The Technocene: Reflections on Bodies, Minds, and Markets

The Technocene: Reflections on Bodies, Minds, and Markets


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Hermínio Martins was one of the key pioneers of the sociology of science and technology. He published extensively in Portuguese and was recognized for his academic contributions with an honorary doctorate at Lisbon (2006) and two Portuguese Medals of Honour. Following his retirement from the University of Oxford, he wrote prolifically in English on a wide range of topics that examined the ethical and societal consequences of the commoditization of the human body and mind. These essays are deep philosophical reflections on our contemporary world, and draw extensively and eclectically upon a wide range of theoretical influences including continental philosophy, history and psychology, to name but a few disciplines. 'The Technocene' is a selection of some of these insightful essays, made available to a global audience for the first time.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783088324
Publisher: Anthem Press
Publication date: 12/15/2018
Pages: 250
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

S. Ravi Rajan is professor of environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, USA.

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Our geological epoch since the 1750s, with the large-scale increase in the use of fossil fuels and thus CO2 emissions into the atmosphere, has been called the Anthropocene by some scientists, including the Nobel Prize winner for chemistry, Paul Crutzen. It could also be called the Technocene, inasmuch as the reasons for that denomination, which are because of the impact on the atmosphere of carbon dioxide emissions since the mid-eighteenth century, have more to do proximately with technological agency than with the psychophysiological make-up of Homo sapiens sapiens. Besides, while it is not clear whether Homo sapiens will survive, there is far more confidence in some circles that technology, in post-human vehicles, will outlive us. Thus, the Anthropocene (in the sense defined) may well represent simply a subset of the Technocene, overlapping for perhaps three centuries or so.

What does it mean to talk about technological agency? Our starting point is the idea that during the past three to four decades, the life trajectories of our species have been transformed by the concurrent, and often interdependent, mutually supportive technification and marketization of crucial phases of our life trajectories, and of most of the key dimensions of what it is to be human. The purpose of this chapter is to examine these interactions between technologies and markets and, in doing so, characterize the Technocene. The chapter has two substantial parts. The first describes the great transconfigurations underway as regards the physical body. The second is an examination of the changes in the social institutions that educate, employ, control, regulate and order our lives.

The Body


We will be born, with ever-increasing frequency, in a hospital or clinic run as a firm (if not in an ambulance of a private enterprise). The medicalization and hospitalization of childbirth has been pretty-well achieved completely, despite fluctuations according to movements of opinion over the last decades, and even longer. Even before birth, we will owe a lot to firms that may deal with our conception in the cases of in vitro fertilization (IVF) – in general under medical control – of uterine insemination and of gestation. With comprehensive medicalization, pregnancy, birth and after-birth care are at the point of being monitored as if they were some kind of pathology. Sexual reproduction is easy and normally absolutely free (one might say market-less and technology-free). However, sex without reproduction is now increasing in the Western world (with an ever-expanding demand for sex toys on the part of both men and women in recent years, not to mention online sex and, eventually, sex with robots), apart from occasional and mostly aborted lapses. With ever-lower fertility rates, the general tendency is for population decline, apart from immigration. On the contrary, reproduction without sex, which is increasing in most Western countries, certainly in the richest, only works with the new reproductive technologies, and the costs in time and money for the parents, biological or other, involved in such dealings can be considerable. The techniques are still quite imperfect, decades after the first successful IVF birth; many cycles of treatment may be needed, and the costs to the would-be parents or to taxpayers have multiplied. Nevertheless, the number of births of this reproduction modality has been increasing steadily in all Western countries and represents an ever-greater proportion of the national total of live births. Fertile couples reduce natural procreation to lower and lower levels (reduced even more by legal or illegal abortions, though legal abortions in hospitals and clinics are now much the greater proportion). In a number of European countries, fertility rates have been below replacement over the last few decades, resulting in declining populations in those countries without immigration, while in ever greater numbers infertile heterosexual couples or homosexual couples resort eagerly to artificial reproduction (medically assisted reproduction).

