A World in Ruins

 

In 2017, established Dutch author Ronald Giphart published a short story. Ordinarily, this would not constitute as a remarkable event, however, this particular story gained attention long before it was available to the public. Media outlets speculated on its contents months in advance and Giphart was invited to speak on several occasions. The public’s interest had been sparked by the fact that Giphart had collaborated on this story with an algorithm, a generative system. The Meertens Institute from Antwerp University had created the Asibot; a kind of synthesizer for text, that could generate original content inspired by (or rather, derived from) a literary database of more than 10.000 works. Rest assured, it was still Giphart who controlled the outcome. “I’m in charge, but [the Asibot] does all the work!” The story was included in a new edition of Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot, which is ironically a fair warning for society’s digitalization.

Artificial Intelligence, and the ethical issues that are related to it, appear to be a direct hit into the public’s attention. The rapid, technical advancements that are made in the domain of AI play into the human yearning for a more enhanced, and possibly extended, life. We hunt for scientific breakthroughs that will enable us to surpass our limited bodies and we chase after theories that promise us an optimal life.

Transhumanists believe that they owe it to themselves to impugn their mortality and pursue a longer, if not infinite, lifespan. Fedorovich Fedorov, a precursor to the movement, argued that humans must use reason and morality to shape further evolution and, moreover, must endeavor to resurrect the deceased. It then comes as no surprise that one recurrent theme in the transhumanist debate is Greek mythology. J.B.S. Haldane, another pioneer, heralds Daedalus as the first “scientific worker [who] is not concerned with gods.” Since Daedalus is the sculptor of superhuman limbs (Icarus) and the creator of life in the inanimate (Aphrodite’s statue), Haldane applied this mythological, scientific human to the root of his argument. It suggests that man as is will not, and does not need to, suffice since a measure of ‘superhumanness’ is our due. In a way, transhumanism is reminiscent of R.W. Emerson’s notion that a human is a god in ruins. The transcendentalist supported the idea that life is a reworkable concept and we should endeavor to build ourselves a better world.

I would like to apply Eric Hobsbawm’s concept of the ‘invented tradition’ on the transhumanist’ approach. The movement aspires to be “the opposite of novel, namely rooted in remotest antiquity, and the opposite of constructed, namely human communities so ‘natural’ as to require no definition other than self-assertion.” It seems paradoxical for the transhumanists to incorporate Greek mythology in their argument. The technological reproductions of life, and of art on a smaller scale, induce the marginalization of both phenomena. It was also Hobsbawm who argued that everyday life had been drenched with art by technological advancement. “The ‘work of art’ was lost in the flow of words, sounds, of images in the universal environment of what would once have been called art.”

Mass-culture and reproduction come forth from the economic interests of consumer industries, which aim to make profit out of a fast fashion cycle, a short-lived trend for brief use. The novelty of algorithmically induced literature will soon fade and along with its developmental process the human author will be repositioned in the margins. And perhaps, if transhumanists have their way, they might even become obsolete. While we struggle to recreate and perpetuate ourselves, we destroy what makes those things valuable, namely, the transiency of human existence. If we succeed in synthesizing immortality, what will remain is a man in the ruins of a world that was once worth living for.

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