Some thoughts on transhumanism and race cars

Back in the days when I worked prepress for a living, one of the jobs I worked on was a magazine called Vinage Motorsport magazine. It appears the quality of their design has gone downhill from those days, if the ugly layout of their Web site is any indication, but I digress.

Anyway, one of the issues of Vintage Motorsport I worked on was dedicated to a race car driver named Jim Hall and a race car production house called Chaparral Cars.

Chaparral was kind of the Scaled Composites of the auto-racing world, turning out radical, weird-looking vehicles that resembled nothing else on the race track. I’ve never been much into sports in general and I particularly detest automobile racing, but the story of Chaparral Cars is really interesting nonetheless.

This is actually a post about transhumanism, not race cars. Bear with me, I’m getting there.

Jim Hall and Chaparral Cars competed in an old, now-defunct racing circuit called the Can-Am Challenge Cup. The Can-Am series was quite different from other race car series, such as the Formula 1 series, in that it had a no-holds-barred, “anything goes” approach to race car designs.

Cars entered in Can-Am races had to have four wheels, the wheels couldn’t be totally exposed, they had to have two seats, and they had to bedriven by an internal combustion, reciprocating engine–no jets or rockets.

Other than that, anything went. There were no limitations on the size of the engines or the cars, the technology used by the cars, or pretty much anything else. If it had two seats and an internal combustion engine, and met basic safety requirements, it was legal.

Which I think is pretty interesting.

Back in the mid-60s, when the Can-Am first started, the state of the art in race cars wasn’t particularly advanced. Little was known about aerodynamics, and many of the design elements we now take for granted in race cars (high spoilers, for example) didn’t exist.

The Can-Am was a playground for radical new automotive designs, and the Chaparral team went nuts. They were among the first car designers to include elements for aerodynamics; the Chaparral 2E was the first car to introduce a high spoiler and a nose designed for aerodynamic downthrust, both of which are now standard parts of nearly every race car in the world.

The problem with race cars isn’t necessarily in raw horsepower, so much as it is in getting that power onto the ground. Cars vaguely resemble airplane wings, and they generate lift as they move. The faster they go, the more lift there is; the more lift, the less force holds the wheels to the ground; the less force holds the wheels to the ground, the more the wheels tend to spin out and the car ends up all over the road. It does no good to have a 700 HP engine if the wheels are just spinning when you step on the gas.

The Chaparral designs all aimed not to improve horsepower but to make the cars stick to the road better. After the success with adding wings and dams to help guide airflow and keep the car stuck to the road, the design team got more and more radical (and weirder and weirder); later cars featured moveable wings bolted right to the axle rather than to the car’s body, which would tilt up to increase downward thrust when the car was cornering and tilt down to decrease drag on straightaways.

These cars look pretty ordinary to modern eyes, but back in the day, they were radical–nothing else like them existed. The designs succeeded very well. Rather too well, really.

In the late 1960s, the Can-Am body started to turn away from its “everything goes” philosophy, and outlawed the use of moving aerodynamic structures and the use of wings affixed directly to the rear axles rather than the car’s body.

Chaparral rose to the challenge with the 2J, which had no wings or spoilers at all and is arguably one of the weirdest race cars ever built:

You’ll probably notice the weird jet-engine-looking thing sticking out the ass end of this car. What you’re seeing is a pair of powerful fans powered by a snowmobile engine. The fans suck air from under the car, creating a suction so powerful that when they’re going at full blast, the car can actually stick to the ceiling.

Needless to say, the car didn’t need wings or spoilers or other tricksy features. It could corner so fast the driver’s head tended to get whacked up against the roll bar on the inside of the cockpit. It set a record at the Chaparral test track that’s never been broken.

In fact, it was so successful that Formula 1 designers took note, and applied the same concept to a Formula-1 car, the BT46B:

And then something predictable happened. Rather than competing on innovation and engineering, other race teams complained to the various racing bodies about these designs. The BT46B raced once (and won handily) before being outlawed by the FIA. On the Can-Am side of the circuit, the other drivers–apparently forgetting the entire point of the Can-Am circuit– complained that if the Chaparral 2J design wasn’t outlawed, Chaparral would dominate the series and nobody else would be able to compete. The Can-Am body outlawed the 2J design shortly thereafter.

And in my opinion, racing got a whole less interesting.

But all that is just the prequel. It isn’t what I really wanted to talk about.

What I actually came her to talk about is the Olympics.

The Olympics is this sporting thing that’s supposed to be all about testing the limits of human athletic achievement, or something like that. Every two years, the world’s most accomplished athletes gather together to compete in sports like running, swimming, swapping votes for figure skating, bribe-taking, ping-pong, and sweeping ice with a broom. (There’s also the competition to see how fast a bunch of world-class athletes can go through a pile of 50,000 condoms, but they don’t award medals for that, apparently.)

Human society, technology, and culture change, and the Olympics strives to change with it. That’s why athletes no longer compete naked, the games are open to professional athletes, the sacrifices to the god Zeus have been phased out and replaced with burnt offerings to the gods of Marketing and Branding, and sports like Tae Kwon Do, Vollyball, Piss Into a Cup, and the popular Prove You’re Really a Woman have been added to the roster.

In 2008, the International Olympic Committee showed there were limits to how far it would go, when it took time off from accepting bribes from host cities to rule that amputee Oscar Pistorius could not compete in the Games on the grounds that having no legs gave him a clear advantage over his less-advantaged fellow athletes.

I’ve talked a couple of times before about how I feel about the intersection of ability, disability, transhumanism, and body modification, but never directly in the context of sports before.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about the old Can-Am races. Before they disintegrated into cries of “We aren’t as clever as our opponents; someone make rules against their cleverness!” they were a very interesting playground for motor sports, the one place in all of racing where people could really explore the question “How fast can be make a race car go, anyway, if we really put our heads to it?”

