Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

The technology that is threatening life as we know it

We are currently witnessing a pervasive and accelerating recording, modelling and processing of data pertaining to human beings as well as other living species (and even inorganic things) on a scale that surpasses what most of us can imagine. This has been made possible by bio-technologies which seem as if they are the incipient actualisation of something out of William Gibson’s Neuromancer. And if you’ve read Neuromancer, you will recall that such bio-technologies have the potential of transforming all life as we know it, and not necessarily for the better, because it entails the dubious promise of tampering with our (and other creatures’) natural endowments either by way of enhancing them (which is not necessarily a ‘good’ thing) or to distort or limit them.

So, for example, the noir-hero of Neuromancer, Case, is depicted as someone who used to be exceptionally gifted as a web-‘cowboy’ (that is, hacker), until he made the mistake of stealing from his employers, who did not hesitate to subject Case to neural impairment (injury, in other words), at one of the many illegal ‘medical’ (read: bio-technological) clinics competing for clients. Luckily for Case, prospective new employers are willing to have the neuro-damage reversed at another clinic.

Then there is Molly Millions, a futuristic ‘razor girl’ who has been bio-neurally enhanced to the point where her reflexes are superhuman by present standards, and is therefore a redoubtable opponent in any streetfight. Gibson’s exploration of this kind of bio-technology may have read like unlikely sci-fi stuff in 1984, when the novel was published, but judging by current developments in the field of the bio- and neural sciences – and particularly in that of the bio-technology leaning on these sciences – Gibson’s prescient vision of a future where ‘nature’ is increasingly unrecognisable as such, is in the process of being actualised.

This is artistically and visually confirmed in the Estonian exhibition at the 2017 Venice Biennale, which I referred to briefly in my previous post. It is by the internationally recognised Estonian artist Katja Novitskova, and is appropriately titled “If Only You Could See What I’ve Seen with Your Eyes”, which is a fitting quotation from Ridley Scott’s classic sci-fi film-noir Blade Runner (1982), where one of the bio-technologically created ‘replicants’, Roy, says this to the bio-technologist who created his eyes for the Tyrrell company.

The reason why the exhibition title is so fitting is because it captures the wished-for results of the present, burgeoning bio-technologies so aptly: their implicit goal is nothing less than the replication (recall the ‘replicants’ of Scott’s film) and enhancement of nature in all her diversity – the ‘replicants’ were constructed to be able to perform tasks in outer space that the ‘natural’ human body is not equipped to carry out. Novitskova’s exhibition sets out to expose this kind of techno-transformation critically in a series of vividly disturbing images, ranging from laboratory ‘worms’ and what appears to be a variety of embryonic beings, to what is probably the paradigmatic image on display, namely a leopard whose eyes burn red with an unearthly electronic light – the dubious promise of fusing the natural and the artificial bio-technologically (probably for military purposes).

You may wonder what this has to do with the kind of bio-technological manipulation and enhancement thematised in Neuromancer and Blade Runner. The pamphlet made available at Novitskova’s exhibition explains it well:

“If Only You Could See What I’ve Seen with Your Eyes addresses the relationship between the domain of seeing, big data-driven industries, and ecology in times of biotic crisis.

“Currently, vast aspects of human and nonhuman lives are being registered and modeled on an environmental scale. Collection and processing of data has become a tool used to map all possible surfaces, moments and spectra on Earth and beyond – from faces to biological cell walls to dust on Mars.

“This is performed by human, and increasingly, robotic agents, and is directed at people, both wild and captured creatures, and nonliving processes. Seeing has become an expanding extractive industry. In the process new visual languages, commodities and life forms are being generated reflecting back to us our often violent entanglement with the world: patterns of embryonic development in mutated lab-test worms, live-streamed flows of CO2 gas across the planet, or a group of near-extinct animals passing by a tree and noticing the tracking camera.

“Katja Novitskova works from new forms of imagery taken from the realm of present day visual representation. This exhibition explores this radical new articulation of the role of the image, and how constant planetary scale mediation gains an ecological dimension.”

In a nutshell: Novitskova uncovers the seldom noticed bio- and neuro-technological processes that are incrementally alienating humans from what is (was?) their life-world, by mapping and potentially (if not already actually) altering their neural composition through various forms of mapping and interference, concomitantly carrying out the same task with regard to other beings. On the one hand one might argue that this is part of what is referred to as the emergence of the ‘posthuman’, which is not an unambiguously ‘bad’ thing, given its rejection of modern ‘anthropocentric humanism’, which brought with it untold calamities in the shape of the technological domination of nature, demonstrating instead that humans are not the ‘crown of creation’ – as previously assumed – but merely one species among many other intelligent beings, natural and artificial. So far so good.

But the other, less ‘good’ side of the posthuman consists precisely in the capitalist hijacking of bio-technical research for purposes of profit and control, no less than in the anthropocentric era, concomitantly transforming natural entities in a truly frightening and alienating manner.

That there is an awareness of what is at stake is clear from the existence of what is called the International Declaration on Human Genetic Data, by Unesco, of 2003. Under the ‘General Provisions … Aims and Scope’ of this declaration it is stated (very significantly, in light of what I am arguing here), that:

“(a) The aims of this Declaration are: to ensure the respect of human dignity and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the collection, processing, use and storage of human genetic data, human proteomic data and of the biological samples from which they are derived, referred to hereinafter as ‘biological samples’, in keeping with the requirements of equality, justice and solidarity, while giving due consideration to freedom of thought and expression, including freedom of research; to set out the principles which should guide States in the formulation of their legislation and their policies on these issues; and to form the basis for guidelines of good practices in these areas for the institutions and individuals concerned.

“(b) Any collection, processing, use and storage of human genetic data, human proteomic data and biological samples shall be consistent with the international law of human rights.

“(c) The provisions of this Declaration apply to the collection, processing, use and storage of human genetic data, human proteomic data and biological samples, except in the investigation, detection and prosecution of criminal offences and in parentage testing that are subject to domestic law that is consistent with the international law of human rights.”

Clearly, unless there was a perceived threat to the integrity of human beings, this declaration would not have been issued in the name of ‘human rights’ and ‘freedoms’. But as Foucault has taught us (and putting it in a nutshell), ethics always comes too late for power, and technological power is what is at stake here; hence the (to my mind futile) attempt to erect a quasi-ethical, quasi-legal bulwark against what is seen as the encroachment of medical and bio-technological power on the terrain of human integrity (by implication AS humans). Typically, in my experience, however, human beings will only realise the full extent of the threat that bio-technology in its current guise entails when it is too late, despite the many warnings in the shape of written texts and art exhibitions.

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