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IEET > Security > SciTech > Rights > Economic > Life > Innovation > Vision > Technoprogressivism > Contributors > Dorothy Deasy

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Narrow vs. General Transhumanism


Dorothy Deasy
By Dorothy Deasy
Ethical Technology

Posted: Jul 22, 2011

Transhumanism is not simply something that will happen in the future; it is a general byproduct of modernity. Thinking of transhumanism narrowly, only as a future state, jeopardizes the development of desirable ethics and societal changes.

When asked if I am a transhumanist, my first reaction is, No. I describe my identity functionally: researcher, theologian; and relationally: wife, daughter, sister, friend. Equally true, but what I am less likely to consider, are the contextual aspects of my identity: female, American, Caucasian or westerner. These latter aspects of identity so shape my perceptions as to be almost invisible to me.

Transhumanism, too, is part of our context. It is all around us.

dd0On the biological side, IVF and surrogacy are becoming mainstream ways of thinking about reproduction. Life extension through medications or transplants are expected aspects of healthcare. Laser surgery, cochlear ear implants, artificial limbs, brain-computer interfaces, artificial organs and humanized animals are also commonplace. We have supplements and drugs that are used to enhance our abilities. Plant genetic engineering is commonplace and we now have animal cloning and transgenic food animals.

On the computational side, the Internet is integrated with daily living. In gaming, the first thought-controlled peripherals are on the market now. Artificial intelligence runs a variety of systems, including order-fulfillment in warehouses, and drives the stock exchange. Robotics are in the home as toys or as cleaning devices. Some car companies have begun shifting from autos to robotics, and Google is developing a driverless-car.

Whether or not transhumanism itself is ever realized (meaning a sentient technological life form is developed, or we see the emergence of human-machine hybrids), the combined developments in genetics, nanotechnology, neuro-cognitive sciences, artificial intelligence, and robotics are creating a cultural shift—the transhuman age.

So upon reflecting on the question, “Am I a transhumanist?” the answer is Yes, and so is everyone else living in western societies or among the “technological haves.” Currently, salience of emerging technologies may be low, but they will become more and more visible to your children and your grandchildren.

Like AI, transhumanism may be thought of as either narrow or as general. Narrow transhumanism is the future goal (for some) of becoming post-biological, and general transhumanism is the state of modernity, the scientific and technological advances that allows us to modify our biological programming and create intelligence augmentation.

It is important to see transhumanism as a current condition of modernity so that associated ethics can develop at a pace that matches the technology. In fact, there are four specific reasons why this distinction between narrow transhumanism and general transhumanism is important:

  • Developing economic and ethical guidelines for mediating the technology divide. During the 20th century, we thought of technology as either personal technology, such as appliances, or communal technology, such as utilities. Increasingly, the emerging technologies are reshaping this landscape. Solar power in the U.S. is primarily being adopted and installed by individuals rather than metropolitan areas. Our telephones have gone from being communal instruments – first in towns, then in families – to being individual devices. In Japan, a designer has developed air-conditioned clothing that enables atmospheric manipulation at the personal level. The genetic sciences and nanotechnology are beginning to lead us into individualized treatment for disease. As technology-enabled customization reaches into every aspect of our lives, we’ll need to rethink what “equal access” means and become creative about how to ensure it.
  • Supporting a shift focus rather than trajectory thinking. Acknowledging that science and technological development are facts of modernity may allow our institutions, legislators, lobbyists and citizenry to be more open to shift solutions. Without education as to how technology may change our culture in the coming decades, the default is to assume that solutions that have worked in the past will continue to work in the future. Emerging technologies are generally game-changers. Understanding that we exist in a technology saturated context may open the door for different approaches to entrenched problems rather than incremental alternatives.
  • Minimizing political posturing aimed at reducing investment in emerging technologies. There are intimations that conservative Christians appear to be shifting campaigns from family values toward anti-transhumanism. A recent example was the vote in the U.S. Congress to overturn FDA approval of transgenic salmon. Coming to the understanding that modernity is synonymous with transhuman technologies may help to minimize negative impacts on emerging technology R&D.
  • Fostering broad-based participation in issues concerning emerging technologies. Currently, the transhuman future (narrow transhumanism) has been communicated mostly by popular entertainment and science fiction. This may skew perceptions, perhaps creating negative or unrealistic expectations. Communicating that transhumanism is our current context normalizes emerging technologies. Raising awareness among the general public also opens the door for more diverse voices to participate in discussing the ethical issues raised by emerging technologies.

dd1
Focusing only on narrow transhumanism will defer the hard work of creating new solutions for health care distribution and food supply resources. Understanding that transhumanism is now and continuing to develop helps create a frame of reference for both the ethical issues and the potential ways of addressing them.

