The Falling Sky: A Different Sort of Science Fiction

“…bodies are actually quite pointless substitutes for people.”

Pippa Goldschmidt, The Falling Sky

Rebecca Rosen over at  Atlantic has a fascinating recent article about how the MIT Media Lab is using science-fiction to help technologists think through the process of design. Not merely to think up new gadgets, but to think iteratively and consciously about the technologies they are creating to try and prevent negative implications from occurring before a technology is up and running. A fascinating idea that get us beyond the endless dichotomy of those who call for relinquishment and those urging, risks be damned, full-steam ahead.

For how little respect it gets in literary circles, science-fiction, is a genre that takes the big questions seriously and remains the best tool we have for thinking through the social and ethical questions brought about by technology and for reflecting upon what it means to be human given the decline, at least among many educated persons, of the kinds intellectual and emotional buttresses once provided by religion and the adoption of a materialist worldview that has been built largely out of the discoveries of modern science.

It was in the sense of reflecting upon what it means to be human and what all those experiences that surround every human life such as time, birth and death, love and loss, from a standpoint that is essentially agnostic or atheistic that I found the recent first novel called The Falling Sky  by the one time astronomer, Pippa Goldschmidt, such an amazing work of art. It is as if Goldschmitt has invented a brand new form of science-fiction though perhaps she doesn’t think of her work as any sort of science-fiction at all.

I first learned of Goldschmidt from a piece she had written for the New York Times. She wrote of her experience as an astronomer, working, as astronomers needing to escape the constant glare of our city lights need to do, in one of the remotest of places, in this case the Atacama Desert, in Chile. North of the observatory at which she worked lay a place with a horrible history, Chacabuco, a former concentration camp from the 1970’s set up by the regime of Augusto Pinochet. Goldschmidt wrote of the disjunction between the astronomical work she was engaged in and the horrors of Chacabuco:

Our telescopes had the power to detect candle flames many miles away, not to mention galaxies billions of light years away. And yet they never turned toward the camp. They weren’t built to do that sort of observation.

And I thought; how pregnant with reflection on the nature and role of science, with the need to confront historical memory, with the demand that we keep our eyes open to the truths of the human and not just the natural world , is that! When I saw that Goldschmitt had just published The Falling Sky I felt compelled to buy it, and although the specific juxtaposition of astronomers working in the Atacama with the harsh world of Chacabuco played only a small part in the novel, it did not disappoint. What I found instead in The Falling Sky was a deep reflection on science and consilience, memory and truth, certainty and uncertainty, life and death.

The Falling Sky tells the story of the Smith family and their struggle to recover from the death of the oldest daughter, Kate, in a mysterious drowning accident. The three remaining Smiths, Jenette (the protagonist), her mother and her father each respond to Kate’s death in radically different ways all of which share the feature of being ways to reorient themselves in time. What each of the Smiths attempt to recover is the world of the past- the world where Kate was still vibrant and alive though the ways in which these attempts at recovery are made are radically different.

It is in part Kate’s death and even more her parent’s reaction to it, that draws Jeanette to the stars. The vast interstellar distances mean that looking at the night sky is also looking into the past and becomes a sort of comfort for Jeanette. It is partially in the search for a framework of meaning that would make sense of Kate’s death that Jeanette will turn her passion for astronomy into a successful career. The novel is also, then, a book about the internal politics of science, its very human vanity and careerism, the role of women in science and how psychological need and inclinations influence the process of scientific discovery itself.

Jeannette’s astronomical explorations in Chile result in what might amount to a monumental discovery: two galaxies linked together in such a way that the Big Bang theory of the origin of the Universe seems challenged. Precisely the idea that had drawn Jeannette to astronomy while a child as a way to understand Kate’s death. Up until the time of this discovery science has offered Jeanette a clear line of causation that serves as an alternative to the contingency not just of Kate’s death but her birth.

Kate was born 13.7 billion years ago in the Big Bang…

Indeed, for Jeannette astronomy itself is almost a religious practice:

Those journeys up the mountain into air stretched out thin feel as if they take place in another life. Perhaps they’re the scientific equivalent of going to a monastery. Perhaps the only way to understand the universe is to retreat from normal life.

The light now seen from those stars has been emitted by them before Kate died. She has the power to see into the past into a world that is innocent of Kate’s death.

The only way to escape is to travel into atoms and stars….. To uncover the ages of the Universe, like geologic layers, and see how the constant expansion of the Universe makes time happen.”

Jeanette can contrast the solidity of cosmic evolution from Big Bang to the formation of galaxies and stars to the emergence of life which gave rise to her lost sister Kate to “the other version” of her sister being born, the human version, with Kate and Jeannette’s parents meeting on a train platform by sharing a handkerchief. The human story is too contingent, accidental, “ too uncertain, there are too many unknowns”. It also a version subject to the inconstancy of human memory- each parent with a slightly different version of how they met the other- who gave the handkerchief to whom?

If Jeannette’s answer to the death of her sister is to turn her gaze away from the present and peer into deep time, her parent’s engage in their own attempts to keep to reach into the past and hold onto the time before their daughter’s death no matter how much such efforts end up distorting the present and robbing them of the future.

For Jeanette’s mother the goal becomes to freeze time to kept the stream of entropy damned at the time of Kate’s death. The mother does this by creating a kind of museum room for Kate in the family’s new house, a house Kate herself never lived in. The room

… is like an event horizon showing the last bit of ordinary life clinging to Kate.

Jeanette’s mother also takes on a new career and becomes a de-clutterer helping people to purge themselves of their accumulated things.

Jeanette can’t stop thinking of all the things taken away, like some surgical procedure performed by her mother. People amputated from their favorite belongings.

In a way you might see the actions of Jeanette’s mother as a sort of stand against the forces of entropy, the source of the universe’s arrow of time, the fact that things pile up transform, grow chaotic, inevitably change. Jeanette’s mother wants a world frozen in amber at the time of her daughter’s death and has in the process turned her family’s home into “a desert devoid of time.”

The response of Jeannette father to Kate’s death is also one of trying to anchor himself to the past though at first he is confronted by the garden grown with his own hands and its display of the ability of nature to seemingly escape death through it’s capacity to begin again.

But as her dad tended to the garden and watched it grow, he must have realized how blind all this activity is. There’s no intent, no purpose to this new grass. It simply is. And Kate simply isn’t. It must have taunted him with its ability to revive and renew.

The initial response of Jeannette father, however, is to set his garden ablaze and in the process burn himself. His response, thereafter, is not to tend to his vegetable garden and flowers, the only type of resurrection he can control, but to try to anchor himself to the past in a way that is similar to that of his wife and Jeannette. Shortly before Kate’s death he had been flirting with a woman, and he now throws himself into extramarital affairs which also serve as an escape from the suffocation of his home.

Yet, if The Falling Sky gives us a whole world of reflection on the subject of time and death, it is a novel of much else besides, such as giving us a new and what I found to be a deeper version of what E.O Wilson called “consilience”- the coming together of science and the humanities.

