I want the future now,
I want to hold it in my hands;
All men equal and unbowed,
I want the promised land.
Peter Hammill 1978
At my 10 year anniversary as a ‘card carrying’ transhumanist i feel compelled to rethink what that means, what we want and how we (should) go about it, and if there even is a ‘we’.
In spite of its proven merits as a tool of mental hygiene one may wonder why i would want to give the millennia old advice ‘be here now’ to an audience whose main concern is the future. To answer this, a brief look at the concept is required.
What we usually think of as the future is really nothing but projections based on our hopes and fears and, ideally, the extrapolation of past evolutionary trends. This future is thus imaginary, while the real future is manifesting itself only and continually in this moment. Yet we are all using our imagination as a guide to illuminate our way into terra incognita, and the best – i think most of us will agree – way to do this is encapsulated in Max More’s Proactionary Principle. Still, the farther we go (in our minds) forward from now, the more uncertainty, as well as irrelevance, increases.
Let us look at the current activities and preoccupations of transhumanists coming back towards the present, and as my samples are anecdotal, arbitrary and incomplete, corrections and additions will be welcome.
Heaven, heaven is a place,
a place where nothing,
nothing ever happens.
David Byrne 1979
Short of vedic time scales and the attending ex- and implosions of universes as represented by Brahma’s breathing and Shiva’s blinking, the most far out scenario of interest to transhumanists, cosmists in particular, is probably the tiplerian omega point concept that i like to think of as the never ending party at the bar at the end of time. Tipler’s physics are admittedly over my head, but so far i have not seen a lot of other physicists flocking to his support; besides i am quite suspicious of a model that arrives at the essentially same idea that monotheistic and even many pagan religions have been preaching for millennia. Moreover i consider it irrelevant, as his being right or wrong has no impact on our current situation. But my main objection is the danger of demotivation it presents. If all we have to do is die to be fast forwarded instantly (no experience of time passage while dead) to this blissful place full of our resurrected loved (and hated) ones, why bother doing anything here and now at all ? This is mental heroin. I am the last to deny people the choice of hobbies to indulge, but to me it is a waste of time. Which of course will be more than plentiful once we get there. The circularity is nigh.
I burn down your cities – how blind you must be,
I take from your children and you say how blessed are we,
You all must be crazy to put your faith in me.
That’s why I love mankind.
Randy Newman 1972
On to the related subject that has become increasingly popular among transhumanists over the past decade: religion. We have seen the emergence of terasem, the mormon transhumanists, and apparently some kind of christian organization is in the works. The eternally whirling dervishes and trans-taliban may be next.
As far as i can see there are two benefits for which people flock to religions: community and hope. The first is a double edged sword as the inclusion of the lonely seeker implicitly excludes the infidel, and this usually leads to (violent) conflict down the line. In spite of the political power wielded by religions that could be used (but rarely is – see liberation theology for example) to change things here and now, the only hope they usually offer is deferred to after we are dead. Same anesthetic as above (this one was correctly called opium for the masses by Karl Marx).
I do not see why any transhumanist, who is already subscribing to the most optimistic set of ideas populating the human mental sphere, would need the questionable (notice i do not say fake) hope religions have to offer, and do not like to see this set of ideas, which is firmly based on science and engineering, compromised by mixing in unfounded speculation. As for community, it has several functions itself. The most obvious one is as a forum, a place to exchange ideas, to teach and to learn, and this is not only useful but (usually) necessary for growth, which is a process at the foundation of transhumanist aspirations. Another is as a ‘home’, a safe place to grow up in and to return to when power runs low. In my experience, which includes 15 years as clinical psychologist and transpersonal therapist, this function can be (but not always is) realized by a variety of relationships, foremost among them friendship (of which family is a subset if one is lucky), that come without ideological and speculative assumptions. So again, why religion ?
As i remember one of the triggers of this interest was the realization that penetration of our ideas into the general population would be difficult to effect unless we start opening up discourse with the religious (fortunately shrinking) majorities. Fair enough, but openings go two ways, and we are dealing with extremely experienced operators. The way it is going i see a much greater chance of transhumanism turning into a religious movement than of Thomas Monson or Joseph Ratzinger turning into transhumanists. Call me a purist but i disagree with this development.
Somewhat closer to (my) home we have the singularity. Kurzweil is our prophet (with a track record exceeding any other one i know about), but most of his work is concerned with the time leading up to and into it. Its nature is unpredictability and speculations about its consequences such as the implicit arrival of utopia (or dystopia) are futile and hardly worthy of transhumanist endeavor. The interesting work of SingInst attempting to prevent the emergence of unfriendly AI may yet turn out to be useful, even necessary to prevent our demise (how will we know if they were right and successful ?). And their work while aiming at influencing post singularity events is firmly based in the here and now, and may produce many other useful results even if it fails in its objective. But valuable work to increase intelligence has been done for a long time, from Minsky to Goertzel and Hawkins among countless others. We are well on the way.
