"I Would Hope That Saner Minds Would Prevail" Deus Ex: Human Revolution Lead Writer Mary DeMarle on the Ethics of Transhumanism

By Kyle Munkittrick | August 12, 2011 3:26 pm

Among gamers, Deus Ex is something of a legendary fusion of disparate gaming styles. Among science fiction buffs, Deus Ex is lauded for managing to take two awesome genres, William Gibson-esque cyberpunk and Robert Anton Wilson-level conspiracy theories, and jam them together into an immanentizing of the eschaton unlike anything you’ve seen since Doktor Sleepless. And among transhumanists, Deus Ex brought up every issue of humanity’s fusion with technology one could imagine. It is a rich video game.

So when Square Enix decided to pick up the reins from Eidos and create a new installment in the series, Deus Ex: Human Revolution (DX:HR), I was quite excited. The first indication DX:HR was not going to be a crummy exploitation of the original’s success (see: Deus Ex 2: Invisible War), was the teaser trailer, shown above. Normally, a teaser trailer is just music and a slow build to a logo or single image that lets you know the game is coming out. Instead, the development team decided to demonstrate that it was taking the philosophy of the game seriously.

What philosophy? you might ask. Why transhumanism, of course. Nick Bostrom, chair of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford, centers the birth of transhumanism in the Renaissance and the Age of the Enlightenment in his article “A History of Transhumanist Thought” [pdf]. The visuals of the teaser harken to Renaissance imagery (such as the Da Vinci style drawings) and the teaser ends with a Nietzschean quote “Who we are is but a stepping stone to what we can become.” Later trailers would reference Icarus and Daedalus (who also happened to be the names of AI constructs in the original game), addressing the all-too-common fear that by pursuing technology, we are pursuing our own destruction. This narrative thread has become the central point of conflict in DX:HR. Even its viral ad campaign has been told through two lenses: that of Sarif Industries, maker of prosthetic bodies that change lives, and that of Purity First, a protest group that opposes human augmentation. The question is: upon which part of our shared humanity do we step as we climb to greater heights?

When was the last time a video game asked you an existential question about the nature of our species? The tension between the proponents and opponents of transhumanism in DX:HR is heightened by the ambiguous opinion towards enhancement of the main character, Adam Jensen. Jensen’s own enhancements are a result of the need to save his life after a traumatic attack. Unlike Tony Stark, Jensen does not craft his own mechanized additions, but must instead come to terms with the cybernetic hand he has been dealt. DX:HR is not interested in cybernetics as merely a fun backdrop for a video game, but instead treats enhancement as the serious ethical issue that it is. The world of the game is set in a “Neo-Renaissance” where even the characters’ clothing reminds us that transhumanism is born out of the Age of Enlightenment. As a prequel to the original Deus Ex, DX:HR takes us into a world where augmentation and cyberization are still new to humanity and shows us how painful the transition into a transhuman future might be.

To dive deeper into these issues, I had a chat with Mary DeMarle, the lead writer for Deus Ex: Human Revolution, about how the ethics of enhancement and augmentation were considered when crafting the game’s story and characters.

Q: How did you approach the topic of augmentation? What were your thoughts about cyborgs and human engineering before you began your research?

A: As soon as I knew we wanted to center the game around the concept of human augmentation and where advancements in neuroprosthetics might take Mankind, I knew I needed to do a lot of research. I started with a book entitled, “Radical Evolution” by Joel Garreaux. It was a great introduction not only to the subject of human engineering, but also to the various theories and arguments for and against it. After that, I split my research efforts in two, spending some of my time reading up on the technological advancements, and some of my time reading up on the philosophical debate. I have to admit that, before starting all this research, I had tended to think of cyborgs and human engineering as the stuff of Science Fiction — something I love to read and immerse myself in conceptually, but not something I might actually see in this reality.

Q: How have those views changed as you’ve worked on this project?

A: I think the biggest change was the realization that cyborgs and human engineering are not only possible, but probable in our lifetime. When you talk to people who are working in the field — people like Will Rosellini, our technical consultant — and you learn about current projects and how close we are to achieving some of the advancements we depict in the game, you can’t help but be amazed. I’ve also had the opportunity to talk with people who have not just overcome disabilities through advancing technologies, but who have gone on to achieve things most “able-bodied” people never will. In the process, I’ve seen the potential and the incredible allure of human augmentation. At the same time, a lot of my research into the dangers of experimentation and unregulated industries has made me understand the other side of the debate. It truly is a rich, complex issue that becomes all the more fascinating the more you dive into it.

