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Tag: transhumanism (page 1 of 2)

Taking Charge, Corporeally

A friend mentioned today that transgender people who take hormones or seek surgery are the vanguard of transhumanism. (She also noted that she didn’t originate the phrasing. It may be an extrapolation from a Zinnia Jones interview? I’m not sure.)

I think this is true, not in the sense that trans people “go beyond being human” or whatever, but that they dictate terms to their bodies rather than the other way around. Someone else said — I can’t remember the quote exactly enough to dig it up via Google — that transitioning is a radical act of prioritizing personal happiness. Your body doesn’t satisfy you, or it actively causes pain, so you change it. (Harder in practice than it is to sum up in a sentence.)

Sometimes I ponder the semantic boundaries of what counts as transhumanism. Cosmetic plastic surgery? Prosthetics? Tattoos? Wristwatches? How physically integrated does a given technology — or the change rendered by it — have to be?

The answer is probably mundane: if it hasn’t shown up in a sci-fi movie, it won’t be regarded as transhumanism. Even in the case of a Hollywood-sanctioned device or technique, the novelty will wear off. Of course, the number of people who know the word “transhumanism” and think about the phenomenon in the first place is pretty small.

We haven’t yet reacted to an astounding extension of our capabilities by proclaiming, “Homo sapiens is free from the limitations of flesh!” So I don’t expect that attitude to swarm the zeitgeist anytime soon. I mean, consider pacemakers. No one gets excited about pacemakers, regardless of it being amazing that a tiny implanted device can help control an essential organ.

Neural Fintech x2

“Neural Fintech” got more responses than anything else I’ve ever asked you all about, so it’s back *TV infomercial voice* by popular demand! If you missed the beginning you don’t strictly need to read it, but you can if you want to.


In the examination room there was machine that looked like an old-school MRI unit — Sasha remembered them from the hospital shows her grandma used to watch, 2D video of handsome doctors clumsily enhanced for her parents’ RoomView.

Next to the machine stood a beaming nurse with sleek brown hair. Everyone working for Centripath seemed to smile all the time, Sasha thought.

Jake the recruiter exclaimed, “Becky! Help me welcome our newest participant!”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Sasha,” the nurse said in a warm voice. On the machine’s side screen, Sasha could see the permission form that she had signed with Jake a few minutes ago.

“You’re in Becky’s hands from here,” Jake said, winking at Sasha as he slipped back out through the door.

The next few hours were busy and regimented. Multiple tests, the first inside that big machine, and then more forms. Sasha was glad that she hadn’t made plans for the rest of the day, but a little annoyed that no one had told her how long it would take.

She found out from Becky that she had “stellar capacity” for a crypto mine. Sasha tried to ask again how much they would pay, but Becky said she’d have to find out from her case manager. “That’s your next stop!” she told Sasha brightly. “Then installation!”

The case manager’s office was like Jake’s, and he even looked a bit like Jake. The nose and chin were different, but much the same smile. “Sasha, right?” he asked, half-rising from his desk.

“Hi,” she answered. Sasha could hear that she was tired.

“Would you like a drink of water?”

“Yes, thanks.” He handed it to her, and Sasha sat down.

“I really want to know how much this will pay. No one will tell me so far.”

“Of course, of course! You get a percentage of the yield from the mine. It can vary depending on your physical state, since all the energy is sourced from your body.”

Sasha didn’t say anything, just kept looking at him.

The case manager paused, waiting for her to acknowledge what he said. When she stayed silent, he continued. “It’s usually 5%, but that fluctuates based on the price of the cryptocurrency at hand, the daily processing efficiency, and so on.”

“Please estimate, in real money, how much I can earn from this.”

“Well, Sasha, I can’t promise anything. I can’t make a guarantee. But I can tell you that you’ll be able to pay half of the monthly fees for a nice PodNiche.”

She sighed. “Okay. I hoped it would be more. But okay, what the fuck. Let’s do the installation.”


Header image by Liz West.

Neural Fintech

“See, it’s a simple program.” The recruiter had very white teeth, Sasha noticed. He was wearing a navy blue suit and smiling big. The identity module said his name was Jake.

