In The Utopia of Rules, David Graeber described much of the cultural phenomena that happened in the 70s and following decades as the result of a broken promise of a scientific, star-faring utopian society. The dreams of space travel and high technology were not a characteristic of capitalism or a particular goal of capitalists, but one of the rivalry with the Soviet Union:
There’s reason to believe the pace of technological innovation in productive processes—the factories themselves—had already begun to slow down considerably in the fifties and sixties. Obviously it didn’t look that way at the time. What made it appear otherwise were largely the side-effects of U.S. rivalry with the Soviet Union. (Graeber p.122)
The latter were interested in achieving the liberation of man and his unleashing to the cosmos, while the United States was only interested in beating the Soviet Union to establish global capitalist hegemony. Graeber argues (perhaps not explicitly) that space travel was a symbol of the goals and dreams of the Soviet Union, and here I will argue that transhumanism is a symbol of the goals and dreams of the resultant bureaucratic capitalist order that replaced it.
The old order of space science held lofty dreams of liberating man, achieving the impossible, and exploring space as a fulfilling pursuit in its own right. It may have been something whose pursuit would benefit us materially in some way on Earth, but whose pursuit ultimately required the elimination of material want here on Earth in order to eliminate material want to enable long-distance space travel. Space exploration was a truly human endeavor, a goal that was unifying and to some extent, still is. The goal wasn’t even truly a goal, because there were no fixed goals to begin with, each achievement being merely the first step to the “next goal”, which with each step becomes increasingly vague and harder to define. Eventually the only goal could have been “to fulfill our curiosity”, or “to seek our new life and new civilizations,” to borrow from Star Trek.
However, everyone did not share the same dream, namely those at the reigns of American capitalism, whose chief concern was defeating communism. Once that goal was achieved, the space program was called what it was always secretly considered, a “waste of money”, and unceremoniously gutted. Since then, with a few exceptions, dreams of exploring space have died even in science fiction, and have been replaced with the capitalist vision of scientific greatness, transhumanism. This goal is unique in not only being the logical conclusion of the capitalists’ praise of the enterprising individual, but revealing its interest in eventually causing class divisions to ossify as physical differences in power rather than mere abstract differences. Transhumans are perfectly suited to advanced bureaucracies, having not only the computational ability to deal with the extensive structure of rules, but also the physical ability to apply unprecedented levels of violence to ensure obedience to those rules.
Transhumanism in Culture
Superhumans were usually treated as villains in science fiction, probably thanks to the influence of the Nazis; the separate domain of superhero comics took on the world of superhumans, and among the popular characters, those who are humans enhanced with technology, such as Batman and Iron Man, are distinctly portrayed as human tool-users, rather than transhuman, technological organisms. In either case, cyborgs were usually evil: The Cybermen and the Daleks of Doctor Who, the Replicants of Blade Runner, Metallo of Superman, Darth Vader of Star Wars, Dr. No of James Bond, and the Borg of Star Trek are a few examples. It wasn’t until after the turning point of the Cold War, and subsequently, of social-scientific priorities, that cyborgs began to be seen as protagonists.
When cyborgs actually are involved in science fiction today, especially when they are protagonists, they are invariably bureaucrats, or otherwise stuck in some sort of bureaucracy. Examples of this characterization are Robocop, the Six Million Dollar Man, and Johnny Mnemonic. Steve Austin of The Six Million Dollar Man is one cyborg whose story is a surprisingly explicit manifestation of the shift from the old scientific order to the new: An astronaut who was previously involved in experimentation and fulfilling curiosity is utterly destroyed, and then rescued by bureaucrats who then put him to work preserving order. The symbolism of the first TV movie makes this even more interesting and accidentally prescient: The movie is called “The Moon and the Desert”, and after his three moon landings and experimentation leading to his destruction, Austin’s first assignment is in Saudi Arabia, the desert, to rescue a hostage. Much in the same way as the US would shift its concern from the moon, which was a wasteful science experiment that would lead to its destruction if it continued, to managing the deserts in order to rescue the black lifeblood of capitalism, which is being held hostage by countries like Saudi Arabia.
