Transhumanism, Post-Humans, and Human Nature: Cyberpunk as a Social and Mental Laboratory (Part 1)

The previous two articles I have published on this blog concern how sci fi pushes the limits of our imaginations with big ships, interstellar flight, and takes us to the end of the universe. While this is a very broad and rich area of science fiction to cover, there is an equally rich vein of content which concerns itself with the inner world and social analysis here on earth. It would be a failing on my part if I simply stuck to space opera when there is so much other material to cover. And so, we turn to Cyberpunk, that child of the 1980s focused on the big, sprawling city-scapes of the near future, filled with corrupt corporations, dirty cops, and cybernetic antiheroes. Think Blade Runner and you’ll be on the right track.

Over the course of three posts we will look at how this sub-genre can act as a test chamber for different ideas of what it means to be human, and just how far our technology can take us before we lose that humanity. Or whether it’s even worth preserving.

Being a post-human, cybernetically augmented badass is hard work.

Part 1: Deus Ex Machina – Technology and the Laboratory of the Mind

Because we all possess certain broad “natural fictions” and set ways of thinking about issues – “frames” and “schema” – which set the parameters for how we react to new situations and process new data, it is entirely possible for us to believe things which aren’t true. Indeed, all of us do so to a greater or lesser extent: we employ fictional constructs to help us think about new things, whether we recognise them as fiction or not.

In, Beyond the Frame: Cognitive Science, Common Sense, and Fiction, the psychologist Marishka Grishakova develops these well-established psychological ideas to construct a continuum between reality and literary fiction, arguing for a blurring of the dividing line we place between literary fiction and reality. For her they are contiguous, as literature by and large uses the same schema and frames employed by its readers, and tends to reinforce them. Using this framework can help us see how science fiction functions as a critical excercise as well as a damn good yarn.

One of the distinguishing features of speculative fiction is that it often introduces frames completely foreign to the reader, forcing them to confront the new and the strange, to consider new possibilities. Beyond the Frame makes a convincing case for fiction as a social tool for creating and testing new frames and ideological constructs: ‘Fiction may be considered as an experimental cognitive laboratory, where updating of the mind’s “software” occurs and finds a hypothetical resolution.’

Cyberpunk is perfectly placed to illustrate this argument for fiction as this laboratory. Usually set in the near future, the noire, technologically-driven narratives and universes built within the boundaries of the sub-genre are fertile ground for consideration of our own, neighbouring reality. Because cyberpunk tends to use themes drawn straight from our own world (corporate and government corruption, greed, the darker side of society, technology as both blessing and curse), which we see every day, it can more easily take the familiar stuff of everyday life and make it into something altogether alien. This blending of the familiar and the strange serves as a powerful test lab for how we think about issues such as our relationship with the tools that help us survive, and the way in which our experiences in the world change us as individuals and a society.

Technology and its impact on our essential nature is a central preoccupation of cyberpunk science fiction. From Ghost in the Shell to Neuromancer (more on those later), the question of how augmenting yourself beyond your natural capabilities through cybernetics or nanotechnology affects your ability to think and feel human animates the genre and pushes it to some extremely dark places. Indeed, the recent game Deus Ex: Human Revolution (DX:HR) takes the question one step further and actively puts it to the player. You get to choose whether we become one with our machines (effectively ceasing to be human as we now know it), or whether we preserve our species as is and reject technological enhancement.

The interactive nature of the medium allows the player to participate in the experiment as it is progressing, to drive the action in the story as well as experience it. While there is a set narrative arc to DX:HR, the final choice allows the player to decide which conclusion they have reached from the available evidence.

The world’s reactions to the central character, Adam Jensen, augmented without consent to save his life after a terrorist attack, also change depending on how you play and which augmentations you decide to pursue. If you refrain from killing entirely, or only kill as little as possible, then you tend to get more positive reactions to your presence in the world; if every mission is a bloodbath, then the other characters react negatively and comment more on your lack of humanity. The final choice between technological singularity and base human nature is actually less important to how the game acts as a conceptual laboratory than the hundreds of choices (whether to spare your enemies or kill them, or how you talk to the other characters about your augmentations, for instance) made throughout its course.

In DX:HR, the player gets to decide how far they wish to depart from their humanity and become something else. They are also presented with numerous examples, major and minor, of the ways in which this can turn out. Just as in the real world, there is a tapestry of competing ideas and arguments on either side, and the player must navigate their way through them to arrive at their own conclusion. As such, it provides a very good example of how we can think about this kind of problem. It helps us see the road we may travel, albeit a fictional and somewhat exaggerated version.

At what point along this road do we cease to be human, and does that even matter? It is a troubling question to consider, especially in light of our increasing use of wearable technologies such as Google Glass, and the development of ever better artificial limbs. While I don’t believe we will end up amputating our hands simply to play the piano better, it is still necessary to consider the possibilities for our own future the development and further integration of technology into our lives implies.

In the next two posts I shall look at this issue, and others, in more detail through a closer examination of how different cyberpunk works of fiction deal with them. Feel free to come along for the ride.

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