Life extension leading to immortality (defined as optionality, not elimination, of death) is another basic concern. De Grey’s work, and that of his contributors and collaborators, as well as those pursuing different approaches, not only in science but also in politics, must be the least controversial of all transhumanist activities. No one can not be welcoming and supportive of their efforts. And just like in information technologies, continuing and accelerating daily progress in biomedical fields, regardless of the protagonists’ explicit transhumanist affiliation or lack thereof, is furthering our cause.
Cryonics is a typical 20th century approach not to death prevention but to death acceptance: ‘no worries as long as we have hope of resurrection despite our rejection of the supernaturality on which religions are based’. But we know how only slight changes in biochemical conditions can severely alter what we perceive as personality, and we also know that identity and its continuity are mental constructs, so chances that the identity junkies’ dreams of returning, warts and all, will be realized are slim. If ultimately successful it may benefit a few thousand individuals, but in the long term it is a dead end.
Space migration, the third pillar of our cause, has been sadly neglected for a long time, and has only recently returned to moving toward required levels of attention and investment. But unlike 50 years ago, when its pursuit was largely driven by propagandism, now the realization is growing that it is essential for purposes of mitigation andor avoidance of risks such as environmental degradation and cometary impact. Another more medium term need arises from the fact that given the increase over the last few decades in centrifugal political and cultural forces, a unified planetary administration, which i support, will be hard to implement without offering independent alternatives to minorities who do not share the vision and will not be satisfied with virtual realities. Establishing a multitude of environments with minimized probabilities of mutual interference will accommodate these forces and create laboratories for long term testing of various social models. And last not least the age old desire to go where no one has gone before is probably not going to subside any time soon if ever, and must and will be met.
Hey! Said my name is called Disturbance.
I’ll shout and scream, I’ll kill the king,
I’ll rail at all his servants.
Well now what can a poor boy do
Except to sing for a rock’n’roll band ?
Mick Jagger 1968
Science, especially the ‘natural’ sciences, and engineering are the engine that will get us to where we are going. I have observed a significant increase in the number of scientists participating in gatherings, forums and organizations promoting our goals, and a decrease of the importance of the TH label. Looking at this development i sometimes think that at least in this context actively pursuing a TH agenda is like pushing the river.
However much engineering and probably even more scientific activity is of little or no relevance, or even detrimental, to transhumanism. I have worked for three decades in programming, mostly with business software, and besides the fact that most of my efforts have been negated by incapable management, i do not get much transhumanist satisfaction from the knowledge of having contributed to general intelligence increase for customers whose goals conflict with my own.
These are areas that need attention and effort.
Human enhancement: development is driven more by immediate demand (need) than by vision, which is due to a profound defect of our established economic systems. It is imperative that we develop contraceptive technology based on the concept of a fertility switch under exclusive user control that can be set to ‘off’ as the default, whose social, economic and environmental effects will be profound.
Communication with nonhumans: in the half century since Goodall started communicating with apes and Lilly with dolphins, a lot of research has been done but the results are disappointing. The work done with neural imaging techniques still needs corresponding introspection for mapping, and expression of its results must be understood. Moreover understanding different methods of mentation may, besides the sheer joy of it, facilitate the development of novel approaches to problem solving. Lanier has reminded us of the capabilities of Cephalopoda; but why not also look at insects, plants and others. Hughes has emphasized the imperative of offering mental upgrades to nonhumans, but preupgrade communication must be possible if we are to avoid the human habit of shooting first and asking questions later.
Communication with young humans: Everybody is talking about or at ‘kids’ but hardly anyone is talking with them, by which i mean in the absence of superiority bias. The concept of ‘kids’ is a fallacy; even young humans at comparable developmental stages can manifest great differences of behavior. Developing humans undergo rapid and profound structural and functional changes and each stage may contain potentials for understanding novel ways of perception and thinking.
If we are serious about wanting to develop ‘better’ ways of being, we must, besides just being creative in the tried and tested adult human ways, look at all existing alternatives and exploit their potentials. All future artilects emerging in this part of the universe will be memetically based on human culture. This, besides the merging of bio and tech, is the main reason not to be too concerned with artificial intelligence going rogue. But it also implies a fundamental restriction to models and methods evolved under particular sets of conditions. Outside of science fiction there is no appreciation of fundamental otherness evident in TH discourse. It’s usually the singularity and then off to techno heaven or some such adolescent daydream. Fermi’s paradox is often taken at face value and lazily explained by terran uniqueness, intelligence exodus, simulation models or temporal paradoxes. Transhumanism must avoid reverting to the anthropocentrism of xtian medieval culture.