Nominally “disabled” athlete Aimee Mullins, who mentions in her brilliant TED talk that a friend of hers said “that’s not fair!” when confronted with Ms. Mullins’ interchangeable legs, discusses some of the issues around turning a disadvantage into an advantage. I’d like to take that idea and run with it.

What would happen if someone were to do to the Olympics what the Can-Am did to motor sports?

The way I picture it is something like this: Wheels are not allowed. Assistive power devices are not allowed; all the energy used by an athlete must be generated by his or her own body, and powered by his or her own muscles. Other than that, anything goes.

A runner wants to run the 250-meter dash on six-foot carbon-fiber stilts with springs built in? Have at it! Another runner comes up with an implant that superoxygenates her blood? Sounds good to me! Let’s see what the human body is really capable of, when we start pushing the design limits.

As it stands right now, new world records are usually set by fractions of a second. The old world record for the 100-yard dash is 9.0 seconds? Pish-posh! Let’s see if we can cut that down to 7.2. As long as you do it with human muscle power, sans boosters or wheels, it’s all good.

When I first mentioned this idea to zaiah, her concern was that athletes competing in such a game might do things like use steroids or remove their limbs to replace them with upgrades, and she was worried about the damage that otherwise healthy people might do to themselves competing this way.

Which, to be honest, I don’t see as a problem.

Professional NFL football players, who tend to be quite wealthy and arguably have access to some of the world’s best health care, have a nominal life expectancy of between 52 and 55 years. Playing football, in a literal way, cuts 20 years off their life span. Yet we as a society, and the players themselves, see this as perfectly acceptable.

Football and hockey players live with the long-term effects of repeated concussions, which lead to high rates of dementia later in life. Pro boxers even get their very own form of brain damage.

I think it’s interesting that we, as a society, find these consequences of professional competition hardly worth a second thought. There are risks in any sport; people make choices that can have negative consequences all the time, and not just in the arena of sports.

The advantage that I see to something like a Can-Am of Olympic sports, though, is that the playground of technology that such an event represents can and probably would have significant benefits for people who aren’t athletes. Technologies, drugs, and implants that might make better athletes, might also have applications in everything from reconstructive joint surgery to treating angina. The shape, and fuel economy, of your car can probably trace its roots back to some of the Chaparral design experiments.

Besides, a 7-second hundred yards would be pretty cool. And it would blur, even more, the fuzzy and sometimes arbitrary definitions of “normal” and “disabled.”

One could reasonably that the American lifestyle, with its high-fructose corn syrup, largely sedentary jobs, poor indoor air quality, and abhorrence of exercise, is an experiment in producing the most pessimal possible physical conditioning. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see what could happen if we applied the same principles to the most optimal?

Why I Want to Live Forever

I’ve mentioned this before, but one of the things that baffles me the most when I say I want to live forever is the folks who say “Wouldn’t you get bored?”

The question totally boggles me. Bored? Who on earth has time to be bored? Life changes constantly. In the last two thousand years, we have gone from Bronze Age tribalism through the Iron Age, the rise and fall of the empire of Rome, feudalism, the Renaissance, the discovery of a new continent, industrialization, the rise of mass communication, to atomic power and the beginning of the exploration of the physical universe. In all of that, we have seen incredible changes in society, philosophy, science, art, engineering, customs, tradition, and knowledge. Who would say of a man born in the time of Jesus and still alive today, “But aren’t you bored?

The question to me seems to show a projection of the present onto the future–I almost wonder if the folks who ask aren’t envisioning people commuting to work, stopping for lunch at McDonald’s, listening to Rush Limbaugh on the radio, heading home through rush-hour traffic to watch reruns of “Friends” on TV in the year 6,000. I think that’s particularly strange given that, in the memory of people who are still alive today, the United States has moved from a largely agrarian nation to a post-industrial nation, pausing along the way to split the atom, tame Niagra Falls, and put men on the frikkin’ MOON.

No, I don’t think I’d be bored.

In fact, I’ve started to make a list of some of the things I would like to live long enough to see–things for which a single “ordinary” human lifespan is insufficient. The next thousand years offers exciting prospects for the human species unmatched in the last ten thousand, and I want to see what happens. For example:

What will happen when we discover evidence of life elsewhere in the universe? Given the incomprehensibly vast scope of the physical universe, it seems profoundly unlikely that we alone live here. If the emergence of life is so unlikely that it happens even once out of ten billion solar systems, that would mean it’s everywhere–the physical universe is just that big. If, as seems more likely, it develops and takes a foothold anywhere that it is not prevented from doing so by the laws of physics, then it’s probably ubiquitous. What does it look like? How does it work? What would it mean to us to learn that we’re not alone? What form would it take? Where will we find it? What implications will it have for philosophy, religion, morality, our conceptions of ourselves? What will we learn from it? Will the knowledge that it exists make us feel more connected or more disconnected from the universe and from each other? Will we see life as being more sacred or less sacred?

Will we succeed in moving beyond our own fragile home on earth? Where will we go? What will we learn? How far will it be possible for us to extend our reach? How will we change in the process? Will knowing that we have left the only home humanity has ever had for its entire existence change our conceptions of ourselves, and in what way? How will we adapt?

