The Politics of Transhumanism
Version 2.0 (March 2002)
James J. Hughes, Ph.D.
Originally Presented at the 2001 Annual Meeting of the Society for Social Studies of ScienceCambridge, MA November 1-4, 2001
Transhumanism is an emergent philosophical movement which says that humans can and should become more than human through technological enhancements. Contemporary transhumanism has grown out of white, male, affluent, American Internet culture, and its political perspective has generally been a militant version of the libertarianism typical of that culture. Nonetheless transhumanists are becoming more diverse, with some building a broad liberal democratic philosophic foundation in the World Transhumanist Association. A variety of left futurist trends and projects are discussed as a proto-democratic transhumanism. The essay also discusses the reaction of transhumanists to a small group of neo-Nazis who have attempted to attach themselves to the transhumanist movement. For the transhumanist movement to grow and become a serious challenge to their opposites, the bio-Luddites, they will need to distance themselves from their elitist anarcho-capitalist roots and clarify commitments to liberal democratic institutions, values and public policies. By embracing political engagement and the use of government to address equity, safety and efficacy concerns about transhuman technologies, transhumanists are in a better position to attract a larger, broader audience.
When it comes to political memes, transhumanism in its purest form doesn’t have any fixed niche. Instead each host or group of hosts link it to their previous political views. (Sandberg, 1994)
Since the advent of the Enlightenment, the idea that the human condition can be improved through reason, science and technology has been mated with all varieties of political ideology. Partisans of scientific human betterment have generally been opponents of, and opposed by, the forces of religion, and therefore have generally tilted towards cosmopolitan, cultural liberalism. But there have been secular cosmopolitans, committed to human progress through science, who were classical liberals or libertarians, as well as liberal democrats, social democrats and communists. There have also been technocratic fascists, attracted to racialism by eugenics, and to nationalism by the appeal of the unified, modernizing nation-state.
With the emergence of cyberculture, the technoutopian meme-plex has found a natural medium, and has been furiously mutating and crossbreeding with political ideologies. One of its recent manifestations has adopted the label transhumanism, and within this sparsely populated but broad ideological tent many proto-ideological hybrids are stirring. Much transhumanist proto-politics is distinctly the product of elitist, male, American libertarianism, limiting its ability to respond to concerns behind the growing Luddite movement, such as with the equity and safety of innovations. Committed only to individual liberty, libertarian transhumanists have little interest in building solidarity between posthumans and normals, or in crafting techno-utopian projects which can inspire broad social movements.
In this paper I will briefly discuss the political flavors of transhumanism that have developed in the last dozen years, including extropian libertarianism, the liberal democratic World Transhumanist Association, neo-Nazi transhumanism, and radical democratic transhumanism. In my closing remarks I will suggest ways that a broader democratic transhumanism may take shape that would have a better chance of attracting a mass following and securing a political space for the kinds of human self-improvement that the transhumanists envision.
This is really what is unique about the Extropian movement: the fusion of radical technological optimism with libertarian political philosophy one might call it libertarian transhumanism. (Goertzel, 2000)
In the 1980s, a young British graduate student, Max OConnor, became interested in futurist ideas and life extension technologies while studying philosophy and political economy at Oxford. In the mid-1980s he became one of the pioneers of cryonics in England. After finishing at Oxford in 1988, having been impressed with the United States dynamism and openness to future-oriented ideas, OConnor began his doctoral studies in philosophy at the University of Southern California. At USC he began mixing with the local futurist subculture, and soon teamed up with another graduate student, T.O. Morrow, to found the technoutopian journal Extropy.
OConnor and Morrow adopted the term extropy, the opposite of entropy, as the core symbol of their philosophy and goals: life extension, the expansion of human powers and control over nature, expansion into space, and the emergence of intelligent, organic, spontaneous order. OConnor also adopted the new name Max More as a sign of his commitment to what my goal is: always to improve, never to be static. I was going to get better at everything, become smarter, fitter, and healthier. It would be a constant reminder to keep moving forward” (Regis, 1994).
