Edge, a fascinating online salon/magazine, asked 151 luminaries “What Will Change Everything“? I’ve picked through the 107,000 words of responses over the past few weeks; many are thought-provoking.
For example, Marcel Kinsborne predicts a growing market for “neurocosmetics” which translate the benefits of cosmetic surgery to the social world:
[D]eep brain stimulation will be used to modify personality so as to optimize professional and social opportunity, within my lifetime. Ethicists will deplore this, and so they should. But it will happen nonetheless, and it will change how humans experience the world and how they relate to each other in as yet unimagined ways. . . . We read so much into a face — but what if it is not the person’s “real” face? Does anyone care, or even remember the previous appearance? So it will be with neurocosmetics.
Consider an arms race in affability, a competition based not on concealing real feelings, but on feelings engineered to be real. Consider a society of homogenized good will, making regular visits to [a] provider who advertises superior electrode placement? Switching a personality on and then off, when it becomes boring? . . .
We take ourselves to be durable minds in stable bodies. But this reassuring self-concept will turn out to be yet another of our so human egocentric delusions. Do we, strictly speaking, own stable identities? When it sinks in that the continuity of our experience of the world and our self is at the whim of an electrical current, then our fantasies of permanence will have yielded to the reality of our fragile and ephemeral identities.
It’s one thing to read these imaginings in the fiction of a Houllebecq, Franzen, or Foster Wallace; it’s quite another to see them predicted by a Professor of Psychology at the New School for Social Research. I have also predicted an arms race in the use of personality optimizing drugs, but I believe such an arms race would defeat, rather than reveal, humanity’s true nature. My difference with Kinsborne suggests a technophilic bias at the heart of Edge’s inquiry: an implicit belief that certain technologies will inevitably change us, rather than being changed or stopped by us.