What does a post-scarcity society look like? From the stone knives used by our earliest hominid ancestors to the Large Hadron Collider, everything we have ever built has been built in the same way–by taking the materials we find and heating, cooling, chipping, hammering, carving, cutting, and pounding away at them until they’re shaped to do the task we want. This crude method of building things, which has been refined only in degree but not in kind since the days of flint knapping and bearskins, necessarily means resource scarcity, because it is limited both by the natural raw materials available and by the man-hours of labor needed to fashion the raw materials into finished things. But what happens when we gain the ability to put things together on a molecular level exactly as we want to? Oh, then everything changes. Then it becomes possible to make just about anything–food, Ferraris, fuel, iPods, spaceships–from dirt and sunlight. No more scarcity means no more resource competition, no more competition between the “haves” and the “have nots,” no more division of nations into “first world” and “third world.” What will that mean for human society? How will it change the way we interact with each other? Who will be the first to figure out molecular assembly, and how will that affect everyone else? Is it true, as some folks say, that wars are fought for resources first and ideology second, and if so, will a post-scarcity society really make war obsolete? Or will we simply shift from competing for material resources to competing for ideas?

What happens when we gain the ability to control ourselves on a molecular level? Biomedical nanotechnology is a hot field of research, barely out of the starting gate–the state of the art right now is roughly at the state of the computing art during the time of Charles Babbage. We know it is possible to build machines that can change and repair living organisms on a cellular or molecular level–we just don’t know how to get there yet. But what happens when we do? What does a human society look like when you take away the inevitability of deterioration, aging, enfeeblement, and death? And more than that–what does it mean to be able to make modifications to to ourselves on the level of our DNA? When you give people the ability to change in that way, will you see a society of nearly-identical supermodels, or a society of people with orange fur and tails? Will we begin to enforce common standards of physical appearance, or will we start changing ourselves in all sorts of novel and interesting ways? If people can change their physical sex at will, and be completely functional in whatever their chosen physical sex is, what will that mean for gender differences? How will that affect society, when some of our most basic assumptions about what being human means become obsolete?

What happens when we remove the biological limitations on our brains and bodies? Human brains and human bodies do not have infinite capacity. Our brains are limited, both in terms of raw processing power and in terms of the concepts we are easily able to imagine and comprehend. Are there things about the physical universe that we simply do not have the capacity to understand, in the same way that a dog does not have the capacity to understand calculus? Are we nearing the limits of what we are able to understand about the physical world around us? What will it mean if we can re-wire our brains to add capacity? What will it mean if we can change our bodies to give ourselves abilities we lack now–the ability to breathe underwater, say, or to adapt to hostile environments? How much of what we consider our “humanity” is a consequence of our limitations and of the environment we live in? If we begin to diverge from one another in these ways, will we lose our ability to relate to one another, or will this simply serve to underscore the ways in which we are all connected? What will we learn about ourselves? What will we learn about the world we live in?

What happens when we encounter the first non-human intelligence? There are many ways this might come about; it could be an AI, a non-human race, even an animal that’s been modified to have a higher level of cognitive capability. How will seeing an intelligence that isn’t ours affect us? What will we learn about ourselves? Will we discover new ways of comprehending the universe? Will we discover blindness in our own way of thinking, and if so, how will we be better for it?

What kind of macroengineering projects are we capable of? The largest-scale engineering we’ve ever done is really, when you get right down to it, not that far above Stonehenge. But what happens when we become capable of building on a global scale, or larger? The Space Elevator is a good beginner’s macroengineering project, but what comes next? Will we be able to terraform planets? Build ringworlds? What will those things look like? How can they be done? How will they extend our capabilities as human beings? How will transforming the physical universe transform us? Will we encounter anyone else who is already building on this scale? What will that mean for us?

Now, to be perfectly honest, even if these things were not on the horizon, even if things would always be as they are now, I would still want to live forever. There is hardly a day that goes by that I don’t encounter something that is so mind-blowingly beautiful that it makes me grateful to be alive; the world just as it exists in this instant in time is so filled with wonder and beauty that I could live for thousands of years and never grow tired of it. There is so much joy to be had, all around, that I can’t quite fathom living in anything other than a perpetual state of awe.

Link of the Day: Legacy

This link goes to a very short (only a few paragraphs long) story written by kennric as part of a project he’s doing to write 52 original short stories in 52 weeks, one story per week for a year.

This story is number 17 in the project, and it’s called Legacy. It’s a meditation on transhumanism and uploading and what it means to be a copy, and it’s quite beautiful. aclaro, figmentj, datan0de, femetal…I think you guys in particular will enjoy it. Thanks to zaiah for the link.

Warning: Reading this story made me cry.

Teddy Kaczynski is a fucking moron

I’ve never, in the past, been particularly impressed by beatboxing.

I’ve never been particualrly impressed by neo-Luddites, either, particularly the irrationally violent neo-Luddites like Ted “Unabomber” Kaczynski.

I’ll get to him in a second; these things are related, I promise.

But first: beatboxing. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a musical style involving making percussion sounds only with the performer’s mouth.

Which is not something I’ve ever found all that interesting. Yes, it takes skill to do it well–but skill alone isn’t sufficient to make something compelling to me.

I tend toward music that has something meaningful to say. If someone is going to go through the effort of creating music, it should be because that person has something which he feels needs to be expressed. This is why I don’t much care for the bulk of pop music in general; “I want to hold your haaaaaaand” and “Got it bad, got it bad, got it bad, I’m hot for teacher” don’t qualify, to my mind, as particularly compelling insights into the human condition1.

Beatboxing is particularly bad in this regard because the performer is, in a very literal way, incapable of expressing anything else while doing it.

A lot of the music I listen to is created by groups that are actually just one person or a small number of people. I tend not to like music by large bands; a classic example, for me, is Fleetwood Mac, the 60s/70s/80s band whose music tends to sound like it was assembled by committee. This also relates to the notion of music in the service of expressing some idea; when music is put together by a number of people, the message gets muddled.

Yes, this is actually about Ted Kaczynski, I swear.

