“But Not To Last:” Blade Runner and the Politics of Transhumanism

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Source: bladerunnermovie.com

In the 1982 film Blade Runner, human-like replicant slaves, created by the Tyrell Corporation, have become increasingly intelligent and self-aware. The replicants have a programmed lifespan of four years preventing their ability to develop the capacity for empathy. The purpose of the replicants was to pioneer other worlds to ensure the surviv-al of humanity. After rogue replicants rebelled and were banned from earth, blade run-ners have been tasked to “retire” any remaining replicants on Earth. Years later, in Blade Runner 2049, humanity has been devastated by famine and economic collapse, and Nian-der Wallace is intent upon revitalizing the replicants as obedient slave laborers with long-er lifespans and implanted memories. He continues the work of the Tyrell Corporation to create beings that are “more human than human” that will colonize across the universe. It is the job of a replicant, Agent K to retire older rebellious replicants remaining on Earth. He discovers that replicants have the capacity for reproduction and may even possess a soul.

As the boundaries between humans and replicants blur, questions of citizenship rights and bodily autonomy arise. Are the replicants workers with rights or machines programmed with obedience? Are they retired machines or are they murder victims? Sim-ilar issues are likely to be confronted within the transhumanism movement that envisions a post-human world fundamentally changed by explosive developments in nanotechnolo-gy, genetics, and robotics. According to transhumanist philosophy, it is through these de-velopments that humans can transcend poverty, disease, and death (Hughes, 2012). What happens when machines become more human than human and the very basis of what it means to be human is challenged?

James Hughes (2012) states that transhumanism is founded on the belief that the social and corporeal life of humans can be radically improved through technology in the near future and that humans have yet to realize their full potential and limitations. Essen-tially, transhumanists believe in the possibility of a healthier and more enlightened society made possible by scientific and technological advancements (Hughes, 2012). It is clear in the films that humans have created and exploited replicants for slave labor to enhance their abilities to work, address crime, and to explore. The original purpose of the repli-cants was to explore other worlds to advance the human race and to ensure its survival. Later, the replicants have been assigned other tasks on earth. For example, Agent K is tasked with retiring older model rebel replicants. Similarly, Niander Wallace created Luv, to act as his assistant and enforcer. As it relates to transhumanism, replicants act as a technological extension of their human masters and function to enhance human produc-tivity. There are three primary overlapping themes of the Blade Runner films and trans-humanism: technological innovation, transcendence, and morality. By addressing the film through this framework, other themes are revealed such as mortality, intellectual proper-ty, liberation, emotions, and agency. The first value of transhumanism that can be ad-dressed within the context of the Blade Runner films is technological innovation.

Again, transhumanists concern themselves with the ability of humans to transcend themselves physically and mentally through the use of technology. Julian Huxley coined the term transhumanism. According to Huxley (2015), human evolution and progress de-pends on the realization of new possibilities about human ability and consciousness. He argues that it is man’s responsibility and inescapable destiny to realize his fullest potential. As evidenced by Huxley, the beliefs and values of the transhumanism movement are en-meshed in the Californian Ideology and the politics of Silicon Valley. Barbrook and Cam-eron (2001) state that technological innovation is founded on the liberal ideals of self-sufficiency, freedom from government, and pursuit of the free market. These authors ar-gue that technology is a site of political struggle and rebellion against limitations and regu-lation. This is evident in the transhumanist pursuit of the “post-human” that is liberated and fully realized. As evidenced by the role of the replicants, promoters of the Californian Ideology, including transhumanists, believe in the ability technology to fundamentally transform work and leisure in a way that allows humans to gain increased self-fulfillment and freedom (Barbrook & Cameron, 2001). Simply, technological advancement is evidence of the progression of humans to solve their problems (Dao & Hao, 2017).

Purdy (1998) argues that many technologists are uninhibited in their optimism for the future of technological development and are satisfied with a continuous cycle of crea-tion and destruction that ultimately harms workers. In Blade Runner (1982), J. K. Sebas-tian, a geneticist for Tyrell Corporations, is left to waste away after his Nexus-6 replicant models had become targeted for retirement. Ironically, though Sebastian created repli-cants that aided in human exploration and transcendence, he was denied access to the newly discovered worlds due to a disease. He is caught in the period between destruction and creation while Tyrell continues to profit. Sebastian is essentially owned by Tyrell since Tyrell funds his livelihood. He is no freer than the enslaved replicants.

