Does transhumanism matter?

The political scientist Francis Fukuyama once identified transhumanism as the “the world’s most dangerous idea”. Perhaps a handful of bioconservatives share this view, but I suspect few others do. After all, transhumanism is hardly part of the mainstream. It has a few high profile spokesmen, and it has its vociferous adherents on the internet, but that’s not unusual. The wealth, prominence, and technical credibility of some of its sympathisers – drawn from the elite of Silicon Valley – does, though, differentiate transhumanism from the general run of fringe movements. My own criticisms of transhumanism have focused on the technical shortcomings of some of the key elements of the belief package – especially molecular nanotechnology, and most recently the idea of mind uploading. I fear that my critique hasn’t achieved much purchase. To many observers with some sort of scientific background, even those who share some of my scepticism of the specifics, the worst one might say about transhumanism is that it is mostly harmless, perhaps over-exuberant in its claims and ambitions, but beneficial in that it promotes a positive image of science and technology.

But there is another critique of transhumanism, which emphasises not the distance between transhumanism’s claims and what is technologically plausible, as I have done, but the continuity between the way transhumanists talk about technology and the future and the way these issues are talked about in the mainstream. In this view, transhumanism matters, not so much for its strange ideological roots and shaky technical foundations, but because it illuminates some much more widely held, but pathological, beliefs about technology. The most persistent proponent of this critique is Dale Carrico, whose arguments are summarised in a recent article, Futurological Discourses and Posthuman Terrains (PDF). Although Carrico looks at transhumanism from a different perspective from me, the perspective of a rhetorician rather than an experimental scientist, I find his critique deserving of serious attention. For Carrico, transhumanism distorts the way we think about technology, it contaminates the way we consider possible futures, and rather than being radical it is actually profoundly conservative in the way in which it buttresses existing power structures.

Carrico’s starting point is to emphasise that there is no such thing as technology, and as such it makes no sense to talk about whether one is “for” or “against” technology. On this point, he is surely correct; as I’ve frequently written before, technology is not a single thing that is advancing at a single rate. There are many technologies, some are advancing fast, some are neglected and stagnating, some are going backwards. Nor does it make sense to say that technology is by itself good or bad; of the many technologies that exist or are possible, some are useful, some not. Or to be more precise, some technologies may be useful to some groups of people, they may be unhelpful to other groups of people, or their potential to be helpful to some people may not be realised because of the political and social circumstances we find ourselves in. Transhumanists have a particular tendency to reify technology, since for them it is technology that is the vehicle for redemption and transfiguration. But the urge to reify technology and even to assign agency to it goes much wider – there is even, after all, an influential book called “What Technology Wants”. As Carrico stresses, the agency belongs to the people who make the technology and the people who use it. Technology doesn’t want anything, people do (but they may not always get what they want, by technology or any other means).

Why would you want to think of technology, not as something that is shaped by human choices, but as an autonomous force with a logic and direction of its own? Although people who think this way may like to think of themselves as progressive and futuristic, it’s actually a rather conservative position, which finds it easy to assume that the way things will be in the future is inevitable and always for the best. It’s a view common among people associated with what we now call “the technology sector” – a name which itself speaks to a strangely narrow view of technology, in which the only thing that counts as a technology is a wireless connection to a database. I’ve written before of the damage that’s done by assuming that the rapid recent progress we’ve seen in one particular group of technologies, to do with information and communication, means that we can be confident that other areas of technology in which we urgently need to see faster progress – for example in healthcare and sustainable energy – are proceeding as fast. Vaclav Smil makes a similar point in a recent article, Moore’s Curse.

But can we even talk in an uncomplicated way about “progress”? Carrico thinks not – for him, there can be no single direction of enhancement – the most one can say is that things may get better for one particular group of people in one particular set of circumstances: “There is no general optimization for every outcome, there is no universal training for every profession, but always only enablements freighted with disablements. To say the least, every pursuit has among its costs the other pursuits we might have tried instead”. Here, Carrico is following in a long tradition of critics of utilitarianism – compare, for example, William Blake: “He who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars: general Good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite, and flatterer, for Art and Science cannot exist but in minutely organized Particulars.”

It’s certainly true to say that previous promises of technological progress have not been universally redeemed. Nuclear power turned out not to be “too cheap to meter”, but instead led to accidents and intractable waste problems. The internet, rather than empowering the masses, seems to be enabling a universal surveillance state. And productivity gains and improvements in manufacturing technology seem to be leading, not to universal leisure and prosperity, but to increasingly unequal concentrations of wealth and power. Perhaps the promise we should be most fearful of now is the framing of climate change as an “engineering problem with an engineering solution”, with geoengineering a redemptive technology that relieves us of any obligation to develop a more sustainable energy economy.

