Movie Review: Elysium, Transhumanism, and the Relationship between Humanity and Technology

In theaters now, Elysium, starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster, explores two worlds in an unequal universe. Matthew Bulger reviews the film and its exploration of transhumanism.

A few weeks ago I decided to go with some friends to see a new movie starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster, Elysium, which had piqued our interest because of its futuristic theme and stellar cast. For those of you who haven’t seen or heard about the movie, Elysium is set in a future where only two classes of people exist: the wealthy, who live on a man-made space station called Elysium, and the poor, who live on the dystopian remains of the Earth.  Those that remain on Earth find themselves without access to the futuristic technology that makes life on Elysium a virtual paradise free from disease or the other problems that plague society. Those that are fortunate enough to live on Elysium are therefore able to achieve their full potential as human beings independent from the limits of their own physical bodies.

The major theme touched upon in this movie is the role of technology in improving human existence and how unequal access to such technology poses a major threat to the overall welfare of the human race. This concept is in turn a major aspect of transhumanism, which is defined by noted transhumanist Nick Bostrom of Oxford University as “an international cultural and intellectual movement with an eventual goal of fundamentally transforming the human condition by developing and making widely available technologies to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities.” Basically, transhumanism is the belief that inequality, physical and mental deficiencies, and societal problems that are caused by human limitations can be overcome by increased access to technology.

Transhumanism is based on the fundamental belief that all human beings, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, national identity, or other factors, can and should benefit from the wonders of modern technology. To transhumanists, it is unthinkable that people in developing countries are unable to capitalize on their innate potential because of a lack of access to technology that is widely available in wealthier nations. Such unequal access to technology means that not only will these individual children suffer, but that humanity as a whole will suffer because of the potential contributions that will never be made by a segment of the global population due to their lack of access to important technology. Transhumanism is similar to humanism in that it places an equal value on all human life, and on its reliance upon science and human innovation instead of prayer or religious belief to improve humanity.

While in the short term transhumanists advocate for equal access for all to contemporary technology, the end goal of transhumanism is for human beings to become more than just a collection of organs and other physical aspects as such a state of existence is one that is needlessly constricted by the biological limitations of the individual. Transhumanist philosophers argue that there not only exists an ethical imperative for humans to strive for progress and improvement of the human condition but that “it is possible and desirable for humanity to enter a transhuman phase of existence, in which humans are in control of their own evolution. In such a phase, natural evolution would be replaced with deliberate change.”

Transhumanism eventually calls for human beings to become their own masters and to remove the inequalities of society and human existence by eliminating physical and mental deficiencies through integrating technology directly into the human body. While this may sound very sci-fi, especially if you’ve already seen the cyborgs in Elysium, transhumanists ultimately would like to see the remaining separation that exists between humanity and technology completely disappear. That means eventually integrating computers directly into the human brain in order to increase the capability for thought and to fix neurological disorders, or creating artificial limbs and even bodies to allow human beings to exist without the limitations imposed by their physical form.

These potential changes to the human body are proposed by transhumanists because of a belief that all human beings have the potential to live productive and fulfilling lives, and that the natural deficiencies of the body shouldn’t stand in the way of such an existence. Ultimately, transhumanism is about improving human existence by removing the uncontrollable physical aspects of life that can weaken or even kill us.

Elysium showed us that technology can greatly improve the lives of those that have access to its benefits. It also showed us the evils of allowing only the wealthy to enjoy such technology, and the need for egalitarian philosophies like transhumanism which advocate for both increased utilization of technology and equal access to its benefits. While some groups will always be opposed to the progress of technology based on their fear of change and others will oppose such progress due to religious motivations, those who care about the plight of the poor or the disabled must reaffirm their commitment to supporting technological progress and universal access of technology.