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Is Society Now Adopting the Values of ‘Blade Runner’?

Originally published at CNS News

“Blade Runner” may be the most influential science fiction movie of my lifetime.  The 1982 film starred a terrific Harrison Ford as a world-weary detective assigned to find a terrorist cell of artificially intelligent cyborgs with super human capacities. Led by Rutger Hauer, the cyborgs have traveled to earth from space colonies in a desperate attempt to force their designer to disarm automatic self-destruct switches. Using the theme of a date-certain death, it is a story that explores what it means to be human.

That theme, which was hardly original, is not the primary reason for “Blade Runner’s” enduring influence. Rather, the brilliant dystopian visual images conjured by the filmmakers is what really struck a deep cord. Who can forget the dark, joyless non-society set in a future Los Angeles that has become a radically individualistic social anarchy so pervasive that rich human interconnections no longer exist.  

It is startling to realize that “Blade Runner” takes place in 2019, the year we are about to enter. And indeed, while we have not yet devolved into a “Blade Runner World,” there can be little question that the movie’s prophetic vision is starting to come true.

Society is becoming increasingly atomized. Some of this is benign. For example, tattoos. Once restricted to the rougher edges of society, today they are accepted as body art that allows the inked person to express their individuality or impress a symbol of an important life-event permanently on one’s body.

But there is a growing transgressive quality to body design. For example, tattooing can go beyond decoration to dark obsession. Meanwhile, extreme body piercing has pushed the individuality continuum well past nose rings and navel jewelry. Some devotees embrace an extreme primitivism, say, by having their tongues surgically split, their bodies implanted with spikes, or devil’s horns inserted into their heads.

There is even a movement to support even more radical approaches to self-design via advanced technologies. Knownas “biopunk,” this solipsistic trend was described in a Bizz Community story:

“At its core, the biopunk movement centers around giving people the power to design their own biological destiny through access to the latest biological, genetic, and technological developments modern science has to offer.”

Recently, as the Bizz Community story reports, photos of Kim Kardashian that seemingly depicted biological implants surgically inserted in her neck as flesh jewelry went viral on social media. The whole thing was a publicity stunt, but the episode showed which way the cultural winds are blowing.

Extreme body decorations are just the launching pad for a radically individualizing culture. “Transhumanists” envision taking emerging technologies such as gene editing and cybertech beyond ornamental uses to “seizing control of human evolution.” Their goal?  Recreating themselves and their progeny into radically individualized “post humans”—with the engineered alterations potentially flowing down the generations if applied on early embryos before they are gestated to birth—already done in China.  Transhumanists are true believers, even eschatological, envisioning a point in time—known in movement parlance as “the Singularity”—when the crescendo of technological advances becomes unstoppable, culminating in attaining the age-old dream of material immortality via uploading minds into AI computers, merged with robotic technologies, to create blended beings with the intellectual and physical powers of the cyborgs depicted in “Blade Runner.”

These and other radically individualistic social movements are changing society at a fundamental level.  With astonishing rapidity, the transgender phenomenon has shattered the once-distinct line that divides male from female. Even more radical individualism is just around the corner.  Body integrity identity disorder (BIID) is a psychiatric condition in which the afflicted person obsesses that their “true identity” is as a disabled person. Some activists and bioethicists are beginning to argue that just as transgendered person may now transition to the sex with which they identify, so too should people with BIID be allowed to access medical interventions to become disabled, say, by having their spinal cords surgically severed or a healthy limb amputated. A few rogue health professionals have actually accommodated such desires. A few years ago, a psychologist blinded his patient with a caustic substance so she could become the visually impaired self she believes she was meant to be.Of course, cultural tides ebb and flow. Because we seem to be adopting the values of “Blade Runner,” that does not necessarily mean we will fall into such a state of libertarian extremism.

Still, the question must be confronted: What societal forces are currently capable of leading us toward healthier pastures?  In a secularizing paradigm, many take delight in transgressive social change. Meanwhile, our politics are increasingly dysfunctional, our cultural attitudes growing more nihilistic, and decadence has become normalized.  Most of our major leadership institutions have dissipated their moral authority through scandal, torpor, or surrender to social radicalism.  Is it any wonder, then, that in the seeming absence of constructive alternatives, many dream about finding deeper meaning through technological reengineering themselves into beings of their own imagining?

Wesley J. Smith

Chair and Senior Fellow, Center on Human Exceptionalism
Wesley J. Smith is Chair and Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. Wesley is a contributor to National Review and is the author of 14 books, in recent years focusing on human dignity, liberty, and equality. Wesley has been recognized as one of America’s premier public intellectuals on bioethics by National Journal and has been honored by the Human Life Foundation as a “Great Defender of Life” for his work against suicide and euthanasia. Wesley’s most recent book is Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine, a warning about the dangers to patients of the modern bioethics movement.