One can certainly construct lists like this, lists of regrets for previous technologies didn’t live up to their promises, and one should certainly try and learn from them. I would want to sound more optimistic, and point out that what this list illustrates is not that we shouldn’t have set out to develop those technologies, but that we should have steered them down more congenial roads, and perhaps that we could have done so had we created better political and economic circumstances. Ultimately, I think I do believe that there has been progress. To speak personally, my own life is much better than the lives of my grandparents and great-grandparents, and while this experience isn’t universal, the same could be said by many billions of people across the world. But I do accept the damage that has been done in the name of progress, and above all, I don’t think progress in the future is inevitable – it needs to be worked for.

So what will the future look like? One could ask a futurologist, but that’s not exactly a solid discipline. We have people writing for think-tanks and management consultancies, spotting trends and weaving scenarios. Then we have the transhumanists, projecting technological futures as destiny. At the pinnacle of futurology, we have Ray Kurzweil, a successful inventor, best-selling writer, and Google Director of Engineering, perhaps the world’s most high profile transhumanist. To Carrico, there is a continuity between the mainstream futurologists – “the quintessential intellectuals propping up the neoliberal order” – and the “superlative” futurology of the transhumanists, with its promises of material abundance through nanotechnology, perfect wisdom through artificial intelligence, and eternal life through radical life extension. The respect with which these transhumanist claims are treated by the super-rich elite of Silicon Valley provides the link. One can make a good living telling rich and powerful people what they want to hear, which is generally that it’s right that they’re rich and powerful, and that in the future they will become more so (and perhaps will live for ever into the bargain). And in our society the approval of the rich and powerful itself serves to validate the messages that they like to listen to.

The continuities between mainstream futurology and the superlative futurism of the transhumanists come across in some common themes. There’s a persistent strand of greedy reductionism, which in talking about economics manifests itself as market fundamentalism, and in social sciences, the just-so stories of evolutionary psychology. Hyperbole is prevalent, and we see overuse and misuse of metaphor (nanotechnology and synthetic biology providing some classic examples). There’s a very interesting sensibility which manifests itself as a hostility to the actual materiality of the world. This begins with the familiar downgrading of the importance of making things compared to processing information, but ends with an an actual desire to upload oneself to a disembodied life as a “cyberangel”. It’s this that makes clear the essentially religious character of the transhumanist quest. In this view, we’re soon entering a world where there is no scarcity, everyone lives for ever, and we’re watched over by a benevolent super-intelligence and its going to happen in our lifetimes! We’ve seen this story before, of course. In Carrico’s words, transhumanists are “infantile wish-fulfillment fantasists who fancy that they will quite literally arrive at a personally techno-transcendentalizing destination denominated The Future.” One could argue that tranhumanism/singularitarianism constitutes the state religion of Californian techno-neoliberalism, and like all state religions its purpose is to justify the power of the incumbents.

There is, of course, a powerful counter-argument to this kind of scepticism – the reality and scale of the technical and scientific changes in recent years, and the promise of changes yet to come. It’s difficult to write critically about technological change in a way that doesn’t lay you open to charges of ignorance of this reality. Carrico isn’t unaware of this dilemma; his counterargument is that in the superlative version of futurology, real technological advances and real promise – for better manufacturing, better healthcare, digital access to information, network security and user-friendly software – are co-opted into an essentially crypto-religious project. It’s in this sense that the speculative superlative futurology of the transhumanists contaminates the discussion we ought to be having about technology and society’s relationship to it.

Another prominent critique of transhumanism comes from the conservative, often religious, strand of thought sometimes labelled “bioconservatives”. Carrico strongly dissociates himself from this point of view, and indeed regards these two apparently contending points of view, not as polar opposites, but as “a longstanding clash of reactionary eugenic parochialisms”. Bioconservatives regard the “natural” as a moral category, and look back to an ideal past which never existed, just as the ideal future that the transhumanists look forward to will never exist either. Carrico sees a eugenic streak in both mindsets, as well as an intolerance of diversity and an unwillingness to allow people to choose what they actually want.

It’s this diversity that Carrico wants to keep hold of, as we talk, not of The Future, but of the many possible futures that could emerge from the proper way democracy should balance the different desires and wishes of many different people. The Californian tech culture in which transhumanism finds its natural home is characterised by a conspicuous conformism and lack of diversity. This by itself should make us suspicious of a movement that imposes its own parochial vision of an ideal future. But what can we know about the future, except that it is literally unknowable? There’s a fundamental unknowability of the consequences of human actions, and this in itself is a fundamental limit, on humanity’s knowledge of what it is capable of.

5 thoughts on “Does transhumanism matter?”

  1. I think you and Dale make some valid points, but your analysis fails because transhumanism is just too heterogeneous. There is little in common between a popularizer and storyteller like Kurzweil, and careful thinkers like Nick Bostrom or Robin Hanson, to name a few examples.

