The organizers for the McMaster University Embodiment in SFF Conference graciously invited me to give a keynote at their event. I mean… Embodiment in Science Fiction! How perfect is that?
The address I gave is rather timely, so I’m sharing the full text here. Thank you to everyone for coming, and for hosting these important conversations as we forge ahead into the future.
We Are Made of Meat: Imagining An Embodied Future
I stand before you today…. having cheated death.
I cheat death every day. See, I’m one of those folks who has to work a little harder not do die every day.
Here’s my “one weird trick for not dying today.
My body no longer produces a hormone I need to stay alive.
This was a fairly shocking realization at the age of 26, when I thought I was invincible.
A hundred years ago, I would have died as soon as my body started attacking itself, vomiting and convulsing while my body tried to eat itself.
But today: every morning, noon, and night, I make the conscious choice to continue living. I shoot myself up with a synthetic hormone.
I keep on kicking.
This experience transformed how I think about my body, and mortality. It transformed how I think about society and civilization. I became much more intimately aware of the fact that I’m only alive every day because of the people who make this drug. The regulations that make it safe. The truck drivers and mail carriers who move it around the world. The doctors who prescribe it. The pharmacists who fill it.
I began to see how interconnected we all are in a way I had willfully ignored for much of my life. I believed in the American myth of the rugged individual. The single human being who goes forth into the wilderness and overcomes all odds to achieve greatness.
I could argue that until that terrifying moment at age 26, waking in the ICU, watching blood run down my arm as the doctor tried to get an IV in… that I didn’t truly appreciate what it is to be human. To be vulnerable. To be fragile, even. To be mortal.
And I’m sure it’s the same for many of us in this room, though perhaps not so noticeable. If you’ve ever taken antibiotics, had an appendix removed, or had to use an epi-pen, your life has been artificially extended.
Not so long ago, you wouldn’t be here.
In fact, our food system itself: our roads, our hospitals, our access to care, the introduction of sufficient hygiene and clean water, have all contributed to the extended lifespan of humanity.
And yet, access to the means to experience an extended life is a matter of luck. It’s about where you were born. How rich your parents are. How rich your grandparents were.
In a capitalist system, cheating death is big business. In the United States in particular –cheating death beyond antibiotics and vaccines is only for the very rich. Optimum health and longevity is a privilege for us, not a right.
My medication alone – even with health insurance – costs me $1500 every month. That’s more than my mortgage payment.
I tell you this so you know that I, certainly, would like nothing better than to see a future where I did not have to live with the gooey, terrifying reality of my complex body and the complex costs that come with maintaining it.
But I also know that it’s our fleshy, imperfect bodies that makes us human. It’s our fragility that has brought us together. And it’s our collaborative societies that have enabled us to proliferate and even thrive despite all the odds against it. It takes many people working together to build a bridge. To get to the moon. To map the depth of the stars.
I know we don’t all want to hear that.
We don’t like the idea that humanity is our bodies.
Instead, we want to believe we can continue to transcend the flesh. We aspire to a future that is cool. Smooth. Logical. Clean. A future of metal and gleaming white surfaces. Synthetic fibers. The smell of plastic and ozone.
Transhumanism is a social movement that seeks to use technology to radically transform the human experience. To create human beings who can live forever. No disease. No death.
To cheat the limitations of the human body, transhumanists posit that we could augment or even remove our bodies from the human experience all together.
Some go so far as to call transhumanism a “liberation” movement. A movement advocating for our total “emancipation” from biology, from evolution itself… at which point we would of course become beholden to the limitations of our own technology.
And technology comes with costs.
And software updates.
I find it a little absurd that some believe transforming us into smooth, cool machines will enable us to live forever when I don’t have a single working electronic device that has lasted longer than my sister’s pet Guinea pig.
If you spend too much time reading about transhumanism, it can start to sound like a religion. How else do you describe a movement seeking to turn a select few into beings of pure light?
Transhumanism has never sounded, to me, like a movement that was going to include everyone. Not as long as it’s fueled by fear of death and capitalism, certainly.
But this is only its first tragic flaw.
I would also argue that our rush to divest ourselves of our biological bodies is even more problematic than dooming us all to a never-ending blue screen of death.
Why? Because no one seems to be considering what the human brain is.
Our brains? Our minds? Consciousness itself…. These are not cold, hard, logical slabs of metal. Brains are mushy organic receptors that take stimuli from the world and decode them for our bodies, enabling us to make decisions.