We may remark parenthetically that the question is more complicated than the mere distinction between fertility and infertility, and not only for medical reasons. There are young, healthy women, between the ages of 18 and 25, the optimal age cohorts for natural procreation, who prefer artificial insemination, turning to sites offering sperm, free or not, by individuals or agencies, because, being economically and professionally independent, they want to have children with the maximum freedom, whenever they want, without sex, without partners, without love, without the vexations of personal relationships. As in many, many other cases, the mere availability of a technology originally designed – or so the scientists involved declared at the time – solely for quite other circumstances (for example the plight of infertile married heterosexual couples) may incentivize the search for and the choice of other options than the normal ones in this area, of sexual love or even mere heterosexual encounters, impersonal and clinical options. The invention of IVF technology was justified at the time, against religious or nonreligious concerns of 'tampering' with the innate human patrimony, as nothing more than a humanitarian response of biomedicine to the anguish and despair of many infertile couples. Infertility affects about 10 to 15 per cent of the population, but the infertile – formerly a silent and ashamed minority – became a vocal minority, exerting constant pressure for the development of technologies and markets answering their needs. But today IVF technology and kindred others also serve single women and even some healthy and fertile couples, free of genetic diseases, who prefer this mode of reproduction – and this may be a rising trend. There are social, cultural, economic and psychological factors at work besides the merely biomedical ones in these options, which are normally ignored or downplayed in the propaganda of beneficent technologies. That the demand for IVF and other new reproductive technologies could arise from factors other than natural infertility and the distress this may cause, was not apparently foreseen, and certainly not publicly affirmed as an additional good (or secondary bad), by the biologists and physicians who developed the technologies in question.

A feminist scholar wrote recently that after the struggle for abortion rights in the last decades of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first, the next great struggle of women in the area of reproduction will be for the expansion of access to medically assisted procreation, to the 'fertility industry' or the 'fertility market' (Mundy 2007). That implies the industrialization/ commercialization of human reproduction on an unprecedented scale. Indeed, it may be that Western societies are evolving towards an unprecedented mode of reproduction, what has been called by another feminist scholar 'the biomedical mode of reproduction' (Thompson 2005). It is not clear whether much of what used to be called 'natural' reproduction, or reproduction tout court, will continue, and perhaps only as a small and diminishing proportion of the total. This is occurring not only owing to the increase in the volume of artificial reproduction (and the selection of embryos prior to implantation via screening for any number of genetic traits according to parental preferences) but also to the increasingly advertised technological possibilities of the 'quality control' of natural reproduction through prenatal genetic screening of the foetus, made ever more sophisticated. Thousands of genetic illnesses can now be screened for and, therefore, the respective genes may be selected against. Some governments have already mandated genetic screening of newborns, doubtless with the best intentions.

