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Transhumanist Elitism, Privilege and Intersectionality

Posted: Thu, March 07, 2013 | By: Ian D. Mclean

I’ve been approached by two people so far to write an article about elitism in transhumanist communities. I’ve been reluctant to accept these offers for a couple of reasons. 

First, I don’t like stirring hornet nests. Second, I’ve not spent a lot of time in meat space with other transhumanists, so I don’t feel that my observations can be generalized to beyond the couple of offline events and the couple of online communities that I’ve lurked at. Third, and most importantly, I don’t feel I can do the social critique of privilege and intersectionality justice. Fourth, I can’t yet quantify my claims.

I’ve been approached because I’ve voiced some concerns about transhumanist ideals and methods. It seems to me that there is a notable absence of people of color, women, and trans* people in the community. From the demographics that I’ve seen so far, your average transhumanist is a young to mid-age white affluent male with at least some college or professional education. Given the technical orientation of the transhumanist ideals and the economic costs intrinsic to complex technology, it seems to me that it immediately follows that the community is at high risk of reinforcing social inequality and privileged norms rather than critiquing, challenging, and deconstructing them.

While lurking around transhumanist communities on Facebook—notably the H+ magazine contributor’s group which is an open group—I found the community to be lacking in scientific and technical literacy; also, I’ve run into some rather intolerant and arrogant people; some who are contributors to the H+ magazine or board members. There is a general culture—so it seems to me—of smug superiority. For some it’s simple economic superiority and for other’s it’s intellectual superiority. There are discussions of eugenics which of course sparks fears of white supremacy in discussion. Regardless of the specific form, classism seems to be a common property in the community.

I’ve raised some concerns about how the technology developed and championed by transhumanists will actually be used. I’ve watched for a couple of decades now as transhumanist technologies have been honed into weapons of war and tools for police states. I went to the Singularity summit in 2011; I left the summit with the distinct impression that the Singularity community was a special interest of the wealthiest in the society. Capitalists, oligarchs, and monopolists looking for yet greater ways to increase their power relative to others. There are discussions about longevity, practical immortality, and achieving godhood right along side Ayn Rand like libertarianism. It reminds me of manifest destiny and similar imperialistic ideals of history.

Recently, I introduced some of my friends from the post scarcity communities to the Human 2.0 Council on Facebook. The response to ideas like basic income have been pretty uniformly hostile.

“Everything there is totally wrong.

People are not equal in skill, intelligence, character, ambition, or vision. Forcing them to be equal in financial outcomes is the very opposite of justice. How do you expect greater utility from taking away from the relatively more competent at producing value and giving to the relatively less competent?

If I cannot better my condition [by] working harder, learning more, reaching further then how long do you think I and others would continue to do so? How long if you insist we must lift the entire mass of humankind to advance our own condition in any material way?

Property is not an arbitrary construct of society. It is an obvious part of having the right [to live] your own life. You produce value. It is your property that you are free to trade for the value produced by others. Government exist to protect such rights not to insist that it is arbitrary to say that you own anything at all, even your own life.” -Samantha Atkins

I tried to tell a couple supporters of the basic income scheme that not only is it immoral, but it would never work in the long run. I got the typical statist talking points and just left them to their own devices. They obviously know better than me, so let them prove it. These people that support this basic income bullshit can’t be reasoned with because they already have their minds made up. -Anthony Bruce

This is fairly common sentiment in my experience. When I gave my Transhumanism and Animal Uplift Presentation at FurCon 2013 this year—also a predominantly affluent demographic notably with a skew towards LGBTQ—I got some pretty clear negative feedback when I said that transhumanist technologies, particularly cybernetic implants and elective prosthesis, would become common and affordable precisely when we adopted universal single payer healthcare. There were quite a few people who got rather upset at that notion.

Much of this leads me to the tentative conclusion that the transhumanist community—if these behaviors, beliefs, and ideals are representative—is primarily a wealth cult cheer leading a future in which the wealthiest not only get wealthier but become as gods compared to puny mortals like us.

This is licensed under the Creative Commons Share-Alike 3.0 unported license.

