Id - The quest for meaning in the 21st century.

Susan Greenfield, 2009. (Amazon review: 5 out of 5 stars)


Minds in a world of transhumanism,
cyber IT, nano- and bio-technology.

January 25th, 2010 - by Simon Laub - Email:

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As IT is merging cyberworlds and reality, nano technology is merging human bodies with
the outside and biotechnology promise to create healthier, enhanced humans with prolonged

What will the 21st century be like? What should we hope for?
Will we be more comfortable and have more fun, but without a real human identity and without
experiencing any real ''meaning'' in our lives?
Or can we create a (forever) creative, and balanced, world, where all have a robust sense of self?

Susan Greenfields book presents a number of the emerging technologies along with the possible

Future 1 - ''Screen dwelling reactive'' lives.

In one version of the future, human identity and individuality might be threatened, as people here
live ''screen-dwelling' lives with short attention spans, thinking in icons rather than abstract ideas.
Good at hectic ''fact''-field activities, but no longer capable or good at placing isolated events
in a context.
Sure, the absence of self consciousness might be desirable as an intermittent state. Drugs and fast-paced sports
(whose dominant feature is the raw quality of the sensations, devoid of cognitive content, where one momentary
experience is superseded by the next) have always been popular activities.
As have excessively strong sensory stimulus from music/wine/food or sports/sex in rapid succession.
All the stuff that leaves us with no time to think about content and meaning.

But in the long run surely you would want a full personal identity, as well as full selfconsciousness.

Something the reactive,''screen-dwelling'' life of many future cyberworld realities obviously wont give you.
At least not if it is a ''process heavy - content light'' activity world, where personalized brain connectivity is either not
funtional or absent altogether.

Future 2 - ''Creative, unique - but isolated'' lives.

And if tech doesnt end up making us totally reactive, stimulus oriented - then we might end up in the other extreme,
where people are living lives fired up to be creative, excited by revelation and discovery and
with a robust sense of self. A future where self realization and creativity reaches new heights.
But where such (super self centered) brain modes creates people, who are unable to form successful relationships
and interact successfully with others.
The end of a society where humans have meaningful bonds to each other.

Future 3 - "balanced'' lives.

Finding the balance is of course going to be difficult. The balanced version where there are time slots for being creative
with a robust ego, slots for working together in team efforts, slots for creating meaning to our existence and
slots for ''letting go'' through e.g. excessively strong sensory stimulus.

But Susan Greenfield does seem to think that it will be possible. Even though many new technologies (in excess)
surely will push us away from the balanced future we want.

Transhumanist future.

Biologist Julian Huxley [1] came up with the term ''transhumanism'' [2] in 1957 to describe the future point we are
now moving towards - ''on the threshold of a new kind of existence''.
Transhumanism optimistically holds that there is room for improvement even in the healthy human brain and body.
Not all agree though. E.g. Francis Fukuyama has described transhumanism as the ''worlds most dangerous idea''.
The end of homo sapiens?

For the body, we might introduce an artificial 24th chromosome to complement the twenty three
we already have. The extra chromosome will then act like an extra coathanger for genes.
Genes that will do all the extra good stuff, homo sap genes couldnt do.
Or we might introduce new genes in germ cells, along with killer genes with enzymes that can destroy it.
The killer genes can then be activated by certain pills, e.g. so that your ''unnatural genes'' are ejected from sperm and eggs,
when you want to reproduce.

Brazilian neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis [3] has developed a technique for implanting a microchip into the brain, to translate
the nerve impulses into electric pulses - I.e. hooking the brain up to computers in order to do all the cyborg stuff of the future.
Some devices can convert soundwaves into electric signals the brain can understand, and other devices can convert
brainwaves into sounds known as phonomes.
Ultimately, it should be possible to connect minds directly through the internet with this technology.

Still, it is a bit more tricky to improve on the mind, because it is less than obvious what a perfect mind is.
But, surely we can improve on even the best of us - Even the current ideal: ''the super-outgoing individual,
wih perfect recall, who is monotonously and unconditionally jolly all the time''?

First, we must take care of basic needs
like food and shelter - attention cravings and more.
Only then can we aim for the healthy, unique and creative minds of the future.

300 years ago most people were cogs in the machinery of feudal society. Individuality (i.e. someone truly
and completely unique) quite rare back then. As it probably was for most of our evolutionary history [4] ?
Today we are bound up in an armsrace to own more and achieve more - to be individuals - leading to stress
and frustration and an increase in depression and anxiety. The basic needs - to feel secure, part of a group,
competent and autonomous- have given way to a race for products that can enhance your status.
Where status is important, as it gives you attention - i.e. love and support.
// The worst feature of a lowpaying job is not the low pay,
but that others treat you like a machine - someone who doesnt exist? //
For humans, attention is a need almost as basic as food and shelter!?

And nobody is getting enough attention. Today, in Japan more than 1 million people, mostly young males, are hikikomori [5],
locked away in their rooms - living a screen life.
Perhaps already the ''screen-dwelling' life of the future with short attention spans, thinking in icons rather than abstract ideas?
Good at a hectic ''fact''-field activities, but no longer capable or good at placing isolated events
in a context? And surely, 3D TV and games [6] will not make this better?
Ok. Perhaps a future Google will be able to advise such users on career moves and use of leisure time (all
deduced from each users particular history of queries).

Still, the way back to healthy, unique and creative minds are surely not going to be so easy.
Certainly, it will take a lot of understanding and wisdom to point to a future of happy,mature minds in a civilised
Susan Greenfields book is an excelent starting point though.


Simon Laub


Susan Greenfields ''executive summary'' of analogies between brains and societies:

The parts we should try to keep healthy at all costs.
And the all important constant changing relationsships that define living societies and brains.
Relationships that must always be nourished, pruned and cared for.

Basic analogies between brains and societies

Neuronal Network
Different brain regions
The brain

Different cultures
Global society

Similarities between synapses and relationships

Strengthen through use
Grow stronger with
more intense input
Constantly changing
Most changeable when young

Strengthen through use
Grow stronger with
more intense input
Constantly changing
Most changeable when young

Id - The quest for meaning in the 21st century.

Amazon review January 25th 2010.
(Five stars out of five).

Amazon: [7].
Posterous: [8].