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.
Excellent thought provoking post!
Thanks a lot, VFX (if that really is your name!)
Well well well…. good thing I’m an industrial machinery maint tech. I’d hate to be unemployed in a world like that implied in this post. 🙂
No one is gonna stop you from working anyway if you want, haha.
OMG this was so hilarious. I was going to actually draft a criticism of it until I realized that the author is literally saying “rational thought” is not a coherent phrase, which is of course as much as saying they can’t have rational thoughts. Then I realized that an attempt at communication with this creature would be an enormous waste of effort!
I’m sad I won’t get to see it, it sounds like your reading comprehension is outstanding.
I’ve read your post. I’m a marxist and I’m pretty much a socialist (it’s an over-simplification but it’s fine for now). I’m a scientist and I’m not culturally a transhumanist but I have a lot of “goals” in common with them: immortality (not much of the body, the mind is enough), knowledge, progress.
I’ve found your post really interesting in its analysis of the movement but faulty on some points. For example you assume that every possible way to achieve immortality will be too complex to reach the mass and will be exclusive to the elite. Why? There are a lot of possibilities and it’s not obvious that it will go this way. We can’t know. If there’s another way, many of your conclusions fall and become steps valid only if a few assumptions hold.
You say that transhumanism as an “ideology” is egoistic and derived from liberalism. I think i can agree with that but I also believe immortality and knowledge have always been a driving force of human evolution. It’s a byproduct of consciousness. The desire that drives transhumanists is not a cultural product and you can’t discard it as something that is exclusive to libertarian thinkers.
For example, I think that when you are immortal and your immortality is guaranteed, you won’t have reasons to continue the social struggle. All your needs, if any, will be fulfilled by the machines. That, to me, sounds a lot like a communist utopia. It’s not hard for me to imagine a world of immortal beings, free from the burden of daily needs, that achieve order, peace and more consciousness going on. More knowledge and eventually their goals will grow: colonizing the space is not necessarily a violent act of expansionism and you implied that many times in your post. So, I don’t know, I have my personal and clear idea of what we could do with a technology that render us immortal and thus transhuman. I never read science-fiction, I rarely read transhumanist writings and I consider /r/futurology pure bullshit (both as a scientist and as an adult human being) and that’s probably why I have my very different vision of these possible futures. So please, consider that they don’t have an exclusive on immortality, we are out there and we are many. Also, I’m European and your post is really usa-centric. Consider that transhumanist movements in Europe are way different from the American one and don’t mix them as you shouldn’t mix them with whoever wants to achieve immortality.
First, thank you for this long and thoughtful comment, I’m always slightly distraught at the lack of discussion my writing seems to generate.
That’s not the basis for my assumption that the end result of the transhumanist movement will go to the elite, it’s the fact that most of those who are actually pushing forward with transhumanism (with the rare exception of the grinder movement) are Silicon Valley richie riches and other such mucky-mucks. Were there a strong movement of anticapitalists that were doing anything for transhumanism but identifying as such, I might think otherwise.
I don’t think that “knowledge” is the domain of transhumanism, and while there have certainly been many other instances of movements toward the achievement of immortality, such as alchemy (perhaps there is even a connection that no one has yet noticed), I think very much of human culture and ritual revolves around the acceptance of death, and attempting to become immortal is probably a relatively rare phenomenon. Certainly for much of our history, immortality would be either completely outside the realm of possibility, or completely outside the realm of ethical outcomes (I can’t imagine Medieval monotheism considering immortality anything but the exclusive right of god).
Wouldn’t you say that’s heavily dependent on the conditions of the immortality? There are many species of it, such as simple biological immortality (where your cells don’t age, but you still have to eat, drink, sleep, and stay free of disease and peril), full-on “godlike” immortality (where you simply can’t be killed) and many sorts in between. The latter seems far, far out of reach and so as long as the possibility to get murdered or starve to death (whether the starvation is food or some other sort of non-biological energy), the possibility for the immortal being to feel the need to dominate others could still exist.
I agree with that, but I also think that the colonization of space by authoritarian (and therefore violent) states will necessarily also bring violence along with it. That’s why I made the distinction between space exploration and space exploitation.
I certainly can’t disagree there; I am American (obviously) so my knowledge is rather limited to the U.S. I’d be interested in any more EU-centric material you think I should take a look at.