And those brains are made of meat.
All that makes us human… is made of meat.
What are we, if we take away the meat?
Our brains are not objective logic machines. Objectivity was never their intended purpose. The brain’s purpose was to enable us to interpret the world with greater ease so that maybe we would die less quickly. We are all just collections of atoms bumping into other collections of atoms and trying to assess whether or not those atoms are good for us or bad for us.
These curds of brain can’t even be relied upon to interpret the world, our perceptions, or events in them with any kind of objective consistency. They misfire and screw up all the time. The way they perceive the world aren’t even consistent from human to human. We see this truth every day.
My spouse and I argue endlessly about whether the color of our dining room is beige or green.
Is the dress white and yellow or blue and black? Is this sound we each hear Yanny or Laurel?
The idea that we can somehow upload our memories into a flash drive and slot it into some new body like they do in Altered Carbon is a fun thought experiment, but one completely untethered from any current theories about how the mind and consciousness are created.
At the quantum level, things get even stickier.
Quantum particles – the absolute smallest observable objects we’ve detected – don’t move like particles. They move like waves. And where they end up when they move varies depending on what happens along the surface they’re traveling.
An example: light is composed of these particles, right? Photons. Let’s say that we shine a light onto a transparent sheet of glass. We can see that 90% of the light goes through it and 10% is reflected back. But how do we know which photons are reflected back? We don’t. We only know the probability. Every photon that hits the glass has a 90% chance of being projected through it and a 5% chance of being reflected back.
The way each and every photon behaves, however, is completely unpredictable. We cannot say with absolute certainty which will be reflected and which will go through.
We can only predict the odds.
Physics, this most logical of all logical human constructions for how we see the universe, cannot deliver a single definite result at the quantum level. All it can do is tell us the probability of an outcome.
What quantum mechanics teaches us is that at our most basic level, the matter that surrounds us is ruled not by precise facts and logic but by probability.
Thus, it should not surprise us that in a universe ruled by probability, we ourselves are not beings of logic and pure reason either. Not even at the quantum level.
We are reacting, always reacting, and our reactions are not hardcoded like a computer program. They are constantly in flux. A tangled mess of unreason. A complex stew of factors that we aren’t even beginning to fully comprehend.
It’s been found that people who have damage to the part of their brains that process emotions can no longer make decisions. Oh, certainly, they can tell you logically what they SHOULD be doing, but they have difficulty deciding what to eat, what to wear. Apple or banana? If you have no emotional reason to choose one over the other, you will find yourself unable to decide.
Smart negotiators understand this. If you’ve ever tried to argue with someone on the internet, bringing with you all the facts and figures and thinking that will win over the other side, well… you’ve seen this phenomenon in action, too.
So that brings us back to the “problem” of our messy brains.
We like to think that our consciousness exists outside of our brains and bodies. That consciousness is something…. A soul, a mind, a spirit… consciousness, we like to think, can be removed and uploaded to the cloud and synched up with a new body, no problem! Shouldn’t it be that easy?
But what is consciousness? Is it the ability to follow a set of logical paths to find the other side of a maze? Is it a program that can win a chess game? Is consciousness simply the ability of a computer program to fool humans into thinking it’s a human too?
There’s a powerful argument that human consciousness itself exists because of the peculiar ability of the human brain to connect meaningless events into narrative, into story.
The theory goes that what we call awareness is simply our ability to form stories out of stimuli. This is why most of us don’t have any clear memories until we’re two or three years old. We are not truly conscious until we learn how to construct a narrative.
We find ourselves connecting seemingly random events every day. I was out of milk, so I drove to the store. It turns out my best friend was at the store too! She invited me to dinner. At dinner I learned about a new job opportunity from one of the dinner guests. I got the job and that’s where I met my partner. Amazing! The world really does connect us all in mysterious ways!
But the only thing that actually connects any of these events in any spooky way… is you. You experienced them. You gave them meaning. To anyone else, viewing from outside, seeing you bump into your friend, or another guest at that dinner, those interactions had little to no meaning. We created the meaning. We crave meaning.
We must create these stories because at its most basic level, our stories ARE who we are. They ARE consciousness.
This is why, when you argue with someone’s story of the world and “the way things are” or “the way things have always been” they defend that story so violently. They have lived with these stories for so long that attacking them feels like an attack of the self.
There’s a fascinating series of studies that presents two groups of students with static images. These are simply random black and white images of what we might call television static, speckled nonsense patterns on a piece of paper.
