These days many of us depend on computers for much of our work and social contact. But would you be willing to wear a computer round the clock if it could enhance your abilities? The potential is there and several cyborg pioneers are cutting a path the rest of us may soon follow. But while this “transhuman” age promises a lot, it also raises the spectre of a two-tiered society.
It’s 11 o’clock at night and I’m out on Dundas Street in downtown Toronto with Steve Mann. We’re using a technique Mann invented to photograph the surveillance camera outside the Art Gallery of Ontario, conducting what Mann calls “sousveillance” or “surveillance from below”. It’s all part of an exploration of our relationship with authority. Steve Mann is an inventor, an artist and a cyborg; a cybernetic organism, part man, part machine. For almost 30 years he’s worn computers that mediate his reality.
James Hughes follows Mann’s work with interest. “Steve has an ongoing two-way communication from the visor on his head. He has a camera that looks out at his environment and sends the image to his computer and then displays that image on the inside of his visor, so he can edit the image if he chooses to. He’s able to identify advertising terms, so if he’s walking down a street and there’s a billboard with an advertising term on it, his visor is able to pick that up and replace it with something else – his email or a picture of his family and friends. He’s used his inventions in quite radical ways. He can take this visor into public places to survey the powers that be. Surveillance equipment is not only a way for power to control us but it’s also a way for us to fight back against the powers that be.”
Dr Hughes is the executive director of the World Transhumanist Association. “Transhumanism is the notion that human beings should have the right to control their own bodies and brains and to use reason to improve their lives in ways that other people might find distasteful. We should be free from religious ideas of right and wrong and be able to make decisions in our own lives.”
The idea is provoking criticism. Political scientist Francis Fukuyama is one of several influential conservative scholars on the President’s Council on Bioethics in the US. In an essay in the journal Foreign Policy he raises concerns that enhancement will create second-class citizens.
Dr Hughes disputes this: “The bio-conservatives look at the world and they say ‘oh we’re all equal now, and if we created this enhancement technology we would become unequal’. In fact we are already a monstrously unequal society. What we should be thinking about instead is ‘how can we distribute these new technologies in an equitable way?’ The bio luddites think that if everyone can’t have these technologies, no one should. But just look at the development of the personal computer, no luddite I know would argue today the no one in the north should have been allowed to use a PC until everyone in the entire world could use one. What sense would that have made? What you work on is making more equitable access possible.”
Steve Mann’s own work echoes this idea of equality. He believes technical literacy will make the world more democratic by allowing individuals to police those in power. But while Mann and his students are highly technically literate, many people can only press the ‘on’ button and hope the machine will do the rest. Mann’s response to this is blunt. “Sure it’s a lot easier to be in prison. You don’t have to make decisions, you don’t have to think. But that’s not the world everyone wants to live in and just because you enjoy being in prison doesn’t mean that the rest of us should be forced to be in prison as well.”
Despite the promise of these new technologies to improve our memory or our connections with family and friends, many people fear they could be used by governments or corporations to increase control over people’s lives. “This is a serious risk,” Dr Hughes says. “But I think a fundamental mistake that luddites of the right and left make is that they blame technology for what is fundamentally a political problem. They think that banning a technology will solve a social problem. That’s what the work of Steve Mann represents – he’s confronting a political problem and finding new and liberating use for technology.”
Many people also fear that enhanced individuals could disrupt our social fabric, or throw it into chaos. “There will always be collective threats as these new technologies become more powerful,” Dr Hughes says. “There are already groups of insurgents who want harm to the rest of the world. I think we need to have the evolution of a new global government structure to ensure universal respect for democracy, freedom of expression, human rights and self-determination. I think what we need to figure out is what kinds of new citizens in our society can we tolerate and what kinds can’t we tolerate?”
The underlying message of both Steve Mann and James Hughes seems to be that human enhancement will improve our lives, but only in combination with a high level of personal responsibility to ensure that these powerful new technologies are used to benefit all, and not to empower a few.
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