Many of the transhuman technologies have already been developed. Like the splitting of the atom, it is impossible to reverse the tide toward a post-biological era. What is possible is to enlist a wide range of voices, interests and perspectives in shaping how that future will look.


Dorothy Deasy is a freelance design researcher with a Masters of Applied Theology and a BS in Industrial/Organizational Psychology.
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COMMENTS


Out of pure curiosity, let me pose a question. How do you (or the author) consider the relationship between money and the atribute of being human or ‘more than human’? Theoretically, if we’re becoming more than human, shouldn’t we at least get rid of our first and most important ball and chain first?





This is a very good article Dorothy. Is what you call “general transhumanism” the same stance that other IEET writers call “technoprogressivism”? (it seems the same to me).





@Andrei
An interesting question.
First, I’m not sure that I see general transhumanism as being “more than human.” We are human and we are living in a transhuman context.
Narrow transhumanism is a future state. We might then now consider what the role commerce and economics should play as we approach and plan for that future.

@Giulio
Thank you for your comment.
I see general transhumanism as apolitical or at least no more of a political stance than technology itself. If you have taken life extending measures, used medication for enhancement (e.g. diet supplements, vitamins, steroids, the “little blue pill”, etc.), used Google for intelligence augmentation, etc., regardless of political point of view, then you have benefitted from transhuman tehnology.
That said, in making the arguments for the importance of accepting general transhumanism, I perhaps let my own technoprogressive bias show.





Dor..

I totally agree with the direction of your article, and have often argued that the lines drawn between techno-progression and transhumanism are blurred, as most would agree also. Although we must also recognise that transhumanism for some does include the divergence from that which is human, for most of us, it explores the progression and future evolution of humanity as humans.

Yet there are problems inherent with the term that are difficult to overcome? On first view the term specifically implies progression towards that which is non-human, and which thus invokes fears of “transgression”?

I am guessing that many have fragmented and dispensed with the term or ideals altogether for lack of consensus and agreement over what the term transhumanism actually stands for and against? And so we make excuses for the term? Hplus, H+, Trans-humanism vs Transhuman-ism etc.

All of this does help to some degree, yet still does not help with the acceptance of the term itself? Should we ditch it completely to focus on the real issues at hand?
Perhaps we should just keep the prefix “Trans” and aim to apply this to all aspects and areas?

Trans-humanity, Trans-Christianity, Trans-economics, - the prefix itself alone is worthy, and is in fact founded upon the truth of progression and change and impermanence.

I’m glad you mention political positioning, because that is exactly what we are dealing with and that which takes up most of our contemplation and concentration, instead of merely accepting that we humans are in a state of trans-formation, and that transgressions must be faced by some and prejudices overcome?

We cannot escape politics, polarised viewpoints, it is in our natures to take a position of agreement and argument, and what a boring world it would be without this trait? Yet I despair still that the holistic position is continually overlooked, that the embrace of world changing ideas and ideals are merely a moment away from each of us, (this kind of atonement you are fully aware of yourself), and that we are confounded and confused by fragmentation and differentiation and misdirection of political views that leads us all to stagnation – like bunnies in headlights!

Each of us can change the world, by changing our viewpoints, by beginning the journey within. Perhaps we should ditch the term transhumanism, ditch the clubs, ditch the orgs. Ditch the elitist associations, and call it something else? (the name Eric comes to mind?)

We all have the power to change our own minds, and this power may extend to changing the world, (if we dare) – for the better. Starvation, famine, economics, sufferings, may be eradicated if we dispense with the political blah blah blah which stands in the way?

