Posted: Tue, January 15, 2013 | By: Boris Karpa
Dear Mr. Bailey!
I would like to start off by saying that I love your articles over at Reason magazine. A robust defense of techno-optimism is always urgently needed in our would, where we are beset on various ends by bioethicsts, environmentalists, and even radical feminists. And indeed there are many good causes to support techno-optimism. New technological developments are made every day in robotics, medicine, and so forth.
However, frankly, what concerns me is the very real threat that they’re not going to let us have any of it.
My first techno-optimist influence was the R. Talsorian ‘Cyberpunk 2020’ pen and paper roleplaying game. As a young kid, I was a bit too silly to understand many of its social and cultural themes. What struck me about Cyberpunk 2020 is that it had a future in which people just *bought* themselves steely arms, and better eyes, and even better brains. Yet, of course, they’re not going to let us have that tech future.
History is full of examples where magnificient technologies were either completely sidelined, or delayed by decades by the action of various Luddites. This was the case of the first coal-powered automobiles, the shipping container, and even the use of anaesthethics during child births - there were scumbags who believed women should give birth in pain because that’s what the Bible says.
We are facing a like future in the world of human enhancement.
Humans are happy, by and large, with surgery that makes people healthy - that is, restores them to a socially agreed-upon norm. The inventors of artificial hearts and vaccines are justly seen as heroes. Augmentations - going beyond the norm - are a far bigger problem.
Almost every single human invention so far in this field is a tradeoff. Plastic surgery makes us prettier, but carries health risks, and some body parts become less sensitive when augmented. Prosthethics - like the ones Oscar Pistorius wore in the Olympics - make it easier to perform some tasks, and harder to do others. Sex reassignment surgery is extremely difficult and usually only imitates a small range of the target gender’s functions - M2F transitioners cannot give birth, for instance.
If we could somehow invent a bionic arm which could be better than the human arm in every way, while skipping all the stages in between, this would not be a problem. But this of course imposible. If a bionic arm were invented tomorrow, it would probably be somewhat less sensitive than a regular human arm. From a health perspective, I would clearly become less ‘healthy’ were I to go in for a replacement. Which is why *this will be illegal*.This is not a chance threat - observe even now the frenzied opposition to plastic surgery in the usual quarters. Our society, which tightly regulates every medical operation, will not likely allows to ‘harm’ ourselves with implants (even if an implant is beneficial in some ways). We already have examples of this - observe the obstacles that the British transhumanist, Lepht Anonym, faced when she wanted to augment herself with neodymium magnet implants.
The doctors are of course sworn to ‘do no harm’ - but in modern society, the concept of ‘harm’ is untethered from an individual’s personal balance of costs and benefits. Who are we to decide that we are willing to accept health risks or even health damage in favor of being stronger or smarter? Our betters clearly are so much wiser!
Mr. Bailey, the progress of science is not an inevitable, all-conquering march. It is constrained - especially in today’s society - by regulators and grant-issuers. No corporation will invest millions in research that the FDA won’t approve, no university will commence experiments that the ethics regulators won’t greenlight. And more generally - throughout history, the progress of science is constrained and directed by social and cultural influences. Thus has it always been.
Mr. Bailey, you have been in this field for years. You are a professional in this field.
What do we do, Mr. Bailey?