by R.U. Sirius
One problem is the underlying philosophical assumptions that enhancement is always enhancement or is just enhancement. And I always think of Marshall McLuhan’s dictum that our extensions come with amputations.
These are some comments that I wrote in response to some questions from Peter Rothman on the h+ website in 2014
Transhumanism as an ism — or a belief system — is probably about the right of individuals and, possibly, the human species as a whole (or large groups therefrom) to self-enhance and to engage in an experiment in self-directed evolution, in a literal sense. In other words, not that we merely have glasses and cell phones but that we might become something other, in a biological and/or perceptual sense.
I don’t think it’s necessarily optimistic and I don’t think it’s necessarily rationalist, (particularly when we’re talking about people who think they’re pretty darn rational, who can only really be responded to with satire). I do think rationality and technology — stuff that actually works — are the fundamental tools for attaining an increasingly transhuman or posthuman condition. But tools are not, in and of themselves, paradigms. So individual transhumanists may feel like rationalism is a fine tool for living well but not the essential factor in actually living or even in apprehending what life is about… to the degree that can even be done, or in having social relationships.
My ongoing support for the idea of transhumanism is partly a rare acquiescence to foolish consistency. I’d like to see if the project of a positive radical mutation of the human condition suggested by people like Timothy Leary can somehow win the day; whether, with the engineers and scientists in the vanguard of making it possible, we alternatively minded mutant types can pull a few aces from the bottom of the deck and actually somehow transform this pinched, mean, surveilled, existentially barren and risky 21st civilization into something that feels like liberation, generosity and heightened awareness. At this moment, the tools that could be applied to such a state of affairs are gathering, but the memetic and environmental thrusts lean towards epic failure.
I do think that the whole program of transhumanism is problematic and always subject to interrogation and to political engagements that can’t be ignored. One problem is the underlying philosophical assumptions that enhancement is always enhancement or is just enhancement. And I always think of Marshall McLuhan’s dictum that our extensions come with amputations. The social and interpersonal amputations that may already be occurring as the result of big chunks of life and attention being sucked into virtuality have been explored by Doug Rushkoff, Jaron Lanier, Sherry Turkle and, of course, a dozen or so trendy French philosophers.
There is also, in the sort of plainly stated notion of progress at the root of much technotopianism, the whole set of Western enlightenment assumptions that can’t just be analyzed as a bunch of clear ideas that seem to make logical sense and therefore are good but have to be viewed against some of the gloomier actual results of the enlightenment project, including massive increases in the uses of comforting psychiatric drugs and suicides, and environmental wreckage with its corresponding questions about overconsumption and overproduction.
Finally, there’s the problem of soft coercion, which is closely related to the common objections about deepening divisions between the haves and have-nots becoming more exacerbated at the very point in history when the privileged may be becoming a new species.
Certainly, at any time in history, being born is to be subjected to unfreedom and coercion. Some of that is biological, and transhumanism, in some cases, tries to resolve that. But being born is also to be thrust into a particular social system and construct, with all of the prevailing human society surrounding. But now, to be born into a competitive economic system in which groups and individuals choicefully self-enhance, and in which other artificial creatures are to be introduced, is to find yourself embedded in a totality in which you may have no place, but from which escape is impossible. I think most people feel that way today, in fact.
So I think transhumanism has a responsibility not only to its own negative liberty not to be interfered with when it wants to mutate, but to find a way to provide — to the greatest extent possible — spaces for evasion… to make implausible but necessary provisions for those who do not want to have to experience all the consequences of its experiments.
None of this implies that I personally want to look the proverbial gift horse in the mouth or that I recommend that anybody else does. Thank you Age of Reason for vaccines, refrigeration, cochlear implants, civil liberties, human rights however poorly enacted… ad infinitum. But maybe we can look the gift horse in the head, so to speak, to see if we might gain something from putting these gifts in their place… in context… and look at other ways for finding meaning and mitigating their totalizing impacts; and also, of finding ways to deal with civilization’s’ discontents, as that old patriarchal misery Sigmund Freud put it.