The Transhumanist Pendulum

(The Origin of Principles, 25 Mar 2013)

George Bickers ·

Josh Trank and Matt Landis’ 2012 film Chronicle confronts an audience with what is ostensibly newly broken ground in the superhero genre. But even slightly scrape this outer facade and what one begins to see is a detailed - yet unvocalised - discussion on the ethical and moral standpoints occupied by trans-human characters within a definitively human social structure.

Perhaps the first point of interest this film offers — to the viewer who recognises the theme — is the distinction it draws between being trans-human and being post-human; an issue that comes down to self-perception. Perception of oneself as trans-human — even without that label — causes one to occupy a zone on a spectrum, with extremes we can label as “human” (to be read as “a person with the same general abilities and limitations typical to homo sapiens”) and “post-human” (to be read as “a being not limited by those factors that hold back a human, and/or with increased physical or mental capacities”). Trans-human, by definition, is the central point of this spectrum.

Despite playing a role in this enquiry, this is not the main issue this paper seeks to address. Instead, what appears to be the most significant theme in this film is the discussion of how an insular minority of trans-human characters propose, attempt to follow and eventually break a series of morals and laws that are based on distinctly humanist concerns.

What causes initial adherence to these rules, and how are they subverted or complied with? What triggers the need for them in the first place, and what are the outcomes?

Whilst a delineation of how a character becomes trans-human may be required for a technological transition, the process of becoming trans-human in Chronicle is left unanswered, short of the film’s three main characters — Andrew, Matt, and Steve — coming into contact with an inexplicable artefact. So it is not this paper’s intention to question how or why this transformation occurs in our characters.

It is sufficient to say that the characters can be classified as trans-human due to their development of, as the writers put it, “telekinetic” abilities that even at their most basic advance them beyond the capabilities of a normative human. These physical and mental advantages aside, within the films universe, our label of “trans-human” can be used as a matter-of-fact definition. The film’s early narrative documents the increasing capabilities of our three main characters, showing them develop from the ability to stop and hold a moving baseball (0:14:22) up until the ability to levitate and fly (0:29:39). The idea that these powers are increasing implies the idea that these abilities could (feasibly) continue to develop and so our trans-human label is applied on the understanding that this is a transitional state between human and something potentially unrecognisable.

With the onset of their powers, our characters can be resolutely classified as trans-human and yet, because of its transitional nature, this state of trans-humanism cannot be maintained for any extended period of time. It is here that a discussion on morality and ethics must begin.

It is through moral choices and one’s self-perception that movement on this spectrum can occur. After Andrew’s actions endanger the life of a member of the public (0:26:00), Matt suggests that our characters must conform to a set of rules that, by definition, limit the use of their powers: “Rule number one. No using it [the powers] on living things. Rule number two, you can’t use it when you’re angry.” (0:28:11)

Without any modification these two rules hold true to normative humanist laws which are, ostensibly, based upon commonly held morals. Yet even with this, Matt modifies the use of “living things” by prefacing the statement saying: “You put a guy in the hospital, how do you feel about that? You hurt somebody!” (0:28:03)

Here, the writer’s use of language shows that the underlying concern here is not with the act of violence itself, but the act committed against a human. The implication is that “somebody” means human, different to an animal or to “living things” in general. A special kind of reverence is held in normative humanist morality and ethics for the human subject. The imposition of rules — applicable only to trans-humans — that hold special concern for the human subject is a conscious choice by Matt, and latterly Steve and Andrew, to shift towards the human end of what we can call the “trans-humanist pendulum”.

Matt’s decision and Steve and Andrew’s compliance serves to anchor them at the human end of this spectrum. The best term for this role is the Extropian term “Human Plus” as it cannot be denied that a divide does exist between our characters and normative humans, but the training the characters undergo shows these advantages can be used without compromising what one might traditionally call one’s “humanity”. Whilst this classification of our trans-human characters as Human Plus puts us in a comfortable position, it is the compliance with this humanist moral framework that is our area of interest and which causes the problems within the film.

One thing the film makes abundantly clear is the conflicts that the trans-human encounters when functioning as a minority within human society. The major conflict we see, embodied in Andrew, is facing problems encountered when human as a trans-human. The conflict gives rise to a choice. Compliance with internally imposed — though external by definition — humanist laws leaves the trans-human just as vulnerable as they were before, the rules negating their advantage. Disregarding the laws allows them their ‘natural’ advantage, but removes them from what it was that keeps them ‘human’.

This realisation simmers under the surface of the film and its first spike causes the implementation of the rules. The turning point comes with a confrontation between Andrew and his abusive father (0:50:34) and the rhetoric of the film shifts from one of humanist idealism — that this form of human advancement can be used to help people, used to gain enlightenment, or bettering the self — to that of evolutionary superiority. Andrew’s threat to his father sums up this early part of the shift: “I could crush you, do you know that?!” (0:51:41)

Through Andrew we see a shift in the self-perception of the trans-human. If the trans-human ceases to see themselves as inherently human then conformity to normative humanistic ethical structures ceases to be either desirable or necessary; compliance with these ethical and moral structures allows one to retain what could be traditionally considered their “humanity”. But if one believes — as Andrew does to after this turning point — that they have transcended humanity, then these rules are a hindrance, a relic of the past no longer applicable, and the transition to the post-human is complete.