I tend to be fascinated by the process by which music is made. When I listen, say, to “A Quiet Anthem” by one of my current favorite bands, Aesthetic Perfection (a song which reminds me a great deal in theme to the book Use of Weapons, which I’ve previously discussed, but I digress), I’m always curious about the mechanics of how the song was put together. Aesthetic Perfection is just one guy, and the stuff he does is really interesting, structurally and in theme.

When dayo posted a video of a street performer calling himself DubFX, I was absolutely amazed. This guy has got talent by the metric asston, and an easy, comfortable familiarity with technology on top of that. He uses a sampling and looping machine to record his beatboxing, then layers harmony and lyrics on top of that.

And he’s got some neat things to say.

Check out this video. If you’re not really interested in the process, skip ahead to about 2 minutes and 10 seconds in, when the preliminary layering is done and the song itself starts.

Now we get to the part where Teddy Kaczynski is a fucking moron.

Kaczynski, as you may recall, is the Harvard-educated mathematician who decided one day that (a) modern technology was destroying the souls of all humanity and (b) the best way to address this problem was to send pipe bombs to scientists, heads of public relations firms, and airlines.

The disconnect between part (a) and part (b) is notable in its own right, and is further evidence that Mr. Kaczynski is a fucking moron, but that’s a whole rant in its own right and is beyond the scope of this post.

Ahem. Anyway…

If you watch this video, you’re struck with (or at least, I was struck with) a deep sense of warmth and humanness. This is a person who is using a piece of sophisticated technology to extend his ability to express a very human message.

At one point, Ted Kaczynski took some time off from mailing bombs to people to write a rambling and in some places barely coherent 35,000-word long manifesto, Industrial Society and Its Future, about the evils of technology and the various ways in which it supposedly undermined human freedom2 and dignity.

I’ll save you from reading the whole thing–and it’s an incredibly tedious slog, oh yes it is. Basically, it comes down to “technology is bad because even though it makes our lives better, we no longer have complete control over every aspect of our own survival.” Apparently, Teddy is somewhat oblivious to the fact that we don’t have complete control over every aspect of our own survival even in pre-technological societies; occasionally, the random prowling leopard has input over certain critical aspects of a luckless person’s future. But no matter.

To be fair to Mr. Kaczynski–and it is very hard to be fair to Mr. Kaczynski–he had the courage of his convictions. When he got hold of this notion that technology is bad, he followed it through to its illogical conclusion, and moved to a shack he built himself in Montana3 without running water or electricity, where he lived a quiet life of chopping wood, hunting game, shitting in holes he dug in the ground, and serial killing.

Many of his supporters in the neo-Luddite community communicate with one another via email and by postings on neo-Luddite Usenet groups like the one devoted to Ted Kaczynski. This takes “missing the point” to a breathtaking new level; the unintentional irony here can drop a charging herd of rhinos at ninety paces.

But I digress.

The notion that industrialization and technology are bad isn’t new. People have written all sorts of books about it, and occasionally some shmoo has decided to turn it into a revolution. Pol Pot, the leader of the genocidal Khmer Rouge party in Cambodia, took these ideas to the next level; he opposed all forms of technology and industrialization across the board (going so far in his anti-intellectualism that toward the end of his regime he started executing anyone who had a college degree or wore glasses), and attempted to create an agrarian Utopia by renouncing all of industrialization and moving the entire population out onto collective farms.

It worked about as well as you’d expect; almost a quarter of the country’s population died or were executed. About par for the course, really.

Kaczynski, Pol Pot, and others like him are fucking idiots in no small part because they don’t understand what technology is. These people see technology of and by itself as inherently evil and dehumanizing–a view shared, to a lesser degree, by a startling number of people who really ought to know better.

Technology is simply ways of doing things. The flink knife? That’s technology. Cooking food? Using a pointed stick instead of digging in the dirt with your hands when you’re planting crops? Yep, technology. People do these things because doing them makes their lives better, not because some sinister evil force makes them.

Technology is not dehumanizing; just the opposite. It is the inherently human product of inherently human endeavor. The bizarre and misguided notion that technology is anti-humanity is as twisted and as stupid as the notion that a beehive, the product of the work of bees, is somehow anti-bee.

That’s some world-class stupidity, it is.

Kaczynski wrote in his manifesto that people banding together in large groups is Bad And Wrong, because as soon as you depend on anyone else for something, you are no longer free. He didn’t get the obvious–people band together in groups because doing this lifts a burden off of them. If I make clothes and George raises food, I no longer have to raise food, and George no longer has to make clothes. Shared work for mutual benefit makes everyone’s lives easier. Today we enjoy unprecedented amounts of free time to do things we want to do rather than things we must do to secure our own survival; from where I’m standing, that’s the opposite of “slavery.”

And because of that, no anti-technologist revolution would ever succeed. Thechnology is written into our genes; it’s a part of our evolutionary heritage. Our big brains are tools of survival.

Even if someone were to take over the earth and return all of us to agrarianism (well, those of us left alive–agrarian societies could only support a fraction of the number of people currently on the planet, so most of us would have to be killed to make it happen), it would not be very long before someone said “Hey! If I use this stick instead of my hands, I can plant more food!” and someone else said “Hey, check this out–if I lash two sticks together on the bottom of this plank of wood, I can plant even more food!”

I have a great deal of respect for the way that DubFX uses technology–as an empowering tool to facilitate human expression.

I like his music a lot. There’s a ton of it on YouTube, and all of it is warm and relentlessly optimistic.

One of the things I’ve noticed about anti-technologists and transhumanists is that the former tend to be implacable in their pessimism, while the latter tend to be highly optimistic and human-centered.

