Is Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D Preparing Us for the Ethical Questions of the Future?


Ready to read the most pseudo-intellectual drivel you’ll read all day?

Let’s be clear: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is not the first media to explore themes of transhumanism. The idea has pervaded works such as The Matrix, Gattaca, Fallout 3, Avatar, Ex Machina, Dollhouse, Ghost in the Shell, and Black Mirror. In this case, however, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will be our diving board. Time to get into some deep questions.

What is reality?

Before we get into simulated words, augmentation, and androids, let’s take a look at the real world using a mysterious quantum physics experiment called the “double-slit experiment”. Let me preface this by saying I just review Marvel and am absolutely not a qualified quantum physicist.

So lets say we had a hyper-powered cannon, a wall with two slits cut out of it, and a back wall behind it. If you were to fire energy (waves) or matter (particles) through the cannon at the slits, you would get two very different results. Particles themselves would only hit the back wall through the slits, like a stencil; if you fired a steady stream of any matter one atom at time, you would have two lines on the back wall that perfectly line up with the slits. Waves, however, live up to their namesake – it would ripple out and leave a very different rippled pattern on the back wall called an “interference pattern”. This is how you can tell the difference between energy and matter.

Still following me? Good!

Light, however, behaves very strangely. In trying to figure out if photons are energy or matter, scientists tried the experiment and concluded that they were particles, or matter. Then when replicating the experiment unobserved, they re-entered the room to find it had left an interference pattern – the trademark of waves, or energy. They tried the experiment again – matter. They left the room and tried again – energy. They set up a high-powered camera to observe the photons passing through the slits – matter. They took the cameras away – energy. Photons of light seemed to not only know when they were being observed, but changed their behavior accordingly.

Spooky! What does this mean?

This may blow your mind, but it essentially means that light only “exists” as matter when it is being observed. Reality is just what we perceive. In a sense, if something is not being observed or interacted with in some way, shape, or form – it simply doesn’t exist (until it is next interacted with). Some scientists speculate that up to 90% of reality as we perceive it is simply “made up” by our brain.

So what is transhumanism? 

Transhumanism (or h+) at it’s core is the idea that- through sophisticated enough technology- we can make humans better.

It’s an idea that has been around forever – but as technology advances, it poses some ethical questions that may eventually need addressing.

Look at the Framework on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – it is a powerful simulation created by Dr. Holden Radcliffe and Dr. Leo Fitz where one could live forever in a world without pain. In the Framework, you could live the life you always wanted to live. With a little digital tweaking, you could even create a virtual sandbox; give yourself the ability to sing, or fly, or create whatever you wanted with the wink of an eye. You can even stay in the Framework as long as you’d like. Sure, eventually your physical body will give out and die – but if you never plan on leaving the Framework, do you really need it anyway? You don’t need to eat or sleep or use the washroom here if you don’t want to, and your consciousness will continue long after your “body” dies. Hell, you can even upload your mind into a new body if you find yourself missing “the real world”.

But is this okay?

Is this “playing God”? If so, is there anything fundamentally wrong with that? Is The Framework just a digital fantasy world, or is it the next step in humanity? Sure, we know that what is in the Framework “doesn’t really exist” – but if reality is just what we perceive, what makes it any different than the world we live in now? The Framework was used to permanently extend the “life” of a dying person like Agnes Kitsworth – is that wrong? If we have an alternate world without pain, is it okay to “abandon” our bodies and live there? If we could save lives with it, is it our obligation to do so?

However, if our consciousness is able to be “downloaded”, does this mean everything that makes us “who we are” is able to be boiled down into computer code? If someone were able to rewrite that code, how much of you is still really “you”? If you efficiently downloaded the ability to play the violin, what makes that acquired skill any different than learning the violin through years of practice? What benefit does real learned skill have? If you were able to program yourself to be smarter, think faster, multi-task, and have an encyclopedia of business knowledge, you could become a billionaire –  but anyone could. If anyone could be rich with the press of a button, what purpose does wealth really serve?

What makes us “us”?

Is it our mind, or our flesh and blood? The Life-Model Decoy android of Radcliffe posed this question when Agent Alphonso Mackenzie was going to kill him. We are all programmed by nature or nurture, androids programming is just “a little more obvious”. Take a look at the Life-Model Decoy of Melinda May; she was May, through and through. She wasn’t simply an android – she had May’s thoughts, her feelings, her memories. She could think and feel. What made her less “May” than the original May? What if the Radcliffe LMD has a perfectly human mind, what makes Mack more “human” than him – that he is made entirely of flesh and blood? Does this make something with an artificial limb less than human? If our consciousness and not our bodies define who we really are, who is to say Mack has a “soul” and the LMDs don’t?

What is sentience?

What responsibilities do we bear to non-humans? If we can augment humans to be “better, smarter, faster and stronger”, we can do the same to any animals or even the aforementioned androids. If an animal or an android is capable of thinking and emoting on a human level, do they have rights? What responsibilities do we have to them? Is it okay to treat a sentient octopus (with the equivalent mind of a human) as a slave or a lesser life form when it is no longer a lesser life form? At what point is it no longer okay to use robots as “tools”?

What does dying mean?

If we can be re-uploaded to the cloud or a new body, is dying just a minor inconvenience? In a transhumanist world, could we die if we wanted to? If you can live forever, are suicide and euthanasia acceptable? Are they even possible? Is this the life we want to live?

Is this realistic?

The real question is if this is even possible. I believe, with technology growing every day, it very well may be. There are people very devoted to this idea. There are warehouses of frozen heads, waiting to be uploaded to a robot body and continue their existence. One day, this may cross the threshold of “interesting idea” into “important moral dilemma”.

In the meantime, if you are interested in this topic, there are lots of books you can check out. Mark McConnell’s “To Be a Machine” is a new book getting a lot of buzz. D&D fans can check out Eclipse Phase, a fascinating tabletop RPG set in a near-future world that addresses these concepts. You can find the rulebooks for free on the creator Rob Boyle’s website.

I hope I gave you some food for thought, and I will see you next week.

Author: Jesse "The Clairvoyant" Rolufs

Film star. Chemical engineer. Dancer. Comedian. I am none of these things. What I am, however, is a huge geek hailing from the frigid wastes of western Canada. I couldn’t even tell you when it started - I’m told the first words out of my mouth were “I swing my +2 DEX war axe and attack the dragon.” My name is Jesse (also known as “The Clairvoyant”) and I am a big nerd when it comes to video games, board games, movies, anime, TV, RPGs - and I am possibly the one of the world leading experts on comic books, the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Joss Whedon. You can find me on twitter as @JesseRolufs. Don’t be afraid to check out my informative Joss Whedon-themed podcast @whedoncast, and my hilarious bargain-bin-movie-bashing podcast @BlindBuy!

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