Are you ready for our post-human future?
Across the last few years, a once niche idea has been pushed into the mainstream by a diverse group of futurists, technology thinkers and Big Tech corporations. Humanity, we’re told, is about to upgrade itself. Proponents of this idea say that in the 21st-century people will use emerging technologies — think A.I, gene editing and brain implants among others — to enhance human capabilities to the point where we become definitely something else.
Goodbye human beings; hello post-human superbeings. Human history will end, and some new and as yet unknown historical process will begin.
It’s a seductive idea. But the post-human future is a myth. What’s more, it’s one that serves the interests — and egos — of the powerful rising techno-elite centred around Silicon Valley. New technologies will usher in profound changes during the coming century. If we are to see those changes with clarity, and ensure they are compatible with a world worth living in, then the post-human 21st-century is a myth we need to explode.
Like many compelling ideas, the post-human future has a part of its foundation in important truths.
It’s true that we’re seeing the emergence of powerful technologies that are set to allow us new ways to upgrade human bodies and minds.
The world watched in amazement and horror last year when Chinese scientist He Jiankui announced that he’d created the world’s first gene-edited babies using CRISPR technology. Now that genie is out of the bottle, it will be impossible fully to put it back. However much we dislike the idea, it’s probable that far-reaching genetic enhancement is part of the human future.
Meanwhile, estimates suggest that one in five university students in the UK have used the so-called smart drug Modafinil. When it comes to cognitive enhancement, that’s just the beginning. Get ready for a world in which brain implants allow us to create an internet of brains, and where human intelligence can be directly augmented by A.I.
Yes, a new age of human upgrades is coming. But will this lead us to a post-human future? To answer that question it’s necessary to pause for a moment on a prior question: what do we mean by human? What defines the human predicament and its expression through history?
Throughout our history, we humans have been driven by an underlying, evolved human nature. Once the most basic human needs are met — food, shelter, safety — higher-order needs prevail: think the universal impulses towards social connection, status and prestige, power, and meaning. We see those impulses at work in every human society, in every place and time, ever.
We also see that universal human nature staring back at us when we look at the history of technology. Indeed, one powerful way of telling the human story is as a story of emerging technologies unlocking new ways to serve those age-old human needs.
In recent years we’ve seen that story continue to unfold. The last decade has put previously unthinkable technological power in the pocket of billions of people. And they’ve used that tech to serve their higher-order needs — connection, status, prestige, power — in all kinds of new ways. What is Instagram, if not an endlessly scrollable record of the human impulse towards status display?
It’s the quest to fulfil those higher-order needs that defines so much of the human condition — especially as lived inside modernity. The quest to answer questions such as how can I be happy? Am I loved? Am I creative? Am I everything I can be?
Here’s the crucial point. Yes, the technologies emerging around us now — A.I, VR, genetic tech and more — will allow those quests to find new expression in the years ahead. But nothing about them suggests they will alter the fundamental human condition of an endless striving for those needs to be met. It’s possible to imagine technologies that change our fundamental nature so radically that the universal human quests for status, connection and meaning no longer apply. But nothing about the technologies emerging now — tech that can make us smarter, stronger, more creative, more connected — suggests that this is what will happen.
Indeed, it’s far more likely that the 21st-century will see not the end of the human story, but an overwhelming amplification of it. An amplification, that is, of the all too human pursuit of connection, status and meaning, as billions around the world leverage new technologies in a status-fueled race to upgrade themselves and their children, and new virtual worlds allow inhabitants to pursue a multiplicity of new kinds of spiritual meaning.
What’s more, while the technologies currently emerging around us will fuel the pursuit of human needs in new ways, they cannot resolve the ultimate question we face as human beings. That is, questions of how to live. Questions about the tension between competing and equally legitimate ultimate values. Should our society prioritize the individual, or the collective? Should we aim to be maximally free, or maximally safe? There is no final answer to these questions and others like them. Instead, each generation must remake its vision of the Good Life over again.
That conflict over competing versions of the Good Life is at the heart of what it means to live in human societies. And as new technologies fuel the creation of societies and lifestyles that look very different from any seen before, that conflict will not disappear: it will intensify.
The technologies now emerging are powerful. But they can’t rescue us from the messy, complicated, conflict-ridden business of human existence. They can’t liberate us from human history.
It’s no accident that the post-human myth has found such traction in recent years.
It’s most popular recent proponent is the megastar futurist philosopher Yuval Noah Harari. Harari achieved fame, as you almost certainly know, with his 2014 debut Sapiens, an exhilarating tour of human history. In the sequel, Homo Deus, he makes a characteristic argument for the post-human idea. New technologies, he says, are about to grant humans the ability to upgrade themselves into gods. The age of homo sapiens is coming to a close; prepare for the beginning of something entirely new.
