Version 2.0 (March 2002)
James J. Hughes, Ph.D.
Originally Presented at the 2001 Annual Meeting of the
Society for Social Studies of Science
November 1-4, 2001
Transhumanism is an emergent philosophical movement which says that humans can and should become more than human through technological enhancements. Contemporary transhumanism has grown out of white, male, affluent, American Internet culture, and its political perspective has generally been a militant version of the libertarianism typical of that culture. Nonetheless transhumanists are becoming more diverse, with some building a broad liberal democratic philosophic foundation in the World Transhumanist Association. A variety of left futurist trends and projects are discussed as a proto-“democratic transhumanism.” The essay also discusses the reaction of transhumanists to a small group of neo-Nazis who have attempted to attach themselves to the transhumanist movement. For the transhumanist movement to grow and become a serious challenge to their opposites, the bio-Luddites, they will need to distance themselves from their elitist anarcho-capitalist roots and clarify commitments to liberal democratic institutions, values and public policies. By embracing political engagement and the use of government to address equity, safety and efficacy concerns about transhuman technologies, transhumanists are in a better position to attract a larger, broader audience.
When it comes to political memes, transhumanism in its purest form doesn’t have any fixed niche. Instead each host or group of hosts link it to their previous political views. (Sandberg, 1994)
Since the advent of the Enlightenment, the idea that the human condition can be improved through reason, science and technology has been mated with all varieties of political ideology. Partisans of scientific human betterment have generally been opponents of, and opposed by, the forces of religion, and therefore have generally tilted towards cosmopolitan, cultural liberalism. But there have been secular cosmopolitans, committed to human progress through science, who were classical liberals or “libertarians,” as well as liberal democrats, social democrats and communists. There have also been technocratic fascists, attracted to racialism by eugenics, and to nationalism by the appeal of the unified, modernizing nation-state.
With the emergence of cyberculture, the technoutopian meme-plex has found a natural medium, and has been furiously mutating and crossbreeding with political ideologies. One of its recent manifestations has adopted the label “transhumanism,” and within this sparsely populated but broad ideological tent many proto-ideological hybrids are stirring. Much transhumanist proto-politics is distinctly the product of elitist, male, American libertarianism, limiting its ability to respond to concerns behind the growing Luddite movement, such as with the equity and safety of innovations. Committed only to individual liberty, libertarian transhumanists have little interest in building solidarity between “posthumans” and “normals,” or in crafting techno-utopian projects which can inspire broad social movements.
In this paper I will briefly discuss the political flavors of transhumanism that have developed in the last dozen years, including extropian libertarianism, the liberal democratic World Transhumanist Association, “neo-Nazi transhumanism,” and radical democratic transhumanism. In my closing remarks I will suggest ways that a broader democratic transhumanism may take shape that would have a better chance of attracting a mass following and securing a political space for the kinds of human self-improvement that the transhumanists envision.
Libertarian Transhumanism: Max More and the Extropy Institute
This is really what is unique about the Extropian movement: the fusion of radical technological optimism with libertarian political philosophy… one might call it libertarian transhumanism. (Goertzel, 2000)
In the 1980s, a young British graduate student, Max O’Connor, became interested in futurist ideas and life extension technologies while studying philosophy and political economy at Oxford. In the mid-1980s he became one of the pioneers of cryonics in England. After finishing at Oxford in 1988, having been impressed with the United States’ dynamism and openness to future-oriented ideas, O’Connor began his doctoral studies in philosophy at the University of Southern California. At USC he began mixing with the local futurist subculture, and soon teamed up with another graduate student, T.O. Morrow, to found the technoutopian journal Extropy.
O’Connor and Morrow adopted the term “extropy,” the opposite of “entropy,” as the core symbol of their philosophy and goals: life extension, the expansion of human powers and control over nature, expansion into space, and the emergence of intelligent, organic, spontaneous order. O’Connor also adopted the new name Max More as a sign of his commitment to “what my goal is: always to improve, never to be static. I was going to get better at everything, become smarter, fitter, and healthier. It would be a constant reminder to keep moving forward” (Regis, 1994).
In early issues of Extropy magazine More began to publish successive versions and expositions of his “Extropian Principles.” In the early 1990s the Principles resolved down to five:
1. BOUNDLESS EXPANSION: Seeking more intelligence, wisdom, and effectiveness, an unlimited lifespan, and the removal of political, cultural, biological, and psychological limits to self-actualization and self-realization. Perpetually overcoming constraints on our progress and possibilities. Expanding into the universe and advancing without end.
2. SELF-TRANSFORMATION: Affirming continual psychological, intellectual, and physical self-improvement, through reason and critical thinking, personal responsibility, and experimentation. Seeking biological and neurological augmentation.
3. DYNAMIC OPTIMISM: Positive expectations fueling dynamic action. Adopting a rational, action-based optimism, shunning both blind faith and stagnant pessimism.
4. INTELLIGENT TECHNOLOGY: Applying science and technology creatively to transcend “natural” limits imposed by our biological heritage, culture, and environment.
5. SPONTANEOUS ORDER: Supporting decentralized, voluntaristic social coordination processes. Fostering tolerance, diversity, foresight, personal responsibility and individual liberty.
In 1991 the extropians founded an email list, taking advantage of the dramatic expansion of Internet culture. The Extropian email list, and its associated regional and topical email lists, have attracted thousands of subscribers and have carried an extremely high volume of posts for the last decade. Most people who consider themselves extropians have never met other extropians, and participate only in this virtual community. There are however small groups of extropians who meet together socially in California, Washington D.C. and Boston.
In the first issue of Extropy in 1988 More and Morrow included libertarian politics as one of the topics the magazine would promote. In 1991 Extropy focused on the principle of emergent order, publishing an essay by T.O. Morrow on David Friedman’s anarcho-capitalist concept of “Privately Produced Law”, and an article from Max More on “Order Without Orderers”. In these essays Morrow and More made clear the journal’s commitment to radical libertarianism, an ideological orientation shared by most of the young, well-educated, American men attracted to the extropian list. The extropian milieu saw the state, and any form of egalitarianism, as a potential threat to their personal self-transformation. More’s fifth principle “Spontaneous Order” distilled their Hayek and Ayn Rand-derived belief that an anarchistic market creates free and dynamic order, while the state and its life-stealing authoritarianism is entropic.
