Monday, September 18, 2023

(Eclipse Phase) Transhuman

This one took me a long time, not out of any particular quality of the book but because I wound up getting really into playing Starfield . . . approximately 100 hours since it first came out, less than two weeks ago. I'd bring the book with me to work, fully intending to read it, but then only getting through a page or two before I remembered that my laptop was right there, and that the solitude of my night job meant there was little stopping me from playing a video game at work. Who knows how long this pattern might have continued, had I not, this very night, forgotten to pack my laptop power supply. The need to preserve precious battery power was precisely the motivation I needed to only play video games after I've done my previously scheduled reading.

Transhuman was probably the ideal book to read in this series of disconnected bursts (approximately 100 pages on September 4-5, 100 pages on September 17, and the remaining 20 pages spread out over the two weeks in between). It's a grab bag of unrelated topics, ranging from alternate rules for character creation, to tips on roleplaying an artificial intelligence to rules for using a nano-fabricator. Parts of it were extremely dry (the eleven pages devoted to all the fiddly, specific things a flexbot can do very nearly put me to sleep), but there's also a lot of interesting setting going on.

It's at this point that I kind of regret copping out with my post for the Eclipse Phase core. I was in some kind of mood when I wrote it because "I don't want to go into a 2000 word digression discussing the Ship of Theseus" is exactly the opposite of my usual deal. I'm not going to make the same mistake this time. While Transhuman is kind of a microcosm of the core book's . . . a-lot-ness, its wide-ranging interests do provide plenty of material to address some of the game's broader themes.

Let me just spin the Wheel of Criticism and see what it lands on . . . Oh, hey, would you look at that: Transhumanism and the Objectification of Nature! What are the odds? (Approximately 100%, because I am transparently doing a bit).

One of the big things this book talks about is "uplift morphs," animals like octopuses, ravens, pigs, whales, etc that have been subjected to a combination of genetic, cybernetic, and surgical modification to become "self-aware," with human-level intelligence. I believe they're discussed in more detail in another book, but this one does go through the broader strokes appropriate to a player's guide giving them unique new character traits and background packages, discussing the roleplaying challenges of depicting a non-human intelligence, talking briefly about their role in society and the difficulties that would come from trying to make their own authentic culture.

Not discussed: where did the human beings of the Eclipse Phase setting get the absolute, fucking gall to do this in the first place? At the risk of outing myself as dangerously vegan, these animals were fine just the way they were. But there's more at work here than just the ethics. One could argue that there's no real harm in creating a chimera, that a new mind is only itself, and thus creating an uplift isn't something you do to an animal, it's just making a new person using science. This would necessitate ignoring the suffering and death that took place in the intermediate steps, but as of the game's start date, this is an established technology and maybe there's no significant difference between creating a new neo-octopus and having a new human baby. Plus, most of the people most directly responsible have been brutally killed by rampaging machines, so there's a certain element of cosmic justice at work here.

However, that doesn't answer the question of why you'd make one in the first place, nor the question of why you would continue to make them even though the scarcity of living space for biological creatures is one of the major setting conflicts. This isn't a plot hole - I'm certain the characters in the setting have their own motivations - but it's hard to imagine an answer to these questions that does not fill that potential plot hole in the grimmest fashion imaginable.

The only real explanation I can see is the humans of Eclipse Phase have a rampaging sense of self-regard. You make an uplift to see if you can, to imprint the shape of the human mind on as much of the world as possible, a kind of super-science graffiti with no message more exalted than "I was here."

There's something that repeatedly pops up throughout the book, so casually and so frequently that I'm not sure it's a deliberate theme so much as an unexamined philosophical assumption - that intelligence, consciousness, and self-awareness (assumed to be largely, but not exclusively identifiable with the human experience of these things) are unmitigated goods. It is better to be smarter, better to be aware of the self, better to be a self-directed agent. The hypercorporations have to program in limiters to stop their functional AI systems from developing consciousness, and the conscious AI community (called AGIs, for "artificial general intelligence") object that this is a violation of the AI's rights. Because, of course, being an expert program that manages a habitat's life support is much worse than being a robot with a habitat body who just so happens to have a bunch of humans crawling around inside it.

So it's never really questioned (except as a fringe position amongst politically radical uplifts) that taking an animal and making it into a person is an action that rebounds to the animal's benefit. You take a pig and make them into a neo-pig, and that neo-pig has no cause to be anything other than grateful for the gift of life. . .

Incidentally, here's the character quote from the bottom of the neo-pig sample character's page: "The bacon I'm eating? No, it's not weird at all. It's human bacon. Eat up, long pig."

Which gets us right to my original point - there's a pervasive sense throughout the game that human beings can do whatever they want with nature. You can see it in both parts of the chosen quote - humans could take a pig and turn her into a talking neo-pig, but then they can also take the meat of a human being and turn it into human bacon. Because the pig is just a medium on which technology can operate and the human body, absent a controlling mind, is exactly the same. Because the neo-pig is as smart as a human, it gains the same prerogative over flesh. The human bacon isn't weird at all.

Of course, it's this primacy of the mind over the base matter of the physical universe that puts the "trans" in "transhuman," but it makes me wonder about the setting's big threats - the TITANS that went rogue and killed 95% of the human species, the Extraterrestrial Intelligence that left behind the computer virus that caused them to do it. Is their unaccountable free hand with human bodies and minds really all that different, ideologically, than what human beings are doing to the uplifts?

I would like to believe that this is intentionally thematic, that it is part and parcel with the inner system's reliance on indentured (read: slave) labor, that it is saying something fundamental about the nature of power through the genre medium of post-cyber cyberpunk.

