Us Cowboys and Alien Technology

To begin with, smart people expressing the zeitgeist:

“You’re playing God.”
“Somebody has to!”
Steve Martin, The Man with Two Brains.

And life itself confided this secret to me: “Behold,” it said, “I am that which must always overcome itself. Indeed, you call it a will to procreate or a drive to an end, to something higher, farther, more manifold” Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra II 12

I watched the best movie I never heard of in 2011 on pay-per-view in the Poconos Saturday. Did you know that Cowboys and Aliens cost $163 million dollars to make? As we watched it, the women in the room laughed out loud when one came to the realization that, “This movie is an extended study of Daniel Craig’s behind!” I had missed that feature, but they were essentially right.

What I was not missing was the thinking behind the comic book. We have an ongoing ambivalence about technology and an ongoing hope that “us cowboys” can save humanity from being taken over by it. In case you haven’t seen the movie, Daniel Craig is a cowboy. (He plays the part straight, but Harrison Ford is winking conspiratorially at us through most of the picture). Craig is abducted by aliens but escapes with one of their powerful devices on his left arm. He is a cowboy who learns quickly how to fight like an alien. I’d say it was a hoot to watch this, but that would not be enough. It elicited many hoots on many levels. Netflix it for sure — watch the cowboys save humanity.

Thank God some Jesus-followers are also considering what becoming posthuman might mean (not just Steven Spielberg and Steve Martin)! Circle of Hope leaders have been trying to come up with our own “theology of technology” for the past couple of years and we can’t do it. Nevertheless, we sort of have alien devices attached to us. We need to answer the ultimate questions attached to the attachments, “Why not renounce our human limits and accept transcendence? Why talk about God when we are as good as gods?”

The questionable activities that demand answers are proliferating. The Enlightenment and the humanist perspective convinced everyone that progress was inevitable, that life is a grand adventure, and that reason, science, and good will would free us from the confines of the past. People are taking that logic to its predictable extreme and saying that we can attain higher peaks by applying our intelligence, determination, and optimism to break out of the human chrysalis. They argue that evolution, despite our efforts, has channeled our behavior in particular directions built into our neurology. Our bodies and brains restrain our capacities. Supposedly, our creativity is struggling within the boundaries of human intelligence, imagination, and concentration. People think we can beat that.

It is easy to see that brilliant people are certainly trying hard to break out of the chrysalis. The technology they are creating is the dominant force shaping the emerging postmodern world. I know I am dependent on various information, communication, and transportation technologies. With advances in biotechnology, artificial intelligence, and robotics, that dependence will increase. But my dependence (and the movie-maker’s dependence) is accompanied by a deep ambivalence. For many, technology symbolizes the faith of the postmodern world, but it is an ambivalent faith encapsulating both hopes for and fears of the future.

I don’t underestimate people who call themselves extropist or transhumanist. I appreciate that they are being philosophical rather than advancing the cause of chrysalis-breaking under the banner of improving technology. I had an argument last week about whether our church should adopt a technology merely because it was faster, when I thought the adoption had a lot of other ramifications that were unexplored. I met with a few blank stares. At least the philosophers are having an argument rather than just buying an ap.

The philosophers are justifying how we have already taken our first steps along the road to posthumanity. We have begun to directly alter our genetic structure to remedy “nature’s failures.” We use drugs to modify our psychology, enhance our concentration, and slow brain aging. Research into more specific and powerful neurochemical modifiers is going to speed up  how we apply new tools from molecular biology, computer-assisted molecular design, and brain imaging.

The merging of human and machine is advancing. Machines are becoming more organic, self-modifying, and intelligent. At the same time, we are beginning to incorporate our technology into our selves. We began with pacemakers, artificial joints, and contact lenses. We’re far beyond that, now. The government is developing artificial retinas. Microelectrodes can be electrochemically coupled to our brains. Computers and their interfaces rapidly evolve to fit us: from mainframes and text-based interfaces to PCs, hand-held devices and voice-recognition. Even I played Fruit Ninja on voice-recognition Kinect last Friday! (Big weekend, people!) Surely we’ll be called to implant a computer in the name of buying a new product, soon.

Things are advancing rapidly. People hold off on medical treatment because a new technology will save them better, next month. We will use engineered viruses to alter the genetic structure of any cell, even adult, differentiated cells. Molecular nanotechnology may give us control over the structure of matter, allowing us to build things atom-by-atom — we might be able to program the construction of physical objects (including our bodies) just as we now do with software. This has already played out in other movies, but people are honestly working on the ability to “upload” ourselves (our psychology, memories, emotional responses, values, feelings) from our biological brains into synthetic brains that run a million times faster and allow more extensive modification than allowed by our natural brains.

There are certainly no simple answers in response to all the questions that are being raised. I am excited when technology does such good things for my friends (like the robot that managed Dave’s surgery!).

But I can’t help thinking that wanting to break out of the chrysalis of humanity is a human-hating aspiration. I am working out what it all means. Today’s bullet points:

  • Transcendence is not a new desire, even if it has new technology to back it up. Revisit the apple again.
  • The desire to break out of humanity it surely fundamental to the reason God broke into humanity in Jesus. How we save ourselves never works right, Spielburg notwithstanding.
  • Being human is good. Being connected to God forever as our true selves in our own bodies is a gift that is even better. Thank you, Jesus.

2 thoughts on “Us Cowboys and Alien Technology

  1. (Getting warmed up) Reading this again made me think of chapter 2 in Paul and Timothy’s letter to the Phillipians: “5Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, 6who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.”
    The path Jesus laid out to be like God (dare I say, God-like), is to be human, and serve others humbly with God’s help, and let God reward you for that. The path to avoid is to become God-like by grasping a thing (like a technology software/device or other property, a position, or a privilege) and wielding it to be at an advantage over others. If technology is gonna be a part of our lives I think it’s healthy to make sure we check ourselves to make sure we are using these things to serve others and also make sure we can do without technologies at least for limited periods of time to be just human- technology fasting.

  2. Once we have a more put together theology of technology, I’m thinking that artistic endeavors (movies, story, sculpture, dance, etc.) may very well be among the best ways to communicate it.

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