In contrast to the way the digitization of the tools of astronomy have cut astronomers off from the sky they see with their eyes, which is what Jeannette experiences during her research in Chile, her early love of astronomy grew not only from an urge to escape but from the desire to partake of a kind of unveiling where the true nature of the universe could be seen. In developing an exposure of Rigel one of the many double stars of Orion:

This is what she can do. Make the unseen, seen. Find things and know them. These things are real to her, even though she can’t reach them.

Later in her life, Jeannette’s lover Paula who is an artist engages in a similar sort of unveiling. Her portrait of Jeannette dealing not with her surface but uncovering what might only be called her essence. In the same way that Jeannette photographs of her first, and unrequited love while she was a teenager, Alice, were an attempt to unveil the girl’s “soul”. In a way the failure of this love when Alice flees at the confession of Jeannette’s feelings sets the stage for her obsessive focus on astronomy. Viewed from a sufficient distance the universe will not crush you and yet still offers itself up to be unveiled.

Sex too is presented as the same sort of unveiling, the discovery of a body and the depth of the person behind it. Jeannette understands this in the language of science:

Since they became lovers, Paula exists in several dimensions in a way no one else does…. they don’t overwhelm her with information and memories in the way that Paula does. She can’t look at Paula’s arms without being reminded of the first time she stroked them, and felt the texture of the skin. Only Paula fully inhabits space and time.”

Goldschmitt is offering here a version of consilience that is much different than the kinds of hierarchy of knowledge seen in the works of E.O. Wilson. Rather than science being the perspective from which all fields of knowledge derive their ultimate sanction, science is just one among many different not so much types but practices of seeing and unveiling to see. Astronomy reveals one type of truth about the universe, but so does painting and even love. Yet, this kind of unveiling demands a kind of openness to what one will find once one attempts to really know something or someone, and such openness can best be understood as a willingness to accept uncertainty. Perhaps, The Falling Sky might best be understood as a primer on accepting uncertainty as the price of deep knowledge and this is as much the case for science as it is for art and even more so when it comes to romantic love.

In the scenes where Jeannette is interviewed by the BBC, Goldschmitt not merely manages to display the way in which science is distorted by modern media and those vested in some particular outcome when it comes to scientific discovery but the centrality of uncertainty for the practice of science itself.

Jeannette’s discovery undermining the support for the Big Bang becomes fodder for religiously inspired intelligent- design “loons” who see in her touching galaxies a cosmic scale version of Michelangelo’s “God and Man”. But traditional religion appears much less pernicious than the peddlers of pseudo-science who run far ahead of Jeannette potentially paradigm shifting discovery.

Here is how Goldschmitt describes one such peddler, David Grant, being interviewed with Jennette on the BBC about the implications of her discovery:

Grant: “Oh, there are all sorts of possibilities. The plasma universe is one. In this model everything is connected by twisted magnetic fields…’  He’s off. Not even the interviewer can stop him spouting an incontinent stream of alternative theories… It’s all words. He’s not making any attempt to explain these madcap ideas they’re just spilling out all over the studio, most likely confirming the interviewer’s prejudice that science is long words and jargon, designed to exclude ordinary people.”

Jeannette directly confronts the interviewers notion that science exists to give us clear and unambiguous answers:

That’s exactly what science isn’t about…. it’s about quantifying uncertainty.

Yet, the extent to which Jeannette has been dependent on the control over uncertainty she has gained through astronomy is shown when the Orion probe, which is the only means by which her touching galaxies and their implications for the Big Bang can be definitively established, blows up at launch. At that she suffers mental breakdown unable to reconcile a long lasting uncertainty, which she herself has caused, regarding the very theory upon which she has centered her personality.

‘What else would be normal if we didn’t have a Big Bang?’ ‘It would just be- chaos. No structure at all.’  And she realizes, maybe for the first time, that most people don’t have this structure to their lives. This cosmic scaffolding to cling onto. Perhaps that’s why they go for religion.

By choosing a course that seemed to grant her financial certainty, as in tenure and grants through the notoriety of her findings, Jeannette has put at risk and ultimately lost the kind of cosmic solidity that she has embraced in light of her sister’s death.

What Goldschmitt is exploring here is a relationship between the accepting uncertainty and our orientation towards both the world around us and the people we place our trust in within it. Any open exploration in science, in art, in love means we may discover something we do not like or might not want to know. It is a form of risk taking where risk consists of losing the very identity, and our affection for and connection to the very object, that pulled us towards it in the first place.

Many human endeavors exist in this space besides art, science, and love. Plato in his Symposium describes philosophy as a form of love that works in this way. Religion, not when it is the source of “answers”, but in its mystical manifestations which are born of the search for God and end in an acceptance of the ineffable nature of the divine is like this as well.

Goldschmitt is also exploring the relationship of uncertainty and our orientation towards the future. Jeannette’s family is restored only when the uncertain nature of Kate’s drowning death is laid out for all to see and confront. In accepting this other risks and their uncertain outcomes can now be embraced- Jennette can be open with her family about her sexuality as can her father with his infidelities. Jeannette can walk away from renewing her relationship with Paula in a spirit of openness to what the future might bring.

Jeannette ultimately comes to see Kate’s death in a way similar to how her father experienced his garden but was initially unable to accept:

But even in nothing there is always something. Nothingness never actually exists. Nothing plus the uncertainty principle will always make something, particles of energy that pop into being and out again. The higher their energies the shorter their lives. That’ll do for her. She can play with that.

In writing The Falling Sky Goldschmitt has provided an alternative to the common literary tropes that are so often found when scientists are found in a work of fiction. There is the Promethean trope of the scientist struggling against the odds and against the forces of ignorance to arrive at the truth whose mirror image is the equally as common myth of Dr Frankenstein, the mad scientist whose hubris leads to destruction. The Falling Sky might be thought of as a version of realist science-fiction. The scientists in Goldschmidt’s novel, including Jeanette herself, are driven as much if not more by petty careerist aspirations and their own unmet psychological needs as by any heroic desire for the truth. At the same time, the scientist in The Falling Sky are no Dr Frankensteins either. Perhaps Jeannette’s ultimate goal is to understand the world as it really is and as best as she can and manifest a deep kind of inner courage in being willing to submit beliefs that for her have such deep psychological meaning to the challenge of scientific verification.

Goldschmidt’s leap over these two tropes of science-fiction is a perfect compliment to the much different use of science-fiction as a guide to ethical pre-design being experimented with at the MIT Media Lab whose premise is that both blind faith in science and technology and outright rejection is too simplistic. Let’s take warnings about the potential ill effects of a technology seriously and see if we can design around them before the technology is actually deployed.

Although we should not expect to always to have easy answers. Indeed, sometimes we see something more clearly even if no definitive answers have been provided at all. Above all, for me, that was what I gained by reading this wonderful little novel. In a way few works have done for me, after putting the book down I felt I knew more about time, and memory, and death, about what it means to live itself, and yet I was no nearer to any answers and felt even these revelations were beyond my power to articulate.

