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Fear & Loathing in Transhumanism

Posted: Sun, April 14, 2013 | By: Dirk Bruere



There is a sense of paranoia seething in some areas of “traditional” Transhumanism. There is the smell of change in the air and some people do not like it one little bit. So, what is the change and why is it causing problems?

To illustrate, let’s go back almost exactly twenty years to the early days of the Net. Back then very few people outside of the technical elite even knew that the “Internet” existed, let alone what it was. That self selected elite had their own culture, their own in-jokes and their own sense of idealism and freedom in what they saw as uncorrupted cyberspace, along with a utopian vision of how things ought to be in a new world. The vision of people like William Gibson in his seminal novel Neuromancer which appeared around a decade earlier was on one hand an inspiration and on the other an ignored warning of where it would be going, with its domination by mega-corporations, governments and the military. After all, it was science fiction set in “the future”. Unfortunately (or not) the future arrived surprisingly rapidly. By the millennium even politicians knew of it, although they did not quite grasp its potential. Faster off the mark were the corporations smelling money like sharks smelling blood in the water.

Almost overnight we moved into, and out of, the dotcom feeding frenzy followed by the relentless rise of survivors like Google, Apple, Facebook, Digital Rights etc. The megacorp had arrived, along with their parasites: the spammers, virus writers and intellectual property lawyers. Hard on their heels were governments discovering that what people said and did online actually had effects in the “real” world, and they began a slow inevitable push to regulate and control. As of today, the battle still rages with the heirs of the old Net elite circumventing regulations as they appear, creating free tools ranging from freeware like LibreOffice to bittorrent to encryption, proxies and the whole “darknet” scene. The only reason the battle is not lost is because the Net spans some two hundred separate national legal jurisdictions, all with their own often conflicting agendas. The irony of the one-world ideal saved by nationalism…

 

Meanwhile, some people sense that Transhumanism is finding itself in the same position the fledgling Internet was circa 1992 – on the verge of becoming mainstream with all that might entail, most notably loss of “control” over the central memes and their interpretation. If they are correct and history repeats itself then we have maybe seven or eight years before Transhumanism finds itself redefined in corporate, political and religious terms and the old “Declarations” consigned to a footnote in history along with those who wrote them.

What would be the equivalent of an H+ dotcom boom, slamming it into the public and political consciousness? There are a number of possibilities. From a mundane point of view, having the public actually see lots of driverless vehicles controlled by conventional AI might do it especially if they started to replace jobs. More likely is a breakthrough in anti-aging research, specifically concerning some drug, and a realization that aging is not inevitable. Or perhaps a really effective nootropic agent might make an appearance. Alternatively, the results of Human brain scale emulations running on exascale computers could have the potential especially if they actually acted like a Human intellect. Any one of those would see a massive influx of money into what was once central H+ memes, followed by: “Thank you, nerds – we will take over from here now it’s too big for you to handle”.

So, we have two polar reactions to this possible future.

 

On one hand we have the conservatives aka “reactionaries” or “fundamentalists” who want to keep H+ pure and unsullied. They decry articles that “dumb down” the technical ideas so that “ordinary people” can understand them. They sneer at anyone who does not have a PhD in a scitech subject who dares to offer an opinion, especially if that opinion might actually carry some weight with “outsiders”. Only purist websites have any right to discuss the subject, and then only in rational, cool, abstract terms (preferably with footnotes). Discussion of politics is OK, as long as it too is purist. That is, divorced from other messy political issues like immigration, crime, abortion, the death penalty, foreign military policy and so forth. As for H+ associated with non-liberal ideas… that is such a taboo that even the names of organizations that try to do it are not spoken of in polite company. When it comes to religion, well… that will get you kicked off any number of lists for even raising the subject (unless it is to sneer at the concept). It too is a forbidden area, most especially the fact that H+ core memes are also central to many religions, not least Christianity in which it has exact parallels. Anyone not avowedly atheist is viewed with suspicion at best.

Then we have the “rebels”, among which I number myself and Zero State. We want to dumb down the ideas so that non technical people can understand them. We want to associate them with specific political party positions e.g. The Consensus, and we want to offer a religious interpretation for those to whom it might appeal - e.g. The Praxis .

