Digitalization and health: body and mind in harmony

From transhumanism to ethical ecosystems: how digitalization is changing our health

Health is a megatrend. The environment is being reshaped with the help of technology, because people are supposed to become resilient. But can he do this by disconnecting himself from his own nature? Transhumanism wants to transform humans into supercomputers that process data soullessly. To preserve autonomy and social connectedness, humans must be thought of in a radically different way.

Health is a growth market on course for expansion. With over 300 billion in gross value added, the healthcare industry in Germany accounted for over 10 percent of gross domestic product in 2020 (Source – German Federal Ministry of Health). In view of the growing world population and increasing civilization ailments in affluent post-industrial societies, the forecasts for the future are promising. In addition to the so-called first health care market, which includes traditional health care, the second health care market, which includes privately financed products and services, is of particular interest: over-the-counter medicines, individual health services, fitness and wellness, health tourism, sports and nutrition. In this context, sales of digital health products continue to rise.

Not only the state, but also companies have an interest in ensuring that working people are well. If quality of life and life expectancy are increased, this is a win-win situation. A well-functioning healthcare system is not only good for each individual, but also good for the economy. Gainful employment and productivity are maintained if people are able to support themselves on their own, according to the credo of the German Federal Ministry of Health.

Large-scale investments in health are therefore also of considerable importance for the self-interest of various lobby groups. After all, they will determine quite significantly how we will live in the future. The possibilities for innovative potential seem limitless thanks to current technologies: High-tech products in medical technology, new examination methods, personalized therapies, e-health, telemedicine, biosensors, brain-computer interfaces. They promise us more safety through comprehensive prevention, better and faster care, and individually tailored treatment concepts. This is made possible, among other things, by the increasingly professional networking and collection and evaluation of large amounts of data via apps and digital platforms and the targeted use of artificial intelligence. But what image of humanity do these technological innovations actually follow? Should everything that is possible really be done? Recently, doubts have arisen as to whether the progressive and ever deeper interventions in human nature in the name of progress really serve the well-being of us all.

Transhumanism: Merging biology and technology

Transhumanism refers to a philosophy that wants to overcome and change the biological limits of human existence with the help of technology. We are supposed to become stronger, faster, more athletic and more intelligent with the help of technology – a new superhuman, Homo Deus, is announced. The symbol of transhumanism is the cyborg, which represents the human being whose body has left the nature that confines him. Transhumanism is championed primarily by a technological elite in Silicon Valley and by parties and interest groups in the Anglo-Saxon world. Its advocates present it as a necessary evolutionary development and progress for humanity, even as a revolution. Concrete ideas include the replacement of the obsolete Homo Sapiens by “trans-humans” or “post-humans” who live to be 500 years old. Transhumanists dream of expanding the human mind immeasurably and transcending the biological body altogether to live as electronic entities in computer networks where they communicate with others through synthetic thought streams.

“In transhumanism, the negative image of man is condensed into an ideology of lovelessness, in which man is simply regarded as a suboptimal discontinued model. In complete oblivion of history (Nazi eugenics was 80 years ago…) one openly thinks about not only optimizing and controlling humans by machines, but experimenting on their bodies in order to improve them, to renew them or to bring them to a supposedly higher evolutionary level.”

(Translated – Original in German from Sarah Spiekermann: Digitale Ethik. Ein Wertesystem für das 21. Jahrhundert)

These ideas are not new. Already in the Middle Ages and early modern times, Europeans dreamed of eternal life. Science and reason, which were just emerging, were supposed to help achieve this great project: the prolongation of life and, at the same time, the improvement of the human species. Numerous philosophers have dealt with human inadequacy and sought ways to overcome it. What has led then and now prophets of the future to these reflections? It is the struggle against the transience inherent in all of nature that also inspires writers and artists to counter this with an eternal construct. The aim is to achieve control over time. Twentieth-century futurism raised this malleability of time to a new level in modernity: the intoxication of speed, experienced through the technological innovations of machines that promised both ecstasy of power and social progress. The Anglo-American dream was born to transform biology with the help of revolutionary science and technology. Ideas such as the colonization of the cosmos, chemical enhancement of the human senses, or the cultivation of synthetic organs initially made their way into civilized society as rail fiction fantasies.

Many of these fantasies can be realized today thanks to state-of-the-art technology. Scientists are working on behalf of the military and politics to replace humanity 1.0 with humanity 2.0 – cyborgs, intelligent robots and genetically modified babies may be representatives of this species that transcend biological boundaries. This vision of far-reaching fusion of technology and man is rightly frightening to many. For the euphonious ideology of transhumanism conceals questionable and dangerous practices, some of which are already taking place today. For example, technological implants can be used not only for health, but as weapons. Brain nanorobots can potentially lead to loss of mind control, making wearers controllable by others and losing autonomy. People can be permanently spied on via the cerebral Internet and lose their privacy, their memory can be erased, and they can lose their identity. In this dystopian notion, humans become slaves in the service of transnational corporations and economic powers that hold sole technological power in their hands. So is transhumanism just an “intellectual hoax” leading to “digital fascism”?

Self-engineering and autonomy: when data meets feelings

Much will depend on how well post-industrial societies understand how to put in place effective tech regulations and control mechanisms, manage growing inequality, and allow the current losers of globalization and digitization to share in the prosperity. In the reality of automation, workers replaced by robots and algorithms are already competing with the transhumanist world. In the process, they come off very badly. Either they lose their jobs and don’t find new ones because they don’t have the time and opportunities to train accordingly for higher skilled jobs. Or they work in almost completely automated environments, where they have to submit to the often inhuman logic of algorithms – autonomy, meaning and mindfulness for health are lost here. Instead of the inclusion society seeks, exclusion is instead created in the name of efficiency.