On the Space Between the Human and the Post- Human

Utopia sign

What especially distinguishes human beings from other animals has been the degree to which they seek out and invent ways to leverage the basics of their biology to reach ever more complex levels of thought and action. Early human beings leveraged their fragile and limited bodies with tools including fire, leveraged their own natural psychology using naturally occurring drugs and religious rituals and used music to obtain a more emotional connection with one another and the world. They most especially leveraged the range of their own knowledge through language, which gave them both a more broad and comprehensive picture of the present, and allowed them to convey lessons learned across generations so that repeat mistakes could be avoided.

The movement into cities and the creation of written language and number systems was another such leveraging. The development of broad ethical systems in the form of world religions was so as well, and many of these religions ramped up human capabilities that were present in the prehistorical phase- the capacity for artistic and musical expression exploded, new forms of internal-emotional or mystical exploration were developed.  These religions were also the first to imagine “perfect worlds” as in world’s free from the ills that seemed to eternally plague individuals and societies- disease, famine, poverty, violence, war, pain, suffering, and death.

Until the modern era there was a tendency on the part of religion to bear down on the only elements of this miserable equation where their efforts could be shown to have a real effect- the moral and internal aspects. And then came science.

In the 16th century modern science emerged as a way to address these perennial human problems.  Science along with political and social reorganization proved extremely effective at coming up with practical solutions to many of these problems. Not complete elimination of them to be sure, but substantial amelioration. Science was a new and extremely powerful form of leverage allowing human beings to form intricate understandings of how nature worked and then ride or tweak these understandings to achieve goals they wanted to obtain.

Transhumanism as the philosophy of the post-human focuses itself on the speculation and imagining of future extensions and leveraging. Yet, the line of demarcation between a continuation of what we have always done in the past and the reaching of some state where we are recognizably no longer human beings has never been absolutely clear. When will we experience changes which are qualitatively greater than the development of written language, empirical science, adoption of universal education, industrialization and its multifold machines, or any of the other huge phase changes humanity has undergone since it emerged in Africa anywhere from 200,000 to 50,000 years ago?

The farther out one goes, of course, the more likely such qualitative shifts appear, but I think that the shift to something that is so far from humanity that it is no longer recognizable as human in terms of morphology, lifespan, intelligence and the like seems unlikely until at the very earliest sometime in the 22nd century, much less the holy grail of 2045 which so many transhumanists and singularitarians hold as an end point.

How much morphologically distinct, long-lived, intelligent etc a human descendant would have to be to be considered post-human is anybody’s guess, but before that the problem of how to better distribute the positive aspects found in the range of differences human beings already have would likely been solved first. The reason for this is quite simple: evolution has already figured out how to achieve outliers in characteristics we wish were more widely distributed. Even if we stick with just human beings, some, today, are active into their 90’s and live to be as old as 120. Some human beings, today, show prodigious talents in sport, mathematics, creativity etc.

The problem of even combining these already present outlier characteristics in one person is likely to be a formidable one. Einstein was a genius when it came to physics, but was not also a great composer, novelist, painter, athlete etc. We should also remember Orgel’s Second Rule “Evolution is cleverer than you are” in gauging the complexity of technical challenges in front of us. It must not be easy to get human beings to live out beyond 120 years of age because otherwise it would be found somewhere among human beings. It must not be easy to create human beings who are simultaneously prodigious across all forms of human endeavor. Unacknowledged too is the fact that mastering the environment is just as important to the question of how to raise human potential as any firmer grasp of underlying neurological and biological mechanisms.

We are likely to spend a prolonged period merely learning what evolution- both natural and cultural- already knows and trying to more widely distribute these still human capabilities. This potential flowering of full human capabilities is the space between the human and the post-human. While it is definite that should our species survive for a long enough period of time it will give rise to descendants who are in some very large ways qualitatively different from us we will probably find ourselves in this interim stage first. Such a stage may last a very long time, indeed, we may choose as a species to have it last a very long time.

All this by a circuitous route brings me to a new way of looking at human rights known as the “Capability  Approach” or “Capabilities Approach”. Pioneered by thinkers such Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum the Capabilities Approach is not much older than contemporary transhumanism itself dating from the late 1970’s. CA manages to combine two very different utopian projects- the human rights and development projects.

Rather than focus on abstract rights CA looks closely at the individual person within their specific political, social and economic context by asking the question: “What are people able to do and to be?” CA is particularly interested in the situation of disabled persons and aims to draw attention to the question of whether or not society is so structured as to allow persons with disabilities to have access to the full-range of human potential. In terms of social justice CA seeks not so much social leveling as it calls for living standards that have become the norm in advanced countries to be extended to all human beings, something that given current circumstances requires redistribution to achieve.

Nussbaum herself has come down solidly in favor of many techno-progressive concerns from stem cells, to the liberalization of neurological drugs, to animal rights and the push to expand the range of human longevity. And in the case of longevity, unlike what I take to be the position of transhumanists more generally, but similar to techno-progressives more specifically, Nussbaum is concerned with the question of equity when comes to such gains.

 Here is Nussbaum on longevity:

And what about the question of death? Is it somehow contrary to human dignity to seek to prolong life? Once again, the use of the term “natural” seems to me to do great harm, as when people talk about extending life “beyond the natural lifespan,” or, as I heard on NPR yesterday, “beyond our allotted threescore years and ten”-as if that figure were given by the stars or fate, rather than by conventional human experience.

People used to have a life expectancy at birth of around 35 years. (That seems to have been the situation in ancient Greece, where the effects of a healthy climate were greatly undercut by persistent warfare.) In the developing world today, average life expectancy at birth is still under 40 in many nations. Many people in those nations, especially those with no literacy, probably believe, then, that it is “natural” to die early, just as they may believe that it is “natural” that a majority of one’s children will die before age five. We know, however, that the low life expectancy in many nations is an artifact of poverty and the unequal distribution of medical care and sanitation. On a recent visit to West Bengal, for example, I attended a workshop on the high rate of maternal mortality in one populous rural district. The primary causes of death mentioned were anemia, unsafe drinking water, and the sheer distance a woman would have to travel to find medical facilities. None of these is “natural” in the sense of “given, inevitable, unable to be changed.”

We should say that what is wrong with this situation is not the fact that life expectancy in the richer nations is now around 80 years. What is wrong is the fact that food, medical care, and lifesaving technologies are so unequally distributed around the globe. Seeking to prolong life for a privileged few while ignoring the low life-capabilities of the many is morally wrong, a violation of the dignity of those who are treated as if they were of unequal human dignity. That is why my capability approach urges ample redistribution from richer to poorer nations, as well as from rich to poor within each nation.

