Curtis Hox scribbles science fantasy novels. He’s written six unpublished novels, which include his debut science fiction novel Bleedover and the forthcoming YA Transhuman Warrior Series. This article is part of the 2012 Bleedover Blog Tour. Check out Curtis Hox’s next tour stops and join the Bleedover Blog Tour Giveaway to win a $50 Amazon Gift Card. For more information, visit www.curtishox.com. You can also find him on Twitter @CurtisHox.
‘The Big Bang Theory’ achieves what so few sitcoms achieve: it entertains while making its audience feel smart.
The multi award-winning show, at first glance, is about four university science researchers and their lives as supreme dorks. Sheldon, Leonard, Rajesh and Howard are character types: ultra educated techno-geeks. They fail to impress most women, and they couldn’t beat up a fly (even if they teamed up). They love science fiction and fantasy, computer games, comic books, collectibles, etc. Star Trek, Star Wars, The Flash, The Green Lantern, etc., all provide the language we must learn to understand them.
At their center is Sheldon Cooper, a theoretical physicist who hates mixing with the inferior Muggles he encounters in the real world. Sheldon cringes when someone tries to hug him, consistently fails to understand sarcasm, refuses to call Amy Farrah Fowler his girlfriend (until a very recent episode). He can’t stop obsessing about where he sits or how many times he knocks on a door. Sheldon’s character, though, is interesting beyond the expertly acted comic performance by Emmy award winner Jim Parsons because he challenges key categories of what we consider normal human behavior.
Sheldon, in essence, isn’t human.
Of course, he thinks of himself as superhuman, and the humor follows. But in one key episode from last season, “Cruciferous Vegetable Amplification,” Sheldon fears he’ll miss the Singularity and, thus, his future as a posthuman technocrat lording over a world of inferiors. He changes to a plant-based diet and hides in his bedroom. Nicely tucked under the covers, he operates a Virtual Presence Machine: a radio-controlled contraption with a monitor displaying his face and a shirt underneath it. This allows him to avoid real world interaction.
This episode channels an important conversation. It concerns what happens (and what it will mean) when human beings use technology to fundamentally change who we are. The conversation has many roots, some reaching back to the Enlightenment, some going all the way back to the Ancient Greeks. More recently Phenomenologists interested in the experience of being human paved the way for philosophers of technology to examine how our tool use defines us. Jump forward to today and we see why the discussions around Transhumanism and Posthumanism are important.
‘The Big Bang Theory’, with a wink, and a subtle nod, demonstrates that even popular culture sitcoms can join the conversation.
The Singularity that Sheldon refers to derives from science fiction writer Vernor Vinge’s ideas of a future time in human history when technology creates smarter-than-human machines. Today, this is the stuff of science fiction. But plenty of smart people on both sides of the debate are talking about it. The inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweill argues with all ardor of a true believer it’ll happen sooner rather than later. A recent documentary, Transcendent Man, describes how he hopes to survive until the Singularity, when he hopes biotech will solve one key problem of being a human being: senescence. He is very much a hyper Transhumanist who hopes to use science and technology to make us better humans: stronger, smarter, healthier, etc.
In the show, Sheldon’s desire to survive until the Singularity is delivered as simple odd-ball behavior. But it has a deeper meaning: Sheldon as a character represents one of the problems of the Transhumanist project. What happens when our Transhumanism goes wrong? We often talk of Posthumanism in this way. It’s what happens when our key categories of humanity get altered to the point we no longer recognize them as human. In Sheldon’s inability to act like a normal human being he represents the fear of the posthuman. His asexuality, his sense of superiority, his emotional insensitivity, etc., all hint at the sort of problematic categories we might face once technology crosses a critical threshold. We are to read him, in many ways, as a sort of proto-posthuman.
Of course in this episode, Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak makes an appearance. Sheldon has ventured to a restaurant as a virtual presence, where he sees Woz . He abandons his scheme to survive until the Singularity and rushes from his room to get an autograph. Thus, as is often the case, Sheldon is humanized in a childish way, making us love him even more.
We’re left with a curious feeling that Sheldon’s social ineptness is what makes him likable. In this way, ‘The Big Bang Theory’ advocates a posthuman future, even as it pokes fun of it.