Reason and intelligence, which once freed us from the constraints of the church in the Enlightenment, thus seem to be plunging us into new relationships of dependency. Why is that? Many of the transhumanists’ ideas seem naïve because they often equate humans with machines. If transhumanists have their way, bad feelings and suffering of any kind should be a thing of the past, because transhuman beings should enjoy permanent well-being. Everything superfluous will then be eliminated like technical glitches from the materialistic flow of life on the way to ever new upgrades. But who decides what is superfluous? And if man never has bad feelings anymore, how will he be able to make decisions in social life at all and for what purpose? And what happens if the upgrades, in turn, create new suffering that we can’t even imagine yet?

In the transhumanist worldview, all problems, whether physical, intellectual, or psychological, are reduced to technical problems and thus thought of as potentially solvable by reason. Personal developments through crises, influences of the psychosocial environment, contradictions in the individual character, spiritual-transcendent experiences, deception of one’s own self-perception and the inadequacy and contradictoriness of logical operations are simply ignored. Self engineering replaces the natural as a moral category. Physical autonomy and classical bourgeois values such as virtue, diligence, and love are replaced by technological manipulation and stimulus fulfillment. According to Leon Kass, a well-known critic of transhumanism and bioengineering, this universal-computational, data-centric approach risks endlessly manipulating nature and people. Instead of recognizing the finitude and limits of the individual as structures of meaning and identity, they are perceived as deficiencies that must be eliminated. Where is the emphatic subject in this future?

Critical posthumanism: ecosystems of ethical connectedness.

The emphatic subject knows about its own vulnerability and that of its species. It values difference more highly than the established norm. In the deviation from the ideal, it recognizes marginalized perspectives that have an enriching effect. The difference arises from common thought processes, not from common forms. Posthumanism is thus a radical departure from the traditional sovereign and coherent human being. Instead, man is conceived as always already interwoven with multiple forms of life and machines by which he is equally constituted and constitutes them himself. He shares ecosystems and life processes with animals and other life forms. In doing so, he is in a permanent process of becoming, constantly receiving new impulses from his environment that further develop him. At the same time, he reshapes the environment as an interface.

“As a form of vital materialism, posthuman theory opposes the arrogance of anthropocentrism and the “exceptionalism” of man as a transcendental category. It enters instead into an alliance with the productive and immanent power of zoe or life in its non-human aspects. This requires a shift in our shared understanding of what it means to think at all, let alone to think critically.”

(Rosi Braidotti: The Posthuman)

Critical posthumanism rejects humans as the dominant life form and focuses on interspecies identity. Binary oppositions between nature and culture are rejected. Instead of transcendental ideals, attention is directed to immanent historical processes. Technology is not a mere prosthesis of human identity, but an integral part of it. At its core is the notion of the non-unified subject, which challenges classical humanist concepts such as ratio. Perspectives from the margins of the central cultural narrative, such as indigenous knowledge, are increasingly brought into focus. Thus, it is possible to imagine multiple worlds that exist independently but interact with each other on an equal footing, without competing for the one truth. Individual truth becomes a measurement of cognitive experience that has no claim to generality. Adherents of critical posthumanism are primarily representatives of the disciplines of poststructuralism, feminism, gender studies, and postcolonial studies, who have successfully drawn attention to the fact that subjects and knowledge are socially constructed and therefore distorted.

What distinguishes critical posthumanism from transhumanism? Instead of hyper-individualistic self-optimization that results in a homogenized collective, it is concerned with new possibilities for community building, ethical forms of belonging, and an expanded understanding of an immanent life force that extends and operates beyond the human community. While transhumanism seeks to overcome or even abolish death, posthumanism integrates death into life by not thinking of the two as separate concepts. Death is not the end, nor a threat, but the center of life with which humans have always been in sync. By carrying death within us literally since birth, we become aware of our impermanence, which connects us to all others. This bodily feeling of transience makes it possible for us to experience our very own vulnerability, from which arises the responsibility to preserve life.

Conclusion on digitization and health

So what does this mean for the well-being of individuals and for us as a society? Health is a double-edged sword. While some see health as guaranteed by ever more surveillance and standardized control on a grand scale, others emphasize the right to a personal understanding of bodily integrity and holistic-natural aspects of quality of life and healing. Although health means something different to everyone, it should still be clear that only a healthy mind can thrive in a healthy body. This is certainly not achieved through an exaggerated culture of safety or public moralizing about perceived transgressions.

To ensure a healthy interplay of body and psyche, we need to cultivate the good life in our society again to a greater extent: encourage social gatherings and communities, create artistic and creative open spaces, support outdoor recreation and athletic activity, and create positive experiential environments. The healthcare system and companies should focus more on preventive care and mental health and provide people with options for leading a healthy life in the long term and being able to cope better with crisis situations on an individual basis.

Technology can be a help in this, but it can also become a danger if it restricts our autonomy or, instead of supporting us in our decisions, “pushes” us through incentives in socially desired directions that contradict our inner feelings. Besides the many new achievements that technology brings us, it can never give us our mental balance – this is solely the responsibility of each individual.

Simone Belko is a linguist and European studies scholar with a strong focus on digital literacy. With experience in journalism, PR management, marketing and training she has excelled in Germany and abroad. As a manager for digital products in the online games and FinTech industry she gained deep insights into how online platforms and communities work. Simone is the author of "Digital Consciousness" ("Das digitale Bewusstsein") and currently works at Otto GmbH, leveraging her expertise in business transformation.

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