The term “transhumanist” may give people an identity at the cost of achieving their goals
I’m not a transhumanist, but I play one on Google.
It’s been happening more and more lately. A student or colleague or friend who does an online search for my name or stumbles upon some of my online writing asks, in a somewhat perplexed tone, “Are you one of these ‘transhumanists?’” And, “What is this whole ‘transhumanist’ thing about?” The more I think about these questions, the harder it is to answer them. And this is making me incredibly nervous.
Have I somehow found myself in an odd new kind of closet for the first time in 20 years? At least back in the day when people asked if I were gay I had a reasonably clear idea of what it meant to answer, and what was entailed by a yes or no.
Many people who, like me, are devoted to thinking about the impact of emerging technologies on everyday life are taking so-called transhumanists very seriously these days. Some, such as Francis Fukuyama, have gone so far as to suggest that transhumanists are the most dangerous force on the planet today. Meanwhile, some of my closest intellectual colleagues and political allies, such as the radical democrat and socialist-feminist bioethicist James Hughes, are explicitly transhumanist-identified.
Meanwhile, I can’t even figure out just what a transhumanist is supposed to be. What exactly would a transhumanist identification commit me to? Most of the definitions I come upon seem either general to the point of vacuity or specific in ways that exclude people who call themselves transhumanists now. In consequence, the term seems at best profoundly unsettled. And to me, this is profoundly unsettling. To the extent that transhumaniststhose who apply the term to themselvescare about facilitating progressive outcomes in radical technological development, it’s important to give this confusion and frustration more attention than it’s currently getting.
A word without clear definition
A transhumanist is presumably a particular type of person. And as a “type,” I would expect that a transhumanist embodies a unique profile of attributes or beliefs, and lives a unique lifestyle that can be promoted and is worthy of protection. On an identity model, a transhumanist community presumably comprises people who share all or many of these beliefs or traits.
As for just what these characteristics are supposed to be, I’m at a loss. It seems to me that “technology enthusiasm” is rather broad, and too thin to incubate an abiding coherent community, unique among others. Also, few of the many technology enthusiasts in the world actively identify as “transhumanists,” even if they’ve heard of the term, while some actively repudiate it.
Is “transhumanism” simply support for genetic medicine, or for technological modification more generally? Would this be support for modification in all its forms, under any circumstances? Is it “transhumanist” to wear eyeglasses or a wristwatch? Are people with vaccinations or pacemakers “transhumanists?” Does it make sense to think of people who take seriously the prospect of near-term rejuvenation and longevity medicine as participating in the same “movement” as people who pine for singularitarian transcension, reincarnation as uploads or Moravecian bush-robots, or induction into Borg-like hive-minds? Frankly, none of the more specific beliefs, attitudes or projects that creep up in transhumanist organizations and discussions are shared by all those presumably subsumed under the term, so these don’t look defining either.
Despite this, you hear quite a lot about “we transhumanists,” “promoting the movement,” “supporting the philosophy” and “ascribing to the worldview” among transhumanist-identified people. It’s never clear to me what they’re talking aboutthere’s nothing remotely comprehensive or systematic enough to qualify as a worldview or philosophy in the “transhumanist” canon, however interesting and inspiring it may be. I still don’t understand what is imagined to be uniquely corralled together beneath the transhumanist banner, what is shared and special here that presumably inspires the fervent solidarity.
Identity versus outcomes
Some people seem to turn to what they amorphously call “transhumanism” as a way of belonging to rather than being lost in something larger than themselves as they confront the unsettling reality of deep, sweeping, overwhelming technological change. Others seem to participate in “transhumanist” organizations simply as a way to find interesting conversational partners and to collaborate with a diversity of others in particular campaigns to help shape developmental changes for the better.
One way to think of the difference between such an outcomes-orientation and an identity-orientation might be to think of how membership in the ACLU feels different from membership in a church.
I can see the value of a salon for a diverse gathering of technology enthusiasts, of people intrigued by the problems and promises of the ongoing technological destabilization of culture and individual capacities. I can see the sense of saying such a salon incubates many individual campaigns to facilitate particular developmental outcomes, such as funding specific technologies, educating people about their proper use, regulating them to ensure their development is safe, ensuring that people are free to use them in an informed way that doesn’t threaten others and resisting efforts of authoritative institutions such as governments and corporations to mandate or delimit their use in ways that benefit only the powerful.
