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Human Enhancement and the Emergent Technopolitics of the 21st Century (excerpt)


The political terrain of the 20th century was shaped by the economic issues of taxation, labor and social welfare, and the cultural issues of race, nationalism, gender and civil liberties. The political terrain of the 21st century will add a new dimension, technopolitics. At one end of the technopolitical spectrum are the technoconservatives, defending “human dignity” and the environment from technological progress. On the other end of the spectrum are the technoprogressives, holders of the Enlightenment faith that scientific and technological progress is liberating. Some of the key points of conflict in the emerging technopolitical struggle are the bioethical debates over human enhancement technologies. Technoprogressives such as “transhumanists” advocate for the right to use technologies that transcend human limitations, while technoconservatives argue for a strict limit on the non-therapeutic uses of biomedicine.  Technopolitics has cut across the existing political lines and created odd coalitions between left-wing and right-wing technoconservatives on one side and technolibertarians and technodemocrats on the other. Future technopolitical debates are suggested that will force further technopolitical polarization.


In 2004 Foreign Policy magazine asked eight prominent intellectuals to identify the most dangerous ideas in the world. Robert Wright’s essay fingered the idea of a “war on evil” while Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm attacked attempts to “spread democracy.”  Philosopher Martha Nussbaum zeroed in on “religious intolerance,” while Paul Davies discussed the erosion of the idea of free will. Francis Fukuyama’s answer (Fukuyama, 2004) was the most intriguing, since his most famous work, The End of History and the Last Man, written after the collapse of the Soviet Union, argued that there were no longer dangerous ideologies that could threaten the Pax Americana of democratic capitalism. But Fukuyama has changed his mind on that score. His new béte noir was one most of the readers of Foreign Policy had never heard of: “transhumanism.”

Fukuyama ’s definition of transhumanism is the movement which seeks “to liberate the human race from its biological constraints,” and that’s pretty close to the way transhumanists define their movement as well. That is, the few tens of thousands of them who actually use the term, and who characterize their opponents like Fukuyama as “bioconservatives.” Given the miniscule size and invisibility of the transhumanist movement, why did Fukuyama believe that movement posed a more serious threat than, say, Islamic fundamentalism? Because “the fundamental tenet of transhumanism - that we will someday use biotechnology to make ourselves stronger, smarter, less prone to violence, and longer-lived… is implicit in much of the research agenda of contemporary biomedicine.” Indeed, the use of converging technologies to improve human performance is the explicit goal of the NBIC conferences, whose participants are often influential leaders in government, industry, and academia.  For Fukuyama and a growing number of technoconservative critics the irresistible human enhancement possibilities emerging from the convergence of biotechnology, nanotechnology, computing and cognitive science threaten new conflicts between the unenhanced and enhanced, and threaten to upset the present rough equality among human beings.

Fukuyama articulated this argument at greater length in his 2002 book Our Posthuman Future (Fukuyama, 2002), which argued for broad restrictions on the use of biotechnology which might cross the barrier from “therapy” to “enhancement,” from Ritalin to genetic engineering. He is also a member of the US President’s Council on Bioethics, which, under the leadership of Chairman Leon Kass, produced the enormous critique of human enhancement medicine Beyond Therapy (PCB, 2003). 

In several decades I think it will be clear that these events marked a turning point, the first explicit shots fired in the technopolitics of the 21st century. These coming technopolitical conflicts will be fought over the development, regulation and accessibility of human enhancement technologies, and bring to the table fundamentally different conceptions of citizenship, rights and the polity. Technopolitics will be as profound as the struggles between socialists and free marketers, or secularists and fundamentalists, and will mix and blur among the 21st century heirs of those battles. Unlike the struggle over trade union rights or gay marriage, however, the outcome of the technopolitical struggles will determine whether the human race itself will have a future. 

In this essay I outline the new technopolitical axes of the 21st century, axes historically rooted in environmentalism and bioethics but now extending to other fields because the convergence of technologies. I discuss some of the key figures and organizations that have shaped the current debate in the United States, from academic bioethics and the anti-abortion movement to the political Left and environmental movements. Then I suggest some of the policy debates likely to further crystallize and mobilize these ideological camps. 



Although the technopolitical debate often seems polarized between libertarian technoprogressives and various technoconservatives, liberal and left-wing technoprogressives or “technodemocrats” are now emerging many quarters. Technodemocrats defend the idea the human condition can be improved with technology, but insist that regulation ensure the safety of the technologies, and that they be made universally accessible. 

