Transhumanism and Falling Stars

This post is basically the result of some #CommuteThoughts.  It’s like Shower Thoughts, but it happens in the car when you’re not thinking of things like what to have for supper, or why the idiot in front of you can’t drive.

Recently I finished watching through the end of Season 4 of Babylon 5, and I was always fond of “Deconstruction of Falling Stars” – the season ending.  It would have made a decent series ending as well, if it had come to it(though I know they did already film “Sleeping in Light” in case it had been needed).

First, the ending scene with the sun going nova was supposedly only one million years later.  For that to happen that fast, something serious had to happen, and there was undoubtedly some sort of story there, even if it was never told.

Second, I like the fact that the guy who’s watching all the clips enters a very Vorlon-like encounter suit, but this one has a human shape despite some minor Vorlon stylings.  Given that fact, it makes you wonder if the Vorlon actually used to look like their suit before they went all energy-like-being on the universe.

Still, it brings up a point – not jsut in B5, but in most sci-fi, the more advanced races tend to turn into beings that appear to be pure energy, however little sense it makes.  It’s often framed in the device of evolution, of moving to a greater purpose.

Evolution is not that however – it is simply adaptations to new environments, and so on.  Turning into energy isn’t exactly a mutation that would happen in nature on its ownIt could make some kind of sense as an adaptation to space, but even then, stepping across that boundary and somehow allowing pure energy to exist as a cohesive organized whole is not something we see regularly in nature.

There is undeniably a spiritual underlaying to it as well.  The idea of the soul made manifest, leaving the flesh behind and expressing itself in its purest form.  These races are so advanced they do not need flesh to exist, and are able to manifest as pure soul. It is one way to look at it.

Another way however, if one were to take that destination shown in B5 as fact, is that it’s an expression of transhumanism, just taking a lot longer than some folks would wish.  Rather than some blind evolution or transformation imposed by nature and mutations, it’s a conscious choice made by a sapient species, leaving behind the restrictions of flesh to interact directly with existence.  No more need for hunger, sleep, or other biological functions(though some might still experience them as a matter of choice – after all, he did look like a normal human until we went to enter the suit).

The explosion of people questioning and challenging their own identity shows we are already starting to turn that direction – questioning what is human, and choosing our forms as much as we can, rather than letting them choose us.  A lot of folk do not understand this and deride it, or take it to extremes to strawman it.  There’s an element of humanity’s tribal tendencies as well, the “us vs them” and the driving out of those who do not fit the mold.

One example I came across recently was someone afraid that the new Star Trek series was going to be an over-the-top agenda-pushing show(ignoring the fact that Star Trek ahs always been about morality plays and “liberal” ideas since the beginning).  His example was that Picard would have come out as this multi-feathered tri-sexed impossible creature and all the “tumblrinas” would congratulate him on it.

Looking at it, I already see two concepts here that seem to be what really is pissing the guy off, or at least what he doesn’t understand(or even try to) and thus fears and mocks.

First, there’s an unspoken implication given the reference to “tumblrinas” that this is a way of saying “I’m better than you.”  Because he is not accepting the identity he was born with and selecting(either consciously, unconsciously, or spiritually) a more fitting self, and then parading it around, the troll, for lack of a better word, feels inferior because he is still the same, plain ordinary human, as much as anyone made of starstuff can be.

To be fair, there is a segment of folks out there who do view that their differing identity makes them superior to the common man.  THIS IS FALSE. A dragonkin’s life is as valuable as the family in Kentucky living out of a rusty RV and making a living skinning deer while cursing “dem immigrants” as evil.  It’s all life, and it is not what you are that makes you great, but how you live and treat your common sapients.  That does not mean that if they threaten to kill you you shouldn’t fight back, or that you have to tolerate their ideology, but it is the ideology that makes the difference, not the fact that one sees their true self as having scales and the other doesn’t see beyond the inside of the next beer can.

Which brings us to the second point I’ve seen personally, and by that I mean in-person: not understanding the questioning of self.

There is a person I know in meatspace that does not understand the point of transexuals. He’s fairly conservative, and has kids, so he’s particularly sensitive to the false depictions of perversion that certain parts of the media will revel in. He’s a great guy, but doesn’t seem to understand how one can question their identity.

To get more specific, I happen to sit outside his office so I overhear conversations all the time, and one that struck me was him and one of our more liberal-minded staff talking about the whole bathroom issue.  From there, it somehow came across the idea of white people considering themselves black, and that being equally as valid.  While I don’t remember the details, the impression I came away with is that he was very much seeing it as “what you are is what the world made you” and inability to accept that just did not make sense to him at all.

I think that’s the second route to these sorts of misunderstandings – the people in question do not grasp how identity can be a choice.  They think that when you draw your hand in life, it is wrong to call a mulligan and redraw.  In the previous skin-related example, maybe the theoretical skin-changer just feels more attractive that way, or is much more comfortable in the culture associated with that image – much as the way furry identity will tend to drift towards the animal that symbolically resonates with you the best.

(Side note: I have not brought up transhumanism with this guy yet, but plan to at some point, just to see how he responds to that idea.)

Now, that all said, to bring it back around I wouldn’t see Star Trek pulling that kind of thing.  First, Picard the character seems rather satisfied with the identity of what he is.  With holodeck technology and especially post-Voyager(for holoemitters) anyone would be able to more directly become anything they wish, at least part of the time.  Also, in Star Trek most of these sorts of things are not flaunted, but just accepted as they are.  A character does not come out as gay as some big event, they just happen to like men and approach them just as easily as a straight man might ask out a woman on a date. (which, for some, isn’t very easy!)

It all comes back to an inability to understand that leads to fear, and feelings of inferiority, due to the same or to some bad eggs that do try to cast others as inferior for not questioning themselves.

 

On one other note, coming back to the original topic of Babylon 5, what really is the point of organic technology?  The few times we see it in the series, it’s cast as this almost mystical ubertech that seems like it is the solution to everything.  But what have we actually seen or heard it do that makes it superior in any way to normal tech?

The biggest advantages depicted seem to be growth, self-repair, and self-direction.  Everything else is just a symptom of the big “black box” hiding the inner workings by throwing their hands up and declaring it was because it’s so incredibly advanced it’s not understandable(which, to be fair, can be a valid point too).

Self-direction can be accomplished by a sufficiently advanced AI, which does not rely on anything organic, so I’m going to set it aside for now.

Growth and self-repair on the other hand are basically two sides of the same coin.  Rather than replacing a burnt out circuit board, the ship could simply regrow the connections much as we regrow a cut in our skin.  Feed it the right materials and it can grow from a tiny starting point into a massively complicated machine – after all, in a way we’re just biological machines!

You could accomplish the same results with self-replicating nanomachines.  Actually, in a  sense, that’s what the cells that make us up are.  Still, it does not require what we would think of as organic to reproduce the same ideas and results.  Somewhere out there could be beings of pure nanomachines, created by a now-dead race.  Life just like ours, but with tiny specialized artificial machines replacing the naturally-created specialized cells constructing our bodies.  And rather than exchanging DNA, they could combine programming code, do a diff-merge, and produce new life from the new codebase introduced into their nanomachines.

Unless by organic technology you mean technology that acts like life does, not technology that works from the same cells etc that we do.  Then maybe you could say they did have a point.

Then again, food labeling itself as organic suggests that other food is inorganic, and I don’t see pasta as being made out of rock!

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