In 1992 More and Morrow founded the Extropy Institute, which held its first conference in 1994. At Extro 1 in Sunnyvale California, the keynote speaker was the controversial computer scientist Hans Moravec, speaking on the how humans would be inevitably superceded by robots. Eric Drexler, a cryonics promoter and the founder of the field of nanotechnology, also addressed the conference. Also in attendance was journalist Ed Regis (1994) whose subsequent article on the Extropians in Wired magazine greatly increasing the group’s visibility. The second Extro conference was held in 1995, Extro 3 was held in 1997, Extro 4 in 1999, and Extro 5 in 2001. Each conference has attracted more prominent scientists, science fiction authors and futurist luminaries.
In the wake of all this attention, the extropians also began to attract withering criticism from progressive culture critics. In 1996 Wired contributor Paulina Borsook debated More in an on-line forum in the Wired website, taking him to task for selfishness, elitism and escapism. She subsequently published the book Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High Tech (2001). Mark Dery excoriated the extropians and a dozen related techno-culture trends in his 1997 Escape Velocity, coining the dismissive phrase “body-loathing” for those, like the extropians, who want to escape from their “meat puppet” (body).
The extropian list often was filled with vituperative attacks on divergent points of view, and those who had been alienated by the extropians but were nonetheless sympathetic with transhumanist views began to amount a sizable group. Although More’s wife, Natasha Vita-More, is given prominent acknowledgement of her transhumanist arts and culture projects, there are few women involved in the extropian subculture, and there have been women who left the list citing the dominant adolescent, hyper-masculine style of argumentation. In a February/March 2002 poll more than 80% of extropians were male, and more than 50% were under 30 years old (ExiCommunity Polls, 2002). In 1999 and 2000 the European fellow-travelers of the extropians began to organize and meet, and the World Transhumanist Association was organized with founding documents distinctly less libertarian than the Extropian Principles. In the latter 1990s, as transhumanism broadened its social base, a growing number of non-libertarian voices began to make themselves heard on the extro email lists.
Responding to these various trends and presumably his own philosophical maturation, More revamped his principles in 2000 from Version 2.6 to Version 3.0, and from five principles into seven: 1. Perpetual Progress, 2. Self-Transformation, 3. Practical Optimism, 4. Intelligent Technology, 5. Open Society, 6. Self-Direction, and 7. Rational Thinking. In Version 3.0, More adapts the previous, anarcho-capitalist “Spontaneous Order” into the much more moderately libertarian:
5. Open Society Supporting social orders that foster freedom of speech, freedom of action, and experimentation. Opposing authoritarian social control and favoring the rule of law and decentralization of power. Preferring bargaining over battling, and exchange over compulsion. Openness to improvement rather than a static utopia.
6. Self-Direction — Seeking independent thinking, individual freedom, personal responsibility, self-direction, self-esteem, and respect for others
In a more extensive commentary on his 3.0 principles More explicitly departs from the elitist, Randian position of enlightened selfishness, and argues for both a consistent rule of law and for civic responsibility.
“..for individuals and societies to flourish, liberty must come with personal responsibility. The demand for freedom without responsibility is an adolescent’s demand for license.” (More, 2000).
He also argues that extropianism is not “libertarian” and can be compatible with a number of different types of liberal “open societies,” although not in theocracies or authoritarian or totalitarian systems. (More, 2000).
However, as a casual review of the traffic on the extropian lists confirms, the majority of extropians remain staunch libertarians. In a survey of extropian list participants conducted in February and March
of 2002, 56% of the respondents identified as “libertarian” or “anarchist/self-governance,” with another 15% committed to (generally minarchist) alternative political visions (ExiCommunity Polls, 2002). In the recommended “economics and society”reading list that More attaches to the 3.0 version of the principles, the political economy readings still strongly suggest an anarcho-capitalist orientation:
Ronald H. Coase The Firm, the Market, and the Law
David Friedman The Machinery of Freedom (2nd Ed.)
Kevin Kelly Out of Control
Friedrich Hayek The Constitution of Liberty
Karl Popper The Open Society and Its Enemies
Julian Simon The Ultimate Resource (2nd ed.)
Julian Simon & Herman Kahn (eds) The Resourceful Earth
As the Julian Simon readings suggest, most extropians also remain explicitly and adamantly opposed to the environmental movement, advancing the arguments of Julian Simon and others that the eco-system is not really threatened, and if it is, the only solution is more and better technology. There are occasional discussions on the extropian list about the potential downsides or catastrophic consequences of emerging technologies, but these are generally waved off as being either easily remediable or acceptable risks given the tremendous rewards.
This form of argumentation is more understandable in the context of the millennial apocalyptic expectations which most transhumanists have adopted, referred to as “the Singularity.” The extropians’ Singularity is a coming rupture in social life, brought about by some confluence of genetic, cybernetic and nano technologies. The concept of the Singularity was first proposed by science fiction author Vernor Vinge in a 1993 essay, referring specifically to the apocalyptic consequences of the emergence of self-willed artificial intelligence, projected to occur with the next couple of decades. In a February-March 2002 poll of extropians, the average year in which respondents expected “the next major breakthrough or shakeup that will radically reshape the future of humanity” was 2017. Only 21% said there would be “no such event, just equal acceleration across all areas.” The majority of extropians who expected a Singularity expected it to emerge from computing or artificial intelligence, a medical breakthrough or an advance in nanotechnology (ExiCommunity Polls, 2002).
Among millenarian movements, belief in the Singularity is uniquely grounded in rational, scientific argument about measurable exponential trends. For instance, “singularitarians” such as Ray Kurzweil (Kurzweilai.net) map the exponential growth of computing power (“Moore’s Law”) and memory against the computing capacity of the human brain to argue for the immanence of machine minds. However, the popularity of the idea of the Singularity also stems from the transcultural appeal of visions of apocalypse and redemption. The Singularity is a vision of techno-Rapture for secular, alienated, relatively powerless, techno-enthusiasts (Bozeman, 1997). The appeal of the Singularity for libertarians such as the extropians is that, like the Second Coming, it does not require any specific collective action. The Singularity is literally a deus ex machina. Ayn Rand envisioned society sinking into chaos once the techno-elite withdrew into their Valhalla. But the Singularity will elevate the techno-savvy elite while most likely wiping out everybody else.
