Alvin Toffler, an American writer and Futurist, said that “the great growing engine of change [is] technology” (Toffler). However, Toffler did not specify exactly what it is that technology is changing – the environment? The economy? Humanity itself? In their book, The Techno-Human Condition, Braden Allenby and David Sarewitz argue that what technology is fundamentally changing is the very definition of what it means to be a human being. Although they focus primarily on relatively recent technologies that directly impact human bodies, I believe that all technological advances are changing our definition of “humanness,” in that they contribute to the creation of a new era of human impact on the environment: the Anthropocene. By viewing The Techno-Human Condition, its analysis of technological innovation, and the transhumanist movement as a whole, through the lens of the Anthropocene, it is possible to see how technologies, both those that directly interact with the body and those that do not, are changing our relationships with ourselves and our environment.
In The Techno-Human Condition, Allenby and Sarewitz analyze two separate “dialogues” concerning transhumanism and its role in today’s society (Allenby and Sarewitz 4). The first “dialogue” that they cover revolves around “the ways in which living humans use technologies to change themselves, for example, through replacement of worn-out knees and hips, or enhancement of cognitive function through pharmaceuticals” (Allenby and Sarewitz 4). This more literal definition revolves around technologies that noticeably influence the human body, and how the incorporation of non-organic, manufactured, and perhaps unnatural materials into the body changes out conceptions of who or what is a human. However, the authors focus much of their argument on the second dialogue. They contend that transhumanism is effectively a “cultural construct that considers the relations between humanness and social and technological change” (Allenby and Sarewitz 5). This broader definition allows for analysis of technologies that may not directly manipulate the human form, but nevertheless change our relationships with ourselves and our environment. However, even this definition cannot fully explain the transhumanist movement, and Allenby and Sarewitz acknowledge that it is challenging to fully encompass the goals and beliefs of a movement when that movement is continually adapting to the cultural context. The difficulty in articulating a particular definition for the transhumanist movement results in “definitional ambiguity,” which Allenby and Sarewitz resolve by concluding that more important that precisely outlining the parameters of the movement, is understanding the social implications of this ambiguity. According to Allenby and Sarewitz, “transhumanism turns out to be a conflicted vision offering a remarkable opportunity to question the grand frameworks of our time, most especially the Enlightenment focus on the individual, applied reason, and the democratic, rational modernity for which it forms the cultural and intellectual foundation” (Allenby and Sarewitz 11). In this interpretation, the problem in defining transhumanism lies not with the movement or its goals, but with the goals of the Enlightenment era itself.
According to Allenby and Sarewitz’s understanding, the Enlightenment era, which arguably preceded and perhaps even caused the Industrial Anthropocene, set the groundwork for our current cultural insistence on modernity and progress of the individual. The Techno-Human Condition describes how inventions ranging from the first railroads to modern methods of warfare are “simply an incremental continuation of one of the most fundamental trends of the Industrial Revolution” (Allenby and Sarewitz 156). For Allenby and Sarewitz, the impacts of this ncultural fascination with modernity can be broken down into the impacts of three increasingly comprehensive levels of technology. As Allenby and Sarewitz define it, Level I technology is the actual artifact or technological invention. In The Techno-Human Condition, Allenby and Sarewitz use the example of an airplane to illustrate this level. An airplane is a highly advanced technological feat, yet on its own it is a relatively simple piece of machinery which consumers expect to work safely and reliably. However, at Level II, this reliability starts to fail. Although airplanes themselves are relatively reliable at transporting passengers, tend to travel at a consistent speed, and crash remarkably rarely (despite widespread social obsession with and fears of airplane accidents) the actual time spent traveling by airplane can vary widely. However, rather than being a failure of the Level I technology, this unreliability is due to all of the factors involved in a Level II system. In The Techno-Human Condition, a Level II system is described as all of the hierarchies and systems that a Level I technology operates within. From the TSA security checkpoints, to airplane companies, baggage