The following text is a lightly edited excerpt from History in Times of Unprecedented Change: A Theory for the 21st Century (London: Bloomsbury, 2019)
Dystopian ecological and technological scenarios have become dominant visions of the future in post-Second World War Western societies. Whereas modern utopias called for longer-term gradual achievement, today’s dystopian prospects impose themselves on humanity in the shape of a sudden event.
I reckon that this statement might sound rather suspicious. For how could a future prospect impose itself on humanity? Would this entail the attribution of agency to something inanimate? Well, yes and no. It would certainly entail the attribution of agency to something non-human, but non-human does not really mean inanimate. Recent dystopian prospects revolve around the agency of nature or the agency of machines, both of them being non-human but animate. Besides, their attributed agency does not appear as independent of human agency. The central tenet of the postulated agency of nature and machines in ecological and technological prospects is actually that it arises out of human action and appears as initially human-induced. The keyword here is initially. Because, at the same time, the agency of both nature and machines is expected to increase and gain entirely new dimensions at the expense of human agency, the loss of which is precisely what constitutes the perceived threat.
To gain a better understanding of the situation, consider how, on the one hand, the prospect of global nuclear warfare, anthropogenic climate change and technological apocalypse appear as inherent threats which indeed are results of (inconsiderate) human activity and human agency. Nick Bostrom wonderfully captures the novelty of the challenge of facing threats brought about by human activity by making a distinction between ‘anthropogenic existential risks’ as opposed to ‘natural existential risks’ (2013: 15–16). Whereas humanity has faced various natural existential risks before (such as asteroid impacts), the threats to humankind increasingly appear as consequences of human activity, attesting to a sense of unprecedented human capacities.
The most momentous affirmation of such increased human powers has been made already in the 1950s by Julian Huxley, claiming in his essay on transhumanism that it appears ‘as if man had been suddenly appointed managing director of the biggest business of all, the business of evolution’ ( 1968: 73). At the same time, the more critical contemporary voice of Hannah Arendt, commenting on what is known today as the first events of the Space Race and on the same potential of science and technology to further increase human powers, painted a more balanced picture:
This future man, whom the scientists tell us they will produce in no more than a hundred years, seems to be possessed by a rebellion against human existence as it has been given, a free gift from nowhere (secularly speaking), which he wishes to exchange, as it were, for something he has made himself. There is no reason to doubt our abilities to accomplish such an exchange, just as there is no reason to doubt our present ability to destroy all organic life on earth. (1958: 2–3)
The prospect of human-induced climate catastrophe, although conceivable for decades and remarked on since the early postwar years, has entered a wider circulation of ideas somewhat later than Arendt and Huxley’s considerations. It has joined the threat posed by the increased human ‘ability to destroy all organic life on earth’ especially as following the quick spread of the notion of the Anthropocene to describe anthropogenic changes in the earth system and the emergence of earth system science. In the view of Clive Hamilton (2017), the latter is the proper context of the notion, representing a wholesale paradigm shift precisely because of new conceptualizations being inseparable from the birth of new sciences. Whether or not this is the case, the three prospects together – a climate apocalypse, a technoscientific catastrophe and a global nuclear warfare – appear today as the postwar triad of cataclysm.
The dystopian visions of climate change and technology revolve around the possibility of passing a point of no return. Once it is passed, the threat consists of nature taking over what has initially been human-induced and human-controlled change, or of a human-created ‘superintelligence’ – defined by Bostrom as ‘any intellect that greatly exceeds the cognitive performance of humans in virtually all domains of interest’ (2014: 22) – surpassing human intelligence. Whatever may happen afterwards is no longer accessible for human reasoning, given that it no longer entails human mastery. This is precisely what makes such prospects unsettling at best or catastrophic at worst: the cognitive inaccessibility of the possible consequences of human agency in bringing about its own insignificance as measured against the capacities of its own creations. In the technological domain, the notion that captures such a vision of the future of passing a point of no return is technological singularity. Although ‘singularity’ has been used earlier in the context of technology, the term ‘technological singularity’ has been put into wider circulation by Vernor Vinge in the 1990s. It describes the potential eruption of a sudden, game-changer event in the shape of the creation of greater-than-human intelligence that presumably creates even greater and greater superhuman intelligence at an explosive pace. Or, in the words of Vinge, ‘from the human point of view this change will be a throwing away of all the previous rules, perhaps in the blink of an eye, an exponential runaway beyond any hope of control’ (1993: 12).
