We’ve announced today that Kyle Munkittrick is joining the IEET in the position of Program Director: Envisioning the Future. So that you can get a better idea of who Kyle is and what he will bring to our organization, I conducted a brief online dialog with him.
Mike: What does it mean to you, Kyle, to call yourself a transhumanist?
Kyle: The short answer is that I am pro-human-enhancement. The longer answer is that I believe humanity is, in part, defined by its unique relationship to its external phenotype. We are an extended species, and perhaps the only species that grasps time, history, and a sense our species’ place among all the others.
Mike: To clarify, when you say you are pro-enhancement, does that mean you think that all humans should be enhanced? Or just that enhancement should be available and allowed?
Kyle: The latter. Enhancements will not be enhancements in every situation, it’s very much a contextual thing. My opinion is that all humans should be able to be enhanced, should they so desire. Informed consent, real choice, and lots of options are the goal, including the choice to reject any and every enhancement.
Mike: But wait, what about an enhancement that would, say, eliminate a hereditary disease? Aren’t there some cases in which it would make sense to have enhancements be required, as we do now with vaccinations?
Kyle: Unlike vaccinations, which are not inheritable, germ-line modifications to remove hereditary diseases would create a herd immunity with fewer participants. I have no idea what our health care system is going to look like when germ-line modification becomes common, but I would prefer it was covered in any standard plan and would be an assumed treatment unless opted out of, like vaccines today. I would loath to require anything, but reducing the difficulty and cost of access could create the same desired results without forcing anyone into a modification.
Mike: What is your attitude toward the supposedly impending Technological Singularity?
Kyle: I believe it’s possible, but highly unlikely, and will take far longer than predicted. The technological trends might be there, yes, but there are two major problems, both of which are opposing sides of the human coin.
The first problem is society opposing a given technology or aspect of a technology or simply not wanting it. Any major opposition would be enough to say, allow genetic engineering to flourish while nanotech languishes, or visa versa. Or perhaps we’ll simply hit a wall, the way we have with fusion.
The second problem is that people do things with technology we don’t expect. The pioneers of the internet did not predict Facebook or I Can Has Cheezburger or Chatroullette. People are weird and we do weird things with technology, making it hard to predict where, exactly the next advancement will actually take us.
Mike: What role can the IEET play in paving the way for the safe and just implementation of emerging technologies?
Kyle: The biggest role the IEET can play is in helping policy makers and the public see that technology and human enhancement are not a threat to humanity or human nature. Fear and ignorance are more dangerous than any technology we could invent. The IEET drives conversation and defuses critics.
Mike: Are there any threats or dangers that you can see? Or is it all good?
Kyle: The biggest dangers I see are sociological and political, not technological. My primary concern is that a technology will come to fruition and then be banned after being on the market. The result will be an instant black market with enormous demand. We already has a tremendous problem from the War on Drugs, the reproductive rights debate, and enhancement restrictions in athletics. Make new tech legal, regulate it if need be, and let market forces do their work in the sunlight, not in back alleys or under the table.
Mike: Do you consider yourself a libertarian, and if so, how does that fit in working with a politically progressive organization like the IEET?
Kyle: Oooooh boy. I’m a left-libertarian, which is shorthand for “I support free market economics and limited government, but I think Ayn Rand is crazy, recognize social and institutional disparities, and support liberal social goals, like marriage equality, reproductive rights, and drug legalization.” It’s better to think of me as a liberal who supports free market and small government solutions.
Kyle: But let me ask you, how do you feel having an avowed libertarian among the ranks of the IEET?
Mike: Well, since you describe yourself as a left-libertarian who supports liberal social goals, I think it’s clear that our views are much closer than standard labels might indicate. I’ve sometimes even remarked that I consider myself a libertarian socialist.
I favor an activist government that can ensure a level playing field for all and provides basic necessities, including health care and advanced education, as an unqualified human right, but that places no limits on freedom of expression or action as long as the rights of others are not infringed. This leaves a lot of room for disagreement and debate, of course, but that process itself will be a healthy exercise of democracy.
Mike: Now, tell us about your goals for your graduate studies.
Kyle: I’m all over the map, but my primary focus is gender studies and phenomenology. I study how the gendered body is represented by science, culture, and the state. My favorite academics at the moment are Elizabeth Grosz, Julian Savulescu, and Allen Buchanan. My masters at NYU is mostly preparation for what I hope will be Doctor of Philosophy studies at Oxford.
Mike: You’ll be working with me to oversee the activities of our interns. How do you want to change that program?
Kyle: Internships are the closest thing the modern information economy has to apprenticeships of yore. Want to work in TV? Be an intern at NBC getting coffee and giving tours. Want to work in fashion? Intern at YSL getting yelled at and ironing bolts of un-ironable fabric. But you come out of it with insider knowledge. An intern might spend all day getting coffee, but they get a window into the world they want to become a part of and instead of just a blip on their resume, they come away with the knowledge to put it to use and contacts that get them in the door.
I want to get our interns researching so that they know how to dig up obscure facts when working on what will inevitably weird and obscure papers in graduate school. I want to get them writing for a public audience so they know what it’s like to say what you think and then put it out there for judgment. And I want to get them involved in a project that produces a result, so they get to see what it’s like to have their small portion of work make a big difference.
Mike: What are your plans for improving the IEET’s Non-Human Images Database (NHID) project? Why does it matter?
Kyle: The NHID has a ton of potential, but it works best in conjunction with the Technoprogressive Wiki and the IEET blog.
Working with the interns, Kristi Scott, and James Hughes, the goal is to create a database from which one can draw examples to defend a given transhumanist argument. For example, if one wanted to explain why long lives needn’t be problematic and wanted some pop-culture examples to add emphasis, one would go to the database and see that Yoda (Star Wars), the Asari (Mass Effect), and Gandalf (Lord of the Rings) are all very old and doing just fine.
The value of the project is that it makes the messages within the transhumanist wiki and on the IEET blog easy to grok. To say someone lives to be 900 is difficult to process. To say Yoda lived to be 900, or that the Asari structured their entire society around long life works better than pure logical argumentation. Pathos, pure and simple.
Mike: Do you have any questions for me?
Kyle: Yes, I do have a couple. First, what will the IEET be, if all goes to plan, on its ten-year anniversary?
Mike: We will be ten years old in 2014. By that point, I would like to see us have a significantly expanded budget allowing for a small paid full-time staff (right now we can only afford three part-time employees), be able to offer meaningful research grants to IEET Fellows, be a recognized voice in the media as a source for authoritative pronouncements on issues surrounding emerging technologies, and be engaged in active promotion of technoprogressive policy initiatives in the United States and internationally.
Kyle: And, what’s your hope for bringing me on board?
Mike: I see you providing the IEET with youth, energy, intellectual vigor, and a contrasting but complementary point of view. You come from a generation younger than myself and James Hughes and thus will have a different and valuable perspective on world issues. You have demonstrated a desire to learn, a capacity to understand, and an interest in applying your knowledge and experience to make things better—we need that kind of energy in our midst!