This text aims to analyze and discuss two different perspectives regarding the philosophy of technology, and apply them to a chosen piece of technology. The essay will focus on the Transhumanist thought represented by the work of Professor Nick Bostrom, and the work of sociologist and philosopher Lewis Mumford and his idea of the Megamachine. The technology to which the ideas and arguments will be applied is the recent discovery of a possible vaccine that was already used on mice for the elimination of “zombie” cells, a type of cell that is responsible for aging and related disease.
The text will start with an analysis of the ideas of the two authors. Next, it will introduce the vaccine technology and, at the end, conclude and confront the different perspectives of the authors.
Bostrom: imperfect nature and morphological freedom
Imagine a world in which you are free to change your morphological structure. You could empower yourself, increase your abilities, add more strength, put yourself in a better shape without going to the gym, no longer experience old age. Not only physical, but you could also increase your mental capacities, improve brainpower and memory, and elimination of cognitive decay and dementia. Imagine a world in which you go to the doctor and you can choose the best combination of genes for your new baby, a little Mozart, Einstein or M. Jordan, depending on your taste, which you could all possibly do by yourself, without the need to wait for the love of your life. These are exactly the two main arguments, morphological and reproductive freedom, that Nick Bostrom, a Swedish Oxford Professor, and one of the major exponents of the Transhumanists movements, proposes in his paper In Defense of Posthuman Dignity (2014).
In his work, Bostrom promotes a transhumanist perspective for the progress of the human species, describing arguments that support the view that Transhumanism means progressing with dignity. In the paper, these arguments are opposed to the ones that the author calls Biocoservatism thinking. With Transhumanism the author refers to a philosophical movement of recent development which that holds that the current human nature is improvable through the use of applied science and other rational methods, which may make it possible to increase human capacities, physical and mental (Bostrom, 2014:495). On the other hand, he defines Bioconservatism as a camp that argues against the use of technology to modify human nature, because of the central concerns that technological human enhancement could be dehumanizing (Bostrom, 2014:495).
More in general, the goal of Transhumanists is to go over the human, creating a posthuman society. And from this definition, it is possible to see that Transhumanists understand that humans are imperfect, and it is achievable to overcome this imperfection by using technology. The reason why humans are imperfect, according to Bostrom, is nature. Looking at the work of the author, it is likely to notice that he makes a case referring to Nature as a mother, and saying that if she was a real parent, she would be in jail for child abuse and murder (Bostrom, 2014:499). With this strong statement, the author means that often nature can bring unnecessary suffering and be painful: diseases like cancer, malaria, Covid-19, tuberculosis, HIV, child deformations but also genetic and cognitive degeneration like Alzheimer and sclerosis, as “infrastructure” break down as heart and brain stroke. Apart from this personal kind of sickness, the author also blames nature for collective pain such as genocide, racism, torture, rape and murder, disease regarding a moral level compared to a physical one, but yet with nature as the responsible entity. Given all this, it is possible to see that Transhumanists understand humans as imperfect because nature is imperfect. In their perspective, it is possible to modify and fix it with technological intervention.
Bioconservatism, on the other hand, rises two main fears towards the Transhumanist project. The first one is that the state of being posthuman might be degrading so that by becoming posthumans we might be harming ourselves (Bostrom, 2014:496). This argument is as simple as it is important: a Transhumanist aims to bring the human species to a new era. This has a great component of uncertainty, humanity does not have data and information to create an accurate prediction of a posthuman future that Transhumanist promotes and describes, so how can humanity be sure that it would progress?
The second fear is that posthumanist humans might pose threat to ordinary humans (Bostrom, 2013:496). The technological implementation of humans could not be done in a democratic and equal sense. This would create the possibility of having a society in which genetically superior posthumans would live with “ordinary” humans, with the risk of creating a social structure with big inequalities, above all one in which the genetically empowered humans would be the masters, and the ordinary individuals the slaves.
In his work, Bostrom develops arguments answering both of the fears of Bioconservatists. First, he argues that a solution could be to defend morphological and reproductive rights against any would-be world controllers (Bostrom, 2013:497). In this sense, following the author, it is important to defend the democratic values of choice. It is a promotion of the view that human enhancement technology should be made widely available, but with a broad discretion over which of these technologies the individual wants to apply on themselves. To the second fear, Bostrom suggests that a way to avoid conflict is a well-organized society that can hold together (Bostrom, 2014:497). According to the author, also today a majority of powerful individuals could come together and enslave a minority, but this does not happen because of how society is organized. Overall, the wins of becoming posthumans following the transhumanistic path are bigger than the risk of following Bioconservatism, so for this reason the author argues that humanity should take the trade.
