Posthuman Sex

Mac Tonnies @ 16-04-2008

Mac Tonnies - Loving the Alien It’s the return of the Mac! In this instalment of his Loving The Alien column, transhuman ufologist Mac Tonnies has been thinking about a subject that is dear to us all … but whose dearness is inexplicable when observed from a rational perspective.

Which leads you to wondering – what will Posthuman Sex look like?

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I consistently encounter polls indicating that we humans think about sex more than many of us are comfortable admitting, even to ourselves. The reproductive instinct is so pervasive we’d likely find it frightening if it weren’t so natural. We are, after all, patterns of thought encapsulated in so much temperamental meat – or, in the case of Bjork, “a fountain of blood in the shape of a girl.”

Then again, the very concept of “natural” has undergone serious revision in a remarkably brief period of time; we’ve become all-but-inoculated to news stories of genetically modified organisms, “designer” bacteria and the increasingly robust antics of digitally modeled artificial life.

Although biology is far from obsolete and the quest for the “posthuman condition” remains as daunting as ever, our collective preoccupation with sex nevertheless seems almost anachronistic, like some still-popular software application in the midst of being usurped by a newer version. Perhaps the download’s still in beta and most users aren’t entirely comfortable installing it on their hard drives, but it’s there, Windows-compatible and certified virus-free.

It’s not that I don’t like sex. But as a sometimes-science fiction writer, I can’t help trying to imagine alternatives based on breakthroughs in neuroscience, cybernetics and genetic design. Assuming our species ultimately graduates to some enhanced level of existence, I think we’ll probably take sex with us, if only as a souvenir. But our current version seems certain to fall by the wayside eventually; if we take the effort to improve our somatic operating systems, it’s doubtful we’ll continue running the same programs for the sake of simple nostalgia. Instead, we’ll want something better, more meaningful, more in keeping with how we define ourselves as individuals and as a species – if indeed we remain a single distinct species at all. In reality, the human future might be a bit like the scenario from contemporary space opera, splintered into factions that regard each other with more than a little sense of incomprehension.

But we’d also be wise to heed the warnings of science fiction past. In Orwell’s 1984, we’re introduced to a monolithic regime well on its way to abolishing the orgasm for the greater good of the ubiquitous Party. Conversely, Huxley’s Brave New World envisioned a wildly hedonistic future with equal dystopian audacity. We can hope the posthuman future will be spared the ideological excesses of both novels.

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Sex might be fun, but there’s nothing particularly original about it. We’ve invented civilization, tamed fire, sent people and robots to explore the strange and intoxicating vastness beyond the slender envelope of Earth’s atmosphere, but we’re still rutting like apes (albeit with mirrored ceilings, ergonomic mattresses and surround-sound speakers). In a way, sex is a forbidden medium yet to be tackled except in the pages of science fiction and in the curiously sterile vernacular of transhumanist manifestos.

If sex is ultimately a communications platform, it has yet to be properly hacked. In light of our affinity for subverting technological ephemera for user-centric ends (witness the rapid back-engineering of the Apple iPhone, or even the use of retrofitted cellphones as bomb-delivery mechanisms among aspiring suicide bombers), it’s perhaps only a matter of time and skull-sweat.

A visiting extraterrestrial, spared our own familiar biases, might find sex conspicuously lacking from a design perspective. It’s inconvenient and astonishingly unsubtle. More pressingly, sex is predicated on reproduction, an activity that might hold little appeal for a species that’s achieved functional immortality. Sufficiently inclined posthumans might choose to retain sex for recreational value while severing its dependence on a bodily substrate. We might expect novel forms of thought-transference or stimulation of the brain’s pleasure center via aesthetic experience or perceived spiritual enlightenment.

Nothing inspires creativity like the promise of sexual ecstasy; if something like a Kurzweilian Singularity occurs and we all have nanobots swarming through our brains, we’re going to do some serious DIY, ramping up our nervous systems to accommodate as much bliss as we can physically tolerate . . . which forces me to wonder if there really is a limit to how much pleasure we can safely absorb, some erotic speed of light we can never hope to break no matter how resourceful, stubborn or downright kinky we might prove to be.

