More Human Than Human: Pop Culture Transhumanism

With the rise of technology and its ubiquity in everyday life, transhumanism has become all the rage in films, television, comics, books, video games, and every area of popular culture. Broadly defined, transhumanism is about becoming more than human - science and technology fusing together with biology to amplify the physical and mental capabilities and characteristics of humanity. Now that people are actually starting to modify their bodies to suit their technological needs via implanted microchips and smartphones seemingly glued to their hands, science fiction is quickly turning into science fact. Before we go too far down the rabbit hole, here are a few examples of transhumanism in pop culture.

Blade Runner

In 2017, the 1982 classic Blade Runner seeped back into pop culture consciousness with the release of its long-awaited sequel, Blade Runner 2049. For transhumanists and film lovers alike, Blade Runner has never been forgotten as a visually stunning, thematically rich science fiction masterpiece. Initially a flop upon its release, the film has gained international acclaim since then due to its emphasis on modern transhumanist themes that have become more relevant with each passing year. Set in a dystopian neo-noir 2019, a massive corporation has developed a line of bioengineered synthetic human-like beings called Replicants to serve wealthy humans living in off-world colonies. When some of these Replicants develop self-awareness and escape from their corporate overlords, officers called “blade runners” are sent to track them down and “retire” them. While the concept seemed like a distant possibility in 1982, recent advances in robotics and artificial intelligence provide hope (or fear) that real-life Replicants may not be far off. For more on the potential of transhumanism, visit Human Paragon.

Watchmen: Doctor Manhattan

Although superheroes are inherently transhumanist in many ways, the ultimate example is the character known as Doctor Manhattan in the 1986 comic series Watchmen, which was adapted into a feature film in 2009. In a book noted for its metaphysical and transhumanist themes, Dr. Manhattan is the deepest and most complex character of them all. While working on an experiment, a nuclear physicist named Dr. Jon Osterman finds himself trapped in a test chamber and effectively disintegrated in a tragic accident. However, over the following months, Osterman rebuilds his physical form as a blue, glowing, superman figure with nearly omnipotent powers, later dubbed Dr. Manhattan in reference to the Manhattan Project. By removing his “intrinsic field”, Osterman exists outside the boundaries of time, space, and reality that apply to mere mortals. As the only superpowered being in the Watchmen universe, Dr. Manhattan opens up a host of new technology that benefits humanity, but he has transcended transhumanism and become posthuman as he grows increasingly detached from the world. Eventually, he leaves for a brand-new universe, where it is implied he will attempt to create new life.

Star Wars: Darth Vader

Probably the most well-known example of transhumanism in pop culture, Darth Vader reigned as the primary antagonist throughout the original Star Wars trilogy. As a result of severe physical trauma suffered at the end of the prequel trilogy, Vader’s mangled body was repaired with cybernetics and he was forced to wear a sealed full-body suit - including the memorable heavy breathing apparatus - in order to survive. With technology regulating his biology and physiology, Vader became “more machine than man” and wouldn’t have been nearly as menacing without his iconic black armor.

Star Trek: The Borg

As the most recognizable villains introduced in Star Trek: The Next Generation, the alien race known as the Borg embody a fascinating view of transhumanism and posthumanism. Although their exact origins are unknown, the Borg are best described as a cybernetic melting pot gone horribly wrong, consisting of a vast aggregate of alien species that have been assimilated into the hive-mind Borg Collective. Through the process of assimilation, nanoprobes absorb knowledge of other species and alter the bodies of their hosts with advanced technology by transforming them into cybernetic organisms designed to act as drones for the Collective with no memory or free will of their own. The Borg represent the absolute worst-case scenario for transhumanism. Rather than exterminating people as the villainous robots in Terminator do, what if technology simply absorbed humanity and forced the transition to posthumanism? Resistance is futile, indeed.