Deus Ex, Transhumanism and You

In The Gaming Community, Video Games on August 24, 2011 at 2:49 am

Deus Ex: Human Revolution has dropped into a much more mainstream diaspora than any previous entrant into its franchise, and with it comes a heightened awareness of trans humanism and its surrounding philosophies. As a trans humanist myself and a general fan of the intersection between culture, sociology and technology, I’m going to weigh in on what few concepts I’ve encountered in the Deus Ex alternate reality game (ARG) and what little of the game I’ve played thus far.

 You’ll hear both trans humanism and post humanism bandied about almost interchangeably; they’re not the same thing, though they cover the same concept and ideologies. Generally, on these topics, there’s a specific question that’s asked: that is, “If you replace part of a human with something artificial, are they less human?” To proponents (and myself) the answer is no. With this comes the realization that no matter how much of the body’s anthropic biological constructs are replaced, the remaining, indelible component — humanity — remains undiminished.

That said, trans humanism represents a transitional phase, where the human form is being transitioned away from; biomimetic (read: cybernetic) augmentations and replacements place you on the path of becoming “robotic” or an artificial person. Once you are no longer “human” in any classical sense, you have become post human. Think along the lines of placing your consciousness into a utility fog or other distinctly non-human constructs.

The most exciting breakthroughs of the 21st century will not occur because of technology but because of an expanding concept of what it means to be human. — B. John Naisbitt & Patricia Aburdene, Megatrends 2000

Ideally, the departure from the human form should serve to underline the inherent commonality in the human condition; race and gender become true choices and discrimination would matter less than the specific merits, values and morality of the sapient, sentient sophont inhabiting whatever chassis happens to be chic that day.

Deus Ex presents a world where, simultaneously, augments are commonplace and and accepted, due to celebrity adoption, healing those with limb loss, and encouragement (and subsidy) by the government for the populace to accept augmentation (especially where it encourages disabled veterans to enroll for free augmentation installation). The turning point comes when Antoin Thisdale actually sues to electively augment his normal, healthy limbs as he sees employment opportunities favor the augmented; rather than drafting a bill against this form of discrimination, we instead see they make legal elective augmentation.

This leads to a culture of designer augmentation, with citizens paying out of pocket for expensive procedures with financially crippling upkeep; the rich become smarter, faster and stronger while the middle class is obliterated straight down to junky status, blind and crippled as their elective augments are rejected by their biological bodies. This is the part where the authors behind this game have created a situation that impedes the post-human movement with an artificial (pardon the pun) limitation and this is where I’m less comfortable with the message being presented.

Now, this is a very real fear and in general the tone does work towards presenting the idea of a “human revolution,” something to fear, to rebel against, to fight for one’s very survival. Interesting fiction has dealt with how society will handle this elective evolution when there are those that would op out.

Which brings me to a glaringly horrid point made in a few of the ARGs: that this man-controlled evolution is somehow against God’s plan.

Think about that for a moment. When, in Deus Ex, did evolution become part of God’s plan? The idea of a religion opposing it on “moral” grounds seems normal, though I would expect more rhetoric about the sanctity of the supposed divinely-inspired human form, rather than interrupting “God’s plan” for our evolution. The purity of the human form does play into one of the game’s terrorist groups, Purity First, but it is mixed with the evolution-God contradiction. So not so good.

It should be noted that Deus Ex is largely a post-cyberpunk work. Cyberpunk in that the themes being explored deal with the marginalization of the individual — most ingeniously played with Adam Jensen’s resurrection at the hands of his employer — as well as how overbearing megacorporations and globalization diminish culture and government. The “post” part comes from the departure from classic cyberpunk. In William Gibson’s Neuromancer, and the many works it inspired, flawed individuals at society’s periphery make a living at the expense of the flaws inherent in a massively technological, corporate-run world. By comparison, post-cyberpunk characters are cut from the same cloth but instead work to better society in some way. And in each Deus Ex title, the player has been presented with the consequences for their actions in how they will impact the world, for better or worse.

Given that it is also a conspiracy thriller, it’s almost a given that we can’t trust Sarif Industries, despite the immense good it has done for medicine and improved the welfare of veterans and those affected by certain disabilities. This is almost certainly true of the intense competition in the augmentation marketplace, with lucrative military contracts waiting for those just ruthless enough to grab them. Enter men like Jensen, apparently granted full freedom in dispatching intruders as the security chief of SI.

It’s not clear yet where these many questions will end up by the plot’s resolution — whence goes augmentation, its benefits to mankind, the essence of humanity and the defining characteristic of being human — but this game is, in fact, a prequel to the original Deus Ex, which takes place five minutes before the end of the world, and the franchise on the whole is capped by Invisible War, which is five minutes before humanity’s rebirth.



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