Transhumanism is not simply something that will happen in the future; it is a general byproduct of modernity. Thinking of transhumanism narrowly, only as a future state, jeopardizes the development of desirable ethics and societal changes.
When asked if I am a transhumanist, my first reaction is, No. I describe my identity functionally: researcher, theologian; and relationally: wife, daughter, sister, friend. Equally true, but what I am less likely to consider, are the contextual aspects of my identity: female, American, Caucasian or westerner. These latter aspects of identity so shape my perceptions as to be almost invisible to me.
Transhumanism, too, is part of our context. It is all around us.
On the biological side, IVF and surrogacy are becoming mainstream ways of thinking about reproduction. Life extension through medications or transplants are expected aspects of healthcare. Laser surgery, cochlear ear implants, artificial limbs, brain-computer interfaces, artificial organs and humanized animals are also commonplace. We have supplements and drugs that are used to enhance our abilities. Plant genetic engineering is commonplace and we now have animal cloning and transgenic food animals.
On the computational side, the Internet is integrated with daily living. In gaming, the first thought-controlled peripherals are on the market now. Artificial intelligence runs a variety of systems, including order-fulfillment in warehouses, and drives the stock exchange. Robotics are in the home as toys or as cleaning devices. Some car companies have begun shifting from autos to robotics, and Google is developing a driverless-car.
Whether or not transhumanism itself is ever realized (meaning a sentient technological life form is developed, or we see the emergence of human-machine hybrids), the combined developments in genetics, nanotechnology, neuro-cognitive sciences, artificial intelligence, and robotics are creating a cultural shift—the transhuman age.
So upon reflecting on the question, “Am I a transhumanist?” the answer is Yes, and so is everyone else living in western societies or among the “technological haves.” Currently, salience of emerging technologies may be low, but they will become more and more visible to your children and your grandchildren.
Like AI, transhumanism may be thought of as either narrow or as general. Narrow transhumanism is the future goal (for some) of becoming post-biological, and general transhumanism is the state of modernity, the scientific and technological advances that allows us to modify our biological programming and create intelligence augmentation.
It is important to see transhumanism as a current condition of modernity so that associated ethics can develop at a pace that matches the technology. In fact, there are four specific reasons why this distinction between narrow transhumanism and general transhumanism is important:
- Developing economic and ethical guidelines for mediating the technology divide. During the 20th century, we thought of technology as either personal technology, such as appliances, or communal technology, such as utilities. Increasingly, the emerging technologies are reshaping this landscape. Solar power in the U.S. is primarily being adopted and installed by individuals rather than metropolitan areas. Our telephones have gone from being communal instruments – first in towns, then in families – to being individual devices. In Japan, a designer has developed air-conditioned clothing that enables atmospheric manipulation at the personal level. The genetic sciences and nanotechnology are beginning to lead us into individualized treatment for disease. As technology-enabled customization reaches into every aspect of our lives, we’ll need to rethink what “equal access” means and become creative about how to ensure it.
- Supporting a shift focus rather than trajectory thinking. Acknowledging that science and technological development are facts of modernity may allow our institutions, legislators, lobbyists and citizenry to be more open to shift solutions. Without education as to how technology may change our culture in the coming decades, the default is to assume that solutions that have worked in the past will continue to work in the future. Emerging technologies are generally game-changers. Understanding that we exist in a technology saturated context may open the door for different approaches to entrenched problems rather than incremental alternatives.
- Minimizing political posturing aimed at reducing investment in emerging technologies. There are intimations that conservative Christians appear to be shifting campaigns from family values toward anti-transhumanism. A recent example was the vote in the U.S. Congress to overturn FDA approval of transgenic salmon. Coming to the understanding that modernity is synonymous with transhuman technologies may help to minimize negative impacts on emerging technology R&D.
- Fostering broad-based participation in issues concerning emerging technologies. Currently, the transhuman future (narrow transhumanism) has been communicated mostly by popular entertainment and science fiction. This may skew perceptions, perhaps creating negative or unrealistic expectations. Communicating that transhumanism is our current context normalizes emerging technologies. Raising awareness among the general public also opens the door for more diverse voices to participate in discussing the ethical issues raised by emerging technologies.
Focusing only on narrow transhumanism will defer the hard work of creating new solutions for health care distribution and food supply resources. Understanding that transhumanism is now and continuing to develop helps create a frame of reference for both the ethical issues and the potential ways of addressing them.
Many of the transhuman technologies have already been developed. Like the splitting of the atom, it is impossible to reverse the tide toward a post-biological era. What is possible is to enlist a wide range of voices, interests and perspectives in shaping how that future will look.