From time to time I have pointed out the sad yearning so many seem to feel that their lives would not seem so lacking if only they could somehow be extraordinary–without having to actually work to achieve anything special. This desire is often the basis of movies and television shows (wonderfully explored in the provocative television program The 4400, which I reviewed here). It is the reason for the popularity for on line computer games like Second Life, and is the core dogma of religious transhumanism, where a gene modification here, or a cyber implant there, will make one immortal, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, you get the drift.
Even as millions of children still die in destitution from diseases like malaria and measles, malnutrition, dirty water, etc., we in the decadent West are pouring fortunes into the effort to enable anyone to become extraordinary without personal effort. This phenomenon is discussed in an interesting column published by futurist Andy Miah in the Guardian, who notes that the European Parliament has appointed a commission–is that all we ever do anymore?–to look into the ethics and science of enhancement. (Right, like the EU Parliament would ever enact any meaningful regulation even if it had the power.)
Miah’s main purpose in writing is to take a deeper look at where all of this is leading. One problem I see is that the desperate yearning to attain–as opposed to achieve–extra-ordinariness is beginning to distort the purposes of medicine, from a healing/palliating/wellness promoting profession into a lifestyle-enabling technocracy. Miah gets that too and asks an important question. From his piece:
Meanwhile the US has gradually been transforming health care into enhancement care and, perhaps by implication, losing sight of basic healthcare needs. In a world that is increasingly concerned about technological domination and dependence, we are becoming enhancement junkies. We nip here, tuck there, whiten our teeth, reduce the width of our waists, and even go on game shows for the chance of winning expensive, invasive cosmetic surgery. What is it that people seek by undergoing such transformations?
I am not sure, but I suspect that many people have a black hole in their souls where community, or God, or tradition used to be, and they are desperate to fill it.
Miah has his own ideas–to more easily become wealthier, to become more attractive to gain romance, etc.–which are true too, of course, but I think are part of my black hole theory, not distinct from it.
Is this cause for concern? I say absolutely on a number of levels; from misplaced priorities (see children dying from measles), to a concern about what easy extra-ordinariness could do to self motivation, the problem of escapism becoming the cake instead of the frosting, unintended consequences (we are the species that built the unsinkable ship Titanic) etc.
With a few reservations, Miah is far more enthusiastic, his main concern being that enhancement could result in a boring sameness:
The kinds of enhancements we must seek for humanity should not lead us towards a world where we all aspire to look the same as each other, which is a criticism often levelled at the cosmetic surgery industry. Rather, we should encourage human enhancements that amplify human variation. That’s what I expect from human enhancement technologies and this is what humanity excels in, as the history of fashion reveals.
But if that trap can be avoided, Miah yearns for a “culture of enhancement”:
Once we have expanded the options as far as possible, we will be able to observe how the choices of technological enhancement are as rich and complex as the choices we make about other aspects of our identity.
It always gets down to me-me/I-I in this field, doesn’t it? The human enhancement agenda is really just solipsism run amok.
This is all part of the coup de culture, in which a utopian hedonism drives us, like a drug addiction, to ever more radical attempts to find the “high,” as our growing collective neurosis about suffering threatens to impose a deadly eugenic utilitarianism upon the weak and vulnerable who can’t keep up. It is precisely what Huxley warned against in Brave New World.