To a certain extent, passing the point of no return in an event-like manner may be true of the prospect of a global nuclear warfare too. This was the initial threat that led the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists to set up the symbolic Doomsday Clock in 1947. As the ‘2018 Doomsday Clock Statement’ explains, the intention behind introducing the clock was ‘using the imagery of apocalypse (midnight) and the contemporary idiom of nuclear explosion (countdown to zero) to convey threats to humanity and the planet’ (Mecklin 2018: 2). The statement sets the clock to two minutes to midnight, half a minute closer than it was set by the previous 2017 statement, and – reflecting recent global policy agendas – it marks the return of the centrality of the nuclear threat by nevertheless keeping its focus on the entire postwar triad of cataclysm.
Compared to the prospect of nuclear self-destruction, a climate and a technological catastrophe, although being conceivable earlier, are only more recently emerging as widely recognized dominant threats, recognized as anthropogenic existential risks. The theme of anthropogenic climate change and the notion of the Anthropocene – the proposed but not yet canonized geological epoch of humans becoming agents that shape the earth system – even conquered the agenda of historians. Following the pioneering adventures of Dipesh Chakrabarty (2009) into mapping the consequences of the notion of the Anthropocene for the discipline and the concept of history, historians – in line with practically any other domain of academic knowledge-production within the humanities and social sciences – have begun to explore the impact and use of the notion in historical scholarship (for instance, Robin 2013; Thomas 2014; Bonneuil and Fressoz 2016; Mikhail 2016).
However, whereas Chakrabarty’s initial point of departure was an extinction scenario that challenges the deep continuity of the modern processual notion of history and thus is ‘deeply destructive of our general sense of history’ (2009: 198), historians in particular and humanities and social sciences research in general typically seem more interested in maintaining business as usual. Instead of asking the question of how the current humanities knowledge regime may be challenged together with its established categories of critical scholarship by novel conceptualizations, they apply their long-existing categories to the new that is supposed to challenge them (until it no longer looks challenging). Where Chakrabarty (2015) sees an emerging zoecentric worldview focusing on life and featuring the anthropos as a species understanding of the human being, critical humanities only see ‘the ongoing fraud that calls itself “Anthropos”’ (Cohen and Colebrook 2017: 134), a deception of a universal humanity brought together under a threat in the name of survival. Historians Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz go even further by claiming that an undifferentiated notion of the anthropos is put out by geologists, earth system and climate scientists to pave their own way to achieve a ‘command post of a disheveled planet and its errant humanity. A geo-government of scientists!’ (2016: 80).
The debate between a new understanding of the human predicament as emerging in a scientific discourse and the categories of critical humanities scholarship will most likely continue. It is not my intention even to attempt to resolve it. What I would like to point out is only that my focus nevertheless lies with what I think is the more interesting and challenging question in Chakrabarty’s initial engagement: the one that senses a potential transformation of the way in which we conceive of ourselves and the world historically, instead of the one that habitually domesticates a new idea by applying the already existing conceptual tools of humanities criticism. Although the latter is equally legitimate and important, in times of unprecedented change the question is not that of how to accommodate that which is perceived as genuine novelty into our familiar ways of thinking. Rather, the question is how to recognize its novelty by creating a fresh set of concepts within the humanities and the social sciences (potentially in cooperation with the natural sciences).
The same goes for technological visions, which have not had a similar impact yet in the discipline of history. The growing societal engagement in debating visions of the future typically boils down in historical studies to histories that explore how the future was conceived of in the past. Although investigating past visions of the future has become a rather lively historical research topic recently (see especially the work of Jenny Andersson 2018; and Andersson and Rindzevičiūtė 2015), the historical profession is still largely missing out the otherwise widespread debate on the broader technological vision of the future today: on artificial intelligence, transhumanism, bioengineering, nanotechnology, human enhancement or genome editing (with the latter being a positive exception thanks to the recently initiated Double Helix History project at The University of Manchester). The two kinds of engagement could not be farther from each other. On the one hand, looking for traces and precedents of our current societal investment by mapping past expectations of the future is the standard historical operation. On the other, just as in the case of the Anthropocene debate, taking part in the wider discussion on recent future prospects that spark such ‘historical’ interest may challenge the very historical operation historians put to work when they align with societal interests and begin to study past visions of the future.