Q: Can you please give a brief summary of how augmentations are invented and popularized in the world of the game? What are the motivating factors for those who oppose augmentation?

A: As part of the game’s backstory, we envisioned a series of technological, historical, economic, and cultural events in the decades leading up to 2027 (the year in which the game takes place) which together lead to the advancement and proliferation of mechanical augmentations. In the technological arena, leading researchers discover how to significantly improve the way implanted (artificial) electrodes and the human nervous system interact, leading to a revolution in neuroprosthetics. At the same time, an increase in the number of people needing prosthetic limbs — due to military conflicts and a few devastating natural disasters in parts of the world — creates a unique demand for the tech. In the economic realm, a devastating terrorist attack destabilizes the oil industry, adding to the world’s existing economic woes, and catapulting the world economy into a severe crisis. Governments respond by opening up oil shale reserves for development; by and large the people getting jobs in this and other high risk, physically demanding industries turn out to be those who are mechanically enhanced. Unable to compete for these lucrative jobs, several “able-bodied” people sue for the right to amputate their own healthy limbs. Meanwhile, on the cultural front, several highly popular artists, entertainers, and athletes begin sporting new augments and winning unprecedented accolades. People begin viewing mechanical augmentations as something everyone could (and maybe even should) have, and their popularity takes off.

Not everyone is pleased, however; people opposed to the technology end up, by and large, falling into three camps. Those who feel threatened by it (not everyone can afford mechanical augmentations and if someone doesn’t get one, might he end up losing his job to someone who does?); those who object to it on religious grounds (God made human beings in his image and trying to change or “improve” them is morally wrong); and those who object to it for intellectual reasons (using biotechnology to alter the human body risks fundamentally changing who we are as a species. Therefore, scientists and researchers are tampering with human nature without even realizing the danger they are putting Mankind in and should be closely regulated.)

Q: How would the average person in the street feel about augmentation in the world of the game?

A: It depends on who the person is and where he lives. Some will see it as a wonderful thing; a chance to improve life for one’s self and others by taking control of your own evolution and becoming all that you can be. Others will see it as dangerous and say we shouldn’t be playing God or tampering with Human Nature. Still others will despise it (and those who use it) due to fear, jealousy, and basic ignorance. Others won’t have made up their minds yet, since they can see both the benefit of the technology and the ways in which the debate itself is tearing at the fabric of society.

Q: I’ve been following the viral marketing campaign for DX:HR. First Sarif Industries was introduced (via their website/advertisements) and then their ads were countered by Purity First activists who exposed the dark side of augmentations and defaced the Sarif website. What is at stake in the conflict between those companies designing and building augmentations and those who oppose human augmentation?

A: On one hand you could say that the basis of the conflict is philosophical, so what’s at stake are people’s very strongly held beliefs. One side believes that achieving self-controlled human evolution is Mankind’s destiny and that fear of the unknown should not prevent us from realizing it. The other side believes that Man does not have the wisdom of God and must let nature run its course. But of course, there are a variety of other factors at stake as well. Mechanical augmentations are part of a highly lucrative industry, and some people want to ensure that this remains true without rules or regulations so they can “cash in.” Others fear the unregulated, uncontrolled spread of the technology within the “ignorant masses” and will do anything they can to control who gets to use it and who doesn’t.

Q: Adam Jensen, before his accident, is torn between augmentation and remaining “all natural.” How does that perspective shift over the course of the game?

A: Adam hasn’t decided how he feels about the whole augmentation debate at the start of the game, precisely because we wanted to use his initial indifference and ignorance as a way of exposing the debate to players. He gets tossed into the middle of things when his company is attacked and he’s forced to become augmented. He never has a choice in the matter, and as he struggles to understand who attacked him and why, he gets exposed to the full brunt of prejudice on both sides. Since you are playing Adam, you get to experience this firsthand as well. Thus, how Adam’s perspective changes over the course of the game really depends on how your perspective shifts. You’re the one playing him. You are the one making choices and witnessing the consequences.

Q: What are your personal opinions around augmentation? Do you think prosthetics should only be available to those who’ve lost limbs? If the technology progresses enough, would it make sense to deliberately replace a fully functional natural limb with a cybernetic one?