It is a fact that humanity is technologically progressing, and in doing so, Transhumanists argue that we should pursue to reach immortality, and that it is the human end goal. For reaching this goal, technology is the key, and so to becoming posthumans, furthermore, Transhumanists state that there is moral dignity in becoming posthuman. Bostrom (2014:498), says that there are two kinds of dignity, the first one, dignity as moral status, in particular the inalienable right to be treated with a basic level of respect. The second one, dignity as the quality of being worthy or honorable, worthiness, worth, nobleness, excellence. According to Bostrom, on both these definitions, dignity is something that a posthuman could possess, and actually, the second definition maybe could be able to attain higher levels thanks to technology implementation.
The key concept is that human nature is dynamic (Bostrom, 2014:500). From a Transhumanist perspective dignity is the ability to disclose our potential to become, arriving to realize what we are. Human history is an ongoing development of progressive realization, and this progress realization is not a function of our DNA but a function of our technological and social context. On a genetic level, present humans are not different from the ones that were living in the ancient Babilonia, but probably to their eyes, the present men would appear posthuman (Bostrom, 2014:500). The reason for this difference between the two worlds are external factors that do not have anything to do with genetic, but more about environmental, social, and economical (in the sense of material development) factors. Bostrom, and Transhumanists in general, argue that this type of change can be programmed, using technology possibilities, creating an increase of efficiency to the discloser of our potential to become, enabling the human species to fix the imperfection of nature, and, according to Bostrom (2014:500) there is nothing more worthy for humans to achieve.
Mumford: symbolic culture and the Megamachine
In this text, the ideas of Lewis Mumford (2014) regarding technology play an important role. Interestingly, the author rejects the idea of humans as “homo Faber”. In fact, according to Mumford, for too long there was this misbelieve of uniqueness in the ability of man to create tools. In favor of this statement, the author, says that it is proved that many animals like insects, birds, mammals, have made far more radical innovations in the fabrication of primitive tools compared to man (Mumford, 2014:382). Given this view, he offers a different understanding of the uniqueness of humans, placing his perspective on an abstract level. Mumford looks to the past to understand the present, his idea is that the complexity of humans is not in the tangible manufacture of technology, but the abstract creation of symbolic dynamic systems such as rituals, languages, and cultures. The author groups this idea under the concept of “technology of the body” (a term developed by A. Varagnac) (Mumford, 2014:384). With this concept, it is meant that the locus (i.e. body location) of man activity is his organism, this is because of the plasticity of it and not a specialized activity, developing this idea of a self-mastering animal that uses his mind for symbolic making. Technology in this sense plays a role, but more as a function of cultural needs rather than as an end in itself.
It is this no-body specialization and uses of mental capacities, that together make an assemblage in which the result of the all is bigger than the sum of the single parts. According to Mumford, it is this technology of the body, not only seen as a single individual, but also as its reflections on communities and societies in which the individual was living, that enable the creation of a bigger human project. There was an ambivalence relation between the macro (communities and society) and the micro (individuals) that were fixed together by a symbolic culture. This created a process of translation which develops in a systematic organization of workdays activities inside a rigid framework of mechanical patterns enabling the creation of assumptions for a collective machine that Mumford (2014:385) calls Megamachine.
More in general, a machine is a body composed of multiple technologies that work together to create a greater result than the individual parts (think of a car which is composed of an engine, lights, wheels, brakes, etc.). For this reason, with Megamachine, Mumford describes a coordinated organized system that creates a result greater than the sum of the individual parts. This system is described as a hierarchical organization, divided internally into several specialized sectors that interact with each other in an organized manner. To function, it is important to create a common symbolic culture (Mumford, 2014:383). Furthermore, what is important for this text, is that according to Mumford the concept of Megamachine applies to any human system present in any era of history (2014:381). To demonstrate this, the author compares the pyramids with a space rocket, stating that every time period has its collective machine, what changes is the technology and ideology behind it. It is the last element that Mumford is concerned about. He says that the Megamachine is the condition for scientific and technical advancement. Furthermore, for many, this is the main purpose of human existence and creates an unconditional commitment to the machine (Mumford, 2014:386).
This unconditionality to the Megamachine and his products is what Mumford is concerned within a contemporary perspective. Even if he does not see humans as tool-making per se animals, he still attributes an important grade of value to technology as a means to a bigger end, and the problem resides here. This is because if the scientific and technical means are entirely rational, the ultimate ends are mad (Mumford, 2014:387). The madness, as Mumford defines it, resides in a paradox of the contemporary system of the Megamachine. Man is a tool-using animal, and this enables him to expand his possibilities in development as symbolic expression and construction, but what is possible to notice, is that contemporary days Megamachine is seeking more and more autonomy (just think about a modern global factory), this is turning man into an automaton, with the task of only “pushing buttons”. This creates a great danger, it creates a divorce from organic existence, shifting the locus of human activity from the organic environment into the Megamachine, considered as the ultimate expression. Mumford sees in the contemporary Megamachine as the suppression of the human personality (Mumford, 2014:387). With this, the author thinks that human expression requires a different approach from the technical control over nature. It is not only about pure technology, but it is how this technology can be used as a means for our abstract organic expression. According to Mumford, if the automation of contemporary Megamachine does not do a step back, man could progressively lose the grip on reality (Mumford, 2014:388).