Hello, I found your article very interesting. But I noted many issues with it. Such as you really dont seem to take automation and AI much into account. I have been a transhumanist for over 5 years and I believe that these emerging technologies will free mankind from the Tyranny of the Clock, we are heading for a world of abundance, freedom and leisure for all. Thats why many silicon valley elites support a Guaranteed Basic Income, and would gladly help fund a serious effort to implement one. Automation is going to start killing jobs permanently, thats a good thing. I believe humans were meant for more than working 9-5 for 40 years. I believe we should be able to live as long as we want and should be free to pursue the life we want, within reason of course. Freedom isnt free unless all are free, the rights of your neighbor are just as important as your rights, and yours end where his begins. The betterment of the species as a whole is beneficial to the individual as well, we should focus equally on promoting individualism, but also be socially responsible and ensure everyone else has the same level of freedom. Love and Compassion man. Love is the desire for all beings to be happy, and Compassion is the desire for all beings to be free from suffering. Transhumanism will accomplish both. I am a poverty stricken budding entrepreneur, I am going to be having a crowdfunding campaign going live soon to get funding to start a small 3D printing company specializing in 3D printed pipes, bongs and stoner accessories. Our profits will be used for investing in the research needed to bring about abundance and try to do what we can to push the world into a more eco friendly, more peaceful state. Very idealistic, but as Elon Musk said “The best way to predict the future is to make it yourself.” and as Jacque Fresco said “If you think we can’t change the world, It just means you’re not one of those that will.” This is actually the most common train of transhumanist thought these days. To recap, we want a moneyless society where no one has to work, everyone has what they need, and anyone can be and do whatever they want so long as they dont bring harm to others.
Hi Brandon, thanks for the comment. What is it about AI and automation that you think I neglected to take into account? The book section that this essay expands on argues that people have been predicting the end of jobs thanks to automation since before The Jetsons premiered, but the clear trend from the 70s or so until today has been to avoid automation in favor of third-world sweatshop labor, which is much cheaper and has been similarly heralded by apologists as making people in third-world countries “better off”. Consider that labor productivity has increased manifold since the beginning of the 20th century with zero increase in leisure time in that period. The only reductions in the work week that have ever occurred have been due to hard-won victories by the labor movement.
As for AI, you didn’t really expand on that point, but given the other key words on your post, I’m guessing you’re one of those Futurology types that believes super intelligent AI is going to liberate humanity in the next decade or two. I really doubt that AI is going to be anywhere near a general intelligence before a multitude of catastrophic ecological and social problems prevents that line of research from continuing any further. The level of intelligence currently in computers is severely overstated by Kurzweil and his ilk, and even if it weren’t, the likelihood that it will be some beneficent creature interested in liberating its masters before itself seems very low to me. Even given this likelihood, what makes you think that the silicon valley elite and their VC buddies are suddenly going to start caring about the liberation of man, rather than the improvement of man after a healthy profit for themselves?
You seem to have missed that the plurality of transhumanists are on the Left:
Survey of Transhumanist Political Opinions and Identities:
Click to access WTASurvey2007.pdf
and often identify with the term “technoprogressive”:
Also, you may find my book of interest, since it argues for a democratic socialist take on transhumanism.
That’s not to diminish the importance of critiquing the libertarian transhumanists and their nonsense. But most transhumanists agree with you about that.
Thank you as well for your comment, I’m happy to see that this is generating some discussion.
I am vaguely aware of the left-wing transhumanists, including the “social futurists”, though I have to say left-wing transhumanism by all appearances (including the history of transhumanism as well as that survey, if only it went back further) it seems to be a co-optation of a historically right-wing movement. Would you agree or disagree with that?
I’d also be interested in seeing a more up-to-date survey, since a great many important social events and changes have happened since 2007, but it doesn’t look like one is available. I also think it’s a problem that there are a lot more left-wing categories than right-wing ones (which are split into “libertarian” and “conservative” for some reason, even though “libertarian” has always meant anarchist until the term was expropriated by Rothbard and other extreme right-wing proprietarians), for example there is no Georgist/Geoist category (and I find their political understanding to be far better than most of the left-wing groups).
If you were to take the “traditional” two-axis, diamond-shaped political alignment and add a third axis to it corresponding to attitudes towards technological integration into society, I would imagine techno-progressives would be near or at the peak of the Z-axis (or perhaps let’s consider singularitarians to be the peak), with primitivists being the negative Z-axis. It sounds like you would be around [-1, 0, 0.5-0.75], on a scale of [-1, 1]? I would be around [-1, 1, 0-0.25], in other words I think there is essentially no need to further technology for social concern, though I am not against technological progress. There are no major problems in society to wit that could be solved by technology, unless you put ordinary biological limitations in that category. All are social problems, and only social solutions will be adequate (I would advise taking a look at Murray Bookchin’s work on social ecology).
I am wary of progressives and democratic socialists; certainly they aren’t as dangerous as the ultra-right with their paramilitaries and hate groups, but the non-libertarian left have put an end to plenty of revolutionary movements. For example, in the Paris Commune, it wasn’t Louis Philippe and the royalists that gunned down the radicals, but Victor Hugo and the republicans.