This essay was originally posted at Ian’s blog HERE 


Hence Zero Sate and our soundbite of “Nobody left behind” (unwillingly).
The demographic “skew” is English speaking Americans with a Rightwing bias. That’s because even the Democratic Party in the US is viewed by much of the rest of the world, including Europe, as being extreme Right.
A video on the vast income inequality in the USA:

By Dirk Bruere on Mar 07, 2013 at 5:58am

Yep, the feeling of having a relative position of power, is tangible to those who can’t imagine any other type of existence.

But they won’t necessarily be running things.  We have a sufficient number of hackers and socially responsible individuals to make it difficult for a winners-take-all scenario to happen. 

And the technology itself is going to be empowering, even for those with cheaper devices temporarily.  It’s not necessarily a transitive property, where more ‘powerful’ expensive implants will always guarantee a higher quality of life than the mongrels with ‘cheaper’ versions.  Many of these technologies will be open-source or hackable, and therefore can be improved behind the scenes, and shared.

But there’s another aspect to this, the psychological need to be superior to one’s neighbor, to be smarter, to be stronger, to have a hotter-looking mate.

I would expect that the need itself will be left in the past, along with other evolutionary carryovers which will no longer present a survival benefit.


By DCWhatthe on Mar 07, 2013 at 6:44am

As someone who comes from a low income family, and is currently unemployed, going to college on financial aid, I can see what your getting at. That’s why I firmly believe the DIYTranshumanists are just as important as the Mainstream Transhumanists in the long run. The goal is to allow everyone who wants to transcend biology to do so, but if for some reason the poor are left behind, the DIYTranshumanists will be there to reverse engineer the mainstream tech and both provide it to the poor and/or teach them to make it themselves.

By Brandon King on Mar 07, 2013 at 12:30pm

There is a significant libertarian element in transhumanism, but there are quite a few liberal tranhumanists and socialist transhumanists as well.  Transhumanism is just the idea that we should advance humankind and be tolerant to those who choose to modify or enchance themselves, it’s not tied to any political or economic ideology.

All I can say is that I think you’ve been talking to the wrong transhumanists.

By Yosarian on Mar 07, 2013 at 1:49pm

After reading this piece will choose blacks and latins to discuss transhumanism with—couldn’t have less luck with them than with whites.

By Alan Brooks on Mar 07, 2013 at 9:11pm

Great piece Ian!

As Dirk and others have said, the problem you’ve run into is a common one, and I think it’s a natural consequence of tech-oriented people naturally coming from more affluent backgrounds, historically speaking.

But the bottom line is that you shouldn’t give up - you just haven’t been chatting with the correct Transhumanists, and in this case the “correct Transhumanists” would be Zero State grin

By Amon Kalkin on Mar 08, 2013 at 10:04am

Great article and very well analysed. Transhumanism is about the merge of men and technology. The question, what exacly a ‘human being’ is, is answered like we are just a transcendent layer of imagination that emerges from an underlying and insufficient chemical/biological structure that could also be replaced with a different and ‘better’ structure, as long, as the new structure offers the same order of kognitive connectivity - if a thought is actually pulses in a brain, these pulses can also be pulses within silicon.

The approach is darwinistic and neoliberal at the same time. If you read Kurzweil, its all about money and efficency, and also military predominance. Also Ayn Rands objectivism does fit perfectly into the transhumanist idea of the pure mathematical and rational nature of our minds. The idea is that 100% pure rationalism will automatically lead us (whats ‘us’ again?) to a stage of supremacy.

But in the end the consequence of transhumanism is to get rid of human beings - of their/our own nature - to transform into something superior to human beings. From a humanist and democratic point of view this posiion needs to be seriously questioned and should be monitored.

By Jens C. Möller on Mar 08, 2013 at 11:50am

The whole problem with “rationalism” is that all logic proceeds from axioms which are inherently arbitrary. Who gets to choose the axioms?

By Dirk Bruere on Mar 08, 2013 at 2:11pm

“Who gets to choose the axioms?’

One might reply God plays dice; I doubt it- but then it is conceivable a ‘Supreme Being’’ chooses the axioms for us at random.
Is such crazy?: yes, however probably not crazy enough to be valid!