For instance, responding to a challenge from Mark Dery about the socio-economic implications of robotic ascension, Extropian Board member Hans Moravec responded ““the socioeconomic implications are … largely irrelevant. It doesn’t matter what people do, because they’re going to be left behind like the second stage of a rocket. Unhappy lives, horrible deaths, and failed projects have been part of the history of life on Earth ever since there was life; what really matters in the long run is what’s left over” (Moravec quoted by Goertzel, 2000). Working individually to stay on the cutting edge of technology, transforming oneself into a post-human, is the extropian’s best insurance of surviving and prospering through the Singularity.
Future Political Role for Extropians
In the last couple of years the neo-Luddite movement has grown in coordination and political visibility, from movements against gene-mod food, cloning and stem cells, to President Bush’s appointment of staunch bio-conservative ethicist Leon Kass as his chief bioethics advisor and chair of the President’s Council on Bioethics (PCB). Kass in turn appointed fellow bio-Luddites to the PCB, such as Francis Fukuyama, author of the recent anti-genetic engineering manifesto Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution (2002).
Despite faith in the inevitability of the millennium, the neo-Luddites have sufficiently alarmed the extropians that in 2001 Natasha Vita-More announced the creation of the Progress Action Coalition (“Pro-Act”), an extropian political action committee. The group’s announced intention is to build a coalition of groups to defend high technology against the Luddites.
Speaking at the event, artist and “cultural catalyst” Natasha Vita-More, Pro-Act Director, said the fledgling organization aims to build a coalition of groups that will take on a broad range of neo-Luddites opposed to new technologies such as genetic engineering, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence, ranging from Bill Joy to Greenpeace, Jeremy Rifkin’s Foundation for Economic Trends, the Green party, and the current protestors at the BIO2001 conference in San Diego. (Angelica, 2001)
The group is still being established, but the set of scientific and cultural members, supporters and fellow-travelers that the extropians have collected could be leveraged for considerable political effect. Engaging in actual political campaigns to defeat anti-cloning or anti-stem cells bills would inevitably force the extropians to grapple with partisan politics and the ways in which the state actively supports science, further attenuating their anarchist purity. Conversely, the group’s stigma as an elitist, kooky cult centered on the thinking of one man may make it difficult to attract mainstream biotech or computer firms as backers and supporters of their political project.
Liberal Democratic Transhumanism:
World Transhumanist Association
History of the Term Transhumanism
According to an account by Max More’s wife, Natasha Vita-More, the term “transhuman” was first used in 1966 by the Iranian-American futurist F.M. Esfandiary while he was teaching at the New School for Social Research. The term subsequently appeared in Abraham Maslow’s 1968 Toward a Psychology of Being and in Robert Ettinger’s 1972 Man into Superman. Like Maslow and Ettinger, F.M. Esfandiary (who changed his name to FM-2030) used the term in his writings in the 1970s to refer to people who were adopting the technologies, lifestyles and cultural worldviews that were transitional to post-humanity. In his 1989 book “Are You Transhuman?” FM-2030 says
(Transhumans) are the earliest manifestations of new evolutionary beings. They are like those earliest hominids who many millions of years ago came down from the trees and began to look around. Transhumans are not necessarily committed to accelerating the evolution to higher life forms. Many of them are not even aware of their bridging role in evolution.”
In the early 1980s, FM-2030 befriended More’s future wife, Natasha Vita-More (Nancie Clark), and later became a friend and supporter of More and the Californian extropians. In the lexicon adopted by the extropians, transhumanism involves a self-conscious ideological leaning, not merely having been an early adopter of posthuman tech. For instance, More defined transhumanism in a 1990 essay:
Transhumanism is a class of philosophies that seek to guide us towards a posthuman condition. Transhumanism shares many elements of humanism, including a respect for reason and science, a commitment to progress, and a valuing of human (or transhuman) existence in this life rather than in some supernatural “afterlife”. Transhumanism differs from humanism in recognizing and anticipating the radical alterations in the nature and possibilities of our lives resulting from various sciences and technologies such as neuroscience and neuropharmacology, life extension, nanotechnology, artificial ultraintelligence, and space habitation, combined with a rational philosophy and value system.
More has also more succinctly defined transhumanism as
Philosophies of life that seek the continuation and acceleration of the evolution of intelligent life beyond its currently human form and human limitations by means of science and technology, guided by life-promoting principles and values. (More, quoted by Sandberg, 2001)
The Founding of the World Transhumanist Association
From the beginning of Extropy journal, and in the burgeoning lexicon of the extropians, Max More and the other extropians made clear that extropianism was but one of the possible forms of transhumanist ideology. For instance, in 1994 Anders Sandberg, the founder of the Swedish transhumanist group Aleph, noted that transhumanist ideas could be mated with many political ideologies, and that the hybrid of extropian libertarian transhumanism was just one, particularly robust, form that transhumanism could take:
Extropianism, which is a combination of transhumanist memes and libertarianism, seems to be one of the more dynamic and well-integrated systems. This has been successful, mainly because the meme has been able to organize its hosts much better than other transhumanistic meme-complexes. This has led to a certain bias among transhumanists linked to the Net towards the extropian version of the meme since it is the most widely spread and active. (Sandberg, 1994)
By the late 1990s it had begun to become clear that the European fellow-travelers of the Extropy Institute were much less enthralled by anarcho-capitalist orthodoxy than the Americans. One European transhumanist, reviewing a conference of European transhumanists, noted: “The official program started with Remi Sussan…a bleeding heart humanist socialist and a nice person. I am glad that we have that diversity among the European Transhumanists. It makes for much more refined discussions than is often seen on the Extropy mailing list.” (Rasmussen, 1999)”
In 1997 the Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom organized the World Transhumanist Association (WTA) as an autonomous and more broadly based grouping that would share the techno-liberatory concerns of the Extropians, but allow for more political and ideological diversity than tolerated by the Extropians. Bostrom is an academic philosopher, and the WTA project attracted several of the academics in the extropian milieu to establish a journal, The Journal of Transhumanism, and work toward the recognition of transhumanism as an academic discipline.
