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May 5, 2020

Welcome to the Posthuman Era

The coronavirus is changing our relationship with our identity, labor, and health.

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In the mid-1970s, Professor Fereidoun M. Esfandiary decided to change his name. From then on he would be legally called "FM-2030."

"Conventional names define a person's past: ancestry, ethnicity, nationality, religion. I am not who I was ten years ago...The name 2030 reflects my conviction that the years around 2030 will be a magical time. In 2030 we will be ageless and everyone will have an excellent chance to live forever. 2030 is a dream and a goal," he offered in explanation.

It didn't hurt that by 2030, he would be 100 years old, an age he was sure he would reach.

Already in his forty-odd years of living, FM — which some speculated stood for "Future Man" — defied easy categorization. The son of an Iranian diplomat, he lived in 17 countries by the age of 11 and would go on to represent his country's basketball team at the 1948 Olympic Games before beginning an academic career. He was educated at Berkeley and UCLA before becoming one of the first professors of futurology at the New School. It was there that he would begin to espouse "new concepts of the human," discussing the steps necessary to transition to post-humanity. FM described this as an epoch in which homo sapiens became "post-biological organisms," transcending the limits of their body through technology.

Much of the 21st century has seen us hurtle towards a post-human future, fulfilling predictions FM made half a century earlier. Over the course of his career, he foresaw the creation of 3D printers — which he referred to as "Santa Claus machines" — along with the advent of telemedicine, teleconferencing, teleshopping, and genetic editing.

While we have been racing towards this future for some time, we may look back on 2020 and the coronavirus crisis as a crossing over. A time in which our relationship to core aspects of our humanity is fundamentally remade. In particular, I believe we are seeing meaningful recalibrations of our relationship to our own identity, labor, and health. In short, the post-human era is beginning in earnest.

Identity

The shift to a locked-in world has accelerated the acceptance of identity as distinct from physical body or place. We still want to communicate, socialize, and play during this time but have only a digital version to offer. Those constraints are forcing new expressions of selfhood. This is in stark contrast to the masked, distant, de-individuated person we show outside our homes. A few examples of synthetic identities coming to the fore:

  • Zoom backgrounds are used as a new form of self-expression. Consumers use them to promote their company, show a sense of humor, and express personal interests.
  • Pragli takes things a step further. Rather than hopping onto a video call, you can communicate with anime-style avatars of your coworkers. Set "happy" or "sad" expressions blur the lines between real and performative feelings.
  • Animal Crossing has attracted millions of players during the lockdown. The cartoon game allows users to socialize, trade virtual assets, accommodate tech conferences, bully digital likenesses, and host a wedding in a digital world.
  • Travis Scott gave a surreal concert performance inside of Fortnite, attracting 12.3MM concurrent views. It offered another digital instantiation of a "third place" for human simulacra to gather.

Labor

"Work gives you meaning and purpose and life is empty without it," said Stephen Hawking. Whether that is an assessment you agree with or not, much of our conception of ourselves is tied up in work. The effect of covid-19 is accelerating a shift away from humans and towards machines, doing so at a time in which we may actually feel grateful for cyborg usurpers as they keep critical services up and running and spare humans from disease. Those humans that remain necessary are viewed increasingly as mechanized systems. Those that are low-income, young, and of color are particularly at risk of displacement.

  • McDonald's is testing robotic cooks and servers.
  • Facebook and Google have expanded the use of AI moderation as human moderators are unable to access systems from home. PayPal has used chatbots for 65% of customer inquiries, a record for the firm.
  • Robotic providers like AMP, UVD, and others, have seen a huge increase in demand for their product. Delivery robots like Nuro and Starship are ferrying food and medical supplies to increasingly larger populations.
  • Amazon is using thermal cameras to monitor the temperature of workers. China's government has begun a surveillance blitz, adding cameras to monitor the comings and goings of citizens.
  • "Tattleware," software used to surveil employees through webcams or monitor web activity, is gaining in popularity. Managers are increasingly turning to tools like InterGuard which offer minute-by-minute breakdowns of how employees spend time online.

