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The Trouble with “Transhumanism”: Part Two
Dale Carrico   Dec 22, 2004   BetterHumans  

To make real progress in discussions of radical technology, the first thing we need is new language

In a similar way, I worry about the overeager derisive application of the term "luddite" to denote opponents of particular technological outcomes. For one thing, this disparaging usage disrespects the historical Luddites, most of whom happened to be right to fear the devastating technological disruption of their personal lives, whatever the long-term benefits we can discern in the aftermath. But also, too often the term is simply distortive and gratuitously insulting. Many of the people who oppose particular technologies that I support nevertheless affirm the value of others. Almost all of them rely on technology and medicine themselves and are well aware of and grateful for this fact. And quite a few, though definitely not all, fully grant the general premise that sophisticated technocultures are preferable in important respects to any fantasized idealized state of nature.

The politics of technological development are shifting and complex, and conjuring up an imaginary scene that pits "transhumanists" against "luddites" easily deranges our sense of the relevant players and terrain, implying a greater coherence and clarity both in and among individuals in their attitudes toward particular technological developments than actually obtains in reality.

To be told that a person is "transhumanist" or "anti-transhumanist" in their attitudes towards preimplantation genetic diagnosis, reproductive cloning or engineered negligible senescence does not put you in a position to confidently assess that person's attitudes towards molecular manufacturing, space elevators, massive automation, the strong program of artificial intelligence or even, necessarily, the appropriate prescription of neuroceuticals.

There has to be a broader, more dynamic, more permeable set of categories available to think through these complex attitudes and shifting affiliations, at least in their more general aspects. Most will consider being labeled either "luddite" or "transhumanist" an ad hominem attack more than an application of illuminating analytical categories. These terms are too monolithic, they have fraught historical associations we cannot just wish away and they are far too susceptible to deployment as straw-men and scapegoats that become substitutes for real deliberation about positions in a cartoonish conservative media environment.

Two sensibilities

Lately, I've been using a broader distinction of "bioconservative" and "tech-progressive" sensibilities to name such shifting general tendencies, but I would be pleased to see a lot more language available to get at these differences and connections. Here are some provisional definitions:

Bioconservatism: A stance of hesitancy about technological development in general and strong opposition to the genetic, prosthetic or cognitive modification of human beings in particular. Whether arising from a conventionally right-leaning politics of religious/cultural conservatism or from a conventionally left-leaning politics of environmentalism, bioconservative positions oppose medical and other technological interventions into what are broadly perceived as current human and cultural limits in the name of a defense of "the natural" deployed as a moral category.

Tech-progressivism: A stance of active support for technological development in general and for human practices of genetic, prosthetic and cognitive modification in particular. Tech-progressives believe that technological developments can be profoundly empowering and emancipatory when they are regulated by legitimate democratic and accountable authorities to ensure that their costs, risks and benefits are all fairly shared by the actual stakeholders to those developments.

It is important to note that both bioconservatism and tech-progressivism, in their more reasonable expressions, share an opposition to unsafe, unfair, undemocratic, undeliberative forms of technological development, and both recognize that such developmental modes can facilitate unacceptable recklessness and exploitation, exacerbate injustice and incubate dangerous social discontent.

I would also emphasize that it is not right to imagine that these sensibilities cleave off into two perfectly separate tribes, squaring off as if on a vast historical playing field for some cosmic-scaled battle. Many individuals will support both bioconservative and tech-progressive positions on particular issues in the politics of technological development. And most people will sense the tug of reasonableness in particular formulations arising from either broader sensibility from time to time, according to the vicissitudes in their own personal experiences. These two sensibilities, often deeply at odds in particular campaigns of advocacy, activism, policymaking, meaning-making and education, will nevertheless usually share at least enough common ground for productive dialogue to be possible among their adherents.

After nature

I think it is also important to recognize that both bioconservative and tech-progressive sensibilities, positions and politics have arisen and exert their force uniquely in consequence of what I describe as the ongoing denaturalization of human life in this historical moment.

This denaturalization is a broad social and cultural tendency, roughly analogous to and even structurally related to other broad tendencies such as, say, secularization and industrialization.