In 1998, Bostrom and several dozen far flung American and European collaborators began work on the two founding documents of the WTA, the Transhumanist Declaration and a Transhumanist Frequently Asked Questions or FAQ. The leading extropians, including More, contributed to the documents, but the documents were most heavily influenced by the politically open-minded Swedes Nick Bostrom and Anders Sandberg, the feminist Kathryn Aegis, and the British utilitarian thinker David Pearce. The first drafts of the documents were published in 1999.
The Transhumanist Declaration
(1) Humanity will be radically changed by technology in the future. We foresee the feasibility of redesigning the human condition, including such parameters as the inevitability of ageing, limitations on human and artificial intellects, unchosen psychology, suffering, and our confinement to the planet earth.
(2) Systematic research should be put into understanding these coming developments and their long-term consequences.
(3) Transhumanists think that by being generally open and embracing of new technology we have a better chance of turning it to our advantage than if we try to ban or prohibit it.
(4) Transhumanists advocate the moral right for those who so wish to use technology to extend their mental and physical capacities and to improve their control over their own lives. We seek personal growth beyond our current biological limitations.
(5) In planning for the future, it is mandatory to take into account the prospect of dramatic technological progress. It would be tragic if the potential benefits failed to materialize because of ill-motivated technophobia and unnecessary prohibitions. On the other hand, it would also be tragic if intelligent life went extinct because of some disaster or war involving advanced technologies.
(6) We need to create forums where people can rationally debate what needs to be done, and a social order where responsible decisions can be implemented.
(7) Transhumanism advocates the well-being of all sentience (whether in artificial intellects, humans, non-human animals, or possible extraterrestrial species) and encompasses many principles of modern secular humanism. Transhumanism does not support any particular party, politician or political platform.
The Declaration is notable in its departure from the Extropian Principles in several significant points. In point (5) the Declaration specifically notes the possibility of catastrophic consequences of new technology, and in the attached FAQ the authors discuss the responsibility of transhumanists to anticipate and craft public policy to prevent these catastrophic outcomes. The anarcho-capitalist Extropians, on the other hand, generally dismiss any talk of catastrophic possibilities, and only believe in market-based solutions to any such threats that may exist. Point (6) explicitly addresses the need “to create forums where people can rationally debate what needs to be done, and a social order where responsible decisions can be implemented.” Here, unlike the elitist and hitherto anti-political Extropians, the WTA founders take seriously the need to engage society, and support responsive democracies and democratic technology policies.
In point (7) the WTA founders explicitly commit to a utilitarian ethic, presumably influenced by the utilitarian David Pierce, as opposed to the radically individualist ethics of the Extropians. Finally, in the last line of the Declaration, the authors make clear that the WTA is not committed to a particular political ideology.
Politically, the extropians oppose authoritarian social control and favor the rule of law and decentralization of power. Transhumanism as such does not advocate any particular political viewpoint, although it does have political consequences. Transhumanists themselves hold a wide range of political opinions (there are liberals, social democrats, libertarians, green party members etc.), and some transhumanists have elected to remain apolitical. (Bostrom et al., 1999)
The Politics of the WTA FAQ
The WTA FAQ asks the question “Won’t new technologies only benefit the rich and powerful? What happens to the rest?” Instead of suggesting that some form of social subsidy might facilitate access to the poor, the FAQ falls back on a trickle-down theory of technological innovation, noting that the lives of the relatively poor today are enriched by technologies previously only available to the wealthy. However, the FAQ then makes the startling acknowledgement:
One can speculate that some technologies may cause social inequalities to widen. For example, if some form of intelligence amplification becomes available, it may at first be so expensive that only the richest can afford it. The same could happen when we learn how to genetically augment our children. Wealthy people would become smarter and make even more money…
Trying to ban technological innovations on these grounds would be misguided. If a society judges these inequalities to be unacceptable, it would be wiser for that society to increase wealth redistribution, for example by means of taxation and the provision of free services (education vouchers, IT access in public libraries, genetic enhancements covered by social security etc.). For economical and technological progress is not a zero sum game. It’s a positive sum game. It doesn’t solve the old political problem of what degree of income redistribution is desirable, but it can make the pie that is to be divided enormously much greater.
(Bostrom et al., 1999)
Similarly when addressing whether transhumanism is simply a distraction from the pressing problems of poverty and conflict in the world today, the FAQ argues that transhumanists should work on both these immediate problems and futurist concerns. In fact, the FAQ argues, transhuman technologies can make the solution of poverty and conflict easier, improving health care, amplifying intelligence, and expanding communication and prosperity. Conversely, working for a better world is both an essential transhumanist goal, given the utilitarian ethic of Principle 7, and also is essential for establishing the peaceful liberal democratic social orders in which transhuman experimentation can take place.
Working towards a world order characterized by peace, international cooperation and respect for human rights would much improve the odds that the dangerous applications of certain future technologies will not be used irresponsibly or in warfare. It would also free up resources currently spent on military armaments, and possibly channel them to improve the condition of the poor. (Bostrom et al., 1999)
The FAQ also addresses the issue of overpopulation caused by life extension technologies. Like the techno-libertarian Extropians, it argues that only a combination of population control and the aggressive pursuit of advanced, sustainable technologies, such as agricultural biotechnologies, cleaner industrial processes, nanotechnology, and ultimately space colonization, can address the Malthusian dilemma. However, it also notes that the best way to control population growth is to empower women: “ As a matter of empirical fact, giving people increased rational control over their lives (and especially female education and equality) causes them to have fewer children.” (Bostrom et al., 1999)
In response to a question about how post-humans will treat humans, the FAQ notes “it could help if we continue to build stable democratic traditions and constitutions, ideally expanding the rule of law to the international plane as well as the national” (Bostrom et al., 1999). Here the transhumanists are anticipating the need to build political and cultural solidarity between humans and post-humans, to minimize conflicts, and to have global police institutions that can protect humans from post-humans and vice versa.