One group of students is primed to think about a time when they lacked control over a situation. Another group is asked to write about whatever they want.
When both groups are shown these same random images, the group that was primed to evoke the feeling of being out of control is more likely to believe they see patterns in the random noise than the other group.
It turns out that when we are fearful, anxious, and stressed out – when we feel we have control over our lives – our brains are more likely to find images in random noise, form correlations in stock market information that isn’t there, see conspiracies in unrelated events, and even develop superstitions.
The more out of control we feel, the more we want to assert structure to the universe around us. But as we’ve seen, the universe doesn’t work on logic or programming.
Our brains are not separate from our bodies. They are pieces of our bodies, uniquely created by our genetics, hormones, experiences, stories, and other stimuli they have been exposed to throughout our lives.
The brain isn’t separate.
Author Steven Erikson once described a theory of reality at a panel I was on. He said his approach to worldbuilding was to create several characters and show the world through their eyes, because in our own lives – reality is this thing at the center of a circle of human observers, and we are all standing there describing what we see. Together we come to a loose consensus about what it is we’re looking at.
Reality is what we can agree on. It’s why we become so anxious when confronted with the truth that even objectively obvious truths – what color a dress is, what sound can be heard – are not objective at all.
And yet, even if these tricky physical and biological constraints could be overcome… if you really could turn your subjective brain into a logical series of 1s and 0s that could be uploaded into a machine that lasts longer than the latest iPhone… we are still left with the question about morality. About culture. About who gets to live forever.
In discussions related to the transhumanist movement, I can’t help but notice that many of its most fervent cheerleaders are wealthy men, usually Caucasian; they tend to be those already accorded a great deal of privilege in much of the Western world.
These are people who can already afford to prolong their lives. Even now, they can spend a few million dollars in the dubious practice of freezing their brains for later. They are the people who have spent their time on earth hoarding wealth and now, as they realize that their wealth cannot buy them more life, they seek to transcend death itself.
Transcending the limitations of the body is, for many of them, the same as transcending the limitations of not enough capital.
Every time I’m confronted with this idea of revolutionizing the human body, I can’t help but wonder: What would it cost for me to live indefinitely, as I am, at $1500 a month just for drugs? To have a limitless existence?
Already, there are some months when prolonging my life feels woefully out of reach.
Who decides who lives forever?
What happens to the rest of us?
Do parents have a moral responsibility to use CRISPR technology to edit their children’s gene code? Or is it morally reprehensible to make that decision until a child is old enough to decide for themselves?
Consider our shifting ideas around gender identity and sexuality.
Even now, many doctors encourage parents to “choose” a binary sexual identity for their children from birth. If it’s not “obvious” from external physical markers, parents can decide to “assign” a sex to their intersex children through surgery. This is all done long before the child has any sense of themselves and their bodies.
We see our intervention as taking control over biology and evolution. Yet our understanding of these incredibly complex systems is so rudimentary that we often find ourselves doing real harm.
But we’re trying to be good, we say, as parents. We want to ensure our children have a good life, a good birth.
Those seeking to engineer a “good birth” may be shocked to learn that the term “eugenics” comes from the Greek words for “good” and “origin” or “Good birth.”
The early 1900’s were a time of great technological and social change, a period often called the Second Industrial Revolution. Rapid advancements in manufacturing and production, as well as transportation, were transforming society’s belief of what was possible.
This belief in human ingenuity carried over to the rudimentary realm of genetics. The eugenics movement in the United States began with reasoned newspaper columns from men arguing that the willy-nilly breeding of humans without thought for offspring was illogical. It led to fairs and competitions for families where they could compete to earn the title of “fittest family” and “best pedigree.” The criteria were wildly subjective.
They were certainly only ever awarded to white families of a certain class.
As society’s views shifted, nudged along by inflaming existing racism and fear of the poor, government sanctioned programs were not far behind. That led to the forced sterilization of hundreds of thousands of people – largely men and women of color, the mentally ill, the poor, and those who served prison sentences.
The only thing that halted this mass eugenics movement was the revelation of its ultimate end goal. The horrors of what had been done in Nazi concentration camps and the six million people they condemned to death were too much for the burgeoning movement to survive. When faced with the real end game, society balked.
But it was a close call.
I always wonder if society would reign itself in, today, before it was too late. I wonder that as my own government rips immigrant children from their parents and plans to put them into warehouses.
It is the year 2018, but time, I fear, is a circle.
