Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Posthuman: The Endgame?

This article first appeared on ieet.org on August 15, 2012.

Why doesn’t everyone get excited about transhumanism? Why aren’t all people fascinated by augmented and virtual reality, radical life-extension, brain-uploading, and The Singularity? This essay is the first in a series of articles, entitled “The Casual Transhuman” - it will examine H+ topics from the layman’s perspective and give suggestions on how transhumanists can spread their ideas without looking like crackpots to the world-at-large.
What is a posthuman being? For years, I have been hearing that we are gradually moving towards a new state. Transhumanism is, by definition, a step between our current human form and what we will become. I see a lot of ideas on how we will merge with our technology, how things will be radically different after the Singularity, how we will be immortal and how human and machine will become one new being in a glorious new world. But one thing I hear very little about is the end product.

It seems to me that there is a lack of focus in the transhumanist community. There is such an emphasis on the process that perhaps the big finale has faded into the aether. I think it is time to draw the focus back – to answer the question “what, exactly, are we trying to do here?” It is time to get a consensus and work back from that. Only then will we know how to proceed.

The word “posthuman” can be a tad polarizing and even frightening. I’m sure that for an audience like the one reading this on IEET or H+ Magazine, I don’t need to break down the parts of the word, like I would to grade schoolers. That would be insulting. Or would it? Hmm. Maybe the crux of the idea is in the word itself.

Post - obviously means “after.” I don’t think we need to dig into that any deeper. But the next part of the word is “human.” This is the hard part. How can we define “posthuman” until we come up with a specific consensus of what it means to be “human.” Let’s look first at a few dictionary definitions.


Adjective: Of, relating to, or characteristic of people or human beings.

Noun: A human being, esp. a person as distinguished from an animal or (in science fiction) an alien.

Synonyms: adjective Human noun man - person - human being - individual - soul – mortal

This one was from Google, which grabbed it from Dictionary.com and Wikipedia. Here is the problem though. I was told from day one of kindergarten never to use a word in definition of itself. In other words, you cannot say that a tree is a tree-like object. So how can we stand for saying that the definition of a human is “a human being?”

Natasha Vita-More, one of the founders of the transhumanist movement, has released a few different versions of what she calls the “Primo Posthuman.” It is a graphic of a genderless human form, colored entirely in neon yellow with pointers to different parts of hir body, describing technological enhancements that will be on or in that body. This image has been reprinted numerous times in different articles and media. In fact, it has become one of the most recognizable images related to transhumanism. However, the title is “Primo Posthuman” but it shows a human with cyborg enhancements. I would like to know why this fictional person was labeled a posthuman when they were most certainly born an unenhanced homo sapiens. Shouldn’t she be labeled a “primo transhuman?” As a sidebar, I am a big fan of Vita-More’s work, and she has been very influential to mine. I will be meeting her at a conference in a few months, and I will be sure to ask her more about this at that time.

So we go back to how we define a posthuman. What comes “after human?” Is this a being we would even recognize? How will we evolve biologically in response to our dependence on technology?

The second half of the animated Pixar film Wall*E shows how humans have changed while living for hundreds of years in a massive spaceship after leaving Earth a deserted, polluted wasteland. These people spend their lives in motorized chairs, never walking, never taking their eyes off the computer/TV screens before them. They are depicted as being entirely unable to care for themselves, and are waited on by robots. Although not a hive mind, they are easily swayed. When the computer tells them that red is the new color of choice, they all instantly change their clothes (via a color-changing material they never remove) to red. This movie was meant as a statement on mass consumerism, but it served as an effective argument or allegory for many different subjects, many of which would be of interest to transhumanists.

For the purposes of this article, we are looking at the humans in this film (although the robots are really cool, too). We see through archival footage aboard the spaceship that these pathetic blobs were, in fact, once real humans. We see the president of the Buy’N’Large Corporation, played by Fred Willard, as the only real human being in any Pixar film. Which implies that these pasty, cartoonish blobs are not computer-generated approximations of humans in an animated movie, but rather that this is supposed to be a live-action movie, and that this is how humanity will evolve over the next few hundred years.

This is actually quite frightening.

Think about it for a second.