And if you are still not convinced that each man/woman may change the world, just take a look at the most recent events in Norway – a heinous crime! And yet another example of the power of the actions of “one” mind that can and does make a difference. Let’s all contemplate our own power for good and our ability to instigate that change, by changing our own minds and prejudices?

What we need is “Unity” of ideals, goals and direction! We need to forget about the debacle over the silly word transhumanism, and as Nike says “just do it!”

Apologies for the slant towards ranting, yet I will continue to shout for Unity clear and often until I expire.

ps. just for final clarification, I class myself not as “transhuman-ist”, but “trans-humanist” (if that indeed makes sense to anyone but me?)

Thanks for reading





Excellent essay Dor.
To be sure, I enjoyed the whole of your essay, although, as a neophyte to the subject I am a bit confounded by the depth of the concepts you wrote about. 
I found your opening paragraph quite interesting.

“Transhumanism is not simply something that will happen in the future; it is a general byproduct of modernity. Thinking of transhumanism narrowly, only as a future state, jeopardizes the development of desirable ethics and societal changes.”

Would you agree that evolution itself is a form of transhumanism and that we are electro-pulmonery machines that use primitive data input/output models to enhance our existence?  And that, in this way, we are wired or hard coded to be transhuman creatures? 

Might you also agree that the processes of evolution, technology and modernity are to transhumanism similar to what Adam Smth referred to in economics as “the invisible hand”?  That these qualities of advancing innovation are as organic to the species and have been functioned quietly (more or less) since the beginning?

I take some pleasure in viewing tranhumanism in this way because it assumes, at least for me, that if humankind survives its own evolution, then certain advancements might be said to be foreordained, if you will.  That the invisible hand of techno human creativity may not be a divine hand per se, but it speaks of an order of things which is not produced by random happenstance. 





“Robotics are in the home as toys or as cleaning devices.”

Current or last week’s issue of Time or Newsweek (they are both so much like ‘People’ and ‘Us’ magazine, it is hard to tell them apart) had a cute piece on good news concerning unemployment:
employment for robots is up.
The piece mentioned robots in meat (butchering & processing) firms, which was news to me. What wasn’t news was “Roxxxy” the AI sexbot, with “lifelike skin”; it wasn’t a surprise because the bull (no pun intended) market for such is inevitable—esp. when the price is eventually reduced.





@CygnusX1
“Yet there are problems inherent with the term that are difficult to overcome?”
Indeed, the term transhumanism may be evocative of a good many things, not the least of which is an unrealistic future.
I am concerned with that unrealistic aura in that it implies we need not be engaged, we need not “have the power to change our own minds, and this power may extend to changing the world, (if we dare) – for the better.”
You are correct that the issue is unity, and helping to create a future that benefits all.

@Mike
Thank you so much for the affirmation.
Your article is excellent at pointing out the various political stances and how they may perceive/approach transhumanism. I hope others reading my essay will also take the time to follow the link you’ve provided.

A question I have is relative to the speed with which the technologies are rolled out/adopted. Is this really something that is a choice? If we are approaching a time of accelerating and exponential change, isn’t it incumbent upon us to adjust as much as it is to bring about the change? Along those lines, are all emerging technologies created equal when it comes to slow adopting vs. “full speed ahead”? For example, Giulio may be right that some technologies (e.g. synthetic biology, nanotech) need to move at a faster pace for security sake.

@Jonathan
Scholars smarter than myself agree that human development and technology have co-evolved, symbiotically hasten each other’s evolution.
I hesitate, though, to conflate technology adoption with being more advanced or more evolved. To CygnusX1’s point, humanity is an eco-system and those that readily adopt technology may need the restraining force of those who are more cautious. It is both/and rather than either/or.
From an economic POV, if we could accept our current technological context, we could perhaps help evolve our economic systems as well. For example, rather than allowing corporations to buy water resources around the world, have corporations share in the responsibility by buying the waste-water and needing to help invest in providing a clean drinking supply.

@post-post
: )

@all
Can accepting a general transhumanism context help evolve ethics and social change? Are the barriers related to awareness or are they related to other more entrenched issues? Why is there resistance to accepting our current context?