But I don’t see why every person eager or welcome in this salon-culture would (a) be expected to participate necessarily in any of the particular political campaigns, (b) be expected to participate in all the campaignsespecially since some might contradict one anotheror (c) expect that everybody with whom they participated in a campaign would be interested in the broader conversation that inspired their participation.
It’s hard for me to see how membership in organizations devoted to conversation, criticism and theory about technological enhancement of human capacities and the denaturalization of society, or to the organization of specific campaigns of action, could yield much in the way of a robust, coherent feeling of tribal belonging or social uniqueness.
Even people who affirm an identity-orientation for transhumanism, however, usually recognize the importance of an outcomes-orientation to desirable technological development. And to these people I suggest that an identity-orientation can actually frustrate an outcomes-orientation. This is because policing the bounds of legitimate association for a stable and intelligible identity almost inevitably diverts time and resources from outcomes while alienating possible allies in particular campaigns, limiting outreach and encouraging all manner of damaging group-think, selective blinders and the like.
As it happens, I’m not urging everybody to jettison the transhumanist term altogether. Even if the label doesn’t seem clear or stable enough as a designation for me to take it on, there clearly are transhumanist-identified people with interesting and valid viewpoints to articulate, as well as good people who have taken on personal projects to clarify and stabilize the meaning of the term in ways that better approximate their own personal usage. Who’s to say what good might come of these efforts over the longer term?
But I think that transhumanist-identified people and others should take great care before they decide to call other people either “transhumanist” or “anti-transhumanist,” unless they’re quite clear that those people would do so themselves.
Technology politics are considerably more complicated than a turf war between “transhumanists” and “anti-transhumanists.” For many broadly social or bioconservative activists and critics, transhumanist-identified people aren’t even on the radar screen, while many progressive pro-technology enablement bioethicists would boggle to hear somebody telling them their views “make them” transhumanists.
Fuel for a smear campaign
The “transhumanist” term has about it a distinct whiff of kooky jargon, after all. Worse, the term has acquired a number of troubling and divisive historical legacies (quite apart from the inevitable controversies that freight any strong position on radically disruptive technologies). It is weighted down with associations of hyper-individualism, market libertarianism and cliquish social marginality emerging from the irrational exuberance of the dot.com era.
While a number of transhumanist-identified scholars and activists are working to rehabilitate the term and reappropriate it for progressive and respectable ends (full disclosure: many of them are personal friends), and they may ultimately succeed in this project, the fact remains that some of the problematic historical associations of the “transhumanist” term were quite well-earned and impose real costs to this day on those to whom the term attaches. Many people who forcefully champion particular positions, outcomes and arguments for which transhumanist-identified people are among their few public allies nevertheless actively disdain or repudiate the term explicitly because they fear its use may connect them to unappealing political viewpoints, damage their professional standing or signal a kind of social marginality that simply doesn’t apply.
I fear that the special vulnerabilities of the transhumanist term account for much of the glaring spotlight of public attention Fukuyama and some other bioconservatives seem to be directing at transhumanism, especially considering the relatively small number of people who embrace the term explicitly and the comparatively small amount of resources and public notice they command otherwise. I suspect these conservatives may be contemplating a strategy whereby they create a straw-man/scapegoat position that they mean to designate as “transhumanism,” and that they are going to use it to flog literally every pro-technology position, however moderate, however broad its support in society, with the more extreme apocalyptic, deeply reductive, hyper-egoist, antisocial expressions that have indeed sometimes found a home within transhumanist-identified cultures.
Such smear-strategies can be disastrously effective, and I don’t see why progressive technology advocates should abet this ourselves by calling people “transhumanist” who are not in fact transhumanist-identified at all. It’s hard to see how anybody apart from bioconservatives themselves would benefit from setting up broadly progressive technology advocates for pointless marginalization when they might otherwise make a difference in facilitating outcomes that would benefit everybody.