In bioethics, for instance, egalitarian philosophers such as John Harris (1992), Peter Singer (2002), Glenn McGee (2003), Ronald Dworkin (2000), Julian Savulescu (2001), Allen Buchanan, Dan W. Brock, Norman Daniels, and Daniel Wikler (2000) are openly arguing against natural law-based bans on enhancement and procreative liberty, and for universal access policies which ameliorate the potential inequities of procreative liberty and enhancement medicine.  Advocates of drug policy reform, such the Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics, are struggling to frame transhumanist policies that would protect individual freedom to use brain enhancing technologies, while protecting brain privacy against surveillance and control technologies. Pro-technology disability activists, such as the late Christopher Reeve, have begun to resist the disability movement orthodoxy and campaign for cures for their paralysis, blindness and deafness.  A dissident school of pro-technology “cyborgologists” in the humanities, inspired by Donna Haraway’s seminal “Cyborg Manifesto” (1984), are problematizing the romantic dualisms of Left technonconservatism, and offering Haraway’s idea of the transgressive cyborg as an empowering identity. Gay and transgender activists are rejecting the idea that biology must dictate gender, reproduction and sexual preference, and arguing for their right to use reproductive and body-shaping technologies. 

Some advocates of environmentalism are also setting aside knee-jerk opposition to new technologies, and exploring ways that nanotechnology (Mulhall, 2002) and genetic engineering (Center for Global Food Issues, 2004). The AgBioWorld Foundation at the Tuskegee Institute has mobilized a global network of biotech scientists to defend genetically modified crops on humanitarian and ecological grounds. For instance, crops can be genetically engineered which require less agricultural land, pesticides and fertilizer, and provide more essential nutrients.  In its 2003 review of nanotech and AI titled “Future technologies, Today’s Choices” (Arnall, 2003) Greenpeace says there is no need for bans on nanotech, or even for new regulatory structures, and that “new technologies…are also an integral part of our solutions to environmental problems, including renewable energy technologies such as solar, wind and wave power, and waste treatment technologies such as mechanical-biological treatment.”

While various kinds of political progressives are reasserting a positive approach to technology, the strongly libertarian transhumanist movement is developing a left-of-center wing. The World Transhumanist Association was founded in 1988 by the Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom and British philosopher David Pearce. It represented European fellow-travelers of the extropians whose politics ranged from Green and social democrat to Euro-Liberal. The WTA now has 3000 members and 25 chapters in 100 countries around the world. Membership surveys have shown that while the extropians are more than 50% libertarian or anarchist, the membership of the World Transhumanist Association is only about 25% libertarian, about 35% left-leaning, and 45% moderate or apolitical. 

The Politics to Come

Compared to the well-organized, well-funded and politically connected technoconservatives, the technoprogressives and transhumanists are as yet a rag-tag and scruffy subculture, with little political influence or organizational heft. On the other hand they have the enormous advantage that it is easier to sell technological progress, health, beauty, youth and life, than simplicity, sickness, aging and death.  Perhaps it is in recognition of their attractiveness that technoconservatives like Francis Fukuyama suggest that technoprogressive ideas are so dangerous.  Certainly, if the technoconservatives are successful in delaying or banning human enhancement technologies it appears likely that there will be a rapid growth in pro-technology coalitions and campaigns, combining libertarians and social democrats, parallel to the left-right technoconservative coalitions. 

Some of the areas of conflict likely to force a crystallization and polarization along the technopolitical access include:

  • Demands of the growing senior population for anti-aging research and therapies, in the context of increasing conflict over generational equity and the tax burdens of retiree pensions and health care.
  • FDA approval of gene therapies, psychopharmaceuticals and nanocybernetics for “enhancement” purposes, such as improving memory, mood, senses, life extension and athletic performance.
  • Perfection of neonatal intensive care and artificial uteruses which eroded the current political compromise on fetal rights, predicated on “viability” as a moral dividing line.
  • The intellectual enhancement of animals, forcing a clarification of the citizenship status of intelligent non-humans.
  • The regulation of the potentially apocalyptic risks of nanomaterials, nanomachines, genetically engineered organisms and artificial intelligence.
  • Parental rights to use germinal choice technologies to choose enhancements and aesthetic characteristics of their children.
  • Proliferation of wearable, implanted and ubiquitous computing, progress with direct brain-computer interfaces, and widespread use of "cyborg" technologies to assist disabled people.

These possibilities will probably generate as much support for technoprogressivism as they do technoconservative backlash.  But if democratic polities are able to mediate these technopolitical debates in a way that ensures that new technologies are adopted, but are made safe and widely available, we may end up with unimaginably improved lives, and a safer, healthier, more prosperous world. 


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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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