Deus Ex: Human Revolution (“DX: HR”) presents an old philosophical question in a new way. The dour critic could well argue that there’s nothing new or original about asking “What does it mean to be human?”, but DX:HR adds depth to this question by placing it in a context of realistic social, economic, moral, and political realities. It also presents a specific path to approach this question: How might physical augmentations transform an individual (and a society that uses such augmentations)? For me, the game is about exploring a world in which such augmentations (“Augs”) are possible and prevalent. This is more exciting than a game in which you simply run around playing as a someone with superhuman powers.
One of the other interesting twists on the approach of DX: HR is the way it measures up to other sci-fi approaches to artificial intelligence and robots. These focus on the idea of a “man-in-machine.” Augmentations are a sort of “machine-in-man.” Somehow, this seems more imminent a possibility, and a more deeply personal one. However, in one ending of the game, it is suggested that the augmentations can make people so powerful as to lose their humanity, so maybe there isn’t much difference between the two. The world of DX:HR (and the thought experiments it poses) match well with the work of two authors who have likewise explore the boundary of technological progress and humanity.
Sherry Turkle’s most recent book describes our current condition, on the edge of both recognizing machine life outside ourselves (e.g., robot pets) and inhabiting the world through machines (e.g., cell phones and continual internet connection). Even as we recognize that robots can be “alive enough” to merit our emotional involvement, we can feel disconnected from others despite living an over-connected life. As we are increasingly open to robots and AI as friends and companions, and we expect technology to be more entertaining, useful, and fulfilling, it seems arguable that people are preparing to accept the kind of technological integration that DX:HR’s Augs offer.
Though he is best known for coining the term “Postmodernism”, Jean-Francois Lyotard wrote an essay asking the question “Can Thought Go On Without A Body?” as part of an inquiry into the advances of inhuman technology (married with capitalism) into all things human. In the context of DX: HR, this question could be reformulated at asking whether the essence of being Human is in the physical body of human beings or in the thought processes we have. For Lyotard, the question is as much a matter of living in a postmodern society as a literal question of science. But whether in the face of advances in biotechnology or in the face of the death of the metanarrative, questions of how to preserve and enhance our humanity seem more important every year.
My own conclusion from the game is that such augmentations have great potential to help humanity, but also have tremendous potential for abuse and misuse of all kinds. Whether it’s a boardroom of shadowy figures, a mad scientist-hacker, or the socio-economic implications of dividing a society further into haves and have-nots, there are many ways such a great achievement in biotechnology could be enormously dangerous and destructive. Turkle’s work indicates that we are moving towards acceptance of such advancements, but fundamental questions asked by the likes of Lyotard remain unanswered.
Dues Ex: Human Revolution isn’t the first exploration of what it means to be human, or even the first approach to that question through the idea of some kind of biotech-augmentation. But it places the question in a context that presses the importance of finding useful, practical, helpful answers to questions about our humanity. What I find exciting is that we are approaching a point in human history when this question achieves new significance. Like so many other questions in philosophy, we are finding ways to stretch and challenge what we considered the limits of physical and metaphysical reality.