Transhumanism in Iron Man 3

For those unfamiliar with the concept of transhumanism, you can read more about it here from the Fountainhead of Knowledge, Wikipedia. Here’s a taste:

Transhumanism: (abbreviated as H+ or h+) is an international intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally transforming the human condition by developing and making widely available technologies to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities.

The entire Iron Man franchise is packed with transhumanist themes, but number 3 lays it on the heaviest. (Unless it was more prevalent in #2, which I literally can’t make it through without falling asleep.) By the time we get to this movie in the trilogy it’s obvious there is little to no distinction between Tony Stark and the Iron Man suit.

The miniature arc reactor has been embedded in Stark’s chest since the first movie, but by Iron Man 3, the existential fusion of man + machine is complete. The suit isn’t a part of him, it is him just as much as his conscious mind and biological body are. Yes, the suit has the ability to carry out Tony’s orders independently as relayed by Jarvis and built-in AI, but when acting autonomously, the suit is portrayed as more of a silent-assassin character, separate from the Stark/Suit combo.

Here are a few points that struck me with the release of Iron Man 3:

1) Check out this movie poster. Iron Man is shown in a disheveled way, with a damaged suit and no helmet. It is significant to portray Iron Man in this manner, as it shows no clear point at which the suit ends and Tony begins. When there is no suit at all in the picture/scene, we see the man, Tony Stark. When the entire suit (helmet and all) is on screen, we see the hero, Iron Man. To portray Tony Stark as Iron Man in full armor but sans helmet–a mechanized knight in shining armor but with human face revealed–is to portray the epitome of the Transhuman Übermensch. This person is neither man, nor machine, but rather a transcendant being. He exists in a state beyond human, through technology. Both aspects (human + tech) are clearly present, yet without clear distinction.

Pepper Potts is depicted holding on to Tony/Iron Man, grasping the suit’s chest plate as if it were Stark’s own chest. Sections of the suit have been destroyed in battle, and its inner workings are revealed–mechanical bone, joints, and sinew perfectly resembling their biological counterparts. Portions of Tony’s bioskin is revealed to have been injured as well, echoing the damage done to Stark’s second skin, the suit.

Viewing the scene in three dimensions, we see a continuum of biological/technological beings. Iron Man is positioned with the (apparently) fully-human Pepper Potts in front of him while Stark’s fully-robotic fleet of Iron Man shells hover behind him. Visually, this serves to further solidify Stark’s existential status as not only-human, nor fully-machine. Here he is a class of his own: Transhuman.

2) In the movie itself, there is a scene where Tony loses power mid-flight and crashes in the forest. There is one shot in particular that captures my point. As the camera films from above, the suit trails behind Tony as he trudges through the snow in search of safety and shelter. Here the suit isn’t just a piece of wrecked machinery, it is a representation of Tony’s inner self: frozen and deflated, but not yet defeated; in need of power, but not without potential. The Iron Man suit is a shadowy doppelgänger of a hitherto omnipotent Tony Stark. Again, the suit doesn’t represent a part of him, or an extension of him. The suit is him.

Iron Man raises interesting questions about the relationship between humans and technology, and provides a useful lens through which to view a possible future. If we are to responsibly shape tomorrow’s tech, we would do well to more fully examine today’s fiction. The Iron Man mythos is a great one, but do we want to see it made real?

Today, many hail “wearables” as the New Era’s next great tech trend. Google Glass and Fitbit Flex are current examples of this class of device and have intrigued tech journalists and consumers alike. I find the term “wearables” to be limiting, and instead prefer “embedded,” in order to denote a class of technology that will eventually range from smartwatches to consumer-grade nanotech.

I predict embedded tech will come to resemble some of what is portrayed in media such as Iron Man, but rather than becoming weaponized, the focus will be in two areas: the preservation of qualitative lived experiences and the quantification of routine activities.

It will be through embedded tech that we come to more closely know ourselves and what it is to live fully-actualized lives. For this is the promise of Transhumanism: to empower humans with capabilities far beyond the limits of our paleolithic bodies and unaugmented minds. Through technology we will become so radically connected with our inner humanity that we will transcend it.

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