Discover more from Lunar Awards
The Emergence of Transhumanism
Virtual reality and AI bear witness to the next phase of human evolution.
On April 28, 2003, Linden Lab announced the public beta of Second Life , the software company’s virtual society, which replicated the real world as an online world with a full-blown digital economy. The exchange of real money for virtual currency fascinated financial experts, and the continued adoption of broadband access motivated large masses of users to live alternate, albeit synthetic lives on the internet. Visions previously birthed from the imaginations of science fiction authors materialized in front of a ready and willing audience.
"To date, thousands of people have been early pioneers in Second Life, building the foundations of a vibrant online society that has the complexity and texture of the real world," said Philip Rosedale, CEO and founder of Linden Lab. "... the in-world economy is booming — residents have bought and sold everything from designer fashions to sophisticated weapons in over 30,000 transactions. We are eager to see how the world will evolve and flourish as we open Second Life to an even broader audience."
While the rise and fall of Second Life requires its own case study, it helped satisfy a burgeoning desire for robust virtual worlds. Conceptually, the combination of the software with the World Wide Web brought everyone one step closer to what the author William Gibson envisioned in his novel Neuromancer. The book is credited with launching the cyberpunk movement, the term “Cyberspace” as well as a virtual reality where users “jack in” and navigate a 3D space representing both data and simulations.
Second Life followed on the heels of some of the first MMORPGs, Meridian 59, EverQuest and Ultima Online, which proved in the very least that the real world would soon compete with the virtual world for people’s time and resources. At its peak, games like World of Warcraft (WoW), sucked in players with the gravitational pull of a black hole, giving rise to the term “WoW widows”, women with life partners who may as well be dead due to their gaming addiction. Interacting with living, breathing humans could no longer compete with these vast fantastic game worlds.
In South Korea (which often takes the top spot for the fastest broadband network and most wired culture), cybercafes became a mainstay of the landscape. Young men, disenfranchised with the harsh demands of traditional responsibility and the working world, spent unhealthy amounts of time drawn into online fantasies. One of the first publicized instances of the dangers came out of Taegu, South Korea. Lee Seung Seop dropped dead playing World of Warcraft for 50 hours straight. 
“He was so concentrated on his game that he forgot to eat and sleep. He died of heart failure brought on by exhaustion and dehydration,” said Park Young Woo, a psychiatrist at Taegu Fatima Hospital, where Lee died.
Years later, stories like Lee’s are commonplace, with parents neglecting children, lifelong relationships ending, and teenagers being sucked into a fabricated universe of social media influencers, fake friendships, catfish scenarios and bullying. Even so, the current generation of children will never know a time when a large portion of their lives isn’t spent online, playing video games, watching videos, chatting with friends and relatives and even taking classes. The focus and direction are not shifting, and companies are investing billions betting on our real lives becoming entangled with and indistinguishable from our virtual lives.
The Big Metaverse Bet
Virtual reality, an evolution of that seamless engagement, promised since its inception to remove several of the barriers to a true immersive online experience. Distractions would fall by the wayside as technology allowed for a full 365-degree view, usually requiring a headset. Haptic (tactile) suits offered a chance to experience a wide range of haptics mimicking full body sensations by varying amplitude, frequency, and amperage, delivered via electrodes.
As component costs decreased, companies like Oculus, HTC, Samsung and Playstation infused more cash into the next generation of the technology. Most of the investment came in the form of games, with casual nods to movies, concerts and sports venues. That was until Facebook bet big on the metaverse, a term coined by author Neal Stephenson in his 1992 science fiction novel Snow Crash. The metaverse, a loaded term that can mean different things to different people and companies, is at its core the collective digital space shared between the real world and virtual world. It promises a nearly permanent melding of the two, a proposition advertised as a revolutionary ideal by Facebook.
The 2021 metaverse promotional video, which is still available to watch on YouTube, ended with Mark Zuckerberg announcing the complete rebranding of Facebook to Meta, a hard commitment to their ambitious goals. But anyone watching the video quickly realized for all of its vision, it lacked purpose.
“The Metaverse also suffered from an acute identity crisis. A functional business proposition requires a few things to thrive and grow: a clear use case, a target audience, and the willingness of customers to adopt the product. Zuckerberg waxed poetic about the Metaverse as "a vision that spans many companies'' and "the successor to the mobile internet," but he failed to articulate the basic business problems that the Metaverse would address.” 
For as much as Meta’s metaverse failure can be attributed to Zuckerberg’s hubris and a general distaste for the lackluster presentation, it also arrived at the tail end of lockdowns and COVID restrictions. The launch coincided with a stark realization for the general populace; as much as we embrace our online habits and enjoy our virtual worlds, the medium must be consumed on our own terms and within reasonable limits. Watching a company espouse the virtues of a work and play culture devoid of in-person learning and living hinted at Orwellian outcomes. To a great extent, we control our lived reality, but we recognize within our subconscious the metaverse would be controlled by a megacorporation and its advertisers.
According to Business Insider, the company stopped pitching the Metaverse to advertisers, despite spending more than $100 billion in research and development on its mission to be "Metaverse first." Meta's internal metaverse and VR efforts, which posted a loss of nearly $14 billion in a single year, have drawn scrutiny from Wall Street as they have yet to turn a profit.  The company appears to have shifted focus, embracing AI as the next profit center, an effort that is already falling behind competitors in the space like Google, Microsoft and OpenAI.