“A very simple program,” he repeated. “You know that old expression — humans only use 10% of our brain power? That other 90% is an opportunity, and we at Centripath have the software to take advantage of that opportunity.”

Sasha nodded. “Yeah.” She knew all of this from the promos she had watched. The exact figures weren’t true and Sasha knew that also, but it didn’t matter as long as they paid enough.

“Ae you familiar with cryptocurrencies?” Jake asked. “The one you’ve probably heard of is called bitcoin.”

“Uh-huh, I know bitcoin,” Sasha told him. “That’s why I’m here.”

“Wonderful!” Jake exclaimed. “Well, what this program does is harness your brain’s under-utilized processing power. The technical details aren’t important, but basically all that extra energy runs a cryptocurrency mine. Not always bitcoin, but that’s certainly one of the assets we harvest.”

Sasha was sitting forward on her armchair, leaning toward the recruiter with her elbows on her knees. “So you pay me rent for that. For using my brain. It doesn’t say on your website, so I wanted to ask how much you pay.”

“Ahhh, yes,” Jake answered, still smiling. “We have to analyze the capacity you have available, of course, and then we’ll give you a quote.”

“And this crypto mine won’t interfere with my daily life? I’ll still be able to think, like, normally? I watched the testimonials, but…”

“Then you know that you won’t feel a thing! It’ll be like nothing happened. Everything about the Centripath program is perfectly safe. All of this equipment has gone through rigorous testing. Really, you’re signing up for free money.”

Sasha bit her lip, thinking for a moment. “Okay, I want to take the scan. Or however you test people’s brains.”

Jake clapped his hands together. “Sasha, I am so glad to hear that! First let’s go over this paperwork — it should show up momentarily…”

Sasha felt the ping. “Got it.”

“Alright. I need to you read this and add your bioprint here… Here also…”

They sped through the details, then Jake led Sasha into the examination room.


Let me know if you want me to continue this. Otherwise I’ll leave it as microfiction. I owe the idea to my boyfriend, Alex Irwin. Header photo by Pantelis Roussakis.

—> READ THE SECOND SEGMENT

Buildings, Exterior and Interior

I am profoundly uninspired tonight, so here are a couple of visual representations of potential futures:

Artwork by Tomoyuki Yamasaki.

Artwork by Tomoyuki Yamasaki.

Sorry about her extremely practical and appropriate attire.

Artwork by Joris Putteneers.

Artwork by Joris Putteneers.

If you want to read something, my friend Yael Grauer wrote about coping with her guilt about a friend’s suicide by reading their old chat logs.

Expansive Transhumanism, Already in Practice

As his $10 Patreon reward, Jeremy Southard asked me to write about transhumanism. So that’s been in the back of my mind for a few days. The trendy H+ story this week is DuoSkin, hyped by MIT Media Lab:

“DuoSkin draws from the aesthetics found in metallic jewelry-like temporary tattoos to create on-skin devices which resemble jewelry. DuoSkin devices enable users to control their mobile devices, display information, and store information on their skin while serving as a statement of personal style.”

DuoSkin is pretty and I would love a pink version, but I can’t get excited about the technology. I’m sure there are useful applications — a clandestine version could add to the espionage toolkit — but this cosmetic rendition seems a little gimmicky.

If you look at past Exolymph dispatches on transhumanism, you’ll notice that I’m more drawn to examinations of ways that we already augment our bodies than to speculative developments. Here’s why: I have zero interest in gadgets — what fascinates me is the sociology, the power relationships, the humanness of how we react to new tools. (This is not to say that there’s anything wrong with liking tech for its own sake.)

The most important transhumanist technology to emerge in the past fifty years is the internet, or more specifically networked computers. It’s a bit boring, since we’re all so used to living with it now, but the ability to store and access information at this scale is unprecedented.

I guess people don’t think of the internet as transhumanist because it’s not physically integrated, but to me that just seems like an implementation detail. For example, I store 90% of what I read online so I can reference it later. Effortlessly. My archive is quite literally a personal memory backup that I can keyword-search.

