Transhumanism essay: part one

Transhumanism: an odd name for an interesting movement.

There’s a growing number of people who believe technology is going to make things Really Different around here. And while they’re still essentially a loose-knit, fragmented movement, they’ve made significant inroads among society’s movers, shakers, and simply rich people.

So what’s all the fuss about? In short, these ‘transhumanists’ (or less rigorously, ‘futurists’) believe that the technological trajectory we’re on is exponential and will result in deep, sweeping, and generally utopian changes to society, to the human experience, and to human nature within most of our lifetimes. The word “transhumanist” refers to “transcending the human state” through technology and becoming, in a very significant way, more than what one was born — and all the transhumanists I’ve talked with are quite serious about it. It may sound silly and it may sound strange, but to this growing group of people it’s a real goal.

But though they have transhuman goals, as a community they’re quite human (sometimes, All Too). They have their own canon, heroes, and subculture[1], even a disillusioned, skeptical counterculture. Overall it’s a fairly diverse group[2]: though they’re generally united by the belief that technology is going to radically change society in as soon as 15 but not more than 40 years, and they have fairly standardized ‘in-group’ terms for upcoming clusters of technology, predictions vary on which technologies will be the primary driving forces, on the nature of the change, on what the most significant technological and social hurdles to a technological utopia are, and on the future of intelligence (i.e., whether computers, enhanced humans, or even “mere” improved computer networks and human-computer interfaces will be the gateway to a ‘Singularity‘).

This movement does have an uphill battle for credibility: not only does it make fairly wild-sounding predictions which lie outside the normal realm of human experience, but most people, if they even take notice of this movement, will tend to dismiss it as a bunch of yammering sci-fi geeks. I think many people instinctually look at transhumanists talking about augmenting their brains with computer chips or uploading their minds into computers much like they do Trekkies arguing about the ins-and-outs of the Enterprise’s teleportation system (that is, as completely irrelevant). This isn’t a wholly unreasonable response: many of the same geek traits (and I use that term endearingly) which give rise to theorizing about the future also give rise to solipsistic pontificating about Star Trek minutiae, and futurists have such a poor track record at predicting the future that the common conception seems to be that we’ll only need to perk up and listen to them once we get our long-promised flying cars.

But- dare I say it- something’s in the air. Something’s different with the intellectual ferment of 2008 futurism. Futurists are starting to bring nuanced, well-referenced, and falsifiable models of technological change to the table, and futurism as a field may finally be mature enough such that futurists actually have a special angle on predicting the future. More and more ‘respectable’ institutions are retaining the services of card-carrying futurists and transhumanists: In addition to shoe-ins like the Army, organizations such as British Telecom, IBM, the FBI and even Hallmark employ full-time futurists. By and large, this group sees themselves as the prophets, architects and philosophers of a coming wave of technology that will fundamentally remake society– and pretentious as this may be, they may be right.

[1] R.U. Sirius, editor-to-be of “H+” (lingo for Human-plus, or ‘enhanced’ human), notes “And it’s kind of become a little religion; we have our own Rapture and our own eschatology and all that sort of stuff.”

[2] Transhumanism covers a sufficiently vast and divisive territory that I think it’s inevitable that the community will splinter into many sub-movements once/if things really get going. If you think stem cells are an incendiary subject, well, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

For a more detailed outline of the transhumanist argument that technological change is exponential and poised to explode, I’d recommend my review of Kurzweil’s “The Singularity is Near“.

I’m planning on posting part two of this essay this weekend.