Health

Much of our waking life is filled with health-related ruminations. As we become more aware of our vulnerabilities, we are turning to technologies to extend corporeal limitations, in turn treating our bodies more like software with which we can experiment. It is a period of self-love and self-hate: as much as we may try to do everything possible to keep ourselves sane, we are also in active conflict with our physical being (and the beings of others), maintaining distance, suppressing breath, cleansing ourselves.

  • Sales of immunity-boosting supplements have soared since the outbreak. This includes traditional boosters like vitamin C and zinc, along with potentially dangerous treatments like "rectal ozone insufflations," peddled by influencers.
  • Spooked by the potential of coronavirus affecting their fertility, men have been turning to at-home collection companies like Legacy to freeze their sperm, protecting against bodily failure.
  • Biohackers are teaming up online to research covid-19 vaccine's in their own time. "Biohacking used to be a fringe space, but I think this is becoming a kind of breakout moment for things like DIY biology and community labs and hackerspaces," one contributor noted.
  • Anti-malarial medication has been touted as a potential antidote by world-leaders like Trump and Bolsonaro. Prescriptions have soared ~500%, though positive evidence remains anecdotal, and serious side effects include liver and renal damage.

The self, as we know it, is being decimated. That may not be a bad thing. As identity moves online, as work is stripped from us, as our physical bodies are optimized like an OS, new opportunities will emerge. Humans will find meaning in new modes of self-expression, discover purpose beyond work (or reclassify what work means), and re-engineer physical limits as "biology eats the world." We are undergoing a period of Schumpeterian "creative destruction," felt at the anthropological rather than industrial level. Great things may come of it.

For FM-2030, the future was something at which to marvel, where "people will belong to no specific families or factions...we will free-flow across the planet and beyond. Highly individual yet universal." Though the changes wrought by the coronavirus often appear bleak, some of FM's vision feels true: we are united as a world, fighting against against a common enemy, more connected than ever before. Perhaps, in time, the rest of FM's dream will be made manifest.

For all of his prescience, however, FM-2030 got one prediction very wrong. He did not make his 100th birthday, dying of pancreatic cancer in 2000. He was just 69. If he has his way though, he could still have a role to play in the creation of the future. Though dead, FM's body remains frozen in a state of cryonic suspension in Scottsdale, Arizona. Perhaps he is waiting for the world to catch up.

In the mid-1970s, Professor Fereidoun M. Esfandiary decided to change his name. From then on he would be legally called "FM-2030."

"Conventional names define a person's past: ancestry, ethnicity, nationality, religion. I am not who I was ten years ago...The name 2030 reflects my conviction that the years around 2030 will be a magical time. In 2030 we will be ageless and everyone will have an excellent chance to live forever. 2030 is a dream and a goal," he offered in explanation.

It didn't hurt that by 2030, he would be 100 years old, an age he was sure he would reach.

Already in his forty-odd years of living, FM — which some speculated stood for "Future Man" — defied easy categorization. The son of an Iranian diplomat, he lived in 17 countries by the age of 11 and would go on to represent his country's basketball team at the 1948 Olympic Games before beginning an academic career. He was educated at Berkeley and UCLA before becoming one of the first professors of futurology at the New School. It was there that he would begin to espouse "new concepts of the human," discussing the steps necessary to transition to post-humanity. FM described this as an epoch in which homo sapiens became "post-biological organisms," transcending the limits of their body through technology.

Much of the 21st century has seen us hurtle towards a post-human future, fulfilling predictions FM made half a century earlier. Over the course of his career, he foresaw the creation of 3D printers — which he referred to as "Santa Claus machines" — along with the advent of telemedicine, teleconferencing, teleshopping, and genetic editing.

While we have been racing towards this future for some time, we may look back on 2020 and the coronavirus crisis as a crossing over. A time in which our relationship to core aspects of our humanity is fundamentally remade. In particular, I believe we are seeing meaningful recalibrations of our relationship to our own identity, labor, and health. In short, the post-human era is beginning in earnest.