Another neglected area is the research of morphic fields. It is inconvenient and frustrating to assemble evidence for phenomena that will then have to be explained in novel and challenging ways. However if Sheldrake is right we may be dealing with a force fundamental to this universe, and it will be contemptible to forgo its exploration and exploitation out of laziness.
Still science, being based on curiosity, is the domain with the most promise and the least need of our dedicated attention. Unfortunately this is not true for other areas often of more immediate effect on lives and life. Here are just some of these and their high priority issues.
Breakin’ rocks in the hot sun
I fought the law and the law won
I needed money ’cause I had none
I fought the law and the law won
Sonny Curtis 1958
Law usually lags behind societal developments it is (ideally) attempting to represent by decades and often much longer. The main reasons (besides the disproportionate power of conservative forces) are the difficulties in assessing these realities and in adequately representing them in human language(s). The resolution of these problems will be greatly facilitated by AI. In the meantime here are some issues that i want to see addressed now.
Ending the markets for justice.
Rights and obligations must be isolated from commercial interests.
Elimination of the revenge principle.
Abolition of the concept of victimless crime.
Implementation of personhood rights and continuation of the exploration of subjects and objects of nonhuman agents, including swarms, superstructures (gaia concepts), artilects and good old fashioned extraterrestrials.
Full implementation of secularism.
Besides criminal and civil law there will be the need for profound changes to constitutional and international law, and to the concept of law itself, how it is determined, decided, implemented and enforced, which are subject to societal changes which i hope will occur in accordance with transhumanist ambitions.
All your private property is
Target for your enemy
And your enemy is
Paul Kantner 1969
Our current economic systems, let us call them capitalism for simplicity’s sake, are variations of practices that have been around for at least ten millennia, and by now it should be obvious to everyone including those who benefit from them that they are not suited to changed social and technological conditions and thus not sustainable for much longer. The idea of private (stolen) property may have been useful (albeit mostly to the thieves) while it appeared as if valued resources were in infinite supply, but in our current situation they must be shared. The profit motive does empower people to apply resources to enterprises that turn out to be of social utility (electricity, transportation, communication, automation), but it also leads to suppression of innovation, to socially noxious products (food, pharmaceuticals, tobacco, weapons) and activities (corporate raiding, financial casinos, uncontrolled weapons trading) and to outright criminal behavior as well as corruption of the political process. Some areas, such as health and land use, are too precious and too fragile to be left exposed to profiteers. Others of even greater importance for the continued well being and survival of life around here are beyond the temporal reach of the profit motive with its short term ROI expectations.
There have been alternative models (Diggers, Provos) and initiatives (cooperatives, microloans) but their impact has been limited. The current systems are broken beyond repair and need to be replaced. I want to see a powerful transhumanist coalition including economists, psychologists, ethicists, engineers and many others dedicated to working on developing and testing radically different approaches to economic activities.
I’ve got the apolitical blues
And that’s the meanest blues of all.
And that’s the meanest blues of all.
I don’t care if it’s chairman Mao
I just don’t wanna talk to him now.
Lowell George 1972
During the last two years we have seen campaigning for office in the u.s.a. and elsewhere and the attendant manipulation of political processes in ever increasing intensity. I have arbitrarily participated in online discussions of these issues at various levels of sophistication. What struck me was the almost complete absence of a transhumanist viewpoint. Do we not have any ? Are we so future oriented as to be beyond politics ? Are we so disgusted with the process to even reject defensive voting ? I have not found a better, and disturbingly a more recent, analysis of the politics (or its absence) of transhumanism than that given in Citizen Cyborg. Even ten years ago James stated that “The ideologically narrow, apolitical, sectarian ahistoricality of most transhumanists is striking”. It does not look to me as if that has changed for the better.
These are issues I want to see addressed by dedicated transhumanist efforts.
As our economic ‘systems’, our political ones are unsuited for the emerging realities of human communion, and need to be replaced by as yet not tested alternatives. Again collaboration among transhumanist thinkers is our best hope to arrive at improvements. Existing think tanks are mostly working for (paid by) vested interests in conflict with transhumanist principles, but the recently established TETRAD may turn out to be one such instrument.
Here are my concerns:
Abolition of the ‘nation’ concept. Communality used to be based on an unfair but honest and transparent deal: the successful warrior king claims ownership of all and in trickle down fashion grants rights and protection to all for the price of risking one’s life for his cause. With the exception of early adopters like Constantin or Ibn Al-Zubayr most kings and princelings didn’t realize the advantage of substituting faith for giving tangible benefits such as property and security until a few centuries ago. But when the idea of nation finally took hold, it did not really need to fall back on religion for faith anymore. The nation itself was something to believe in and to die for. It is an abomination and needs to go.
