Interview with Christopher Dewdney
G.P. Christopher Dewdney, whom the National Post calls “the most high profile transhumanist in Canada,” has published three books of popular non-fiction about culture and technology as well as 11 books of poetry, two of which were nominated for Governor General’s Awards. A first-prize winner of the CBC Literary Competition, Christopher Dewdney also received a third Governor General’s Award nomination for The Immaculate Perception, a book of essays about consciousness, language and media. In 1998 HarperCollins published Last Flesh, a non-fiction book about the transhuman era that the Toronto Star proclaimed “should establish Dewdney’s reputation, alongside McLuhan, as one of this nation’s most important futurists."…
G.P. , March 24, 2002
Christopher Dewdney, whom the National Post calls "the most high profile transhumanist in Canada," has published three books of popular non-fiction about culture and technology as well as 11 books of poetry, two of which were nominated for Governor General's Awards. A first-prize winner of the CBC Literary Competition, Christopher Dewdney also received a third Governor General's Award nomination for The Immaculate Perception, a book of essays about consciousness, language and media. In 1998 HarperCollins published Last Flesh, a non-fiction book about the transhuman era that the Toronto Star proclaimed "should establish Dewdney's reputation, alongside McLuhan, as one of this nation's most important futurists." Christopher Dewdney is a Fellow of The McLuhan Program In Culture And Technology at the University Of Toronto and is also a contributing culture and media panelist on TVO's Studio 2. Dewdney lives in Toronto, Ontario where he teaches creative writing at York University.
Q - A search on Google with keywords "transhuman poet" produces a first hit page that consists mainly of links to pages dedicated to your work. So as "the" transhumanist poet, what is transhumanism in one sentence?
A - The goal of transhumanism is to surpass our biological limits, be it our life-span or the capabilities of our brain.
Q - I can buy only one of your books, which one should I buy?
A - Actually, I'm going to recommend two books; "Last Flesh; Life in the Transhuman Era" (HarperCollins 1998) which represents the non-fiction aspect of my bifurcated consciousness, and "The Natural History," (being published this spring in Canada by ECW Press) which represents the poetic side.
Q - On the Net there is plenty of information about your work, but scarce information about you as a person. Who is Christopher Dewdney? How did he become Christopher Dewdney? Where is he going to?
A - Being the youngest of four siblings I came to the Transhumanist position quite naturally. That is to say, there is a peculiar, pragmatic narcissism common to all transhumanists. At the same time both my parents were Humanists. My father was an ethnoarcheologist, a painter and a novelist while my mother was an art-therapist. C.P. Snow's notion of "two solitudes" did not exist in my family, science and art were constantly intermingled and a career in pure mathematics or conceptual art were viewed as equivalent. As a result my poetry has been labeled "science poetry" and my non-fiction as "lyric non-fiction." I am an agnostic epiphenomenalist who enjoys both "high" and "low" culture. I have been a naturalist all my life, though palaeontology and entomology remain my biggest fascinations. Recently I have taken up snorkeling climax reefs in the Caribbean whenever possible.
Q - Are you working on a new book? What can you tell us about it?
A - My newest project is "The Natural History" on which I'm doing the final edit now.
Q - And your next projects?
A - After this I hope to work on the sequel to "Last Flesh" which will be a longer, more philosophical/historical look at Transhumanism.
Q - It has been said that transhumans might need new languages to express a range of possible experiences beyond what existing languages have evolved to express. Do you agree? Do you think new languages would be "designed" or that they would spontaneously evolve from existing ones?
A - There is no doubt that as we become more cognitively and, hopefully, more emotionally sophisticated, that subtler and far more complex communication systems will become necessary. Whether or not a new referential frame will codify and translate this complexity is a good question. The claim that I make in "Last Flesh" is that spontaneous evolution is over, at least in the "blind watch-maker" sense, so a new "language" arising naturally is probably unlikely, though not impossible. There is an expectation that something that will replace language will develop as a result of our technological advances, but it is a difficult (if not impossible) imaginative exercise to envisage a system of reference that would pose a relation to our present day language as it would have posed to our pre-linguistic ancestors. In "Last Flesh" I coined the term "cognitive prosthesis" as an aphoristic description of how language functions. In the sequel to "Last Flesh" I'm arguing that language was the first major step towards the transhuman condition. All our technologies are extensions of the recombinant interplay of language and the concomitant consciousness that language has instilled in us. So language, it seems, is at the root of our existence and our protean nature. That being said, must admit that a "new" language seems at least intuitively synonymous with a new form of consciousness.