We live in an age of great technological change. As in the 1900s, we find ourselves with access to an exciting number of new tools, with the promise of greater tools on the horizon.
But what lies at the end of that road?
Yes, we can. But should we?
If we don’t want to reach that ultimate end game, the inevitable conclusion of a society fueled by fear, racism, capitalism, how do we need to change? What regulations can we put into place? What moral and social taboos should we consider? How should we re-organize our governments?
As we rush headlong into technological fields, playing with forces we ill understand, we must take a moment to look back.
Without a knowledge of the social sciences – of history, psychology, sociology, those who create and unleash these technologies do so without a sense of how those technologies could transform us.
But wait, you might say. Who wouldn’t want to have their illnesses cured? To live life just like everyone else?
First: it’s clear to me more and more as I get older that the world itself is not designed to fit us. We design the world to fit those we believe should be most visible. It’s not designed for anyone else.
I once found an old flyer in my great grandparents’ home that advertised that it was a community free of “undesirables.” Only white people were permitted to live there, and the poor could not get there – the overpasses were designed so that buses could not get to the neighborhood, limiting its accessibility to those who did not own cars.
We limit accessibility in everything we design, from streets to gaming controllers. With each of those decisions, we subtly signal who we consider human and who we do not.
“So what?” I hear the tech bros ask, in the same tone I imagine those old white men used in their eugenics columns. “Isn’t society better with only the fit, the strong?”
To which I would argue – who are we to decide who is fit, who is strong? Who are we to decide who and what society needs, when it is evolution that has proven to us that only organisms capable of change are destined to survive in the long term?
A monolithic, homogenous society is morally reprehensible. It is also reprehensible as a long-term strategy for humanity.
Hemingway had a condition called hemochromatosis; his body wasn’t able to process iron, leading to very high levels of iron in the blood that would have eventually killed him. We see this illness and say, “Wouldn’t we want to eliminate that?”
But it turns out this illness was key in helping people in Europe survive the bubonic plague. It’s why you generally only see it in those with European ancestry. It turns out the plague had a more difficult time propagating in bodies that had too much iron.
Sickle cell anemia is another disease that turns out to deliver benefits. Those whose blood cells are transformed by the disease don’t contract malaria. Even those with just one faulty copy of the gene that changes the shape of their blood cells are less likely to contract malaria.
Even prevalent diseases we are seeing on the rise in Western countries, like diabetes, exist for a historical reason. Those with higher sugar levels in their blood are more resistant to extreme cold. And of course, an intense desire for carbs and sugar in our ancestors was a tremendously good thing, long-term.
What other possible calamities await us as a species? We simply have no way of knowing.
All we have to defend ourselves are the possibilities within our own bodies.
Those possibilities are imperfect. They can doom us or save us as both individuals and as a species.
Before the advent of antibiotics, scientists were working on more targeted drug therapies, ones that would specifically attack individual bacteria. Instead, we delivered a short-term solution that saved millions…
But we didn’t think it through. We didn’t consider the long game. And now we are faced with an increasing number of antibiotic-resistant infections. These infections will kill you no matter how advanced your access to care. No matter how much money you have.
Money and technology can’t save us if we aren’t thinking long term. If we don’t take a step back and look before we leap. If we aren’t intimately in touch with and accepting of the fact that our messy brains are not separate from our messy bodies. They are one and the same.
What does our future look like if consciousness cannot exist outside of a meaty organism?
What if the human experience is, by definition, one universally bound to the bodies we inhabit?
And what if that’s not some kind of enslavement or a limitation to be unshackled… but a gift?
The key to our future as a species is already inside of us.
But unlocking that possibility relies on us acknowledging that our greatest strength is in our difference. In the multiplicity of possibilities lying within us.
I may not live as long as others because of my illness. But its presence in my family was beneficial, once upon a time. It could be beneficial to those who come after me someday, too. We don’t know what the future will bring.
And you cannot transcend a future you do not understand, in a vehicle you have shorn of its possibilities.
It’s funny – but I’ve learned that it’s our weaknesses that make us strong. It was understanding my own weaknesses that allowed me to become the person I am today. In my weakness, I understood our time is finite. I understood I needed to make the most of the days I had.
In facing my weakness, I faced my own mortality. In facing my mortality, I became, perhaps… more fully human. More compassionate. More kind. I realized we needed each other in order to do great things.
That’s all weakness is. An acknowledgment of our humanity. There is no shame in that.
In fact, our humanity is our greatest strength.
Let’s build a future that never, ever forgets that.