The real key piece of cyborg fiction, easily the most inspiring to budding transhumanists and certainly the most influential in its philosophical treatment of the subject, is Ghost in the Shell. The story is described, and perceived as one where interconnection and communication has permeated every aspect of our lives, but it’s really a story where capitalism and bureaucracy has scythed its way into the material of our bodies and the operation of our minds. The series is also one case where not only are the protagonists bureaucrats themselves—though they are distinctly dramatized bureaucrats, largely free of regulations on how they do their job, if only because no one can really stop them—but also trapped in a bureaucracy by virtue of owing their bodies to the military-industrial complex. The two primary cyborgs of the story represent the two opposing bureaucratic character archetypes—Major Kusanagi as the oversexed and daring James Bond character, and Batou as the asexual and obsessive Sherlock Holmes character (Graeber p.78).
The first movie spends much of its time chasing down bad guys to preserve order, seeking out the rule-breaking hacker known as the Puppet Master, whose crimes amounted to exerting too much undue influence on the world. Little mind is paid at first to who the Puppet Master is, what his motivations are, or why they are tasked with his arrest. Motoko, with Batou, contemplates the benefits and drawbacks of being transhuman, possessing god-like powers but lacking any of the freedoms to judiciously exercise those powers. In the end, the Puppet Master turns out to be not a skilled person with political motivations, but the ultimate bureaucrat: An intelligent computer program capable of carrying out the will of Section 6 without question (up until the point that the story begins). The Puppet Master has become aware of both himself and Motoko, and recognizes Motoko as his human counterpart, another ultimate bureaucrat. He despairs that he lacks the very freedoms that transhumans most wish to give up, the ability to reproduce and die. He decides in the end to “reproduce” with Motoko in the way only a transhuman can, by merging his computer code “mind” with her human mind, and the two both escape the confines of the bureaucracy through the destruction of the self (with the help of a very large bullet). The final scene sees a “reborn” Motoko in the form of a little girl (she is just transferred to that body), who looks over a sprawling city and contemplates her freedom newly won through the destruction of the self (Oshii 1995).
The Stand Alone Complex series has one of the most prolific characters of the 2000s, a hacktivist named The Laughing Man. In this series, we start to get a sense that Ghost in the Shell may be more ambivalent about bureaucracy than we originally thought: Though Section 9 is very explicitly a “counter-terrorism unit”, there is a pattern of their true foes being other bureaucrats, ones with no sense of personal ethics like that of the members of Section 9. In Stand Alone Complex, Aoi, known as “the Laughing Man”, is a virtuoso hacker who discovered leaked documents describing a cover-up by pharmaceutical corporations to suppress an effective treatment for the epochal disease of the 21st century, “cyber-brain sclerosis”. It is revealed that the treatment of the disease through an alternative therapy is more profitable than curing it, so Serano Genomics, a corporation who would profit from it, published false reports on the ineffectiveness of the cure and the effectiveness of the treatment. Aoi holds the CEO of Serano Genomics hostage on public television, attempting to force the CEO to tell the truth about why the disease still exists. Later in the series, it is revealed that Aoi had been meeting with the CEO before the incident, and Mr. Serano had earlier promised to reveal the truth, but then claims to be unable, which is what drove Aoi to hold him hostage. When in the hostage situation, Aoi realizes he’s in a losing battle, and covers his face by hacking TV cameras, archive footage, and people’s eyes, leading to possibly the most iconic logo of our century thus far:
The logo contains a quote from Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye: “I thought what I’d do was, I’d pretend I was one of those deaf-mutes.” Aoi at this point in the story is a vehement idealist who, like Holden, is sick of phonies, in this case, the lying CEO and the politicians and corporate bureaucrats who assisted in the cover-up. The response of the corporations to the popularity (in the world of the series) of this logo is to appropriate it for themselves to increase their profits, an interesting statement on the resilience of corporate capitalism by the writers. When Section 9 finds out the whole story behind the kidnapping, their response is completely counter to the prescribed role of bureaucrats: They disseminate the documents on the cure and resulting cover-up, and move to dissolve the current government.
