Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Welcome Back to Blighty

Well, this blog has come full circle. I started it whilst preparing to head out to Japan to live and work, and now I'm back in Leeds where I was studying for my CELTA certificate in the first place. I went to Tokyo not knowing how long I'd be staying (it turned out to be around nine months) or where I'd be working (I ended up staying with the Gaba Corporation for, more or less, the duration). I left a little while before my working holiday visa ran out, fairly sure that I wouldn't be returning to Tokyo again in the future - at least not for any job that requires working through the interminably long, hot summer. In the dim and distant future I would love to travel back to Hokkaido and work there somewhere, as my brief visit to Sapporo and Otaru was definitely the highlight of my stay.

So now I'm back, applying for work again the UK. Helpfully, the Tory government has seen fit to cut funding for ESOL programmes, rendering my CELTA training pretty worthless - all the while, bleating on about how there needs to be greater integration, how people need to buck up and learn English. On a related but unfortunate note, returning from Japan has been a massive drain on my finances. It is entirely possible to earn a decent salary when in Japan, provided you get the right jobs and especially if you aren't living in an rent-expensive area, but I (foolishly, in hindsight) was focusing more on being in Japan than on stocking up on cash. This has, as you may imagine, backfired.

Nevertheless, there are jobs going, here and there, and the current 'time off' is giving me chance to catch up on some reading - PKD's A Scanner Darkly, over the weekend; in honour of Deus Ex: Human Revolution's imminent release, I'm thinking Olaf Stapledon's First and Last Men next - and some gaming - Yakuza 4, which on the one hand is more of the same, and on the other introduces a few new tricks. The whole engine seems to be getting increasingly clunky, though, and considering the amount of voice acting in modern Western RPGs, the old excuses for how much text there is in it really start to fall apart (especially considering it's a PS3 exclusive, and therefore has access to all that Blu-Ray storage space). Once I actually have a more stable internet connection, one that isn't, ahem, borrowed from an unsecure network and only accessible by balancing the laptop in LOS of the window, I'll be spending more time applying for jobs and catching up on pending applications - until then, I'll be in Kamurocho.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

H+


Warning: Contains Transhumanism!

I used to read a blog, the Slacktivist, written by one Fred Kaplan who posted extracts from the Left Behind series of Evangelical/post-Rapture novels (ahem) along with witty dissections of them backed up by Biblical scholarship – that is, he wasn’t just mocking them for their terrible writing, but also trying to look at what makes some of the content either weird or disturbing. That insider’s insight was what elevated it above mere sporking.

Bored in my hotel, I navigated over to the site, only to discover that Kaplan had mysteriously disappeared over to a different server, but seems to have essentially bequeathed the old web address to the people who used to comment on his posts – at least, I think that’s what happened, because I wasn’t particularly taken by the new content and didn’t feel the need to delve too deeply into the politics. What did catch my eye, however, was the site’s ‘trigger warnings’. I have fairly limited exposure to social justice-oriented blogs and sites (women’s rights, disability rights, and so on), where trigger warnings are used to mark out sensitive topics so that they’re not stumbled onto accidentally – a kind of NSFW tag for the mind – but the concept strikes me as a useful one, used correctly.

This site did not seem to use them ‘correctly’. One might surmise a useful warning would be: this post discusses rape. This post discusses child abuse. Not: this post discusses the debt ceiling. By all means, include in the synopsis that this is about the world’s continuing, depressing financial ruin, so if you’re bothered by that sort of thing or simply sick of hearing about it you can go elsewhere.

What really struck me though was a series of posts by one blogger, marked out as – amongst other things – containing a trigger warning for transhumanism. I frowned and wondered, does this person mean something other than what I mean by transhumanism? Is it meant ironically? I could imagine the debt ceiling warning being at least partially ironic, partially genuine – the idea that people’s lives may have been adversely affected by the economic situation is obviously not outlandish, even if the debt ceiling talks themselves don’t seem to represent anything more than petty politicking. Warning: this post may make you think about those ridiculous debt ceiling talks! Mildly amusing, but it seems to undermine the very idea of the trigger warnings. If they’re essentially nothing more than content tags – the very tags I use on my own posts, pointing out what contains ‘gaming’ and what contains ‘Japan’ or what contains ‘travel’ related content – then they aren’t ‘trigger warnings’ at all, and serve no valid purpose.

Yet we go back to transhumanism. Fascinated, I decided to investigate further, and gradually grew slack-jawed with disbelief. Essentially, in between presumably banal comments on the Republican Party (Teabaggers! That was witty for about ten seconds, wasn’t it?), someone has decided to share their fan fiction amateur science fiction. Nothing wrong with that in and of itself, incongruous though it is amongst posts about Michelle Bachmann’s presidential campaign (and even more incongruous, linked from the ‘Slacktivist collective’ that now seems largely aimed at social justice topics), but I was compelled to delve even further, back to the author’s posts on transhumanism itself – I was still wondering, after all, if one or the other of us was confused about transhumanism actually meant. Is there some other, potentially triggering meaning?

Short answer: no.