In short, the WTA documents establish a broad political tent, with an explicit embrace of political engagement, the need to defend and extend liberal democracy , and the inclusion of social democratic policy alternatives as legitimate points of discussion.
The WTA in 2002
In November of 2001 the WTA began its next phase of institutionalization. It has elected a Board of Directors, with Nick Bostrom as Chair, and incorporated in the State of Connecticut. The Journal has been renamed the Journal of Evolution and Technology and the WTA is launching a popular webzine, Transhumanity. The WTA has fifteen hundred people signed up as “basic members” and has several lists growing in activity. After a tense initial reception from the extropians, the Extropy Institute has formally affiliated with the WTA along with a dozen other transhumanist groups in the U.S., Europe, South America and Asia. Local groups are being organized in two dozen cities
In 1909 the Italian writer Filippo Tommaso Marinetti published his “Manifesto of Futurism” in the Parisian newspaper Le Figaro. In it he called for a new aesthetic and approach to life.
We intend to exalt aggressive action, a feverish insomnia, the racer’s stride, the mortal leap, the punch and the slap…..
We want to hymn the man at the wheel, who hurls the lance of his spirit across the Earth, along the circle of its orbit…
We stand on the last promontory of the centuries!… Why should we look back, when what we want is to break down the mysterious doors of the Impossible? Time and Space died yesterday. We already live in the absolute, because we have created eternal, omnipresent speed.
Marinetti believed Italy and Europe in general had become stagnant, and he called for a new art glorifying modern technology, energy, and violence. Artists, writers, musicians, architects and many others flocked to the Futurist banner in Italy and from across Europe, and began issuing their own manifestoes. Many of the founding Futurists, including Marinetti, were anarchists, although they went on to urge Italy’s entry into World War One. When World War One ended the movement and its romantic calls for heroic violence and war, Marinetti went on to befriend Mussolini, who had mixed Marxist and anarchist politics with heroic nationalist romanticism and Nietzschean ideas. Marinetti and many other Italian Futurists joined Mussolini’s new fascist movement and the fascists in turn adopted Futurist ideas and aesthetics.
Today, when a social movement emerges such as the Extropians, which openly scorns liberal democracy, calls for an ubermenschlich elite to free themselves from traditional morality, pursue boundless expansion and optimism, and create a new humanity through genetic technology and the merging of humans with machines, it is understandable that critics would associate the movement with European fascism.
This problem has not escaped the attention of the extropians. For instance, in 1994 Sandberg wrote:
Many people associate ideas of superhumanity, rationally changing our biological form and speeding up the evolution of mankind, with unfashionable or disliked memes like fascism…partially because many transhumanist ideas had counterparts (real or apparent) among the fascists. (Sandberg, 1994)
Ominously for some, Max More has acknowledged and written about the contribution of Nietzsche to extropian thought and included Nietzsche on the extropian reading lists. Nonetheless, More has repeatedly rejected the idea that extropian thought is compatible with fascism, pointing to the extropians’ individualist and libertarian values.
But for some futurist intellectuals the distance between anarcho-capitalism and totalitarianism may not be very large, as the case of Marinetti and numerous other sects demonstrate. The problem for transhumanism, as opposed to extropianism, is even more difficult, since the core transhumanist ideas can be mated with any secular ideology. Commenting on a speaker at the 1999 meeting of European transhumanists, Max Rasmussen notes:
“(The speaker pointed out that) Transhumanism can remind a lot of Nazism, and we should be very aware about this. ‘We must not be tempted by the dark side.’ We should be ready and have a mental defense ready if fascist(s) were ever to try and adapt Transhumanism, so we can keep them out. I totally agree in this. We want to be posthumans not übermensch.” (Rasmussen, 1999)
Occasional examples of transhumanists with fascist leanings appeared in the 1990s on the extropian lists and associated with the milieu. One example is the transhumanist Lyle Burkhead, who wrote:
“the Third Reich is the only model we have of a Transhumanist state…It’s high time for transhumanists to face up to the fact that what we are trying to do cannot be done in our present political system. Democracy and transcendence are mutually exclusive concepts. I am searching for a radical alternative, and that search led me to consider Nazi Germany, which, for all its imperfections, at least had some concept of human evolution and transcendence.” (Burkhead, 1999)
Mr. Burkhead has apparently done nothing else to promote his Nazi transhumanism however.
The Nazi challenge became a practical matter in 2000 when it was revealed that a website, Xenith.com, that had joined a Transhuman webring was filled with neo-Nazi propaganda, white nationalist essays and links, and racialist eugenics. The Xenith.com site described itself as transhumanist and included extensive art illustrating heroic transcendence and space travel. The site called for a modern racialist eugenic project using genetic engineering and selective breeding, quoted Adolph Hitler and George Lincoln Rockwell, the founder of the American Nazi Party, and linked to neo-Nazi groups, anti-Semitic sites and sites on the racial superiority of whites. The other websites maintained by Xenith.com’s founder, “Marcus Eugenicus,” likewise condemned democracy, egalitarianism, socialism and “political correctness,” especially in regards the silencing of “racialist science.”
In one of those other sites, Eugenicus promotes “Prometheism” [http://www.prometheism.net/] which calls for using state coercion to promote eugenic goals:
Principles and Goals
I. We are both a nation and a religion…a homeland must be sought for by any means available.
II. Our aim is to create a genetically enhanced race that will eventually become a new, superior species. In the short-term, this will be achieved via eugenics and genetic engineering.
III. (We pursue eugenics because) the world is caught in a dysgenic trend from which we want to be freed. (Also) this is a way of maximizing our viability — the survival and probability of survival of our genes. A more intelligent species will be more fit to adapt to new environments and to face new threats and obstacles.
IV. We must not concern ourselves with others that are caught in the dysgenic cycle. We must only be concerned with the success of other competing eugenics’ programs that will pose a threat to our own new species, for speciation will not travel along a single vector when humans compete using the new technologies.
V. Any eugenics program has equal validity to use the state’s coercive power to improve human genetic capital…
Eugenicus insists in the Prometheism manifesto that “Racial purity is not a valid concept for a eugenicist. Since we are breeding and genetically splicing our way into a new species, racial components are ever changing.” However, he also makes clear that valued traits such as intelligence are linked to race.