But I’m a power user. You can argue that instead of localized, individual-specific augmentations (whether targeting the body or the mind), the future is about massive crowdsourced extensions. Think Wikipedia.

Pokémon Go also loosely fits into this category — is your fitness assistant an app personalized for you, or a clever game featuring beloved childhood characters that your whole social circle uses? Which sounds more 2016?

Actually, I’m calling it now — augmented reality and transhumanism will merge beyond sensical separation within fifty years. Or maybe I just have a particularly expansive notion of what counts as transhumanism?

But consider this: Pokémon Go, widely lauded as the first consumer-focused augmented-reality success, would not be possible if most people didn’t already have smartphones in their pockets. Now imagine the mini computer is embedded in your hand, or your retina, or what-have-you. In what meaningful way would augmented reality be separate from transhumanism?

It may seem like pure semantics, but language reflects and shaped how we think about things. Our bodies are already less discrete than we think they are.

The Olympics and Posthumanity

Today’s dispatch was contributed by Webster Wade, who you can find on Twitter and Wattpad.

A cyborg athlete. Artwork by Ben Jamie.

Artwork by Ben Jamie.

Watching the Olympics this week, I have many thoughts related to upcoming posthuman achievements. In more than one extended talk by a geneticist, doctor, biomedicine specialist, or similarly qualified professional, I’ve heard the idea that it is entirely possible and “easy” to make a superhuman. The only hurdle is the ethical quandaries — of why, of doing it on a first batch of humans, of how to push for egalitarianism in a wildly unequal world, and more.

In Olympic-level sports, there is this crazy insistence that the athletes not take any substances that would enhance their performance. And yet an athlete like Michael Phelps is remarkable because of his abnormal physique. He has hypocritically spoken out fervently against allowing drug-supported athletes to compete.

There is a significant amount of targeted sexism, seeking to single out female athletes with heightened testosterone and related intersex conditions. As far as I know, this standard is not applied to male athletes. They are only screened for very high doping levels, not “naturally high” levels.

It seems weird to me that the “fun” of the Olympics is observing people leverage their unusual bodies to do great feats, but we are picky about what unusual traits are permitted. The ability for a body to respond well under a super-stacked doping regime is arguably just as impressive as harnessing any other natural talent.

In bodybuilding, competition is divided between “natural” and “anything goes”.

Based on current ideals, in a near future where you can design the ideal gymnast body, the uber-Phelps clone, the perfect runner who will quash all prior records, such meddling will no doubt be disallowed. It will be dismissed as “unnatural”, “unsportsmanlike”, and “anti-competitive” for a few decades — until it becomes so typical and otherwise inserted into sports that it will be considered okay.

Even though the athletes that break records today are able to do so because they have innate advantages, advantages we condone because they are gifted by chance.


More of Webster Wade’s work is available on Twitter and Wattpad.

The Girl with the Augmented Body and a DIY Manufacturing Habit

Reddit user SexyCyborg is a web developer who lives and works in Shenzhen, China. She is also a 3D printing enthusiast whose projects include a wrist mount for her tiny drones and a hot-pink replica of her own body. As her username implies, SexyCyborg has body modifications, the most prominent being her breasts. She explains in her Pastebin FAQ:

“I could not get longer legs (height is most important in China) so I decided a big chest was the next best thing for looking better (or at least more interesting). I am a transhumanist with an interest in any kind of human augmentation. Any robot parts I can get I would — that’s why ‘Cyborg’.”

She tends to dress in very short crop-tops, tight denim skirts, and stripper heels. Because she combines technical prowess and unusual aesthetics, SexyCyborg has gotten copious attention — some of it admiration, but most of it slut-shaming. (Just look at the comments she’s responded to on Reddit.) She maintains that the norms are different in Shenzhen, and the puritanical reactions come from Westerners.

Again from the FAQ:

“I live in a city of 12 million and not a single other person has my style [of] clothing or my body mods. I don’t know a person in my profession who looks like me. As a creative person that is a source of pride, as person living in a society [where] we are taught from an early age to value conformity above all else it is also very challenging.”

