Transhumanism is a social and political movement for the information age and beyond, fusing activism and moral philosophy to cutting edge scientific and technological advances. The transhuman movement grew out of the humanist movements of past centuries, and is more lately influenced by the writings of thinkers such as Teilhard de Chardin, Hans Moravec, Marshall McLuhan, Buckminster Fuller, and science fiction authors particularly of the Cyberpunk and Posthuman sub-genres. The broad goal of the transhuman (H+) movement is to harness the growing power of technology, particularly technology advances that could alter the human body or mind, to expand human capabilities and reach beyond human limitations. Transhumanism as a whole is neither left nor right wing; there is a broadly socialistic trend to its thinking, along with a more focused libertarian movement sometimes known as Extropianism.
It is coming ever more clear that our social policy decisions need to take the effects of technology into account. In just the few decades I have been alive, I have seen the unanticipated rise of the internet into a force of global change, and that’s only the beginning of the technological breakthroughs that could occur in the century to come. Genetic engineering, cybernetics, nanotechnology, engineered intelligence, robotics, memetics, space travel – advances in any one of these fields could potentially change our way of life, let alone some unexpected discovery. Not only that, it seems apparent that the speed of technological change is rising. It is equally apparent that government policy makers have difficulty dealing with technology; important advances with difficult implications frequently slip under the radar. Once it is noticed in the corridors of state power, the usual response to technology is either to reflexively hamper research on subjects that their constituents find frightening, or a shrug and a ‘let the corporations sort it out’. Both responses are unhelpful. The world-wide Transhumanist movement has grown up to fill the ideological gap, and argue for sane and humane technology policy from their respective governments.
The transhumanist movement is founded on the principle that responsible people have the right to augment their own bodies or minds using technology – or to decline such alterations as they choose. This principle stands against the broad and disorganized but powerful social complex which is sometimes called ‘bio-conservatism’ (or, less charitably, bio-luddism or genetic fundamentalism), the often reactionary notion that the human body or genome is in some way special or ‘sacred’ and must be protected from all change. Manifestations of this include the ‘bans’ against research on human cloning or embyonic stem cells which many governments have put in place. It also stands against notions of technological totalitarianism which have been decried by thinkers such as Francis Fukuyama. This principle is not ‘pie in the sky’; it has real and immediate social implications. For instance, many nations around the world place severe restrictions on psychoactive drugs which are used to alter the thought process of the human mind. Transhumanists consider this an unconscionable violation of individual freedom of thought, and the repeal of repressive drug prohibition laws in favour of more progressive policies of drug control and research is a continual political goal. On the other hand, several US states and other polities are considering a ban on involuntarily implanting people with RFID tracking chips which could be used to plot their movements. These type of laws against government/coporatist use of new, unexplored technology to violate human rights are another goal which transhumanists support.
Another important value of transhumanist thought is to harness the power of technology for good, desirable uses like eliminating aging, expanding the human intellect, and fighting against poverty or hunger, and channeling it away from uses that threaten human freedom or security. There are plenty of ‘science fiction’ scenarios in which technology threatens the very existence of human life, such as a runaway nano-scale replicator which turns the entire earth into an undifferentiated gray goo. Even worse are the possible futures in which every human right, even rights we never imagined we would have, are violated by governments or individuals controlling advanced technology; our very minds invaded or rewritten, our bodies twisted against us. These kind of scenarios are quickly turning from science fiction to science fact, as the growing effects of global climate change or the concerns of governments over the possibility of bio-terrorism should make clear. Corporations and governments already use proprietary scientific research in selfish and threatening ways; for instance, the uncontrolled release of genetically modified organisms into the food supply, or the hasty adoption of closed-source electronic voting machines which open the door to massive, undetectable election frauds. And, as high-tech equipment grows ever smaller and lower in price, individuals can also get into this game. The chaos and financial losses caused by lone ‘computer hackers’ makes it apparent that in the future some adolescent could concoct a deadly plague in his basement, or use cybernetic implants to hack directly into people’s brains. Transhumanists promote greater public attention for the consequences of scientific research; not only in funding and public support of science, but increased transparency of private research, reasonable regulations to ensure safety in advanced research, and vigorous public debate on the potential uses of technology. Allowing uninformed governments and profit-obsessed corporations to control the pace, direction, dissemination, and circumstances of technological development could lead to dire consequences.
Finally, transhumanists are working toward enshrining a robust and reasonable definition of ‘person-hood’ which can protect the rights of all persons in times to come. Bio-conservatives generally see all humans, and only humans, as persons deserving of rights under the law. This definition of person-hood includes beings which are ‘genetically human’ but cannot meaningfully be treated as full citizens, such as embryos and people whose minds have degraded into a permanent vegetative state, which creates barriers to progress, personal choice, and the exercise of simple compassion. It would exclude other entities, such as computerized artificial intelligences, digitized or ‘downloaded’ human minds, and genetically enhanced humans, which could be denied the most foundational of rights based on their status as non-persons. Entire classes of people could be mate to suffer terrible indignities, enslavement, and even summary execution at the hands of a society which does not have a robust definition of person-hood, making the formulation and promotion of such compliments essential to our moral progress.
The social implications of transhumanism are clear enough. Technological progress is a force which stands to change everything about human society and existence. It is imperative that we discuss, anticipate, and attempt to guide these changes. Governments and individuals can’t hide their heads in the sand any longer; it is unconscionable that the people making the decisions about funding and regulating new technologies are ignorant of the nature and consequences of these technologies, ignoring important developments and going to corporate and ideological special interests for their information. The transhumanist movement believes, above all, that it is time that society had an explicit and vocal debate about the way our future is going and what can be done to make it go our way. The stakes couldn’t be higher; the price of failure could be worse than destruction, and the rewards could be incredible beyond belief.
Check it out further on the internet:
www.transhumanism.org – World Transhumanist Association
www.aleph.se/Trans/ – Anders Sandberg Transhumanist Wiki
www.transhuman.org – FM-2030
www.worldtranshumanistsociety.com – World Transhumanist Society