By Dale Carrico, Amor Mundi June 6, 2006
William Saletan has just published a curious review of the “Human Enhancement Technologies and Human Rights” Conference (usually described by its acronym HETHR) that took place last weekend at Stanford University. I was a participant in the Conference myself, and even helped out a bit in organizing it, though the real heavy lifting was undertaken by my friend and collegue James Hughes, the Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET) where I am currently a Fellow, and Richard Glen Boire and Wrye Sententia, Directors of the Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics where I have been a Summer Fellow in the recent past.
The subtitle of Saletan’s piece prepares us instantly for the sort of rhetoric to come: “Cyborgs, self-mutilators, and the future of our race.” (Just who he means by “our” here will be clearer in a moment, but already one can be fairly sure that “self-mutilators,” whoever they might be, won’t figure in Saletan’s racial “we.”) That is to say, the title sets the scene quite literally—one might even say it makes a scene—offering up a vivid phantasmagoria of prejudicial figures and images that begins to do Saletan’s argumentative work for him before a single claim is actually offered up for our consideration. Such snapshots, provided without context but with ample smirking, take up more than half of the piece. And no wonder. As we shall see soon enough, when Saletan finally gets around to reporting the claims that occured in the Conference itself or proposes his own claims in assessment of it, the results are hardly so edifying to his own positions as the prerational shudders of Kassoid repugnance his freakshow act is likely to yield for him.
Saletan begins quite literally like a circus barker, jerking aside a curtain to the gasps of a horrified audience: “Heeeeeeere’s Cat Man!” the piece begins.
“On a projection screen,” he intones, we find at “a picture of a guy who’d done himself up like a cat—not with makeup, but with tattoos and surgery. The guy’s whiskers were implanted. His nose had been converted to a cat nose. His teeth had been filed into the shape of cat teeth. His head has been flattened, and he was looking for a doctor to implant a tail.” Saletan’s readership at Slate presumably oohs and ahs like a throng at a fireworks display. And Saletan is delighted. “And that’s just the tip of the freakberg,” he assures us. Next up, he winks, “there’s Lizard Man, Amputee Online, the Church of Body Modification, and Suspension.org, the Web site for people who like to be impaled on hooks.”
Not to put too fine a point on it, Saletan throws the hammer down: “These are weird people with weird ideas.” But perhaps that is too harsh for readers in a nation that prides itself on its individualism and self-expression? “[S]ometimes,” he grudgingly supposes, “it takes a weirdo to see what’s odd about what the rest of us call normal.” Well, isn’t that nice? Saletan thinks he represents the normality “the rest of us” share as against transsexuals and kooky folks with tattoos.
The Human Enhancement Technologies and Human Rights Conference Saletan also assures us early on was mobbed with “nerds.” This is the key in which he plays out the second movement in this endlessly prolonged ad hominem “review” of the event. “Remember those kids who played Dungeons & Dragons and ran the science-fiction club in your high school?” Oh, yes, “the rest of us” remember them one presumes the “normal ones” are now expected to reply.
“This was the kind of conference where people talked about the Matrix the way Christians talk about the Bible,” he chuckles. I didn’t attend any panels in which the Matrix was discussed, but I am intrigued to know whether he means that attendees spoke of the Matrix to provide a rationale for amending the Constitution to make lesbians and gay people second-class citizens, treat women as fetal incubators, and bomb foreigners unlucky enough to be born in nations with oil American billionaires want to control. I certainly agree with Saletan that that would be an interesting and appalling panel discussion to be a fly on the wall for. But maybe he means something else here, since sometimes I misread the special signals bioconservatives use to communicate their intolerances with one another. Finally, Saletan conjures up here yet again the apparently evergreen hilarious spectacle of a gathering “where speakers apologized for their discomfort with piercings or tattoos.”
Now, this is a pretty relentless parade of caricatures at this point, and Saletan has to be worried that at least some people might get the idea that there is something interesting or at any rate titillating afoot here. And didn’t he mention that this was an event that took place at a prestigious University? Those sufficiently intrigued by Saletan’s vivid tableau or by the slight cognitive dissonance that might eventuate from the fact that Saletan would choose to attend and then report on such an freakish and marginal event in the first place would discover with a few mouse clicks that HETHR was a deeply serious interdisciplinary event thronged in PhDs, public officials, scientists, and policymakers from a number of continents and institutional locations, governmental, academic, legal, advocacy, and so on.
By the way, in highlighting all the staid conventional credibility and serious intellectual engagement actually in evidence throughout this event my point is not to endorse Saletan’s ugly implication that there is something inherently ridiculous about transsexuals or members of body-modification communities or the rest of the folks Saletan seems to want to dismiss here as inherently disreputable freaks. It is just that the event Saletan describes in his little hit-piece was simply not remotely well captured in this description of his. The sad spectacle of his smug bigotry in these matters is less interesting than the fact that he felt it necessary to take such a tack in the first place.
As the piece winds down, Saletan actually reports some small amount of the content of the conference panels. “Speakers and attendees… invoked Marcuse, Sartre, and Heidegger. They preached struggle and solidarity. They spoke of speciesism, morphological diversity, techno-progressive transhumanism, somatic epistemic technology, nonanthropocentric personhood ethics, and the ‘illusory distinction between self and cosmos.’” In anti-intellectual America such a description is likely to provide for at least some people still more occasion for enjoyable ridicule as did the depiction of piercings and queers and nerds that preceded it, but for a substantial number of readers this will surely be the moment when Saletan’s earlier caricature of the event as a kind of freakazoid dance party will vanish instantly and for good.