Q - Many bright people with a literary or artistic background would say that the transhumanist view of the future is ugly, that we plan a world dominated by technology where humans are not humans anymore but machines, with no feelings, no mystery, no religion, no beauty, and all that. What do you answer
A - I've encountered some of the same Philistinism in relation to my own work, with critics claiming that because I use the language of science my work must be in some way heartless. Nothing could be further from the truth. My vocabulary is not only enhanced by scientific terminology, but the field of science itself is a rich source of metaphor and imagery. The notion of "two solitudes" is an arbitrary and unnatural division between equal fields wonder. On the other hand, however, it is important for scientists to grasp art and literature. It is likely that if artificial intelligences are created they will be created by mathematicians and scientists and that their "mind children" (as Moravec puts it) will be in their image. Perhaps it is naive of me to suppose, but if artificial entities are inculcated only with the values of logic, mathematics, reason and computational speed then a great portion of what makes humans sublime might be left out. However, if good neurocognitive theorists are aboard then everything will work out fine and improvisational play, delight and emotional complexity will be carried forward and enhanced.
Q - Sooner or later AI research may produce human equivalent conscious intelligences. How are we going to live with them? Do you feel threatened? Aren't they going to take over the world? As a creative artist, do you fear the competition of AIs?
A - I suppose I've answered part of this question already, though I'm still not sure how artificial intelligence will arise. It would be interesting, for instance, if it arose as an accidental discovery of speech recognition research in a Bell laboratory. The common fantasy, however, devolves around someone like Hugo de Garis or Hans Moravec designing and creating an autonomous, artificial intelligence. If such a thing did occur I couldn't help but think that all humans would have an innate curiousity about, and attraction to, such an entity. We are, after all, desperately and existentially lonely creatures who just want company. We invent UFOs and aliens to satisfy that need. Personally I do not feel threatened by the notion, my bets are always on the side of intelligence, and if we are outmoded, then so be it. Incredibly enough its all part of natural evolution, even in the post-evolutionary stage. But actually I don't think humans will ever be in the position of being obsolesced. We will augment ourselves and upgrade at the same rate, if not faster, than the artificial entities we create. Humans have never sat around and let something get ahead of them. So yes, they will take over the world, but "we" will most likely be "they" by that time. Artistically speaking I can hardly wait. Already the first computer-assisted arts are opening before us in cinema and music. They are extraordinary and wonderful. Artificial intelligence could signal the beginning of a cultural renaissance that would far outshine anything hitherto witnessed.
Q - You are a non scientist, but you seem to have dedicated a lot of thought to the sciences of the mind. Do you think that mind can be completely explained in terms of the laws of nature as they are understood today, or do you suspect that unknown scientific facts must play an important role?
A - Hmm, the old Penrose versus Dennett conundrum. In terms of neurocognitive philosophy I lean more towards Daniel C. Dennett than Roger Penrose (though the latter is a family friend). I think the quantum theory of cognition is just another resurrection of deism and magical thinking, so I guess I'm "hard AI." As Bertrand Russel put it almost a hundred years ago "the relation between mind and brain is more intimate than we had hitherto supposed." (that's probably not the exact quote, but close). Thus, I believe there is no reason to prevent a computational model of sufficient complexity from modeling or simulating the activity of the brain. "Being" is completely dependant on a material substrate. You have to realize that as poet this is heresy, I don't believe in "souls" surviving the body etc. If I'm wrong, then hey, what a pleasant surprise!
Q - You have done experiments in computer assisted creative writing. How did you like the outcome?
A - I believe that computer-assisted writing is an useful augmentation to the creative process, that gives writers an extraordinary tool. I've used systems that analyze my own work and then provided "possible" works that I could have created had I the time. This has allowed me to free up my editorial faculty to do what it does best (hopefully), make choices amongst a field of possibilities. I view computers as digital apprentices, similar to the renaissance painter's ideal of trained accomplices who could execute large areas of canvas within the artist's stylistic parameters. Computers are learning fast. A romance novel entirely written by computer has already been published ("Just This Once," Carol Publishing Group). Its sales exceeded 15,000 copies and it garnered decent reviews. I expect that, in terms of practical applications that journalism will be the first arena to succumb to computer generated articles, possibly within a decade.