    You have expressed skepticism with regard to Mind Uploading, but I am not sure you have familiarized yourself with the strongest arguments in favour of the procedure. To do so, I recommend you read the Whole-Brain-Emulation roadmap from the Future of Humanity Institute.

    Your critique of molecular nanotechnology is very much appreciated and extremely valuable, but if I understand you correctly, you never actually say that you do not believe that some form of radical nanotechnology will be developed at some point in the future. You clearly disagree with groups like Foresight on the timescale, but you seem to leave open the possibility that radical nanotechnology may well be developed over the coming centuries, even if it takes a different route from Drexler’s proposals. You also speak quite favourably of Eric Drexler’s Nanosystems, and seem to regard people like Drexler, Merkle, Freitas, etc. , not at all as crackpots, but as serious scientists, with whom you have disagreements.

    As for the question, “Does transhumanism matter?”
    Well, to me it matters primarily because of cryonics. As far as I can see, there are credible arguments in favour of the feasibility of cryonics, and absolutely no arguments of any sort whatsoever anywhere (I’m sorry, I have to emphasize this) against the feasibility of cryonics. So while the success of the procedure is far from certain, it seems to me quite insane to dismiss it. And yet, we regularly let people die without applying the procedure, and nobody cares. Why is that?

  2. Jack, I’ve heard the argument that Kurzweil isn’t fully representative of the subtlety of transhumanist thought before, and I’m not wholly convinced – it seems to me that the transhumanist movement (and I think it is fair to call it a movement, given its publications and membership organisations) is happy enough to receive the publicity that Kurzweil brings it, and I don’t remember reading many repudiations of Kurzweil from other prominent transhumanists.

    I did read the FHI’s whole brain emulation roadmap – it seemed to me that it did acknowledge some of the issues I raised in my post, but it went on to dismiss them in too summary a way to convince me.

    What I should stress in connection with your third paragraph is that, of course, many transhumanists are clever and interesting people, with whom one can have productive conversations about many technical issues. But the history of ideas should warn us that it isn’t at all unusual for clever and interesting people to hold views on big issues that turn out to be seriously misguided. This gets us to the issue I raised in my antepenultimate paragraph – lots of the technical issues that transhumanists like to talk about are important and fascinating, and to me it’s unhelpful when they get tangled up in the ideology. So, indeed, I’m fascinated by some of the ideas of radical nanotechnology – how to make molecular scale machines, how to do chemical scale logic – and I’m happy to discuss those things with anyone with something to contribute, but that doesn’t mean I feel the need to buy in to the broader belief package.

    I do have views about cryonics but that would need a whole new blogpost to go into.

  3. Hi Richard,

    I notice you said:
    “To speak personally, my own life is much better than the lives of my grandparents and great-grandparents,”
    You did not say that your life if much better than your parents. Do you think it is debatable weather or not your life is much better than your parents? I am not sure if you have children or not but if you do, What do you think the probability that your kids will have a much better life than you?

    I also noticed that you did not talk about The Limits to Growth, the real ideological opponents to Transhumanism. Now that the north sea is well past its peak in oil production, how long do you think that the UK has until the majority of the people believe that the future will be worse for them not better for them?

    And as an American, I have become deeply pessimistic abut our current political system. I am afraid that our current political paralysis will be ended by a new authoritarianism of either the right or left.

  4. Transhumanism is a great idea. But I too believe that transhumanism is the world’s most dangerous idea. But I still don’t understand how nanotechnology is related to it?

  5. Jim, I’m glad you noticed that because it wasn’t accidental. There’s a huge gulf between my life and the life of my grandmother’s childhood in rural North Wales, with no electricity, no healthcare to speak of, travel by foot or a pony trap for special occasions, monotonous food. Her father, a quarry worker, died young, and she was brought up by her widowed mother in real poverty. My parents, though, were the beneficiaries of the huge rise in social mobility postwar, with my father able to go to university and join the professional middle classes, and the 1960s world I was born into had cars, hot water and indoor toilets, washing machines and a television, antibiotics and scientific healthcare. My life is more comfortable than my parents, and we have more gadgets, but the change I’ve seen in my lifetime doesn’t match what my grandmother saw. As for my children, I hope not so much that things get much better for them than they don’t get too much worse. As I’ve written in other blog posts, I’m seriously concerned for the economic future of the UK given the apparent end of the continuous rise in productivity we’ve grown used to (including the drying up of N Sea oil). I think we discussed the “Limits to Growth” argument after my post “New Dawn Fades”.

    Ruchi, nanotechnology’s role in transhumanism is essentially to provide a “deus ex machina” to provide putative technological solutions to pretty much any difficulty that stands in the way of the transhumanist ambitions. See Kurzweil’s “The Singularity is Near” for how this works.

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