DubFX uses technology in an easy, comfortable way–watching him perform, it’s as if the sampling board has become a natural extension of his own talent, which allows him to express himself effortlessly.

I think there’s something significant about. Anti-intellectuals and anti-technologists tend to be uncomfortable around the notion of learning new things–particularly learning how to use new things–and tend to project that discomfort outward, beliving it to be a symptom of something wrong with all of society.

Not that that’s anything new. Sex-negative folks and homophobes do the same sort of thing, I reckon; it seems to be an enduring human trait that whatever makes us personally feel uncomfortable becomes something that is wrong with the world, something to be fixed–at the barrel of a gun, if necessary.

Anti-technologists tend to stop at the point where their own discomfort ends. Teddy Kaczynski didn’t like computers but had no particular objections to using a manual typewriter–a device whose existence became possible only after the Industrial Revolution, with its precise metal casting and manufacturing. His misguided fans today use their computers to discuss the end of technology on Usenet and download neo-Luddite podcasts (Yes! There are such things!) on their iPhones.

The irony, it kills.

It seems to me that people who embrace technology don’t embrace bombs or guns. I can’t recall ever seeing a headline reading “Transhumanist convicted of murderous pro-technology spree.” Those who embrace technology see it as a way to empower human beings–a tool for allowing us to make more choices than we could without it.

The original Luddies went down in history as a damp squib. They broke some property and killed some people, but they were in the end unable to prevent the Industrial Revolution. Frankly, I’m glad they were so impotent. In their idealized society, we couldn’t even have this conversation…nor would I be able to take time off from laboring for my own survival to talk about it even if I wanted to.

I write a great deal about the liberating and empowering abilities of technology. People like DubFX turn those ideas into art.

1 An argument could be made, I suppose, for the notion that being hot for teacher is an enduring part of our shared human experience. In my case, it was my high-school French teacher, cliched as that might sound. In my own defense, however, she was hot.

2 For a very narrow and relentlessly peculiar definition of “freedom,” which takes six rather lengthy paragraphs in the manifesto to explain.

3 Before that, he lived in his parents’ basement. I swear I am not making this up.

Dreaming of Transhumanism Remixes

Last night, I had a very long, incredibly detailed, and incredibly high resolution dream about Battlestar: Galactica.

Well, kinda sorta.

This isn’t actually a post about BSG, though the show is definitely a springboard for it. I liked the show a great deal, but in truth didn’t much care for the take-away lesson from the last episode, which cut for spoilers, which you don’t really need to read to get the rest of this post

Link o’ the Day: Trans-simianism

With a tip of the (virtual) hat to figmentj:

Enough is Enough: A Thinking Ape’s Critique of Trans-Simianism

Klomp predicts that through a technology called ‘hygiene’ we could extend the simian lifespan well into the late 20s or possibly 30s. What exactly will the post-simian do with all that time? Do we really want to live in a society populated by geriatric 27- year- olds? In living so long and spending so much time ‘thinking,’ do we not also run the risk of becoming a cold, passionless race incapable of experiencing our two emotions (fear and not fear)? How much of our simianity are we willing to sacrifice for this notion of progress?

Rest assured that while Klomp may have accrued a recent following, there is no reality to his fantastic claims. What is concerning is the increasing number of young apes spending less time clubbing animals and more time ‘inventing,’ ‘thinking’ and ‘creating,’ none of which contribute to the preservation of the simian way of life. These sorts of fads come and go, however, and this author is confident that in a short while everyone will have forgotten about Klomp and the notion of being anything more than an ape.”

Some Thoughts on Body Modification, Ethics, and Self

In response to this post I made about the intersection of disability and transhumanism, illicitlearning posted a link to a YouTube video on exactly the same subject, that discusses some facts I wasn’t aware of.

The entire video is over an hour long, so for that reason I’m not going to embed it here. I do recommend that anyone interested in ethics, body modification, transhumanism, functional changes to the body, agency, bioethics, or the ownership of the self watch it, however. It’s probably not safe for work–there are pictures and descriptions of forms of body modification some folks might not approve of–but it’s good to watch regardless.

You can find the YouTube video here.

The person in the video is Quinn Norton, a journalist who’s long been interested in both body modification and transhumanism. She’s one of the people who first experimented with subdermal rare-earth magnet implants that I talk about here.

One of the things that surprised me to learn from this video is just how profoundly fucked-up our system of bioethics–and I use the term “ethics” in there only loosely–is in this country.

We have the capability to do some really neat things, and we’re on the cusp of learning to do some even cooler things. We can, for example, exploit the brain’s plasticity to create new senses (as with the aforementioned implanted magnets) or to map one sense onto another (as with experimental devices that allow people to see by mapping images onto the tongue with electric currents).

We’re closing in on more interesting things still. For example, one area of nanotech research involves respirocytes, which are tiny machines designed to do what red blood cells do by carrying oxygen to and taking carbon dioxide away from the cells of our body. The trick is that they are thousands of times more efficient, and if they work as projected, would allow someone injected with them to do things like hold their breath for half an hour, run at full speed without breathing for ten or fifteen minutes, and even survive with their heart stopped for thirty minutes or so.

And you know what? All this stuff is considered “unethical”–and much of it is illegal.

Before I get off on the rest of this rant here, I’d like to start with a basic premise from which the entire rest of my argument against this sort of nonsense flows, and that is the value of agency.

Agency–the notion that each of us is a self-determining, self-aware individual, uniquely positioned to choose for ourselves what we do with our own bodies–is, I believe, the most basic of all moral principles, and the one from which all other moral principles flow. Things that we all agree are immoral, such as murder, kidnapping, rape, or torture, ultimately grow from the notion of agency. Each of us is responsible for the consequences of our decisions (else there can be no morality), and each of us has the ultimate right to control of our own bodies (the right which is violated when another person deprives us of our liberty or our life).

