Does Transhumanism, as a social movement, have the power to transform human society? Is technology shaping us or we it?
After a near decade of following the spread of Transhumanism, I finally began a PhD project to find out some answers to the questions like the ones above. I live in Finland and my PhD is done at the University of Turku, faculty of Social Sciences, department of Sociology. It may also interest the reader to know that a key part of my methodology is in doing the research as an ‘Open PhD Project’.
My research question in general is: “What kind of a social movement is Transhumanism?”
This divides into two concrete questions:
1. What is the Transhuman concept of technology?
2. What kinds of social actors Transhumanism assumes (or constitutes).
As a social movement, Transhumanism is mobilized behind a collection of ideas and beliefs. In my research I look at transhumanism as a source of a new technocultural actors who alter the way social reality is shaped. I believe that science and technology require a novel way of analysis in order to capture the social category of the human-technology-actor. In this article I’ll discuss some basic theoretical assumptions that underlie my research.
Such words like society, technology, social movement or human enhancement do not qualify as concepts in a scientific study. They are mere markers to deeper meanings in culture and history. To understand what Transhumanism is and how it can be understood as a new social movement requires a lot of theoretical work before any conclusions can be drawn.
My research is grounded in the Science and Technology Studies (STS) tradition and in the theories of New Social Movements (NSM). In this article I’ll explain my starting points and argue for an actor-based view on Transhumanism in order to shed some light in how technological progress could be linked to social movements.
As for the social movement emphasis I’ll ground my case on the theoretical and empirical work by the French sociologist Allain Touraine. One of Touraine’s leading concepts is the ‘sociology of action’ which in short puts the focus on a real flesh and blood ‘actor’ in a given movement. Touraine made his original case in the 80’s and much of his research has circled around known social movements of the 20th century.
Touraine is highly critical of the functionalist and market -oriented way of conceptualizing social activity. Touraine claims that both the functional and the market oriented way of analysis loses the concept of the individual, human actor, and thus they fail to explain social movements ‘action’ in a clear way.
“Those who see only order (functions) disregard the negotiations and claims of the actor. Those who see only change (the market) don’t see the the chackles of change.“ 
For Touraine, modern societies are ‘modern’ due to their unique ability to ‘act upon themselves’. This means societies are able to reproduce knowledge and change the way they ‘are’. For Touraine this is a fundamental process.
Another background assumption I have is an orientation to critical realism. Broadly speaking realism is an ontological view that states that there exists a real outside world beyond our senses.
Constructivism is more an epistemological viewpoint that defines how knowledge about the outside world is created. In my research I argue for realism in methodology and the ontology of technology, that technological artifacts are real – not just a collection of attributed meanings. This is because in my opinion, technology must have an independent existence and ‘agency’ in order for it to be assimilated with the human condition. There are problems with this view that have a lot to do with technological determinism but in order to see how technology transforms or affects humans and humanity, it is vital to consider human actors and the technological ‘environment’ as two distinctive but interrelated fields.
The Struggle for the Aims of Technology
Touraine uses the framework of class research and class conflicts to underpin where the action in societies resides. In the original Tourainian vision there are two main classes: the ruling class and the popular classes. The ruling class is made up of individuals and groups that are able to control and ‘own’ the cultural orientations of a given society. Also they tend to control the state apparatus. This is how the ruling class controls what Touraine calls historicity – the process with which modern societies reproduce themselves.
“Human societies have the capacity not only to reproduce themselves or even adapt themselves through mechanisms of learning and political decision making and also to develop their own orientations and alter then: to generate their objectives and their normativity.”
The popular classes are dominated by the process of production of ‘historicity’. Social movements are the collective action of these dominated actors who challenge the ‘status quo’ or historicity. The ruling class will try to convince the society that the way things are is how they should (even naturally) be. The popular classes often don’t feel the domination but when they do, they tend to revolt or battle against it. This is what a social struggle could be and it could be what is happening in modern day movements like the Occupy movement.
Here is the catch: the popular classes must have a new idea about the cultural orientations of the society (like “new capitalism”) so that they can challenge the ruling classes take on the historicity. If successful, societal change will come about and a new “how things are” will appear.