Overall, despite their proposed concern for the risks associated with technological advancement, transhumanist philosophy is subject to the problems resulting from the Cal-ifornian Ideology. As a result, transhumanist beliefs and values are founded on privilege and necessarily require the oppression of other classes despite their rhetoric of freedom and liberation. Yar (2014) cautions against technoromanticism and the belief that scien-tific rationality and technological advancement is inherently good. He argues that in the process of eliminating social ills, there is a risk of policing difference in a way that con-formity is produced through technology. Issues surrounding the transhumanist philoso-phy of technological innovation can be examined in the characters of the suffering Sebas-tian and the creator-savior, Wallace. The purpose of the replicants in Blade Runner (1982) is to provide slave labor for humanity that will allow humans to explore the possibilities awaiting them in work, leisure, and other worlds. The replicants were put in place to fos-ter efforts towards human transcendence. It is in the pursuit of transcendence through technological development that the line between replicants and humans begins to blur.

The second transhumanist theme that runs parallel to the Blade Runner films is transcendence. Transhumanist philosophy holds that humans should use technology to live longer, healthier, and more enlightened lives (Hughes, 2012). The replicants appear to be biologically advanced humans rather than simply robots. They are essentially humans in a transcended form, including their unintended desire for longevity. The replicants eat, sleep, breathe, and bleed like humans. They possess superior strength and agility, but they can be killed, and they want to live. The emotional response to the replicants by humans, supposedly like Deckard and Sebastian, cycles between empathy and repulsion. If the rep-licants clearly looked and acted like robots, like in the Terminator film series, it is unlikely that Deckard would have pursued a romantic relationship with the replicant Rachel. This can also be seen in Sebastian’s empathy for the replicant, Priss who he viewed as a human in need of shelter and companionship. In his essay The Uncanny Valley, Masahiro Mori (1970) argues that as robots begin to look and act more human, humans are confronted by feelings of threat and repulsion due to the challenge to accept, but ultimate inability to accept the robots as human. He argues that it is the inability of humans to fully empathize with robots, regardless of how human they look, that creates feelings of disquieting un-canny. Again, it is stated in Blade Runner that the mission of the Tyrell Corporation is to create beings that are equipped with mortality, human physical features, and human-level intelligence to be “more human than human.”

The question becomes, are replicants bioengineered humans, or robots with hu-man-like qualities? The question matters, because it is the foundation upon which repli-cants are determined to have rights, souls, and lives that can be taken. It is clear in both films that both humans and replicants are confronted by the blurring of the parameters of humanness and personhood. In her essay A Cyborg Manifesto, Donna Haraway (1984) ar-gues that a cyborg is a being that is unconfined by boundaries separating the human from the non-human and states that the potential of humans, particularly women, is stunted by rigid boundaries of identity, politics, and norms. Her argument that humans have yet to reach their fullest potential and can do so by challenging boundaries between humans and non-humans is parallel to the transhumanist’s perception of the path to transcend-ence. The replicants in Blade Runner are somewhat monstrous in appearance and ability despite their uncanny resemblance to humans. For example, the replicants in both films are tall, strong in personality and demeanor, are highly perceptive, and are equipped with super-human strength and agility. The replicants appear particularly monstrous when light is reflected in their eyes. It is indicated that the reflective nature of a replicant’s eyes is an indication of what they are. Interestingly, though they are also mechanical, a similar light reflection is shown in the eyes of animals. This may further allude to the boundary between humans and non-humans. Sebastian tells Priss and Roy that they are “so different” and “so perfect.” In the same scene, Sebastian states that there is some of him in Roy and Priss and expresses desire for the two to “show him something…anything.” This may indicate his desire as a human to see evidence of his legacy in the replicants and to view them as an extension of himself eliminating the boundary between them. In this manner, the replicants are transcended humans achieved through cyborg hybridization. According to Huxley (2015), it is the goal of transhumanism to advance towards a post-human society. Haraway (1984) argues that it is through the cyborg hybridization of hu-mans and machines and the challenging of previously accepted boundaries between them that humans will achieve transcendence and enter the post-human age.

