A Run for your [Techno]Self

A Run for your [Techno]Self

Alessandro Tomasi (Rhode Island College, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-2211-1.ch007
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This chapter introduces, using a race as an allegory, three competing conceptions of man, or three ideals, in its relationship to technology, namely a non-technological conception of man, a paradigmatic human cyborg, and the model of a man free from organic ties, typified by the android. These theories correspond not only to current trends in the philosophy of technology, but also to the possible paths our epochal technological geist can take at this juncture. The ideal of non-technological purity informs all modern versions of luddism. The hybrid model supports an attitude less concerned about technology’s negative effects and more open to a more or less inevitable meshing of man and machine. Finally, the android is taken to be the end-goal of much of the trans-humanist or post-humanist movement, supporting an attitude of an open and total embrace of anything technological. These ideas of the human-machine relationship are paradigmatically competing in a way that will determine our future sense of identity. The chapter neither indicates nor suggests the winner in this paradigmatic race, but proposes a list of qualities that this winner will have to possess.
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On July 13, 2007, Oscar Pistorius came in second in the 400 meter race at the Golden Gala of Rome. We, all of us, ran the risk of him winning.

Pistorius is known in Anglo-Saxon countries as “blade-runner.” He is a blade-runner because his legs are not made of flesh and bone, but of two carbon fiber Cheetah Flex-Foot limbs. On that day, he was running against normal athletes, whose legs were given to them by their mothers, not by an Icelandic bio-engineering firm. For Pistorius, running is no longer just a job or a passion, but has become a personal challenge. However, the nature of that challenge forces one to rethink the rules of the game, and, therefore, the game itself. In fact, Pistorius did well to not stop at the finish line of that race, but to continue it, challenging the established rules of the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations) to try and qualify for the Olympic Games (not for the Paralympic ones).

On that evening in Rome, when Pistorius demonstrated on the track that it was not an unobtainable dream, a debate began which centered, above all, on the possible, unfair advantage, which Pistorius might have with his prostheses. It is not fair, it has been argued, that Pistorius could run on legs which do not feel the pain of lactic acid build-up which normal legs experience. Those legs, it has been quibbled, are longer than necessary. In addition, it has been suggested, the Cheetah legs function like a spring which unnaturally lengthens his step. Pistorius was put under observation, was monitored, while running, with high-definition cameras, and made the object of highly scientific studies, and the debate, although diminished in volume, still continues. In reality, the IAAF simply did not have any rule that could be applied to this case, and it is this lack which suggests that Pistorius’ game is much bigger than it seems. In this other game, the IAAF, science, and technology, have very little to say.

The problem is that Pistorius’ case cannot be solved with an ad hoc rule. For the first time, an organic deficiency has become an occasion, a condition for an advantage (at least, some suspect that to be so). The lack of an archaic mythology which represents this event is a sign of its novelty for the consciousness of the human race. Dedalus, for example, did not cut off his arms to make his body more aerodynamic. In fact, the only expression of this condition we can find is in science fiction, or in the comic book representation of the superhero. Just imagine, and his second place in Rome gives us a very vivid picture, what would happen if he were allowed to participate in the Olympic games and he won. I can imagine the unleashing of a worldwide debate which would require the intervention of experts from all fields of human knowledge, and everyone, from sociologist to physician, from physicist to theologian, would give his or her opinion in the attempt to understand what is happening.

This multi-field debate would come about because, with Pistorius’ legs, it is the same conception of Man that is being put back in the race. The risk that we all run is that, finding the dominant idea challenged, it would have to change to meet the new conditions. On this day, I find the field leveled by a multitude of theoretical groundwork, the race scheduled and the public excited with expectations, but not everything is clear and distinct. The very idea of what is Man, after all, cannot be studied with films and experiments—we need a philosophical investigation.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Extropianism: Extropianism is a philosophical school that favors the use of enhancing technologies and of technological advancement, more in general. One of its motivating values is striving to improve the human condition, for example, by extending our life span indefinitely, which modern technology promises to achieve. Extropians, therefore, look favorably on any technology that promises a positive symbiotic relationship with humanity.

Luddism: Historically, luddism refers to the basic ideas held by the followers of Ned Ludd who opposed the use of textile machinery in early 19th century England. A modern luddite maintains a critical stance on any new technology and opposes any technological change that violates human nature and needs.

Singularity: Ray Kurzweil defines it as “a future period during which the pace of technological change will be so rapid, its impact so deep, that human life will be irreversibly transformed” (Kurzweil, 2005, p.7). This technological change tends towards the creation of beings with greater-than-human intelligence. The moment in which this transformation becomes irreversible is referred to as a “singularity event” after which world history will unfold according to the creative actions of these technology-based intelligences.

Android: An android is an automaton which resembles a human being. Synonyms include the terms “robot” and “synthetic organism.” Likeness to a human is thought to include both bodily features and mental faculties. As the term “android” refers to the male outward appearance of these robots, the term “gynoid” is used to refer to those with female features. Maybe, the most famous, if not the most advanced, android today, outside of science fiction is Asimo, built by Honda. Androids are distinguished from cyborgs as these latter are partly organic.

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