Ectogenesis, in the strict or strong sense, with the entire reproductive process of conception, gestation and birth all taking place outside the human body, via artificial wombs, as prophesied in 1923 by the geneticist J. B. S. Haldane, may take some time yet, although it is expected to take no more than a few decades to accomplish. The outsourcing of human reproduction to loci outside the human body, indeed outside any biological body, would involve a societal mutation of sorts, especially if generalized on hygienic/ eugenic/ emancipatory grounds. 'Emancipatory' at least in the sense of freeing women entirely from reproductive labour (if not yet from child-rearing), and thus contributing significantly to the generalized emancipation of women from the biosocial, physical and normative constraints to which they have been subject in the history of the species. This refers not just to procreative freedom, but freedom from procreation altogether, at any time, for all, permanently, a necessary if not sufficient condition for ensuring a level playing field in competing with males, according to some techno-feminists. The very language used by physicians and other reproductive technologists in these contexts – 'the manufacture of babies', babies as 'products', surely not merely some cryptomnesiac reminiscence of Brave New World – is symptomatic of the industrialization in question. As the rate of natural fertility decreases, the investments of parents and firms in artificial fertilization increase, as do even public expenditures when and insofar as the state subsidizes, directly or indirectly, medically assisted reproduction, which it certainly does to some extent already. The public accounts of human reproduction are a singularly neglected area of research, although with the process of marketization of the process of human reproduction it surely should be registered in the national output/ income/ expenditure statistics, as with other industries. The 'baby market', the 'baby business' as a whole, IVF, the sub-markets such as the market for gametes (sperm and eggs, the latter increasingly flourishing), the hire of wombs for gestation (a truly transnational market now), the selection of extracorporeal embryos via preimplantation diagnostics, and so forth, the project of something like 'designer babies' or the search for the 'perfect baby', are likely to have a great future. Of course, opportunities for non-market transactions may occur, as in the donation of spare embryos as a result of IVF, for this technology typically results in an excess of embryos. However, most embryos arising from this technology never find homes, as it were. We have created a new kind of limbo with this technology, whether or not we classify human embryos as non-persons, though human, or simply as potential humans, or whatever, and thus what duties we owe them. Such surplus embryos, one might argue, are an essentially contested category. The existence of tens, if not hundreds or thousands of frozen embryos awaiting 'disposal' – mostly eventual destruction, occasional donation, especially to infertile relatives, rescuing a happy few from this fate – is certainly one of the unforeseen and unanticipated consequences of the strongly promoted IVF by beneficent researchers. The very existence of extracorporeal embryos, maintained thus for long periods, exemplifies a novel type of entity created by reproductive biomedicine, one which has to be taken into account in ethical discussions: Do they have moral standing (George and Tollefsen 2008)?

Obviously, the new reproductive technologies afford windows of opportunity for negative eugenics, the elimination of embryos for genetic defects of all kinds, even relatively minor or remediable ones, but potentially for thousands of reasons and even, more slowly, for positive eugenics, the selection of the 'best', or even simply 'enhanced', embryos, though one cannot in fact rule out simple parental preference imposed on physicians as of right, according to some bioethicists, with little questioning. We must mention sex selection of embryos on parental demand, now another right recently claimed in the name of the principle of 'reproductive liberty', although not yet formally accepted in Western countries, though strongly endorsed by some Western bioethicists. Moreover, the excess of males in China and India, contrary to demographic normalcy, proves that either selective abortion, gynocide in the womb, after the sex of the foetus has been identified with ultrasound technology, or selective infanticide, after-birth gynocide, have taken place on a very considerable scale. Taking into account the universal entrepreneurialization of the times, perhaps a day will come when the newborn, possibly endowed with the best genetic capital its parents have been able to afford, or with the genetic profile the parents chose, will be registered as a future entrepreneur, a potential start-up, together with an electronic digital birth certificate, which may or may not include gender or other biomarkers, parentage, nationality, and so forth, as the functional equivalent of baptism in the techno-market world they may have to live and die in – or not, if, for example, electronic immortality is bestowed on the masses.

Gametes and Wombs

In the field of human reproduction, the market for gametes, eggs and sperm for artificial human insemination has already been globalized. There are still countries that prohibit the export of such, like India, but none appears to ban their import and, even if they did, international 'reproductive tourism', 'fertility tourism', tourisme procréatif, or 'surrogacy tourism' can overcome these statutory barriers (many countries could claim conjoint export– import accounts for these matters). There are price lists provided by specialist firms that may be easily consulted online, although this market is not yet sufficiently differentiated and competitive, with a chronic supply deficit in the case of various ethnic groups in the United States, the UK and possibly also in other European countries despite immigrant communities from other continents. The oocytes of Harvard undergraduates fetch the highest prices by far in the relevant marketplace in the United States (tens of thousands of dollars for each have been quoted), relative to those of women students in other American universities: in fact, in the North American case there appears to be a strong correlation between this list and the international ranking of universities (Almeling 2011). That being the case, it might be cheaper and far less time-consuming to determine the ranking of universities, at least of American ones, inasmuch as this market has not yet made significant inroads in the UK and other European countries by this price list, than by the tedious procedures that have been set up in the last decades, for there is perhaps no better proxy indicator for the purpose.