Given all of this context, I reached out to SexyCyborg for an interview. We messaged back on forth on Reddit. As usual, the following exchange is lightly edited for readability.

SexyCyborg in Huaqiangbei, the Shenzhen Electronics District.

SexyCyborg in Huaqiangbei, the Shenzhen Electronics District.

Exolymph: How did you get into 3D printing?

SexyCyborg: In June 2015 we had our yearly Maker Faire here in Shenzhen. I decided to make some LED clothing for the closing night party — LED clothing is a tradition at Maker Faire parties. I didn’t really know what I was doing, just plugging some off-the-shelf stuff together.

I had a LiPo battery that I planned to just stick in my pocket, but some of my friends told me that was not safe. I’d used TinkerCAD a little bit, so I watched some more YouTube videos and made a little box for the battery. Actually took a lot of tries to figure out how to get the screws to work. It was a good learning experience. I borrowed a little Up! 3D printer that had been unused, sitting in a box at a friend’s place, and got to work.

The end result got a lot of attention, or I did, or some combination of the two. I’m not an engineer or anything, and seeing your picture online in other countries is pretty cool for a regular girl who’s never traveled further than SE Asia.

After that, well, if all you have is a hammer then everything looks like a nail. So I got into the habit of making little things for around the house or little toys for the neighbors’ kids. 3D-printed things are still a big novelty for most people, so you get a lot of face giving them as gifts and being able to use a 3D printer.

I try to make a point of focusing on functional prints. Too many people just download and print endless Yoda heads and other “standard” designs, which defeats the purpose of having a printer. It’s like being one of those guys who owns a fancy expensive DSLR camera and talks all about bodies and lenses but never really takes good pictures for people to enjoy.

Exolymph: Do you see parallels between software or web development and the process of designing and making physical objects?

SexyCyborg: I’m sure there are but all my code is for work and all my hardware stuff is for fun. The code stuff is just basic contract work — code monkey stuff. So I don’t get to be very creative. The hardware is where I get to do what I like. Using OpenSCAD is kind of fun though (in moderation) since it’s pretty much coding a physical object.

Exolymph: Have you ever thought about making objects for sale or anything like that?

SexyCyborg: Could happen. Our firewall issues here in China are making writing decent code pretty tough these days. It’s hard to stay up-to-date and hard to have any sort of a workflow when VPNs are so flaky right now. Even the best coders use Google — a lot. Mostly I prefer to open-source all my designs as a sort of statement to other Chinese about giving back to the online communities that have given us so much. If I could do that and still earn a living it would be great.

Exolymph: Do you resent the amount of curious attention that your body mods get? Some of it is pretty abusive, from what I’ve read in various Reddit threads, and then there’s a lot of ambiguous attention that could be interpreted positively or negatively. For example, I probably wouldn’t know about you if it weren’t for your body and style of dress, and I’m sure there are a bunch of other 3D printing hobbyists who I theoretically could be interviewing, but they don’t intrigue me like you do because the way you present yourself is perceived as provocative by Americans. You’ve said that you like attention and that you like being aesthetically unique, but I wonder if it ever feels like a burden, or just plain gets annoying.

SexyCyborg: Well, resent like, “My eyes are up here!”? No, of course not, that would be ridiculous. But as with tattoos, piercings, scarification, etc, there’s a line between, “Huh, not really my thing, but okay,” or even, “OMG you look so freaky!” and forming a circle around someone and screaming abuse.

If someone says, “Sooo, you know in the West we associate this style with sex workers, right?” I know they are not deliberately trying to get a rise out of me or be hurtful. If it’s more like, “Fuck you, whore, you should be ashamed of yourself,” as is very common, there’s no real discussion or curiosity. It’s about, “What can I say to hurt this person?”

Lots of comment threads for my projects or pictures start to look like what hackers call fuzzing, almost random combinations of epithets, references to sex work, to promiscuity, to rape, to my parents, to my culture — to see when something or some combination of things has an effect. I have a better firewall than most people, though. None of it is in my mother tongue, so it does not really run on bare metal, as it were.