In the final analysis, I do not believe any credible system of ethics can ignore or diminish the principle that the first and most basic of all moral principles is the idea that we have the right to choose for ourselves what we do with our bodies.

So. Onward.

According to the American Medical Association’s Code of Ethics, there are many techniques and procedures that are considered “unethical” across the board. Among these are “augmentation” technologies–technologies intended or designed to provide someone with greater-than-human-normal abilities or senses.

An example? Cochlear implants. These implants are often used to cure one of the most common forms of deafness, and for this use, they are considered both legal and ethical. The implant is a tiny electronic gadget implanted deep in the ear anal, and connected directly to the auditory nerve. They’re implanted into tens of thousands of deaf patients to restore hearing.


A cochlear implant which offers a deaf person some kind of new ability or functionality that a “normal” person does not have is considered unethical across the board. For example, a cochlear implant that had BlueTooth functionality, to allow its user to directly access a cell phone or a computer? Unethical. An American doctor who implanted such a thing would lose his license. A cochlear implant designed to be implanted in a person with normal hearing, to extend the range of his hearing? Also unethical.

And it gets worse.

In the United States, it is considered a breach of medical ethics for a plastic surgeon to change someone’s appearance outside the socially accepted standards of physical beauty.

Read that again and think about it. In the United States, it is considered a breach of medical ethics for a plastic surgeon to change someone’s appearance outside the socially accepted standards of physical beauty. Medical ethics are dictated by socially accepted standards of physical attractiveness. It is perfectly legal, and perfectly ethical, for a plastic surgeon to put silicone into a woman’s tits to make them bigger (because social standards of beauty favor big tits), but it is considered unethical (and in most places, illegal) for a plastic surgeon to do something like pointed ears; a surgeon who does so risks loss of his license, prison, or both.

Which is pretty damn stupid, if you ask me.

In practice, what that means is the folks who want to get many kinds of body modifications done, from aesthetic mods like pointed ears to functional mods like implanted magnets, must go to unlicensed body-mod artists without formal medical training, who are not medical doctors and who do not have access to anaesthetics, antibiotics, or other basic medical tools. All because the results either give them some functionality outside the “human norm” or take their appearance away from “socially accepted standards of beauty.”

The people who practice the art of body modification live under constant threat of legal action. In some states, such as California, they are considered “unlicensed medical practitioners” and are subject to arrest and prosecution if they are caught. In other states, such as Oklahoma, a person willing to do something as simple as tattooing must pay a $100,000 cash bond to do so legally (and that’s actually a concession to fans of body art; until 2006, tattooing was illegal everywhere in the state.

Now, you might not be into tattoos or pointed ears. Personally, I think they can look cool on the right person, but whatever. That’s not the point. The point is that we as a society have determined that you should only be able to control the way your body looks if the result is what other people would find attractive, and I frankly think that’s an appalling and immoral approach to the question of medical ethics.

Look, this is really simple. My body belongs to me; your body belongs to you. Our appearance is not subject to vote. And yet that’s exactly what we have–a system whereby if enough people think that something (big tits) is attractive, then plastic surgeons are ethically permitted to give women big tits, but if there aren’t enough people who think something else (pointed ears) is attractive, then plastic surgeons are barred from giving folks pointed ears.

It’s stupid enough to live in a society that tells people, every day, in a hundred thousand different ways, that there’s only one way you are “supposed” to look, but to write that notion into professional ethics and law is stupid beyond belief. We claim to be a society that values plurality, diversity, and individual control over our own lives, yet in the single most basic, fundamental form of individual control of all, individual control of our own bodies, we have adopted a herd mentality and then elevated that heard mentality to the level of ethical absolute.

“I like big tits, so doctors are permitted to perform dangerous and massively invasive surgery to give women big tits. I don’t like pointed ears, so doctors are not permitted to perform relatively trivial, simple procedures to give people pointed ears.” Someone explain to me exactly how this is “ethical”? When was it, exactly, that common tastes dictated ethics?

And those standards of “socially acceptable beauty” are themselves toxic and unrealistic. A lot of folks might not like the thought of people getting pointed ears, but how do you explain the saga of Melanie Berliet, an attractive 27-year-old model and Vanity Fair writer, who for her piece on cosmetic surgery visited three plastic surgeons, who complied a lengthy, expensive, and medically invasive list of “improvements” they recommended for her? A lot of people talk about how toxic and unrealistic social standards of female beauty are, but when you take it to the ludicrous extreme of thinking that a very attractive woman by ay standards could benefit from surgical “improvement,” but that functional or unconventional body modification is inherently wrong, what exactly does that say about social standards?

Folks, this is fucked up beyond all human reckoning.

A great deal of the current legal landscape regarding body modification, particularly “enhancement” and “human norms,” can be traced to the opinions of a few people, notably among them Leon Kass and Francis Fukuyama.

These two people were among the eighteen appointed by George W. Bush to the president’s Council on Bioethics when Bush took office. The Council on Bioethics is an Administrative cabinet designed to advise the President on the ethical issues surrounding medicine and biotechnology, and as such its goal, at least nominally, is to act as an ethical voice in considerations including legislation, regulation, and research funding in biotechnology.

And who, exactly, are these people?

Leon Kass, the head of the Council under Bush, is an ardent foe of new biotechnology, particularly research involving human reproduction, longevity, and augmentation. He is the architect of Bush’s stem-cell research ban, and lobbied Congress unsuccessfully to pass a ban on research aimed at improving human lifespan on the grounds that death is “necessary and desirable end” and “Christians already know how to live forever.” He opposes in-vitro fertilization on the grounds that it is an affront to human dignity (an argument which I must admit makes no sense at all to me) and that it obscures moral truths about the essence of human dignity (which basically sounds like handwaving: “It seems yucky to me, so I’ll blather about moral truth to conceal the fact that I have no cogent arguments save for the fact that it seems yucky to me”).