Longer answer: At least, not to this person, though their description of transhumanism is fascinating in its own right. Essentially, it’s telling that they explain their introduction to transhumanism was through the sourcebook for a role-playing game – that is, through fiction. It’s telling because my introduction was also through fiction, as transhumanism is a concept still largely confined to sci-fi (think the manga/anime Ghost in the Shell, Star Trek’s famous Borg, or the Deus Ex series of videogames amongst much, much more). Sure, there are plenty of philosophical discussions of the ideas involved in it, and modern technology takes us closer and closer to some of the transhumanist ideals or technologies that pop up in that kind of fiction, but these things aren’t pursued in the name of transhumanism – they’re pursued in the name of the philosophy of the mind, of biotechnology, of prosthetics, of artificial intelligence.

They pitch transhumanism as “... the belief that humanity can use technology to take control over nature.” I’d argue that that isn’t what transhumanism is at all, unless you want to modify it to ‘take control of their own nature’. Typically, I’d suggest it’s the desire – or the philosophical standpoint that this desire is a good thing – for that old sci-fi trope: to become ‘more human than human’. It’s to use technology to live longer, or better, or to be capable of things that humans are not currently capable of. To draw on that most incorruptible of sources, Wikipedia describes it as “...an international intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally transforming the human condition by developing and making widely available technologies to eliminate aging and to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities.”

Yeah. That, more or less.

My exposure to the fictional side of transhumanism has largely been through near-future stuff, so I tend to err on the side of the more predictable or more immediately achievable. In reality, we’re already getting to a stage where prosthetics are as good-or-better than the real thing in limited case – see Oscar Pistorius, the double amputee runner, who has drawn significant controversy for his attempts to run in the able-bodied Olympics. Part of the problem is, or was, that not only do his carbon fibre legs give him a significant weight advantage, he was seen as not training as hard as athletes of a similar calibre – Martyn Rooney, a fellow runner, apparently ribbed him about being a “fat git”. Even before losing the weight he has done to be more competitive and potentially take part in the 2012 London Olympics, his legs were allowing him to be in the same league as an able-bodied runner. The question has become ‘What can he achieve when training even harder?’.

Smartphones can feature augmented reality, overlaying navigational data over the view through the phone’s camera. We use the internet, and especially reference sites like Wikipedia, as external memory, eliminating the need to remember so many facts (one can make many arguments as to whether this is positive or negative, and whether or not it constitutes ‘knowledge’, and whether you still need to be educated enough to be put that knowledge to valid use, but the fact remains you are now able to simply click through and with a brief bit of research gets answers to any number of questions – and as the number of ever more specifics Wiki-type sites explodes, the questions you can answer, the knowledge you can outsource, become ever broader). Life spans in the developed world have increased considerably with better medicine, nutrition, and understanding of the human body (though, again, that’s not the full story considering problems with obesity, or situations like Japan’s famously long life spans decreasing as Western food becomes more popular and brings its attached problems).

Unlike the above cyberpunk staples, though, there’s a lot of transhumanist thinking that is confined very much to speculative fiction, no matter how much fringe research might currently be looking at it (or even just thinking about it, speculatively yet realistically). Questions like ‘When do we stop being human?’, a sci-fi favourite, start coming into play when you consider how much of the human body you could replace with prostheses, how far we could be changed biologically to live forever, whether we could exist as a consciousness inside a machine – these are interesting questions, and valid ones to ask if you’re serious about advocating that kind of research, but nevertheless are strictly questions about the future.

The blogger I’ve been writing about doesn’t seem to think so. They namedrop things like augmented reality (though discuss it as a cure for deafness, so I’m not sure if they’re thinking of the same thing everyone else is on that one) in the same breath as ‘uploading your mind to a computer’ and ‘nanites running amok’, as if all are equally likely or due to arrive at the same time.

I return to that blogger because it was through him that I discovered the conservative intellectual Francis Fukuyama, in Foreign Policy’s ‘The World’s Most Dangerous Ideas’ report, called transhumanism... well, called it one of the world’s most dangerous ideas [the article is buried behind an annoying log-in, but is free]. Both Fukuyama and the above blogger seem to be obsessed with the potential future, not the immediate benefits – though you could make an argument that it is important to think about that future, if you’re starting down the path towards it. Fukuyama raises some valid points, but closes with:

“The environmental movement has taught us humility and respect for the integrity of nonhuman nature. We need a similar humility concerning our human nature. If we do not develop it soon, we may unwittingly invite the transhumanists to deface humanity with their genetic bulldozers and psychotropic shopping malls.”

Basically, he’s only looking at biotechnology, for one thing (his 2002 book, Our Posthuman Future, is similarly revealing with its subtitle of ‘Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution’) and ignoring everything else about transhumanism, every other stream of research or thing it might be trying to achieve.

What really amuses me, though, is that both seem to be living in a sci-fi world already. It’s a common enough theme in anything that deals with transhumanism: you’ve got the people who are for it, and against it, and both seem to pursue their ideals with almost religious fervour.

Given my interest in transhumanism in fiction, I’ve often wondered if, in reality, such things as ‘better-than-human’ prosthetics or other advances became possible, would it spawn such an anti-transhumanist movement? Fukuyama’s comments suggest that yes, they might. I just hope that should the time come, transhumanism has better speakers on its side.

A glib aside: for someone who purports to be interested in social justice issues and describes themselves as strongly into "postgenderism", they spend a remarkable amount of time referring to intersex people as hermaphrodite and linking gender with sexuality, and conflating lower case deafness with the uppercase Deaf community. I almost feel bad for picking out these things, but if you're going to tag your work with a trigger warning for transhumanism, you're only drawing attention to the fact you have no idea what you're talking about.