The reasoning is simple: all of this is going to happen anyway and we want to ride the wave, not be marginalized by it. We may not succeed, but the only guarantee of failure is not participating and sticking to some outdated fundamentalist doctrine like a tiny, slowly dying, cult.

Am I wrong?

 



Comments:

I do agree to the point of communicating the hard science to the broader public.

By Noetic Jun on Apr 14, 2013 at 3:22pm

this does not take into account the transhumanist philosophy of extropy where transhumanism started.

By mark myers on Apr 14, 2013 at 5:01pm

Gibson’s view was and is hardly utopian.  In real life he isn’t even much of a technophile to say the least. 

Corporations - the companies that brought the technology into fruition and put it into billions of hands?  Surely a quite good and necessary thing, no? 

This is not to say any of that is perfect but neither is it automatically the sign of rot.  Actually one-world ideas are not and never were very universal among the techno-hippies and others who kicked off and ran with the computer age.  Nor is only nationalism keeping us from worldwide control of the internet.  It is also deucedly difficult to exercise such control. 

Transhumanism is imho already redefining itself as something rather dull and uninspiring.  It has not to do with degrees or ability to solve super-bayesian puzzles.  If the essence is not present (or never fully formed) then it doesn’t matter how dumbed downed the result is or how many people “get” the result.  It will not make a difference. 

I salute efforts to find a true deep commitment and living into being behind our transhumanism although some of the particular formulations mentioned, like The Consensus, are in my view still very flawed.

By Samantha Atkins on Apr 14, 2013 at 5:44pm

It will come as no surprise that I agree entirely, but I would like to clarify one thing. Popularization of memes in various contexts does not mean abandoning hard science (far from it!), it doesn’t require explaining the details to the general public, and it does not mean that the hard science becomes any less important. Quite the opposite, in fact… it is a drive to ensure that Transhumanists retain a hand in the game, and that the place of hard science in society is not determined by those ignorant of Transhumanism at best, opposed to it at worst.

By Amon Kalkin on Apr 15, 2013 at 2:33am

Are you wrong ?  Too early to tell.  But i have to disagree with some of your statements:

“We want to dumb down the ideas so that non technical people can understand them” - i just hope you mean that as hyperbole, otherwise it is obvious nonsense to equate presentation of technical ideas in layman’s term with “dumbing down”.  Unless you really want to imply that non-technical people are less smart than technical ones, and what would that say about you ?

You are postdating Apple’s rise to prominence by about 10 years.

What you call “that self selected elite” was not self selected (whatever that may mean), they were simply among the first to present their ideas in a half organized web presence and by no means agreed about all issues amongst themselves.  But these ideas were on the internet 10 years earlier as well (in fact discussed on “the well”).  And another decade earlier they became a hot topic within the counter culture through the work of Leary.

So do you really envision a party that is basing their strategy on a bunch of dumbed down voters who do not need to understand what they are voting for, as long as they let themselves be bamboozled into supporting your agenda ?

Intelligence increase is one of the cornerstones of transhumanism (i dare say regardless of whom you ask).  Dumbing down is anathema.

By René Milan on Apr 15, 2013 at 4:45am

Dumbing down means simply providing the conclusions of the technical arguments in a form a non-specialist can understand.
For example, you can talk of megawatts of electricity, or enough electricity to run 1000 one bar heaters.
Another would be something like “a lot of scientists think the Singularity could end in disaster”.

By Dirk Bruere on Apr 22, 2013 at 1:52pm

The question I asked above was: “What would be the equivalent of an H+ dotcom boom, slamming it into the public and political consciousness?”

How about an author who has sold nearly 100m books making H+ a central theme in his next work?

A quote from a review of Dan Brown’s Inferno “The Transhumanist movement is about to explode from the shadows into the mainstream. One of its fundamental tenets is that we as humans have a moral obligation to participate in our evolutionary process … to use our technologies to advance the species, to create better humans — healthier, stronger, with higher-functioning brains. Everything will soon be possible.”

May I suggest that more people will read his new books than there are people who, to date, have actually heard of H+?

By Dirk Bruere on Jun 02, 2013 at 3:40am


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