Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Friday, January 15, 2010

Why So Unserious? (Thoughts on Transhumanism and Politics)

A few days ago here on Futurisms, commenter Kurt9 made an interesting point: “The idea that our cutting-edge science, particularly radical life extension, is incompatible with current social regimes comes from you guys, not from us transhumanists.” In one sense his statement is not true at all; plainly, for all he might disagree with their vision of the future, there are transhumanists (and no few of them) who are talking about global changes that would render current society and politics as obsolete as the human beings that constitute them. If, as many transhumanists believe, we are Singularity-bound, it is no stretch to conclude that current society and politics would disappear — after all, do human beings today organize our lives like our lemur-like ancestors? Yet some advocates of hyperintelligence would say that the gap between humanity and posthumanity will be even greater than that one.

Still, Kurt9’s point is true in the sense that it reminds us that relatively few transhumanists have bothered to think very deeply about the political consequences of the changes they advocate. They may, as per the above, lay out the premises, but indeed leave their critics to draw the conclusions. Nick Bostrom says a few soothing words in the “Transhumanist FAQ,” and James Hughes makes some very near-term policy recommendations in Citizen Cyborg. There are some ongoing discussions of the rights of sentient beings, and Simon Young takes a stab at a “neuropolitics,” but barely achieves a flesh wound. I’d welcome being shown otherwise — please feel free to make suggestions in the comments — but so far as I can tell, transhumanism awaits its John Locke, its James Madison, its Herbert Croly, or even its E. J. Dionne.

I don’t think that is an accident. First, it would be perfectly consistent for the kind of transhumanist that Kurt9 disagrees with to think it the height of folly and presumption for us to think we could imagine a good or even adequate organization for a world that mere humans will find increasingly hard to understand. Second, it is consistent with the rather superficial libertarianism which guides so much of transhumanism, a quasi-political theory that leads to the now fashionable contempt for mere politics. Third, it is consistent with the moralism of transhumanism, which amounts to “if you will it, it is no dream.” Thinking too hard about all the ramifications of one’s dreams is not necessarily going to make it easier to follow them. Fourth, this apolitical tendency is consistent with one of the most powerful arguments transhumanists can make against at least some of their critics. If their goals appear utopian, they can point out how many things once thought difficult or impossible to do are now commonplace. To look at all the tradeoffs, compromises, side effects, and unintended consequences of these success stories — which is to say, to look at them politically — would weaken the appeal of this argument. Finally, even if not all transhumanists believe that the future they desire is, strictly speaking, inevitable, a great many seem to feel that history is on their side. Theirs is not a revolution that needs to be made politically, it just needs to be born.

But sooner or later, transhumanists will have to face up to politics. The tensions within their own movement suggested by the likes of Kurt9 will require it, not to speak of external critics. As the followers of Marx found out, you can only hide behind the direction of history for so long; sooner or later somebody has to start thinking about who is going to take out the trash.


  1. But have you considered that it is people like you who continue to write these articles that gives (the transhumanists that Kurt9 disagrees with) the firepower they need? So.. stop it already :-).

    - a transhuman

  2. I knew you were going to makes these points and, believe it or not, I agree with them. The difference between you and me is that you place credibility with the whole AI/uploading scenario and I do not. Hence, my disregard for its relevance to political discussion.

    Here's a link to a slide show describing what we really can expect in the next 20 years.


    SENS-style radical life extension is probable as is some form of fusion power (yes, there are enough start-ups working on fusion now that is is likely that one of them will be successful). Even without the fusion, we still have Thorium-based fission power as well as fusion/fission hybrid power.

    You will note that the projected nanotech is fairly conservative and is along the lines that Richard Jones postulates. The semiconductor/IT projections are also similarly conservative as well.

    The main effect of all of these developments (including the radical life extension) is to increase economic growth rates, especially for China and the developing world. What's not to like about this scenario?

  3. I think both sides to this debate under-estimate peoples' ability to select whatever options are appropriate to them. Despite me being a self-described transhumanist and very passionate about radical life extension, I have actually been a late-adopter of most electronic/entertainment technology. I first got on the internet later than most other people. I got my first cell phone much later than most others (and found it irritating the first two years I had it). I bought my first MP3 player only two years ago and I have yet to get into this internet social networking stuff (Myspace, Facebook, etc.). We bought a big screen telly 5 years ago because my wife wanted it (I initially did not want it, thought it was too expensive, waste of money).

    I think the people most into radical life extension are not the technogeeks, but those of us who are very extroverted, who like to look good and go out a lot and especially like to travel and do things.

    Do realize for every transhumanist, there is at least ten (and probably a hundred) of us who are into radical life extension, and we are not all technogeeks, either.

    One of us might even sit next to you on your next flight, and you won't even know it.

  4. I’m not sure that kurt9 is quite right that the issue between us is how much credibility we place in uploading scenarios and the more extreme visions of posthuman transformation.

