Friday 27 September 2013

Günther Anders on Promethean Shame (Part 2)

We used to think that we humans were free and the machines we constructed determined and unfree. But this is no longer so. Today, in a curious contortion, we are the ones who appear unfree, and the machines enjoy the freedom that we lack. Increasingly, we think of ourselves as being shackled by our own nature, which, we believe, has not changed very much, if at all, since the stone age. (And aren’t we indeed constantly being told by proponents of human enhancement that the forces of evolution have shaped us for a world that no longer exists and that in order to catch up with the world we have created we need to recreate ourselves?) It is our physical body that, in our own perception, makes us unfree, that ties us to the past and makes us unfit for the future (and indeed the present). From the perspective of the machines, human nature is nothing but a nuisance: “conservative, unprogressive, antiquated, irrevisable, a dead weight in the rise of the machines”. We could achieve so much more if it weren’t for us and our defective nature. We see ourselves, as Anders puts it, as the saboteurs of our own achievements, and we are no longer willing to put up with this. So something needs to be done: we have to find a way to become more machine-like, to mould ourselves as we now mould things to assimilate them to our needs and wants. Our Promethean shame makes us embrace and promote the idea of “human engineering”, which now appears as something that we owe both to our machines and to ourselves. After all, we wouldn’t want to be judged a disappointment by our betters. In relation to our machines we are like children, and growing up, in this new interpretation of Schiller’s “education of humankind”, means leaving behind our being human. (Compare Nick Bostrom’s “Why I Want to be Posthuman When I Grow Up”).

Machines are our heroes. We yearn to be like them. We see ourselves as “scandalous non-machines”. Yet machines always have a certain purpose. They are highly specialised. Human engineering aims at making the human more specialised, at perfecting a particular ability or capacity to which the human is a mere appendix, at best tolerated, but no longer of central importance. Thus the superhuman that human engineering is meant to create is at the same time a subhuman.

This sounds familiar. Similar concerns have been raised by Leon Kass. Yet Anders denies that he is what today we are used to call a bioconservative (he uses the term “metaphysical conservative”). The point is not that everything that is, is good simply because it is (or that human nature is good and should remain what it is simply because it is our nature) – which would be an untenable position –, but rather that we are willing to change ourselves for the sake of our machines, that we measure ourselves by their standards, instead of our own, and that, in doing this, we limit or even relinquish our own freedom. The aspiring human engineer may well suffer from hubris (as a common objection has it), but he also suffers from misplaced humility, which is not a contradiction. “The ‘human engineer is in fact both: arrogant and self-deprecating, hubristic and humble. His attitude is arrogated self-abasement and hubristic humility.”

So when we compare ourselves to machines, in what way exactly do we find ourselves wanting? One of the gravest defects seems to be our perishability. We grow old, we die. In comparison, the things that we create seem to be immortal, at least potentially so, because very often when they are not it is because we want them to stop working after a certain period of time (so that more products can be sold). But even those things are immortal in the sense that they can always be duplicated and replaced. Our products partake in a new version of immortality: “industrial re-incarnation”. They have a serial existence. This light bulb or washing machine may give up its ghost after a few years, but then we can easily get a new one that is exactly like the old one, or at least one that does exactly the same job, if not a better one. Their very reproducibility and replaceability guarantees their immortality. How lucky they are! We on the other hand, their creators, go bad very quickly and we cannot be replaced. How shameful that is, how unbearable! Again, something needs to be done. We feel that it cannot, it should not stay like this. (And indeed, isn’t that what some life extension enthusiasts imagine we will achieve in the future? Mind-uploading, for instance, to a computer or to a new body, is the achievement of immortality by making the body replaceable. Others envisage a periodical cleansing of the mind of all memories to prevent mental ageing and the boredom of an overly prolonged existence, which creates a different kind of serial existence.)

Anders’s great insight is that the human enhancement project is motivated by shame. We are ashamed of our body, our physical nature, our mere-humanness, our vulnerability and perishability, and not despite the fact that none of this is our fault, but precisely because it is (or has been for a long time) beyond our control and not the result of a conscious decision. It is the very givenness of our nature that we resent (which explains why Michael Sandel’s argument from giftedness is so often ridiculed and received with so much hostility by proponents of radical human enhancement.) It is the fact that we cannot do anything about it that we are ashamed of. It belies our claims of autonomy, freedom and control. That is also the reason why we tend to be ashamed of our sexuality. Sex is a “pudendum” precisely because it makes us lose control and voices our dependency. It shows us in the grip of nature, of that which lies beyond and before us, and reminds us that the “I” (the individual in control of herself) is a rather fragile construction on the back of a powerful “It” (the nature that controls the doings of the self). And we don’t like that one bit. So what we are trying to do is regain control over ourselves, and that means to gain control also, and perhaps even primarily, over our sexuality, without realising that the only thing we can hope to achieve by this is that we manage to replace one It by another: the natural It of the body by the artificial It of the machine.

1 comment:

  1. the best English language explanation of my Uncle Gunther work. You are a real "cultural whisperer" who makes his theories accessible.
    david michaelis