I’m sure many are aware of cyborgs, cybernetic organisms, and the general idea behind them. It’s the concept of biological life merging with artifical life. In its most classic conception, it brings about images of mechanistic implants in the eyes, robotic arms, and, to some of the most imaginative, implants within the brain.
The concept is fun for science fiction, but with each passing Elon Musk tweet, we get closer to this cultural meme turning into a macabre reality. The pockets of techno-capital are deep, the revolutionary minds of today are itching for something new, and there’s likely already thousands of clamoring soyboys excited about the idea of having Twitter literally in their brain.
The question of if this will happen is still up in the air. Biotech could be a flop and machine learning turns out to be the next big thing, or we could plunge into a dark age. Only time will tell, and, this article is not made to discuss if the future will be this, that, or the other. Instead, it’s going to be a critique of the concept of biotechnology. So, henceforth, we’ll just assume biotech, and all of its extravagant promises, takes off and causes another techno-industrial revolution.
Generally speaking, I think biotech, and other pushes for cybernetic organisms, are bad for society general. I also believe that biotech is, long-term, not sustainable. There’s a myriad of reasons for why, but I believe that only one good one reason is necessary. Not because all the other reasons are weaker or inferior, but that this one, singular reason is something that can be applied to all perspective systems, technologies, institutions, and other constructed, generally ordered things.
It’s quite an interesting topic, however it requires introduction. So…
First, we must discuss software freedom.
Talking about software freedom is boring. Everyone LARPing as UNIX boomers, which includes any nerds out there reading neocities or 4chan’s /g/, already knows about this subject. For the unenlightened, a quick glance at an encylopedia entry on the subject (or the Free software foundation’s philosophy) should suffice to get the picture.
Introduction aside, we can now discuss why software freedom matters to biotech. It’s obvious the two are related, but they’re related in a very unconventional, but strong way. However, to understand this relationship, we must analyze the free software movement and what it really is.
The general movement and push for free software is one that’s interesting because of who supports it and who benefits from software freedom.
The push for software freedom really got its start because a grouchy MIT programmer was peeved that he didn’t have the source code to software on his computer, so he built an entire foundation and operating system with software freedom in mind so he, and other users like him, could have the source code for it. This tradition of building tools because you want yourself and others to have access to the source code and use it without meaningful restriction is one that’s continued for years on end.
Primarily, tech people are the ones who continue the tradition. They write the code, they publish it under free software licenses, and they support both themselves and each other in their projects. This fact on its own isn’t shocking. Tech guys write code, so of course they’d make up the majority of people supporting software freedom since they can do the most direct action.
This fact on its own is boring and obvious, but feels incomplete. Only when you add the second fact to the equation everything makes sense, and you get something deeper, and more valuable out of this discussion of software freedom. The second fact is that software freedom is intended to help software users. While that’s everyone who is using a computer for its intended purpose, that everyone also includes people interested in technology.
Tech people write free software and tech people use free software. Tech people write software on software. They use software for almost all their tasks related to their jobs. They can’t effectively organize their free software projects without software for organizing and communications, and they can’t organize their projects effectively without software for organizing their projects. The free software movement is primarily a movement of people in technology controlling their own tools.
Why does that matter?
This question may seem stupid to a tech guy. Techies in the free software space can likely semi-justify their position why it matters. They may explain computational problems like lack of modification and a desire for privacy. These justifications aren’t bad, but they’re external to the core issue of why tech people want to control their own tools. The better way to make normal people understand is to make them question something they know they own, for example, a stove.
Assume that you would like to cook something. It’s nothing spectacular and whatever you make won’t make you money, but it is something that you want to do because it satiates a need of yours, in this case: hunger. In a normal circumstance, you walk over to your stove, turn it on, then do whatever you want with it. You can boil spaghetti on it, you could cook a fried egg, you could bake some bread. The choice is really yours as that device is your device. If it breaks, you’re free to replace it or repair it. It’s your tool to do what you will with.
Now imagine that your stove could be changed out without your permission each day. Sometimes it’s something small, like the color of the numbers on the knobs changing, sometimes it’s big, like removing the ability to bake things with it. It’s not up to you anymore what happens, you simply have to go with it.
Now that’s not too bad, yes annoying, but not world ending. However, your stove may just paywall the ability to boil spaghetti. Nothing changed about the product and, it still can boil other things, it’s just that arbitrarily you can no longer boil spaghetti.
