Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing

Nothing human

I haven’t read anything by Liu Cixin though people have been recommending his books to me (maybe I should make an effort to overcome my recommendation-resistance), and I’m not watching the Netflix adaptation of The Three-Body Problem, so this post isn’t a direct response to either the book or the series, but rather to an article on Vox by Sigal Samuel, 3 Body Problem’s most mind-bending question isn’t about aliens, in which she describes three conflicting approaches to the survival of our species:

One goes like this: “Humans may be the only intelligent life in the universe — we are incredibly precious. We must protect our species from existential threats at all costs!”

I call this approach “extreme humanism”. (Below, I try to argue for a more moderate humanism.) The second alternative is antihumanism:

“Humans are destroying the planet — causing climate change, making species go extinct. The world will be better off if we go extinct!”

The third position is transhumanism, whose adherents “want to keep some version of humanity going, but definitely not the current hardware”.

They imagine us with chips in our brains, or with AI telling us how to make moral decisions more objectively, or with digitally uploaded minds that live forever in the cloud.

I was rather forcibly struck by the realization that I can’t assent to any of these three views. So, are there other possibilities? To me it seems obvious that there must be.

It is possible that humans are the only intelligent life in the universe. (Though personally, I’m inclined to doubt that we’re the only intelligent life on this planet. Do you know any dogs?) But even if it’s true, that doesn’t make us “incredibly precious”. As a species, we’ve had a good run and we’re obviously going to die out at some point. Would now be a good time for that to happen, or would it be better if we went on for another few hundred thousand years? Given what we know about how long other species have survived and how quickly they can disappear, I tend to think that our own extinction is likely to come sooner rather than later, but that’s just a guess. That sooner or later it will come is beyond doubt.

In the meantime, we have an instinct for self-preservation (which may come into conflict with other instincts) and as individuals most of us most of the time try to prolong our lives to the extent we can, within reason (or not too far outside it). As a species, we should probably take the same approach, but not to the extreme of protecting human life “at all costs”. Let’s not get carried away.

It’s true that our planet is in bad shape as the result of human activities, and in particular because of the climate crisis. However, it strikes me as a bit excessive to blame the whole species for the state of the world. Perhaps I’m just generalizing from my own perception of the problem but I have the impression that most of us don’t feel we have any effective control over the causes of global heating. We cut back on our use of electricity, walk and cycle more instead of using motorized transport, and it doesn’t seem to make a lot of difference. We “do our bit”, but it really is no more than a “bit”: it’s nowhere near enough, and apparently never can be. Governments and big business adopt policies and take measures which — again — don’t seem to have much effect.

Meanwhile, energy-intensive activities like crypto-mining and the processing of unimaginable amounts of “data” by neural networks greatly outweigh the puny efforts of individuals and governments alike to cut back on emissions. To say that “humans are destroying the planet” is a distraction, and dangerously misleading. It invites us to blame ourselves for something that’s being done mostly against our will, and to acquiesce in our own punishment for the crimes of relatively few among us. While it’s true that the beings who are destroying the planet are human, it doesn’t follow that humans in general, all of us, are responsible, or that we all need to be eliminated to save our environment.

Instead of sentencing all of humanity to extinction, mightn’t we be better off eliminating only the ones in charge, the people making the decisions that are preventing the climate crisis from being reversed? If we can put all of humankind — not just “the 1%” or the ruling class or the tech oligarchy, or whatever you want to call them — in charge of our own lives, and we still fail to improve the state of the world, then we can talk about wiping out the entire species.

I haven’t got a lot to say about the transhumanist option. I can’t envisage how it would work and I’m confident that it’s a prospect I’m not going to have to face in my lifetime. I couldn’t resist a cynical sneer, though, at the idea of “digitally uploaded minds that live forever in the cloud”. You know, of course, that “the cloud” doesn’t exist! At best it’s a very inexact metaphor. What we (in some cases try not to) think of as the cloud is really a conglomeration of server farms spread all over the world and already consuming preposterously huge amounts of energy. Quite apart from the fact that I can’t imagine how anybody would go about uploading a “mind” to a server — that really would be a ghost in a machine — I’m wondering how we’d keep the generators running to power the servers and extract the fuel on which the generators would run. It seems to me that we’d need to retain large numbers of corporeal humans to perform such tasks.

And since it would be far too tempting for the maintenance workforce simply to turn the servers off, thus effecting the easiest revolution imaginable, there’d need to be an army to prevent such action, and an extensive surveillance system to predict when and where the threat was emerging. A transhuman future, if it were ever to come about, would still depend on the work of a lot of human beings.

Posted by Art on 27-04-2024.