Transhumanism’s Big Political Blind Spot

For those who still don’t know what it is, transhumanism is basically the application of science and technology to amplify the human condition, potentially well beyond our biological default settings. As someone who has increasingly identified with transhumanism since publishing Humanity 2.0 in 2011, I welcome the ideology’s move into the mainstream of politics and culture, at least in the English-speaking world. But the form it has taken is rather curious.

Zoltan Istvan, a California-based science fiction writer with columns in The Huffington Post and Vice, is running for the US presidency in 2016 on the Transhumanist Party ticket — so far without a running mate, it seems. He plans to drive an ‘Immortality Bus’ across America to dramatize his main policy priority: enabling everyone to live forever. A measure of Istvan’s respectability is that he keynoted this year’s Camp Alphaville in London, a meeting point for Silicon Valley and Financial Times readers. Meanwhile, Maria Konovalenko, also California-based, is a Russian-born biophysicist who promotes transhumanist lifestyle issues, from cooking to sex, all aimed at immortality as well. She does a lot of fund-raising activities for transhumanist causes, and like Istvan presents a certain vision of transhumanism – infinite youthful vitality, basically – as an inherently attractive ideal for all of humanity.

But what if you don’t share this ideal? I’ve semi-facetiously speculated that such transhumanists must regard most non-transhumanists as zombies who spend their lives waiting to die. Nevertheless, it is not surprising that the mainstreaming of transhumanism has occurred this way, as if reflects issues already on people’s minds, such as health and ageing. Indeed, Istvan and Konovalenko periodically suggest that transhumanism is really just an extension of ‘common sense’, one that happens to promise to cure ‘disabilities’, end degenerative diseases and reprogramme potential criminals. All of these goals, while undoubtedly attractive to many individuals, point to enormous social and ethical problems down the road once scaled up into the realm of public policy. My own version of transhumanism has put these problems in the foreground, typically in an optimistic spirit that sees an opportunity for radical social innovation. However, these scale-related issues are conspicuous by their absence from mainstream transhumanism.

This absence points to transhumanism’s political blind spot, which is related to its default libertarian philosophy. Transhumanists (and here I would also include even some of the more sensible Silicon Valley entrepreneurs) generally believe that all of humanity’s differences – be they in terms of wealth or health – are the result of large organizations, perhaps most of all the state, blocking the flow of information which has the potential to provide a cornucopia of benefits, typically through new technologies, once the information is allowed to develop freely. Of course, the resulting innovations may make a few people rich at first but markets will spur competition, drive down prices, distribute the innovations, etc. What gives this narrative its surface plausibility is that, at bottom, all people are seen as wanting the same things, to be the same way, and so they have a common interest in pushing together towards the envisaged utopia. Whatever value differences seem to exist amongst people can be resolved simply by ‘upgrading’ their existence. Thus, the fact that all societies are anchored in quite specific interpretations of the life cycle is treated as a mere wrinkle that will be ironed out over time as a downstream effect of the cornucopian onslaught.

To be sure, there may well remain irreconcilable value differences. And here the idea of a cornucopian cosmos kicks in. Many transhumanists are open to the idea of humanity’s sub-speciation, a line of thought that implies self-segregating eco-niches, perhaps even corresponding to separate forms of life flourishing on different planets. However, a prospect that one rarely sees transhumanists pursue is that of integrating a much wider range of beings travelling under the banner of ‘humanity’ than ever before under a common system of governance. Yet, people’s intuitions about ‘disability’ are becoming increasingly fluid, connected in part to the popularity of cyborgs, as well as transhumanism’s own idea of ‘morphological freedom’ (i.e. the capacity to move between radically different states of being, especially carbon and silicon).

Indeed, Veronika Lipinska and I have argued in The Proactionary Imperative that a truly free transhumanist society would stretch society’s powers of accommodation and assimilation to levels that no classical liberal theorist could ever have imagined. John Locke and his liberal descendants presumed a ‘natural’ (i.e. biological) equality amongst all people, which in their own way libertarian transhumanists continue to uphold. However, the deep political challenge facing transhumanism is how to integrate a range of ‘humans’ whose resource requirements may differ substantially because, say, their carbon/silicon ratios vary radically – but equally, and more simply, because people refuse to hop on Istvan’s Immortality Bus. These beings would not be ‘natural equals’ yet they would qualify for some more expansive sense of Equality 2.0.

Thanks to Emilie Whitaker for some well-targeted tweets.

Categories: Committing Sociology, Rethinking The World

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