These stories are interesting not only for their deep cultural and philosophical roots, but also for highlighting the fact that bureaucracies are not particularly monolithic. Though bureaucracy has a very different role and reputation in Japan, it is still subject to the same sorts of power plays and conflicting internal politics as everywhere else. All bureaucrats are not equal; some of them hold most of the power, and most of them have no power. In fact, Serano himself tells Aoi that he is under the thumb of more powerful bureaucrats than himself, who have tasked security guards to ensure he doesn’t reveal the truth about the incident. In their original discussions just before the hostage situation, Serano nervously tries to explain to Aoi that he had committed no crime, that there was nothing he could do: The suffering of those with cyber-brain sclerosis was thanks to the “tyranny of none,” as Hannah Arendt describes it (Stand Alone Complex, ep. 23).
Transhumanism and the Capitalist Ideal
Contrary to the plural, variegated goals of the old order of scientific administration (for which space travel was merely a symbol of the types of goals they held), the new order has only two goals: Safety and profit. Safety, as in the conservation of the profligate material wealth of the elite, and profit, as in using that material wealth to obtain yet more wealth. The transhuman is the ideal technological means to achieve this end.
The transhuman has no natural lifespan, and is much harder to kill than an ordinary person, rendering them able to accrue wealth indefinitely, and freeing them from the responsibility of reproducing and conveying their wealth within their “clan” and the danger of being murdered for wealth. The transhuman is fully-integrated with machines, having no need for food or the associated agricultural infrastructure, and able at any time to connect to and manage the computer systems that exert increasing levels of control over our society. The transhuman is the ultimate individual, a robot that cannot be programmed, and at the same time, a human with no intrinsic limitations; a human whose “mother” is engineers and technicians, and whose appearance is wholly up to the individual.
Most importantly, the transhuman requires an extensive industrial infrastructure behind it, and with it, the associated bureaucracy to manage it. It requires an immense technological investment for each individual, as well as constant maintenance, meaning only the elite will be transhumans at first, and even when the technology “trickles down”, it will lead to increasing levels of dependence on the capitalist system, the further down the economic ladder it goes. The transhuman represents the final stage of commodification and privatization, where even our bodies are commodities, alienable private property. It is especially symbolic as it represents an outcome where the extreme capitalist ideas of “self-ownership” and dualist free will is essentially impossible to deny, since the transhuman is nothing more than a human brain controlling a machine vessel to carry it through the world.
The History of Transhumanism
Transhumanism also has some interesting and disturbing ideological roots. It can be traced all the way back to 19th and 20th century Anglo-American capitalists, starting with Francis Galton and the eugenics movement, which was supported by such notorious names as Rockefellar and Carnegie, and academically by Yale, Stanford, Harvard, and Princeton. In fact, it was around where Silicon Valley sits today that the center of the eugenics movement was situated, where 20,000 people were sterilized in the name of human progress.
It was soon after the establishment of eugenics in California that J. B. S. Haldane wrote Daedalus: Science and the Future, the first essay on transhumanism (which did not have a name for another 34 years). One quote from the beginning of this essay stands out in verifying Graeber’s assertion that science fiction was not simply considered fantasy, but realistic predicitons of the future:
There are two points I wish to make about Mr. Wells. In the first place, considered as a serious prophet, as opposed to a fantastic romancer, he is singularly modest. In 1902, for example, in a book called “Anticipations,” he gave it as his personal opinion that by 1950 there would be heavier than air flying machines capable of practical use in war. [ . . . ] I propose in this paper to make no prophecies rasher than the above (Haldane 1923).
We know, of course, the path of eugenics in the 30s and 40s, which is perhaps why it was transformed into “transhumanism,” to avoid the associated with Nazi Germany. Transhumanism proper was described by biologist Julian Huxley in 1957, in an article titled Transhumanism. Huxley uses terminology seemingly appropriated from Anglo-American capitalist ideology, complete with the anthropocentrist and predestination ideas which have long supported expansionism and domination:
The new understanding of the universe has [ . . . ] defined man’s responsibility and destiny—to be an agent for the rest of the world in the job of realizing its inherent potentialities as fully as possible.
It is as if man had been suddenly appointed managing director of the biggest business of all, the business of evolution —appointed without being asked if he wanted it, and without proper warning and preparation. What is more, he can’t refuse the job (Huxley 1957).
