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Transgressive technologies: Does a posthuman dystopia await us? Part One

By Mark Wegierski
web posted October 22, 2007

There are a number of highly transgressive technologies on the horizon of development today, which may prove to be the most fundamental challenges ever to the notion of a more stable human nature, and thereby, to what can seen to be "natural" to humankind. Such technologies can be a vehicle for the almost indefinite perpetuation of "the unnatural," never allowing today's societies to "catch their breath" and possibly return to earlier, sounder bearings. For example, in the book, Posthuman Bodies (edited by Judith Halberstam, Indiana University Press, 1995), a group of ultra-radical, postmodern writers and scholars, looks forward to the deconstruction of actual physical gender which could occur as a result of advancing technology. They talk of such things as men literally being able to bear children, as well as a "transgendered" existence across a "spectrum" of variants. A "posthuman" artistic movement depicts gross interpenetrations of machine and man. In one of his more recent books, Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2002) the uber-pundit Francis Fukuyama has profoundly warned of some of the social dangers of genetic engineering.

The Internet is a primary focus for technological advance today. It is difficult to see what the longer-term intellectual impact of the Internet might be. While on the one hand, it could encourage the flourishing of varied philosophical debate, it could just as easily encourage varied kinds of depravity. One wonders if it simply won't serve to perpetuate the current consumerist, materialist society.

Further in the future is the prospect of Virtual Reality (VR). The ultimate goal of today's massive, frenzied attempts to develop VR is often semi-jokingly said to be the prospect of virtual sex with pop-icon Marilyn Monroe. VR (perhaps similar to the so-called "holodeck" which appeared in Star Trek: The Next Generation) can be understood as highly addictive electronic stimulation. The incredible popularity of Nintendo and similar videogames, with what could be considered "primitive" technology -- relative to what awaits in the future -- is an obvious warning as to the spiritual disfigurement that could result. The Matrix movie series has darkly portrayed the combination of the ultimate extension of VR and Artificial Intelligence (AI), both now in embryonic form.

VR offers the idea of solipsistic self-creation where the notion of human nature and natural limits has been utterly abolished. The computer-generated images often purveyed in current-day sci-fi movies (and television programs, especially the new crop of "cyber" programs for children) are often grotesquely unnatural, transgressive, and rather horrific, especially if considered in relation to those sights regularly to be seen in the human and natural worlds. They strongly project a gnostic, pseudo-spiritual transcendence of the material world…

VR is obviously linked to the postmodern (or hypermodern) notions of radical autonomy, and of continual self-construction and reconstruction, unhampered by God, nature, or history. The notion of the radically disembodied self (divorced from family, history, religion, and indeed, human as well as physical nature) is inevitably amorphous. While elevating individualism above all else, the late modern self becomes a shallow, banal construct, filled with mass-media images and concepts, often of the lowest common denominator. So it could be argued that the individualism of late modernity actually leads to an atrophy of true individuality and character, and the submersion of most people in a series of very low, herd or mass-mentalities and pseudo-collectivities, and to a thoroughgoing revolt against what could be considered the natural.

The notion of VR is linked to the tendency of immersion and immersive media today. The electronic media is already tending to becoming a very powerful, autonomous realm. The massive merger of AOL and Time Warner – although it turned out to be rather financially disappointing -- pointed to the meld of form and content, driving towards one megamedium. It has been suggested that increasing "broadband" on the Internet, which will allow for continual audiovisual images, will actually "dumb it down" – in the direction of becoming "just another television." Indeed, the continuation of a "smarter" use of the Internet -- as opposed to various types of graphical amusements – will be a constant struggle for many people. Many people will indeed have to resist the media and society-wide tendencies to what amounts to turning their computer into another television. It could be argued that the information traffic most people are caught in today often results in a "postmodern blur" of existence and reality.

The media structures today are further strengthened by the vertical integration in pop-culture industries. Thus, videogames may produce films or books based on the game, films may produce electronic games based on the film, and so forth. This vertical integration is a factor strengthening "the gatekeepers" of the media industries, as it is always the same image (whether in film, electronic game, print, toy, or fashion media) that is being replicated. This replication of images places the so-called "border-dwellers" – those who try to introduce more idiosyncratic images, in a weaker position. "Border-dwellers" typically have to spread their message across various eclectic media. However, what one finds is that many persons simply replicate the main images of the media giants in somewhat less-well-crafted form.

To be continued next week.

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.

Other related essays:

  • Brave new world V2.0 by Steven Martinovich (April 22, 2002)
    Francis Fukuyama argues in Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the biotechnology revolution that biotechnology presents more pitfalls than promise for humanity






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