Transhumanism in Neuromancer

In lecture yesterday the professor mentioned that Neuromancer is the first truly posthuman text that we’ve read so far in the course, because most of the characters we meet are either cyborgs or entirely artificial. But the text is also transhumanist in its focus on how humanity can be potentially improved from developments in technology.

After lecture I googled “transhumanism” in hopes of finding out more than the nothing I already knew about the subject, and happened to stumble upon the Transhumanist Declaration, a document created by a group of authors (including Nick Bostrom) that outlines the goals of transhumanism. The transhumanists who drafted the Declaration promote the use of technology to better humanity, essentially. The Declaration is listed on the website of Humanity+, which adopted the declaration in 2009; the organization is a nonprofit which claims to “advocate[s] the ethical use of technology to expand human capacities” or, more simply, to help people “be better than well”.

Here’s the link to the Declaration:

Transhumanist Declaration

I’m particularly interested in the first declaration listed and its relation to the text. It predicts the future human possibility of “overcoming aging, cognitive shortcomings, involuntary suffering, and our confinement to planet Earth.” For starters, it’s not a stretch to claim that the world Gibson creates in Neuromancer marks a “profoundly affected” future.

More specifically though, several characters have managed to “overcome age”: Julius Deane avoids death through a series of expensive hormonal treatments that propel him to 135 years of age. Case describes Deane’s mission as a “hedge against aging”, through which he has become “sexless and inhumanly patient”(12). Deane does express a strange obsession with antique items, suggesting his avoidance of aging is more an avoidance of death than a more material concern for appearing “old”. Even the Turing police officers that Case encounters in chapter 13 seem to have had age-enhanced operations: “their youth was counterfeit, marked by a certain telltale corrugation at the knuckles, something the surgeons weren’t able to erase” (153). Both Deane and the police officers embody technology’s capability, in this world, of allowing the organic body to “overcome aging”.

Technological assistance with overcoming “cognitive shortcomings” is perhaps most evident in Armitage’s character. Wintermute “builds [Armitage] from scratch” (195) after Colonel Corto is both physically and psychologically ravaged by war. The result is that a very unstable Corto is masked by the cold, flat Armitage, which gradually decays into a paranoid, mad Corto who can’t distinguish the past from the present. So while Corto-Armitage eventually dies in part for his “cognitive shortcomings”, Wintermute was capable– if only temporarily– to suppress that damage computationally.

The “involuntary suffering” referenced in the Declaration can be seen in Case’s character. Wintermute (kind of) heals the damage to Case’s nervous system that was inflicted upon him after stealing from a former employer. However, this “healing” surgery, as we know, holds Case hostage in his own body, threatening to return to that previous damage should Case defy Wintermute’s orders. Eventually though, all the damage Case has incurred is mended by the end of the novel… and he is free to live the lifestyle he had before the operations (pretty heavy physical and emotional dependence on drugs.)

Overall, I think that transhumanism, and the Transhumanist Declaration specifically, is an interesting lens to look at the novel through.



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3 Responses to Transhumanism in Neuromancer

  1. writinginmy says:

    It’s nice that you bring the Transhumanist Declaration up, and for my own clarify and for the sake of my response, I’ll quote the first declaration:

    “Humanity stands to be profoundly affected by science and technology in the future. We envision the possibility of broadening human potential by overcoming aging, cognitive shortcomings, involuntary suffering, and our confinement to planet Earth.”

    I think it’s appropriate to apply this dictum as a lens through which we read Neuromancer, and even more it helps us tease out some things within the text. You list all these examples of how people in the text are effectively transhumanist – they defy aging, disease, physical and cognitive shortcomings through a varied use of science and technology. Yet something unsettling remains – what does this all do for the potential of humanity? If anything, while I was reading the book, it seemed like things were just as crazy and problematic as they are now in today’s society – crime, drug abuse, working outside of the law, etc. This makes me think of Elysium (that lame movie starring Matt Damon), which is effectively about a transhumanist society only in the sense that the privileged can be considered transhumanist (they even get to live outside of planet Earth, further fulfilling the first dictum of the Transhumanist Declaration) – the lower and middle classes don’t get to enjoy that privilege as much.

    Neuromancer (and Elysium) make me wonder whether or not a true transhumanist society can ever exist. We seem to make advances in technology and science but we are nowhere near ever “broadening human potential” on a positive scale (to which the word potential itself recalls positivity and progress to me, not social divides and unhappiness).

  2. Very interesting post! I’d be interested in looking back to “Do Androids” in the context of the Transhumanist declaration. In the world of Dick’s novel, it seems as if “involuntary suffering” is still somewhat unavoidable. Obviously, a core component of that novel is the blurring of the lines between the human and the machine he created, in order to meditate on the nature of humanity. To produce this blurred effect, Dick often refers to the mechanical aspects of man’s nature– to his “automatic response,” his reflex and his instinct. There seems to still be a great degree of biological determinism going on, despite the fact that the society depicted as evolved to the point that androids are a feasible and sophisticated technology. I feel like “Do Androids,” like “Frankenstein,” suggests the way in which technology can be more of a burden than a positive force. As “writinginmy” points out, the same is true of “Neuromancer.” Perhaps technology can improve greatly upon humanity, but I very much doubt if humanity will ever be “perfected,” even with the double exponential growth of technology. Imperfection is, unfortunately, the human element.

    • elephantusk says:

      Thank you for bringing up “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” in the context of the Declaration! So relevant. I think the third one draws on one of the central issues of the text that you also touched on:

      “We recognize that humanity faces serious risks, especially from the misuse of new technologies. There are possible realistic scenarios that lead to the loss of most, or even all, of what we hold valuable. Some of these scenarios are drastic, others are subtle. Although all progress is change, not all change is progress.”

      Like you mention, the text is determinist in many ways and undoubtedly draws on the potential negative impacts of technological progress. The entire novel is a series of examples of the “serious risks” posed by rapid technological advancement on humanity. But “Do Androids” represents a more “drastic” version of this portion of the Declaration than “subtle”: Dick does not warn against the potential “misuse of new technologies” as much as he warns about the dangerous inevitability of the singularity, a moment in which artificial intelligence surpasses human intelligence. The declaration also takes a much more optimistic perspective on technology’s potential impact on society than Dick does with the novel.

      Moral of the story: Though the parallels between this part of the declaration and the novel are fairly obvious, I think still think it’s really interesting how relevant it is to the text. And, especially considering the fact that the declaration was drafted by a group of authors, it’s difficult to deny the possibility of Dick’s influence on the final product.

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