@ Dor..

I believe the barriers to progress are mass ignorance and lack of awareness, (as is the case facing all global social issues?) so there seems to be a choice, of promoting “transhumanism” as elitist, via clubs, members, society groups etc. Which obviously does not promote wider acceptance? Or, to promote trans-humanism as inevitable and a philosophy supporting existentialism and any spiritual theologies that are open minded enough to accept progress?

Rather than promoting transhumanism as something other, we should be promoting transhumanism as inclusive until the term fades and disappears completely as natural consequence?

Q: Can you spread awareness today of ethical issues without using the term “transhumanism”? Do you need to incorporate the term into discussions?





“There are intimations that conservative Christians appear to be shifting campaigns from family values toward anti-transhumanism. A recent example (link) was the vote in the U.S. Congress to overturn FDA approval of transgenic salmon. “

I read the link but didn’t see any reference to conservative Christians leading the charge against the transgenic salmon. (I did see an even mix of Dems and Repubs, though.) Also, I’m not even sure how a vote against genetically modified fish is equivalent to a vote against transhumanism. And I also don’t see how a vote against genetically modified fish is an example of shifting one’s campaign.





I also like this essay very much. It is also fits very well with Buddhism- and quantum theory-inspired models of reality in which time is illusory, or at least much less fundamental than is generally considered (at least in traditional Western thinking).

Do I think that accepting a “general transhumanism context” as dor defines it can help evolve ethics and social change (in positive directions)? Yes I do.

Are the barriers related to awareness or are they related to other more entrenched issues? Partly awareness, but I guess there are more entrenched issues as well. I guess they all involve fear in one way or another. Perhaps they also involve hope: hope that we can actually live well and at the same time reverse the rampant development of technology. And there are aesthetic issues as well. Some people just don’t like the idea of a technologically enhanced future. They would prefer to live in some arcadian world where this hasn’t happened. Perhaps they’d even prefer poverty, disease and suffering than the weirdness of technological enhancement. Are they wrong to prefer this, or is it a legitimate (if unrealistic) preference?

I guess the question I want to ask is: “Is it possible to steer ourselves towards futures in which technology goes into reverse, without some kind of full-scale civilisational collapse?” Opinions may differ on whether or not such a scenario would be desirable, but the question as to whether or not it is even possible can at least in principle be studied empirically.





@Abraham
Thank you for your comment.
Yes, the issue of transgenic salmon is much more complex than simply conservative Christians opposing the technology. I wrote about it a few months ago (http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/deasy20110319). But you’ve only to see the comments on Kristi’s post, combined with the Arizona abortion law against gender-based abortions, etc. to see the “intimations”.

@Peter
I think there needs to be room for both/and. “Some people just don’t like the idea of a technologically enhanced future. They would prefer to live in some arcadian world where this hasn’t happened. Perhaps they’d even prefer poverty, disease and suffering than the weirdness of technological enhancement.” you said it very well. They should be able to make that choice.
The trick is to ensure it is a choice and not a decision made by a minority for a larger majority.
Do we need to go in reverse, or do we need to make room within our technological understanding and development for a larger vision? Can we think of technological “enhancement” beyond individuals? Can we choose to apply different technology standards to different sectors of the population depending on needs and values and not depending upon monetary constraints or social caste?
The planet can not withstand Western-style consumption to spread globally. IMO, we need to use technology to at once reduce the footprint of Western consumption, while increasing quality of life standards in developing areas. (As inspired by your blogpost, that’s my utopia).





Dor, I’m afraid that your response to my three questions was no response at all.

To reiterate:
1. There was no reference—in either of your articles—to conservative Christians leading the charge against the transgenic salmon. 2. a vote against genetically modified fish is not equivalent to a vote against transhumanism. 3.  a vote against genetically modified fish is not an example of shifting one’s campaign. 4. You neglected to say anything about ecologists opposing the transgenic salmon (though in your other article you did mention the apparent opposition by Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington.)

(And tossing in the point about abortion appears to be an attempt to cloud the issue.)

There are lots of things of criticize about conservative Christians. Just don’t do it willy-nilly.