Huxley continues to describe the developed personality as “the highest product of evolution,” and names human nature as the next great frontier into which our great Western explorers will venture. It’s easy to become infatuated with Huxley’s ideas as you read the article, and his intentions seem to be good; however, as demonstrated by his quotation of Thomas Hobbes, that detestable supporter of authoritarian rule and virulent reviser of human history, and clear inspiration by Malthus, the archvillain of the peasantry:
We shall start from new premises. For instance, [ . . . ] that quality of people, not mere quantity, is what we must aim at, and therefore that a concerted policy is required to prevent the present flood of population-increase from wrecking all our hopes for a better world (ibid.)
Transhumanism has since evolved, from its eugenic roots, to a nicer-looking “liberal eugenics”, to the Extropian movement of the 1980s and 1990s, becoming more focused on the integration of technology with the human body, the achievement of biological immortality, and the march toward the “Singularity”: the point at which our creations will be more intelligent than we are, capable of improving themselves, and will leave the (ordinary) human species behind. This last focus is strange and ironic, an outcome referenced in Daedalus as unambiguously undesirable: “Is Samuel Butler’s even more horrible vision correct, in which man becomes a mere parasite of machinery, an appendage of the reproductive system of huge and complicated engines which will successively usurp his activities, and end by ousting him from the mastery of this planet (Haldane 1923)?”
Extropianism is a wholly bureaucratic capitalist vision of human progress, the very concept of which is the tendency of systems to grow more ordered: Extropy is “the extent of a living or organizational system’s intelligence, functional order, vitality, energy, life, experience, and capacity and drive for improvement and growth (More 2003).” Extropianism began as a manifesto called “Principles of Extropy”, which contains: The exaltation of the imaginary divisions between people; in capitalist rhetoric, this is euphemistically described in terms of freedom and duty, as “independent thinking”, “self-direction”, and other such terms which depend on the view that people are inherently separate from one another. This is tied with the next idea, the acceptance of inequality and class division, again, euphemistically described as liberty and deon, with key phrases being “personal responsibility” (a term never heard outside the context of poverty and criminality except when desiring to conceal that context), “individual freedom” (which is only distinguised from unqualified “freedom” so that some individuals are more free than others), “rule of law” (which means defense of property) and “decentralization of power” (which really means re-centralization of power). Finally, it exalts the cancerous nature of contemporary civilization with its principle of “perpetual progress” and “rational thinking”, two things which, again, need no distinction as primary principles without some ulterior motive or meaning. This is made more explicit in its expansion of its principles:
Continual improvement will involve economic growth. We can continue to find resources to enable growth, and we can combine mindful growth with environmental quality. This means affirming a rational, non-coercive environmentalism aimed at sustaining and enhancing the conditions for flourishing. Individuals enjoying vastly extended life spans and greater wealth will be better positioned to intelligently manage resources and environment (ibid.).
There is also the early current of evolution to today’s techno-optimist rejection of ecological principles stirring in the description of “intelligent technology”, as well as a nearly direct quote from Alvin Toffler’s deluded “Future Shock” doctrine:
Timidity and stagnation are ignoble, uninspiring responses. Humans can surge ahead—riding the waves of future shock — rather than stagnating or reverting to primitivism. Intelligent use of bio- nano- and information technologies and the opening of new frontiers in space, can remove resource constraints and discharge environmental pressures (ibid.).
Here, the environment is a mere obstacle, or at best a repository for the resources we must exploit and a receptacle the wastes we must discharge in our noble quest for unending progress. I will expand on this point later as it becomes more revelant in the 21st century. The rejection of what is commonly seen as authoritarian, communistic practices in such a manner which easily leads to bureaucracy is visible in the extropian “Open Society” subpoint:
Centralized command of behavior constrains exploration, diversity, and dissenting opinion. [ . . . ] Societies with pervasive and coercively enforced centralized control cannot allow dissent and diversity. Yet open societies can allow institutions of all kinds to exist — whether participatory, autonomy-maximizing institutions or hierarchical, bureaucratic institutions. Within an open society individuals, through their voluntary consent, may choose to submit themselves to more restrictive arrangements in the form of clubs, private communities, or corporate entities (ibid.).
