In the future, will technology deconstruct or reconstruct gender identities as culturally represented and understood by society today? In a recent interview, Dr. Patrick Hopkins, a professor of Philosophy at Millcaps College, provides some interesting insights into the crossroads of technological influences on gender roles, societal values, and the implications for humanity.
The intersection of technology and gender is not a new, but certainly a constantly evolving domain, and there are various domains of interest. Technology has the potential to revolutionize or reinforce gender dynamics in a culture. Technologies, at their essence, are gender neutral, free of biological constraints. But most humans walking around with cell phones in their hand still by and large very much identify with gender (though there are exceptions), and may be making use of certain technologies in ways influenced by their gender, even if on a subconscious level. This idea triggers a loosely-related dual question – might these differences one day become more of a blurred line, and will further advances in AI or pharmacological enhancements help us along the way to diminishing those identity distinctions?
Over time, certain technologies come to be associated with a particular image of gender encapsulated in an epoch – the washing machine or any household appliance might bring to mind newspaper ads in the 40’s and 50’s, with the operators and the audience being women – the home-keepers. This stereotype has changed with the tides over the past couple of decades, but the image from the past is still a type of artifact that represents where human culture has been, and gives us a reference point for how it’s evolved alongside the presence of other technologies. There exists an array of interesting relationships that intersect gender and technology, as outlined in this article by Social Anthropologist Francesca Bay. In fact, this is now such an established field that there are multiple publications addressing the topic, and Virginia Tech holds an annual Gender, Bodies and Technology (GBT) conference addressing related topics.
In the course of the discussion, Dr. Hopkins presents two core questions – how distinct are (or could) the genders be, and what does technology allow us to do in terms of gender? There’s the possibility of minimizing differences between genders, but what are the implications? The idea of a “post-gender” world, predicted in the 1990’s, does not seem to have taken effect, and in fact in many cases seems to have taken a path of gender reinforcement, particularly in terms of of physical features – plastic surgery, for example. In the general public, there still seems to be a strong traditional interest in maintaining a gendered identity. This is not all that surprising, remarks Dr. Hopkins, if you consider that we still have the brains of our ancestors, out of which the ideas of gender were constructed. Though technology will allow us to make radical changes, it seems for the time being there are some constraints on potential transgender possibilities due to our inherited brains.
What technology can do, Dr. Hopkins asserts, is allow us to do something new that taps into old interests – for example, the creation of artificial wombs; this technology in and of itself is ripe for debate; there a number of post-birth ethical implications. This example also weaves biological-driven instincts with what it means to be a female, as do a thousand other examples – clearly, sex and gender are inextricably linked. For example, another pharmacological technology in the works is a consumable form of the chemical oxytocin, which could potentially be made available to couples that feel they have lost initial sexual attraction. Again, biological drives are inherent influences that must be taken into account. Society could just as easily envision a drug that eradicates sexual desire for those who would like to tune their energies to other priorities. While possible, this would undoubtedly be of present interest to a very small segment of the population.
But we still don’t know how many of these chemical enhancements affect the human brain. Drugs must still be taken and the experience interpreted by participants and observers in order to arrive at more objective conclusions as to how increased doses of a specific drug affect the brain, its interconnected components, and human behavior. Psychology of emotions and neurological processes is still a relatively new area. Findings across many related studies show time and again that there are multiple interconnected systems in the brain, which make what would seem to be a “simple” human emotion a much more intricate endeavor. For example, humans who suffer damage to the amygdala may experience an “absence” of fear, yet they may still experience symptoms of fear – the anticipation of an uncomfortable situation and possession of intuitive knowledge of what is to come, though they may not react in a way to prevent the situation from occurring. As Dr. Hopkins remarks, tinkering with a particular emotion could very well produce such human being that displays “socially-bizarre” behaviors that don’t fit with out current schema of expected human behavior.
Nanotech, brain-machine interface, and other mechanical enhancement processes may eventually trump pharmacological options in terms of providing a greater ability and wider range of cognitive hardware that allows us transcend our present mental capacities and paradigm of reality. Looking back at predictions from the past, including pop culture like The Jetsons, it’s interesting to note that creators of these artifacts, in spite of their innovative visions of flying cars and other increasingly-realistic technologies, seemed unable to anticipate going beyond enculturated gender stereotypes. “We should at least”, remarks Dr. Hopkins, “…be open to these two conflicting forces in human nature, which is one: still keeping our social primate brains, and two: (that) those social primate brains might react to new environments in ways that we really have a hard time predicting now, because we just don’t know what our desire set…will be triggered by in that future.”
Dr. Hopkins notes that transhumanism is not really a “transhumanist” philosophy, but more like a “superhumanist” philosophy, precisely because we still conceive of ideas from an ancestral brain and haven’t had the opportunity to transcend or augment those brains that we inherited. As we look forward to the future, the majority of human beings may not have an interest in certain potential technological enhancements, including ones that relate to surpassing gender, simply because we can’t imagine how these new conceptions fit in or are useful to our human experience. If machines and nanotechnology become the preferred modus operandi for human enhancements over the next decade, perhaps another 50 years will produce a breed of humanity that develops an entirely new set of cognitive-driven motivations and perception on human identity, with or without gender roles.