Thursday, October 4, 2012
Transhumanist Heroes: Dr. Manhattan
This is the first in a new series of articles. "Transhumanist Heroes." Originally published at ieet.org on September 27, 2012.
Transhumanists as a subculture, are a rather underrepresented group in the media. While we often get transhumanist ideals in films, television, etc., we rarely see someone on the screen that we can look up to as an ideal transhumanist. So we need to celebrate what few there are, hold them up as heroes. This series of articles examines transhumanists in the media, whether real or fictional. This time, we look at Dr. Manhattan.
Ah, Dr. Manhattan. We barely knew you. Yet I feel like you have given us so much to remember you by. Your cool nature. Your understanding of the workings of space and time. Your casual nudity. Okay, so people give you a lot of crap about that last one, but I have to give you credit. I am a naturist myself, and whenever possible I am similarly free to be myself. Although I wish I had as much “self” as you do. But I digress…
For those who still don’t know (shame on you), Dr. Manhattan was one of the main characters in the graphic novel (and film adaptation) of Watchmen, which is considered among the greatest volumes of “comic book” art ever, as much as Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series or Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross’ Marvels. Watchmen was a story of how masked vigilantes in a non-superpowered world would live. Most were portrayed as sad, paranoid, bitter people, most of them older and still trying to live like it was the golden days of their personal (mostly imagined) glory.
Yet in this alternate 1985, there actually was one and only one superpowered being in the world. Dr. Jon Osterman was a physicist who was horribly ripped apart at the atomic level in a lab accident. Months later, he rematerialized himself as a glowing blue entity, able to do anything he could imagine. He could be in more than one place at the same time. He could make buildings grow with a thought. He could make people explode by pointing a finger at them. Oh yes, how I wanted to be Dr. Manhattan as a teenager.
Osterman is a walking course in quantum mechanics. His understanding of time allows all things to exist simultaneously. He would often know where a conversation with somebody would lead. He is already there, in the future, finishing the conversation, able to inform his past self what was going to happen, yet that past self would still go through the conversation, even getting surprised by revelations, even though he was already aware of it. Is your brain hurting yet?
But this is reality, at least according to Alan Moore, the author of Watchmen. Dr. Manhattan works at a level so far beyond humanity that he is seen as almost a god, even by the other costumed heroes. Of course, Dr. Manhattan doesn’t wear a costume, or much of anything at all really. As he grows more and more out of touch with humanity, he begins to frighten people, to the point where there is eventually a backlash against him, resulting in his self-exile to Mars. He is just as happy there as he ever was on Earth. He builds a huge glass clockwork castle for himself and lives there, occasionally transporting people to him for conversations.
Dr. Manhattan is mostly interested in his work, creating technologies from his unique understanding of scientific principles. Even though the story is set in 1985, New York is full of electric cars, and we see other anachronisms sprinkled throughout, deftly incorporated by artist Dave Gibbons. He is so single-minded in his work, that even while having some , ahem, alone time with his longtime girlfriend, a second Osterman is in the lab, busy at work.
As he progresses through the story, he becomes more remote and cold. Dr. Manhattan is locked in his own mind, evolving to the point that he no longer cares when people die. He does not even see the difference between life and death, since these people still exist to him (in the past, where he currently is as well), and in their individual elements, broken down after death.
Dr. Manhattan is what I would look to as the ideal posthuman. As I wrote in an earlier article, transhumanists need to look into what it is about us that is human, then decide what is necessary, what we can change to make better, and what we can completely get rid of. We need to decide what we want to evolve into. And if the world were populated by seven billion Dr. Manhattans, things would be very different from how they are today. For better or worse remains to be seen. But to date, I believe that Dr. Manhattan, both as he appeared in the graphic novel AND in the movie, is a perfect example for us to look at and emulate.
WHY Dr. Manhattan is a Transhumanist Hero.
-Sees the world from an omnipotent point of view, a non-human intelligence, possibly an artificial intelligence.
-Traditional human values do not concern him. Sexuality, life, death, our place in the world and in the universe are all different to Dr. Manhattan.
-Does work that elevates life, making the world a better place (arguably) for his having been there.
-He is a glowing blue nudist. Just thought I’d throw that in there again.