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Engineering Better Citizens
J. Hughes   Sep 1, 2004   Betterhumans  

Human enhancement doesn’t guarantee better democracy, but better democracy may require human enhancement

For the past couple of months, leading up to the Olympics, our friend Andy Miah has been appearing all over the place arguing for the legalization of genetically enhanced athletics. In his new book, Genetically Modified Athletes, he points out the absurd lengths to which sporting officials have been forced to go to distinguish acceptable foods, supplements and high-tech apparel from illegal “performance enhancers.” As we saw in August as Olympians were eliminated for failed drug tests, even when the likelihood of detection is high the lure of performance enhancement is impossible to resist. If we legalize “gene doping,” at least for some competitions, then we can better monitor athletes’ use of dangerous mods, and athletes will have access to genetic enhancements that protect them from injury and improve their health.

Sadly, aside from the issue of doping, I am congenitally incapable of mustering a flicker of interest in athletics of any kind—even Olympic beach volleyball—as those circuits in my brain have always been monopolized by politics. I can see why other people are more excited by sports than politics. In politics the teams are unevenly matched and don’t even have the same number of players on each side. When there are rules, judges are often unable to enforce them. Political outcomes are far more complicated than winning or losing tournaments.

But politics actually has an impact on our, and other peoples’, lives. Surely the world would be a better place if people’s heads were crammed with at least as many statistics about the performance of Central Asian politicians or the history of toxic waste regulations as they are with batting averages and touchdowns.

Fortunately, this problem, as with so many others, can be fixed by human enhancement. Even if self-governance is never as engaging as sports, my expectation is that the enhanced humans we’re becoming will find self-education, political opinion formation and citizen engagement increasingly effortless. Even if human enhancement doesn’t guarantee better democracy, better democracy may require human enhancement.

Getting Google-brained

At the recent TransVision conference, Swedish polymath Anders Sandberg observed that his most desired enhancement would be to have access to Google from inside his brain. (We were surprised this was not already the case.) For me, it would be to have news.google.com on neural tap, constantly queuing up relevant news clippings from the world’s media and blogosphere.

Of course, news is not the same thing as information, much less education. One of the concerns about the decline of the newspaper as a source of news and the rise of narrowcasted cable television and partisan Websites has been that citizens will be less exposed to in-depth analysis and contrasting points of view. But that underestimates the shallowness and partisanship that has always characterized most newspapers, and underestimates the curiosity that the 21st century Web surfer has about diverse points of view. Most citizens of democracies up to the present have been woefully ill-informed, acting at the direction of their religious and political elites. The real problem isn’t with the narrowing of the modern e-citizen’s worldview, it is that e-citizens will drown in the growing flood of information, in-depth and shallow, unable to parse it into opinions.

Transhumanist forebear FM-2030 wrote that transhumans want “instant universal participation that will do away with the very institution of government.” Once a community is larger than 2,500 people or so, however, the issues become so complex that we have had to delegate to elites. Staying on top of even a fraction of the issues of modern governance requires superhuman capacities and energies. Even a clearly posthuman intellect such as Noam Chomsky doesn’t write much outside of foreign policy and linguistics.

Which is why we will need intelligent political agents—political shopping bots—to surf all the information for us and make increasingly accurate choices about which issues we should be interested in, which data sources provide the best information and which organizations are actually accomplishing something. Already, by answering a couple dozen questions in an online survey at The Political Compass you can determine with high accuracy your affinity for political ideologies of which you may never have heard. Then there’s a program called Constituty by computer scientist Jason Tester that monitors users’ Web surfing, asks them about their apparent interests and values, tracks issues and the positions of candidates and advises users on voting. Constituty can then also track how well candidates fulfill campaign promises and reward them with additional support on users’ behalf.

Having software to pull together the facts and make coherent sense out of our political choices would finally allow many people to begin making choices in their own interests. For instance, a recent American Prospect article by Larry Bartels (discussed by Louis Menand in The New Yorker) points out that most Americans instinctively approve the repeal of inheritance taxes even though they only apply to the top 1% to 2% of estates. Even a majority of those Americans who think “the income gap between the richest and the poorest Americans has increased in recent decades” and that “the rich pay too little in taxes” want to repeal inheritance taxes. Bartels calls this “unenlightened self-interest,” and political decision-support software would likely point us in a more rational direction.

Unless, of course, the software is designed by Microsoft to automatically discourage taxes and redistribution. As we’ve seen with growing concern about partisan skullduggery hidden in voting software, these systems will immediately fall under suspicion of having partisan biases and they will have to be open source.

But even if our political agents are completely transparent, what would it mean for democracy if all the heavy lifting in forming opinions and being politically active was done without any conscious effort on our part? Participatory e-agent democracy would still be an advance over the passivity of representative democracy, which offers at best a couple binary decisions every couple of years.

What we really want, however, is to run this software as a conscious subroutine, as part of the civic engagement module for our genetically, pharmaceutically and nanoneurally enhanced brains.

