On Technically Enhanced Man

Whether a technically enhanced Schall would be an improvement over the original version is probably something that I, though admittedly equipped with battery-powered hearing aids, do not have to worry about. But most other folks do. A nephew sent me a list of “The 50 Smartest Companies.” I did not quite know what to make of it.

So I sent a query to a friend who is up to speed on these things. He noted that a remarkable number of these “smartest” companies work on the human condition itself. The human “instrument” that is man’s body and mind can be radically improved.

Here is my friend’s summation: “I think the big trend relative to tech innovation is technology as intertwined with human beings. And I don’t mean humans using technology. I refer to having technology inserted into our bodies – and brains – and even being directly connected with computers.”

People already have heart-pacers that need recharging every so often. Doctors today deftly perform operations with hand-extending robot devices. Presumably, if a baby in the womb is diagnosed with a low IQ, some chip can be inserted into the little tyke to get him into Harvard when the time comes. We have watches that tell us how many miles we walk, calories we eat, and the vagaries of our blood pressure.

Computer mechanisms have become so small that they can be inserted anywhere from the brain to the big toe silently to perform the function for which they were designed. Soon, we can recharge our batteries by walking near an outlet. Batteries will last for decades. I had a watch battery that lasted five years.

Death of the automaton Talos, c. 350 B.C. [National Archaeological Museum, Puglia, Italy]

Descartes thought that, while we could know nothing of reality outside of ourselves, we could construct even the human body so that we could not tell the difference between the real one and the one that was his own manufacture. How could he compare what he did not know with what he made?

Behind all of this innovation, no doubt, is the desire to improve us, to get rid of diseases and deformities, even death. Dummies with the proper chips in their brain will suddenly make Einstein look like an illiterate. No chess player can beat the robot chess opponent. Amazon now delivers books, shoes, and groceries with robots much more efficiently than they did with human labor.

Since computers know so much, why not feed their wisdom directly into our brains? It won’t even be necessary to access computers. They will always be turned on. If I want to know the date and results of the Battle at the Horns of Hattin, it will just appear at my nod or voice command. If I want to know the temperature on July 3, 1894 in Cordova, Argentina, no problem.

If, however, I want to know whether my sins are forgiven or whether my spouse loves me, there may be glitches in the system, but probably only temporarily. When we are baptized, all the technology in our corpus is also blessed with the flowing waters.

No doubt, much of this speculation has been tried before. It was called Frankenstein. What we wanted to turn out as a blessing turned out, in fact, as a monster. What went wrong? If a vaccine exists to prevent measles, all of us must be vaccinated. If everyone has a shrewdly fashioned machine in him to improve his brain, heartbeat, emotions, gait, or memory, who is he? Is he still the son or daughter of his genetic parents? Or is he the product of some fancy machines invented and installed by folks with their own agendas?

The ancient Greeks were said to have invented machines and systems to do what needed to be done. But they decided not to develop them except as toys. “If a thing can be done, it should be done,” in practice, was not necessarily a good idea. Yet things that are definitely not good ideas are put into effect once they are known. The world is full of the results of good ideas, but also with the results of some very bad ideas.

Man did not create/invent himself. But can he “reinvent” himself? Should he endeavor to bring forth an enhanced human construct that is “wire-less-ed” to sundry micro-contraptions that enable him to do all sorts of things impossible for men of the first creation?

What, after all, was so bad about the baseball players with enhanced muscles who lofted home runs more frequently? It was that they were performing at a level beyond normal excellence. When I think of a technically enhanced human race, all duly licensed by the state, I suspect that the original invention of man probably should be kept.

In practice, we will find that our “improvements” were but new forms of highly sophisticated slavery. The Greeks had a point, as did the Creator.

James V. Schall, S.J.

James V. Schall, S.J.

James V. Schall, S.J., who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his recent books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, and, new from St. Augustine's Press, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught.

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