As technology’s ability to modify human beings on an individual and fundamental level increases, Dr. James Herrick of the Hope College communication faculty hopes to provide help in understanding not just the concepts but the implications of the way they’re described.
A specialist in argumentation and rhetoric, he is the author of the new book “Visions of Technological Transcendence: Human Enhancement and the Rhetoric of the Future,” published by Parlor Press of Anderson, South Carolina.
The book focuses on transhumanism — the idea that mental and physical enhancements through biotechnology and computer science will, and should, lead to improved human lives and even a post-human species. It’s a world that Herrick notes will see direct human-computer interface, genetic splicing and engineering, and sophisticated artificial intelligence, and he doesn’t think that it’s far away.
“Almost every week in the news you read about something like this, and there will be a cascade moment — a dramatic event or surprising breakthrough that will happen that will bring this to everyone’s awareness,” said Herrick, who is the Guy Vander Jagt Professor of Communication at the college.
It’s a vision, Herrick noted, that has both proponents and detractors — including those who see a brighter tomorrow, and those who see negative implications. While skeptical about transhumanism’s goals, he has sought to create a holistic overview that shares both perspectives.
“How we talk about that future will have a lot to do with the future that we will end up with,” he said. “My goal has been to provide a serious treatment that is grounded historically and is fair to the major players, to try to provide a good introduction to the whole scene for anybody who wanted to read a book-length treatment of it.”
As described by the publisher, “Visions of Technological Transcendence” “approaches the rhetoric of human enhancement as a system of mythic narratives, each developing around a key tenet of enhancement thought. These strategic stories are treated as myths, providing ‘imaginative patterns’ for predicting technology's trajectory, envisioning the technological redemption of the human race, aligning the mundane world with a transcendent, technological future, and attributing a sacred quality to scientific progress. Despite their scientific cast, these narratives rest on and promote a futuristic ideology originating in a range of non-scientific sources. Chapters explore the narratives of progress, technologically directed evolution, the person as information, the posthuman as supplanting Homo sapiens, technological immortality, limitless artificial intelligence, and space colonization as human destiny.”
Herrick has been studying the transhumanist movement for the past seven years, starting with attending a national conference at Harvard in 2010 and since attending events in Salt Lake City, Utah; in Phoenix, Arizona; and elsewhere. His earlier publications include the 2013 book “After the Genome: A Language for Our Biotechnological Future,” which was named the Edited Book of the Year by the National Communication Association.
A member of the Hope faculty since 1984, Herrick writes and speaks about the history of rhetoric, new religious movements, and popular narratives about science and technology. His other books include “The History and Theory of Rhetoric,” “Scientific Mythologies: How Science and Science Fiction Forge New Religious Beliefs,” “The Making of the New Spirituality: The Eclipse of the Western Religious Tradition” and “The Radical Rhetoric of the English Deists.” “The Making of the New Spirituality” was named a 2004 “Gold Medallion Book Award Finalist” by the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association and was cited as one of “Ten Books Every Preacher Should Read” in Preaching magazine’s 2004 survey of the year’s best books for preachers.