Monday, April 09, 2012

If Odysseus Had Remembered His GPS

On a long road trip the other day, I listened to part of a set of CD recordings of Homer’s Odyssey. If you’ve never read it in a good translation, you’re missing something that is not only fundamental to the Western literary canon, but is also a rollicking good story. It’s about Odysseus, a hero on the Greek side of the Trojan war, and how he manages to get home, in 12,000 lines. Along the way he’s helped by the goddess Athena, tripped up and tormented by the sea god Poseidon, and runs into monsters, treacherous enemies, shipwrecks, and a gang of layabouts all hoping to marry his wife Penelope after Odysseus is declared dead.

As I was listening to all these fanciful goings-on, I began to think of how many god-like abilities that Homer describes are now things that engineering has brought to pass in the 2800 years or so since he wrote the poem. Take flying, for example. Athena could do it; she flies back and forth to Olympus (which was kind of the country club of the gods) enough times to get a free frequent-flyer trip anywhere in the world. And seeing at a distance: the gods watched Odysseus and his friends and enemies like they were characters in a soap opera. We’ve got these things covered with airplanes and television, at a minimum, not to mention the Internet.

Lots of dramatic tension in the poem is created by the fact that for much of the time, Odysseus is held captive on a small island by Calypso, a minor goddess who is smitten with him and wants to make him immortal. He will have no part of this, however, and spends his days on the seashore, pining for Penelope and home. No one comes to rescue him because he landed there after all his shipmates died in a shipwreck, and nobody but Calypso and a few gods and goddesses know where he is—and they’re not telling the mortals. Here’s where an emergency beacon, or at least a decent cellphone, would have come in handy. And if he’d had along a GPS, he might never have had the shipwreck in the first place.

While we already enjoy the use of a good many things that only gods had back then, one nut we haven’t cracked yet is immortality, which the gods possessed and were able to hand out more or less at will. Immortality is the stated ambition of a loose-knit group of scientists, engineers, and their companion enthusiasts known as transhumanists, who believe it is humanity’s fate to transcend ordinary biology and wind up as software in a virtual-reality environment that is indistinguishable from Olympus, as far as I can tell. There really wasn’t much that the gods couldn’t do, and the same will be true of our transhuman descendants, if the transhumanists get their wishes.

Anyone familiar with Greek mythology knows that despite all the advantages of being a god, the lives of Zeus and his immortal friends and relations were plagued with the same kinds of botherations that trouble ordinary mortals: jealousy, revenge, discouragement, and anger. This is because the Greek gods were really just people writ large, with very human failings and shortcomings. It took a long time for the inexpressible perfection of the God of monotheism (e. g. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) to make any headway into the Western consciousness.

Most transhumanists don’t seem to recognize any gods, Greek, Roman, Jewish, Christian, or otherwise. Instead, they promise us that we will become just like the gods of Olympus: basically able to do anything we want. While their spokespeople have worked out in great detail a lot of roadmaps that describe how the technology needs to develop to get us there, I have never heard any of them discuss in comparable detail the problem that Homer knew backwards and forwards: once you get a bunch of gods together, how do you make sure they will get along? Another nonbeliever, Jean-Paul Sartre, famously said that “hell is other people.” And unless the transhumanists contemplate setting each of us up in our own private Olympus where the only other beings we interact with are automaton-like slaves (which sounds pretty dull), I fail to see how, even with every privilege enjoyed by the Olympians of Homer’s imagination, the proposed society of immortal transhumans is going to be one whit better than Homer’s Olympus. Even gods had to solve the problem of getting through a boring Wednesday afternoon.

So as I contemplate the wonders that technological optimists promise us in terms of indefinitely long lives, freedom from disease and death, and so on, and how this will make life permanently wonderful and trouble-free for everyone, I can’t help but wonder whether Homer would listen to them and simply laugh. Even if some day we accumulate enough cyborgean accessories to be physically unrecognizable as humans, the essential nature of humanity will still be there. And that tendency to do the wrong thing while knowing the right thing will get us into just as much trouble as it does now, if not more.

As far as I know, belief in the Greek gods is not a live option for much of anyone nowadays. But faith in the monotheistic God is, to my mind, the only worldview that makes sense of the way the world is. As long as the transhumanists ignore the God factor, I think their dreams of an ideal transhuman future will remain just that: dreams. And dreams without nearly as good a story line as the Odyssey, incidentally.

Sources: I referred to the Wikipedia articles on “hecatomb” and “Odyssey.” One of the more recent and substantial books with a transhumanist theme is Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity Is Near (Viking, 2005).

1 comment:

  1. I recently, and happily, happened upon your blog. After this post, I'm a fan! As an engineer who also has a liberal arts education, I greatly appreciate minds that can think broadly and yet with clarity. Kudos.