It is morally bad to focus on how one’s own life can be extended while totally ignoring these global inequalities. (That doesn’t mean waiting to do research about extending life until all global inequalities are corrected, since we learn a great deal from basic research, and it often has unexpected dividends in other areas.) The sheer fact of prolonging life is a very good thing, and should be encouraged, up to the point where life becomes nothing like a human life at all, such as when someone enters a persistent vegetative state-or, up until the point when the person, mentally fit and free from undue pressure, chooses not to live.

The reason I find CA instructive for techno-progressives is in its openness to technological change. The concept of rights is too often static and de-contextualized. The “right to life” means different things in a world where people die on average at 45 and where people live into their 80’s. What CA suggests is that once technological and social advancement makes a human good obtainable our efforts should be focused on making sure that good is widely distributed.

Unlike bio-conservatism which looks backward to “nature” and attaches itself to the “natural” and unlike transhumanism that looks forward to post-human possibilities almost exclusively to be realized through technology, CA looks around us asking what is possible in the present, where are these possibilities not found right now, what do we need to do to make sure they are widely available as quickly as possible?    

CA also offers an alternative to the technological fetishism that all types of transhumanism, including techno-progressives, often suffer. Very often the solution to an unreached human capability is technological, but environmental factors are just as important as well and absolutely necessary in the intermediate stages when a technological solution has yet to be fully formulated. It is CA’s interest in disabilities which has allowed it to better articulate such a position than other utopian projects including the traditional human rights and transhumanist discourses.

We should work hard in working out medical and technological interventions that will allow blind people to see, and the deaf to hear and everything in between, but until then the widespread adoption of low-tech wrap-arounds, schools that teach braille and sign language, accessibility requirements for public places and the like need to be as widespread as possible. Once effective medical and technological interventions, including genetic interventions, come online and are proven to be safe they need to be extended to the human population as a whole, again, as quickly impossible.

In a similar vein, we may at some point figure out the neurological mechanisms behind differences in human intelligence or even morality, but that shouldn’t preclude our investment in low-tech methods of achieving those same ends such as good and universal education, good nutrition, the promotion of loving family environments. Indeed, even as we discover the neurological mechanisms behind such things as musical ability we will want to double down on low-tech means of making these capabilities realizable- such as the support for music education in schools.

This space between the human and the post-human is what lies in front of us as far as we are able to confidently predict for we are likely to be able to reach the full limits of humanity for some time before we are able to move beyond them. In this light, the project for techno-progressives would be to bring attention to and support low-tech methods of enabling human capabilities where they continue to be needed even while pushing those capabilities ever outward through medicine and technology. At the same time techno-progressives need to ensure both that these low-tech and high-tech enabled capabilities are widely shared and that attention continues to be paid to the creation and sustaining of environments in which they can be considered meaningful.

Betting Against The Transhumanist Wager

The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.

G.K. Chesterson

There have been glowing reviews at the IEET of Zoltan Istvan’s The Transhumanist Wager. This will not be one of those. As I will argue, if you care about core transhumanist concerns, such as research into pushing out the limits of human mortality, little could be worse than the publication of Istvan’s novel. To put it sharply in terms of his so-called First Law of Transhumanism “A transhumanist must safeguard his own existence above all else”; Istvan, by creating a work that manages to disparage and threaten nearly every human community on earth has likely shortened the length of your life.

You shouldn’t be worried about anti-transhumanist, fundamentalist terrorism or any other sort of boogey man but a much, much bigger danger: the collapse of the very supports, financial, political, and social by which transhumanism could obtain any of its ends. Indeed, if what Istvan presents in his novel as the philosophy of transhumanism is anything near to reality, the movement does not deserve to survive. Techno-progressives should then truly divorce themselves from a movement which sadly has taken a fascistic and frightening turn.

Where even to begin?

The protagonist of The Transhumanist Wager is a man called Jethro Knights. At least in the first half of the novel, Knights recapitulates the inarguably fascinating life of Istvan himself: solo-circumnavigation around the world on a ship filled with books, writer for a barely disguised version of National Geographic, war correspondent. From there, I have no idea how the views of the protagonist and the novelist diverge, but Knights himself shows all the traits of narcissistic personality disorder meaning one of the core clinical traits of a psycho-path.

It is not merely that Istvan’s Knight is in the in the throes of NPD in terms of being “preoccupied with thoughts and fantasies of great success, enormous attractiveness, power, intelligence” he builds an entire transhumanist philosophy – Teleological Egotistical Functionalism (TEF) around such narcissism.

Knight’s idea of what he calls “the omnipotender” is certainly an example of an ego that has lost its grip on factual reality:

“His ultimate goal was that of the omnipotender: one who contends for omnipotence. He wanted a universal dictatorship- or at least a draw over everything and everyone.” (80)

And again:

Jethro desperately yearned for life, for power, for air into his lungs, for his mind to control and triumph over his physical surrounding- for the universe that only his will forged. (emphasis added) (171)

Knights is a man who thinks the universe is his to own and control. In this reading, the continuation of life is not the ultimate goal of transhumanism, but merely the stepping stone on the road to a kind of Randian-technologic power fantasy- the desire for which Knights takes to be the throbbing heart of evolution itself.

This omnipotender is an unyielding individual whose central aim is to contend for as much power and advancement as he could achieve, and whose immediate goal is to transcend his human biological limitations in order to reach a permanent sentience. “ (33)

Starting from such turbocharged Hobbesian assumptions it should come as no surprise that the philosophy Knights crafts ends up being a kind of fascist utilitarianism. Again, this is firmly in line with NPD in the sense of“failing to recognize other people’s emotions and feelings”, or better still the worth of others’ thoughts and feelings.

As Istvan describes Knights:

Even if he looked a person in the eye, he often failed to recognize anything of utility. Jethro perceived their presence, the space they took up the resources they used on his planet.  (p.12)

If individuals you have actually met in the flesh have no value for you beyond some utilitarian calculus in reference to your own ends, it stands to reason that the vast majority of human beings whom you have never and will never meet are little more than mere “variables” in your calculations. Fellow human beings whose worth can be deemed negative or positive based on what you desire to achieve.

We need to divert the resources to the genuinely gifted and qualified. To the achievers of society- the ones who pay your bills by their innovation, genius, and hard work. They will find the best way to the future. Not the losers of the world, or the mediocre, or the downtrodden, or the fearful. They will only drag us down, like they already have. (127-128)

There was not right or wrong when it came to dying or not dying. There was only success or failure. It spoke of using whatever means necessary to accomplish those aims, of thinking and acting with the same cold clarity a super-intelligent machine would use- something they were quickly evolving into anyway, the essay asserted. The world and all of its inhabitants were not worth living and dying for. (53)

It is not clear whether Knights himself has devised what Istvan calls “The Humanicide Formula” or if it is the product of anti-transhumanist propaganda. Whatever its origins in the narrative it certainly aligns with the overall immortality of TEF and Knights himself.