But for all of AI’s advertised (and likely overhyped) efficiencies, it may still fade into the background, to be compared with virtual reality as admirable, but lacking in long term prospects. Conversely, biotechnology advancements are maturing well beyond infancy and showing continued progress with a promising future. While AI, the metaverse and virtual realities provide primarily entertainment value with some business value, they do not improve the human condition, enhancing our physiological, intellectual or psychological capabilities. For that, we must consider transhumanism, the next and possibly last frontier of human evolution.
More Human Than Human
At its core, a transhumanist is an individual who espouses the philosophical and intellectual movement toward combining human biology with technology to transcend our natural capabilities. To think this is presently relegated to science fiction or exists on the fringes of society, is to forget the prosthetics industry is valued at more than USD $2 billion, and according to some sources could be as high as USD $10 billion.
A number of videos on YouTube illustrate the positive emotional impact cochlear implants have on patients who are hearing impaired. Prosthetic limbs, which have existed in some form for hundreds of years, have advanced in the last decade to attach directly to a human skeletal structure, and are controlled wirelessly through electrical signals sent from the brain. Much of this technology is expensive, available only to the wealthiest individuals, but it posits a near future full of transhumanist possibilities.
On September 19, 2023, Neuralink, founded by Elon Musk, announced recruitment for clinical trials. Neuralink’s mission is to “Create a generalized brain interface to restore autonomy to those with unmet medical needs today and unlock human potential tomorrow.” According to the press release:
“We are happy to announce that we’ve received approval from the reviewing independent institutional review board and our first hospital site to begin recruitment for our first-in-human clinical trial. The PRIME Study (short for Precise Robotically Implanted Brain-Computer Interface) – a groundbreaking investigational medical device trial for our fully-implantable, wireless brain-computer interface (BCI) – aims to evaluate the safety of our implant (N1) and surgical robot (R1) and assess the initial functionality of our BCI for enabling people with paralysis to control external devices with their thoughts.”
It’s obvious from the examples that corporate interests recognize the potential implications and profits associated with these advancements, pouring millions into research efforts. But it does raise questions about the ethics of providing quality of life care only to those that can afford it or have the right medical insurance. While it’s difficult to argue against those with the means necessary to opt for elective surgeries, the indirect creation of classes of augmented humans is a worrying proposition.
To augment our bodies in order to manipulate or interact with surrounding spaces creates a transhumanist utopia that could marry previous virtual reality attempts with AI programming to create superhumans, coined “cosmic entities” or the more familiar term “cyborgs”. Martin Farbák and Zlatica Plašienková explored this phenomenon in their research article, A New Perspective on Humanity in the Cosmic Future: A Critical Reflection on Some Transhumanist Visions.
Of primary interest to Farbák and Plašienková are views held by macroeconomist and philosopher Ted Chu.
“Chu embraces the probability of transcending biological dispositions and of creating or becoming a completely new form of life. One could mention here Nietzsche’s well-known “superman”, a prototypical new ideal human, which present-day humans should aim for, going beyond their existing level of development, as the transitional link between animal and superman.” 
While the authors explore the works of several transhumanists and their reasons for advancing beyond our current capabilities, their focus is primarily on Chu’s philosophy.
“He assumes that humanity finds itself in the situation, where solving the Earth’s global problems (for example, the ecological crisis) is no longer as important as it was; instead, we should be focusing more on expanding into Space. This could be achieved through the creation of Cosmic Beings, which can be described as posthuman techno-beings with enhanced intelligence and multiple physical and mental abilities.”
This ascension is a proposal that aims to give everyone a greater sense of purpose and understanding by exploring our place in the cosmos. To do so, we must transform, but what governing or scientific body ultimately gets to choose who makes that leap? The populace is distracted by reports of the dangerous effects of manufactured dopamine hits or out-of-control AI that will destroy humanity. Meanwhile, a number of academics, scientists and powerful corporations are on track to change the very definition of what it means to be human.
We’re fascinated by novel reports of people having RFID chips implanted as an alternative to carrying credit cards or identification, but this is merely the beginning of an exploratory process. Artificial intelligence and virtual worlds are external forces pushing us toward one outcome. A fusion of our biology and technology is an internal force that could alter our very consciousness. At such a juncture, who or what is really in control?
 'Second Life(TM)' Opens Public Beta. (2003, Apr 28). PR Newswire
 BARBARA DEMICK Times, Staff W. "Gamers Rack Up Losses: In Cyber-Cafe. Ultrawired South Korea, some People Don't Know when to Leave the Cyber-Cafe. for One Obsessed Man, the Fantasy was Fatal." Los Angeles Times (1996-), Aug 29, 2005, pp. 2.
 Zitron, E. (2023, May 08). RIP Metaverse, we hardly knew ye. Business Insider
 Tenore, H. (2023, Jul 13). Meta's VP of Metaverse says 'the metaverse hype is dead,' but that's OK. Business Insider
 Martin Farbák, & Zlatica Plašienková. (2023). A New Perspective on Humanity in the Cosmic Future: A Critical Reflection on Some Transhumanist Visions: Postdisciplinary Humanities & Social Sciences Quarterly. Human Affairs, 33(2), 210-223. https://doi.org/10.1515/humaff-2022-1020