Being human is complicated - but would you rather be a machine?
A machine couldn't write this anxiety-fuelled stumble around the topic of transhumanism, that's for sure.
Today I thought I’d write about low self esteem but then I decided that whatever I had to say it just wouldn’t be good enough. Then I thought I’d write about transhumanism but my first thought after that was that I don’t really know enough to qualify me to write on it. Then I started at the screen and felt sorry for myself for a while. Then I wondered if I could be a truly great writer if I just stopped standing in my own way, or if I’m actually a 100% mediocre writer and have just created the idea that I stand in my own way as part of an elaborate narrative to comfort me in my chronic mediocrity. Then I ate a biscuit.
I know that Chat GPT is advancing fast but I think the day when it can tie itself up in the knots required to come up with an opening paragraph like this one is still a way off.
After a long time thinking up ideas to write and rejecting them on the basis of my human fallibility, I went for a walk.
The Levels are flooded and quite beautiful at the moment. I sometimes wish I lived in a city but on the other hand, I feel so very lucky to live surrounded by wildlife and nature. I know it’s what my inner child, who was a dreamy little person who talked to animals a great deal, would have wanted. Also - when it’s not quite so submerged - it’s an opportunity to ‘touch grass’. For those who don’t know, ‘touch grass’ is a meme / expression used on social media that basically means, ‘You’re online too much, go outside’. Connect with nature.
Connecting with nature is the antidote to our current somewhat dystopian times. It’s been shown to have such benefits to mental and physical health that doctors are even writing so-called ‘green prescriptions’ as part of a UK government funded plan. Gardening, and the shoving of our hands into the soil that this entails, has been shown to boost the diversity of the gut microbiome. The Japanese speak of shinrin-yoku or ‘forest bathing’, a practice now promoted by the Japanese government and supported by hundreds of studies into the benefits to mental health. Hugging trees is not just a joke at hippy’s expense.
But nature isn’t just something we go out into - we are nature. Our bodies are just like those of all the other mammals that I sometimes see scurrying about their days here in Somerset, their bellies close to the mud and their minds preoccupied with the bottom layer of Maslow’s pyramid: food, water, shelter, sleep. We are turning our back on this bodily connection to nature. Recently here on The Mule we’ve been discussing the pros and cons of breast versus formula milk, and I’ve been having the very distinct feeling - as I often also do during discussions around childbirth - that, in spite of those of us who still feel passionately that natural birth and breastfeeding are female superpowers, we are drifting further and further away from them and towards a world which views them as antiquated and pointless.
This - as far as I understand it so far - is transhumanism. No need to apologise if you don’t know what transhumanism is - it’s a word I’ve been hearing for months or maybe even years and it’s taken a while for me to even begin to assimilate it, partly because I think at first I thought it was some kind of whacky conspiracy theory. In fact it just means the world that, to some extent, we already know - a world in which humans are beginning to depend on or even merge with technology in life-changing ways. Arguably this has been happening for centuries: think about the printing press, or the motor car, or the plane, and the way they took us in a sudden big leap in a new direction that was impossible to reverse. In the past few decades, the invention of the internet, social media, the smart phone, have all done this too, big time. And now we have AI.
Elon Musk recently told a global AI summit at Bletchley Park that in the future, nobody would have to work unless they want to, because essentially, there won’t be any jobs that AI cannot do. Transhumanism isn’t really a world in which we all go fishing or out for a spot of forest bathing while AI does our jobs for us though; transhumanism is a world in which the boundaries between us and machines become blurred. A world of enhanced humans, who do not have a problem that technology cannot fix; from aging, to disease, to disability, to childbirth, to death. Intellect pooled into a hive mind to create levels of intelligence and problem solving beyond our current conception. Brain chips that render us super human. Weapons and warfare that are unthinkable. Much of this sounds far fetched, but in fact, it’s already happening: here’s the UK Ministry of Defence discussing human augmentation in warfare; and as I write this piece, people are signing up to have chips implanted in their brains by Musk’s company Neuralink. Transhumanism, like it or not, is our direction of travel.
There are overlaps between transhumanism and transgenderism as ideological concepts, that interest me. For a while now I’ve been talking about the ‘decoupling’ that’s happening of female biological experiences such as menstruation and pregnancy, from the concept of ‘woman’.
As I've explained in this post and video clip, this is in large part about male people’s claim to a female identity, and about removing the raw, bloody and visceral barrier to this claim that periods and childbirth pose.
But it’s also about something else: the idea that we as humans exist as something separate from our bodies. Not just decoupling female bodily experiences from the idea of ‘woman’, but decoupling all bodily experiences from something quasi-religious but unmistakably familiar to anyone alive today - the notion of ‘identity’. There’s a parallel here between the transgenderist idea that you can have an identity that doesn’t match up with your physical body - a bit like a ‘soul’ - and the transhumanist idea that consciousness can exist outside of the body - up there in ‘the cloud’, in the form of AI. This mind-leap is enhanced by our current world in which we never know if the faces of other humans we see are real or altered by surgery or social media filters; in which we can create online identities in chatrooms or games where we can look, behave and style ourselves completely differently to ‘reality’. We already can decouple ourselves from the reality of our bodies in ways we would not have thought possible just a decade or so ago.
I may not have explained this all very well, but this is because these ideas are new to me and are still teetering about my brain like lambs on shaky new legs. I did just go to ChatGPT with the plan to ask it to write 1000 words as if it were a slightly unsure person with a side interest in women’s health issues trying to explain transhumanism for the first time, but it was ‘at capacity’, and wrote me this shite limerick instead.
Now that really is mediocre writing. I wonder if the bot feels anxious about it?
I guess you might want me to end on a positive note, tell you that there’s a solution to all this, that we can put the genie back in the bottle somehow and all go off for an Edwardian picnic. Sorry, no can do. All I can do is keep sharing my real, human thoughts with you, suggest you go out and touch grass for a bit later, and leave you with a rival limerick. For now at least, I think the humans, even the ones with low self esteem, probably slightly have the edge.
If a future that’s filled with AI
Makes you worry or feel like a cry
Hug your cat, watch a bee,
Dig a hole, plant a tree,
Or just marvel a bit at the sky.
See you on Friday for The Word is Woman! Milli x
Please consider supporting my writing by becoming a free or paid subscriber. You’ll get all my posts delivered straight to your inbox or via the brilliant substack app, including my weekly post The Word is Woman, where I document examples of the erasure of women from language. Thanks for your support, it really helps.
Like this post? Please do share it.