Dorothy Deasy is correct, however to converse with the public we have to refer continuously to the future or they don’t get it. The public is largely superstitious, so try seeing how far we go explaining the fine points of transition.

And we need their help.





@post-post I think I half agree with you. In some ways even to converse with ourselves we have to refer to the future. We are hard-wired to imagine futures and generate emotional reactions to what we imagine. But I think we CAN communicate the more general point to the “superstitious” public.

@dor “The trick is to ensure it is a choice and not a decision made by a minority for a larger majority.” Indeed, but that’s an argument the bioconservatives can also make vis-à-vis the technoprogressives. Suppose you want to live in a world where these weird technologies just don’t exist at all? Suppose the majority wants that? In principle I agree with your vision, but I wonder how we really make it work.

What I’m wondering, I guess, is whether transhumanism actually IS a general, if by that we mean “inevitable”, byproduct of modernity. I’m starting to think that looks like a limiting belief. Why could we not have modernity while at the same time making a choice against enhancement? For those of us who quite like the idea of enhancement anyway, it’s tempting to say it’s an inevitable byproduct of modernity, that way we can tell the conservatives “it’s either that or the stone age”. But on reflection that may be disingenuous. Maybe empathy is actually a better answer: to understand why they dislike enhancement, and also understand why we like it. Then maybe we’ll be able to strike the compromises necessary to make dor’s vision a reality?





@Abraham
The intent was not to evade nor obscure your points. On the issue of transgenic salmon there are more issues at stake than simply faith. Ecology, commerce, consumer rights groups and food safety concerns are other of opposition. Strong opposition comes from those states where the transgenic fish are perceived as an economic threat.
That said, the campaign is using the phrase “Frankenfish” to fight its battle.Inherent in the tactics is trying to stir fear and a sense that such a fish is “playing God”.  The bill passed with a voice vote wherein “the loudest salvos aimed at FDA’s study seem to be coming from a mixed crowd of anti-GMO activists, some with religious motives, and super-environmentalist NGOs and their lobbyists and advocates, including a group of House members and senators who seem to just hate the very idea of “interfering with creation” (http://www.worldfishing.net/features101/ben-yami/ge-salmon-blessing-or-monster-fish). It is both/and not either/or.
Returning to the point of the article, I had said there were intimations of conservative Christian opposition to transhumanism. The transgenic fish is one (perhaps weak?) example, Kristi’s article (and more to the point the responses to that article) and the abortion legislation are other data points, not red herrings.

@Peter
Personally I believe that transhumanism is general as a byproduct of where we are now. It is not to say that some technologies could not be regulated, but backing away from enhancement altogether is unrealistic. Even bioconservatives, I’m guessing, are unlikely to want to abandon many of the existing technologies that serve as life extension and enhancement. We take heart surgery and medications, organ transplants, transfusions, vaccines, etc. for granted. Most of the plastic surgery industy, parts of the cosmetics industry, not to mention the vitamin and supplements industry would need to be sharply curtailed. It seems, too, the trend is working in the opposite direction. Medical marijuana is the first case of using direct voter initiative to gain access to medication banned at the federal level. It serves as the precedent upon which enhancement drugs can do end-runs around legislation.
And I certainly agree: “empathy is a better answer” and (I believe) a vital step in having true dialog.





@dor
The realist in me agrees with you; the idealist in me still wants to insist that we COULD achieve the quality of life we currently associate with modernity without further enhancement, and perhaps even with some de-enhancement, if we wanted to. That we could decide to value the autonomy, integrity and purity of biological homo sapiens and disvalue technological enhancement (beyond a certain point?) and still find a way to live well.

Of course idealism without any nod to realism is irresponsible, so this is not intended as a refutation of what you’re saying. Perhaps more of an attempt to empathise maximally with the many (including personal friends and family) for whom enhancement conjures up feelings of horror and nightmare scenarios, and/or conflicts with their (sometimes religion-inspired) ideas of what is good and pure.





Great article dor, and I enjoyed reading the discussion so far. I recognize that you are referring to the technological “haves”, but I would question the separation of the “haves” and “have nots” since to a large extent the have nots are the ones building the technology for the haves.

