Tuesday, September 29, 2009

In peace for all mankind

Transumanar significar per verba
non si poria

(Dante Alighieri - Divine Comedy, Paradise)

Just went to a public lecture of Buzz Aldrin: moon landing anniversary, Planetary Society fundraising, book promotion event, whatever it was that brought him here. Surely an inspiring character, from the height of Moon-walk to the depth of his personal history of depression and mood disorders. Certainly an occasion for reflection, once more on the theme of hero figures: it is easy to understand how, at the time of the moon landing, the expectations created around the space race made the Apollo 11 astronauts into instant world heros. It was, after all, a great success to be celebrated being able to bring people safely to the surface of the moon and back. A symbol of what modern science and technology can achieve constructively, in stark contrast with the sinister background of the Cold War arms race: in peace for all mankind. Yet the human cost of the hero status bestowed upon the returning astronauts has been enormous: Armstrong all but disappeared from public life and Aldrin returned to it after his own long dark voyage through the underworld of depression and alcoholism. The all too human need to forge other people into symbols, hero figures, myths, is an incredibly aggressive act towards precisely those people one is trying to elevate above the human level. It is not just the people who accept to wipe out their own capacity for independent thought and action and to devalue their own lives by preferring instead to live vicariously through another person that are the victims. The people who are cast (reluctantly or willfully) into the role model attire are also victims of a scheme from which there is no escape except accepting the increasingly dehumanizing effect of being transformed into a symbol. Most people who find themselves in this role too easily lose the capacity for sincere human feelings, for empathy, for understanding, all precious qualities traded in for stylized and shallow adopted behaviors that fit the image of what the need to appear. It is no wonder that people break down when they realized how much they are asked to sacrifice. I am being carried away by a too familiar line of thought once again. In fact, Aldrin's public lecture was entertaining and inspiring. The criticism of the current perspectives for a manned space program very much to the point, with interesting comments on the structural differences between the Apollo and the planned Orion of a seemingly improbable return of NASA to the Moon, on his ideas about the cycler trajectories bringing a spacecraft on a periodic trajectory between the Earth and Mars - a sort of planetary commuter, on his original expertise in orbital rendezvous which is what brought him to the Apollo mission in the first place. Interesting, all of it. I am glad I was able to attend. Forty years down the line from that Moon walk day, heros are still living the life imposed on them by the chains of fame, still an example to us all, still keeping alive the dream of space exploration, and yet, one cannot help sensing also an undercurrent of psychological strain, the erosion that notoriety and its demands cause on our most cherished souls.

In the forty years since the Apollo 11 days, the dreams and expectation of our collective scientific imagination of the future of mankind have slowly moved from outer space to inner space, driven by the sharp comparison between a stagnant space program and the rapid advances of computer and information technology. Just as neural and cognitive science gradually replaced hard core physics as the hip science of choice of the younger generation, the focus of the imagination shifted from the exploration of the cosmos to the exploration of the human mind. In particular, the current of thought that came to be known widely as transhumanism became more and more representative of the new vision of the human future. The basic idea of transhumanism is the transformation of biological human beings into something else, which can range from the milder forms of human/machine blends we are already familiar with through the virtual reality aura created around our physical bodies by the multitude of our electronic accessories that keep us connected, to much more drastic images of future full downloads of human consciousness into machine hardware.

Curiously enough, both transhumanism and space exploration come historically from exactly the same source. Both can be traced back to a group of Russian philosophers and mystics of the late 19th century, the "biocosmists" revolving around the figure of Nikolay Fedorov. Among them was the geochemist Vladimir Vernadskii, whose work on the biosphere may well make him the precursor of all modern environmental science, as well as the father of rocketry and space exploration, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. Fedorov and the biocosmisms advocated the achievement of immortality through science, via the modification of the biological human being, and at the same time they advocated space exploration as one of the ultimate goals of the new enhanced humanity.

Tsiolkovsky made the space exploration part of Fedorov dream become a reality. A lone provincial teacher of science in Kaluga, first scorned by the establishment of late Tzarist Russia and then sponsored by the Communist government and made into a national hero, Tsiolkovsky had a deep influence on the making of several Sovient scientists and engineers: Sergei Korolev, Boris Chertok, and the Khrushchev era Soviet cosmonautics. A very nice recent book by James T. Andrews "Red Cosmos" gives a carefully balanced and well argued account of the figure of Tsiolkovsky and his lasting influence on the space era. Most interestingly, Tsiolkovsky resoted to a mixture of technical writings, science popularization, and science fiction to promote his ideas, calculations and technical results about multistage rockets. It was precisely this capacity to address an audience at many levels that made him so successful in attracting a generation of young people to science, who ultimately transformed the dream of space exploration into a reality.

The other side of Fedorov's biocosmist philosophy was slower in developing. If with the launch of Sputnik in 1957 the space race had officially started and it would bring within just a few years robotic probes and human beings in space and eventually to the Moon, the biocosmist vision of a deeply altered (and perfected) human nature lied dormant for a much longer time and only recently has transhumanism emerged again as a strong current of thought.

It is perfectly understandable why, between the time of Fedorov and where we stand today, people steered away for a long time from the idea of an artificially enhanced humanity. The horrors of the Nazi ideology promoting a superior race loomed large on any thought of fiddling with the biological human beings. It was only after the development of cybernetics and the theory of information and communication that an idea of transhumanism emerged once more, this time addressing the problem of human/machine interaction. Wiener's writings on cybernetics purposely blur the boundary between the mechanism and the homeostatic functioning of biological systems. Finally, the accelerated development of computer technology made the human/machine interaction an everyday reality and the transhumanist ideas more and more relevant.

One also sees these days a return of the original biocosmist vision blending transhumanism with space exploration in a very interesting new manifestation. The most interesting science fiction writer of today, the Australian Greg Egan, has developed in his novels and short stories a transhumanism vision of disembodied human consciousness reproduced in an informatic medium as the basic substratum for space exploration. With no need to violate the laws of physics, his transhuman characters can populate space adventures spanning the range of times and distances of the cosmos, promoting the very sound scientific ides that a space faring civilization, or network of civilizations, can only exist if it abandons the biological constraints dictated by an evolutionary process adapted to a planetary environment but not suitable for the cosmos. I recommend Diaspora as a good example of Egan's transhumanist and very scientific form of science fiction.