claim, weather delays, and overbooking, the systems that surround airplanes undermine their reliability. In this example, the Level II technology often prevents the Level I technology from doing its job. Level III technology moves from the tangible and easily definable elements of technology (the airplanes, as well as the airports, people, regulations, etc. that surround them) to a broader sense of the transformative role of airplanes and air travel. Level III technology revolves around the interactions of “Earth Systems,” which Allenby and Sarewitz define as “complex, constantly changing and adapting systems in which human, built, and natural elements interact in ways that produce emergent behaviors which may be difficult to perceive, much less understand and manage” (Allenby and Sarewitz 63). For example, airplanes have played a role in the globalization of terrorism, and the involvement of citizens in warfare and political conflict. This in turn has led to widespread fears of terrorist attacks, and increased racial and political tensions. The ability to relocate humanity to distant corners of the globe has also contributed to the spread of previously regional diseases such as AIDs and MERS, impacting the population and socioeconomic status of various groups. Furthermore, the environmental and ecological effects of the air transport industry have contributed to the changing ways humans view our relationship with and responsibility towards the earth. By extrapolating outwards from an individual technological innovation, Allenby and Sarewitz’s method of analyzing technology displays the far reaching effects that a single piece of technology can have on humanity as a whole.
By outlining the effects of a single piece of technology on humanity, Allenby and Sarewitz hint at a larger context. Although The Techno-Human Condition focuses on how technologies will impact humanity’s conception of what is human, the book also explores how “technology-induced changes in human capabilities [might] affect the environment” (Allenby and Sarewitz x). Allenby and Sarewitz first introduce the connection between technology and human interactions with the environment in their first chapter: “Transhumanism is at best a local phenomenon in a far more pervasive reality… Indeed, many scientists are beginning to call this era the Anthropocene (meaning, roughly, the Age of Humans). The background to much discussion of transhumanism is a world in which human activity increasingly affects global systems, including the climate and the hydrological, carbon, and nitrogen cycles of the anthropogenic Earth” (Allenby and Sarewitz 10). The Anthropocene can be defined as the geological time during which human activity is considered to be the dominant influence on the environment, climate an ecology of the earth (Fleming). As Allenby and Sarewitz explained in their descriptions of the different levels of technology, most technologies eventually have a wide global impact at Level III. Although these impacts may be unintentional and difficult to fathom from a Level I understanding of a technological innovation, by generalizing the results of individual technologies, Allenby and Sarewitz illustrate the disparate impacts of seemingly localized innovations. In this sense, all technologies which impact the “Earth Systems” at Level III contribute to an anthropogenic understanding of humanity’s role in changing the earth, and nearly all technologies do reach this Level III status (Allenby and Sarewitz 63).
In his text, The Climate of History: Four Theses, Dipesh Chakrabarty’s first thesis posits that anthropogenic explanations of climate change spell the collapse of age old humanist distinctions between natural and human history (Chakrabarty). However, as the distinctions between technology and the environment become less clear, anthropogenic explanations of Earth Systems also begin to collapse humanist distinctions between the futures of nature and humanity. When the impacts of technologies spiral out into Level III, the relationship between humans and nature becomes further enmeshed. Allenby and Sarewitz also acknowledge this point when they write that technological “enhancements cannot be viewed in isolation: they are changes in highly complex and adaptive systems” (Allenby and Sarewitz 28). By changing the complex systems of interactions between humans and their surroundings, technologies that impact our characterizations of what constitute human also impact our surroundings, and by definition, the impact of humans on our environment is the primary factor of the Anthropocene.
Allenby, Braden R., and Daniel R. Sarewitz. The Techno-Human Condition. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2011. Print.
Chakrabarty, Dipesh. “The Climate of History: Four Theses.” CRIT INQUIRY Critical Inquiry 35.2 (2009): 197-222. Print.
Fleming, Jim. “Human/Nature in the Anthropocene.” ST197. Colby College, Waterville. 15 Sept. 2015. Lecture.
Toffler, Alvin. Future Shock. Toronto: Bantam, 1971. Print.