    Even if I thought such things were absolutely impossible, it would still (indeed, all the more) be thought-provoking that otherwise intelligent and rational-seeming people were advocates for such a future, and attempting to make it normative in the present. Furthermore, there is no law that says people have to organize and advocate only on behalf of possible goals, or that only such goals are politically relevant. While one conclusion we might draw from the twentieth century is that sooner or later reality will bite back when one pursues impossible goals, another would be that a tremendous amount of damage will be done in the process. Hence there remains reason to look critically at transhumanism whether or not everything advocated proves to be possible.

    I don’t know if transhumanism is quite so much on the march as its more fervent advocates claim, but if for the moment it can get coverage in GQ, then what more could it ask? So without assuming that there is a transhumanist under every bed, it would not surprise me to find one next to me on an airplane. In fact, the last guy I sat next to was reading science fiction! Hmmmmm.

  5. All of this is certainly true. But consider those "impossible goal" movements of the 20th century involved a considerable amount of coercion (Hitler's death camps, Stalin's galugs, as extreme examples). Even the most radical transhumanist does not advocate this kind of coercion. Indeed, the transhumanists I know personally tend to be libertarian-oriented.

    Yes, the more far out versions involve stuff like converting the Earth's mass into nanocomputers or whatever else they call it. However, I think Jupiter and the other outer planets and moons offer far greater mass and resources for these kind of mad schemes. They can leave the Earth (and moon) alone. In any case, I do not put much stock in these ideas.

    Yeah, we got coverage in GQ. But that's a long time ago (around '94). I'm surprised anyone would mention that now. I was living in Japan at the time. I remember seeing the GQ issue at Kinokuniya.

    BTW, Aubrey de Grey was on CNN in December along with Sanjay Gupta. I didn't see the segment (I was in Costa Rica), but I heard it was quite good.

  6. I believe the GQ reference was to the January 2010 issue, which features an article called "Are You Ready for the Singularity?" by Dan Halpern.

  7. This politics concern based on, so far as I can see, some idea that things break down or go through a phase change with greater levels of difference in capabilities, is pretty nonsensical. We already live in a world in which some people are millions of times more economically productive than other people, and in which the dominant culture has gone through a couple of phase changes in preferred governance models over the past few centuries.

    The human-engineered megadeaths happened, you'll note, when people started in earnest down the path of (a) imposing equality and (b) trying to centralize the organization of society.

  8. No, I haven't seen the January 2010 issue of GQ. I'll check it out. I wouldn't be surprised though, because GQ ran an article about the extropians back in '94 or so (the one I referred to previously). It was actually quite good.

  9. Reason’s remarks serve only to heighten my concern about the unseriousness of transhumanist thinking about politics. Allow me to take his points in reverse order:

    1) So far, we have transhumanism only in theory. In theory, Marx was a great liberator, seeking to free humanity from the tyranny of the state and the division of labor, in the name of omnicompetent human choice and a new way of being human. Sound vaguely familiar? Marxism took its destructive course due to various internal theoretical tensions and contingent circumstances whose very significance Marxists denied because they thought they understood the direction of history (sound familiar again?). A serious transhumanist politics would want to show why it would be immune from the same kind of toxic transformation.

    2) The disparity in economic productivity between one person on earth and another is irrelevant to my argument, unless Reason is interested in making the case that those who are less productive are less human than those who are more productive. I’d be interested in seeing that argument.

    3) Finally, I would, by Seldon, be so bold as to suggest that the use of concepts from physics (such as “phase change”) as metaphors for politics is not the hallmark of a serious understanding of politics.

  10. Coupla comments:

    The only sense in which "some people are millions of times more economically productive than other people" is that some people are not economically productive at all, including quite a large fraction of the people who enjoy wealth and incomes millions of times greater than those of other people.

    Obviously, the fact that Reason was alluding to is that some people are millions of times more rich and powerful than others in this world. One of the great fears about technology is that it may amplify such inequality. There is plenty of evidence to support this concern, as well as some to counter it.

    Also, I must disagree that there is anything unserious about trying to understand politics at least partly in terms of physics analogies and concepts such as phase changes.

  11. ...For example, physicists have shown that the distribution of incomes in mature market economies can be reproduced by a purely statistical model treating money as a conserved, randomly-exchanged quantity anlogous to energy in thermodynamics, without any reference to presumed differences in people's economic productivity. If you think there is something unserious about this, check out the papers at http://www.physics.umd.edu/~yakovenk/econophysics/. The fit to the data is pretty good; show me a theory in classical macroeconomics which makes a better quantitative prediction.

    I should correct myself, though. A good fraction of the world's poor still live on a dollar a day, but very few people make a million dollars a day. A better range of numbers for comparing people's incomes is "thousands".

    Still, if anyone suggests that any human being is a thousand or even ten times more economically productive than someone who works a full day driving a bus, teaching school, growing or serving food, keeping airplanes from colliding, etc., well, that just makes me angry.

  12. I saw the GQ article in my local Borders. Its the standard AI/singularity tripe that is becoming more common in the print media these days. I remain a skeptic on the plausibility of AI (and of uploading). I guess I will not believe in it until someone actually makes an AI that comes over and knocks on my door.


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