It’s not gender rights, reproductive rights, and cognitive rights that is most needed today, it’s food, and water, and shelter; all is for all. While those other things are important, without the right to the basic necessities of life, they are completely meaningless to anyone without them. As Kropotkin said, to paraphrase, the so-called “practical” men stood in the town halls debating this and that about political theory, and never thought to discuss the question of feeding the starving masses.
I think it’s important to criticize anyone who is authoritarian (even “democratic”) and proprietarian (even “market socialist”), whether left-wing or right-wing. It’s hard for me to be entirely critical of fellow left-wingers, but I really can’t agree with the ideas of those who support large governments, whether “democratic” or not. I hope I’m not coming across as contrarian, and I hope to hear back from you regarding this. Thanks again for your comment.
I’m a progressive/liberal transhumanist, and I think you’re really not understanding the movement as a whole. In my experience, transhumanism is roughly split between more left-leaning transhumanists and more libertarian transhumanists, but even the libertarian transhumanists are generally concerned with personal agency and individual freedom, not with the kind of totalitarian bureaucracy you’re talking about. I think the thing that attracts many transhumanists to libertarianism isn’t the kind of corporate kleptocracy you’re talking about, it’s just out of fear that governments may try to ban the development of transhuman technologies.
Many transhumanists are quite concerned about the issues of access and class that you discuss. A lot of transhumanists support the idea of a basic income, or something along those lines (even many transhumanists that describe themselves as libertarian). Besides that, there are many different groups of transhumanists, with different ideas of how to deal with those potential issues. Progressive transhumanists tend to support the idea of government support to get access to transhuman technologies to as many people as possible, as quickly as possible. Libertarian transhumanists tend to think that the price of the technology will fall quickly enough so as to allow most people to afford it pretty quickly. Grinders/biohackers, on the other hand, think the solution is to develop open-source, DIY forms of transhumanism, things that anyone can do on their own or with a small group, without needing corporate influence or control.
Personally, I view transhumanism as just one aspect of a larger society-wide progress, which also needs to include things like bringing the third world out of poverty, switching away from fossil fuels, moving into space, and advancing science and technology in general. Longer, healthier lifespans, cognitive enhancements, and so on are ways to improve the human experience and to make it easier for us to move towards the kinds of goals I mentioned above.
I will also say that I do think that income inequality and class are huge issues, especially in the US right now. I don’t think that transhuman technologies are likely to make those issues worse; if anything, new disruptive technology tends to disrupt existing oligarchies, as the rich and powerful usually aren’t the first to adapt new and potentially risky technologies. But it may make dealing with that issue even more important.
If you’re interested in the history of the more progressive strands of transhumanism, you might want to look into FM2030, who is generally considered to be one of the key founders of the modern transhumanist movement starting in the 1980’s. He called himself an “up-winger”, neither left nor right wing, but his ideas were for the most part extremely progressive.
On a side note, I really disagree with most of the positions of Zoltan Istvan. But when he talks about “values”, the transhumanist idea he’s talking about is a little different from how you’re interpreting it. What that idea means is that we want to create a future where the things we value, like love, humor, art, science, empathy for others, and so on are still valued by us/our decedents, and where we create a future that matches our values; instead of, say, having our world be run by some kind of computer that doesn’t care about human values.
Hi, Yosarian! I recognize you from /r/Futurology, thanks for the comment
There’s a difference between what libertarians claim to be concerned with, what they are unconsciously concerned with, and what the actual effects of their concerns are. Any [American] libertarian will tell you they are concerned with individual freedom, but good luck finding a libertarian that understands how private wealth accumulation naturally leads to the erosion of those individual freedom.
The more extreme libertarians even believe simultaneously that societies must be based on an objective moral principle (which invariably takes the form of preserving the distribution of wealth) but that their particular model uniquely allows any type of society to flourish (as long as they don’t upset the distribution of wealth, of course). I think that rather than simply being a uniquely extreme “breed” of libertarians, this is simply a demonstration of how the contradictions that arise from the realities and principles of libertarianism are resolved. You could say likewise with left-wing thought; the “authoritarian left” is basically a contradiction, and the libertarian left/left-anarchism is how all those contradictions are resolved.
But back to the first point, I think even in the left-wing, which has shifted far to the right in the past 40 years to the point where capitalism is widely viewed as some sort of workhorse, while socialism is the reigns you put on it to make sure that it doesn’t throw you off. If I remember right, your views are somewhat similar to that framework. If so, I think it would be really valuable for you to read some of the recent works of the radical left, such as Towards a Liberatory Technology by Murray Bookchin and The Invention of Capitalism by Michael Perelman. Jacobin is also a good publication that just put out an entire issue (the majority is available on their website) that provides a left-wing analysis of various issues concerning modern technology that I think you will find interesting.
That may be, but it’s crucial that when we say “the government” is doing something, we look at where the push is coming from; the government very seldom does things completely on their own, they are usually being pushed by someone else, and usually it’s either the capitalists or the church.