In early issues of Extropy magazine More began to publish successive versions and expositions of his Extropian Principles. In the early 1990s the Principles resolved down to five:
1.BOUNDLESS EXPANSION: Seeking more intelligence, wisdom, and effectiveness, an unlimited lifespan, and the removal of political, cultural, biological, and psychological limits to self-actualization and self-realization. Perpetually overcoming constraints on our progress and possibilities. Expanding into the universe and advancing without end.
2.SELF-TRANSFORMATION: Affirming continual psychological, intellectual, and physical self-improvement, through reason and critical thinking, personal responsibility, and experimentation. Seeking biological and neurological augmentation.
3. DYNAMIC OPTIMISM: Positive expectations fueling dynamic action. Adopting a rational, action-based optimism, shunning both blind faith and stagnant pessimism.
4.INTELLIGENT TECHNOLOGY: Applying science and technology creatively to transcend “natural” limits imposed by our biological heritage, culture, and environment.
5.SPONTANEOUS ORDER: Supporting decentralized, voluntaristic social coordination processes. Fostering tolerance, diversity, foresight, personal responsibility and individual liberty.
In 1991 the extropians founded an email list, taking advantage of the dramatic expansion of Internet culture. The Extropian email list, and its associated regional and topical email lists, have attracted thousands of subscribers and have carried an extremely high volume of posts for the last decade. Most people who consider themselves extropians have never met other extropians, and participate only in this virtual community. There are however small groups of extropians who meet together socially in California, Washington D.C. and Boston.
In the first issue of Extropy in 1988 More and Morrow included libertarian politics as one of the topics the magazine would promote. In 1991 Extropy focused on the principle of emergent order, publishing an essay by T.O. Morrow on David Friedmans anarcho-capitalist concept of “Privately Produced Law”, and an article from Max More on “Order Without Orderers”. In these essays Morrow and More made clear the journals commitment to radical libertarianism, an ideological orientation shared by most of the young, well-educated, American men attracted to the extropian list. The extropian milieu saw the state, and any form of egalitarianism, as a potential threat to their personal self-transformation. Mores fifth principle Spontaneous Order distilled their Hayek and Ayn Rand-derived belief that an anarchistic market creates free and dynamic order, while the state and its life-stealing authoritarianism is entropic.
In 1992 More and Morrow founded the Extropy Institute, which held its first conference in 1994. At Extro 1 in Sunnyvale California, the keynote speaker was the controversial computer scientist Hans Moravec, speaking on the how humans would be inevitably superceded by robots. Eric Drexler, a cryonics promoter and the founder of the field of nanotechnology, also addressed the conference. Also in attendance was journalist Ed Regis (1994) whose subsequent article on the Extropians in Wired magazine greatly increasing the groups visibility. The second Extro conference was held in 1995, Extro 3 was held in 1997, Extro 4 in 1999, and Extro 5 in 2001. Each conference has attracted more prominent scientists, science fiction authors and futurist luminaries.
In the wake of all this attention, the extropians also began to attract withering criticism from progressive culture critics. In 1996 Wired contributor Paulina Borsook debated More in an on-line forum in the Wired website, taking him to task for selfishness, elitism and escapism. She subsequently published the book Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High Tech (2001). Mark Dery excoriated the extropians and a dozen related techno-culture trends in his 1997 Escape Velocity, coining the dismissive phrase body-loathing for those, like the extropians, who want to escape from their meat puppet (body).
The extropian list often was filled with vituperative attacks on divergent points of view, and those who had been alienated by the extropians but were nonetheless sympathetic with transhumanist views began to amount a sizable group. Although Mores wife, Natasha Vita-More, is given prominent acknowledgement of her transhumanist arts and culture projects, there are few women involved in the extropian subculture, and there have been women who left the list citing the dominant adolescent, hyper-masculine style of argumentation. In a February/March 2002 poll more than 80% of extropians were male, and more than 50% were under 30 years old (ExiCommunity Polls, 2002). In 1999 and 2000 the European fellow-travelers of the extropians began to organize and meet, and the World Transhumanist Association was organized with founding documents distinctly less libertarian than the Extropian Principles. In the latter 1990s, as transhumanism broadened its social base, a growing number of non-libertarian voices began to make themselves heard on the extro email lists.