I still feel I need to respond because if I don’t their narrative of “oh she dresses this way and then complains about attention” gets repeated elsewhere as if it were truth. So it’s more a question of using up bandwidth that could better be devoted to talking about the project, having a laugh about the silliness of it all, or working on more interesting things.

So yeah, it’s annoying, but what you guys consider “the internet” is just “the English internet” to me. The Chinese one is almost as large and they like me just fine. If a bunch of people in, say… Japan hated you, after a certain point it’s pretty easy to just not visit Japanese websites.

So when the “oh that’s fun” to “die in a fire, whore” ratio gets too unfavorable, I just stop posting. That’s what I did last year and I’m sure I’ll do the same again at some point. That’s just me, though. Obviously online harassment is a really complicated discussion in the West and not one that I can really comment on.

Exolymph: Do you have any new body mods planned? In a theoretical world where any tech was possible, what would you change / augment?

SexyCyborg: Cosmetically I’d love a butt, of course, but the implants look terrible to me and I don’t have anywhere near enough body fat to graft, which is how the best butt jobs are normally done. Injectable fillers are generally unsafe or at least poorly tested. I’d love longer legs but again — poor track record for safety and not looking to spend a year in recovery. So no cosmetic plans for a while.

As far as functional, I know someone with an NFC implant. It’s fun, but it seems pretty silly to poke holes in myself for under 1kb when I have 1600cc of empty space just sitting there. Enough for 1000 terabytes or so, assuming 128gb micro SD density. Maybe if they increase the NFC implant memory size a bit, or deal with the battery and charging problems of powered implants. Maybe something for audio in the mastoid bone with an SDR? Seems pretty far off.

Good magnetic implants would be awesome for fashion and wearables. Safe coated magnets should be a done deal by now. I have no idea why we have not solved this or what the hold-up is. I could keep thigh-high socks in place without clips or needing to pull them up; pubic and tailbone magnets would mean stringless bikini designs. Maybe something near the collar bone for a top or magnetic pasties. Polymagnets would deal with a lot of the issues around power. Rotate to release or hold at a fixed distance without compressing the skin. But we can’t get any of that without safe, well-tested, and durable coatings for the magnets.

Exolymph: Have you always been interested in technology and transhumanism?

SexyCyborg: Not really. Like most Chinese, I led a pretty sheltered life until I was eighteen or so. Fortunately my English is okay and I had access to VPNs, so I was able to learn more about the world than most, although I have never been to the West so I’m certainly not worldly or anything. But coming from both a very homogenous culture and a very high-tech region, the desire to be different from the ten million people around me and to use science to achieve some of that difference both had a big appeal as I matured.

Exolymph: What do you think of the breathless coverage of Shenzhen as a tech manufacturing mecca in American media? Does that reflect the reality of living there at all?

SexyCyborg: It’s nice if not entirely accurate. The whole “Maker City” thing is odd since we don’t have any. Wikipedia says, “Maker culture emphasizes informal, networked, peer-led, and shared learning motivated by fun and self-fulfillment.” In Shenzhen, making is either product development if you are an adult, or a structured curriculum if you are a child. There are almost no Chinese makers in Shenzhen doing it purely as a hobby. I’m pretty active in the community and I have not met them.

Our makerspaces — the few real ones we have — are primarily for educational purposes. We have a couple of places with laser cutters or a small 3D printer for the kids to learn on, but there’s no place you can go swipe a card and use real machine tools in the middle of the night like lots of other major cities have.

Because of this, Chinese spend rather a lot of time online speculating on how I am monetizing my adventures and what company is “actually” behind me. Even a year later, when it’s pretty clear that I would be the worst stealth marketing campaign ever, it still drives them nuts trying to figure out my “angle”.

As far as most Chinese people’s thinking, hobbies are for old people. If you have seen newspaper articles about actual Chinese makers — who have made homemade robots, dialysis machines, submarines, prosthetic arms — they are nearly all older or retirees. Young people in China just don’t have the time or freedom usually.

When you are young there is a huge amount of pressure from your parents to have children, which means getting married, which means buying a house, which in Shenzhen means making a lot of money. So most Chinese feel they really don’t have time for the “play” which really is the essence of making.

