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The Reality Principle
Marc Roux   Jan 28, 2017   Technoprog  

Amongst the criticisms often directed at transhumanist ideas, one of the most common is the prediction that access to the technologies on which it depends will mostly be limited to a small affluent minority. This veritable “apartheid by technology” would create a divide into the commonality of the human race, and produce two or more human classes moving at different speeds, which would be the source of inequality and new forms of exploitation.

Originally published in French on Technoprog

The proponents of a “democratic transhumanism,” or “technoprogressivism” who claim that access to the largest number of NBIC technologies is possible, are in turn accused at best of wishful thinking [1], naiveté [ 2] or, at worst, literal collusion with the interests of the ruling oligarchies. [3] Actually, they would tend to be a straw man, or a sort of Trojan horse, whose objective is to convince restive populations to changes intimately felt as an attempt at collective manipulation.

And, I consider the latter risk real. I would like to strongly draw the attention of those of my friends who recognize in technoprogressivism the necessity of being guided by a principle of reality. One common characteristic of nearly all of the transhumanists I know is an unbridled enthusiasm for technology. This is a source of dynamisme, often of creativity, of fulfillment, and dare I say, sometimes of happiness. But it mustn't be forgotten that, for the forces involved - the masses around the planet; social and cultural groups; to ruling oligarchies, an eventual transhumanist evolution of humanity is a key issue. Each of these actors is going to do everything in their power to affect the outcome.

Changing things so everything stays the same!

In 2006, Jacques Attali published a prospective essay: A brief history of the future. Written within a wide historical context, it leads us through a perspective of an evolution in two phases. To start, he posits a paroxysmal collapse of the current system ( "hyper-empire"), after dissolution of States; then a global democratic renaissance. During this evolution, one of the emerging trends in society would be transhumanism.

Reflecting on the possible sources of hope, he offers a silver lining. Being outside the mainstream today, he could prepare a conceptual alternative for tomorrow. Yet barely a year later, he chaired a commission convened by N. Sarkozy, whose work advocated a strengthening of the current system: 300 ideas to change France? Is it some Attalie mysteries or a Marxist sense of history: is it necessary to reach the absurd endpoint of a given economic system before the conditions are met for the emergence of another system?

History teaches us that a longstanding and effective system of power (slavery, monarchy (especially absolute), the capitalist oligarchy, ...) has virtually no ability to transcend itself. At best (at worst), it seeks to mutate to adapt to new circumstances, to survive for its own sake. "Changing things so everything stays the same," said Giuseppe di Lampedusa, via the hero of The Leopard, an old aristocrat witnessing the collapse of the old regime. And the aristocracy married the triumphant bourgeoisie.

Another generation, another technocrat. I am an admirer of the work done for years by Jean-Paul Baquiast (Intelligent Machines; Philosciences; and many other written works [4]). I owe him a thinking, among other things, from his thesis on “anthropotechnic" companies, and according to which, collectively, we are still essentially blind and irresponsible about the decisions we make. In other words, there is no captain at the helm of the ship of humanity, while icebergs abound on the horizon.

Continuing the metaphor: It's not that the ship has no direction. Looking out from the bridge, it seems that there has been, especially in the last three centuries, a definite trajectory, thanks to technological progress and the Enlightenment .... Is that due to a great and ceaseless accumulation or concentration of wealth and power? Or is it due to an ever increasing and more important liberation of human beings, as much in a philosophical sense as a biological one? Whatever the case, no one single driver has chosen consciously. To be sure, I do not believe in conspiracy theories of how those in power want again to shift things in their favor. The situation is actually, in a sense, more agonizing than if the leaders really were manning the helm, because in this vessel of humanity, where different crews of sailors haul the lines to and fro, the risk of shipwreck is considerable.

However, no one wants to smash into the rocks.

This huge risk alone justifies a change in approach to a more planned one, to the greatest degree possible. If it is not possible to restrain how everyone, and each and every cultural or social group, utilizes technological advances, it is perhaps conceivable to instead channel their intent.

But once again, the Reality Principle obliges, let’s not forget, faced with the ideas of technoprogressivism - that of a democratic transhumanism, for all, chosen, progressive, measured, respectful of humanity in transition, respectful of the necessary ecological and social balance, etc. stands the logic of the systems of power currently in place.

But it is obvious that this system promotes a transhumanism in his image, from the origins of this movement, to serve his purposes. And the system in question puts all his weight, colossal, to develop transhumanism that suits him.

This is perhaps something which Jacques Attali did not expect to see coming so soon. That transhumanism would immediately be used by the Empire. That it would be so quickly taken out of the fringe to be cast as a new source of power or a new method of control. We see as soon as today how its first achievements are reflected in new mainstream consumption, new weapons, or new means of surveillance. [5]

In fact, every major technological development carries essentially two possibilities: acquisition by the largest number or acquisition by the elite. And at the root of the extremely complex social, ethical, psychological causes, etc., that determine this outcome is the tension between the need for solidarity in a social species, and the desire for selfish gain - a contradiction that runs through all of us. For almost the entire history of humanity, this tension has played out mainly around material advantages: from food, to warmth, to security. These material advantages then became associated with social symbols which themselves have become issues of contention: titles of nobility, celebrity, ...

Today, a growing part of the world population makes choices primarily on the basis of symbols and perceptions, to obtain material, moral, social, psychological prestige .... while actual access to material goods gradually becomes of secondary concern, because basic goods are accessible to many. Because of global technological progress, the last two centuries have been marked by increasingly broad access to basic goods and a subsequent decrease in differences in this regard[6] and, contrary to common perception, by a decrease in the use of violence. [7]

But unfortunately, this relative abundance has not, or hardly, diminished the desire or the need for dominance. [8] The desire to "maintain the upper hand" persists, even while in 2014, countries in the Northern hemisphere, and the majority of Southern hemisphere nations, have at least a smaller proportion of their populations who are still forced to live in deep poverty.