The choice of sperm donors can be made via videos, or online, according to a range of biometric or psychometric data (height of the male is a prime consideration for women users, often the very top criterion), medical certificates, educational and professional curriculum or the results of Scholastic Aptitude Tests, and photos – the prices being far, far lower and more erratically distributed than that of eggs. Credit scores, a relatively new metric, at least in its systematization by specialist agencies on the basis of online digital data, are now apparently essential for dating amongst certain sections of the population and might possibly be added to the other required data. There are also various paradoxes connected with the new reproductive technologies. For example, an American sperm donor who claimed to be a virgin at the age of 36, a philoprogenitive virgin, the genetic father of perhaps 15 children, was an enthusiastic donor and provided the service absolutely free of charge, advertising online on his own website with forty women clients on his list; he worked freelance, not for an agency. The Food and Drug Administration ordered him to 'cease manufacture' of the sperm on the grounds that he could not provide adequate protection against communicable diseases, a rather specious argument as he pointed out, but the FBI arrested him for that reason, not owing to any complaints from clients or physicians. By law, sperm donations have to be done through reputable agencies. There is, however growth in free sperm donations; buying disease-tested sperm from a clinic can be expensive – possibly two thousand dollars – so 'online underground' websites and chat rooms to connect women with men offering free sperm donations have developed (thus, natural nonsexual insemination). Similarly, of course, there may well be lots of virgin mothers, but if so, they have not received much publicity (though many biologists have long been obsessed with the phenomenon of parthenogenesis), and the case of the virgin father mentioned may be unique. With the freezing of sperm, one can be a father posthumously, possibly with an interval of several years, depending on how successful the cryogenic techniques may be, and of course on the state of the law and on judicial decisions. Some cases have gone through a protracted judicial ordeal to attain the necessary permission for the prospective widowed mother to undergo IVF with her dead husband's frozen sperm, which fortunately was still in good condition at the end of the legal process. Note that the demand for eggs may reach persons of relatively low socioeconomic status; it is not confined to the richer strata. And the transaction can be rather curious, as in the case of an American dancer who sold her eggs in order to pay for breast implants, more or less necessary, she claimed, in her profession (linking thereby two biological markets, both related to her body: the cross- pollination of markets in a single instance).


Excerpted from "The Technocene"
by .
Copyright © 2018 S. Herminio Martins and S. Ravi Rajan.
Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Preface; Editor’s Introduction: Hermínio Martins and the Technocene;

1. The Technocene: On Bodies, Minds and Markets;

2. Technology Sublime: Paths to the Post-Human;

3. Perpetual Augmentation: From Eugenics to Human Genetic Capitalism;

4. The Body Vanishes! Momenta of Discarnation in Technoscience Today;

5. When Universities Become Body-Shops; Select Bibliography of Hermínio Martins’s Works; Index.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

‘This superb collection of selected essays by Hermínio Martins is a timely contribution to ongoing debates on the transformations of the human condition and the very future of the human species.’

—Jose Esteban Castro, Emeritus Professor of Sociology, Newcastle University, UK, and Principal Researcher, National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET), Argentina

‘The Technocene will inaugurate nothing short of a new and fertile research tradition in sociology, specifically in the philosophical sociology of technology.’

—Bridget Fowler, Co-editor of Time, Science and the Critique of Technological Reason: Essays in Honour of Hermínio Martins and Emeritus Professor of Sociology, University of Glasgow, Scotland

‘Marked by an unprecedented confluence of bodies, markets and technology, the notion of Technocene is the harbinger of the Anthropocene. Professor Hermínio Martins’s final essays, nearly lost to time, are brought to life in this caringly produced posthumous collection.’

—Nicholas J. Rowland, Associate Professor of Sociology and Environmental Studies, Pennsylvania State University, USA

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