I don’t think we can truly address the issues of trans-humanism until we fully address the issues of humanism. Regardless of the technology we deploy we humans still mostly operate on a “me first” basis. In spite of all indication that show that more will not make us happier, we still demand more, and especially more than those in the developing world. The planet cannot sustain everybody having access to the technology to make them trans-human so the reality will be that the rich will enjoy the benefits while the growing number of poor will enjoy fewer and fewer real benefits.

Unless we can mediate equal access to food, water and education how can we think we can mediate fair access to technology?

Do we have a prejudice against technology that will develop outside of the technological haves? What happens if trans-humanism develops on different operating systems?

We are not primarily ethical beings right now. What makes us think that technology will necessarily make us more ethical?





@Peter and Pastor Alex
>“That we could decide to value the autonomy, integrity and purity of biological homo sapiens”
>“an attempt to empathise maximally with the many (including personal friends and family) for whom enhancement conjures up feelings of horror and nightmare scenarios, and/or conflicts with their (sometimes religion-inspired) ideas of what is good and pure.”
>“I don’t think we can truly address the issues of trans-humanism until we fully address the issues of humanism. Regardless of the technology we deploy we humans still mostly operate on a “me first” basis. “
Thank you both so much for your great comments!

Embedded in those comments is part of the difficult work. It seems that advocating for an acceptance that we are already living on a transhumanist path, that general transhumanism is already here, becomes conflated with an *assumption* that narrow transhumanism should be given an ethical, regulatory and financial blank check. This article is intended to challenge that assumption.

In terms of backing away from technology, the global warming debate is informative. Even though many understand that climate change is happening, getting to behavior change relative to technology (e.g. personal ownership of autos, investing in solar, etc.)has been slow. (Can I say unsuccessful or is that an over-reach?) How much harder, then, to turn our backs on technologies that save lives and potentially improve the quality of life for all?

And, Pastor Alex, great questions as well. To those I’ll add:
What if, though, by realizing that we are already transhuman to some extent we could help defuse fear while simultaneously trying to set in place global (and local) standards of regulation and ethics? There is already talk (both here and at the Singularity Institute) for trying to create human-friendly AI, with AI being just one of the legs on which narrow transhumanism will walk.
Can we extend that conversation more broadly?
If so, what would it mean or look like?
Can we leverage tactics of the past (e.g. SALT talks)?
Can we develop new ways to address narrow transhumanism (e.g. enhancement zones)?
Can we redefine/reclaim our commons so as to minimize or at least make it harder for exploitation to occur?

Another benefit of recognizing general vs. narrow transhumanism is more deeply understand R&D investment. Is medical investment the same as corporate investment the same as military investment? Should they all be equally regulated/unregulated or can we form different levels of regulation based on application?
How do we mitigate politics and military investment?
In that much of the R&D investment is occuring on behalf of the military, what safeguards are needed to protect a free society? Can we establish public oversight? Can we say that since military R&D investment is paid for with tax dollars that resources also need to be allocated to common good applications?

The critical challenge as I see it is disarming the fear that is associated with transhumanism such that people of faith, conscience and compassion have an equal place at the table with those who have power and finanical interests. Taking an either/or approach, trying to prohibit that which is already here and rapidly advancing, will back fire. It will be proof that the public “can not handle” the moral and ethical debates relative to enhancement, AI and life extension. It will “prove” that an elite must be in charge. It will bring about the future scenario that we most fear. Preventing that future, one where only a small elite have access, is, to me, the spiritual issue of our time.





The answer to 1984 is 1776.





“The answer to 1984 is 1776.”
If by that you mean democracy and a new experiment to ensure full participation in a democratic process, I couldn’t agree more.
If by that, though, you mean armed revolution, then I’ll take the road of non-violence instead.
The answer to emerging issues of inequality is not to look backward but to look forward for solutions that keep pace.





“The answer to 1984 is 1776.”

What I despise about the Tea Party is the real tea party, where patriots risked their lives, was 237 years ago and has nothing to do with today.
Today an elderly Republican only risks his life when he trips on the concrete steps leading down from the Social Security office. The Tea Party is the biggest joke in America, and 1776 is as corny as it is smarmy.





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