… not all human beings will be a net-positive in producing omnipotenders. Any individual who ultimately hampers the optimum transhuman trajectory should be eliminated.  (215)

Knights is truly not being hyperbolic when he says something like:

A transhumanist has no immediate concern for others, for family, for state, for heritage, for humanity, for God; only for its power and the preservation and growth of that power. (281)

Indeed, he is willing to apply this kind of emotional lobotomy to his own heart. Under “inquisition” by the cartoon of religious evil Istvan has set up as the foil to his protagonist, Reverend Belinas, Knights admits of his wife, Zoe Bach, the woman he has loved the most deeply:

What you say is true, preacher. I would kill my wife a thousand times over to reach my goals. (246)

If any of this strikes you as inhuman rather than post-human Knights would claim that it not him, but you, who suffers from psychological disconnect.

This was the essence of the world’s unmasked collective soul, the quintessential character flaw- that people were bred and conditioned to be afraid to do what they most deeply wanted to do: become invincible.  (242)

If The Transhumanist Wager was supposed to be a novel of ideas, an artistic representation of transhumanist thought, as Istvan has stated it, the book fails miserably on the score. Real novels of ideas put more than one idea up against one another, explore the space between the known and unknown. By contrast, The Transhumanist Wager has only one idea- a fascistic interpretation of the meaning of transhumanism in which the complexity of every other current of human thinking, including transhumanism itself, is reduced to a cartoon.

Futurism has always contained within itself a hatred of the past, and everything we have inherited from the past, religion yes, but also culture, art, architecture, literature. Istvan’s novel has left no room for continuity between transhumanist aims and the longings and attempts at transcendance that was invented by the world’s religions, even if the version of transhumanism he presents is nothing but a ripped off and upside down version of fundamentalist Christianity. In fusing the so-called militancy and cultural illiteracy of the New Atheism with a religiously infused interpretation of transhumanism, Knights, or Istvan, has merely created a new form of fundamentalism- its barbarism no better than the kinds of real barbarism seen when the Taliban destroyed the beautiful 5th century Buddhas of Bamiwam.

Istvan’s imagined willful and unnecessary destruction by transhumanists of cultural treasures in the West; Vatican City, where the Pope himself is killed, the incomparable Notre Dame and Versailles, along with the jewels of Western culture it holds, certainly struck home for me, and I am sure they will not fit well with many other Westerners of similar secular bent to myself who nonetheless understand the exquisite and fragile beauty of these places.

Yet, the damage of Istvan’s novel for the transhumanist movement might be much more strongly felt outside of the West rather than inside it. He imagines transhumanists destroying the Imperial Palace in Japan, The Forbidden City in Beijing (which even the anti-historical madman, Mao, left in tact), Delhi’s parliament building and its cultural treasures are destroyed, Moscow’s gorgeous Kremlin- leveled. The most sacred site of Muslims, the Kaaba, is destroyed along with their Dome of the Rock. The Wailing Wall, sacred to Jews both religious and secular since 70 C.E. is annihilated. Istvan’s transhumanists destroy what is probably the most exquisite piece of architecture built on the African continent the Great Mosque of Djenné, and blow up Brazil’s iconic Christ the Redeemer.

All of this is troubling and amounts to madness, for certainly there were other ways of displaying imagined transhumanist power in the novel that refrained from destroying the civilizational legacy not just of particular cultures but all of humankind. It is perhaps easy to sit in the comfortable West where religious violence is largely a figment of our imagination, and persons who write inflammatory tomes like Istvan’s aren’t arrested but protected by the police from the assault of maniacs and fanatics. It’s quite another thing to be associated with these ideas without any such protections and indeed their opposite.

The Transhumanist Wager might very likely put the lives of some transhumanist individuals in danger, and suck in individuals who are merely trying to move their societies in a more scientific direction. If you were living in Saudi Arabia and interested in transhumanism to the extent of owning literature on the subject, wouldn’t you now burn these books and papers, if not for your own protection, then, so unlike Knights himself, that of your family? Might you not also be tempted to burn your books about science given the possible conflation between an interest in science and a sympathy for transhumanism?

Where I am left is wracking my brain is in figuring out the origins of these fascist trends in in transhumanism, for it is twice now that very recent books have pushed the thinking of the movement in the direction of what can only be understood as technological fascism. It is clear that it is not his individualistic Randian assumptions alone that led Istvan in the directions of this type of thinking, for Steve Fuller, in his Humanity 2.0 arrives at a similar anti-human philosophy from a collectivist rather than a hyper-individualistic perspective.

The more I think on it, the more it seems that the kinds of fascist transhumanism seen in Fuller and now Istvan is a result of a quite narrow understanding of the meaning of technology which transhumanists of their stripe have adopted from the world of technological hardware, the kinds of things we normally associate when we hear the word technology, but whose narrowness when applied to the human and living world can lead to some pretty dark distortions. In a sense all transhumanism, even clearly progressive transhumanism, suffers from a kind of technological fetishism, and thus might gain insight from confronting what results when the logic of a mechanized technological advancement itself becomes the end through which human aspirations are funneled.

If we get out of the mindset that technology is only something that we have deliberately engineered it’s quite easy to see almost everything human beings do as making use of a sort of technology. In this interpretation law is a sort of technology which mediates social and economic interactions. Religion is a sort of technology, a  path to some particular human definition of transcendence. A kind of universal moral heuristic such as the Golden Rule is a sort of technology which guides human moral behavior.

The kinds of fascist transhumanism seen in Fuller and Istvan treats both persons and culture as if they were something like cell phones. The “functionalism” at the end of Istvan’s TEF gives it away. He has established criteria by which the “worth” of a human being can measured like one would a gadget. If someone fails to meet this criteria, or worse from his point of view, is a bug in the overall system they are to be “discarded” like one would a smart phone model from the last innovation cycle. Fuller goes so far in his desire that we reconceive our nature to be one of “designers” that he is a vocal supporter of teaching the pseudo-science of intelligent design in schools in order to inspire students with the “god-like” tasks in front of them.

Perhaps what morally grounds techno-progressivism as a branch of transhumanism is that it is more prone to tap into deeper ethical stands and currents (themselves a very potent form of moral and social technology) and is thus informed by traditions such as that of rights (including animal rights), or the desire for social justice that is lost by the transhumanism of Fuller or Istvan that reduces everything to the cruel logic of products. Yet, if narrow ideas regarding technology can result in the emergence of fascist trends of thought within transhumanism, the kind of heavy weight put on what is now mere engineering is also often too much for that type of human action to bear.

On the one hand there is the collision of our daydreams with the sheer complexity and surprises that confront us when faced with reality as shown to us by science. We have inherited aspirations regarding human life from religion and political philosophy which may or may not have a technologically engineerable solution, and there is no way to know in advance if they do or do not. Just because we can dream of something does not mean it is technologically or economically possible, or may only prove possible in ways utterly different from our initial dreams, though we may be able to achieve some ends such as social justice not through gadgets and technical innovation but through changes in the technology of  economic structures and using the “engineering” that we call politics.

