“Man is something to be overcome,” wrote the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in his 1883 classic Thus spake Zarathustra. “Man is a rope, tied between animal and superman – a rope over an abyss. The great thing about man is that he is a bridge and not an end.”
When he wrote this, the famously troubled intellectual reckoned with ambivalent feelings about German culture (including a falling out with his friend, the composer Richard Wagner), a series of illnesses, and an opium habit that most likely amounted to a drug addiction. But he also struggled with what historians call the second industrial revolution, that is, the revolution of mass production.
Much of Nietzsche’s writing, obscure in his own lifetime, foreshadowed a 20th century full of what he called “nihilism,” especially his famous proclamation, “God is dead.” In his place was the overman, or “Übermensch”, a determiner of his own life who eschews traditional Christian mores and gives birth to his own value system that allows him to overcome all human challenges. Now artificial intelligence is here, and modern technologists are proclaiming a “fourth industrial revolution” that will spawn a new “superman,” which begs the question, is humanity still the proverbial rope over the abyss?
It’s worth looking back at how we got here.
Faster than a speeding bullet
In times of technological upheaval, Nietszche’s prophecy of the birth of the Übermensch always seems to resurface. There are two famous examples – you already know them.
First, about half a century after Nietzsche conceived his version, Action Comics published its first issue in 1939, featuring a character named “Superman,” who went on to become the very first comic book superhero, just as the world hurtled into the atomic . age, recently depicted in the blockbuster “Oppenheimer”. As society digested the breakthroughs of the Second Industrial Revolution and created modern cities full of elevators, skyscrapers and automobiles, Superman represented a figure who could easily conquer modern technology. It was all there in the catchphrase: “Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!” (Even this phrase was itself industrial in nature, originating in a 1940 radio program, a brand new technology.)
While Nietzsche’s Übermensch was an embodiment of religious rejection, a being that transcended the customs of the Christian church, the Superman character nodded to generations of human progress, with abilities including bulletproof skin and laser-beaming eyes.
Also, Nietzsche’s Übermensch was an aspirational concept whose name literally evokes a higher plane, and DC’s Superman is from the alien world Krypton, a planet more sophisticated than Earth. Not only is Superman physically superior to the normal man, but he retains aspects of the original Übermensch as a pillar of moral rectitude. Even in his alter ego as Clark Kent, he is morally infallible as an idealistic journalist (the most morally correct profession, of course).
The superhuman goes hand in hand with the concept of transhumanism embraced by capitalists and technologists – the idea that advanced technology will allow humans to transformatively augment themselves and their environment. It goes back to Nietzsche’s vision of man as a “rope” and “something to be overcome,” or in the transhumanist view, a base for mechanization. Within transhumanism, the concept of the “new man”, a utopian ideal of the perfect person, a concept taken up decades after Nietzsche’s death by non-democratic movements ranging from communism to fascism to its subset, Nazism, each envisioned the perfect citizen. created through science and technology. Even the most casual student of 20th century history knows that this went tragically and horribly wrong.
Although these concepts seem bizarre to a digital native of the 21st century, they are actually still heavily embedded in mainstream politics and pop culture. The world’s richest man himself, Elon Musk, is a well-known transhumanist who is actively working on projects to colonize space and insert computer chips into our brains. Science fiction has flourished by exploring variations of the superhuman and the transhuman, often in dystopian ways, e.g. Blade Runner in the 1980s and The matrix recently. Even the summer blockbuster Barbie film deals with transhumanism, like a plastic doll blessed with the stereotypical ideal of femininity and beauty projecting itself into the real world, though multiple readings of the film land with the takeaway that there’s just no way to be a superwoman in modern life.
What happened to Superman in the 21st century?
We see the superman concept, especially as it intersects with technology, as a frequently used political tool because of the inherent layering that an “ideal” person exhibits. And while transhumanism plays with both socialists and capitalists, sociologists have theorized that political transhumanism could spawn capitalism 2.0, an era hyper-fixated on technology-driven productivity leaps.
Now, as we round the corner on the fourth industrial revolution – the revolution of smart automation, interconnection and artificial intelligence – philosophy fans may wonder what will emerge as the Übermensch of our time. Although it is early days, history suggests that people will seek a quest for an icon that can transcend the power frames of our time.
One person has already theorized that our Übermensch will be AI: Masayoshi Son, one of the world’s richest men, has already termed the invention “The Birth of Superman.” Son, who has been a major venture capital investor for decades and is the CEO of Japan’s SoftBank, told investors this year that the emergence of ChatGPT brought him to a tearful existential crisis over AI and the meaning of life before he decided to dedicate his company and career to “design[ing] the future of humanity.” This sounds a bit tangential to Nietzsche’s crisis of nihilism.
This certainly does not mean that Son is the next Nietzsche – but the resemblance to the Übermensch is unmistakable. Son told SoftBank shareholders that he pitches and refines ideas with artificial intelligence every day and had used the tool to develop over 600 new inventions in less than a year. Through a transhumanist lens, he uses new technology to vastly increase his intelligence and ideation abilities. As the world undergoes another technological upheaval and people look for an aspirational entity that can transcend the power framework of our time, it is important to ask what that framework is. It is probably information.
In the way Nietzsche’s Übermensch controlled his own infallible set of morals, or comics’ Superman controlled his invulnerable body, perhaps a parallel can be drawn to AI controlling its vast, 10,000-chip cache of knowledge. The difference is that the Übermensch and Superman existed as fictional characters, with no real way for people to interact with them. They were hopeful, while AI is a real tool driving rapid change in the world.
It’s too early to say how AI will transform the workforce, but we should probably take any notion of a superhuman with a grain of salt. Perhaps humanity is a rope over an abyss, but the surest way to fall into it is through the pursuit of superpowers through technology.
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