The Importance Of Fragility In The Era Of Augmented Man

Trying an augmented reality headset
Trying an augmented reality headset
Johann Roduit


LAUSANNE — The cult of the strong man is back at the forefront of our societies, albeit in different forms. There are strong-man politicians, military leaders, even autonomous survivalists. And yet as formidable as he may be, the strong man finds himself challenged by someone even better, even more powerful: the augmented man.

Against him, the strong man becomes fragile like the rest of us. Becoming aware of this shared fragility, which is far from being a problem, is a great opportunity for us to rethink our societies in terms of solidarity. The idea that "unity makes strength" has never been truer than at this time, when technology is regarded, more and more, as the ultimate remedy to our biological weaknesses.

In the era of the augmented man, of techniques to improve our physical and intellectual abilities, of digital medicine, of predictive medicine, of artificial intelligence, we will considered more often as imperfect or dysfunctional. We will become patients who ignore themselves, because the inherent weakness in our status as a living organism — and therefore mortal and perfectible — becomes a "disease" to be treated.

This arms race for technological augmentation will be an endless one. We'll always want more.

By defining health as "a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity," the World Health Organization helps (perhaps without meaning to) establish a social context in which we'll soon need to improve technologically this perfectible machine that is our body, to tend towards a sort of "total health."

Humans are fragile. Some reckon that an efficient way to overcome this fragility is to augment our capabilities through technology. Some go as far as to suggest we merge with machines in order to stay competitive. This might look like an attractive possibility, because it will not only make those who resort to these technological transformations stronger, it will also erase certain inequalities and place individuals at similar levels of performance. The problem, though, is that this arms race for technological augmentation will be an endless one. We'll always want more.

There is an alternative: We can rethink our need for solidarity. We can use the awareness of our shared fragility to unite. We can think of the technologically augmented human as just a distorted mirror of our fragility, a pipe dream meant to reassure us.

Paradoxically, what little technological improvement we're already using reinforces our awareness of our fragility. We get angry when we don't immediately get confirmation that our SMS was sent or when, in an unknown city, we can't use the GPS function on our telephones. We get annoyed when there's no coverage in the mountains to check the weather forecast. We're constantly reminded of our fragility and it won't go away.

Some believe that only those who are physically or mentally strong will survive in the new world that is supposedly coming. The sick, like those who suffer from handicaps, should move aside not to be a burden. But our greatest strength is to prevent anybody from being in that position. To help others in their fragility is also to become aware of our own fragility. In his famous book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, historian Yuval Noah Harari reminds us that our fragility as human beings is largely compensated by our ability to cooperate with one another. According to him, it's actually what allowed our species to prosper.

In the era of the augmented man, we are witnessing an individualization of responsibilities and a reduction of solidarity among individuals. We expect, for instance, everybody to count how many steps they take each day, how many calories they've ingested in the past 24 hours or to assess the quality of his sleep. We also expect that the data thus generated be made public as a means to control and, for example, to "sanction financially inactive individuals who don't comply with sanitary and social expectations with higher insurance premiums," as Swiss biology professor Vincent Menuz recently wrote in The Huffington Post. What we forget too often is that we don't get to choose where we're born. Similarly, we don't choose to fall ill, to have an accident or to be born with a handicap.

Let us praise the progress of medicine that helps us lessen our pains and sufferings and improve our longevity and life quality. But our human fragility will not be swept away by technology. It's here to stay. And we will only continue to prosper by uniting and showing solidarity. What's left for us to determine is how this solidarity will take shape. But as we face the idea of an ever-augmented man, we should also perhaps rediscover our own fragility. For it is an essential characteristic of our human condition, a cornerstone on which to build our civilization.

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Art installation "Greetings From Giza" by French artist and photographer JR faces the pyramids of Giza in Egypt

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 你好*

Welcome to Tuesday, where violence erupts after Sudan's military coup, Australia finally gets onboard with climate change goals, and Harrison Ford stars in Raiders of the Lost Credit Card. From Bogota, we also see what the capture of drug kingpin Otoniel means for Colombia, a country long stained by cocaine trafficking.

[*Nĭhǎo - Mandarin Chinese]


Saving the planet is really a question of dopamine

The elite of the ecologically minded are set to descend on Glasgow next week for the Cop 26 conference on climate change. But beyond debating policy prescriptions, French daily Les Echos explores the role our own brains have on making the right choices for the planet:

Almost every week, a new scientific study alerts us to the degradation of the environment. And yet, we continue not to change anything fundamental in our systems of production and habits of consumption. Are we all suffering from blindness, or poisoned by denial?

In his popular books Le Bug humain (The Human Bug) and Où est le sens? (Where is the Sense?), Sébastien Bohler, a journalist in neuroscience and psychology, provides a much more rational explanation: The mechanism responsible for our propensity to destroy our natural environment is in fact a small, very deep and very primitive structure of our brain called the striatum.

This regulator of human motivation seems to have been programmed to favor behaviors that ensure the survival of the species.

Since the dawn of humanity, gathering information about our environment, feeding ourselves, ensuring the transmission of our genes through sexual intercourse and asserting our social status have all been rewarded with a shot of dopamine, the "pleasure hormone."

Nothing has changed since then; except that, in our society of excess, there is no limit to the satisfaction of these needs. This leads to the overconsumption of food and addictions to everything from sex to social media — which together account for much of the world's destructive agricultural and energy practices.

