The licence to speculate on the fringes of human progress is immediately issued when that which we hadn’t even imagined transitions to that which we merely know we do not fully understand. This transition point is the playground of the so-called “popular imagination”, the stage on which esteemed careers are built without the effort and determination of achievement. Though, admittedly, it’s often where middling scientists and researchers go to retire (as in, for example, the case of master babbler Michio Kaku).
In this space, most commonly reserved for the self-consciously fictitious, transhumanist conferences are on constant replay alongside their more prescient counterparts: Star Trek and the Twilight Zone. The presenters, keynote rock stars and wide-eyed, thin-haired wanderers each proclaim: 1) look at all the cool science stuff we’ve discovered!; 2) we don’t even know its implications!; 3) here are some of its implications! … [pseudo-philosophical techno-babble].
To my mind, the goal of this activity, and of all human activity – be it intellectual, social or moral – is the satisfaction derived from purely psychological phenomena. Without the benefit of seeing things from this perspective, a lot of human behaviour appears completely mysterious: if one formulates human behaviours as solutions to intellectual problems, one puzzles over the fact that humans never really solve them. Indeed, they don’t really appear to receive much attention at all; they merely operate as a minimal framework of meaning. From this, incidentally, arises the power of ritual: a formal system – akin to that of the problem statement – which, if followed, may assuage, for example, one’s guilt. If you have hurt another person, you may intellectualize this problem and “solve” it by paying restitution, or perhaps by confessing to a priest: either way the target of your action is your own guilt. Hence one of the recurring critiques of the “ask for forgiveness” Christian mantra is that it’s simply the easy way out of guilt.
If one does, however, see things from this perspective, the panoply of transhumanist literature comes into focus. On my interpretation, it is the intellectual attire of human beings afraid of frailty and addicted to wonder. This phenomenon ought to have a specialized name (perhaps “religiosity”?): “Oh God we’re going to die! Quick look over there, a sunset. Damn it’s over. Oh God! Oh God! Quick imagine if we could upload consciousness . . . wow!” The intellectual problem transhumanism could solve is thus that of our mortality; however, the rituals one finds in the place of this productive “solving” are podcast, manifesto, expo-wonder.
Transhumanism is, despite its adherents’ best slight-of-hand, a purely social phenomenon of this ritualistic variety. It is parasitic (contra motivating) on achievements in the bridge between biology and technology and typically the preserve of internet upper-middle classes (aka the TED talk audience). Push this underground a little, add in 10% more “quantum” and 30% more “federal” and we descend quickly to the web’s lower-middle (aka youtube conspiracy theorists). It is a cultural reaction in an arm-chair audience; it is not the manifesto of a research program, but a collage of them set to a Rod Serling monologue and delivered by a motivational speaker.
We would be in trouble if it were a research programme proper, a new “human science” a la transhumanist economics, transhumanist psychology, transhumanist sociology. As a utopian fantasy, its vision of human nature oscillates between the extremes of communism and objectivism – the commonality in the two is the pre-“post-structuralist” world view, the pre-Foucualdian era of Enlightenment naivety in which knowledge might set one free.
Applied to society, the transhuman project, as a project, becomes immediately fascist: a programme on behalf of Humanity (as opposed to particular humans). As “knowledge capital” replaces “economic capital” in this new techno-social landscape, power becomes a function of who knows and who does not know – rather than who has and who has not. And this process of transition will, of course, occur in this world – rather than the ahistorical vacuum in which transhuman fantasyscapes evolve. The wealthy immediately co-opt this knew knowledge economy and double-down on the present inequality.
The route to a transhuman utopia must, alas, be plotted upon 21st century earth. The “singularities” and predictions of many of the transhumanist propagandists thus become painfully reminiscent of all the early 20th century science-utopianism of the same variety, that thinking which in the economic sphere predicted a one-day work-week; in the political sphere , an educated citizenry checking a democratic government; in the psychological sphere , an end to fear and zealotry caused by ignorance and scarcity; and, of course, the end of all religious and superstitious thinking.
The Enlightenment, as a solution to the psychological problem of the fear of mortality, is a recurring social phenomenon. Humans may be perfected, it says, through the toil of science and the progress of humanity. It is as reliable as the wax and wane of religion. And as one must not take Heaven too seriously, and treat all efforts to hasten it with suspicion, one should reflect on transhuman futures with equal care.