Professor Harari’s bold synthesis of our shared past and future is so engaging, so insightful, and has proven so popular that it seems almost peevish to point out that it is also flawed.
In Homo Deus, Harari first rightly argues that emerging technologies and new scientific discoveries are undermining the foundations of Enlightenment humanism. Yet with his next step he proves unable to escape one of the defining tropes of the kind of Enlightenment humanist thinking. That is, the deeply ingrained tendency to view human history in teleological terms: as a matter of collective progress towards a definitive end point.
Why is this tendency of thought so characteristic of our culture? Because early Enlightenment humanists inherited it from Christian theology. By arguing for the equality of all humans under God, Christianity was the first major system of thought to view humans as a collective agent — a ‘humanity’ — moving through history. Furthermore, it coupled that with the idea that humanity was moving towards a definitive end point; a Day of Judgement that would see history as we know it come to an end.
The early Enlightenment humanists sought to throw over Christian theology and replace it with a system of thought built on reason and science. But they were unable to free themselves entirely from its teleological vision of human history. The idea of a end-point, salvation moment for humankind fuelled all the great Enlightenment ideologies that followed. For Communists, that end point was a post-capitalist utopia that would finally resolve the class struggle that they believed was the true engine of history. For twentieth century free-market liberals, the End of History had arrived with the final triumph of liberal democracy.
Now we’re being spun the End of History again. This time, though, our salvation moment is to be delivered not by a political system but by a nascent techno-elite centred around Silicon Valley. At the heart of the tech-utopianism that predominates in the Valley is the idea that the new technologies emerging there can usher humanity towards a definitive break-point in our history. A salvation moment. A Singularity.
In a recent, long New York Times profile and interview entitled ‘Tech C.E.O.s Are in Love with Their Principal Doomsayer’, Harari is troubled throughout by one thought. That is: why have the Silicon Valley elite embraced his message so enthusiastically, when much of what he wants to do is warn them that a post-human future may turn out to be a ‘dystopian hellscape’?
I think I can help. The Silicon Valley elite have embraced Harari because he feeds their master narrative. One in which they are hand-crafting the End of History. The Silicon Valley elite have embraced Harari because he facilitates their Christ Complex.
The fact that Harari is (rightly) trying to warn them that the journey towards their salvation moment is fraught with danger gets lost, for them, amid the broader picture that is their own transformative impact on our collective destiny. We’re the Masters of the Universe! We can worry about the details later.
Much in Harari’s warning to the elites of Silicon Valley is insightful, and true.
But in choosing to couch his synthesis in the language of post-humanism, he is trapping himself in one of the key tropes of the kind of Enlightenment humanist thinking that he says we must escape.
The idea that the technologies emerging around us now are ushering humanity towards a post-human future falls apart on close inspection.
Indeed, as the British philosopher John Gray has pointed out , the very idea of a collective ‘humanity’ is one founded in Christian-Enlightenment thinking — and one that doesn’t bear close scrutiny. In reality there is no ‘humanity’ taking strides towards a collective destiny. There is simply billions of examples of the actually-existing and diverse human animal, all striving in their own ways for connection, status, higher meaning and more.
In the 21st-century, our fundamental nature will collide with powerful emerging technologies that unlock new ways to serve those needs — new ways to find love, to achieve happiness, to be marked out as creative, smart, strong, special. No one should underestimate the profound changes that will result. The new world we’re about to enter will be a hall of mirrors in which we see ourselves reflected back in strange, exciting and fantastical ways. It will also pose new threats to many of the values and institutions we currently cherish.
But in the end it will be a mighty amplification of the defining human quest for meaning, and the defining human conflict over equally valid yet seemingly incompatible value systems. The gene-edited, intelligence-augmented and neuro-connected superbeings that Harari imagines in Homo Deus will not escape from the fundamental human predicament. Instead, they will give expression to it at an intensity we’ve never seen before.
Our task in the decades ahead is to see these profound changes clearly, for what they are. And then to take action that ensures they don’t lead us to a wasteland of human potential, but instead promote human flourishing.
That starts with acceptance of a simple truth. The technologies emerging around us now will change our lives profoundly, but they will not lead us into a post-human future. Instead, the century ahead of us will prove all too human.
Another world is possible…
This new weekly column, Another World, will examine our shared future in the 21st-century.
We inhabitants of the early years of this century find ourselves in a strange place. We know that in so many ways radical change is needed. At the same time it can feel impossible to imagine things being any different. This column is motivated by a single idea: that another world is possible if we can summon the ingenuity needed to see it, and the fortitude needed to make it real.
David Mattin is Global Head of Trends & Insights at TrendWatching. He sits on the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Consumption.