Throughout modern history, and peaking in the early- to mid-20th century, utopian ideologies in various guises have brought forward promising solutions to what their creators viewed, through various lenses, as a single, ever-present problem: human imperfection. However, the result of these ideologies being unleashed in real world settings has been two World Wars and many more millions of fatalities in far-flung world regions, as totalizing ideologies spread globally outward from their European core.
Ideologies aimed at turning the masses into the “new man” emerged initially as one of the many consequences of the Industrial Revolution in the West, in whose wake first appeared the modern elements of universal secular values, total war, mass societies, and the generic, banal personage known as the “mass man.” The mass man, or the average man, was repeatedly judged by the various self-appointed masters of utopia to be imperfect, and hence, unworthy of their great calling. In a sense, the judgement was leveled against human nature itself, as the origin of these imperfections. It would have to be altered artificially, re-engineered, by the application of power from above, and if necessary, through manipulative techniques, propaganda, and mind games, even coercion.
Why was the re-engineering of man so important to these actors? The mass man, in his present form, was patently unacceptable to them. His banality stood as an obstacle to the great social, cultural, and political projects of these ambitious social and political actors, a barrier standing squarely in the way of their grandiose dreams. Therefore, he had to be reformed and made better. Out of him, the “new man” was to be created, which meant re-making him to fit their own ego-image. Once in possession of enough power to enable them to begin implementing their agendas, the mass man became raw material to them, just waiting to be molded to their precise specifications, no longer valuable as a human being in his own right. This is how the process of dehumanization unfolded in the era of totalizing ideologies.
And so it is again. Perhaps humanity thought that it was finished with these types of ambitions, but its judgement was premature. Transhumanism, a 21st century ideology conjured up by a small handful of would-be gods in Silicon Valley, is a hypermodern variant of the older 19th and 20th century models. It is also the reigning ideology of the iconic, most wealthy, most broadly powerful figures in the technology community today.
One of their proposed methods in crafting the transhumanists’ version of the “new man” involves the replacement of some or all of what they see as “limited” human brains with machine parts; the other method promises, somewhat tongue in cheek, to “download” a human consciousness, you, as it were, into a computer, and to discard the original human brains thereafter. Either way, the immortal transhuman products of these grisly operations would afterwards be networked along the lines of today’s Internet and, presumably, live in a fully joined utopia. The types of “new man” across history have been greatly varied, but Silicon Valley’s version of it is a cyborg, and in some variants, e.g., full brain emulation, a full-blown artificial intelligence wearing the mask of a former human.
What does any of this have to do with Gene Roddenberry? Roddenberry foresaw transhumanism, though it didn’t yet have a name. Through his Star Trek series, he appears to have expressed an opinion about the kinds of people who might seek bring it about, and why such people should have never been allowed to acquire great power. Needless to say, today they already hold such power, but their agenda, which they, like their forbears, do not attempt to hide, is still in its infant stages.
Note the following dialogue, encountered in the Star Trek episode “What Little Girls Are Made Of,” which originally aired on October 10, 1966. The dialogue begins after Captain Kirk is introduced to an android copy of himself, fashioned by a character named Dr. Korby as demonstration to him of the “potential” of what today would be called transhumanism:
KORBY: … What you saw was only a machine, Only half of what I could’ve accomplished, do you understand? By continuing the process I could’ve transferred you, your very consciousness into that android. Your soul, if you wish. All of you. In android form, a human being can have practical immortality. Can you understand what I’m offering mankind?
KIRK: Programming. Different word, but the same old promises made by Genghis Khan, Julius Caesar, Hitler, Ferris, Maltuvis.
KORBY: Can you understand that a human converted to an android can be programmed for the better? Can you imagine how life could be improved if we could do away with jealousy, greed, hate?
KIRK: It can also be improved by eliminating love, tenderness, sentiment. The other side of the coin, Doctor.
KORBY: No one need ever die again. No disease, no deformities. Why even fear can be programmed away, replaced with joy. I’m offering you a practical heaven, a new paradise, and all I need is your help.
KIRK: All you wanted before was my understanding.
People, including the science fiction writers of decades past, can be forgiven for having hoped that human society might evolve in a direction resembling the vision Gene Roddenberry so eloquently put forth. Not a utopia to be sure, but a future worthy of a growing, thriving, mindful, human society, one in which technology and ethical standards would improve roughly in parallel to one another, instead of moving in opposing directions as is seen today.
Perhaps some people saw a glimmer of hope in Roddenberry’s character Spock, a human-Vulcan hybrid. In an evolution of the human standard toward the Vulcan philosophy, man would have retained the “human” in his humanity, along with his ethical “good side,” but most of his passions would have been in the process of gradually being brought under his own control. The self-mastery of human passions would have become a philosophical pillar of the entire society. Future man would thus have had something in common with machines, but he would not be a machine, nor would he adopt machine values.
It is true that the second generation of Roddenberry’s series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, produced the sentient android character Lt. Commander Data. The Data character was not a transhuman, nor was he intended to house human minds or replace them. Rather, he was a machine intended to become a part of humanity rather than the other way around. The character was presented as a strong force for good: he was able to connect with humans on an emotional level and came equipped with strong ethical subroutines. Importantly for Roddenberry’s vision, the Data character also spontaneously evolved a desire to become more human. There was no contrary vision that human beings should become more machine-like.
Roddenberry’s next generation Star Trek series, however, also created an anti-Data character template, in the form of the Borg. The Borg worked relentlessly to assimilate every being they encountered, rob it of its individuality and unique attributes, and re-craft it to serve their own growing power. Their motto inspired despair through a declaration of inevitability: “Resistance is futile.”
In the ethical void that reigns over Silicon Valley today, neither Spock nor Data best resembles the new manner of existence its most powerful elements are leading us toward; rather, it is the Borg. The term “borg” is short for “cyborg.” The Borg’s Holy Grail? Perfection. So it is with transhumanism, and all the other “new man” ideologies that preceded it.
The Borg, for the uninitiated, are transhumans. That is to say, they are humanoid-machine hybrids, with their machine parts ultimately controlling their daily functions and actions, and most importantly, their thoughts. The Borg Collective, the totality of all of them, is a networked species of connected minds in hybrid bodies. It thrives by conquering organic societies, stripping their members of their species-level and personal individualities, filling their brains and bodies with machine parts, injecting nanotechnology into their bloodstreams, and “assimilating” these once-independent beings, now Borg drones, into the larger hive mind. The drone feels neither love nor empathy. It has neither ambition nor imagination. It simply consumes other minds. Its sole purpose is to add to the perfection of the Collective.
The Borg Collective is portrayed as a psychopathic entity, and it acts upon the universe in psychopathic ways. It follows a pure machine logic, its parts working together as efficiently as possible in pursuit of its sole value: perfection. It has no place, nor respect, for the value of the humanoid being, his subjectivity, his individuality, or his ethical standards. It does not feel remorse as it drills these unwanted attributes out of thinking, feeling, imperfect humanoid beings. Clearly Roddenberry’s Borg Collective, like that of his Dr. Korby character quoted earlier, represented a force for great evil in the Star Trek universe.
As do the parallel developments coming out of Silicon Valley in our real universe.