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IEET > Vision > Directors > Giulio Prisco

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Considerations on the development of the transhumanist movement

Giulio Prisco
By Giulio Prisco

Posted: Dec 31, 2006

The T word is slowly but steadily penetrating the collective consciousness, and Fukuyama’s statement on transhumanism as “the most dangerous idea in the world”, as well as less sophisticated but perhaps more widely disseminated statements, for example by representatives of the world’s religions, ensure that more and more persons everywhere on the planet try to understand what transhumanism is about by reading the sources. I think transhumanism is still in a phase where “there is no such a thing as bad press” (well, almost), so I welcome almost any attack, even some delirious hate pieces, with some pleasure.

Sometimes enemies can be directly useful: I believe Fukuyama’s definition of transhumanism - “A strange liberation movement has grown within the developed world. Its crusaders aim much higher than civil rights campaigners, feminists, or gayrights advocates. They want nothing less than to liberate the human race from its biological constraints. As “transhumanists” see it, humans must wrest their biological destiny from evolution’s blind process of random variation and adaptation and move to the next stage as a species” - is one of the best.

Of course the wave of attacks continue, for example Wesley J. Smith has recently stated that “we are out of our minds to follow [the transhumanist] course” in an article aptly titled ”Transhumanism on the March”. I am less optimist than Smith - I do not thinks we are seeing a Transhumanist March yet, but I hope we will see one soon.

I want our ideas to reach as many people as possible, in a clear and understandable way. Why? Because our worldview can give a sense of meaning of life, a vision of our place in the universe, peace and happiness. This has been the historic function of the world’s great religions and monolithic ideologies that, on the other hand, are now finally beginning to show some fatigue and soon will be completely unable to persuade people more and more culturally sophisticated and used to the scientific worldview. We should not forget that these are still a minority, but the trend is clear.

There are two things that I find very, very frustrating. One is that there are still few committed and declared transhumanists (The WTA has slightly more than hundred paying members), and the other is that we do not have sufficient resources (the current WTA’s yearly budget is less than 20.000 dollars). Comparing this with, for example, the Raelians, who have tens of thousands of paying members and a huge budget, it is clear that something is not working as it should. It is worth noting that the Raelian message is very similar to the transhumanist one, with an extra “value added” layer (I would say reduced), of UFO cr… nonsense. May the presence of this extra layer be what manages to capture people’s attention? Is there any lesson to learn? Without bothering aliens, there are so many bioluddite and fundamentalist groups (talibans of all religions) with deep pockets full of money donated by members and benefactors.

For example, the Center for Genetics and Society has an yearly budget of almost one million dollars and ten full time, paid managers and staff. Imagine what a transhumanist organization could achieve with such resources! There are many people in the world with plenty of disposable money, and wishing to see their money used to do something good. Of course, they donate according to their definition of “good”. Today there are certainly only few enlightened, “quasi-transhumanist” persons among the very rich, but there are some. I personally know some very wealthy persons who take transhumanist ideas seriously and would certainly at least consider a well targeted and justified funding request for specific programs, presented in a professional way. For each hundred persons who donate to fundamentalist religious or bioluddite sects there must be, say, five to ten who would donate to us. The challenge is identifying them, reaching them, and persuading them that we can use their money to do something good.

As far as fundraising is concerned, the most remarkable success stories in the transhumanist community are Aubrey de Grey‘s projects, with 8 millions dollars distributed between Mprize and SENS. This is certainly due to the fact that Aubrey and his team propose very well defined projects focused on the reduction and elimination of ageing, with measurable results. But there are many other transhumanist projects of this kind: first steps towards conscious artificial intelligence of (more than) human level, preliminary research on enabling technologies for uploading, the formulation of the transhumanist philosophical and ethical platform, etc., that should all be much better funded.

Nothing can be achieved without appropriate resources. Resources can be of two types: human, and financial. Until now the growth of the transhumanist movement has been mainly based on the unpaid work of activists, but what volunteers can do is limited, especially in view of the fact that they must also earn a living. A volunteer can contribute an occasional rush of highly creative work, but often not the long hours and the steady committment and availability that is required to get things done. Especially for the more routine tasks (probably 90% of the workload: writing and answering letters, maintain websites, identify and analyse important news, produce professional graphics and multimedia components, identify potential donors, write letters and comments to the press, etc.) we need paid employees and collaborators.