It consists essentially of two trends: First, it names a growing suspicion (one that can provoke either fear or hopefulness, sometimes in hyperbolic forms) of the normative and ideological force of claims made in the name of "nature" and especially "human nature," inspired by a recognition of the destabilizing impact of technological developments on given capacities and social norms. Second, it consists of an awareness of the extent to which the terms and pace of technological development, and the distribution of its costs, risks and benefits, is emerging ever more conspicuously as the primary space of social struggle around the globe.

It is a truism that the technical means to eliminate poverty and illiteracy for every human being on Earth have existed since the 18th century, but that social forms and political will have consistently frustrated these ends. The focus for most tech-progressives remains to use emerging technologies to transform the administration of social needs, to provide shelter, nutrition, health care and education for all, as well as to remedy the damaging and destabilizing impact of technology itself on complex, imperfectly understood environmental and social orders on which we depend for survival. To these ends, a deepening and widening of democratic participation in development and accountability of governance through emerging networked information and communication technologies is also crucial. Beyond this, many tech-progressives also champion the idea of morphological freedom, or consensual practices of genetic, prosthetic and cognitive modification considered as personal practices of self-creation rather than as the technological imposition of social conformity figured questionably as "health."

After humanism

It is difficult from my own perspective to see how bioconservative defenses of "human nature" could finally help us much in these worthy democratizing projects. I do not mean to be dismissive of humanism, but it seems to me that historically speaking the so-called universal accomplishments celebrated under the banner of humanism from the Renaissance to the present day have rarely been available to more than a privileged group of males, and occasionally a few females, within strictly limited socioeconomic strata. Even at its most capacious, any anthropocentric human-racist grounding of ethics will stand perplexed in the face of the demand of Great Apes, dolphins and other nonhuman animals for standing and respect. Further, the category of "humanity" seems rarely to have provided much protective cover for even fully sane, mature, "exemplary" human beings caught up in the genocidal technoconstituted dislocations of the modern era.

A number of post-humanist discourses have emerged to register these dissatisfactions with the limitations of the traditional humanist project. Post-humanist thinkers such as Donna Haraway, Katherine Hayles and Bruno Latour like to point out that we have never been human in the first place, in the sense of any humanism that would render us luminously rational, angelic beings apart from the beasts and the "beastly" humans we disdain and oppress as our inferiors. And so, it is important to recognize that the "post-human" does not have to conjure up the possibly frightening or tragic spectacle of a posthumous humanity, an end to the best aspirations of human civilization, or even an outright repudiation of humanism itself, so much as a new effort emerging out of humanism, a moving on from humanism as a point of departure, a demanding of something new from it, perhaps the demand that humanism live up to its universalizing self-image for once.

Bioconservatives often express a general fear that new technologies will "rob" us of our humanity. But for me the essence of our humanity, if there could be such a thing, is simply our capacity to explore together what it means to be human. No sect, no tribe, no system of belief owns what it means to be human. I believe prosthetic practices are contributions to the conversation we are having about what humanity is capable of, and those who want to freeze that conversation in the image of their pet platitudes risk violating that "humanity" just as surely as any reckless experimentalism.

I neither fear nor hope for the arrival of technologies that would somehow make some of us "more than human." When I contemplate the prospect of even superlative technologies such as rejuvenation medicine or molecular manufacturing, I imagine a world that would offer up more ways to be human, none of them more nor less human than any other.

I happen to believe most of us have grown altogether too queer and too prostheticized already to be much seduced by the language of innocent "nature," or sweet bioconservative odes to the so-called "human dignity" and "deeper meaning" to be found in pain and suffering from potentially treatable diseases. Tech-progressives believe that we can demand fairness, sustainability, responsibility and freedom from the forces of technological development in which we are all immersed and in which we are all collaborating, and that this demand is the contribution of this living generation to the ongoing conversation of humankind.

Dale Carrico is a PhD candidate in the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California at Berkeley and a fellow at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET). He maintains a blog, Amor Mundi, and contributes to the collaborative blog Cyborg Democracy.
Dale Carrico Ph.D. was a fellow of the IEET from 2004 to 2008 and is a lecturer in the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California at Berkeley.

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