A little while back, Warren Ellis wrote an appropriately sharp post describing the Technological Singularity as “the last trench of the religious impulse in the technocratic community.” The post is worth reading for its own sake, but it’s also fun to read the hilariously pissy trackbacks from members of the singularitarian community. Belief in the singularity, part of the belief system called extropianism and/or transhumanism, is a strange thing; it’s probably best to understand it as one of America’s quaint 19th century excentricities, like libertarianism or private health care.
It’s funny, though, that these advocates of our glorious extropian future don’t seem to realize how historically specific is the idea of the “human” that they’re so keen to transcend. As Foucault puts it in The Order of Things:
It is comforting, however, and a source of profound relief to think that man is only a recent invention, a figure not yet two centuries old, a new wrinkle in our knowledge, and that he will disappear again as soon as that knowledge has discovered a new form (xxiii).
The transhumanist idea that at some point in the future technology will lead to a radical alteration of what it means to be human assumes that there is something fixed about “what it means to be human” in the first place. But it seems to me that, if there is a defining characteristic of human beings, it’s our lack of a defining characteristic: “man is what he is not, and is not what he is,” as Sartre says. To put it another way, the technological event that changed the meaning of being human is the invention of technology itself; our bold futurists aren’t just 19th century throwbacks: they’re a couple of million years behind the times.
The other 19th century ideology underlying transhumanism, of course, is the idea of progress, the idea that the present will have its meaning given to it by something existing in the future; “the desire to be saved by something that isn’t there (or even the desire to be destroyed by something that isn’t there) and throws off no evidence of its ever intending to exist,” as Ellis puts it. Though he doesn’t mention it in the post, this aspect of the Singularity ties in with Ellis’s new comic series. Doktor Sleepless is about the future or, rather, the absence of the future. The story is complicated, and the motivation and character of the “cartoon mad scientist,” Doktor Sleepless remain opaque. One theme, though is disappoint at the failure of the future to materialize: “where’s my jetpack?” But I wonder if the Doktor’s nurse (in the panels at the top of the post) doesn’t have it right. If the future was always a trick, “pie in the sky when you die,” shouldn’t we start thinking about the absence of the future as a liberation?
(This might tie in with discussions at Nate’s about an obsession with “newness” in political theory, as well as Benjamin’s connection of futurity with social democratic reformism. And, I recommend reading Doktor Sleepless while listening to Benga’s “Zombie Jig”).