This article arises from Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University. From Feb. 28 to March 2, Future Tense will be taking part in Emerge, an annual conference on ASU’s Tempe campus about what the future holds for humans. This year’s theme: the future of truth. Visit the Emerge website to learn more and to get your ticket.
Philosophy students may gaze rapturously into the existential abyss, and overeducated and underpaid literary critics may pontificate about the postmodern relativism of navels, but for most people, the built world is just about as real as it gets. A 747 flies, time and again. Water comes out of pipes. Smartphones take pictures, just as they always have—they even (rarely) function as phones. The pragmatic modern spends little time worrying about the designed environment within which she finds herself. The simple physical fact of the engineered world gives it an overwhelming presence. It’s there. It’s real. It has an obvious truthiness. The sheer fact a designed object can be built, can be physically made, gives it an uncontestable reality: the reality of mass, material, movement, function. But behind that obvious reality lies design, and behind design lies a more complicated landscape, one in which what is real, and what is true, is nowhere near as unambiguous.
In most cases, one would indeed be hard put to argue with this mundane reality. A toaster is a toaster is a toaster. But we live in on the cusp of a different age, in which the truth, like most things, is far more complex than perhaps we’d like to admit. For the great projects that humans have long dreamed of are within reach: to design a world, and increasingly, to be able to design the human itself. What is being designed now is not the product within a context; it is the context. And that changes things.
On the one extreme, we have made our planet a design space. The radiation of the planet itself reflects human presence: Our lights blaze out to space in the night, and our radio and television programs expand in great spheres across space. Concern about anthropogenic climate change highlights the fact that human activities now affect global systems in many complicated ways: Global warming not only changes atmospheric behavior at global scales, but significantly affects biodiversity. Less well known but just as profound are the similar impacts of human activities on other critical natural systems, such as the nitrogen, phosphorous, sulfur, and water cycles. Genetic engineering means that life itself increasingly mirrors human choice and human systems—economics rather than “natural” evolution. Cuddly animals like pandas are objects of intense, sometimes illogical concern; species and life forms that we disfavor, such as smallpox, are deliberately driven to extinction.
And on the other extreme, we have the “human” as a biological, psychological, and cultural artifact—and now, too, design space. Sure, we have been improving humans for a long time. The humble vaccine, for example, is a human enhancement technology. We deliberately design a highly complex chemical technology (aka an inoculation), and then we introduce it into the human body with the explicit intent of engineering a human system (the immune function) in such a way as to enable longer life. The modern public health infrastructure is a meta-technology based on many such enhancement technologies, from antibiotics to medical prosthetics to sewage and clean water infrastructures. And it delivers: By using such technologies, we routinely achieve life expectancies of 80 years or so in developed countries. Where we do not deploy these enhancement technologies, life expectancies are much lower (Nigeria, about 50; Zimbabwe and Afghanistan, about 47). If we saw a mortality difference like that in another species, we’d consider calling them different varietals.
But now a suite of core emerging technologies—including nanotechnology, biotechnology, information and communication technology, robotics, and applied cognitive science—are laying the groundwork for redesign and engineering of virtually every aspect of the human, from physical to psychological to theological. Technologies such as transcranial magnetic stimulation are being used not just for therapeutic purposes such as helping to manage depression, but to change people’s moral judgment. Advances in computer-brain interfaces are enabling people to couple wirelessly into their technological environment, offering immediate prosthetic benefits but also suggesting the possibility of seamlessly integrating wetware and hardware for many purposes: If I can directly interact with my computerized home environment through CBI technology, there is no reason I can’t be directly coupled to major weapon platforms or Mars expeditionary robots. Psychopharmaceuticals are used by many students to improve academic performance today, and researchers are working on drugs that could change memories (to some public angst), or reduce a sense of risk, or keep people focused and productive for 20 hours a day. The neural and biochemical basis for complex behaviors such as political and religious beliefs is being teased out; once the pathways are known, engineering alternatives will become possible. And, of course, a suite of technologies from Google to social networking extends human cognition across vast information networks, in the process continuing to blur ideas about what the “human” actually is.
None of these developments, taken alone, may seem radical. But when it is recognized that what is happening is fundamental and accelerating change across the entire technological frontier, and that this power will inevitably be turned to the project of engineering what it means to be human, the picture is different. For example, many experts believe that one probable scenario at a meta-technology level is radical life extension, at least for people in developed high-technology economies—that the first individual who will live to 150 with a high quality of life has already been born.
So here we have the real, the true, and the possible all jumbled up. Once I actually build something—a fancy computer brain interface, say—it is physically real, and it operates the same way time and again, and it is a fact in the world. It is, in other words, true. But before that, it may feel “not true,” especially if it violates one’s sense of cultural or psychological identity—just as in 1960 something like the Internet, or designing a cyborg by integrating a CBI into a wetware body, would have been regarded as gross fantasy. More subtly, there is the question of why I choose to work on CBI to begin with—how, in other words, the decision is made to make a concept or a fantasy real, and therefore true?
There are human choices, human concerns, human hopes buried in these systems at all scales. So wither truthiness in this increasingly complex environment? Given all the options, what will be chosen to be real? What will remain forever imagined—and what will we fail to imagine in the first place?
You may remember the Star Trek episode “Shore Leave” (Season 1, Episode 15), in which Kirk’s tired crew heads for some R&R on an attractive, apparently uninhabited planet. Things soon go south: Dr. McCoy sees the white rabbit from Alice in Wonderland (or Jefferson Airplane, take your pick); Lt. Sulu is attacked by a samurai warrior; Kirk himself is accosted by early girlfriends (OK, no surprise there); and eventually all and sundry are dealing with Japanese Zero warplanes, mounted medieval knights, and other challenges. It turns out that the planet is a high-tech alien amusement park in which thoughts and dreams are made real. As the wise Caretaker of the planet points out as he offers the services of the planet to the now clued-in Enterprise crew, be careful what you think.
The engineers designing our planet and working on Human 2.0 are doing a lot of highly technical things with real tissues and materials and circuits and material cycles and built things. They are constrained by physical laws, less so by existing infrastructures, by economics, and by a whole suite of plans, roadmaps, and design objectives. But out of an unimaginable and vast universe of potential choices, the Earth 2.0 and Human 2.0 line will arise—and they will reflect the dreams, the archetypes, the conflicts, the cultures, the science fiction, the hopes, of humanity. The engineers and their networks and firms and technology systems and research institutions are the working Star Trek planet, and they will give you what you ask for. This is beyond the common lament of “playing God” of the anti-biotech campaigners, however, for what is being designed is everything—from the Earth itself to the designer herself. And it is your fantasies, your fiction, your hates and fears, your loves that guide the design, and the building, and the new truths.