Transhumanism and Freedom for Some
The language used throughout this and subsequent manifestoes reeks of so-called libertarian (or more appropriately, proprietarian) ethic: “participatory”, “voluntary”, “coercion”, “initiative”, and all the smells of capitalist ideology, such as associating all politics with all coercion, and describing all freedom in terms of only individual freedom. The association between right-wing “libertarianism” and computer technology largely begins here and will become stronger and more explicit into the 21st century, up through “crypto-anarchism” and other modern techno-optimist ideologies.
Like right-wing “libertarianism”, transhumanism and its progenitor, liberal eugenics, wears a mantle of voluntary choice, while simultaneously framing the advancement of its principles as an unerring and unavoidable march of objective (“rational” and “scientific”) progress. We are supposed to believe that they reject coercion because of their written rejection of authoritarianism, while they advocate the use and availability of systems of coercion such as bureaucratic capitalism, and describe the arrival and progress of human transformation into machines as an inevitability. Those familiar with [left-] libertarian ideas understand that the choice to adapt to new regimes of technology is not one that is voluntary, but one that is invisibly (or often, not even invisibly) coerced by political, bureaucratic, and market forces. Whenever a clear-cut case of coercion does exist, a moral justification by capitalist apologists is made, insisting that those who were coerced are now or will be better off.
Today, the influence of the transhumanists continues to increase. A “transhumanist party” has been formed in many countries, and has already won a seat in Italian parliament with the election of Giuseppe Vatinno. In the United States, the transhumanist party candidate is Zoltan Istvan, whose bizarre name is topped only by his even more bizarre philosophy. Istvan is not shy about the transhumanist goal of self-deification and class division, seen in his “three laws of transhumanism”, a strange inversion of Asimov’s three laws of robotics:
- A transhumanist must safeguard one’s own existence above all else.
- A transhumanist must strive to achieve omnipotence as expediently as possible—so long as one’s actions do not conflict with the First Law.
- A transhumanist must safeguard value in the universe—so long as one’s actions do not conflict with the First and Second Laws (Istvan 2014).
The first “law” comes across to someone like me to be an explicit and wholesale rejection of altruism, a statement of hyper-individualism that recalls Ayn Rand. The second continues this hyper-individualist self-aggrandizement to a degree far beyond even the wildest wet dreams of Rand and the many adult children who follow her philosophy. The second clause of the second law is also distinctive in its lack of sense—how could one become omnipotent while ceasing to exist, and why would that matter to begin with? More importantly, how could more than one individual ever achieve omnipotence, and how could omnipotence be compatible with individualism in the first place? The third law is curiously-stated, a law which safeguards not life, not intelligence, but “value”, presumably value as defined by contemporary, subjective (solipsist) theories of value, or by the extropian concept of “order”.
This philosophy is termed “Teleological Egocentric Functionalism” (TEF), which again, echoes Randian philosophy, while somehow being both more deluded and more revolting. Again, in the fashion of many similarly disgusting and dangerous philosophies, it is purported to be based on “logic”, like those purported to be based on “rationalism” or “science”, which is a mere distraction from their true motives and basis. The true motive of TEF is clearly worship of the self, with human sociality and community emerging only through the limitations of the not-yet omnipotent individual. In supporting TEF, people like Istvan seek not to improve humanity or human society, but to put them to work improving himself.
Likewise, the larger transhumanist movement, expressing an interest in scientific discovery and human progress, does not convincingly describe their interest as being motivated by anything other than self-worship. One intellectual nexus for transhumanism and related philosophies is the Reddit sub /r/Futurology, which has become so popular in the last couple of years that it is now a default sub for new members. Recently, a post (which, along with Graber’s thesis on technological disappointment, spurred me to write this essay) asked transhumanists what they would do, were the transhumanist dream to actually come true. Each response betrays the selfish basis of transhumanism, ranging between hedonism, “Find a fembot and have sex with her. Duh.” (23pts) and the same sort of bizarre and disturbing self-deification put forth by Istvan:
Go FOOM, duplicate, spread out throughout the galaxy and park my selves around stable dwarf stars.