Another theme of transhumanism that runs parallel to the Blade Runner films is the challenge of mortality and the pursuit of longevity. According to transhumanist Ray Kurzweil (2005), to transcend death, it is necessary to challenge human understanding of what constitutes life and death. He argues that while it may not be possible to make hu-mans live longer in their physical form, it may be possible to allow their mind and con-sciousness to live on in spiritual form with the use of machines. Kurzweil believes that it will one day be possible to upload human consciousness into machines so that human life will endure. As it relates to Blade Runner, it could be said that humans, like Sebastian, are able to live on in the replicants they create. As evidenced by his conversation with Priss and Roy, Sebastian seems to believe that a part of him truly does exist within them. In Blade Runner 2049, because the replicants have been given an open-ended lifespan, repli-cants equipped with Dr. Ana Stelline’s memories may the technological means to con-sciousness and life preservation as proposed by Kurzweil. An essential element of a transhumanist perspective of mortality is the belief that humans can achieve optimum health and quality of life while they are living not just as an anticipated fantasy of the af-terlife (Hughes, 2012). A fundamental question is raised about the benefit of living forev-er. Much of the literature about transhumanism simply states that transcendence over death should be pursued but does not fully explain why. This ambiguity can be explained by the foundation of transhumanist philosophy in the Californian Ideology. Again, the Cali-fornian Ideology prioritizes technological innovation as free and uninhibited by any forms of control or regulation (Barbrook & Cameron, 2001). From this perspective, the tran-scendence of death through the use of technology can be simply explained by the desire of technologists to simply show that they can.

The final overlapping theme between the films and transhumanist philosophy is morality as it relates to agency and emotion. It is made clear from the start of the films that replicants are considered to be commodified objects and slave labor. They are noth-ing more than the products of their human creators. Importantly, replicants are created in the human image and are equipped with self-awareness and at least human-level intelli-gence. This presents a problem of agency. Should replicants be afforded human rights, or are they simply the intellectual property of their human creators? It is clear that replicants are not considered to have rights as they are not provided rights to a trial for charges of rebellion, they are just retired. Barbrook and Cameron (2001) argue that slave labor can-not be attained without the enslavement of some. Furthermore, they state that those em-ployed by technologists in pursuit of innovation are fixed into a high-tech version of the plantation economy. This is the paradox of the Californian Ideology. Proponents, like many transhumanists, boast their innovations as being unregulated and uninhibited, yet their innovations occur at the expense of others (Barbrook & Cameron, 2001).

According to Bruno Latour (2005) and actor-network theory, as a result of ad-vancements in technology, the social must be understood to include the social interactions between humans and non-human objects. Not only must humans and non-human objects be seen as interacting in social space, both must be viewed as social beings that possess agency. If replicants are viewed to possess and display agency, should they be granted cit-izenship rights? Like Latour, Sheila Brown (2006) argues that technology is more than just an extension of humans or a tool for human use. She states that humans do not hold sole capital on the creation of knowledge. Though it is not entirely clear how non-human objects can possess agency in current actor-network theory literature, it is clear that the replicants in Blade Runner act of their own accord and have the capacity to stage a rebel-lion independent of their creators. Hughes (2012) states that an important distinction be-tween transhumanists and other technologists is that transhumanists believe it is part of their mission to consider the possibility that humans could lose control of technology and to consider the consequences. He also states that transhumanists consider the potential for humans and objects to co-exist and interact socially. This means that the potential for objects to possess agency is an important consideration for the transhumanist movement.

There are many significant parallels that can be drawn between the Blade Runner films and transhumanist philosophy. The three most prominent themes are technological innovation, transcendence, and morality. Within the framing of these themes, questions of intellectual property, agency, mortality, and emotion emerge. Transhumanists, like Ray Kurzweil, believe that humans can defy their limitations and explore the full extent of their human potential through the use of technology (Hughes, 2012). This includes the possibil-ity that humans can live forever in the machine. Though the transhumanism movement is founded in the Californian Ideology, transhumanists are concerned with questions of the future and with the potential for negative effects of technological innovation. The Blade Runner film series is thematically rich, and to discuss all of the themes present is beyond the scope of this essay. By analyzing the films in conjunction with transhumanist philoso-phy, it is possible to confirm the relevance of both films in a contemporary high-tech soci-ety. Halley and Vatter (1978) argue that society is advancing rapidly towards a crisis of consciousness where humans will feel the burden of old ideas and values that will propel it towards the pursuit of transcendence, but at what cost?

Trina K. Knight
Department of Sociology, Anthropology, & Social Work
Kansas State University

 

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