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17 Dec 12 Nexus imagines a world that is posthuman, not transhuman

Ramez Naam worked for more than a decade as an engineer for Microsoft, where he helped develop seminal software like Microsoft Outlook, search, and artificial intelligence. After he left Microsoft, Ramez wrote the non-fiction book More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement. Here he proposed that the human race can benefit from embracing the modification of the body through technology; this partnership could help eradicate disease, lengthen lives, and transcend the power of the human brain. Now comes another step in Naam’s metamorphosis-like career. The engineer-turned author transferred his ideas about the promise of technology into the novel Nexus, his first published work of fiction.
Ars talked to Naam about Nexus, available on December 18 from Angry Robot Books. And in the process, he shared his opinions about transhumanism.

In the year 2040…

Nexus centers around an experimental nano-drug (called Nexus) that can connect human minds together. In 2040, this drug is able to make amazing experiences happen between people, and Naam’s descriptions of the fusing of minds are both sensual and original. But this wonder drug is not as commonly accepted as aspirin. There are those who would like to see the drug come off the market completely.

Kade Lane, a young scientist, improves on the drug. But in the process he stumbles into a war between the US government and secret agencies which seek control of this revolutionary technology. The novel imagines a world where transhumanism (humanity enhanced by technology) moves on a continuum toward posthumanism, the state where humanity has advanced so far beyond its limits that we can no longer call those beings human.

Naam is a proponent of a technological future that enhances the human condition. Some call this singularity, but Naam is careful to define himself beyond the label. He is CEO of Apex Nanotechnologies, which develops software for nanotechnology research. He is a member of the Institute for Accelerating Change and the World Future Society. And he is also the recipient of the 2005 H. G. Wells Award for Contributions to Transhumanism.

“In the novel I touch on the consciousness that expands beyond more than one person,” Naam, said. “In [our current society], we have people in relationships, in groups and in corporations—all these are meta-minds that incorporate more than one person. Right now the node between those meta-minds is language. We have increased the bandwidth through technology, Google, printing press, TV, and empowered the meta-minds. But the next step is in the question, ‘What if we could wire our brains directly to each other?’”

Nexus is a lightning bolt of a novel, with a focus on action and plotting that will remind readers of some of the best novels from the late Michael Crichton. At its heart, Naam’s optimism for a better future for humanity gives Nexus a sense of awe missing from a lot of current fiction. The current literary landscape focuses on zombie infestations, dystopian futures, natural disasters, etc. but the demise of the human condition is nowhere to be found here. Naam carefully reveals the perils of a technological future where we can connect into other people’s minds. In his fictional world, the future remains bright, a place where humanity goes beyond its full potential.

Transcending the mind didn’t start with Twitter

Some readers might see the drug Nexus as a metaphor for social media, as a tool that helps connect people to other people. But Naam embraces the Internet and social media: “It’s wonderful and in its infancy,” he said. “It will get better all the time. It also needs checks and balances. It’s healthy that users get upset when Facebook or Twitter makes a mistake in their policies. It’s good. But fundamentally I feel more connected that to people that are not in my daily life than ever before [because of social media]. I think it’s been an amazing revolution actually.”

In Nexus, Naam links use of the culture surrounding the nano-drug to counter-culture movements. There are underground electronic dance music (EDM) parties held by marginalized groups and large group mediations where people can connect with other minds. Naam was inspired by his environment to include these in the novel.

“I live on the West Coast, I live in Seattle, I’m part of Burning Man Culture, I’m a meditator,” he said. “You can’t deny that there’s a large set of people that really want to manipulate their internal states, and they are going to things like mediation, yoga, and psychoactives to do it.”

So for Naam, transcending the limits of the mind is not just an idea for the margins or a piece of fiction. It’s already in place in many areas around our world.

“One group that are clearly using these technologies are the disabled today,” he said. “These applications are for the blind, the deaf, in a medical context. And then, the people using those outside of the medical context are people who are adventurous and looking to explore new states.”

Naam also explains the current interest in transcending the mind and brain is nothing new. “Shamanistic practices, meditation, and drug use come from a human curiosity about the brain and our consciousness,” he said. “Andrew Weil’s first book was The Natural Mind, where he explains that humans, since a young age, are trying to change their consciousness, spinning till dizzy, or rolling down the hill. All these things—shamanism, religion—they arise from a curiosity about our mental states.”

But does science currently have enough knowledge about the brain in order to know how to supersede its limitations?

“There is no such thing as a perfect technology that can only be used for good and not for some bad things,” he said. “With brain altering technologies there’s all sorts of pitfalls. The technology could be infected by a virus, it can be hacked. In the book I show bad uses for mind control like slavery. Any tech like this is powerful for its good uses and how it can be abused.”

If you’re interested in more, Nexus is available to pre-order on Amazon and will be released tomorrow. Ars subscribers can read the first chapter of Nexus below (and all others can read it on the following page).

Listing image by Nexus, by Ramez Naam, Angry Robot Books

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