And have I mentioned that posthuman sex could be dangerous, perhaps even qualifying as a no-kidding existential threat? Maybe the galaxy is chock-full of intelligent extraterrestrials that have fallen victim to their own reckless hedonism. Species might not self-destruct as much as implode under the immeasurable weight of their own lust. (Forget prime numbers; if we ever contact aliens, an abiding fascination with sex – physical or otherwise – might turn out to be the only thing we have in common.)

Of course, I could be entirely mistaken. Maybe a future incarnation of humanity will jettison sexuality as soon as it gets the chance, nostalgia be damned. A posthuman intelligence might look upon sensuality about as fondly as we regard intestinal parasites. We might find such beings cold and aloof or we might be astonished by their worldliness and compassion. As inherently lusty creatures, it’s difficult to imagine a world uncolored by sexual desire and its attendant fetishes. Perhaps we’re fated to ignorance about aliens – both posthuman and extraterrestrial – until we’re able to achieve a level of sensual detachment at odds with our current biological predicament.

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MacMugshot Mac Tonnies is an author/essayist whose futuristic fiction and speculative essays have appeared in many print and online publications. He’s the author of Illumined Black, a collection of science fiction short-stories, and After the Martian Apocalypse (Paraview Pocket Books, 2004). Mac maintains Posthuman Blues, a widely read blog devoted to emerging technologies and paranormal phenomena, and is a member of the Society for Planetary SETI Research. He lives in Kansas City, Missouri, where he writes, reads and surfs the Net. He is currently at work on a new book.

[Loving the Alien column header image credited to RedMonkeyVirus]

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5 Responses to “Posthuman Sex”

  1. Frank says:

    Excellent article overall, however this bit:

    “In reality, the human future might be a bit like the scenario from contemporary space opera, splintered into factions that regard each other with more than a little sense of incomprehension.”

    So closely matches my own speculations on the future so as to be unnerving. I can clearly see the human based aliens of Star Trek for instance finding analogs in our actual future. Genetic engineering and adaptation to as yet undiscovered environments clearly lead to this kind of scenario. When we look at the cultural and physical difference between people of different regions of the Earth the spectrum is broad. These differences occurred without any genetic engineering, all on the same planet, with nothing but various cultural norms of beauty, wealth and desirability forming the basis of a eugenics system.
    Imagine what will happen when humans are separated by light years and sequestered into completely different environments with the ability to adapt at will.

  2. Dia Sobin says:

    Great article!
    I’d have to disagree on the statement “sex is predicated on reproduction” though. Not so… ask any menopausal woman. i think it’s a mistake to relegate sexuality to the level of mere “meat” as well. It’s success is so intrinsically connected to both mental and emotional satisfaction that ultimately one could say that sexuality is more an element of the human psyche than merely a crude expression of the physical form.

  3. Michael Garrett says:

    By most estimates there are over 6 billion of us on this planet and counting. I don’t mean to be selfish, but it seems that may be a few too many for us to support given the present state of geopolitical circumstances. I am not sure if it is the need to reproduce that has brought us to this juncture, or if it is our desire for sex that overwhelms even our own best interests. Sort of a chicken or egg scenario.

  4. Mark says:

    My suggestion is to get out of your head and into the BODY. All your notions about sexuality and post human connections can and will be found in the esoteric traditions of Taoist and Tartaric scared sexuality. You want to have meta-communication and mind melding while having 5- 10 minute orgasms while being downloaded Supra-Human information? Well you can and you don’t need no “nanobots swarming through our brains”. It has all been done before.

  5. True says:

    My hope is that in the “future” we’ll discard the notion that sexuality/sensual bliss is limited to typical sexually stimulating activities. As many wise people have said, the universe is infinite love-play.