In this way, a necessary and inevitable outburst is coming, one leading to a reconstruction which replicates in general terms the same structural inequalities of the past. That is in any case what is predicted by a good number of those people who venture to look through the crystal ball at our uncertain future [note: ultimately, is alarmism not a comforting refuge?].

Pessimistic question: Is there really anything we can do?

Technoprogressive transhumanist perspectives?

So, what will be left in the fringes to come up with genuine alternatives?

Some old fashioned ways to go, undoubtedly, but that’s just the beginning. Free distribution of knowledge on a mass scale, open sharing and non-commercial in general. Peer to peer support, solidarity. Hacking, in the form of an unexpected and subversive diversion of the machine of consumerism. Revolt 2.0 also, which can mobilize a huge number of people around definitive or symbolic actions within days using the speed of digital networks, catching political or media elites off-guard and leaving them dumbfounded. The reappropriation of the means of production? Who knows...

Many people today dream of the complete reshuffling of the cards enabled by the widespread adoption of 3D printing. What economic and social consequences will the dissemination of this technology have? In a classic Marxist analysis, control of the means of production is a key factor in the social order. Will this translate into a genuine democratization, or will the dominant system succeed again in seizing global control, by putting its hand on the key levers: raw materials, and especially algorithm design?

From the perspective of social mobilization, widespread automation is both a source of concern and a source of hope. Designed by the global oligarchy, it can - through the organization of unemployment, economic dependence, combined with the dictatorship of entertainment - lead our societies to a further decline of real freedoms. But via the freeing up of a large amount of time, it can conversely allow the flourishing of creativity, and a diversification of our experiences. Devoted transhumanists would waste no time in taking the opportunity to explore all avenues of techno-biological evolution.

In fact, if history is any guide, we can imagine that these various trends will play out at the same time.

Finally, I will mention one last source of individual and social transformation which is much less discussed - probably because it is still primarily scientific and philosophical speculation - that of moral enhancement. A possible "moral enhancement" by technology will be possible only after considerable progress in our understanding of brain function. We can already foretell some of the ethical issues that the technology will pose regarding freedom of conscience. As with any technology, we can easily imagine that it will involve the same issues of power relations. In a neoliberal and capitalist context for example, I think the pursuit of maximum profit will surely be a motivator to discover the most effective methods of controlling individual behavior. Moral enhancement, taken as an ideal endpoint of advertising logic, could result in veritable mind control. This logic would probably find favor with government policy makers in light of their concern for order and security. A bit of dystopian imagining takes us quickly to conjure scenarios from Orwell’s 1984.

However, it is possible to use such technology positively, such that it is useful to everyone, liberating, and truly progressive. One could say that it is precisely because of our still primitive moral evolution that we continue to perpetuate predatory behavior that causes so much ill. At our core, we are probably all more or less predisposed toward dominating behaviors, and eventually aggressiveness, hence an intrinsic inability to show real empathy for what goes beyond the narrow circle of our "clan" [8], which is perhaps a result of our Darwinian adaptation to survival in the pre-Neolithic world. A wisely managed dampening of biological factors that play an important role in the development of our most negative attitudes might get us out of this seemingly endless cycle: endless accumulation of power, harsh challenging, perpetual recreation.

One member of Technologos, an organization that is usually very critical of what they consider to be a headlong technological rush, recently pointed out to me that in his view transhumanists have not taken into account the considerable ideological role they have taken on and which they will still have to play.

The challenge seems to me enormous. A priori, the poorest and the weakest may sense that they have little hope of escaping the clash having come away with something. The power of the multinational billionaires of NBIC, allied with that of governments may seem unstoppable. Yet I hardly see another alternative. We must continue this fight if we want  the essence of our humanity to be preserved through the transhumanist evolution to come.

Instead of remaining prisoners of an insurmountable reality principle, we must start to build right now another reality.

Marc Roux

For AFT:Technoprog

(Thanks to Didier Coeurnelle and Cyril Gazengel, among others, for their collaboration)

[1] Jean-Didier Vincent, Bienvenue en transhumanie [Welcome to transhumanism], 2011

[2] Jean-Michel Besnier, in the context of a debate on Newsring: “Faut-il condamner le transhumanisme ?” [Should transhumanism be denounced?]

[3] Notably, this is the position of the association Pièce et Main d’Oeuvre.

[4] Jean-Paul Baquiast, Pour un principe matérialiste fort [Toward a robust materialist principle], Ed. JP.Bayol.

[5] Despite the international scandal provoked by the revelations of E. Snowden, the Obama administration is considering only a minor reform of the NSA …

[6] Rapport du PNUD sur le développement humain 2011 [UNDP Human Development Report]

[7] Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature, 2011

[8] The need for “dominance” was notably theorised by Henri Laborit who said: “Tant qu’on n’aura pas diffusé très largement à travers les hommes de cette planète la façon dont fonctionne leur cerveau, la façon dont ils l’utilisent et tant que l’on n’aura pas dit que jusqu’ici que cela a toujours été pour dominer l’autre, il y a peu de chance qu’il y ait quoi que ce soit qui change.” [Until we have widely disseminated to the men of this planet the workings of their brains, the manner in which they use them and as long as we haven’t said that until now it has always been to dominate others, there is little chance that anything will change.]

[8] Ingmar Persson And Julian Savulescu, Unfit for the Future: The Need for Moral Enhancement, 2012

Marc Roux is the chair and co-founder of the French Transhumanist Association Technoprog!



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