Over time, your stove then gets less like you had it before when you first got it and enjoyed it. The colors changed, the features have changed, some things you liked are gone now, and maybe now you have to pay for what you could do before. You can’t repair it if you want and replacing it would only replace it with a stove that’ll change in the exact same ways. None of this is desirable.
Now let’s say it’s not just a stove that does this, but your wrench, your bed, your screwdriver, your house, your car, and any other appliance that you claim to own. That would be horrifying, but it’s the reality of anything computerized. From normal desktops, to tractors, to cars. This is why tech guys care about software freedom.
Mastery of one’s own domain
Software freedom is primarily a movement by tech people for tech people so that tech people, and other computer users, can have ownership over their tools. Movements with similar values can be found in other industries, usually using the phrase “right to repair” to signal their alliegence to this idea. It’s no shock for why people support movements like this when you consider why people fight for this.
Having your way of life, from communication, to entertainment, to business, at the whim of someone else is horrifying. To be locked out of the tools you build your life on for arbitrary reasons is horrifying. To not have agency over what you believe yourself to be a master at is horrifying. Only slaves used to poor treatment like this could see it as anything but horrifying.
However, asserting my own horror at the concept does not explain why this is necessarily bad. A bugman may see not problem with this arrangement, and I can’t even fault him for that. He may be genuinely unaware of why this mode of existing is bad.
This is where I introduce the concept of mastery of one’s own domain. That is, to be a master of your own domain is to have control over your own situation. This includes the way you make money, the tools you use to make money, the relationships you hold, the tools you own, the land you sleep on, along with a myriad of other important things to control.
To control your own domain is to be resilliant against the whims and faults of others. If you work for a massive company, and you have little say in hiring and firing decisions, you may wake up to no longer having a job. While most people praise having a “job”, that is a salaried or hourly position at a company, by doing so you are relinquishing agency over your life, and therefore relinquishing some of your mastery. Now, the whims of others effect you harshly.
Take this concept, and then apply it on a societal scale. If your family relinquishes its control to a landlord, your family’s ability to rest easy at night will be at the whim of another person with their own interests in mind. Similarly, if a state relinquishes its ability to govern itself to another, then it, and its subjects, does not have mastery of its own domain. If the landlord fails, or the state’s master nation fails, then the state will fail with it.
Failure often means increased chance of death. I don’t find many people who believe death is a good thing. Thankfully, Biology has a solution in the form of “Survival of the fittest”. Dead people can’t breed, take care of children, and generally do not do well with increasing the success rate of their off-spring. Over time, any system that prioritizes suicide or other anti-natal activity will level out and be destroyed by life’s natural desire for order and self-sustainability.
Thus, to chain yourself to another institution is a risky bet. You depend on the whims of another to be aligned with you, something that becomes harder as systems become more complex and diverse. I doubt the men and women of the U.S. congress have the desires of your small farming state in mind since you won’t benefit them with enough votes for re-election.
Similarly, chaining yourself to a company is a risky bet. I heavily doubt that a complex organization cares much about its individual worker’s security when they have shareholders to appease.
Human frailty and the balancing act.
Now, given all this, some may think that I’d be a big fan of anarcho-egoism or some other form of hyper-individualism. At one point I was, and I cannot even blame young me for thinking like this as I still hold sympathy for the idea.
However, mastery of one’s own domain is justified through being alive and continuing on life’s cycle of self-sustaining reproduction. Absolutist egoist anarchism, Randian Objectivism, and other very schizotypal-esqe forms of philosophy unfortunately are too extreme and forget that humans are by nature social creatures with some necessary interdependence.
A child needs to be raised and made proper, and that’s something that’s not a good deal egotistically. Sacrifice for brothers, sisters, families, and friends are necessary to keep the tribe alive. Nature and war (especially war from more organized units of free men) can threaten our fractured egoists who have nothing to pull on in dire times. Unfortunately, these types of philosophy enslaves you to nature’s cruelty and chaos.
Instead, a peaceful medium must be found. Something with enough restriction and self-restraint to keep a tribe alive, but loose enough to not let him be enslaved to the tribe. There must be a strict, conditional tolerance of others if someone is to reach a peak of mastery of one’s own domain.