Democracy of supermen

If we can expand our conscious capacities for knowledge, attention, deliberation and communication, then even a small proportion of our energies may be enough to read opinion journals, monitor C-SPAN, participate in online debates and vote on the UN referenda, while the rest of our brain gets on with the more important things in our lives. More capable and intelligent citizens will inevitably begin to demand more participatory forms of democracy, delegating fewer tasks to imperfectly representative elites, as John Stuart Mill suggested 200 years ago:

  From this increase of intelligence, several effects may be confidently anticipated…they will become even less willing than at present to be led and governed, and directed into the way they should go, by the mere authority and prestige of superiors…The theory of dependence and protection will be more and more intolerable to them, and they will require that their conduct and condition shall be essentially self-governed.

Gene tweaks for intelligence, nano-neurotechnology, and political intelligent agents will not only make us more empowered for self-governance but also more immune to the psychological manipulation being perfected by pollsters, ad agencies and spin doctors. Voters’ decisions are swayed by irrelevancies such as a politician’s height or attractiveness, the color of the party’s logo, clever catchphrases and negative ads, and meaningless proxies for ideological commitment such as a politician’s religion or military record.

Researchers at the University Arizona in Tucson found that support for charismatic leaders increases dramatically the more that people are manipulated to think about death. “Reminders of death increase the need for psychological security and therefore the appeal of leaders who emphasize the greatness of the nation and a heroic victory over evil.” This could certainly explain the opposition of some politicians to life extension and their enthusiasm for alarming states of emergency. The fine-tuned manipulation of these unconscious responses is being explored in the burgeoning field of political neuromarketing using PET scans and MRIs. Hopefully, as transhumans, we will also have increasing awareness of and control over these unconscious responses. The cure for demagoguery will be a spam filter on our cerebellum.

And just as the literate, well-fed citizens of the 1960s insisted on forms of democracy undreamt of by 18th century sharecroppers or Paleolithic hunter-gatherers, the increasing health, intelligence, longevity, education and leisure of the ordinary citizen will make them more capable of recognizing the ways that an unequal society does not serve their interests, and more able to understand the methods they need to pursue to achieve empowerment.

As George Bernard Shaw said in the Revolutionist’s Handbook “Democracy cannot rise above the level of the human material of which its voters are made…(Democracies will continue to be swayed by demagogues) unless we can have a Democracy of Supermen; and the production of such a Democracy is the only change that is now hopeful enough to nerve us to the effort that Revolution demands.”

Posthuman politics

At TransVision 2004, economist Robin Hanson proposed that many people persist in untenable beliefs because of ignorance and self-deception. As a consequence, in a posthuman future, as we get smarter and have increasing access to and control over our minds, we will have more information and be less able to sustain self-deception. Deliberations between completely rational posthumans, according to Hanson, will much more quickly arrive at consensus.

Hanson may be partly right. If people are happier, smarter, more prosperous and less manipulable, I think there will be fewer intractable conflicts. We will be less likely to pick fights to satisfy our need for sadism, self-aggrandizement and revenge. Insofar as disagreements have possible win-win solutions we will be more likely to find them.

But Hanson has a stereotypical economist’s faith that all conflict can be solved through utility-maximizing exchange, and a blindness to the differences in worldviews and material interests that also lead to conflicts, and thus the need for democratic deliberation and governance. In a labor market the worker and the boss may quickly arrive at a wage rate. Then the workers may organize, go on strike and elect a pro-labor government to raise that wage. And their bosses may buy off the politicians and hire union thugs to beat up the strikers. The result is not determined by deliberation but the contest of citizen organization versus money. No matter how smart we get there will still be zero-sum conflicts whose outcomes will be determined by the unpredictable clashes of power and wealth.

In the future, the advantage will go to those with access to the latest nano-neurotechnology and political intelligent agents. We can already see the contours of the debates over more equal access to citizenship enhancements today in arguments about campaign financing, media democracy, voter registration and the digital divide. In order to ensure that human enhancement technologies facilitate a more radical participatory democracy and not a widening of the gaps between the haves and have-nots, we need to ensure universal access to those technologies. We may not be able to oblige all citizens to exercise their equal powers of self-government, but we can assure that they all have access to them.

When people aren’t interested in politics we say they aren’t “political animals.” The hope, however, is that in the near future we may all be able to stop being political animals, unreflectively pushing levers on the basis of Pavlovian conditioning and then panting expectantly in hopes of a dog biscuit from the elites who put us through our paces. Instead, we may finally become cyborg citizens, smart and clearheaded enough to build a democracy worthy of human beings, and whatever else we might become and create.

Copyright © 2004 James Hughes

James Hughes Ph.D., the Executive Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, is a bioethicist and sociologist who serves as the Associate Provost for Institutional Research, Assessment and Planning for the University of Massachusetts Boston. He is author of Citizen Cyborg and is working on a second book tentatively titled Cyborg Buddha. From 1999-2011 he produced the syndicated weekly radio program, Changesurfer Radio. (Subscribe to the J. Hughes RSS feed)



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