Identity

The shift to a locked-in world has accelerated the acceptance of identity as distinct from physical body or place. We still want to communicate, socialize, and play during this time but have only a digital version to offer. Those constraints are forcing new expressions of selfhood. This is in stark contrast to the masked, distant, de-individuated person we show outside our homes. A few examples of synthetic identities coming to the fore:

  • Zoom backgrounds are used as a new form of self-expression. Consumers use them to promote their company, show a sense of humor, and express personal interests.
  • Pragli takes things a step further. Rather than hopping onto a video call, you can communicate with anime-style avatars of your coworkers. Set "happy" or "sad" expressions blur the lines between real and performative feelings.
  • Animal Crossing has attracted millions of players during the lockdown. The cartoon game allows users to socialize, trade virtual assets, accommodate tech conferences, bully digital likenesses, and host a wedding in a digital world.
  • Travis Scott gave a surreal concert performance inside of Fortnite, attracting 12.3MM concurrent views. It offered another digital instantiation of a "third place" for human simulacra to gather.

Labor

"Work gives you meaning and purpose and life is empty without it," said Stephen Hawking. Whether that is an assessment you agree with or not, much of our conception of ourselves is tied up in work. The effect of covid-19 is accelerating a shift away from humans and towards machines, doing so at a time in which we may actually feel grateful for cyborg usurpers as they keep critical services up and running and spare humans from disease. Those humans that remain necessary are viewed increasingly as mechanized systems. Those that are low-income, young, and of color are particularly at risk of displacement.

  • McDonald's is testing robotic cooks and servers.
  • Facebook and Google have expanded the use of AI moderation as human moderators are unable to access systems from home. PayPal has used chatbots for 65% of customer inquiries, a record for the firm.
  • Robotic providers like AMP, UVD, and others, have seen a huge increase in demand for their product. Delivery robots like Nuro and Starship are ferrying food and medical supplies to increasingly larger populations.
  • Amazon is using thermal cameras to monitor the temperature of workers. China's government has begun a surveillance blitz, adding cameras to monitor the comings and goings of citizens.
  • "Tattleware," software used to surveil employees through webcams or monitor web activity, is gaining in popularity. Managers are increasingly turning to tools like InterGuard which offer minute-by-minute breakdowns of how employees spend time online.

Health

Much of our waking life is filled with health-related ruminations. As we become more aware of our vulnerabilities, we are turning to technologies to extend corporeal limitations, in turn treating our bodies more like software with which we can experiment. It is a period of self-love and self-hate: as much as we may try to do everything possible to keep ourselves sane, we are also in active conflict with our physical being (and the beings of others), maintaining distance, suppressing breath, cleansing ourselves.

  • Sales of immunity-boosting supplements have soared since the outbreak. This includes traditional boosters like vitamin C and zinc, along with potentially dangerous treatments like "rectal ozone insufflations," peddled by influencers.
  • Spooked by the potential of coronavirus affecting their fertility, men have been turning to at-home collection companies like Legacy to freeze their sperm, protecting against bodily failure.
  • Biohackers are teaming up online to research covid-19 vaccine's in their own time. "Biohacking used to be a fringe space, but I think this is becoming a kind of breakout moment for things like DIY biology and community labs and hackerspaces," one contributor noted.
  • Anti-malarial medication has been touted as a potential antidote by world-leaders like Trump and Bolsonaro. Prescriptions have soared ~500%, though positive evidence remains anecdotal, and serious side effects include liver and renal damage.

The self, as we know it, is being decimated. That may not be a bad thing. As identity moves online, as work is stripped from us, as our physical bodies are optimized like an OS, new opportunities will emerge. Humans will find meaning in new modes of self-expression, discover purpose beyond work (or reclassify what work means), and re-engineer physical limits as "biology eats the world." We are undergoing a period of Schumpeterian "creative destruction," felt at the anthropological rather than industrial level. Great things may come of it.

For FM-2030, the future was something at which to marvel, where "people will belong to no specific families or factions...we will free-flow across the planet and beyond. Highly individual yet universal." Though the changes wrought by the coronavirus often appear bleak, some of FM's vision feels true: we are united as a world, fighting against against a common enemy, more connected than ever before. Perhaps, in time, the rest of FM's dream will be made manifest.

For all of his prescience, however, FM-2030 got one prediction very wrong. He did not make his 100th birthday, dying of pancreatic cancer in 2000. He was just 69. If he has his way though, he could still have a role to play in the creation of the future. Though dead, FM's body remains frozen in a state of cryonic suspension in Scottsdale, Arizona. Perhaps he is waiting for the world to catch up.

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