Q - Did you sign up for cryonics?
A - I find the idea attractive, and participate in my local cryonics/life-extension group, though I doubt that "prepped" bodies will actually cross borders. Some of the stories I've heard about attempted transport between Canada and the US are tragic. It would be better if each country had its own facilities, it can't be too far off, once the baby-boomers get a little older. I'm also unsure about the long-term stability of the Californian facilities. Ettinger's facility might be more insulated on the long-term, it's hard to say.
Q - It is 2035 and successful experiments in mind uploading have already taken place. The first humans stored on a supercomputer claim that they feel like they are still themselves and that their VR environment is pleasant. In the middle of a stormy political and media debate, there is a call for new volunteers. Do you volunteer?
A - I would volunteer if I believed the accounts of the "stored" humans and if my current embodiment was sub-standard.
Q - Your writing style has been described as "sensual". What is sensuality to augmented transhumans? What is sensuality to uploaded minds?
A - This question is a little like the question; "If you were addicted to cigarettes and you suddenly became disembodied would you go through withdrawal?" (Are there cigarettes in heaven?) I think the first biological augmentations that humans will undertake will be sensual, particularly sexual. Just take a look at current cosmetic surgery procedures to give you an idea. Beauty and sex. Besides, humans will never give up something they enjoy. They might, however, enlarge and expand those enjoyments. The tactile information of a complex nervous system and sensate skin surfaces incorporating billions of cells will, at the very least, have to be duplicated and carried through. Our senses, naturally, will also be amplified and augmented.
Q - Back to the present, at the time of the Napster trial the major music distributors tried to shut down free distribution of MP3 music on the Net. That was not achieved and now with other systems you can find more and more music on the Net for free. Those with a high speed link to the Net can already download near-DVD quality movies (of course, for free). It is not yet the case for books because scanning and OCRing a printed book takes more time, but it is going to happen. How are professional writers of the next generation going to make a living?
A - I love music, I'm a big Amon Tobin fan, and I'm currently utilizing LimeWire to trade and download music and video files. Two years ago at Idea City in Toronto the science fiction author Douglas Gibson predicted the "end of intellectual property," which was a premature, slightly nihilistic affectation as it turned out. Who would have known Metallica would take down Napster. Also, IP is THE hot property in high finance, and the stakes are so high, and so much money is involved, that IP (at least important IP, money-making concepts, inventions and patents) will never be threatened. In the entertainment industry, however, the opposite trend is the case, though its all driven by convenience and greed. The reason why books are currently immune from the "napster syndrome" is that present electronic screens are not a compatible medium for recreational reading, and print-outs are just too bulky and expensive. Perhaps digital paper will change that.
Q - Do you fear that new technologies permit invading the personal sphere of citizens without their consent? If you buy today a new cell phone with built in GPS receiver, would you fear being tracked all the time? Tomorrow with a brain implant, will you fear that the government can tap your thoughts? By the way, do you think we still have a government by that time?
A - I address these issues in "Last Flesh." Certain notions of privacy are being obsolesced, and perhaps we should let go of some of them. It depends on how much freedom we get in exchange. If you lease a cognitive implant from a corporation and you use it to make a fortune, or an invention, does that company automatically receive a portion of the proceeds? That's why, at the risk of sounding pompous, the most important document that Transhumanists could be working on right now is a "declaration of rights." For example, "It is the right of any human to incorporate any parts of another human's body if that other human agrees to donate those... etc." It is essential that the newly emerging hyper-democratic values of individual self-determination are spelled out before we enter the forthcoming corporate/government bottleneck of technological acceleration and possible population crisis. Current ethical debates are woefully behind. We have inalienable rights over our own bodies.. In "Last Flesh" I predict (probably just wish fulfillment) the end of government as we currently know it, though the government role of watch-dog over rampant materialism is still a necessary function.
Q - We take this opportunity to announce that Christopher has joined the editorial staff of Transhumanity as a volunteer editor. What are your plans as an editor, and what is your message to our readers?
A - I'm happy to be on board. We'll see how things develop.