Responding to these various trends and presumably his own philosophical maturation, More revamped his principles in 2000 from Version 2.6 to Version 3.0, and from five principles into seven: 1. Perpetual Progress, 2. Self-Transformation, 3. Practical Optimism, 4. Intelligent Technology, 5. Open Society, 6. Self-Direction, and 7. Rational Thinking. In Version 3.0, More adapts the previous, anarcho-capitalist Spontaneous Order into the much more moderately libertarian:
5. Open Society Supporting social orders that foster freedom of speech, freedom of action, and experimentation. Opposing authoritarian social control and favoring the rule of law and decentralization of power. Preferring bargaining over battling, and exchange over compulsion. Openness to improvement rather than a static utopia.
6. Self-Direction Seeking independent thinking, individual freedom, personal responsibility, self-direction, self-esteem, and respect for others
In a more extensive commentary on his 3.0 principles More explicitly departs from the elitist, Randian position of enlightened selfishness, and argues for both a consistent rule of law and for civic responsibility.
..for individuals and societies to flourish, liberty must come with personal responsibility. The demand for freedom without responsibility is an adolescents demand for license. (More, 2000).
He also argues that extropianism is not libertarian and can be compatible with a number of different types of liberal open societies, although not in theocracies or authoritarian or totalitarian systems. (More, 2000).
However, as a casual review of the traffic on the extropian lists confirms, the majority of extropians remain staunch libertarians. In a survey of extropian list participants conducted in February and March
of 2002, 56% of the respondents identified as “libertarian” or “anarchist/self-governance,” with another 15% committed to (generally minarchist) alternative political visions (ExiCommunity Polls, 2002). In the recommended economics and societyreading list that More attaches to the 3.0 version of the principles, the political economy readings still strongly suggest an anarcho-capitalist orientation:
Ronald H. Coase The Firm, the Market, and the Law
David Friedman The Machinery of Freedom (2nd Ed.)
Kevin Kelly Out of Control
Friedrich Hayek The Constitution of Liberty
Karl Popper The Open Society and Its Enemies
Julian Simon The Ultimate Resource (2nd ed.)
Julian Simon & Herman Kahn (eds) The Resourceful Earth
As the Julian Simon readings suggest, most extropians also remain explicitly and adamantly opposed to the environmental movement, advancing the arguments of Julian Simon and others that the eco-system is not really threatened, and if it is, the only solution is more and better technology. There are occasional discussions on the extropian list about the potential downsides or catastrophic consequences of emerging technologies, but these are generally waved off as being either easily remediable or acceptable risks given the tremendous rewards.
This form of argumentation is more understandable in the context of the millennial apocalyptic expectations which most transhumanists have adopted, referred to as the Singularity. The extropians Singularity is a coming rupture in social life, brought about by some confluence of genetic, cybernetic and nano technologies. The concept of the Singularity was first proposed by science fiction author Vernor Vinge in a 1993 essay, referring specifically to the apocalyptic consequences of the emergence of self-willed artificial intelligence, projected to occur with the next couple of decades. In a February-March 2002 poll of extropians, the average year in which respondents expected the next major breakthrough or shakeup that will radically reshape the future of humanity was 2017. Only 21% said there would be no such event, just equal acceleration across all areas. The majority of extropians who expected a Singularity expected it to emerge from computing or artificial intelligence, a medical breakthrough or an advance in nanotechnology (ExiCommunity Polls, 2002).