Indeed, some of our least sophisticated and deliberately engineered means of human enhancement are the best we have so far. Quality education, good nutrition, and supportive and loving home environments continue to be more effective in raising human intelligence than all the neurological interventions we have come up with. The biggest gains we have clocked in increasing human longevity were not so much the product of high- tech medicine, but decidedly low-tech improvements in public health.

This is not to say that much greater gains in cognitive capacity or longevity aren’t there for us to find once we have a firmer grasp on neurological mechanisms and a more developed understanding of the process of aging. What it does suggest is that unless we free ourselves from our narrow understanding of technology we might end up running to stand still as failure to invest in education robs children, in the aggregate, of the ability to learn, or failure to invest in public health gives rise to a median decline in lifespan at the very moment we’ve grasped the neurological mechanisms behind learning and memory and discovered how to slow life’s clock. What good, after all, would an understanding of the underlying neurological mechanisms behind artistic ability do us if we no longer publicly supported art classes for kids?

The temptation transhumanists face is the urge to re-orient all the resources of society towards technological efforts to solve only one problem- the problem of personal death.  In setting the bar so high, as in the achievement of personal immortality within their lifetimes, many transhumanists have enabled a sort of existential panic as the years pass by without the needed breakthroughs to definitively achieve such an end. Istvan’s Jethro Knights is cruel precisely because of the intensity of his impatience. The whole world needs to be overthrown because unless it is he will die.

What is lost in this impatience is the space between humanity and the at the moment very uncertain promises of post-humanity. Almost all ideas regarding post-humanity rest on what amounts to speculative science and technology even in the face of the fact that human beings have a very poor record predicting such things. The science and technology of the future will in all likelihood prove full of surprises- closing off some aspirations while at the same time making us aware of new ones.

The danger here is that the scientifically probable suffers in comparison to the enchantingly possible. Istvan is telling here for he is especially disdainful of investments in what is often called public health seeing it in a sense as a rival to much more ambitious transhumanist medicine. This attitude skirts the fact that it was largely the investments in rather mundane public health that nearly doubled our longevity in the first place. Istvan’s impatience due to his own mortality leads to a blindness to the likely gradualism to anything like post-humanity. We’ll probably learn how to keep people fit and healthy into their 80’s long before we figure out if biological immortality is scientifically possible let alone something like uploading. Viewed from a social rather than a personal level gradualism towards greatly changed conditions for human beings is probably a very good thing- giving society time to adjust.

Techno-progressives need to pay more attention to this space immediately in front of us. Such an effort would give us a better idea of where to prioritize their political efforts in terms of pushes for research funding and the like that would have the greatest immediate impact. Given the accelerating pace at which the world’s population is aging many of these priorities are likely to be shared by a broad swath of society many of them, yes, religious.

This is a much better strategy than engaging in a power fantasy in which your personal survival has become a political question, nothing in the world is more important than this survival, and what you believe most puts your survival in question is the fact that the whole world is your enemy. For, if transhumanists continue to put out works like Istvan’s Transhumanist Wager such paranoia may tragically become true and almost nothing could be worse in terms of real progress towards the movement’s long range aspirations.

Techno-Progressives and the Post 2015 Millennium Development Goals

What the current crisis in and over Syria makes painfully clear is the extent to which the international system, the way in which global affairs have been organized since at least the 19th century when it became possible to view the various human communities scattered across the landscape of the earth as part of one-world is failing. The system is failing whatever the outcome of current debates in the UN and US over military strikes against Syria.

It is failing in light of the already 100,000 dead in the Syrian civil war. It is failing from the perspective of the almost 2 million refugees who have fled the country on account of the war. It is failing as the violence of the crisis spills out into neighboring countries such as Lebanon and Iraq. It is failing as geopolitical rivalry- between the US, Israel and Western powers along with the Arab states on the one hand and Russia, China, Iran and the Shia powers on the other stand in the way of stopping what was a humanitarian disaster long before chemical weapons were used to callously murder civilians in their sleep.

It is a sad coincidence that the failure of Syria is likely to overshadow an event that underlies how the international system in general and the UN in particular is actually working in its mission of providing the tools of global governance (something quite distinct from the what would surely be the nightmare of global government).

On September 25th 2013,Ban Ki Moon, the Secretary General of the United Nations is scheduled to  present a global vision for the future in the form of the Post 2015 Millenium Development goals these are goals that are meant to replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) established in 2000.

You may be only vaguely aware of what the original MDGs are, so here is a very superficial rundown. The MDGs were established in what might be described as a pre- 9/11 spirit of international optimism regarding the new century. With the adoption of the United Nations Millenium Declaration, one of the few agreements on which all UN member states subscribed, a set of 9 development goals were established, which signatories agreed to work towards.

What was novel about the MDGs was their use of targets (applicable for 8 of MDGs) by which the success or failure in reaching a developmental goal such as #4 “Reducing Child Mortality Rates” could be measured. There are arguments surrounding the extent to which the goals have been reached, or even where they have been reached, whether the MDGs themselves had any major role in such progress.

Where the MDGs clearly succeeded is in bringing public attention to the issues of development after a long period of inattention following the end of the Cold War. The MDGs also succeed in focusing the attention of developing countries, First World donors, and NGOs on objectives in a way that had never been seen before.

The MDGs expire in 2015 to be replaced by a new set of global goals with the process to replace them having begun in 2012. What was unprecedented in the creation of the post 2015 goals was the degree to which the process opened itself up to the input of civil society the work of Jamie Drummond and his organization One begin only perhaps the most well known of these effort.

Yet, if the process of coming up with the post- 2015 goals has so far succeeded in anything it is in bringing together utopian projects that have been largely separate and often rivals since at least the 1970’s. The post-2015 dialogue brought under one roof organizations focused on development, human rights, and the environment.

On September, 25 2013 the UN will unveil the post-2015 goals at a special session. This will not be the end of the process but its movement into high gear as states and organizations jockey to define what the goals mean, and what their obligations under international law to meeting these goals are. The adoption or failure to adopt the post-2015 goals is also likely to cross-hatch with the international deadline to reach a new and comprehensive agreement to tackle climate change which is also slated for 2015.

So what are the post-2015 goals? They fall into five categories embracing development, human rights and environmental sustainability.

1) Leave no-one behindmoving from reducing poverty to ending it, with no person, regardless of gender, ethnicity, religion, or disability, being denied basic economic opportunities and fundamental human rights.

2) Sustainable development at the corea shift away from destructive patterns of economic development towards sustainable patterns of production and consumption.

3) Transform economies for jobs and inclusive growth – ensuring growth benefits the societies and people who need it most, while ending the jobs crisis and harnessing the energy of youth.

4) Build peace and effective, open, and accountable institutions for allrecognizing that peace and good governance are essential to human well-being and sustainable development.

5) Forge a new global partnershipbuild a broad partnership able to deliver the post-2015 agenda and harness the finance needed to invest in change.

 The question I want to address in the rest of this article is how might the techno-progressive community aid in reaching these goals? These are merely my ideas, I am sure others could come up with better ones, but what follows might at least serve as the beginning of a discussion.