By Alan Brooks on Mar 09, 2013 at 10:02pm

Now, to totally screw your demographic Ian. I am below poverty level, far above normal IQ, though having lacked funds for higher education I am primarily self educated. I am a Furry, Trans*, support political ideas on all sides of the street, and support a modest guaranteed income, guaranteed basic necessities such as food, shelter, medical care, education, and security, and do so primarily to promote the elimination of using basic needs as a tool to allow exploitation. I recommend universal enforced employment to ensure everyone contributes to the good of society, such as having a minimal work requirement to receive anything above bare minimal support (i.e. you want luxuries of any sort, you earn them) Such “work” should be oriented in attempting to “nudge” everyone towards greater education and improved ability to contribute to society. I also view such measures as being needed to provide a bridge between the collapsing economy of scarcity (the environment in which Randian thought originated, and in which it is inextricably bound, and thus doomed) and the coming economy of abundance in which scarcity will be virtually eliminated. As such, measures such as universal healthcare, income etc would be temporary, existing primarily as a “jumpstart” to eliminate suffering during the transition period.

Will we see it happen, despite the overwhelming need for such a measure? That depends entirely on how fast the collapse happens. if it can be allowed to proceed naturally, we should not absolutely need such measures. If, as it appears to be doing, it happens quickly due to the efforts of groups trying to prevent their obsolescence by cannibalizing the lower tiers of society, it will become a necessity that is put into place by those same groups as a last ditch effort to prevent the mounting of their heads on pikes.

Either way, the current society of transhumanism is really not well represented online in the groups which claim to represent transhumanity, because a vast number of transhumanist societal elements are oblivious to the reality that they are in fact transhumanist.

And by the way, a red fox is in reality orange, not red.

By Valkyrie Ice on Mar 11, 2013 at 3:26pm

To the arguments about not having met the right kind of transhumanist, I offer the criticism that those arguments are like “not all Christians are like X.” While this maybe true it doesn’t necessarily trump the statistical averages and the general properties which follow. I have certainly met some interesting transhumanists and Singulatarians who break the mold so to speak, but the form a significant minority in my experience and quite a few of them dislike identifying as transhumanist preferring instead terms like grinders and psychonauts; the importance often being emphasized on the negative connotations of being identified with the primarily privileged and affluent vocal transhumanists.

To the arguments about rationalism and objectivism, you should check out the arguments made against naive rationalism and Hilbert like programs by the likes of Karl Popper, Kurt Gödel, Alan Turing. More recently, you could check out Yudkowski’s argument about the general impossibility of ensuring friendly AI and a safe Singularity. There are good arguments to be made about the practical impossibility of pure or perfect consciousness and counter arguments to be made against the notion of hierarchical societies; the notion of supremacy between races or species if pushed as something desirable has as it’s consequence growing social inequality. I will not support a transhumanist movement which seeks to increase social inequality. A transhumanism which seeks after supremacy is generally mutually exclusive to one which seeks after social equality, and we know the logical end of seeking for supremacy; it was not more than a few generations ago that the Cold War was waged and scientists of the era warned that mutually assured destruction awaited those who followed that path to its conclusion.

I hope that DIY and FLOS{S|H} transhumanism becomes the general paradigm, but in the mean time, it is possible and advantageous at least in the short term for capitalist, state, and military-intelligence to appropriate destructively from the commons and monopolize real and intellectual properties. If the transhumanist community is primarily represented economically and politically by the affluent, I do not generally have confidence that representation by and for the poor will coalesce before regulatory capture occurs.

By Ian Mclean on May 11, 2013 at 4:43pm

“your average transhumanist is a young to mid-age white affluent male with at least some college or professional education”.

Hey, this definitely trumps the cliché that your average transhumanist is an underemployed, socially-challenged and nerdish dropout of a rather indefinite gender identity, made irrimediably ignorant by the anglo-american education system he went reluctantly through, and overcompensating his/her personal /professional failure and frustrations with golden-age daydreaming over the Net. :-D

By Stefano Vaj on May 12, 2013 at 9:20am

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