That today’s technological-scientific prospects matter immensely for the way we conceive of ourselves and the world historically is best attested to by the fact that this is practically the only thing that made Francis Fukuyama reconsider his ‘end of history’ thesis. Although scholars in the humanities and social sciences seem to have irrevocably linked him to the idea of ‘the end of history’, Fukuyama has already moved on. In a book on the prospect of biotechnology, published only a decade after The End of History, Fukuyama reflected on his previous theory as follows:
As the more perceptive critics of the concept of the ‘end of history’ have pointed out, there can be no end of history without an end of modern natural science and technology. Not only are we not at an end of science and technology; we appear to be poised at the cusp of one of the most momentous periods of technological advance in history. Biotechnology and a greater scientific understanding of the human brain promise to have extremely significant political ramifications. (2002: 15)
In these sentences, Fukuyama vests technology with the potential of carrying the historical process as we know it further, meaning that history as the course of affairs just goes on as fuelled by technologies that engineer even the human being. Such an understanding of today’s technology is nevertheless obviously limited inasmuch as it remains within the confines of the modern historical sensibility and within the confines of a political framework in which technology is subordinated to politics. At a later stage I will return to the question of the relationship between the political domain and technology both in the modern and in the postwar historical sensibilities. For the current line of argument, the more important point is that Fukuyama, even if in a misguided way as seen from the viewpoint of this book, at least recognizes the link between a sense of historicity and visions of the future.
Despite the elevated tone of the above quote, Fukuyama is aware that technology’s potential to appear as a vehicle of improvement is only one side of the coin. The other side is the prospect of doom, as ‘the most significant threat posed by contemporary biotechnology is the possibility that it will alter human nature and thereby move it into a “posthuman” stage of history’ (Fukuyama 2002: 7). The inherent ambivalence of the technological prospect of the posthuman is a fairly common observation, having already been present in Arendt’s view. Today, it is a concern not only for Fukuyama and other bioconservatives in debates about the general prospect of a posthuman future to be brought about by technology, but also for advocates of radical enhancement. What they disagree about most deeply is what exactly they consider as ‘promise’ and ‘threat’. Whereas escaping the confines of (a statistically defined) human nature is a threat to Fukuyama (129–47), the very same prospect constitutes a promise for Bostrom (2003), the most prominent transhumanist philosopher today. And if this comes out as a promise for transhumanism, then the threat must be found elsewhere. For Bostrom, it takes the shape of an extinction event, regardless of whether the life threatened by extinction is human or posthuman. Hence the definition of existential risk – as ‘one that threatens the premature extinction of Earth-originating intelligent life or the permanent and drastic destruction of its potential for desirable future development’ (Bostrom 2013: 15) – can refer to a category even broader than humanity.
The simultaneity of the positive promise and the existential threat appears to build upon conflicting sets of ideas. Whereas the promise invokes a modern utopian structure of delivering a better future to be realized, the latter warns about the necessity to avoid the inherent perils of venturing into something unknown. Whereas the former claims a familiar historical trajectory of the betterment of human capacities, the latter claims to transcend those capacities that appear only as obstacles and unnecessary limitations. Although sometimes even transhumanists themselves mix up their own conceptual stakes by claiming continuity with Enlightenment ideals of human perfectibility, their promise is not about making already assumed human potentials better but about creating that which is better than human (Simon 2019). Nevertheless, the transhumanist project of enhancing humans by technological means is upheld as a promise as frequently as it is considered to be a threat, or is just debated in both terms without either explicitly advocating or opposing the transhumanist project itself (for example, Agar 2010; Fuller and Lipinska 2014; Sharon 2014; Hurlbut and Tirosh-Samuelson 2016).
All this clearly testifies that although it is possible to talk about the growing prominence, pertinence and dominance of postwar dystopian thought, it would be misleading to suggest that the Western world completely lacks or is heading toward the total absence of utopian thought. In fact, the postwar dominance of the dystopian is the most apparent precisely in the structural feature that even the remnants of modern utopian thought appear now as inherently dystopian, due to the sense of having something ahead that has no precedent. It is the either deliberate or unintentional bringing about the unprecedented – the unknown, the impenetrable by human reasoning – that constitutes the inherent risk of losing or simply not having human control over whatever is brought about.
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