Leave no-one behind

In some ways techno-progressives are way out in front of this issue by taking seriously discussions of a guaranteed basic income. There are, I think, other ways techno-progressives can help here as well.

The IEET is already engaged in trying to extend the reach of technology into Africa through its African Futures Project including its work in Madagascar. All great and laudable efforts. There are many ways we might build upon the work of these projects that reflect the unique political philosophy and priorities of techno-progressives.

What is often missed in techno-progressive/transhumanist discussions around maximizing the healthy human lifespan is that global demographics have reached the point where this is now a development issue. The number of people over age 60 is expected to reach 2 billion by 2050. The often unrecognized fact is that the vast majority- 1.5 billion- of these people over the age of 60 will be in the developing rather than the developed world. Places that more often than not lack adequate health care services to start with.

Ensuring that the elderly are able to lead healthy, productive laws for as long as possible is more than just a matter of medical technology, but techno-progressives committed to equality need to promote and push for the extension of age related breakthroughs into the developing world as soon as possible once they are proven safe and effective. For example, should very recent research in halting age related memory loss result in a safe and effective intervention, techno-progressives need to be primed to make sure such a drug makes its way to the developing world as quickly as possible.

Related to but also distinct from the issue of human aging, one of the most humane projects techno-progressives could begin to pursue in earnest through research, advocacy, and partnerships with other organizations would be to address another often unacknowledged crisis, that of global disabilities. Again, according to United Nations an astounding 650 million human beings suffer from disabilities.

In the developed world we already have an extensive kit to deal with many disabilities. In the developing world, however, far too few of these responses to disability- whether the result of accidents, birth-defects, or age are available for those below the highest economic strata. Mental health is a huge area where progress in the developing world is sorely needed, but I will focus on purely physical disabilities for the sake of brevity.

One of the ways techno-progressives might be able to help in this regard is through partnerships with and fundraising for some of the NGOs dedicated to extending the reach of advanced prosthetics into the developing world. Organizations such as the Prosthetics Outreach Foundation.

A very specific and transformative technology in this regard are cochlear implants which literally bring a subset of humanity into the full range of human senses. The issue with deploying cochlear implants in the developing world on a larger scale appears to be less a question of expense than the specialized expertise needed for tuning the device. Work on remotely tuning these devices is currently being done by the Sydney Cochlear Implant Center and as soon as it proves workable techno-progressives could push to maximize its implementation through partnerships, fundraising, and lobbying of rich countries for financial support.

These are just some areas where techno-progressive attention might be focused and in which the community could help in reaching the first of the post-2015 Millennium Development goals of “Leaving no-one Behind” there are certainly many others.

Sustainable development at the core

As was mentioned, one of the major ways the post-2015 MDGs and the MDGs are different is that the former combines elements of the utopian projects of the development, human rights and environmental communities. The IEET might offer intellectual support here by adopting as part of its research agenda exploring the recent debate within the environmental community between ecological modernism and traditional environmentalism. Ecological modernists propose that humanity sever its dependence on nature through technology for the sake of nature, and more attention needs to be paid to the benefits and pitfalls of such an approach within the techno-progressive community. More attention should also be paid to the movement towards “smart” and sustainable cities as well. A movement having an effect from Rio to Delhi.

Unlike other progressive communities, techno-progressives not only do not instinctively recoil from technology, but openly embrace it as long as it serves as a vehicle for progressive ends. Such as the case with GMOs or synthetic meat, techno-progressives need to support scientific literacy wherever technologies that have great potential for improving human and animal good are met with polemical attacks, public hysteria and irrational disgust.

Techno-progressives should also throw their support around reaching a comprehensive climate change agreement by 2015.

Transform economies for jobs and inclusive growth

Techno-progressives have been among the first to recognize the challenges of technological unemployment as computers and increasingly robotics continue to make their steady advances. This is a problem for the First World where the middle class is shrinking and returns to capital vs labor are on the march. It is also a problem for the developing world where economies had been following the universal track of modernization present since the industrial revolution began of starting with cheap labor to build increasingly complex and sophisticated economies. The problem for the developing world is that the automation revolution is occurring before those countries have established a significant middle class.

The techno-progressive idea of a universal basic income might be part of the solution to this problem, at least in the rich world, but the developing world posses much bigger numbers and even larger challenges. Part of the way to address this challenge will likely be income redistribution from capital to labor. Techno-progressives need to put themselves at the forefront not only in establishing the degree to which the problem of technological unemployment is true ,and if the condition is likely to last, but also in imagining innovative solutions to the challenges posed by automation.

Build peace and effective, open, and accountable institutions for all

There are many areas where techno-progressives might help in these questions of governance, but I want to focus on just one.As Duncan Green pointed out in a recent Royal Society Policy Lab panel discussion on science and the post-2015 Millenium Development Goals, science and technology are rarely neutral when it comes to the questions of power and wealth. As techno-progressives it is incumbent upon us to make sure that technologies are used in ways that do not weigh heaviest on the weakest and poorest among us.

Green’s example of the likely prospect for some sort of geoengineering response to climate are telling here. Given current inequalities, a process with potential risk, such as iron fertilization will likely be implemented near coasts where poor people live rather than off the coast of a rich world country. Techno-progressives can play a unique role in bringing these inequality questions to the the public’s attention while avoiding the knee-jerk rejection of technological intervention whole cloth.

This intersection of technology, wealth and power also plays a key role even in areas where technology is ostensibly being applied for progressive ends. For example in the 2000’s pharmaceutical companies who had come under pressure for denying generic drug production in less developed states, began making their drugs more widely available in the developing world. Yet, there is now justified criticism that pharmaceutical companies are aggressively marketing their drugs in the developing world in a way that distorts rather than aids in the promotion of human health in non-developed societies.

Pharmaceutical companies have also engaged  in the dubious practice of “evergreening” where minor changes to a drug that have little to do with its effectiveness are used to lock in patents thereby closing off the route to cheaper generic versions.

None of this compares to the frankly Fulleresque recent revelations that Western pharmaceutical companies have been testing their drug designs on people in the developing world.  Here, I think, techno-progressives directly confront a number of the assumptions that underlie some, though not all, of transhumanism more generally.

The use of the world’s poorest as guinea-pigs for medical research is a chilling example of Zoltan Istvan’s so- called First Law of Trans-humanism “A transhumanist must safeguard his own existence above all else” a position fraught with dangers and morally abhorrent. Any techno-progessiveism worth its salt needs to push back against such assumptions where they collide with the desire for the most widely shared human improvement and needs to start drawing some clear ethical redlines that should not be crossed even if crossing those lines would accelerate progress in achieving some otherwise laudable transhumanist ends.

Forge a new global partnership

Techno-progressive need to reach out to and collaborate with others engaged in the various and until now largely separate utopian projects that are aiming to make the world a better place. How can techno-progressives partner with groups pursuing human rights, environmental sustainability or development? Where can our unique skill sets and interest best be used to support and accelerate positive change in the global situation of humanity? What might we learn from engagement with these other utopian discourses, and how might the goals of techno-progressives be understood and re-framed in the light of these other ways of looking at the world?