The European Union remains the only proven alternative model. Empires, from rome through britain to the u.s.a. and u.s.s.r. have never been anything but extensions of national power. I want to see a transhumanist effort to study the failures and successes of the EU, and of other less developed existing and future concepts, and their significance for the development of our own ideas about administration of current and future terran, exoterran and virtual communities.
The united nations organization is the closest thing we have to a needed planetary administration, but being based on the obsolete nation concept it is standing on clay feet. Furthermore a debilitating limitation was built in that i like to call MAP (mutually assured paralysis), the equivalent of the military MAD doctrine, being born out of the primary concern to maintain a delicate balance emerging from the madness of the early 20th century, which has actually worked well for a few decades. However it has outlived its usefulness. In less contentious areas such as health and culture the u.n. has a lot of great accomplishments to its credit. It needs to be studied, improved or replaced, and transhumanists must have a central role in this process.
When discussing the desirability of different political systems it has become reflexive to favor ‘democracy’. But the idea is fictional. A popular definition would have it to be rule by the people for the people, itself based on a fictional concept. When the Greeks invented the term, demos included only educated and economically ‘independent’ (non-slave) individuals (not unlike over two millennia later at the inception of the u.s.a.). Even where a one-person/one-vote principle is implemented we see large distortions resulting from variations in information availability and in the capacity for information processing. This in turn results in disproportionate vote weighting towards resource rich agents. The transhumanist discussion about how to resolve this problem or how to develop alternative models of governance has barely begun. I find myself flirting with mandatory mental upgrading (of an SIQ – social intelligence quotient – in particular) as a solution to this problem (and many others), but we should try to find more appropriate and creative solutions first.
Complete lifting of planetary travel restrictions (while allowing for legitimate security concerns). Much hype is being spread about ‘internet freedom’ and ‘privacy concerns’, but it is the physical realm where we are most vulnerable. Of course we need to strive for abolishment of all oppressive regimes, but history keeps showing that ‘revolutions’ tend to replace one gang of thugs with another. In the mean time we need freedom of movement, not just for protective purposes but mainly for intelligence increase. No virtual experience can yet match the impact of experiencing different ways to be ‘in the flesh’, and no one must be allowed to curtail this basic right.
There are some transhumanist approaches to these issues underway, seasteading comes to mind, but we will have to address these issues globally now, and don’t have the luxury to kick back thinking that if we just concentrate on AI, the new ‘son of man’ will rescue us and save the day.
I really wanna know Oh,
I really want to know
C’mon tell me who are you, you, you?
Who are you?
Pete Townshend 1978
I have outlined some of the issues that my transhumanism prompts me to address. The initially quoted Hammill song contains no references to technology, yet it aptly describes the foundation of my position. I think it also describes the attitudes of many who call themselves humanists. Transhumanism is firmly based on humanism and cannot claim validity without that foundation. After all, outside of our imaginations, and maybe even inside, our humanness is so far all we have to build on.
I would like to see the application of transhumanist resources to these issues, beginning with a discussion of the acceptability andor improvability of my outlined positions. But i am aware of a high probability of setting myself up for failure by expressing this expectation. Articles and opinions found on various TH forums usually elicit between zero and a dozen responses, and those are mostly between two or three debatants trying to fine tune expression of their opinions. Compared to ten years ago there now is an abundance of TH writers of varying quality, but are there any more readers ? Are we writing just for each other ? Or just to create online personas within a field currently considered hip ? And are we real ? Compared to the often obnoxious but mostly exciting and urgent discussions on the old wta-talk mailing list, i don’t see much passion in TH expression these days.
So who are our readers ? Who are the ‘transhumanists’ ? Who are you ? When i look at question 21 of the recent Terasem Survey (TS): “Which of these transhumanist/futurist/scientist thinkers do you admire?” the list is topped by Hawking, Kurzweil and Kaku. Except for Ray, they are not essential to transhumanism even though they may be close to it. Seeing that important transhumanist voices are largely unknown (More by almost 50%, Hughes by almost 60%, and Bostrom not even in the running), i wonder how, or if, the respondents define their transhumanist affiliation. Did the movement fall victim to the fashionable and infantile habit of self identification by clicking a ‘like’ icon ? There is a lot of valuable information contained in TS that could and should be extracted. In the mean time i prefer to maintain that we do have common causes and that it is up to us to realize the urgency of applying our shared resources to realize our ambitions.
Ten years before Hammill, and with considerably more bluntness and resonance, Jim Morrison said it thus: “We want the world and we want it now!”
This article was first published on Sat, December 08, 2012 in t-net v.1
* image used from http://powerpositivethinking.com/