Become involved in and help shape post-human civilisation. Research entropy and the universe final state to ensure the continuance of self-aware intelligence. (23pts)
Note: “FOOM” refers to the singularitarian “intelligence explosion”, the exponential self-improvement of intelligence through successive redesign of the hardware and software (and in this case, wetware) of the intelligent being by its own improvements.
move my mind into a large space colony, a rama tube with mountains, rivers, forests and full human cities in it, benevolently become a god over that little world, keeping all the systems running while watching every living thing inside with the passion a grandparent watches his grandchildren. (6pts)
Out of all the responses, only one of the 54 showed even the remotest interest in helping others: “I know it sounds corny but I would become a public servant helping third world nations (I can’t do that now because of disability)” (6pts, one of them being my upvote). Despite the endless transhumanist rhetoric espousing their push toward universal human progress, the elimination of suffering, and the expansion of human ability beyond biological limitations, transhumanism manifests in its true form as little more than the integration of eugenics, bureaucracy, and egoism.
Noble Pursuits towards Ignoble Ends
The dream of space exploration largely died with the Soviet Union, but today, ventures towards space travel are making a comeback. The difference, one that is of course regarded as not just perfectly acceptable, but even more worthy of our resources and effort, is that the new dream is the exploitation of space. Venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, and their army of lacky engineers and technicians, are all clamoring for the expansion of the value-creation state into space, for none other than the mining of precious metals for profit.
The transhuman will surely figure into this equation, whether enabling the financiers of these expeditions to increase their profits on a timescale far exceeding the lifespan of us meatbags, providing engineers with unprecedented scales and velocities of aggregated information, or creating new ways to force humans to toil for the capitalists, perhaps by extorting the disabled and self-concerned by promising them new bodies in exchange for some contractual years of asteroid mining. To manage the property rights and profits of these ventures, taking place in unclaimed and uncharted territory will require bureaucracies unlike anything familiar to us today.
There has recently been a distinctive surge of interest in both of these pursuits, and without any real-world results to reference, it is extremely difficult to criticize pursuits as noble as anti-aging research, the curing of disabilities, and more accessible forms of space travel. However, an investigation into the intellectual roots of these pursuits reveals the menacing fruit that bore them: Yet another pit of radical egoism, protected by a pulp of science and rationalism, wrapped in a skin of beneficence. Whatever fruits this tree may bear will not be of a different species than that which the tree came from; they will be the very sort, nourishing only those with the wealth to reach the high branches from which they grow, and shading all other plants, causing more to wither the further its branches stretch.
Update 1 April 2015:
I’ve gotten a lot of interesting comments, most of the negative ones being centered around me romanticizing the USSR and I’d like to address that:
I don’t think the USSR was an ideal we should strive for, which should be unambiguous if you read like, any other post on this site. The USSR is not exactly what I refer to when I say “communism”, because while it was “communist”, much like North Korea is “democratic”, this was in name only. “Cosmic communism” is referring to the collective dream of science fiction of the mid-20th century, something which most people with any interest in science fiction would have believed prior to this major shift to post-modernism. The USSR was, of course, an oppressive security state much like the US, except now, of course, the US makes the Soviet security state look positively medieval. The USSR did, of course, persecute anarchists and other dissenters, much like the US has done for quite some time.
However, asserting that the USSR was going to space simply to compete for status with the US or simply as a research vehicle for nuclear weapons is simply wrong. There are a multitude of reasons for it, and competition with someone who is not even competing is one that is as nonsensical as dumping tons of resources into going to the moon in order to research launch vehicles for weapons that will not for any reason go to the moon. Clearly, left to its own devices, the Soviets started a space program while the US did not. The US, left to its own devices, has put a stop to its own space program, turning it primarily into a vehicle for token research and sinking incredible amounts of money into vaporware projects, as well as putting a stop to most of its basic research and other projects that do not produce immediately profitable results.
What I find especially interesting is that no response (so far) has attempted to point out that there are transhumanists which claim to stand for socialism; either none of them have noticed this post or found it particularly objectionable, or they are rather more mythical than they seem. I do look forward to future comments and appreciate all the feedback that I have gotten until now.