Transhumanism as Action and Creator of New Social Relations
By using this framework I attempt to understand Transhumanism and “main stream technology”. There are many struggles that have to do with ethics or the human future in general. I believe that, as a movement, Transhumanism is attempting to challenge many opinions about humanity and technology and ultimately the movement may be in a position to challenge the “historicity” that has dominated the way aims and uses for technology have been defined in the Western world.
So, what is the new thing Transhumanism is all about and why would it be so significant that it could change the entire society? A Tourainian answer would be that new technology produces new social relations. In his view social relations are not defined a priori and they are not a creation of some obscure concept of social evolution. For Touraine social relations are real relations between actors and can spark from the real struggles between the popular classes and the ruling class. Take the Arabic Spring as an example. It is the communications technology that is not only brining the information to the world but it is also used to coordinate action. Or perhaps the ACTA fuzz even better demonstrates how the application of technology alters the way power and society function. The ACTA mess has even aided in the creation of at least one new social category: the pirate.
What I am trying to achieve with my research is this: Transhumanism is a social movement that aims to modify humanity and individual humans by the use of technology. My main argument is that this opens up completely new social relations between people and institutions. The changes proposed by Transhumanism are not changes in opinion but changes in the way society and culture are actually formed.
Technology is all around us yet we seem to have real difficulties in trying to understand just what it exactly is. It doesn’t take much effort to go and buy a ridiculously cheap Nokia Windows Phone and hold it out and claim “this is technology”. A bit trickier is the question of what exactly makes it technology. How does Lumia, for instance, differ from a pair of glasses you may wear?
The real question is about what it does. Mobile devices are pieces of technology but so is the very network they operate on. The electricity grid we all use all the time is a network of technology with some parts of it almost a century old. The difficulty here is defining how this technology acts upon us. For an example, what is the ‘technology’ in your Facebook app? Is it the lines of code or does it have implications on how you act or perceive the world.
Here we see that the question of what is technology has a lot to do with what does technology do. Is it a system, artifact, ideology or a philosophical conception of reality? In my view technology is a system that enables new action. Or in Touraines terms, opens up new social relations and therefore new areas of conflict within society.
It is also here where the question about the meaning of Transhuman technology becomes important in understanding Transhumanism as a movement and Transhumanists as social actors. A simple hypothesis is this: If Transhuman technology has nothing that distinguishes it from any other technology, then it is not likely to have any novel affects to the social actors (and therefore human beings).
If, however, Transhuman technology is exceptional, then it can be assumed that it may have effects on the social actors of the movement and they may also become exceptional.
This technological exceptionalism is assumed in many of the Transhuman writings and it is best articulated in the concept of ‘posthuman’. Posthuman, in a Transhuman way of speaking, is something quantitatively different from human. For this transformation, Transhuman technology must have some power to transform humans into posthumans and therefore Transhuman conception of technology must have an exceptional element in it.
The Open PhD Project
Since Transhumanism is a ‘new social movement’, I believe it is a good idea to be part of the ‘community’ with my research. Hence, I began an Open PhD Project on Transhumanism. And you can join the network. My aim is not just to complete my research but also create a network of researchers of Transhumanism.
I began a blog and a Wikispaces page about my research. The blog has a straightforward address: http://www.researchingtranshumanism.com and the Wikispaces-page can be found at http://openphdproject.wikispaces.com. The blog is a bit like a field notebook for the anthropologists as my research in some sense can be categorized as internet anthropology. In the Wiki I’ll actually do all the writing. You can see how a PhD project gets done from zero.
Yes, I’ll keep the entire project online so that people can love it, hate it, spam it, comment on it, be inspired by it or to be educated by it.
I have no idea what will come out of this but I like the openness and the novelty in methodology. And yes, this is part of my methodology. Through these two sites I hope to contact Transhumanists and other science and technology researchers. In the future I’ll need materials such as documents, photos, texts and interviews for my research. If you are interested, please view my blog now and then or if you wish to be a part of the “researching Transhumanism” network I am building, don’t hesitate to contact me.
 Touraine, A. (1981). The voice and the eye: An analysis of social movements. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.