Thursday, September 14, 2006

"Aren't We Already Transhumanists?" by Chris Wren

(Stolen and/or borrowed from Chris Wren at Monolithic Sketchbook.)


I was talking with someone at one of this Worldcon's many parties, and he suggested that a good definition of a Transhumanist was someone "dedicated to the idea that we should apply science and technology to the permanent improvement of the human condition."

Fair enough, but aren't we doing that now? Haven't we always done that? We're already applying the better part of the energy of our civilization to developing pharmaceuticals and technologies that alter the human condition. I have a plastic film in the back of my eye following a cataract operation. I'm very happy about using science and technology to improve the human condition. Doesn't that make me a Transhumanist? Doesn't the lens implanted in my eye actually make me Transhuman?

It depends on how you define "human", I guess. Personally, I think it's best to avoid defining it, and I'm also not sure the word "natural" is a term that has applied to the human condition for at least several thousand years. You could argue that the technological breakthroughs of organized agriculture and animal husbandry permanently altered the human condition, and set us on a road with no turns. Oh, today there might be little local pockets of resistance to big monolithic scary terms like "Stem Cells" and "Cloning" and "Genetic Engineering" which, like "Nanotechnology" have been cartoonified by a pandering media and an opportunistic, cynical political class, but somewhere in the world research moves ahead and is unstoppable. Resistance to progress in the biological sciences really has become irrelevant and is in most cases just superficial window dressing done up to palliate the sensibilities of an aging demographic suffering from terminal future shock.

What Transhumanist activists generally mean when they talk about transforming the human condition through technology is fairly radical though, but to me it's just part of the same spectrum that includes eyeglasses, pacemakers and instant messaging. The pursuit of hyper-longevity, cognitive enhancement and the selective eradication of genetic diseases aren't really some sort of existential state change - just more steps along the road we started out on millenia ago. What's different about our time is that the big transformative breakthroughs will start coming years or even months apart, as opposed to decades or centuries.

I guess my only issue with regards to Transhumanism is that I'm not sure why it's considered a movement. That would imply that Transhumanism is something new, an issue with some sort of unique ethical dimension we've never encountered before. However, the kind of breakthroughs envisioned by Transhumanists will, at least initially, have nothing to do with ethics and everything to do with money and power. We can debate the ethics of hyper-longevity all we like but in the end, nothing will stop rich people from trying to have superior babies. That's been a genetic imperative since the dawn of our species. No ethical considerations will stop Paris Hilton and Madonna and Tom Cruise from paying whatever it takes to stay young and beautiful forever. The only ethical considerations will be to what extent those technologies get shared among the general population - and we already have that ethical issue on the table today. We already talk about how far big Pharma should go in making HIV retrovirals cheaply available in Africa, for example. We already debate the role wealthy nations should have in improving the lot of chronically impoverished peoples. The discussion about how far we go in making life-extending technologies and therapies cheaply available to the whole of humanity is the same issue, just with different terminology.

It's not that I question any of the basic precepts of the Transhumanists, and I respect their passion to improve the human condition. I just don't think that the issues Transhumanists are talking about represent some sort of decoupling from the continuum of our history. I don't think that Transhumanism is anything new.

posted by Chris at 9:05 AM

The Transhumanist Beat "Kid for Today" by Boards of Canada

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The Transhumanist Beat "King of the World" by Steely Dan