The first volume of Günther Anders’s Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen (The Obsolescence of Man) was published more than fifty years ago, in 1956, and, strangely, has never been translated into English. The book is essentially about what machines, and our increasing reliance on them, do to us, or more precisely what they do to what Anders chooses to call our “soul”. Hence the book’s subtitle “On the Soul in the Age of the Second Industrial Revolution” - although Anders remarks that it would have been more accurate to call it “on the transformations of the soul in the age of the second industrial revolution”. Thus the question is how we are being changed by the machines we create and use, and the analysis that Anders provides in order to answer it, especially in the first part, entitled “On Promethean Shame”, strikes me as just as relevant today as it was half a century ago. In fact, I think that, given that we have now all but entered the age of human enhancement, it is today more relevant than ever.
The book starts with the observation that we have created a world in which we increasingly look like relics of an era that has long passed. We lounge around among our various appliances and machines like bewildered dinosaurs in a world that is no longer ours, that has moved on without us. We lag behind, without any real hope of catching up, and we know it. The machines that we produce are already so much more advanced and capable than we can ever hope to be. And they allow us to do things that go far beyond what we can imagine and emotionally cope with: “We can bomb to shreds hundreds of thousands, but we cannot mourn or regret them.” Anders calls this “the Promethean gap”, which is ultimately a gap between the human body (in which all the limitations of our imagination and emotions are rooted) and the machine (and the power that it bestows on us). Naturally we would want to close this gap to get rid of the feeling of disjointedness, and I think that is what we are witnessing today. Isn’t the human enhancement project that we currently engage in best understood as a concerted attempt to close this Promethean gap, to make us, as Persson and Savulescu put it, “fit for the future”, to bring us up to the advanced (or what is perceived as such) level of the machine? Perhaps today this no longer looks as impossible or unlikely to accomplish as it did fifty years ago.
The gap between the apparent perfection of the machines that we create and the apparent imperfection and deficiency of our own vulnerable, mortal and messy bodies (and accordingly, since we cannot detach ourselves from our bodies, of ourselves) is hard to accept. In fact, it is a permanent source of a particular kind of shame, which Anders calls “Promethean shame” and which he defines as the “shame for the embarrassingly high quality of the things we make”. It is the frustrating and humiliating recognition of our inferiority when compared to our products, and the fact that more than anything else seems to make us inferior is the fact that we have been born rather than made. We are ashamed that we owe our existence not to art and design, not to a conscious, deliberate and well-considered act of human creation, but rather to the accident of birth and the random sexual act that preceded it, neither of which can be seen as particularly dignified and both of which serve as a constant reminder that, ultimately, we are and remain mere animals. (Imagine a dialogue between a machine and a human, the machine boasting about all the forethought and the complex calculations that have given rise to its existence and then asking the human “And who made you?”, might we feel ashamed of having to admit that, alas, we weren’t made at all, but were simply born?)
The perceived perfection of the machine makes us wish that we had been made too (and in order to spare our children the embarrassment of having to grow up in the knowledge that they were not designed and not made fit for purpose - that nobody really cared enough to make sure that they are as perfect as they could possibly be - we have now started to modernise our reproduction processes and become much more “selective” and “pro-active” when it comes to the making of children). Although we are the makers, that is no longer a reason to be proud, because the made is for some reason perceived as ontologically superior. We have started to look at ourselves as we imagine we must appear to one of our products. Looking at ourselves, we have adopted the perspective of the machine, and as the machine would despise us if it were conscious and could make the comparison, we are now ready to despise ourselves. So the maker, in order to keep up with his product and make himself less despicable, needs to find a way to become made himself. A sort of self-reification is required, a transformation of the human into a machine. The naked body that we are ashamed of is no longer the unclothed body, but instead the body that has not been worked on, not embellished or transformed in any way, unmodified and unenhanced. It is, as a product of a presumably blind and unthinking nature, a “faulty construction”, which as such is in urgent need of correction and amendment. But, as Anders rightly points out, “we can only conceive of the human as a construction, especially a faulty one, when we adopt the perspective of the machine. Only if this category is accepted as being both universally applicable and exhaustive can such a reinterpretation take place and can the unconstructed appear as the badly constructed.” (An excellent example of how pro-enhancement arguments can be driven by this kind of Promethean shame is Allen Buchanan’s book Beyond Humanity? Oxford University Press 2011. Buchanan basically argues that we are badly constructed machines and for this reason urgently need to enhance ourselves because, given our many defects, if we don’t give ourselves a better nature we will not be able to survive much longer.)
(to be continued)