The implications of this view are quite interesting, really. When we look at science fiction, especially in film, we usually get three different views. The first is that we will, through our technological advances, create a utopian world where all evils have been eradicated. This is prevalent in Star Trek. The second is that we will let our technology rule us, leading us to become monstrous hybrids, like the Borg…also in Star Trek. The third is that the technology will gain sentience, rising against humanity, and eventually causing our extinction. This is like The Terminator and The Matrix (which I believe, as a closet fanboy, take place in the same continuity alongside Dark City and Cube. But I digress…)

This view of the future we see in Wall*E is completely different than those, and in a much more disturbing way. Utopian idealism is fine, and we should try with all our collective might to get there, but nothing will ever be perfect. In fact, we will most likely never get anywhere close to it, unfortunately. The twisted machine men like the Borg or the people portrayed in the fantastic Japanese manga series Gunnm (Americanized as Battle Angel Alita) are frightening, but as unrealistic as the utopian vision. I seriously doubt we will willingly allow ourselves to be perverted into these monsters.

Even the eventual implants and limb replacements will, most likely, be made to seem as humanlike as possible. The third view, of a robot-dominated Earth, where humans are either enslaved or extinct, is often referred to by non-science types. Those films were so well-received that every time a technological breakthrough is made, people post quotes from those movies right below the articles.

Wall*E, however, shows us what may be a more realistic view. We’ve seen how people in industrialized countries have become softer, rounder and more dependent on technology. The United States is often characterized by other nations as being full of fat, lazy, uneducated, rich and obsessed with consumerism. This is a simplistic view, stereotypical at best and offensive to some. Without getting into a bunch of details this generalization does have some basis in fact.

And this is with the current state of technological development. Let’s take this concept out a few hundred years. Those who (and I must sadly add myself to the list) spend most of their time seated, eating, looking at various glowing screens and trusting Siri, Google and iTunes to keep track of our lives are just the vanguard of a brave new world, aren’t they? Imagine what life will be like after a technological singularity. After we discover we can replace limbs or use nanotechnology to obliterate the cancer we get from eating far too many In-Vitro McRibs.

Now, I’m not trying to be all gloom-and-doom here. And this does tie back into my original question. What will be a posthuman being? If we are human now, and we are using our technology to become transhuman, the step between what we are and what we will become, what is our eventual endgame? We should heed the warnings of Wall*E’s filmmakers. If we are going to become more dependent on our technology, we must make sure we don’t become…that. However, this leaves a lot of room to discuss what we should be trying to become. This is exciting. We can take the time - now – on the edge of great breakthroughs, to have a serious discussion of just what the hell we are doing. Although there will likely be many differing, even opposing, opinions of what posthumanity can or should be, perhaps there can be some sort of consensus.

And now, as always, I leave it up to the reader to continue the discussion.

At what point do we no longer consider ourselves human? When do we go from trans to post? Can we define what human is? Do we want to keep some part of it? All of it? Or do we want to toss it all out, start from scratch, define our own selves and our own future and become posthuman by choice instead of evolution? How do we do that? Most importantly, how will we know when we’ve done it?

Friday, August 17, 2012

Extreme Futurist Festival 2012

I'll be there. Getting psyched. From http://www.rockethub.com/projects/9220-extreme-futurist-festival-2012

Extreme Futurist Festival 2012 Trailer from H+ Worldwide on Vimeo.

Extreme Futurist Festival is a 2 day arts and technology festival focusing on radical voices of the new evolution. Last year we had a great event and were called "a TED conference for the counterculture" by the LA Weekly. This year we seek to make XFF an even more epic experience. Terence McKenna predicted that December 21, 2012 would mark a great evolutionary shift in consciousness. It is now up to us to become that shift. We want to make this the 2012 event that people will talk about for years to come. We will be focusing on cutting edge science and technology along with transgressive performance art and music. Showcasing the most innovative and subversive memetics of our time, we see to highlight an extreme future that breaks the formula of modern culture. The future has been commodified by the mainstream in an effort to make revolutionary technologies easy to digest. As a result we are now living in an era of complacency, in which the true leaders and game changers are made to feel like outsiders. It is time to rise against the dominant current of our society and declare that nothing is too extreme. We refuse to be assimilated into a carbon copied version of a new humanity. As evolutionary agents we will push the boundaries of what it means to transform our species. We are looking to raise money to make XFF 2012 a fully immersive experience. We would like to rent out a venue that will hold up to 1000 people, book exceptional speakers and bands, and provide an optimal sound system. Please join us in our quest to push the button for a new era of humankind. [XFF is sponsored by Humanity+] Note: If we do not meet our goal of 20K we still get to keep all of the money we receive on RocketHub and will use it toward Extreme Futurist Festival 2012.

Friday, August 10, 2012

"Singular" Chapter One

I am writing a novel. It's called "Singular," and it is the story of the wold's first true posthuman, and how the world reacts to him. I thought I would post my rough draft of the first chapter here for all my fans, and see how it goes. Drop a comment at the end and let me know what you think. In fact, let's all collaborate. As I write this book, I'll post up sections of it, and you can all give your input. That sounds like fun.

