Caprica, Enders Game, and transhumanism

I just watched the pilot for Caprica, and I must say I am impressed. Without getting too deep into spoiler-land, it tells the tale of the first Cylons, and continues to explore a subject dear to my heart: transhumanism.

One of the overarching and, in my opinion, best features of the new Battlestar Galactica franchise is the exploration of an interesting academic philosophical question: What is human? In Galactica, the Cylons start out in a role we are familiar with. Basically, they are the Terminator. Mindless, soulless machines hell-bent on genocide and domination. This is easy for us to understand- in the excellent terminology of the Hierarchy of Exclusion from the Enders Game series, they are varelse, or creatures with whom we can share no common ground or communication. The pejorative term “toaster” is used to illustrate this, conveying both a lack of communication and an assumed superiority.

As the series progresses we begin to see the meat-Cylons, robots who have emulated humans to a great degree. We start to learn of their religion, which is interesting because it is basically Christianity. This familiar concept, in contrast to the archaic Greco-Roman mythos of the humans, brings a deeper understanding to the viewer. At this point they become ramen, strangers we can communicate with, with whom we could conceivably make peace with.

Further in, as some of them betray the Cylons in favor of the humans, we begin to see these individuals as framlings, still undeniably alien in culture but similar enough in species and manner. The equivalent would be a foreigner living in your land while your respective countries are at war.

Finally we begin to see interbreeding and marriage between them. They become, to an extent, utlanning, much like a medieval queen from a foreign land who marries a king and bears the crown prince. It’s a natural evolution of thinking- part of a ritual of acceptance in human culture. Ultimately as the events of Caprica unfold we see that the “strange” Cylon religion is actually human in origin, as is the consciousness driving the Cylons. This, I think, will bring us to see that perhaps the Cylons are not some new species, but rather an evolution of our own.

What is most fascinating about this to me is that this interesting philosophical question will cease to be academic within most of our lifetimes. Machines will grow to the point where their intellect will become first indistinguishable and later undeniably better than that of a “real” human. The internet of today will seem as archaic and limited as the telegraph does to us. At the same time, humans will re-engineer themselves through science, becoming harder, better, faster and stronger. We are already doing this, and have been doing so for some time. Consider that I cannot run 70 MPH or shout loud enough to be heard a hundred miles away, yet I drove home at that speed and called my friend on the cell phone while I did so. Our tools increasingly become ubiquitous in our lives- the cell phone, the internet, even far older technologies such as writing. Not integrating the technology of a culture into yourself makes you instantly outcast.

The natural and logical progression of this trait of humans is to physically integrate technology. This, too, is an area we are not strangers to. Pacemakers regulate hearts. Lasers correct vision. Cochineal implants interface directly with the brain to restore hearing. You’d not consider any of the recipients of these integrated technologies varelse, any more than you would consider them as such for using a cell phone or Googling a pasta recipe. Yet suddenly when the idea becomes about increasing functionality, rather than restoring it, people have a severe negative emotional response. Why is this? Is it pity for the disabled that enables us to think of them as human? Is it a sense of superiority preventing us from embracing anything that would make one person better than another? Why is a laser vision correction more acceptable than an always on augmented reality HUD? Is a wheelchair all that different from a bicycle?

The other day I got to explain some of these concepts to my 7 year old. At first he had the response I expected- “Daddy, I wouldn’t want to be in a computer!” When I started to explain what that could mean he warmed to the idea. Thinking faster sounded good to him. So did flying and never getting sick. When I told him games could be just like real life he was sold. At the end of the 45 minute car ride he was holding a nice conversation on nanotechnology(aka “little tiny robots”) during which he came to his own applications, notably using them to brush your teeth. Imagine a life without dental chairs!

This is the generation that will drive the changes we develop into their everyday lives. Like a teenage girl texting 100 WPM (ask my buddy that got a $400 SMS overage charge :-/), the things we invent and learn how to use will already be ubiquitous for our children. They will have grown up with the seeds of ideas like Battlestar Galactica as a part of their forming consciousness. They will be free of our socially programmed emotional biases. They will know people that have already started to transcend biology and make the jump to the technological phase of human evolution, and best of all- they will call those people framling.

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