To conclude the author calls for liberation for work, this is a voluntary basis mind and person-forming activity in which education and self-expression are at the core of a life-centered technology. Only following this path, where the Megamachine is in function to the individual and not vice-versa like Mumford understands today world, technology can have a positive role in humans history.
Technology: A vaccine that could remove the aging process
The possibility for the creation of a new vaccine that could remove the so-called “zombie” cells, the ones responsible for aging inside the human organism, is recent news. The study was published on December 10th, 2021 in the journal Nature Aging, the research was made by a team of Japanese researchers led by Professor Toru Minamino of Juntedo University. “Zombie” cells are cells that became senescence. These cells are unique as they eventually stop multiplying but don’t die when they should, they continue to release chemicals that can cause inflammation (Koop, 2021). To understand better, senescence is like a rotten fruit which affects fruits near it and damages them. Usually, these cells are removed by the immune system, but with aging our organism has more difficulties continuing this function, and this can affect the ability of our organism to cope with illness and stress. Furthermore, research has linked zombie cells to a set of old age-related conditions, such as cancer, strokes, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, cardiovascular disease (Koop, 2021).
As reported in The Japantimes (2021), the team of researchers has identified a protein found in senescence cells in humans and mice and created a peptide vaccine based on an amino acid that constitutes the protein. What the vaccine does is enable the body to create antibodies that attach themselves to senescent cells, which are removed by white blood cells that adhere to the antibodies (The Japantimes, 2021). As confirmed by Professor Minamino (Bateman, 2021), the first test of the vaccine on mice showed encouraging results in the decreasing of “zombie” cells, but still, a lot of work must be done before it is possible to apply it to humans.
Conclusion: Transhumanists and the Megamachine, two different perspectives on the vaccine
The aim of this section is to sum up the two different philosophical perspectives that this text has treated, Bostrom and Transhumanists on one side and Mumford and the Megamachine on the other, and to discuss how they would understand this new vaccine against zombie cells.
From a Transhumanist’s perspective, the conclusion is quite direct. Zombie cells would be understood as the imperfection of nature, and this imperfection could be fixed thanks to the use of applied science and technology. The vaccine in this sense would represent one possibility to put an end to unnecessary suffering, that in Bostrom’s understanding, nature creates. Furthermore, the vaccine would enter inside the paradigm of morphological freedom, as it was shown, a key concept that Transhumanist promotes.
Following Mumford and his idea of Megamachine, the link to the vaccine is not so direct as for Transhumanists. Even if in one perspective, the vaccine against aging could be seen as taking the distance from biological and organic existence, on the other side the vaccine can be understood as a means to expression. As it was explained, for Mumford the capacities of self-expression that technology enables are central in his understanding of the relationship between humans and technology. The bigger possibilities that technology offers to self-expression are important because it increases the abstract e symbolic systems that are at the core of human society. In this single perspective, the vaccine is seen as positive because it helps the individual to defeat physical decay and enable him to express himself inside the symbolic system for more time and in a better condition. But this is not enough to conclude with Mumford, another element, the Megamachine, must be taken into consideration. This last consideration, according to the author, is the most important when considering the impact of this vaccine on a single individual. According to Mumford, it is possible to judge if the vaccine is positive or negative depending on where the effects would affect an individual that lives in function for the Megamachine or in which the Megamachine is in the function of the individual. In a simple way, it is the big picture in which the individual is located that affects the judgment of the value of the technology.
To conclude, this text offered two different perspectives in the understanding of a vaccine that defeats aging, the first perspective presented it in a positive light, the second one instead argued that it is not the vaccine itself that is good or bad, but the situation in which it is applied. What this text has said is not enough, further discussion is needed to reach a final conclusion over this new technology’s impact.
- Bostrom, N. (2014). “In Defense of Posthuman Dignity”. In: Philosophy of Technolo- gy – The technological condition an Anthology, Schraff, R.C., Dusek, V. (red.) 495-500. Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley Blackwell.
- Bateman, T. (2021). “ Can we live forever? New anti-aging vaccine could bring im- mortality one step closer”. EuroNews.net, 15-12-2021. Link: https://www.euronews.- com/next/2021/12/14/can-we-live-forever-new-anti-ageing-vaccine-could-bring-im- mortality-one-step-closer
- Koop, F. (2021). “New vaccine could remove zombie cells that cause aging”. ZME Science, 13-12-2021. Link: https://www.zmescience.com/science/vaccine-remove- zombie-cells-13122021/
- Mumford, L. (2014). “Tool User vs. Homo Sapiens and the Megamachine”. In: Phi- losophy of Technology – The technological condition an Anthology, Schraff, R.C., Dusek, V. (red.) 381-388. Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley Blackwell.
- The Japantimes, (2021). “Japanese scientists develop a vaccine to eliminate cells be- hind aging”. The Japantimes, 12-12-2021. Link: https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/ 2021/12/12/national/science health/aging-vaccine/