While most transhumanists are unconcerned with reproductive decisions, assuming that genetic illnesses and human limitations will be remediable through genetic therapy, chemicals or nanotechnology, Eugenicus explains his emphasis on controlling reproductive decision-making on the grounds that “Resources must not be wasted on curing disease when it is more cost effective to merely eliminate the disease from the genetic capital of the eugenic nation.”
Unlike any other transhumanist, Eugenicus calls for loyalty to the new eugenically superior meta-race, and self-sacrifice in its service: “Allegiance and patriotism to the group takes precedence before attachment to one’s religion or patriotism to the country where one just happens to reside. Going to war for the state because of shared loyalties is dysgenic. Only patriotism to the eugenic state requires your sacrifice and allegiance.” In fact, Eugenicus argues that the two most important traits to genetically enhance in children are intelligence and patriotism. The Prometheans, he says, will be attacked and called to make sacrifice since “warfare, that ever present component that drove group evolution to reach Homo Sapiens, will continue.”
In response to the outing of the site and its contents (by me), the Transhuman webring and its affiliated list were thrown into vigorous debate. Some participants were clearly sympathetic to Eugenicus’ iconoclastic attacks on political correctness, although most abhorred his Nazism. The list was split on two questions: whether neo-Nazism could be “transhumanist,” and whether the Nazi site should be excluded from the webring. Some discussants argued that the humanist, cosmopolitan and liberal roots of transhumanism were incompatible with racism and totalitarianism, while transhumanism’s commitment to reason and science were incompatible with the irrationality and pseudo-science of eugenics. The issue had actually been anticipated and addressed in the World Transhumanist Association’s FAQ:
“…transhumanism advocates the well-being of all sentience, whether in artificial intellects, humans, non-human animals or possible extraterrestrial species. Racism, sexism, speciesism, belligerent nationalism and religious intolerance are unacceptable. In addition to the usual grounds for finding such practices morally objectionable, there is an additional specifically transhumanist motivation for this. In order to prepare a time when the human species may start branching out in various directions, we need to start now to strongly encourage the development of moral sentiments that are broad enough encompass within the sphere of moral concern sentiences that are different from current selves. We can go beyond mere tolerance to actively encouraging people who experiment with nonstandard life-styles, because by facing up to prejudices they ultimately expand the range of choices available to others. And we may all delight in the richness and diversity of life to which such individuals disproportionately contribute simply by being who they are.” (Bostrom, 2001)
The debate about whether the site should be removed also addressed the public relations disaster that could result if Nazism was associated with transhumanism. Free speech advocates argued however that all points of view of self-described trashumanists should be allowed expression.
Finally, the owner of the webring decided that he would not remove the Nazi site from the webring, but would instead disband the webring altogether. This led to the creation of the Extrotech webring, which explicitly prohibits racialist sites: “No sites concerning bigotry, racism, neo-Nazism, and the like, will be allowed to join. This is not censorship, merely the ringmaster’s decision that sites of that nature are counter to the equality, improvement, and understanding which this ring is intended to represent.” This webring now includes seventeen sites.
Eugenicus attracted some of the members of the former Transhuman webring to his new “True Enlightenment” webring for “pro Transhumanism and anti PC” websites, such as the Dutch-based “Transtopia” website. Predictably the True Enlightenment webring attacks egalitarianism, argues for “race realism,” and provides links to neo-Nazi articles and websites.
In March of 2002 the World Transhumanist Association voted to formally denounce racialism in general, and the neo-Nazism of Eugenicus in particular:
WTA STATEMENT ON RACIALISM
Any and all doctrines of racial or ethnic supremacy/inferiority are incompatible with the fundamental tolerance and humanist roots of transhumanism. Organizations advocating such doctrines or beliefs are not transhumanist, and are unwelcome as affiliates of the WTA. (adopted 02/25/2002)
WTA STATEMENT ON NEO-NAZISM AND UFO CULTS
Neo-Nazi eugenic views; the individual “Marcus Eugenicus” and his associated group; UFO cults; the Raelian group; shall be designated as ‘not transhumanist / unacceptable to the transhumanist community’. (adopted 02/25/2002)
Radical Democratic Transhumanism
The Rise of Left Luddism
As yet, radical democratic transhumanism has not found a voice or organizational presence, but is implicit in the writings of people in the futurist, science fiction and cyberculture milieus. The fact that a left futurism has been so slow to emerge is somewhat surprising, since technoutopianism, atheism, and scientific rationalism have been associated with the democratic, revolutionary and utopian left for most of the last two hundred years. Robert Owens, Fourier and Saint-Simon in the early nineteenth century inspired communalists with their visions of a future scientific and technological evolution of humanity using reason as its religion. The Oneida community, America’s longest-lived nineteenth century “communist” group, practiced extensive eugenic engineering through arranged breeding. Bellamy’s socialist utopia in Looking Backward, which inspired hundreds of socialist clubs in the late nineteenth century U.S. and a national political party, was as highly technological as Bellamy’s imagination and was to be brought about as a painless corollary of industrial development.
Marx and Engels convinced millions that the advance of technology was laying the groundwork not only for the creation of a new society, with different property relations, but also of new human beings reconnected to nature and themselves. The nineteenth and twentieth century Left, from social democrats to Communists, have been focused on industrial modernization, economic development and the promotion of science, reason and the idea of progress. Transhumanists and the revolutionary left also share the concept of a technologically-determined social revolution. Like the Singularity, Marxian revolution is a sudden, global, discontinuous social rupture, brought about by technological change, beyond which we cannot predict the form that society will take, and about which it is pointless to speculate.
Perhaps the most transhumanist of the early twentieth century socialists was H.G. Wells. Wells referred repeatedly to the attractive and horrific possibilities of post-human stages of evolution. He believed that new technologies of war would bring civilization to the brink, but expected that humanity would learn from the carnage and establish a world socialist government. Wells believed that the path to utopia was through technocracy, the rule of scientific experts, and as a consequence was at first quite admiring of Lenin’s Soviet Communism, who famously said “Communism is socialism plus electrification.”