Mastery of the self is necessary to master a domain
Now a title like this usually indicates a boring sermon on addiction and vice, but, I’d like to wrap this back around to cybernetics and why the biological is ultimately superior. I do have to justify this absurd title after all.
Given all that we’ve understood so far, we’ve come to the conclusion that mastery of one’s own domain is necessary and good. We’ve also discussed situations in where a man cannot repair his tools or control them and how that restricts one’s mastery of their domain.
Now, I know that this is already going in a very predictable direction. The assumption is that “since cybernetics can be computerized and owned, they can be used to restrict man by making him dependent on a cybernetic organization”. That is the boring answer to this that assumes that we don’t make it out with freedomized cybernetics, which is likely all things considered, but not impossible.
For sake of argument, I will give the benefit of the doubt. Maybe, just maybe, our cybernetics will be 100% free and open source software. They’ll have their blueprints public and have no patent or copyright restrictions, hell, maybe even no trademark restrictions. It’ll be the transhumanist dream of cybernetic biology that every utopian technolgist dreams of. Now that’s a challenging thing to counter, but still, it’s counterable.
Humans are, by birth, biological machines. We are creatures of flesh, blood, and nerves. We understand our bodies through aches, pains, and feelings. These sensations are some of the best diagnostic tools we have to tell when something is physically wrong. Machines on the other hand are not like this. I cannot figure out why my website is broken by “feeling” its brokenness, instead, I have to do manual diagnostics to pursue a problem.
Cybernetics, at least primitive and unintegrated cybernetics without nerve connections, will experience this same problem. I will feel if my bones are broken or if my skin has been rended, but I will have to diagnose problems with my machine half.
Diagnosis requires an active mental effort and understanding. Biological beings can intuit why, where, and how something is wrong. All problems would need a mechanic (or a mechanic’s ability) to be understood and recognized. Imagine if you needed to see a doctor because your legs didn’t work, and you didn’t even realize it, that’s the type of issue we’re discussing.
However, yet again, our transhumanist friends may have an easy solution: just integrate the new machines with the nervous system. Now, this type of procedure would require highly specialized equipment and skills that can only really be manufactured using centralized systems that may encroach on your domain, but, we’ll just pretend it doesn’t for sake of argument.
Even here there is fragility. Even if every man, woman, and child can download knowledge on how to be a cybernetic mechanic and has the ability to 3d print himself a new eye or arm easily, we find ourselves at a point of fragility: Active repair is not passive repair.
Active repair requires sitting down and doing something. Passive repair simply happens by existing and using fuel. Active repair, while possible, would be a lengthy and resource expensive process. If your cybernetic arm gets lashed, you’ll need to sit down and repair the thing. Not only would you need to stitch it up, you’d need to manually weld and solder everything back into place. Effectively, every cut, bruise, or maiming turns into a mechanical engineering problem.
Compare this to the passive healing of the body. If you receive some awful lacerations, cuts, or even a broken bone, your body can passively heal it. It’s slow, it does require some human intervention in serious cases, but, given time, you can recover. Wounds can be stiched up, broken bones can be mended, and the bleeding will stop on its own.
This ability of self repair requires no thought and little attention besides cleaning and original work to help the healing. It’s slow, but, so long as you’re taking in calories and vitamins, you’ll be able to recover.
Your body has already given you great mastery over yourself medically. It can repair itself, it can signal to you what’s wrong, and humans have dedicated themselves to the art of medicine for years. Humans are good at recovery, especially these days. Cybernetics on the other hand would require you to forfit this biological gift in favor of machines that must be repaired in an active manner. This is not ideal.
Still, our transhumanist friends, in all of their wacky glory, may proclaim that nanomachines will make passive healing 100% possible in machine systems. Now, I do buy the idea, but once you get to a system like that, you’d effectively just be remaking cellular biology, just this time using silicon instead of carbon. It’s possible to do, but all it does is remake life as it has traditionally been. If this is the argument, then we’re already living in our nanomachine utopia since cells, the basis of all biology, are already self-healing machines that can create complex structures.
The benefits of mechanic systems is that they’re ideally not biological, so putting biological constraints like a nanomachine or cellular system back into mechanics will just make it biology but silicon. Ultimately, biology reigns supreme over true mechanical systems because humans, by their nature of existing as biological beings, are innately masters over their own bodies both in use and most repairs.