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Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Singularity we Fear -- Morlocks, Eloi, and the post-human future

by John MacBeath Watkins

An American soldier named Morlock was recently charged with murder. My immediate reaction to this was, "The army is hiring Morlocks? Didn't H.G. Wells mention something about them killing and eating people from a different ethnic group in the far distant future?"

As of this writing, Spec. Jeremy Morlock has not been tried, so I will suspend judgment on him. But by my usual serpentine path through the labyrinthine ways of my mind, this led me to the literary archetypes behind some of the current iterations of technological optimism. Ray Kurzweil, for example, thinks it reasonable to suppose he might live hundreds of years as humans transcend biology. He supposes that there will be technological 'haves,' possessed of superior intellect and able to live for centuries, and 'have-nots,' the latter failing to transcend biology and merge with machines.

Morlocks and Eloi. The Morlocks are able to work the technology, while the Eloi wander around being pretty and useless. Power in such a situation would naturally be in the furry hands of the technologically savvy Morlocks, who come to see the Eloi as a different species, useful only as cattle.

The best science fiction is the literature of ideas. Wells saw the world around him becoming more and more dependent on technology, and foresaw a day when those who mastered it could dominate those who did not. The technology has changed, the post-human future has a different flavor, but Wells, a child of the British Empire who had knowledge of what happens when those possessing superior technology meet the 'have-nots,' looked on that divide with foreboding.

Actually, the meetings between technological haves and have-nots has seldom been as benign as the balance between the Morlocks and Eloi. At worst, it could go the way modern humans invading Europe went for the Neanderthal, or the way the European settlement of Tasmania when for its aboriginal inhabitants. There comes stage where the gulf is so wide that those possessing superior technology fail to see those without it as human.

Which brings us to the archetype of the superman. Intellectuals have long been fascinated by this idea, which justifies regarding those with superior intellect and education as more deserving than the less intellectually fortunate. Long before Ayn Rand, before Nietzsche had published a word, Dostoevsky explored the superman idea in Crime and Punishment. Raskolnikov wants to believe that he is the superman, not subject to the same moral constraints as other people. His crime seems senseless, a murder aimed only at proving that he is free of these constraints.

The book does a wonderful job of exploring how destructive this idea is to Raskolnikov's humanity and his sanity. Seeing himself as a superman deprives both him and his victim of their humanity. He recovers his humanity by falling in love and confessing his crime.

Perhaps those who dream of post-human superiority should read and contemplate that book before embracing their Morlock future.

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