In fact, Kass even explicitly acknowledges this “yuck factor.” He calls it “the wisdom of repugnance,” and says that anything we see as “yucky” is, on its face, inherently immoral–by which definition, things like organ transplants (derided with disgust as “doctors cutting up corpses and sewing bits of dead people into live people” when it first started to develop). Many things seem yucky when they are new, but with familiarity come to be recognized as the lifegiving boons that they are.

Francis Fukuyama is a political economist who somehow believes that his knowledge of politics and economic issues makes him fit to hold a cabinet-level position on the ethics of biotechnology. He has written a book, “Our Posthuman Future,” in which he labels transhumanism as the most dangerous idea that has ever developed. He’s also noteworthy for another popular book, “The End of History and the Last Man,” in which he argues that the progression of history is over and that free-market democracy is the ultimate of all political and social systems. He’s one of the leaders of the neoconservative movement, and was one of the architects both of the Reagan Doctrine and of the Iraq war.

Now, you might think it strange that a free-market neocon who favors individual and free-market choices would argue that people should not be free to choose to modify themselves if they want to, and that the free market should not be permitted to offer that choice. Honestly, I’ve never been quite able to wade through his logical contortions in supporting this notion, but they seem to come down to “I want modern American democracy to be the be-all and end-all of human development, and radical new biotech that offers to change human beings too much might upset that notion and lead rise to new social and political systems that I can’t even imagine, and I think that would be bad, so we should ban any new biotechnology that could upset the applecart.”

Which strikes me as being a bit like a Roman senator saying “Rome is the pinnacle of human economic and political triumph, so we should ban any new technologies that might lead folks away from the Roman model of civilization.” And that, were it put into reality, would mean that you and I would not be having this conversation, since an instantaneous globe-spanning communication network was most definitely not part of the Roman model.

What Mr. Fukuyama doesn’t realize is that history never ends. The United States is no more the end of history than the Roman Empire was, and that’s a good thing.

It seems to me that these people–tho opponents of transhumanism, the ethics board of the American Medical Association–live in a tiny, conformist world, terrified of change and intolerant of diversity. It’s ethical to change someone’s appearance, but not if the change doesn’t match conventional standards of beauty. It’s ethical to tell women that they need bigger tits and fuller lips, but it’s not ethical to let them make their own choices about their bodies. It’s ethical to implant a device to let a deaf person hear, but not if it lets him hear better than I can.

The bionic man from the TV show The Six Million Dollar Man is, under our current legislative and ethical system, considered an abomination, and the doctors who worked on him would in real life lose their jobs, even if they improved his standard of living. We should help the disabled, but not, y’know, too much.

In the United States, we have long associated “morality” with “sex.” This nation can boast such moral luminaries as Charles Keating, the anti-porn moral crusader who made movies and advised President Reagan on moral issues before embezzling $1.2 billion dollars from a savings and loan under his control, touching off a nationwide financial crisis that threatened to rob working families of their lifes’ savings…but he was deeply concerned with morality, you see.

Even in bioethics this association continues. We have a medical community whose ideas about medical ethics are predicated on the fact that any change that makes a woman more fuckable to the general population is good; any change that makes a woman less fuckable to the general population is bad.

We are also deeply fearful as a society. We shun the disabled and favor medical technology that makes them more like us–but only so long as it keeps them in their place and doesn’t make them, y’know, better than us.

At each step along the way, we construct ethical systems that are the antithesis of agency, that seek to take away control of our bodies from each individual and instead place that control at the mercy of the common, socially accepted standard of beauty.

And I think that it’s about time we start re-thinking that approach to morality.

And as long as I’m posting videos today…

….here’s a great one from over on anansi133‘s blog.

“Disabled” and “not disabled” are not binary states, and increasingly, we’re learning to make the distinctions irrelevant. I think we’re approaching the time when replacements to parts of our body, instead of being clunky and inferior in every way to the original, are actually improvements; this is already happening in some specific niches, such as in track and field, where the International Olympic Committee is reluctant to allow legless athletes to compete with normal athletes because of the perception that sprinting prosthetics are superior to natural legs, and give the nominally “disabled” athlete an unfair advantage.

Personally, I’d like to see an athletic event similar to the original Can-Am racing event, designed to push technology right up against its limits; the rules might be something like “any augmentation or prosthetic is permissible as long as it does not contain its own power source and is powered completely by the body of the athlete who wears it.” I bet we’d see some really interesting stuff (four-second hundred-yard dash, anyone?). But I digress.

Anyway, I think the intersection of disability and transhumanism is kind of fascinating, and I find it interesting that it may end up being nominally “disabled” people who lead the way.

Biochemistry and sex…and hey, multiple orgasms!

A few days ago, someone on my flist posted something that had a casual mention of a drug that is used to cause lactation. I don’t remember who it was, or what the post was actually about, see, but I ended up getting sucked down the Intertubes for hours because if ot, and it was some hours before I re-surfaced in the middle of a lake many miles away.

Lactation in human beings is largely mediated by a hormone called, naturally enough, “prolactin.” But that’s not the interesting bit. The interesting bit is about sex.

This is prolactin. It’s a hormone produced by human beings in the breast during breast feeding (it causes the production of milk) and in the brain during orgasm. As is typical with many hormones, it serves double duty and has a number of different roles; evolutionary biology never starts with a clean slate, so we get hormones in one part of the body repurposed to do something completely different in another part of the body (and we also get fucked-up design night mares like the knee…but I digress).