By Travis James Leland


            As the sun set outside his bedroom window, day was breaking in the virtual. He logged in and his avatar was in his meditation space. It was a gazebo on the side of a hill, overlooking a beach. A few people had wandered over to watch the sunrise. There was a robot, a sexy human/fox hybrid, and a couple holding hands: he with laughably exaggerated musculature and she a stick-thin waif with basketball breasts. Alpha was, by default, an 8 foot tall, light blue alien with yellow eyes wearing a white jumpsuit. He was sitting lotus-position on a pillow in the wooden gazebo. Soft meditation music floated in the space, and the sound of nonexistent seagulls could be heard overhead.
            Alpha hit the stand button and his avatar uncrossed his legs, rising to his full height. Heading out of the gazebo he turned to his right, away from the beach, toward the twisting spires of the City Hall tower, glinting reflections of the virtual sunrise.
            Down the boardwalk, clad in a gossamer dress, floated Victoria. Her avatar’s name appeared over her head as “Imogen Palooka,” but they had gotten to know each other well enough to have revealed their legal names.
            “Hi Alpha,” she said by text. They had spoken by voice before, in the early days, when they were getting to know each other - when they wondered if the person behind the avatar was actually the same gender they presented in-world. But voice chat was hard for Alpha. When he had time to think about it, his responses seemed, to him, to be much more eloquent than his speech. So they had gone back to typed communication in-world.
            Her avatar was set to make a gentle swaying motion, shoulders sloped forward, hugging her arms, eyelashes batting. Backlit by the sunrise, it was quite enchanting, and Alpha assumed it was an expensive upgrade. His avatar stood still, by default. He thought it looked rather stupid.
            “Right on time, ‘Loo,” he typed back, using his preferred short version of “Palooka.” At first she hated it, but when he told her it was better than “Vicky,” she relented. “Are you ready to go?”
            “You actually have to ask me that?”
            He hit the shrug button.
            “Come on,” she said. “Lead the way.”

            They stood atop a sheer cliff face that was rezzed to appear roughly eight miles high. Below, white clouds rolled around mixing and pulling apart like cream swirling into coffee. The sky above still had that early morning glow that would only last a few moments longer, and they were both bathed in a gold-and-orange light, turning his jumpsuit into what looked like a prison uniform.
            “I’m ready when you are,” she said, answering his unspoken question. He held out a blue, long-fingered hand to her, and she placed hers - perfectly rezzed, manicured – into his. He pointed to a spot on the ground, and a small beam of twinkling blue light appeared. They stepped into it and suddenly, they were in what appeared to be outer space. Their avatars began to drift as all around them, stars, galaxies, nebulae, spun in a dark expanse. Some streaked by them soundlessly as Alpha and ‘Loo began to dance to a music neither of them could hear.
            They spiraled up, twisting around each other in a vaguely serpentine way, then held hands as they parted, arching backwards in a mirror image of each other. After completing a circuit, they came back, face-to-face, palms pressing together and they pushed apart, floating back, then launching off of two asteroids parked behind them, rushing back to each other to repeat the steps all over again. It was an automated dance. They could actually sit back and let it go, just watching on their screens as they spent the next fifteen minutes together. In silence.
            They didn’t need to speak to each other. This was their time to just exist. Together. As their time in the space dance ended, they floated back down to the cliff top, embracing the whole way. When they landed, they stood for a moment, looking over the edge at the clouds below. She swayed and shrugged, he stupidly stood.
            “Do you think it’s time we finally see each other?”
            “We’re so far apart,” she said, and her avatar made a little pouty face.
            “We’re both in Southern California. It’s not like we are across the country.”
            “That’s true. Let’s talk about that some more, later.”
            “What do you want to do now?”
            “Let’s go back to my place.”

