Prometheus Unbound

What would you do if you could feel any way you wanted, at will?

I’m not just talking about mind-hacks for calming yourself down or getting motivated. I mean, what if you could become drunk, instantly, just by deciding to – and then completely sober up at a moment’s notice? What if tripping on mescaline was as simple as thinking, “I’d like to trip on mescaline right now,” and returning to normalcy was just as easy?

The novelist Iain M. Banks imagines one such society – termed simply “The Culture” – in which this kind of mental control is just one of the perks encoded into everyone’s genetics from birth. Citizens of The Culture can choose to remember or forget any event, to be energetic or asleep, to feel hypersexual or celibate – at will. These abilities, combined with Culture members’ regenerative powers and near-immortality, make them a truly posthuman society. They are, in effect, a civilization composed entirely of gods.

Of course, no culture like The Culture exists on earth today. But we’re getting closer and closer to making bits and pieces of this technology a reality. Researchers have found ways of printing new chemicals from digital blueprints, of turning specific memories on and off, of understanding and modifying feelings of reward and doubt, and of electronically improving the brain’s memory capacity. We may soon be able to regenerate lost fingers – or even whole limbs.

Many of these technologies are still in their infancy – but useful technologies have a way of evolving more quickly than we expect.

"Yeah right, like we'll ever stop depending on horses."

So: In a world where this level of mental and bodily control is commonplace, will you choose to take part? Are there aspects of this kind of technology that worry you? And if so, would you vote to forbid them to others, or just decline to take part yourself?

What if, one afternoon in 2035, your boss calls you into a private meeting, to tell you you need to improve your IQ and attention span by the end of the day today, or look for another job?

What if your children want to change their personalities? What if all the other kids are swapping biological hacks electronically, and are getting smarter, stronger, faster and happier by the day – while yours are falling behind?

And what if you had the choice to create a child with twice your lifespan, an inborn resistance to disease, and the inability to feel depressed? Would you make that choice?

All these questions hint at an underlying concept: In a society composed entirely of gods, it’s hard to see what place will be left for “mere mortals.” If the society is a kind one, old-timers might be sent to live out their days in peaceful parks and rest homes. Perhaps they’ll even be free to continue mingling with the gods – though, as the gods continue to get smarter and faster, we may find that ordinary one-on-one conversations with them become more and more difficult.

But one thing’s for certain: Posthumanity isn’t just over the horizon – it’s already an active movement today. And whatever name our children call it, it will continue to be a cultural force as the lines between biology, technology and mind keep getting blurrier and blurrier.

Sooner or later, the day will come when someone offers you the choice to upgrade. What choice will you make?


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