Left techno-utopianism began to erode after World War Two. Left interest in re-engineering the nature of Man were silenced by Nazi eugenics. The gas chambers revealed that modern technology could be used by a modern state for horrific uses, and the atomic bomb posed a permanent technological threat to humanity’s existence. The ecological movement suggested that industrial activity was threatening all life on the planet, while the anti-nuclear power movement inspired calls for renunciation of specific types of technology altogether. The counter-culture attacked positivism, and lauded pre-industrial ways of life. While the progressives and New Dealers had built the welfare state to be a tool of reason and social justice, the New Left and free-market libertarians attacked it as a stultifying tool of oppression, contributing to the general decline in faith in democratic governments. Intellectual trends such as deconstruction began to cast doubt on the “master narratives” of political and scientific progress, while cultural relativism eroded progressives’ faith that industrialized secular liberal democracies were in fact superior to pre-industrial and Third World societies. As the Left gave up on the idea of a sexy, high-tech vision of a radically democratic future, libertarians became associated with technological progress. Left techno-enthusiasm was supplanted by pervasive Luddite suspicion about the products of the corporate consumerist machine.
Ironically, one of the first contemporary left futurists or radical democratic transhumanists was FM-2030, the creator of the term “transhuman.” FM-2030 spelled out his political philosophy in a series of books written in the 1970s and 1980s. Like the Greens, he argued that his politics were neither left nor right-wing, but rather “upwing”: “The UpWing philosophy is a visionary new thrust beyond Right and Left-wing, beyond conservative and conventional radical.” (FM-2030, 1975).
However, he argued for transcending both capitalism and socialism by automating work and expanding leisure. In place of authoritarianism and representative democracy FM-2030 argued for direct electronic democracy. In place of fractious nation-states FM-2030 argued for world government and citizenship.
We want to help accelerate the thrust beyond nations, ethnic groups, races to create a global consciousness, global institutions, a global language, global citizenship, global free flow of people, global commitments. (FM-2030, 1975).
FM-2030 wrote only a couple of pages about upwing political philosophy before his death in 2000 and those opinions seem to have been mostly ignored by the extropians. However, radical democratic or left futurists can certainly claim FM-2030 as one of their forebears.
Donna Haraway and Cyborgian Socialist-Feminists
Another sign of a left futurism emerged in the 1980s, under the rubric of “cyborgology,” which emerged as a reaction to eco-feminism. According to the eco-feminists, rationalistic, technological patriarchy is the common source of the oppression of women and nature, while the struggle against patriarchy and technology are deeply intertwined. The eco-feminists embraced the man-woman/culture-nature duality allegedly imposed by patriarchy, and embraced it.
In 1984 Donna Haraway wrote “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s,” aimed as a critique of ecofeminism, and it landed with the reverberating bang of a hand grenade. Haraway argued that it was precisely in the eroding boundary between human beings and machines, and between women and machines in particular, that we can find liberation from the old patriarchal dualisms. Haraway says she would rather be a cyborg than a goddess, and proposes that the cyborg could be the liberatory mythos for women.
This essay, and Haraway’s subsequent writings, have inspired a new cultural studies sub-discipline of “cyborgology,” made up of feminist culture and science fiction critics, exploring cyborgs and the woman-machine interface in various permutations (Gray 1995, 2001; Kirkup 1999; Haraway 1997; Balsamo, 1996; Davis-Floyd, 1998). As yet there has been little cross-pollination between the left-wing academic cyborgologists and the transhumanists.
One of the most challenging philosophers in the world is bioethicist Peter Singer. In the 1970s Singer wrote the book credited with inspiring the modern animal rights movement, Animal Liberation. Singer is a utilitarian, and he argued that the suffering of animals, especially apes and other large mammals, should be put on par with the suffering of children and retarded adults. His subsequent writings on the permissibility of euthanizing certain disabled newborns (Kuhse and Singer, 1985), however, inspired howls of outrage, and accusations of fascism. Singer, however, is Jewish, with relatives who died in the Holocaust. He considers himself a man of the Left, and in 1995 published How Are We to Live?: Ethics in an Age of Self-Interest, which argued that people should give away all their wealth beyond what’s required to live a simple life.
Singer’s most recent tract, however, A Darwinian Left: Politics, Evolution, and Cooperation (2001), is an argument with the Left over the relevance of sociobiological constraints on human nature and politics. Singer contends that there is a biologically rooted tendency towards selfishness and hierarchy which has defeated attempts at egalitarian social reform. If the Left program of social reform is to succeed, Singer argues, we must employ the new genetic and neurological sciences to identify and modify the aspects of human nature that cause conflict and competition. Singer also embraces a program of socially subsidized, but voluntary, genetic improvement, while rejecting coercive reproductive policies and eugenic pseudo-science.
Pro-Automation Post-Work Utopians
Another strain of left techno-utopianism that could be incorporated into a democratic transhumanist worldview is promotion of a society in which most people do not have to work for a living because of automation and a universal guaranteed income. For instance, Andre Gorz (1980,2000) has been promoting a political program for twenty-five years that embraces automation, and the expansion of the “social wage.” The movement for universal basic income (Lerner, 1994) has been growing in Europe and the United States.
One transhumanist who is promoting the automation/guaranteed minimum income vision is Australian science fiction writer Damien Broderick. Broderick has participated in the extropian mailing list for most of its existence, and in 1997 published The Spike, a non-fiction treatment of the extropian ideas about the Singularity (Broderick, 2001). The Spike is for the most part a review of the various technological advances and their permutations. However, in the middle of his text he reveals a distinctly non-libertarian worldview when he projects that automation and nanotechnology will create widespread unemployment, which will in turn require the provision of a universal guaranteed income.
A corporation that downsizes its work-force today, in favor of robots, is surviving as a beneficiary of the human investment of the past. Its current productivity, after all, are the outcome of every erg of accumulated human effort that went into creating the economy and technological culture that made those robots possible. So let’s not look at a guaranteed income as a `natural right’, like the supposed innate rights to freedom of speech and liberty. Rather, it is an inheritance, something owed to all the children of a society whose ancestors for generations have together built, and purchased through the work of their minds and hands, the resource base sustaining today’s cornucopia.
