[Paleopsych] NYT Mag: Beyond Human

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Beyond Human
New York Times Magazine, 5.10.23

    The Way We Live Now

    Many of the fans milling into this year's postseason baseball games
    have been wearing authentic major league uniforms, with GUERRERO, say,
    or OSWALT, stitched on the back. True, society has traditionally
    encouraged kids to fantasize about what they'll be as adults. But most
    of the people I've seen in $200 regulation shirts are adults. What
    they're fantasizing about is an alternative adult identity for

    Why do they do this? The literary critic Paul Fussell once speculated
    that wearers of "legible clothing" like T-shirts were merely losers
    trying to associate themselves with a success, whether it be a product
    (Valvoline) or an institution (The New York Review of Books). A
    conservative view held that dressing like a child meant shirking the
    responsibilities of adulthood. It was a subset of dressing like a
    slob. But these explanations do not cover the ballpark people or (to
    take a similar phenomenon) those weekend bicyclists in their expensive
    pretend-racer costumes, with European team logos and company
    trademarks. The message in their clothing is aimed not at others but
    at themselves. It is a do-it-yourself virtual reality.

    Abandoning your own world for a made-up one is an ever larger part of
    adult life. For the futurist Ray Kurzweil, this is only the beginning.
    According to his new book "The Singularity Is Near," we are
    approaching the age of "full-immersion virtual-reality." Thanks to
    innovations in genetics, nanotechnology and robotics, you'll be able
    to design your own mental habitat. You'll be able to sleep with your
    favorite movie star - in your head. (It is not lost on Kurzweil that
    you can already do that, but he insists it will be really, really
    realistic.) Those same technologies will help us "overcome our genetic
    heritage," live longer and become smarter. We'll learn how brains
    operate and devise computers that function like them. Then the barrier
    between our minds and our computers will disappear. The part of our
    memory that is literally downloaded will grow until "the nonbiological
    portion of our intelligence will predominate."

    But this raises questions: What will then be the point of unenhanced
    human beings? And what will become of our relations to one another? A
    willingness to run head-on at these moral-technological issues has
    made the French novelist Michel Houellebecq one of Europe's
    best-selling writers and arguably its most important. His "Elementary
    Particles" (2000), set in the year 2079, recounts the near-total
    extinction of ordinary human beings. His new novel, "The Possibility
    of an Island," due out in the United States next spring, describes the
    triumph of a cult that believes man was created by nondivine
    extraterrestrials and sees genetic engineering as a path to

    The novel cuts between a sex-obsessed comedian, Daniel1, and two of
    his enhanced clones, Daniel24 and Daniel25. It would not surprise
    Houellebecq that Kurzweil, like other technological optimists, should
    use sex to sell his utopia. For Houellebecq, the important line the
    cult crosses is not a scientific but an anthropological one. By making
    credible promises of longevity and sex, it manages to elevate
    materialism (more specifically, consumerism) into a religion.
    Daniel1's girlfriend, the editor of a magazine called Lolita,
    explains, "What we're trying to create is an artificial humanity, a
    frivolous one, that will never again be capable of seriousness or
    humor, that will spend its life in an ever more desperate quest for
    fun and sex - a generation of absolute kids."

    But something gets left out of sex when it is idealized, marketed,
    venerated or souped up: other people. Regardless of whether your
    girlfriend can handle your sleeping (virtually) with Angelina Jolie,
    it is very likely you'll find the hard work of maintaining a
    relationship less rewarding when so many starlets beckon. Americans
    may be surprised that Houellebecq attributes the bon mot about
    masturbation being sex with someone you love not to Woody Allen but to
    either Keith Richards or Jacques Lacan. But whatever its source, the
    narrator Daniel25 views it as one of the more profound insights of our

    Human interactions of all kinds, especially those that involve caring
    for others, appear less and less worth the trouble. Houellebecq is
    fascinated by young couples who have pets instead of children, and by
    the French heat wave of 2003, which killed thousands of senior
    citizens who were forgotten by their vacationing children and
    abandoned by their vacationing doctors. Daniel1 mocks the newspaper
    headline "Scenes Unworthy of a Modern Country." In his view, those
    scenes were proof that France was a modern country. "Only an
    authentically modern country," he insists, "was capable of treating
    old people like outright garbage."

    If we treat our fellow humans this way, why should we expect
    posthumans to care for us any better? We shouldn't. In the novel, when
    an acolyte witnesses a murder that, if revealed, could derail the
    cult's DNA experiments, the chief geneticist orders her thrown from a
    cliff. He feels no shame, nor does the narrator see any reason why he
    should. "What he was trying to do," Daniel1 writes, "was to create a
    new species, and this species wouldn't have any more moral obligation
    toward humans than humans have toward lizards."

    In his recent book, "Radical Evolution," Joel Garreau suggests a
    "Shakespeare test" to determine whether Prozac or cloning or
    full-immersion virtual reality robs us of our humanity: would the user
    of these innovations be recognizable to Shakespeare? Houellebecq
    suggests that the answer is tipping toward No. "Nothing was left now,"
    Daniel25 notes, "of those literary and artistic works that humanity
    had been so proud of; the themes that gave rise to them had lost all
    relevance, their emotional power had evaporated."

    Many Westerners looking to the future think they're about to attain
    the prize of a fantasy-filled high-tech life that lasts until a ripe
    old age. Houellebecq warns that second prize may be a fantasy-filled
    high-tech life that lasts forever.

    Christopher Caldwell, a contributing writer, last wrote for the
    magazine about Turkey.

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