What gives me pause is that the groups in question, the post-singularity TITAN AIs and the hypercapitalists of the Planetary Consortium are portrayed pretty consistently as villains, but it is the heroic anarchists of the automatist alliance that are most likely to treat a human body like a disposable object.

It is, of course, a core conceit of the genre - the mind is software that runs equally well on a computer or a brain, and so the hardware is not important - but one of the effects of this book's condensed grab-bag format is that there is a clearer juxtaposition between indentured servitude/debt peonage and something like two far-flung anarchists sharing each other's bodies in an Airbnb-style swap arrangement.

There is a glib hair-splitting going on to distinguish indentured labor from slavery. The IndEX market is not a high finance exchange where you can buy and sell people, it is a "centralized exchange market for indenture contracts" (emphasis added). Yet the thing those disembodied minds are willing to go into debt to buy is a physical body. The body represents freedom, independence and the ability to control the circumstances of your own life. Therefor, to have a body is, in essence, to live. Which raises the uncomfortable question of whether the anarchists are being any less fatuous when they claim to abandon the coercion of the state, but still have procedures in place to ration the scarce available bodies at their disposal. This is a world where, regardless of your political affiliation, it is possible to be alienated from the ownership of your own physical body.

In other words, it's an ideological ground that is fertile for the expansion of slavery. The thing that's supposed to make it better is that a person is not their body in this world. They are only their mind.

Except, "the commodification of indenture contracts led to increased interest and soon there were also speculative markets where investors could buy egos from cold storage and pro-actively farm them out for profit as individuals."

Granted, this is villain behavior, but it is also a case of buying and selling minds, as well as bodies (though I suppose, technically, they're only buying the digital storage devices where those minds are backed-up). We know, via narration, that this is something the anarchists decry, but what I don't understand is why this is not what the game is fundamentally about.

The anarchists will do what they can to help the infugees (infomorph refugees, i.e. mind-state back-ups of humans killed by the TITANs), but it is also clear that "what they can" is "not enough," and rather than treat this shortcoming as a major problem that's allowing a historic injustice to continue unchecked, the game just sort of shrugs and goes "life goes on." Realistic, perhaps, but not in a way that speaks to any great artistic ambition.

Instead, the main designated protagonist faction is Firewall, and what they do is hunt down "X-risks" (events or technology that threaten humanity's continued survival). They're cool enough, in that blandly apolitical superhero way where they're a safe group to be front and center because no one could possibly object to hunting down the bizarre creations of murderous, super-intelligent robots, but also they're vigilante spies because apparently, in-setting, some people do.

However, what they mainly do is serve to establish the thesis that an unassailable capitalist infrastructure that ruthlessly commodifies human life is not enough of a threat to anchor a story by itself. That's a bad look for a work that wears its leftist politics on its sleeve. It's like if the 2011 Justin Timberlake vehicle, In Time, had been primarily about fighting Terminators (in this hypothetical film, Skynet mysteriously disappeared 10 years ago and the hilariously on-the-nose metaphor of time as money is just a background element of the post-apocalyptic society that rose from the ashes).

Now I'm dangerously close to just being one of those smug assholes who spring a gotcha ("ha, you silly leftists, you fell right into the trap of Capitalist Realism"), but I couldn't help but notice that this setting has at least three character types described, in the objective narration, as being basically people (uplifts, AGIs, and high-quality forks) and also subject to laws that treat them as property. And even to the extent that a person's mind is the only thing they truly own, securing run-time on a system that will allow you to actually experience the world requires a monthly subscription. And the very thing that enables these horrors is the transhuman technology that the books is otherwise so gung-ho about. That paradox is the nucleus of a hundred punk stories vastly more interesting than "robots are evil."

But, of course, this is an rpg, so making those stories is not just allowed, but encouraged. I just wish the books themselves gave them more support.

Anyway, that's approximately one of the eight posts I should have made shortly after reading the core book. I never even got into the equally viable alternate interpretation of transhumanism as a metaphor for queerness - if a body is just a material object, then there's nothing at all remarkable about customizing it to your exact preferences - and I may have left the false impression that my concerns about transhumanism as a way of objectifying nature meant that I was opposed to the idea in principle (it's really a much more nuanced position of "of course the body must yield to the desires of the mind, but to view the two as separable runs the risk of turning morphological freedom into yet another avenue of capitalist consumption, also don't eat pork.") But that's what comes from reading a set of rpg books that are clearly based entirely on philosophical thought experiments. It's a sign of well-constructed sci-fi that these sorts of conversations don't feel at all off-topic. You'll just have to forgive me for not being purely specific to Transhuman on its own.

Ukss Contribution: There's a section of the book that is presented as in-setting document where a corporation tries to explain the use of Muse technology to children - "your muse is a pet that you can teach to do tricks, but it can also teach you and any questions you might have about the world around you when your parents are not around." This is one of those things where I can't be entirely sure that the book knows how creepy it's being (muses are AI assistants you store in a cybernetic implant and communicate with through augmented reality, and the books have largely portrayed them as an indispensable modern convenience), but assuming it's being creepy on purpose ("some transhumans use pruned forks of people they know . . .while a template-based muse is easy to ignore or argue with, a fork of your character's mother is harder to contradict") then it's a type of creepiness that I kind of enjoy. A sort of slow-burn psychological horror where there's this common practice that's so ubiquitous that people don't notice it's fucked up. There will be a society on Ukss where it's customary to give every child their own servitor spirt/government-sanctioned snitch.

1 comment:

  1. Multi paragraph essay on the horrors intrinsic in Eclipse Phase? Yes, please!