“Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the Overman — a rope over an abyss.”
“What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal: what is lovable in man is that he is an over-going and a down-going.”
Thus Spake Zarathrustra
These words made a great impression on me when I was young. At first, I was filled by romantic thoughts of the struggle of make’s oneself anew from what has been made of one by parents, teachers, companions and ultimately history itself. The goal was to break heroically with patterns of the past, create new values, and to live a new life free of constricting and life-denying thoughts. Nietzsche’s concept of the Overman announces this new human being whose outline is just beginning to glimmer on the horizon of our vision.
Nietzsche saw this new sort of human being approaching. He saw that human evolution is a work in progress. We are always changing unpredictably as a species. However, Nietzsche had no very clear idea of what the Overman would be except a kind of super Greek warrior type who smashes the idols of the crowd and dares to live bravely under the sky without the need of heaven.
Since Nietzsche’s day, there have been scientific and technological advances that make our fast paced cultural evolution possible. Twentieth Century elders will hardly be able to fathom the changes taking place. The Overman is Homo-Electronicus, wired in, connected everywhere, possessing hundreds of instant applications. This evolution to a new sort of human being will not take long, nor will it be confined to creating changes in culture and mentality.
What we have discovered about the neuroplasticity of the brain holds out the promise that even old dogs can learn new tricks. It is never too late to create neural networks corresponding to abilities that allow the satisfaction of our desires. Furthermore, I hazard that the brains of young people have already changed to accommodate activities like texting that requires constant use of the thumbs.
As a mid 20th Century person, I have seen enough time pass to notice some differences between then and now. Starting lecturing in philosophy full time in 1972, I was from a wave of students that has receded only in the last ten years or so. Back then, I felt the generation gap began with people just a little older than I was at the time, 27. The cohorts following shared a similar mindset to my own. It seemed to me that I was on the same wavelength as my students. However, today’s students have become increasingly electronic in their being and I find it increasingly hard to imagine what it is like to be them. Perhaps it is a failure of empathy, since if one cannot model the interiority of another in oneself, it is is difficult to empathize with how they experience the world. I do not know the new links that bind students together, their electronic devices and social networks.
As one of the elders now, it is hard for me to see very far into the future. However, I can see that the convergence of technology with our mental powers is going to transform human beings in ways we cannot yet imagine. “Just in time” electronic knowledge is going to relieve our short term memory of the need to store contingently useless facts. When it is time to know the next thing, one will consult the web and move on to the next stage of the investigation. Knowledge acquisition will be driven by a constantly shifting focus of questions, desires and tasks. Our mental powers will be augmented by our union with the web and the society it creates. Information will be distributed across computer networks and the web will give constant access. What effect will this have? I really do not know, but I am confident that we will be changing our brains by merging with digital technology. These ‘augmented’ humans will look back at us and wonder how we ever survived. The trouble with being an elder is that much of the knowledge and understanding one has acquired over a lifetime applies to a world that increasingly ceases to exist. However, the ‘down-going’ of the elders is the ‘over-going’ of the young. There is nothing to complain about in that.