How will we be remembered?

When historians look back on the month of September 2013 what will they think most important? Will it be the crisis in Syria and it consequences or the opening round of the post- Millenium development goals? The answer to that question might tell us as much about the shape of the world in 2050 as any technological breakthrough. Techno-progressives need to enter the discussion and throw their weight behind the success of the lasting success and impact of the latter.

The Philosophy Behind Elysium

The Waters of Lethe by the Plains of Elysium Stanhope 1880

I finally had the chance to see Elysium this week. As films go, the picture is certainly visually gripping and the fight scenes awesome, if you are into that sort of thing. But, in terms of a film about ideas the picture left me scratching my head, and I could only get a clue as to the film’s meaning as intended by Neill Blomkamp, Elysium’s screenwriter and director, by looking elsewhere.

Embedded within stunning special effects Elysium is certainly meant as a moral critique of  inequality- a futuristic tale of the haves vs the have-nots. The rich, in Blomkamp’s earth of 2154 live on the space station of Elysium- a trans-humanist paradise where diseases are miraculously scanned away while the entire earth below has become a vast slum. Elysium is the mother of all gated communities the people inside it rich and beautiful while those outside suffer, and not to blow the ending, but Blomkamp is out to open the gates.

Blomkamp has made it clear that his film is less of a warning about the future than an allegory for the present.

People have asked me if I think this is what will happen in 140 years, but this isn’t science fiction. This is today. This is now!

The Elysium of today is the First World and the earth of the film the Third World with the latter’s immigrants desperate to break into “paradise” for the sake of themselves and their families. The explosion of mega-cities like the 180 million Yangtze Delta in China (which plays no role in Elysium) serves as a kind of sociological backdrop for the film. It is especially the squalor of megacities that draws Blomkamp’s cinematic eye. Part of the movie was filmed in one of the world’s largest dumps in Mexico.

And yet, Elysium certainly seems to articulate some sort of philosophical position not just on the present, but on the future, and adds its own voice to the debate surrounding its possibilities. The question is, what? I left the movie thinking it was mostly a less than veiled critique on transhumanism,  especially the in-egalitarian, utopian seasteading variety of transhumanism as propounded by the like of Peter Theil. And again, not to blow it, but the major epiphany of the protagonist is realizing that his own survival is not the ultimate value.

Blomkamp’s true perspective, however, is somewhat different as evidenced when I looked beyond the film itself. Blomkamp is actually a singularitarian, though a very pessimistic one. He subscribes to the idea of civilizational development put forward by the Russian scientist Nikolai Kardashev. I’ll quote myself  here, “… in the 1960 Kardashev postulated that civilizations go through different technological phases based on their capacity to tap energy resources. A Type I civilization is able to tap the equivalent of its entire planet’s energy. A Type II civilization is able to tap an amount of energy equivalent to the amount put out by its parent star, and a Type III civilization able to tap the energy equivalent to its entire galaxy. Type IV and Type V civilizations able to tap the energy of the entire universe or even the multiverse have been speculated upon that would transcend even the scope of Kardashev’s broad vision.

Blomkamp speculates that the reason for the so-called Fermi Paradox – if the conditions for life in the universe are so abundant, then where are the aliens?- is that the movement to Type I civilization- the emergence of a truly global civilization- is so difficult that none of the many civilizations that have emerged over the history of the universe have made it through this bottleneck, and for Blomkamp we show every sign of sharing this sad fate.

As Blomkamp sees it human nature is the greatest barrier preventing us from reaching Type I. Echoing Julian Savulescu, he has stated:

We have biological systems built into us that were very advantageous for us, up until we became a functioning civilization 10,000 years ago. We are literally genetically coded to preserve life, procreate and get food – and that’s not gonna change. The question is whether you can somehow overpower certain parts of that mammalian DNA and try to give some of your money out, try to take your wealth and pour it out for the rest of the planet.

Again, along transhumanist and singularitarian lines of thinking Blomkamp believes that if we do not solve our problem the world will bifurcate into pockets of the technologically empowered rich isolated within a global mega-city of the miserably poor:

…it’ll either be a singularity discussion or this Mad Max fuckin’ group of savages roaming on the horizon, a Malthusian catastrophe.

Alright, so like many others Blomkamp believes we are at a crossroads whose path will shape the whole fate of humanity, indeed the fate of intelligence in the universe, one more sad example of not being able to breakthrough emerge as a Type I civilization or the glorious birth of a new cosmic era.

Yet, perhaps we need to step back for a moment from this sort of apocalyptic thinking. It’s an at least questionable assumption whether or not intelligence and technology have any such cosmic role to play in the future of the universe, let alone whether the current generation will be the one that ultimately decides our fate. We’ve been in a situation where we are in danger of destroying ourselves since at least the explosion of the first hydrogen bomb in 1954, and there is no foreseeable future where we definitively escape these types of dangers now that we have such powers and now that our reach is global and beyond.

Indeed, if it is the case that civilizations are at risk of catastrophic failure whatever their position on the Kardashev Scale, this would go even further in explaining the Fermi Paradox. Even those that make it through Type I continue to be at risk of botching the whole thing. The obvious rejoinder to this is that once a civilization has”gone galactic” it is safe, but I am not so sure. Perhaps Type II and III super-intelligences come up with galactic scale methods of destruction, or collapse into a singularity induced turtle shell, as imagined so cleverly by Charles Stross. We simply don’t know enough to actually decide one way or another, although in addition to the hunt for planets in the “habitable zone” done by the beloved Kepler and its hopeful successor, scientists at FermiLab are on the hunt for any signs of Type I and II Dyson Spheres whose discovery would actually put meat on the bones of what is otherwise merely a plausible model of technological development not to mention blow our minds.

However, as I have mentioned elsewhere, a much less metaphysically laden explanation for the Fermi Paradox can be found in the simple life cycle of stars. It is only quite recently that the types of stars that create the sorts of heavy elements necessary for life (at least life as we understand it) have emerged, and the number of such heavy element creating stars in increasing. Earth might be one of the first planets to establish life and civilization, but it will in all probability not be the last. There will probably be many many more chances to get it right, if by getting it right we mean getting beyond our current technological stage. There are also likely to be many more type of paths through evolution and historical development than we could ever imagine without any ultimate destiny or convergence point, which some modern scientists and singularitarians have borrowed straight from religious longings.

There is no need to posit a potentially lost cosmic destiny to come to the conclusion that our’s or future generations’ failure to meet our global responsibilities today would constitute a colossal tragedy, and this is what we can confidently take away from Elysium. That one of the greatest challenges in front of us is making sure that all of humanity is able to benefit from scientific, technological and economic progress, and as Blomkamp’s action-packed analogy reminds us, we don’t have to go out to the 22nd century to see that we are failing to live up to this challenge quite miserably.