On the other hand, if you are working on a hardware startup or just want to get stuff made, then sure, I think Shenzhen is pretty unbeatable.


It was a pleasure to read SexyCyborg’s expanded thoughts. Go upvote her on Reddit.

Archival links, since social media pages are prone to disappearing:

No Transhumanism Without Technology

“Transhumanism (abbreviated as H+ or h+) is an international and intellectual movement that aims to transform the human condition by developing and creating widely available sophisticated technologies to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities.” — Wikipedia

“To whatever extent transhumanism is a concept with meaning, we’ve all been doing it since we started writing things down.” — Aboniks

The difference between a notebook and Wikipedia, or Wikipedia and Google Glass, or Google Glass and a brain-integrated all-of-the-above combination, is mainly the level of convenience. The other big difference is that instead of having to memorize information or track it down yourself, anonymous strangers will contribute directly to your knowledge repository.

Are those strangers trustworthy? Well, most of the time… maybe it’s more accurate to say “an undetermined percentage of the time”. PR nonsense worms its way onto Wikipedia. Is the Google algorithm impartial? Of course not — it’s biased toward making money for the company. But absorbing tainted information via tainted processes is nothing new. As far as I know, that’s the only way.

Cyborg self-portrait by Dan Sakamoto.

Cyborg self-portrait by Dan Sakamoto.

The Aboniks quote from the beginning dates transhumanism to the invention of writing, but I think you could go farther back, to when we started using tools of any kind. What is a stone axe but an extension of the bearer’s arm? The people who wielded obsidian hatchets were very early cyborg prototypes.

As long as humans have been using technology, we’ve been augmenting our neurological and physical capabilities. Like so many aspects of human thriving, technology requires that we rely on each other. The people who make the hardware, whether it’s a paper book, a mainframe, or a biochemical plant. The people who provide the information and source the materials, the designers who create the interfaces by which we access and manipulate our external selves.

I find it terrifying to rely on other people, because I can’t control them, and yet that’s the human condition. That’s how we reach the future, by mutual building. (With an unhealthy dose of the profit motive, I suspect.)

Technical Difficulties In The Twenty-First Century

Photo by Luka Ivanovic.

Photo by Luka Ivanovic.

My laptop functions as an extension of my brain. I use it to store memories, to explore the environment that matters to myself and my peer group, and to express my will. Both my work and large parts of my social life live online. When I don’t have access to a reliable computer, I’m cut off from participating in the spheres that I care about. Sure, I can still read Twitter and Instapaper and text my boyfriend from my phone, but a laptop is so much more powerful. Unlike a phone, it’s a robust creative tool. I’m much more text-based than visual, so without a proper keyboard and word processor, I feel stymied. The Notes app is just not the same.

Currently I’m hurting for lack of a machine that will do my bidding. I don’t want to complain about my IT troubles too much, but it’s striking how drastically my life is affected by a slow and glitchy computer. This old Lenovo ThinkPad has been degrading gradually for a while — since I first got it four years ago, if we want to be precise — but over the past couple of days the situation has dramatically worsened. I can still do things, but not consistently, and I have to restart whenever I want to open or close a new program. Downloading images is basically out of the question. (Yes, a factory reset is on my schedule, and a Chromebook is winging its way to me from an Amazon warehouse.)

There’s a parallel between my computer and my antidepressant meds. Every day I take 225 milligrams of venlafaxine, the generic form of Effexor. It’s a drug that I’m incredibly grateful for, because it enables me to feel happy and energetic. But venlafaxine has hardcore side effects if I miss a dose — the colloquial term for what happens is “brain zaps”. You know that feeling when you drink too much caffeine, so you’re shaking and buzzing with anxiety? It’s like that, but also static electricity shocks me behind the eyes periodically. It’s not painful, but it’s not pleasant.

The frustration caused by trying to get my broken computer to just fucking do things is like trying to navigate the world when my brain is missing the right levels of serotonin and dopamine or whatever chemicals are affected. It’s not as bad as being depressed or being stuck with paper notebooks — but I am still filled with enough rage to want to cry.