complex human interactions. Ethical requirements to be considered during such research are participant consent and confidentiality.
London designer Shamees Aden’s Protocells trainer (2013)
is a project in progress. A 3D-printed trainer to the exact size of the user’s foot that fits like second skin. It reacts to pressure and movement created when running, puffing up to provide extra cushioning where required. Researchers at Fabrica, Caitlin Morris and Lisa Kori Chung (2013)
have developed an accessory to control thoughts via neuro-imaging. Though the technology is currently being researched and developed, it aims to read and record the thoughts of people and detect ill intentions before they are carried out. Projects like these make me question, what makes us handover gears to technology? Are we naturally technology dependent? In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow (2012), psychologist Daniel Kahneman explains that human beings are intuitive statisticians. “We are unable to accurately interpret experience as data.” Technology on the other hand quantifies data and promises to transform our understanding of ourselves. A study on wearable technology from the Centre for Creative and Social Technology at Goldsmiths, University of London (2013), found that 87% Americans and 81% British claim that wearable technology has ‘boosted’ their personal abilities.
Research question 1: Wearable technology is touted as enhancement of one’s ‘personal’ abilities. Is trans-humanism a result of our expanding need for personalized products?
Research question 2: With the arrival of 3D printed human-tissue and organ replacements, there is a shift in medical dynamics. How does the loss of ‘auteur’-ship in medical science enable development of human cyborgs and distort the definition of being ‘human’?
Research question 3: Wearable technologies are able to augment our experiences, but this ‘mediated reality’ results in our loss of control over the immediate environment. How does this detached engagement then ‘enhance’ our personal abilities?