In his defense of the canon of English literature published in Harper’s (March 2014), Arthur Krystal wrote that traditionalists argue “its contents were an expression of the human condition: the joy of love, the pain of duty, the horror of war, and the recognition of the self and soul.” I would add to these the exhilaration of understanding, the transcendence of beauty, the bitterness of injustice, and the foreknowledge of death. Ranking or ordering elements of the human condition is a fool’s errand, but I contend that none possesses the power to transfix and motivate as much as knowing that one day, each of us must die.

Thus, we develop narratives of a supposed afterlife, in effect to achieve immortality. The most typical are religious dogma regarding eternity spent in heaven, hell, purgatory, or limbo. Another way to cheat death, or more simply, to be remembered, is passing one’s genes to another generation through procreation and achieving a small measure of proxy immortality. Other examples include acquiring fame and wealth to make a mark on history, such as having one’s name on buildings (like the $100 million presidential library and museum being discussed for siting in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood honoring Barack Obama), or having one name inscribed in one of many sports record books, or being preserved on celluloid (which is now increasingly archaic, since everything is going digital). For creative arts, the earliest works of literature to have achieved immortality, meaning that they are still widely known, read, and performed today, are the plays of William Shakespeare. For musicians, it would probably be J.S. Bach. I discount the works of the ancient Greeks or those of the Middle Ages throughout the rest of Europe because, despite passing familiarity with their names, their legacies lie buried deep below the surface and are penetrated only by scholars.

And therein lies the rub: for posterity to supply meaning to an earthly afterlife by proxy, culture must retain historical continuity or at least some living memory. Yet wide swathes of history have been rendered both mute and moot, as Shelley makes clear in his sonnet Ozymandias, with its memorable interdiction, “Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair!” Who among us can claim to know much if anything about ancient Egyptian or Chinese dynasties, or indeed any of the other major civilizations now collapsed? Our own civilization, grown like a behemoth to the size of the globe, now faces its own collapse for a host of reasons. Even worse, civilizational collapse, ecological collapse, and depopulation present the very real possibility of near-term human extinction (NTE). All the assiduous work to assure one’s place in history won’t amount to much if history leaves us behind.

If we don’t in fact possess an immortal soul that persists after death in some form, how else can we cheat death? Transhumanism offers hope to some, which is defined by Wikipedia as “an international cultural and intellectual movement with an eventual goal of fundamentally transforming the human condition by developing and making widely available technologies to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities.” It’s essentially better living through technology, with the hidden goal of merging with and becoming that technology. The most recent popular exploration of this future is the movie Transcendence, which features Johnny Depp giving what looks like a TedTalk to explain how it will soon be possible to upload one’s consciousness or mind into a computer network and live forever, as though that were either inevitable or desirable. Transhumanism is even evolving cool new logos and abbreviations as part of its branding and marketing schemes, such as h+ Magazine, a web-based quarterly publication.

Using technology to enhance human wellbeing (of the material sort) through prosthetics and body alteration is nothing new, but the degree of Borgification sought by the most forwarding-thinking transhumanists is breathtaking. Consider these book titles by prominent futurists, each having a subtitle in case the main title isn’t sufficient:

Citizen Cyborg: Why Democratic Societies Must Respond to the Redesigned Human of the Future by James Hughes
More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement by Ramez Naam
Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies — and What It Means to Be Human by Joel Garreau
Designer Evolution: A Transhumanist Manifesto by Simon Young
Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution by Francis Fukuyama
The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology by Ray Kurzweil
Redesigning Humans: Choosing Our Genes, Changing Our Future by Gregory Stock.
Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era by James Barrat

We have been inching toward this future for a long time already, which has become a well-developed narrative of life after death falling under the collective term posthumanism. In the Communications Era, we find numerous theorists preparing for the transition from humanity into being something else. I find such breathless pronouncements have more in common with destruction of the mind, self, and soul than merely reconfiguring them on the way to transfiguring them. Judith S. Donath makes an unwittingly prescient remark to this effect in her article “We Need Online Alter Egos Now More Than Ever” in Wired (April 25, 2014):

In physical environments, the body anchors identity; online, one’s history of contributions and interactions functions as one’s “body”, but it can be difficult to see.

I have argued in the past that we are charging ahead to a bizarre life of the mind (typically within a virtual reality) and discounting or ignoring bodily sensation. The transhumanist project of total technological engagement supports that trajectory. Another exploration of the obliterated self, offered as part of a lengthy apology for the surveillance state, is found in an article by Kevin Kelly (one of the cofounders of Wired) entitled “Why You Should Embrace Surveillance, Not Fight It” in Wired (March 10, 2014):

There would be no modernity without a triumphant self. So while a world of total surveillance seems inevitable, we don’t know if such a mode will nurture a strong sense of self, which is the engine of innovation and creativity — and thus all future progress. How would an individual maintain the boundaries of self when their every thought, utterance, and action is captured, archived, analyzed, and eventually anticipated by others?

The self forged by previous centuries will no longer suffice. We are now remaking the self with technology. We’ve broadened our circle of empathy, from clan to race, race to species, and soon beyond that. We’ve extended our bodies and minds with tools and hardware. We are now expanding our self by inhabiting virtual spaces, linking up to billions of other minds, and trillions of other mechanical intelligences. We are wider than we were, and as we offload our memories to infinite machines, deeper in some ways.

Amplified coveillance will shift society to become even more social; more importantly it will change how we define ourselves as humans.

An even more adventurous and confounding redefinition of the self is found in Me Meme by Rob Horning, a presentation given at the Theorizing the Web 2014 Conference in Brooklyn, NY (April 26, 2014), published in The New Inquiry:

Postauthenticity rejects specific consumerist signifiers of the self … in favor of the “engagement” metrics that track content, which become the newly reliable basis for the self. With the self grounded in metrics rather than specifics, one positions oneself in the social-media environment less as a personal brand than as a meme. One adopts a “viral self,” anchored in continual demonstrations of its reach, based on ingenious appropriation and aggregation of existing content, not in its fidelity to a static inner truth or set of tastes. It is defined by its ability to circulate, not by the content of what it circulates.

Sources chosen from within the few months show how actively, even rabidly, the transhumanist narrative is being developed. (Here I must acknowledge that Text Patterns and Rough Type, two of the blogs on my blogroll, each had posts about these articles, which is how I became aware of them. Those bloggers had quite different things to say about the linked articles.) Quoting from Wired is an obvious choice, considering how unabashedly techno-utopian its outlook is, but if you traffic in ideas as I do, you hardly need to wait to stumble across material that forms this dominant but distorted view of our future.

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