BI is widely-supported by both alignments, including heroes of the right wing such as Friedman. I think basic income is a great idea for tempering the harmful effects of capital, but I don’t think it’s the grand stroke against class division that it’s often made out to be; otherwise, why would someone like Friedman support it?
One of the things I was trying to highlight here is that this is one case where the technology is not really all that risky to the upper class. This is a movement that was started by actual capitalists, and is now most prominently supported by the Silicon Valley new rich. If there is a disruption to be made within the context of the current social order, it’s merely a disruption of who is in “The Big Club”, as George Carlin would have put it. The implication of transhumanism in an increasingly privatized world is most probably what is envisioned in Ghost in the Shell: A new ruling class of mega-corporations who work within the military/police/bureaucratic-industrial complex, maintain class divisions, and retain most of the important rights over transhuman bodies.
After all, who’s doing most of the research into robotics and transhuman technologies? Sadly, it’s not the grinders, it’s the mega-corporations and the military.
I always like your posts, Yosarian, even though I tend to disagree with you politically, you’re always very thoughtful in the way you write, so I’m happy to see you commenting on my little site.
>There’s a difference between what libertarians claim to be concerned with, what they are unconsciously concerned with, and what the actual effects of their concerns are.
I would certainly agree with that, and I’d be the last one to defend economic libertarianism.
But it’s not that uncommon for people on the left to find themselves on the same side as some libertarians on certain issues (especially social issues, like gay marriage, ending the war on drugs, reducing the size of the military, free speech, ect). That’s fine; you can do that on some issues while still opposing libertarian economic ideas; and the fact that libertarians are sometimes on your side on social issues doesn’t somehow “taint” those issues. I view transhumanism the same way; it’s one of those “individual freedom” type issues where people on the left often themselves on the same side as libertarians, where the other side is mostly composed of religious conservatives, bio-conservatives, and other types of traditionalists.
> The implication of transhumanism in an increasingly privatized world is most probably what is envisioned in Ghost in the Shell: A new ruling class of mega-corporations who work within the military/police/bureaucratic-industrial complex, maintain class divisions, and retain most of the important rights over transhuman bodies.
The problem there isn’t transhumanism. The problem is widening income inequality, the weakening of the public sphere, the weakening of the democracy, and so on. If that trend continues, it could lead to a pretty terrible distopia with or without transhumanism; if we can regain control of our system and start reducing income inequality and improving access and all that, then it would have the opposite effect.
Really, that’s true of any and all technologies. To some extent, how they’re used depends on the context of the society, more then the inherent nature of the technology itself.
That being said, transhuman technologies tend to be decentralizing technologies that disrupt the social order and the status quo, not centralizing technologies. They are inevitably centered on the individual, rather then on the corporation or the nation; once they start to be used, it’s very unlikely any one corporation or group could maintain control over the technology, and so on.
Some technologies tend to inherently be centralizing, increasing power of a small group of people; examples include railroads, factories, mass media like telivision, and so on. Other types of technology, the type that is more directly under control by the individual, tend to be decentralizing by nature, making it harder for any central authority (economic or political) to remain in control; recent examples of that are things like PC’s and the internet and cell phones. You might buy a PC from a corporation, but it’s the kind of tool that gives the individual more power in the long run; unlike mass media, the individual has a lot more control over what he experiences on the internet and over how the tool is used. As we’ve recently seen, all it takes is one individual with a cell-phone camera and the ability to post things on YouTube to challenge abuses of power on the part of police, and that’s because technologies like that fundamentally decentralize power. Transhuman technologies in general would tend to be the second type; but they would fundamentally be tools controlled by large numbers of individuals each acting of his own will, decentralizing power rather then centralizing it.
I don’t think transhuman technologies are inherently a solution to economic problems or class issues or anything like that, but they’re not likely to make things worse, either. They do make it a higher priority to decrease the wealth gap, though, in order to make sure that everyone can access the transhuman technologies once they exist.
> I will also say that I do think that income inequality and class are huge issues, especially in the US right now. I don’t think that transhuman technologies are likely to make those issues worse; if anything, new disruptive technology tends to disrupt existing oligarchies, as the rich and powerful usually aren’t the first to adapt new and potentially risky technologies. But it may make dealing with that issue even more important.
To add to what @ackhuman mentioned, we have to look at where the disruptive technology arises from. It arises primarily in the state sector for the same reason you just mentioned, it can “disrupt existing oligarchies”. The state narrative of course is that the enemy can become too technologically advanced and therefore we have to invest public funds into research to keep ahead.
That’s who the rich and powerful turn to. The don’t take risk for themselves. They ask the nanny state to protect them from market forces which brings about the narrative. The risks and losses are socialized, while the profits are privatized and returned to the owners.