The Cyborg in the Spiderhead

The horizon of technology has plagued humanity throughout all modernity. Though the idea of human augmentation is a multifaceted one, it can be useful to think of it as a spectrum; on the one end, the helpful, empowering, and often even life saving augmentations of Pacemakers, Cochlear Implants, or Insulin Pumps, on the other end, the abhorrent practices of genomic editing, human breeding, and other eugenic techniques. As long as this spectrum has existed, authors of the western cannon have employed their artistry to warn against moving too far with technology that alters what it means to be human.

George Saunders’s “Escape from Spiderhead” is no different — it offers a broad condemnation of chemical influence on human consciousness. While this commentary is not quite literal — Saunders does not at all make it seem like he is commenting on modern society’s use of augmentation — it is still a running battle between morality and the “pursuit of science” that defines “Spiderhead.” Saunders paints the world of chemical augmentation as corporatized, such as through the use of trademark symbols by chemical names (as in 45, 46, 54, 55, etc.). He also has his characters follow a blind, almost comical “pursuit of science” over morality, as when Absenti — the story’s main protagonist — insists that the tortures experiment on which the story centers was in the name of “the mandates of science” (74).

While this condemnation might be a useful thought experiment about human morality, it poorly reflects the possibilities of human existence. As long as medical science has existed, bio-ethical standards, practices, and procedures have been shaped with the finest precision to make medicine as morally acceptable to broader members of society as possible. For example, in contrast to the story, not only is human chemical augmentation carefully controlled in modern society, it is also useful and even possibly life saving for people with severe mental health conditions. While it is obvious that Saunders is not trying to comment on a world that currently exists per say, Saunders is still making a commentary on the ability of technology to shape human morals in a way that, as outlined above, has never been reflective of reality.

The decades to come will be filled with medical advances — bionic suits, AI, mental chemical enhancements, etc. — that will bring what it means to be human up for debate. How we understand both ourselves and the rest of humanity will evolve, and so will our sense of morality. However, these changes will happen under public scrutiny, and guided by the strict scruples that define western scientific development. Therefore, while it can be appealing to let fiction play out various though experiments on the intersection of science and morality, we should not let this preclude discovering new horizons of medicine and science that revolutionize what it means to be human.