Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Human, Transhuman, Posthuman (Part 2)

Recently I attended the "Humanity+" conference in Melbourne (http://hplusconf.com.au/).  This is the second of two posts about the conference.

In my previous post I discussed some presentations at the Humanity+ conference that were closely related to current science.  This time I will discuss some presentations related to art.

Firstly, Stelarc's presentation, entitled "Meat, Metal and Code".  For those who don't know of him, Stelarc (http://stelarc.org) is an Australian artist who has really pushed the boundaries of the body in art.  He is also a very engaging presenter, with an extraordinary laugh.  He took us through some of his works, from his third hand (an artificial hand he controlled with electrodes attached to his stomach muscles) and the stomach sculpture (which he swallowed: it then unfolded and transmitted video of the interior of his stomach) to more recent work, including work with exoskeletons, and the work Ping, where his body was controlled via the Internet by people clicking on an interface which resulted in Stelarc's muscles being made to move by electric shocks.  Stelarc was wearing VR goggles that let him see (via webcam) the face of the person who was controlling him.

Stelarc also talked about, and showed us, his extra ear.  The extra ear was originally intended to be on the side of his head, but he ended up growing a small-scale ear-shaped piece of flesh on the inside of one arm, on an implanted scaffolding of artificial cartilage.  He also had a microphone and Bluetooth transmitter implanted into the "ear", but he developed a serious infection and the microphone and transmitter had to be removed.  He plans to try again with them, and also to implant a small speaker in a gap in his teeth, thus completing a sort of human telephone circuit.  There are also plans to inject some of his stem cells to create an earlobe, which is missing at present.

Stelarc also ran the Prosthetic Head for us, an avatar of Stelarc which one converses with, Eliza-fashion, by typing statements or questions.  The Head is on a screen.  It is based on a scan of Stelarc's head, has changing facial expressions, and talks via speech synthesis.  An extension of this work is the Articulated Head, which he only mentioned briefly.  This is mounted on a robot arm and has an "attention facility": it is capable of getting bored and turning away from someone interacting with it.

Recently Stelarc reprised his early suspension works, where he had large hooks pushed through his skin and was suspended by steel cables.  He did one this March, after a break of more than 20 years, suspended over a four-metre-long statue of his arm with the extra ear.  He did say that doing a suspension again wasn't one of his best ideas!

Stelarc had a disconcerting habit during the presentation of referring to himself as "the body" or "this body" or "the artist", though he did say "I" some of the time.  In response to a question he said: "There is not an 'I' that owns this body.  This body exists and interacts."

Natasha Vita-More (which I think is an adopted name; http://www.natasha.cc) describes herself as a designer, though she has evidently had a very varied career; at one point she did pre-astronaut training.  She described her "Primo Posthuman" design for a re-engineered body, with choice of gender, improved skin with adjustable colour, and so on.  She made this design in collaboration with various professionals, but as far as I can tell it is essentially a piece of conceptual art, without technical detail of the sort I described in my previous post.  She also showed us other works, based in part on things like scans of the bone density of her body; to some extent they are meditations on the frailty of the human body—hers.  She said she isn't interested in radical body modification for herself (as things are now), though she has had cosmetic surgery.

Her main work seems to be tireless promotion of ideas around trans-humanism, a movement to improve the human condition by scientific means, leading ultimately to humans being able to take charge of their own evolution.  

A surprise was the talk by Stuart Candy (http://futuryst.com/).  Candy is a professional futurist: his day job is as a member of the "Foresight" team of the big engineering and construction firm Arup.  He also has an adjunct position at the California College of the Arts.

Stuart explained what he does as a futurist.  He doesn't try to "predict the future": that is futile.  He does develop a range of possible future scenarios; the challenge then is to try to move towards the scenarios that we prefer and away from the ones we don't want.  He also considered that the scenarios are best presented as stories or experiences, rather than through tables and charts.

This is where the surprise came in, as these stories or experiences are essentially imaginative artworks.  Candy studied at the University of Hawaii under the noted futurist Jim Dator.  While Candy was there, the State Government of Hawaii launched a project to discuss Hawaii in 2050 and asked the University to assist.  The result was four experiential scenarios.  In one, which was more or less "business as usual", the audience attended an election debate between the candidates for the Governorship of Hawaii in 2050; the candidates were corporations, as legal personhood was assumed to have advanced to the point where corporations could run for office.  In another scenario the audience was herded into a room by gun-carrying soldiers for an indoctrination lecture.  It was supposed that a global economic collapse had essentially separated Hawaii from the rest of the world; parts of the U.S. Army based in Hawaii had taken over, cloaking their authoritarian rule with respectability by restoring the Hawaiian monarchy, which was overthrown in a U.S.-backed coup in 1893.  In all there were four such future scenarios.

At the California College of the Arts, Candy has encouraged students to come up with projects like the "Genetic Census of 2020", where the students got people to spit into a test-tube, supposedly to ascertain their genetic profiles.  Candy's point was that these experiential scenarios present ideas about the future far more engagingly than any number of graphs, charts and technical reports.  He showed us some pages from a "Summary for Policymakers" produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  It was full of dry graphs and charts, whose implications are in fact frightening, but which would have had far more impact on the policy makers if they had been supplemented with the sort of experiential scenarios Candy was showing us.

A change of pace was provided by a reading by Lisa Jacobson (http://lisajacobson.org/) of extracts from her verse novel The Sunlit Zone, which is being published this month.  The novel is set partly in the year 2050, and the extracts we heard blended the everyday with occasional startling elements that are supposed no more remarkable in 2050 than an iPad is today.  Jacobson has won awards for her poetry, but the verse novel is apparently a new form for her.  She read well, and the half hour she had went all too quickly.

Nobody at the conference represented the cultural studies/critical theory side of things, which is understandable considering some of the hostile attitudes towards science that have come from that camp, and the only person who mentioned critical theory was Natasha Vita-More.  She discussed briefly a 2011 book Transhumanism and Its Critics, edited by Gregory Hansell and William Grassie, which contains contributions from both sides.

For me the weekend was a very interesting glimpse into the transhumanist world, which I was previously only vaguely aware of.  And if Aubrey de Grey's work "only" leads to an effective therapy for macular degeneration, more power to his elbow!


  1. Transhumanity is a very real prospect in this era of expotential growth and potential technological singularity. The prospect of digitized conciousness facinates me, and I have a novel published that concerns this scenario and the relationship between death and synthetic rebirth.

    To find out more, go to www.mikepomery.com

  2. Good to see your blog response to H+
    @Melbourne 2012!

    Next conf in Aug 18-19: http://2012.singularitysummit.com.au