Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Text and the City

When you're reading some rapturous talk about the glorious future in which enhancement will allow us to bend the world to our will, it often seems like a remote (if not necessarily distant) fantasyland, something to be contemplated through ideals. It's easy to forget that many of the most anticipated enhancements are already with us in some early stage of development, and we can look to the effects they already have had as a guide to how they might manifest in a more extreme form.

Human sexuality is frequently cited as a potential subject of futuristic enhancement, with predictions about the future ranging from alterations to sexual organs, to brain implants that allow for enhanced intimacy, to entirely virtual interactions. (The funniest description may be from this H+ Magazine article, where Natasha Vita-More imagines posthuman sex as "multiple exchanges of digitized codes reaching a crescendo.") Well, it is worth remembering that human sexuality has already been transformed, first very radically with the advent of the birth-control pill a half-century ago, and more recently in strange new ways as a result of the last two decades of advances in communication technologies.

The latter transformation is explored in a new article in New York magazine. Since April 2007, that magazine has published weekly "sex diaries" written by a series of anonymous New Yorkers. The author of the article read through all hundred-plus diaries and noted especially the role of information technology:

Virtually everyone under the age of 30 has grown up with their sexuality digitally enhanced, and the rest of us are rapidly forgetting the world before we all were hooked into the same erotically charged network of instantaneously transmitted messages and images.

"Enhanced," of course, is a vague and slippery word in this context, and the author observes in the diaries a series of anxieties and fears about sexuality: the anxiety of too much choice, the anxiety of appearing overly sincere, the anxiety of appearing prudish. This remarkable snippet comes from his description of the anxiety of not being chosen:

Among active Diarists, the worry that they will make the wrong choice is surpassed by the fear that they might find themselves without one. To guard against this disaster, everybody is on somebody’s back burner, and everybody has a back burner of their own, which they maintain through open-ended texts, sporadic Facebook messages, G-chats, IM’s, and terse e-mails. The Diarists appear to do this regardless of whether or not they are in a committed, or even a contractually sealed, relationship....

A Diarist with any game at all has unlimited opportunity.... They use their cell phone to disaggregate, slice up, and repackage their emotional and physical needs, servicing each with a different partner, and hoping to come out ahead. This can get complicated quickly, however, and can lead to uneasy situations.... This compulsive toggling between options winds up inflicting the very damage it was designed to protect against.

These self-selected diarists from The City That Never Sleeps may not be representative of the broader population; nor can we assume that their experiences will directly show us anything of what to expect in the future. But we can certainly wonder whether these people's sex lives — or their lives on the whole — are better as a result of the digital "enhancement" described in the article. At least as portrayed in the article, the diarists seem bewildered and lost. They are unsure of what they want out of love and life other than control — and yet as digital technologies allow them to more easily indulge their immediate impulses, their control only seems to wane as they become more unsure about they want and more unsatisfied with what they get.

1 comment:

  1. "What do you want? ... You got a bullshit answer for everybody. But I asked you a very simple question and you can’t give me a straight answer. Because you don’t know." --Sean, in 'Good Will Hunting'

    The paradox of choice shows that generally, the more options we have, the harder it is to make decisions. And for all our ingenuity in multiplying means, the most fundamental questions become ever harder to answer.


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