It almost goes without saying that this usage of the terms “trans-human” and “post-human”, aren’t used with a technological bias in mind, but in an evolutionary form. In defining the post-human, N. Katherine Hayles advances an initial definition drawn solely from the technological standpoint: “The post-human view privileges informational pattern over material instantiation.”

Despite the value of Hayles’ technological standpoint, our evolutionary one deals with changes in the genetic and wider biological changes that the traditional “human” undergoes. And yet there is one point at which Hayles’ standpoint and our evolutionary view converge:

“People become post-human because they think they are post-human.” This buys into the assumption that the aforementioned spectrum between human and post-human exists — at least potentially and abstractly so — and that the post-human is achieved through the specific choices the trans-human makes in regard to evolutionary superiority or adherence to humanistic ethical codes. Andrew becomes post-human because he regards himself so. It is at this stage that Andrew’s dialogue and perspective begins to change from the pursuit of enlightenment (0:36:05) to discussions about the evolutionary role of the apex predator within an ecosystem (0:57:29).

By implicitly defining himself as the apex predator alongside a program of violence against others, Andrew has fully identified with the post-human end of our spectrum.

Interestingly, and spurred on by the images evoked by the term “predator”, the film begins to portray Andrew animalistically. We see him hunt and discuss his spoils covered in blood — though he retains a part of his humanity when he finds himself disgusted by his condition (0:56:50). We see him eventually lose all language faculties, beginning to roar near to the close of the film (1:14:26). Yet Andrew’s violence towards those he sees as an inferior species is almost ethically justifiable.

By no longer viewing himself in the Human Plus classification we established earlier, Andrew ceases to be covered by Ronald L. Sandler’s summation of traditional ethical concerns in relation to perceived species boundaries. Sandler states that: “1) Members of the species Homo Sapiens have a particular moral status by virtue of being a member of the species; 2) human moral agents have a special moral obligation to other members of the species Homo sapiens by virtue of their being conspecifics; and 3) members of the species Homo sapiens have special moral obligations to the continuance or furtherance of of Homo sapiens by virtue of its being their species.”

Even a glancing look will show that the subject that considers themselves post-human — either explicitly or otherwise — ceases to be of the species Homo Sapiens, and so the moral and ethical concerns that maintain the trans-human’s traditional humanity simply cease to apply. This realisation warrants, even justifies, Andrew’s endangerment of the lives of others, his lack of concern for the safety of others and, from a humanist perspective, his eventual death at the hands of the film’s remaining Human Plus character — the spearing, like an animal hunted, that ends Andrew’s life functioning as the final, poignant image of his transcendence and subsequent loss of humanity (1:14:52).

In a resolutely human world, the portrayal of the post-human is going to be one that resolves in the eventual defeat of this new apex predator. Of the three originally trans-human characters, the only survivor is Matt, in his role as Human Plus. The narrative backhandedly rewards him for his compliance to humanist morals and ethics, but also ensures that the second his difference is revealed he must impose exile on himself, despite his positive contribution.

We see, then, that whilst it is possible for the trans-human to function within a normative human society if they regard themselves as still bound to a humanist moral framework, it is impossible to continue to do so if they reveal themselves to be anything but normative. The fall of the post-human is achieved through non-compliance to these moral standards, and so is hunted down and ostracised or killed.

It follows, then, that in a society where trans-humanism — be it evolutionary, technological or intellectual — is fully realisable, humanist moral and ethical codes will not suffice if trans-humans, regardless of how they self-regard, are to be fully accepted within a mixed-ability society.

Whilst our thinking must continue to work towards how we realise the trans-human goal, equal thought must go into how we reconcile the possibility of two divergent streams of humanity. Sandler discusses the issues surrounding Homo Sapiens and a distinctive moral status that our species afford to ourselves. He argues that some things we considered inherently human - such as rationality, future planning, “interests, agency, and relationships” — are shared by other terrestrial agents, and so Homo Sapiens should not be afforded a moral status distinct from some other terrestrial beings.

Our concern, using the examples illustrated above, should be for both those that remain Homo Sapiens, and for those that choose to become trans- or post-human. In terms that are both noble and necessarily self-serving, institutions that have taken this possibility in mind have sprung up.

The Non-Human Rights Project has grown out of the desire to, in their words, “change the common law status of at least some nonhuman animals from mere ‘things’, which lack the capacity to possess any legal right, to ‘persons’, who possess such fundamental rights as bodily integrity and bodily liberty, and those other legal rights to which evolving standards of morality, scientific discovery, and human experience entitle them”. An awareness of the shared traits of the human subject and other terrestrial beings has driven the Non-Human Rights Project to move to protect those beings that aren’t covered by the term ‘persons’.

This project is noble as it endeavours to protect those who can’t protect themselves; self-serving as one day, the legal definitions that will cover these other terrestrial beings can be used to legally enshrine the rights of the trans- or post-human in whatever form they so appear. These legal protections will show the moral character of our species in its current form by enshrining moral codes for those that will follow us, and allows a legal and moral basis through which these divergent strains of humanity can live side by side.

This paper has shown that if or when these shared traits disappear then distinctive moral status will need to be fashioned, and in doing so, co-habitation and cooperation must be at the forefront of our thinking.