Among millenarian movements, belief in the Singularity is uniquely grounded in rational, scientific argument about measurable exponential trends. For instance, singularitarians such as Ray Kurzweil (Kurzweilai.net) map the exponential growth of computing power (Moores Law) and memory against the computing capacity of the human brain to argue for the immanence of machine minds. However, the popularity of the idea of the Singularity also stems from the transcultural appeal of visions of apocalypse and redemption. The Singularity is a vision of techno-Rapture for secular, alienated, relatively powerless, techno-enthusiasts (Bozeman, 1997). The appeal of the Singularity for libertarians such as the extropians is that, like the Second Coming, it does not require any specific collective action. The Singularity is literally a deus ex machina. Ayn Rand envisioned society sinking into chaos once the techno-elite withdrew into their Valhalla. But the Singularity will elevate the techno-savvy elite while most likely wiping out everybody else.
For instance, responding to a challenge from Mark Dery about the socio-economic implications of robotic ascension, Extropian Board member Hans Moravec responded the socioeconomic implications are largely irrelevant. It doesnt matter what people do, because theyre going to be left behind like the second stage of a rocket. Unhappy lives, horrible deaths, and failed projects have been part of the history of life on Earth ever since there was life; what really matters in the long run is whats left over (Moravec quoted by Goertzel, 2000). Working individually to stay on the cutting edge of technology, transforming oneself into a post-human, is the extropians best insurance of surviving and prospering through the Singularity.
In the last couple of years the neo-Luddite movement has grown in coordination and political visibility, from movements against gene-mod food, cloning and stem cells, to President Bushs appointment of staunch bio-conservative ethicist Leon Kass as his chief bioethics advisor and chair of the Presidents Council on Bioethics (PCB). Kass in turn appointed fellow bio-Luddites to the PCB, such as Francis Fukuyama, author of the recent anti-genetic engineering manifesto Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution (2002).
Despite faith in the inevitability of the millennium, the neo-Luddites have sufficiently alarmed the extropians that in 2001 Natasha Vita-More announced the creation of the Progress Action Coalition (“Pro-Act”), an extropian political action committee. The groups announced intention is to build a coalition of groups to defend high technology against the Luddites.
Speaking at the event, artist and “cultural catalyst” Natasha Vita-More, Pro-Act Director, said the fledgling organization aims to build a coalition of groups that will take on a broad range of neo-Luddites opposed to new technologies such as genetic engineering, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence, ranging from Bill Joy to Greenpeace, Jeremy Rifkin’s Foundation for Economic Trends, the Green party, and the current protestors at the BIO2001 conference in San Diego. (Angelica, 2001)
The group is still being established, but the set of scientific and cultural members, supporters and fellow-travelers that the extropians have collected could be leveraged for considerable political effect. Engaging in actual political campaigns to defeat anti-cloning or anti-stem cells bills would inevitably force the extropians to grapple with partisan politics and the ways in which the state actively supports science, further attenuating their anarchist purity. Conversely, the groups stigma as an elitist, kooky cult centered on the thinking of one man may make it difficult to attract mainstream biotech or computer firms as backers and supporters of their political project.
According to an account by Max Mores wife, Natasha Vita-More, the term transhuman was first used in 1966 by the Iranian-American futurist F.M. Esfandiary while he was teaching at the New School for Social Research. The term subsequently appeared in Abraham Maslows 1968 Toward a Psychology of Being and in Robert Ettingers 1972 Man into Superman. Like Maslow and Ettinger, F.M. Esfandiary (who changed his name to FM-2030) used the term in his writings in the 1970s to refer to people who were adopting the technologies, lifestyles and cultural worldviews that were transitional to post-humanity. In his 1989 book Are You Transhuman? FM-2030 says
(Transhumans) are the earliest manifestations of new evolutionary beings. They are like those earliest hominids who many millions of years ago came down from the trees and began to look around. Transhumans are not necessarily committed to accelerating the evolution to higher life forms. Many of them are not even aware of their bridging role in evolution.
Read the rest here:
The Politics of Transhumanism – Changesurfer
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