So I think fundraising is the top priority. We are working to create a transhumanist think tank in Europe, probably to be associated with the IEET. I hope the new think tank will be able to act as European fundraising central. Since it requires personal contact, fundraising is probably most effective on a local or at least regional basis. We will develop solid programs, visionary but realistic and with measurable objectives, and present them in a professional and appealing way to potential donors. As I have said above, the first task will be identifying the “quasi-transhumanists” among the very rich. I hope to see a spiral growth: the money will permit paying our collaborators, and their work will permit achieving the objectives of the programs, starting new programs, reaching more people and receiving more money, and so on in a positive feedback loop. If the initiative will succeed (no forget that - I wanted to say *when* the initiative will succeed), the European fundraising central will be able to support the WTA, national chapters such as the Italian Transhumanist Association, a European cryonics centre, and other worthy initiatives on a case by case basis. I consider this project among my personal top priorities in 2007. In January we will incorporate the new organization in Milan, Italy, as a registered non-profit.

Transhumanism is fully entering the political sphere. This is especially visible in Italy, also because of the attacks and stigmatisation of the catholic church. The core transhumanist meme can, as it is well known, infect a wide range of philosophical and political platforms - right, center, left, globalist, localist, materialist, spiritual etc. It will thus be possible (with hard and careful work) creating transhumanist groups and caucases inside most political parties and opinion movements. This process, up to a certain extent, is already ongoing in some countries such as Italy. We need to keep on and export the model.

But it is also important to analyse why we don’t seem to be managing to “reach the masses”. This has been partly due to insufficient media exposure, and after some high visibility appearances on the press and the media, such as the recent documentary on Italian national channel RAI 3, we have seen the “miracles” that television can do. But perhaps past difficulties in outreach have not only been due to insufficient media exposure, but also to a certain incapacity to communicate effectively. There is a very interesting discussion thread on Michael Anassimov’s blog, were the discussing has moved from the small number of transhumanist women to the central issue of communication skills. In part I agree with the comment by PJ Manney “The problem with most H+ers is that none of you spend much time with people outside of the intellectual/hi-tech world”. This has certainly been an actual problem in the past but will, I hope, fade out with the appearance os a new wave of transhumanists, much more diversified in terms of gender and educational-professional background, in much better touch with the zeitgeist, and on a global scale instead of North American only. I hope this new wave will facilitate reaching “the masses”. PJ Manney said more on her blog: “The real discussion is about how H+ ideals are communicated to all people, everywhere”.

We cannot deny that the great world’s religions have managed, and quite well, to reach the masses. Religions’ success is due to the fact that they offer an answer to the nightmare of death. Yes, your loved one are dead, and sooner or later you will also die, but you will meet again in heaven. This is a *very* powerful meme as the penetration of religion demonstrates. With the coming of a secular worldview based on science, it seems impossible to continue taking religion seriously. But is it really so? Perhaps not. I am very interested in the current experimental activities to create “transhumanist religions”, based on science, but still able to offer hope in “another life” even for those who are already dead. Some information on these experiments, links and my own toughts can be found in my article ”Engineering Transcendence”, which I plan updating and expanding perhaps even at book length.

Needless to say, while the vast majority of those who participated in the discussion on the mailing list agreed with all previous points, this last point has generated a steamy debate and outraged some hard-core rationalists. It has been difficult to explain with clear words that, while I *am* a hard-core rationalist myself, my scientific worldview and my belief in our potential for boundless expansion enabled by technology make me appreciate the plausibility of, for example, omega-point-like scenarios where science, and science alone, can resurrect the dead. Perhaps the communication problem lies in using the world “religion” which has a very negative connotation for some. Maybe “spirituality” would work better. Of course, these ideas would generate even stronger debates in conventional religious circles. I think I have a clear vision of the point I am trying to make here, and know that other transhumanists share a similar vision, but I can see that it is a difficult vision to communicate.

Giulio Prisco is a writer, technology expert, futurist and transhumanist. A former manager in European science and technology centers, he writes and speaks on a wide range of topics, including science, information technology, emerging technologies, virtual worlds, space exploration and future studies. He serves as President of the Italian Transhumanist Association.
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