The Techno-Human Condition

September 1, 2011

Perhaps the most telling thing about this book is what it does not say. If you were to ask where the highest concentration of science and technology studies (STS) researchers can be found in the world today, a fair answer would be the network centred around Arizona State University, where the authors of this book are located. This network, which extends across the US and includes European partners, was made possible by a large grant from the US National Science Foundation. Its purpose is to readjust our sense of what it means to be human in light of emerging developments in nanotechnology and biotechnology, as well as information and cognitive science.

In this context, the term "anticipatory governance" has been coined to refer to the focus groups, science cafes and wiki media that STS researchers use to elicit people's responses to scenarios that feature humans enhanced by various drugs, therapies, implants and prostheses. It is basically market research designed to sensitise people to the prospect of an enhanced future, so as to create a favourable environment for the day when something like these imagined innovations finally arrive.

Braden Allenby and Daniel Sarewitz discuss these matters with considerable - if not excessive - circumspection, as one might expect of world-weary academics who survey the evolution of Homo sapiens only to discover that "we have always already been transhuman". You would never guess that their immediate colleagues, who are conspicuously absent from the bibliography, were busily engaged in manufacturing a demand for the "techno-human condition".

The most charitable way to read this book is as an incisive attempt to immunise the proverbial "informed citizen" against transhumanist hype. However, its flurry of well-chosen historical examples and thought experiments is likely to leave policymakers cold. Although the authors clearly position themselves towards the Left of the political spectrum, their concerns rehearse a litany familiar from Friedrich Hayek's sceptical arguments against policymaking as such. They are summed up in a word: complexity. Indeed, Hayek's favourite example of policy hubris, the Soviet Union's self-destruction, is invoked at one point.

Allenby and Sarewitz bang on about how, say, every brain-boosting drug that reaches the market generates unintended, unforeseen, aggregate and perhaps even systemic effects that invariably confound the expectations of both enthusiasts and naysayers. Yet after trawling through several individually interesting examples - drawn from the entire history of technology - the reader is left with rather banal take-home lessons, most of which involve respecting our deep ignorance about how reality hangs together.

Unfortunately, this counsel of humility does not sit well with the authors' subtle fascination with military modes of human enhancement. Early in the book, they propose that US troops in Afghanistan are "the most enhanced individuals in the world today". Later on, they compare their case histories and scenarios with war games designed to improve the reader's mental agility in dealing with prospective techno-human innovations.

However, the authors lack a crucial feature of the military mind, namely, a clear sense of strategic objectives in terms of which one might vary tactics according to circumstances. Because Allenby and Sarewitz never declare any interest - positive or negative - in a transhuman future, one is simply left with an almost Zen-like sense that they are above it all. To be sure, this stance enables them to create some distance from their more zealous colleagues, but it also leaves the reader with a book that is somewhat less than the sum of its parts.

The Techno-Human Condition

By Braden R. Allenby and Daniel Sarewitz. MIT Press, 192pp, £19.95. ISBN 9780262015691. Published 10 June 2011

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