I was recently invited to participate in a conference on “startup societies”—those groups, usually libertarian, that want to peel off from dominant cultures and governments in order to explore their own interests and freedoms in international waters. You may have heard of The Principality of Sealand, Operation Atlantis, Liberland, Fort Galt, The First Millennial Foundation (AKA The Living Universe Foundation), or the dozens of other wannabe micronations. What would the potentials for transhuman experimentation, I was asked, be in such micro societies? In formulating my reply by email, I realized there was more to say, and I wanted to loop the rest of you in on the conversation.
On the face of it, startup societies might make great Petri dishes for transhuman experiments. Without laws to constrain the budding self-modifier, all kinds of interesting attempts at auto-evolution might flourish, for a while. There would be no government to control what you name yourself, what chemicals you ingest to alter your mind or body, or to prevent you from having a formally recognized simultaneous polyamorous civil unions with a few humans, a couple of randy-and-willing cetaceans, and a home-grown artificial intelligence.
But with nascent cultural and legal expressions being practiced in these startup societies by people who feel they don’t fit into the mainstream culture in the first place, and such people trying to find a footing in their own new systems with varying degrees of success, we would expect some strange and spectacular practices to emerge—and we should expect some of these to go wrong. With a wide range of startup societies (some may develop around militant religious ideas, obscure shared interests, or political and aesthetic movements), we should expect an occasional David Koresh or Shoko Asahara type of figure to emerge from such places. Imagine startups based on an adoration of Futurism or fascism or Stalin-style communism… or Duck Dynasty-ism. Transhuman expressions appearing in corrupted startup societies will be grotesque, dangerous, and, indeed, anti-transhuman.
Transhumanism is a Humanist endeavor with roots in the Enlightenment. It is positive, aspirational, and optimistic in its orientation. It is frightening to think that transhumanism might grow in enclaves that eschew the good Big Projects of the dominant world cultures and governments (large scale wind farms, space programs, health and welfare services, and other things that can only be done with lots of folks paying in lots of time and taxes to better their collective lot) only to sour and become a zombie version of itself—isolationist, reactionary, defensive, offensive… and even weaponized.
Transhumanism is self-directed evolution. Given the enormity of it, shouldn’t we look to examples from our past and relationships to working systems in the present in order to develop wisely in the future?
I’m skeptical of breakaway cultures. The systems we have now are what the purest anarchy becomes over time. Everyone is still free to make changes in their own lives or in their broader cultures, and live with the consequences of their decisions (even when the consequences are truly dire or deadly). To restart a million year old process in miniature on flotillas in international waters with a few dozen other misfits and call such an arrangement “society” seems to miss the point that Hell is Other People, whether it’s 300 million across a continent, or 14 alpha geeks on a solar powered barge. Having had a slight taste of communal living overseas myself, I do not perceive any mystery or romance in starting “fresh” with a bunch of zealous jackasses thousands of miles from shawarma joints, museums, music festivals, or book clubs. A true wonder and strength of the world we have now is the power of serendipity and diversity, and those things would be dulled drastically in small, isolated startup societies. New ideas have difficulty spreading to remote fortified compounds.
But let’s step back. Proponents of startup societies, micronations, and libertarian compounds might claim that the comparisons here are unfair and attack a straw man. We shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that such societies are cult-like or insular, even when they are intentionally remote and physically isolated. Consider a thriving and morally good startup society introducing transhumanism into its political or social fabric.
Even if the startup societies conducting transhuman experiments are very good and moral actors, transhumanism itself still faces a danger. These small groups, becoming more transhuman than the mainstream, would still show transhumanism as an interest far out at the margins of mainstream society—or completely off the maps altogether. My cousins in Smith County, Mississippi might think ‘goddamn weirdo breakaway folks are taking drugs and implanting RFIDs in their arms, but we don’t do it in Mize, by God!’ Yet what is needed is for transhuman ideas and practices to become common even in Smith County. Even the best examples of transhuman startup societies would make it difficult for transhumanists in mainstream society by virtue of their association with isolated iconoclastic communities.
Finally, we must be concerned with rights: human rights, animal rights, and even the rights of any hypothetical posthumans (whether sentient robots or uplifted termites). I work out some thoughts on the nature of posthuman rights in detail in an article at Teknokultura, and conclude that posthumans should have human rights, but will also have responsibilities. Reviewing some of the startup societies and their libertarian orientations, one might think that such hidden groups would grant more rights than our mainstream culture—the right to take any mood altering substance whatsoever, for example. But even in such a libertarian context, the time always comes to set new laws in place.
Imagine that because Mr. X has repeatedly abused his right to trip on synthetic hallucinogens and has missed his kitchen duty 4 times this week, that the Council decides something has to be done about it. Again we see the necessary devolution of complete liberty due to the practical needs of survival (in this case, hygiene: dirty kitchens = disease, and We the People of Startup Society X will not allow our citizens to sicken and die over dirty dishes, so we make policies, ordinances, and (yes) laws to keep things clean, and to keep people on their assigned kitchen duty!). In time transhumans or posthumans would have no more rights in startup societies than they do in the society of New Orleans or Kalamazoo or Mize, Mississippi. What consideration for the protections of the rights of the weak and vulnerable will be made in these libertarian enclaves and “temporary autonomous zones”?
This warrants skepticism of the ability of any large group of people to be both truly free and truly happy.
Startup societies are playing pirates, Peter Pan, and a version of adolescent hot rod fantasies. Similar things have worked themselves out in communes for centuries, sometimes for the good, and sometimes for the bad. Adding transhuman experimentation to the mix makes such games more dangerous, and makes the introduction of transhumanism into the wider mainstream culture more difficult.
Occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge: a failed startup society?
Cult on a boat: Scientology’s SEA ORG.
BBC Profile of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the cult leader with a growing startup society called ISIS.
FreakAngels by Warren Ellis and Paul Duffield: rebuilding society with posthumans in charge.
The girls in desert with orange umbrella are Creative Commons 2.0 license—credit to Christopher Michel (cmichel67).
The yellow UFO houses image is modified from Wikimedia Commons (CC 2.0, attribution to: “russavia”).