September 21, 2004

Future human forms

I received an interesting email today asking for my perspective on the future of human forms:
"The main argument in my dissertation though, is whether Human beings will use mechanical augmentation to move further away from the Human blueprint (as designers re-interpret the Human form), or try to achieve a new level of cosmetic beauty? - If you could offer your current opinions on this specific statement it would benefit my investigation immensely.

"I am a perfectly healthy Human being, but I would personally choose to move further away from the Human form - having never really felt 'complete' as a mere Human being. Maybe for me this would be a more spiritual transformation - something of self discovery - allowing me to challenge the form I was born into - and the subsequent understanding of the world created by that form."
My response:

I believe the answer to your question is largely yes. Our relationship with our bodies is about to change dramatically. The two major factors driving this change are 1) greater control over our morphology and its processes, and 2) the potential for the extended mind.

What this means is that our bodies are about to become our canvases. Given that human cognition may be supplemented by external devices, and given the potential for living in virtual environments, the body will become less and less important from a purely functional perspective. Supplementing this is increased control over its physical and functional characteristics. Consequently, we'll be able to modify the body based on both utilitarian and non-utilitarian imperatives.

From a functional perspective, the potential for genetic, cybernetic and nano augmentation is significant. Enhancements to existing traits are a given, but so will be the advent of new characteristics, like different senses and capabilities altogether (whether they be physical or cognitive). How this will change bodily morphology is anybody's guess, but I'm certain it won't be subtle.

When it comes to non-utilitarian modifications, there are a number of potential avenues. One idea is the "perfection" of the human body, which is an idea explored by Natasha Vita-More (and to a lesser degree by pop icons like Michael Jackson, Cher, David Bowie, etc). Others alter or utilize their bodies to make artistic statements, like Orlan or Stelarc. And still others are interested in non-conformism and self-actualization, which leads to radical body modification in the form of tattoos, piercings, gender change, etc. I also know of a person who suffers from a kind of bodily dysmorphia where she believes that she is a cybernetic creature born into a biological body; she feels "wrong" much like a transgendered person feels like they're in the wrong body, and she eagerly awaits the opportunity to become a mechanical/synthetic being. Some prospective body modifiers speculate about transgenic modifications (horns, tails, glow-in-the-dark skin and hair, etc). Others want to become another organism altogether (i.e. dolphins).

What's unknown at this point is how much of this will/can be done in the real world, and how much of this can be achieved virtually in the form of simulations and/or online avatars.

Taken further, body modification and transhumanism will ultimately result in human speciation. Different people will follow different paths, all converging from a common human ancestry. Writer Greg Egan speculates about this in his book Diaspora, which involves posthumans of different sorts: genetically modified surface dwellers, uploaded minds living in supercomputers, cyborgs, deliberately devolved primitive hominids, and so on. I believe Egan is largely correct.

As for modifications that are about achieving "cosmic beauty," you could be right, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Ultimately, like you suggest, the human form may be radically rejected altogether and the future person will barely resemble a biological species. Transhumanism is for many a means to become postbiological.

Hope that helps.


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