The fact of the matter is that it will always be easy to ridicule some of the tropes and topics of bioethical discourse as “kooky.” But when human-animal hybrids and reproductive cloning are discussed in Presidential State of the Union Addresses, part of what this means is that disruptive technological development is making the reality we are trying to cope with a little “kooky” and, hence, that serious people of goodwill may need to be willing to look “kooky” to figure out just what needs to be done to make the world healthier, safer and more fair.
But it is also true that growing numbers of Americans are enthusiastic about the prospect of technological research and development directed at conspicuous social problems, renewable energy sources, stem-cell research, material science, better computation, open access to peer-to-peer digital networks. Meanwhile, there is growing hostility to the current Bush Administration’s endless coddling of primitive extractive petrochemical industries and its no less endless hostility to the recommendations of consensus science on climate change, evolution, sensible security and monitoring measures, regulation of industrial toxicities, harm reduction in matters of sex and substance use, and on and on and on. All this is to say that a bioconservative like Saletan may not have his finger on the pulse of what looks technoscientifically “kooky” in a secular culture with a quickly emerging technoprogressive majority (which, in spite of everything, America still looks like it is shaping up to be).
Saletan’s bioconservative intuitions are likely to backfire even more conspicuously when they register the “social conservatism” of his politics. For me, there has been nothing more frustrating about the default culture of technology-focused discourse over the last two decades than the widespread facile market libertarianism that became conspicuous for all in the heyday of the 90s “Long Boom” irrational exuberance of the extropian and Wired digirati. This intellectual affinity to market fundamentalist foolishness was exacerbated by the fact that actual technological development was and remains driven conspicuously by the definitive corporate-military ends of established elites who likewise clothe their aristocratic agendas in the language of “free trade.” Lately, the catastrophic failures of the Bush Administration and their conspicuous connection to libertarian ideology (Katrina is the bathtub libertopian Norquist wanted to drown government in, lawless, mercenary Iraq is the “free market” laboratory that realizes Ayn Rand’s “Galt’s Gulch”) have finally reminded Americans of the hard lessons that in earlier eras inaugurated the New Deal and the Great Society—and are likely to facilitate the progressive struggle for universal single payer health care, renewable energy independence, reinvigorated global multilateral institutions, free lifelong public education and training, and a basic income guarantee in our near future. Like most conservatives, though, Saletan has almost no sense at all at how out of touch he is with the change that is in the wind. And so, when he goes on to ridicule the progressive politics of many of the participants of the Conference he is unlikely to realize the work of legitimation such comments are likely to do for readers who may have long dismissed technology discourse precisely because it has rarely been progressive enough hitherto.
“Libertarians got a few nods at the conference,” Saletan notes, “but mostly for opposing drug laws and the draft.” But, along with vast majorities of the American people according to most polls, the Conference “radicals” could be heard “call[ing] the United States a ‘bloated uberpower,’” he declares, as if the very idea were shocking. “They cheered calls for a worldwide guaranteed income, free lifelong therapy, and a universal right to art and paid vacations,” he continues. With more endorsements like these, I would expect HETHR II to be a mob-scene!
As his piece draws to its close, the wind seems to have left the sails of Saletan’s project somewhat. Although he is still quick to label the ideas “creepy,” “oddball,” and “cockeyed,” he admits that it was provocative and penetrating when Cambridge biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey wondered in his talk whether human culture is “stuck in a ‘trance’ of fatalism about aging? If we realize it can be slowed or stopped, ‘will aging become repugnant,’ like any other disease?” Saletan concedes there is something to the insight he regularly heard that there is a certain “illogic [in] the way we dope kids with caffeine while banning other stimulants,” or “odd” in the fact “that we denounce steroids as cheating but ignore athletes who get Lasik or muscle-enhancing surgery.” Maybe, he grudgingly avows, it is sensible to “look back at the doubling of human life expectancy in the last century and wonder why we shouldn’t try to double it again.” Indeed, he apparently even concurs with the striking intuition of some of the most radical speakers in the Conference itself that “[t]o our hunter-gatherer ancestors, they figure, we already look posthuman.”
For me the most powerful lesson of this Conference—whatever the superlative technologies that were sometimes conjured up to illustrate this or that arcane bioethical dilemma—is that there is finally something really quite astonishingly quotidian and mainstream about the idea that we should defend and strengthen the right of citizens to informed nonduressed consent to genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive medical modification, and that the real policy difficulties are matters of ensuring that everybody has access to good consensus scientific information about emerging medicine, and that the risks, costs, and benefits of these developments are all fairly shared among all the stakeholders to that development. Thrusting aside all the sometimes silly neologisms, the futurisms, posthumanisms, and technophiliasms, there is something deeply and intimately human about the traffic between biology and cultural/technological practice that produce the fragile and lovely personages that house our hopes and fears and memories.
Saletan closes with this last vignette from the Conference. “I noticed a little guy sitting near the back with a gizmo stuck to his head. I thought he was some kind of techno-showoff. When he finally got up to give his talk, it turned out that the gizmo was the outer part of a hearing-assistance implant. He’s deaf. He showed us the inner part on the projection screen: a metal doodad that says ‘Advanced Bionics’ and is wired through the gore in his head. Then he played audio of what he used to hear through his crude old implant, and what he hears now through his new one. How sweet the sound. Amazing grace.”
Although there have been many published reviews of HETHR that were dramatically more enthusiastic about the event, Saletan’s is by far the one that makes me feel the most hopeful about the future. With “enemies” like Saletan, who needs friends?