Its role in the brain is interesting. it’s what keeps you from wanting to fuck all the time.

When (most) people have an orgasm, there’s a drop in sexual arousal immediately afterward. There’s usually a refractory period, during which you can’t get off again, and there’s a generalized, overall decrease in libido. The length of time it lasts varies all over the map; for some folks it’s a few minutes, for other folks it’s the rest of the day, or at least until the rerun of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” is over. Prolactin is the cause.

When it’s released in the brain during and after orgasm, the role of prolactin is to stomp all over your arousal like it was a narc at a biker rally. A while ago, a bunch of scientists far better at getting funded than I am worked out a way to get paid for watching people masturbate; they found some heroic volunters, hooked them up to blood sampling equipment, then monitored the levels of various hormones in their blood while the volunteers masturbated to orgasm. The experiment was repeated with volunteers who could experience multiple orgasms.

What they found, aside from the fact that getting paid to watch women masturbate is really hot, is that the production of prolactin is directly correlated to the post-orgasmic crash; the prolactin remains in the body for hours (or longer); while the level of prolactin is high, arousal is difficult or impossible; and people who have multiple orgasms don’t have this spike in prolactin in their blood after they get off.

All this, I already knew.

Being the transhumanist that I am, which is often just a way of saying being the pragmatist that I am, I’ve long thought that the easiest path to becoming multiply orgasmic would probably be to develop a drug that blocks the action of prolactin. Snap, job done. Take a pill, get off again and again and again and again. And then some more after that.

What I didn’t realize was that such drugs already exist.

So here I am, reading LJ, and I find a passing reference to a drug that induces lactation. Since I hadn’t heard of it before, I do what I always do with novel words or ideas–I consulted the Oracle at Google.

The Oracle at Google is wise and all-knowing, but she can also be a temperamental and difficult oracle, for she often sows her information with the seeds of more things you didn’t know, which in turn lead to more things you didnt know, and still more things you didn’t know, inducing you to submerge yourself in the waters of human knowledge and not come up for air until you’re reading about the history of Hadrian’s Wall when all you’d asked for was perhaps the best ways to trim a cat’s claws.

Anyway, lactation can be induced in women by means of drugs that enhance the action of prolactin, or that stimulate prolactin production. Lactation can also be prevented, naturally enough, by drugs which block the effects of prolactin, of which there are two, cabergoline and bromocriptine.

Now, there are a lot of other reasons why you might want to block prolactin, which have nothing to do with lactation. Excess prolactin is responsible for a number of other conditions; certain forms of pituitary disease cause excess levels of prolactin, which can lead to cancers, arthritis and other autoimmune diseases, and a whole host of other stuff you don’t want. So there’s a medical need for drugs that block prolactin.

As it turns out, there’s a relationship between prolactin and a completely different compound, the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine also serves multiple functions. It’s the neurotransmitter that signals nerves in your voluntary motor centers of your brain; when you think about moving your arm, your motor centers produce dopamine, which turns into the nerve impulses that make your arm actually move.

It’s also a key component of the so-called “reward center” of the brain that mediates feelings of pleasure; when you delight in anything from a beautiful painting to the knowledge that you’re getting paid to watch people masturbate, dopamine is the reason. And dopamine mediates much of the sexual system of the brain, including the functions that cause physical arousal.

Dopamine and prolactin are mutually antagonistic. Dopamine tends to inhibit the function and production of prolactin, and excess prolactin tends to inhibit the function of dopamine. For that reasons, things that are antagonistic to prolactin tend to enhance the function or quantity of dopamine in the brain, and vice-versa.

Okay, so here’s where things get really cool.

There is a devastating disease called Parkinson’s disease which results in gradual, irreversible destruction of the dopamine-producing cells in the motor area of the brain, which leads to gradual, creeping paralysis. Because it’s caused by the loss of dopamine-producing cells, anything which acts to stimulate the production of dopamine in the brain will tend to reverse the paralysis, so dopamine-enhancing drugs are often used to treat Parkinson’s.

Now, as I’ve already mentioned, drugs that block prolactin tend to enhance dopamine, and vice versa. The drug bromocriptine is a prolactin antagonist and a dopamine agonist; for that reason, it’s often used to treat both Parkinson’s disease and certain pituitary disorders that cause excess prolactin production. The down side is that it has a number of fairly nasty side effects in some people, including such unpleasantness as psychosis.

Cabergoline is another drug that works the same way as bromocriptine; like bromocriptine, cabergoline is used to treat Parkinson’s disease and pituitary disease. It, too, blocks prolactin and enhances dopamine, and it has fewer nasty side effects.

One interesting side effect reported in both men and women being treated for things like Parkinson’s is multiple orgasms.

Which is a hell of a side effect, if you ask me.

In fact, cabergoline (and, to a lesser extent, bromocriptine) are sometimes prescribed off-label to counteract the sexual side effects of antidepressants (which modify the action of dopamine), and as treatments for sexual dysfunction.

So it turns out, as is often the case, that not only was I right in thinking that a prolactin-blocking drug might allow folks to have multiple orgasms, but that, as usual, other folks had already beaten me to the punch.

The moral lesson here is to be careful what you write about in your LiveJournal. The simple mention of an unfamiliar word can suck someone down into the bowels of the Internet for hours on end, and not only that, can spread viral-like through LiveJournal psts to other folks, who may get sucked down for hours on end plumbing the depths of biochemistry or stellar nucleosynthesis, as this post in shiva-kun‘s journal so aptly shows. In the interests of getting things done in the office, I hereby ask that all the folks on my friends list refrain from posting anything interesting, and instead confine themselves to discussions of reruns of “Friends” for the next three days, kay?