Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Friday, October 2, 2009

Introducing “Futurisms”

It is a pleasure to inaugurate this New Atlantis blog focusing on some of the most prominent “-isms” surrounding humanity’s technological future: transhumanism, posthumanism, extropianism, the mouth-filling Singularitarianism, and others in that constellation. It can be difficult for the uninitiated to keep these terms straight, and even to know quite what they amount to — a worldview, a philosophy, an ideology, a movement. They hold in common several core beliefs about the future, including a sense that machines will someday be much more intelligent than we human beings are today; that human bodies will undergo radical technological enhancement; that we will merge our minds with machines; and that molecular nanotechnology will play a crucial part in bringing about these changes.

This blog’s attitude will be one of civil skepticism. We have addressed these subjects many times in the pages of The New Atlantis — starting with our first issue and the landmark essay “Ageless Bodies, Happy Souls” by Leon R. Kass. Our skepticism is twofold. First, there is reason to doubt many of these futurists’ extreme technical claims; they sometimes seem to be based more on wishes and dreams than a rigorous assessment of what is actually possible. Second, and more importantly, these futurists’ aspirations reveal an understanding of the human person and of political community that is profoundly misguided: shallow, solipsistic, and utopian.

There have been books and articles, magazines and conferences dedicated to this futurist constellation — but let’s remember that it remains a relatively small phenomenon, more on the periphery than in the mainstream of modern science. Why, then, are we launching this blog? Why should we be concerned about a fringe that so many people consider silly or even crazy? Well, for one thing, these strains of futurism are not unconnected to the central aims of the modern scientific project, which can be traced all the way back to the writings of Bacon and Descartes four centuries ago. And for another, even if most of these futurists’ wishes never materialize, human life could still be disruptively transformed even if just a few come to pass — and even the very pursuit of these goals comes at a price.

And so we present “Futurisms.” One of the blog’s lead authors, Charles T. Rubin, teaches political science at Duquesne University. As a New Atlantis contributing editor, he has written several articles touching on the rhetoric, philosophy, and human implications of the project to remake man. He is also working on a book on this subject. The other main author, Ari N. Schulman, is a writer and software developer, and the New Atlantis assistant editor. His essay “Why Minds Are Not Like Computers” from earlier this year throws cold water on one of the most abused analogies in the artificial intelligence literature. Other New Atlantis editors will chime in from time to time, as will a few guest contributors. Whether you agree or disagree with what appears here, we hope you’ll find “Futurisms” worth reading and debating.

[UPDATE: A few further thoughts about what we’re up to on this blog, from Professor Rubin.]