            They had had v-sex before. Quite a few times. At first it was just no-strings-attached fantasy. Two people who didn’t even know each other looking like an alien and a goddess laying on a bed that wasn’t even real and watching their avatars wiggle around on the screen. But the last few times, things had seemed subtly different. They didn’t talk about random things like their favorite TV shows or music during the act. It was quiet, more tender. They didn’t animate their avatars to do anything rough or exotic anymore. They kept their usual looks, not turning into different beings like they used to. They moved slowly. Alpha started watching it from his avatar-eye-view. It seemed more personal, more sensual.
            This time, not a word was exchanged.
            They sat on her balcony. There were two chairs and a table. She had laid out tea and their avatars sipped it as they typed back and forth.
            “It’s been a good day, ‘Loo.”
            “Yes, it has.”
            “Good. I like it when you are happy.”
            He looked over at her. That pout was back, and now she was looking down at her feet, her tea forgotten; her hair giving off a soft golden glow.
            “But you aren’t happy,” he said.
            There was a long moment of silence.
            “It’s something you said earlier. You want to meet.”
            “Do you?”
            “I don’t know.”
            She continued to look at her feet, then raised her head to stare at the pixelated sun. The only sounds were the ambient waves and soft breeze sounds that were standard in this part of the world.
            “I mean, yes, I really do. Unless you’ve been lying to me all this time, we are the same age. I’ve heard your voice, so I know you are a guy. I just…”
            “Go ahead, you can tell me,” he said, turning his head to give her his full attention.
            “Alpha, what we have here in-world is really special.” Rainbows and stars appeared and began to float around her head like a baby’s mobile. “What if we meet and you don’t feel about the real me the way you do about my avatar?”
            “But it’s just a shell, ‘Loo. It’s light on a computer screen. You can change into anything you can imagine here. I’d still feel the same.” She looked up at him. The rainbows disappeared, replaced by bright question marks. “I would, ‘Loo. Because I love you. The real you; whoever you are and wherever you are.”
            Her smooth face stretched into a smile. “You’ve never said it before, Alpha. Do you really mean it? Do you love me?”
            It was his turn to pause and look at the sun, now dipping down into the ocean, turning the whole world into a rose colored paradise. The ambient sounds were beginning to mix with the world’s nighttime mixture of crickets and owls.
            “Yes, Victoria, I mean it. I am in love with you. I have been for a while.”
            “You know what? I was hoping you would say that. Because I feel the same way. I love you too and I do want to meet. I don’t care how far it is.”
            “Do you have a car?”
“When are you free?”
“How’s tomorrow?” She turned around and sat in his lap, leaning her frame back against him, her hand reaching up and stroking his strong alien cheekbone.
“Tomorrow’s fine. I’ll link you the address.”
“I’m happy.”
“Before we meet, I think I need to tell you something about me. About the way I look.”
“Hush. I don’t want to know, Alpha. I love you anyway. No matter what.”
They sat quietly together, watching the sunset. Eventually, she had to leave, saying goodnight and winking out in a splash of faerie dust. He stayed a while longer on her balcony, watching the moonlight bouncing off the waves. The texturing of the water was his favorite thing in-world. That one element made all the difference, and as long as he saw that, he felt truly at home.
Finally, he logged out and shut off the computer, then went to bed, where his dreams were filled with meeting ‘Lou in real life, and she looked exactly like she did in-world. She looked like a goddess.

The first time he answered the door, it was the mail carrier. She looked at him strangely for a moment, then held the mail close to herself.
“So I’m confused,” she spat with no preamble. “I get about 4 different last names at this address. I see a Simmons, a Walker, a Schofield and a MacKenzie. So what’s the deal?”
“Yeah, it’s a big family and there have been marriages and adoptions. All those names are here.”
“Well it’s damned confusing.”
“No, it’s pretty simple,” he said. “If it has this address on it, you put it in that little box over there. It doesn’t matter what name is on it and it isn’t any of your business anyway.”
Actually, he didn’t say that. It was more of a mumbled “Thanks” as she handed him the bundle of envelopes and magazines, then sauntered back to her truck. He was raised to be polite. He was taught that, no matter what, if you are more civilized than the other person, you are the winner. Unfortunately, his politeness was often misinterpreted as a weakness. People seemed to always have their way with Alpha, and he never said what he was really thinking. If he was winning, he wanted to know what the prize was.
The second time he answered the door, it was her. Victoria. Before he swung it open, he took a deep breath, imagining himself to be that tall, blue alien. Of course she loved him no matter what, but it gave him that boost of self-confidence. Much like her avatar, the sun lit her from behind, a golden halo shining through her long, blonde hair.
“Hi,” he said a moment later. Not the most well-thought-out greeting.
He could tell that she was nervous. She didn’t speak for a moment, even after he motioned her inside and she stood in the entryway, clutching her purse.
“You look just like her,” he said. “Just like ‘Loo.”
“Oh… Thanks,” she finally spoke. “You…don’t look like Alpha. I mean, I wasn’t expecting you to look like a blue alien, but…um.”
“Yeah,” he said, then pushed the button that moved his wheelchair next to the couch. She sat down on the center cushion just close enough, but just far away.
They talked about a lot of things, mostly about things in-world. At one point, he reached for her hand. She instinctively pulled it back, before allowing him to hold it for a while. And he knew then that things were not right.