Selected by Foreign Policy magazine as one of the Top 100 Global Thinkers of 2009, Jamais Cascio is a futurist who writes about the environment, technology, and culture. Here he argues that yesterday's posthumanism is today's boring quotidian.
We will never be posthuman, because we have always been posthuman.
"Posthuman" is a term with more weight than meaning; it's used variously to describe people with altered genomes, people with implanted machinery, people with lifespans measured in millennia, and a whole host of descriptors that ultimately boil down to "not us, not now." Enthusiasts and critics alike embrace the term precisely because it advances the argument that the Augmented is the Other - and either an aspiration or a nightmare, as a result. It doesn't illuminate, it disturbs.
But as augmentations move from the pages of a science fiction story to the pages of a catalog, something interesting happens: they lose their power to disturb. They're no longer the advance forces of the techpocalypse, they're the latest manifestation of the fashionable, the ubiquitous, and the banal. They're normal. They're human.
Those of us of a certain age remember the birth of Louise Brown, in 1978, quite vividly. Ms. Brown was the first baby born through in-vitro fertilization, or IVF. Many of you reading this likely know someone who has used (or conceived via) IVF; some of you may be children of IVF yourselves, and are asking now "yeah, so what?" But in 1978, you wouldn't have been an IVF conception, you would have been a TEST TUBE BABY, and clearly the first in a line of "superbabies" just waiting to take over. I'm not exaggerating. Even James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA, was quoted as saying "All hell will break loose, politically and morally, all over the world." But hysteria quickly turned into boredom, and the disruptive became the commonplace.
What happened with Louise Brown and IVF will be replicated across the spectrum of technologies that we now celebrate or decry as leading to our posthuman future (the title, by the way, of conservative social critic Frank Fukuyama's book on how the technologies of human augmentation will lead to the collapse of society). Fear is replaced by familiarity. And unlike IVF, the spread of the Internet and easy communication will mean that most of us will have heard about these technologies as they develop. By the time they arrive, they'll already be boring.
And when these artifacts hit the real world, they will come complete with the myriad insufficiencies and difficulties of real technology. Again, look at IVF: as anyone who has used it can attest, it's not a perfect system. It's troublesome, and frustrating, and clumsy. If nobody still thinks of IVF as being the harbinger of transformation, it's not because it failed, but because it worked just like any other technology.
Posthumanity, from this perspective, will always be just over the horizon. Always in The Future. When the systems and augmentations we now consider to be posthuman hit the real world, they will have become simply human in scale.
That's because augmentation - the development of systems and technologies to allow us to do and to be more than what our natural biology would allow - is intrinsic to what it means to be human. Thrown weapons expanded the range of our strength; control of fire allowed us to see in the dark; written words expanded the duration of our memories. If these all sound utterly primitive and unworthy of comment, try to imagine what it would have been like to be without them - and to find yourself competing against others equipped with them. The last hundred thousand years has been the slow history of the process of augmentation.
It's faster now, and more visible, and, yes, more powerful in its results. But it's very human. When we read the other entries in the Posthuman Week series we see disruption, but that's an artifact of perspective. "Posthuman" technologies are disruptive and frightening (or tempting) precisely because they're not here, and remain off in the distance. They're alien and inhuman technologies. But as they become more plausible, as they become more real, they will lose that luster.
For the people living in a future surrounded by altered genomes, implanted machinery, and vastly extended lifespans, it will all be boringly normal. Unworthy of comment. And very, very human.
Find out more about Cascio at his blog Open The Future.