No matter how much we realize that this is leading to our downfall, we can't help but relapse because we are prisoners of the dopamine pump in the striatum, which cannot be switched off.

According to Bohler, the only way out is to encourage the emergence of new values of sobriety, altruism and slowness. If adopted, these more sustainable notions could be recognized by the striatum as new sources of dopamine reward. But there's the challenge of promoting inspiring stories that infuse them with value.

Take the photo-collage exhibition "J'agis ici... et je m'y colle" ("I'm taking action here... and I'm sticking to it"), a collection of life-size portraits of residents committed to the energy transition, displayed on the walls of the French coastal city of La Rochelle.

Backed by the French National Center for Street Arts, photographer Martin Charpentier may be employing artistic techniques, but he's also tinkering with neuroscience in the process.

Stefano Lupieri / Les Echos


• Sudan in chaos following military coup: After Sudan's military seized power from the transitional government, defiant anti-coup protesters have returned to the streets of the capital city Khartoum, for a second consecutive day. At least seven people have been killed and 140 injured. Coup leader General Al-Burhan has announced a state of emergency across the country, while the military cut off access to the internet and closed roads, bridges, and Khartoum's airport. Washington condemned the coup and suspended aid, and the U.N. Security Council was expected to discuss Sudan behind closed doors later today.

• Egypt lifts state of emergency in force since 2017: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, announced the end of a four-year-old state of emergency, undoing powers that had given the government sweeping authority to quash protests, make arrests, search people's homes without warrants, and control everyday life in the most populous Arab country.

• Platforms take down Bolsonaro video linking vaccine and AIDS: Facebook, Instagram and YouTube have removed an anti-vaccine video from their respective platforms posted by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Beyond blocking the video, in which Bolsonaro falsely linked the COVID-19 vaccine with developing AIDS, YouTube went further and suspended the far-right leader for a week.

• COVID update: The U.S. will launch a new travel system on November 8, imposing new vaccine requirements for most foreign national travellers and lifting severe travel restrictions over China, India and much of Europe. Meanwhile, authorities in northern China are reimposing lockdown, and other emergency measures as COVID-19 infections spread to 11 provinces.

• Australia pledges net zero emissions by 2050: As one of the world's largest emitters of greenhouse gases per capita and a major exporter of fossil fuels such as coal, Australia has finally committed to becoming carbon-neutral by 2050. This is a target already adopted by most nations heading to next week's COP26 international climate conference, but that Australia had so far refused to pledge.

• Japanese princess loses royal status over wedding: Japan's Princess Mako married her boyfriend Kei Komuro, giving up her royal status. Under Japanese law, female imperial family members lose their status upon marriage to a "commoner" although male members do not.

Raiders of the Lost Credit Card: A tourist returned the credit card of American actor Harrison Ford, who had lost it in Sicily while shooting scenes for the latest Indiana Jones movie.


"Out of control," titles German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, reporting on the release of a series of articles by a consortium of 17 U.S. news outlets, called the "Facebook Papers," that reinforce whistleblower Frances Haugen's claims that the social media giant is prioritizing profits over the well being of its users and society.


$1.01 trillion

After striking a deal to sell 100,000 electric vehicles to car rental firm Hertz, Elon Musk's Tesla has joined Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Google's Alphabet in the club of companies that have reached a $1 trillion valuation.


What the capture of a drug kingpin means for Colombia

While the capture of Otoniel, Colombia's most wanted drug trafficker, made global headlines, Bogotá daily El Espectador writes about the significance of the news for a country that has battled narcotrafficking for decades.

👮 The arrest of the Colombian mobster Dairo Antonio Úsuga David, a.k.a. "Otoniel," is a victory for Colombian intelligence, law-and-order forces and the broader fight against crime. Details of the eight-year-long pursuit of the head of the Gulf Clan, of the tireless and meticulous work, testify to the capabilities that the police and army have managed to develop in the fight against the narco-trafficking that has long been a stain on Colombia.

🇨🇴🇲🇽 Otoniel is responsible for a criminal organization with more than 3,800 members and influence on 12 departments and 128 districts in Colombia (though data from the Bogotá-based Peace and Reconciliation Foundation counts 211 districts). The Gulf Clan sends half the drugs going out of Colombia, and is the main exporter to Mexico. Its ties to the Mexican cartel chief Joaquín "el Chapo" Guzmán are well-documented — and Otoniel had aspired to fill the power vacuum left by Guzmán's capture.

⚖️ Some have observed that the ensuing power vacuum will engender more violence, which is true. But we are, in any case, far from eliminating drug trafficking in Colombia or cutting its tentacles across public life. That shows the limitations of the hard-line response to drugs, when we have seen it is not enough. Still, it is essential in any fight against crime for the state to show its operational capabilities. The message is clear: not even drug overlords are above the law in Colombia.

➡️


"I love Mako. I would like to spend my one life with the person I love."

— Kei Komuro said during a news conference after his wedding with Japan's Princess Mako, the niece of the current emperor and the sister of the likely future sovereign. The princess lost her royal status as a result of her marriage with Komuro, a "commoner."


An art installation "Greetings From Giza" by French artist and photographer JR faces the pyramids of Giza in Egypt, as part of the 2021 exhibition "'Forever Is Now," the first international art exhibition to take place there — Photo: Balkis Press/Abaca/ZUMA

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Send all commoner and royal well wishes to Mako and Kei — and let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world!

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