A: I think augmentation can be both a positive and a negative thing. It’s a tool — and like all tools, it really depends on who’s welding it and why. Individuals should be able to decide what is good for them as individuals (so long as their choice doesn’t harm others) and if the technology progresses enough, it may very well make sense for people to choose to replace a fully functional natural limb with a cybernetic one. I, however, would probably choose not to.

Q: Using your crystal ball to look into the future, how realistic do you think a “Purity First” style conflict is? Do you foresee conflicts between those who choose to alter their bodies and those who oppose cyberization?

A: It’s really hard for me to say. People have an awful tendency to want to force their views on others, and intolerance of what is different can definitely devolve into violence. I think the reasons we’ve ascribed to both sides of the debate in the game — fear, greed, jealousy, religious and/or personal beliefs and ethics — are valid enough to spark conflicts, so I think it definitely could happen if the issue ever grew contentious enough. But I would hope that saner minds would prevail.

MORE ABOUT: Deus Ex, DX:HR, Mary DeMarle

Comments (6)

  1. Mothammad

    So it’s not a very far-fetching thing eh?
    Prosthetic limbs and all that… meh. What about, when you´ll learn that you’re merely a reaction, a caused reaction, a clump of particles moving about in spacetime. Nothing more. All this jerking around with “oh so serious” topics as religion, ethics etc. Jeez… whatever.

  2. Charles Brandenburg

    I think the Topic is Fascinating! I’ve always wanted to explore what Humanity can achieve, through Cybernetic’s, Nanotechnological, Technological, and Extra Sensory Sensory Upgrade’s, that allow us to see, experience, and learn about the Universe in a whole new Augmented Reality! Don’t fear Technological Evolution, because through Technology, we will explore the Universe. Technology is here to stay, just keep the Evil, Negative Intentioned, Individual’s, from Monopolizing, and controlling it. We don’t have to replace ourselve’s with machinery, but we can increase our own abilitie’s, with Technological Enhancement’s.

  3. Solkahn

    This website and the articles I’ve read on it so far are WINNING.

  4. {i}Pan~

    This is here. We are entering the world of DE:HR as we speak.

    Where does it lead?

  5. Pinocchio

    I am amazed by how much thought was put into the setting of this game. Its not a question about whether or not cyber-prosthesis come about, but when. And by seeing how ignorant and irrational people are now, its easy to believe that this will be a major argument in the future. We always have the side who seemingly abandons morality to achieve advancement, and the side that takes offense to that. Stem cell research for instance was frozen by a similar argument . Thankfully the world progresses and the new generation usually finds the things the previous generation argued about silly, that’s how its been, and we won’t continue evolving if this isnt a truth.

  6. Christian Gains

    As with ANY Intellectual pursuit, (ESPECIALLY in the scientific AND health realms), this TOTAL subject is immensely complicated, and wrought with contradictions, and many potentially unseen, and unprepared for, twists and consequences, that MUST, (due to the broad impact this project will have), be THOROUGHLY worked through, and, it’s various potentialities CAREFULLY considered and planed for, and SLOWLY developed into an actual “physical world” reality.

    The more dialog, dissent, challenges and debate that this receives, (while slowing down it’s physical development), the less likely we’ll open a “pandora’s box” of scientific / health horrors.

    No one with a mind, and a bit of knowledge of the modern Scientific methodology can deny that these two realities: Prosthesis and Human physical norms, MUST be SERIOUSLY examined and considered ethically, and morally. Nor should rash hyperbole, ignorance, nor bias be tolerated in this VERY SIGNIFICANT debate.

    At the same time, the spiritual aspects of the human life dynamic MUST ALSO be considered in this field of Scientific pursuit. And, THAT is where I have VERY serious concerns and questions.

    And, until I can find answers that do not defy a “faith”, but rather imply a “faith” in greater realities than mere mankind, I will not give my support to this endeavor. BUT!

    That said, I FULLY intend to, (and WHOLEHEARTEDLY encourage ANY others interested in this impacting field of R & D), to maintain a CLOSE observance, and a STUDIOUS attention to ALL the R & D as it develops, as well as the philosophic concerns and developments, as we MIGHT just find that this is IN DEED a field that CAN establish a more SPIRITUALLY uplifting human experience, while advancing mankind’s physical reality.


    We MIGHT just come upon a “JURASSIC PARK” moment of realization, and learn just how dangerously ignorant we REALLY are.

    Let’s keep watching and learning, just where this genre’ will lead…BUT! DO NOT CLOSE YOUR EYES…or MINDS, FOLKS! BIG things are afoot!.


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