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Human Enhancement at Shakespeare's 450th Birthday

Posted by nootrope , 23 April 2014 · 2,065 views

Shakespeare turns 450 this April 23. I'd already been thinking about him. Why? Well, here we often talk about "nootropics" and "transhumanism" and the singularity and--well, to use a Shakesperian phrase--the Brave New World that our technology is ushering in, and the people who will be in it. We see ads online for "lumosity", a company offering brain games to make us smarter; we play Mozart to toddlers because of a poorly proven "Mozart effect". We want to enhance. But our vision of that enhancement is often limited. It's more kind of the sleek enhancement of a machine. Shakespeare represents to me a vision of a fully rounded human intelligence, truly enhanced in all human dimensions. Not a google glass-wearing cyborg who can call up wikipedia facts instantaneously, but someone with superior empathy, imagination, and wit.
So what lessons does the well-rounded genius of the Bard have to offer us? First, that there is something to be said for the simple and crude processing power of cognition--but only as a prerequisite. Obviously, Shakespeare had to be smart in conventional ways, at least, to write what he did, to work with structures such as iambic pentameter and the sonnet form. He had to have a terrific associative memory to fit in all the wordplay. Second, I wouldn't be surprised if Shakespeare at times enhanced his creativity with the mind-altering technologies of his time: his plays are full of characters getting drunk, specifically Fallstaff with his cheap "sack". He seems to have been very aware of the folk-medicinal values of many herbs: Ophelia in Hamlet says, "Rosemary, that's for remembrance." I've even read that digging through his yard has revealed some pipes with residues of some modern recreational drugs. Did those inspire some of his verbal flights of fancy? Again, whatever role such might have played seems as if it would only work given superior gifts in the first place and their successful development.
After I started writing this I saw a similar take here: http://www.salon.com...wright_partner/
One other crucial factor of course must be Shakespeare's embedding in his society. He had rival playwrites, collaborators, a theater troupe to perform his plays, and a diverse audience that appreciated both low humor and high philosophy. Obviously not everyone of his time and situation created on his level, and yet just as obviously many periods of human history, even though by chance one might expect harbored potential Shakespeares, did not deliver any. A crucial part of what made Shakespeare who he was must have been that he not only wrote plays but performed in them. He knew what worked with audiences and what did not. Similarly Mozart and Beethoven were both performers and creators.
In a world in which everyone were artificially enhanced, would a society congenial to a Shakespeare result? To be so broad-minded as the Bard you'd need to know and have imaginative sympathy with both simpletons (Bottom) and scheming aristocrats; gravediggers and drunkards and homeless wanderers and bookish sages and starry-eyed youth and the ruthlessly ambitious and powerful old men losing their grip.
I don't know the answer; but sometimes it's hard to repeat by design what was never designed in the first place.

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