(Broderick, 2001: 254)
Pro-Technology Greens and Bruce Sterling’s Viridian Movement
For reasons discussed above, Greens are generally anti-technology. But another strain of democratic transhumanism can come from techno-utopian environmentalists. This strain has always been in the background, nestled among the “alternative technology” and “alternative energy” milieu. Walter Truett Anderson is an example of a political philosopher who embraces the environmental cause, but challenges Green anti-technological dogmas. In To Govern Evolution (1987) and Evolution Isn’t What It Used to Be (1997), Anderson proposes that the only way for humanity to avoid catastrophe in the ecosphere or in our biomedical interventions is to take democratic responsibility for managing nature. This is the ethical complement of the movement for bioremediation, the use of technology to fix ecological destruction.
But the most prominent contemporary example of techno-utopian environmentalism comes from the unexpected source of science fiction. In the 1980s a gritty new style of science fiction emerged out of the work of a half dozen writers, which became know as “cyberpunk.” Cyberpunk authors depicted a future in which people had become technologically augmented and deeply enmeshed with computers, artificial intelligence and virtual reality. For many cyberpunk authors, such as William Gibson in his Neuromancer series, transnational corporations had displaced the nation-state.
At the center of cyberpunk was an energetic Texan writer, editor and polemicist, Bruce Sterling. One of Sterling’s early novels, Islands in the Net (1988), proposed a worker-owned transnational corporation that explored the radical democratic possibilities within the premise of eroding nation-states. Sterling also used the term “transhumanism” in his Shaper-Mechanist stories (1985, 1989). These stories envisioned a solar system several centuries in the future in which humanity has split into two competing sub-species: Shapers, who use genetics to enhance human abilities, and Mechanists, who have become cyborgs. “Transhumanism” in Sterling’s Shaper-Mechanist politics is the ideology advanced by a movement for peace and solidarity between the differentiating sub-species of post-humans.
The cyberpunk movement diffused into the rest of science fiction by the early 1990s, and Sterling returned to writing novels about the politics and social consequences of climate change (1994), life extension (1996), political campaigning and electronic nomadism in an eroded nation-state (1998), and globalism (2000). In January of 2000 Sterling returned to his polemicist roots and penned a 4300-word manifesto for a new “Viridian” green political movement. Sterling accepts the urgency of climate change and species depletion, but his principal complaint about contemporary Green politics is that they are Luddite and dour. He calls for a sexy, high-tech, design movement, to make attractive, practical ecological tools. Although Sterling steadfastly refuses to argue for political activism or partisan engagement, like FM-2030 he outlines a third way between capitalism and socialism involving controls on transnational capital, redirecting of militaries to peacekeeping, sustainable industries, increasing leisure time, guaranteed social wage, education reform, expanded global public health, and gender equity. The Viridian movement has attracted hundreds of people to participate in its list, and to receive weekly missives from Sterling about appropriate, but exciting, technologies.
The most technologically dependent humans today are disabled people in the wealthier industrialized countries. They have pioneered the use of wheelchairs, prosthetic limbs, novel computing interfaces and portable computing. Many people with disabilities are embracing the transgressive image of the cyborgs, some with an explicit influence from Harawayan cyborgology (Gosling, 2002). Paraplegic journalist John Hockenberry recently summed up the disabled transhumanist perspective in Wired:
Humanity’s specs are back on the drawing board, thanks to some unlikely designers, and the disabled have a serious advantage in this conversation. They’ve been using technology in collaborative, intimate ways for years – to move, to communicate, to interact with the world. …People with disabilities – who for much of human history died or were left to die – are now, due to medical technology, living full lives. As they do, the definition of humanness has begun to widen.
Probably the most prominent symbol of disabled transhumanist activism these days is Christopher Reeves, the former Superman actor who became a tireless campaigner for biomedical research after an horse-riding accident left him quadriplegic. Reeves has been especially important as a leading symbol of the fight to defend the use of clonal embryos in stem cell research.
There is now also an explicitly transhumanist organization for people with disabilities, the Ascender Alliance. Founded by Alan Pottinger, the founding manifesto of the Ascenders advocate removing “political, cultural, biological, and psychological limits to self-realization and augmentation.” However, their core documents also articulate several positions that are distinctive within transhumanist circles. The Ascenders are opposed to “eugenics” and permanent germline modification of the human genome, and concerned that future projects for human betterment and transcendence may leave behind the disabled. Further, and uniquely among transhumanists, they articulate a right to ascension for all:
Every human being has the right to ascension. So it is the duty of the group to constantly keep in mind the need to develop technology, equipment and procedures to counter such ‘incurable’ conditions and until such devices can be developed care for those who wish to benefit.
(Ascender Doctrine v2: Pottinger, 2002)
Transhumanists with disabilities face a much greater challenge with the growing bio-Luddite movement in disability rights circles. The assertion that people with disabilities, such as the deaf, have a unique and equally valid culture has led many disability rights activists to reject prenatal screening, genetic engineering and technologies such cochlear implants. The debate within the disability rights movement is sure to add much to democratic transhumanist theory and practice.
Critics of Corporate Control of Transhuman Tech: Open Source and Socialist
While the libertarian extropians celebrate the biotech and computing entrepreneurs and innovators, they occasionally have qualms about the effects that monopolists such as Microsoft and overly aggressive interpretations of intellectual property law may have on the pace of innovation. But libertarian ideology makes it difficult to argue for state intervention to break up monopolies, or to declare the genome and industrial innovations as public property. Libertarians have been more supportive of the voluntary, and partly market-driven, growth of the open source movement, such as the operating system Linux. The goal of the open source movement is challenge the monopolists from below, by building a community around the constant refining of hopefully more robust and cheaper information technologies.
David Berube is an example of a transhumanist who has worked out some of the implications for transhumanism of corporate control in his essays on “Nanosocialism” (Berube, 1996). Berube argues that socialist intervention would be required to create a full-featured nanotechnology since capitalist firms cannot be expected to develop a technology which would make households independent of their goods, and the market altogether. Secondly, the threat of malicious or accidental use of nanotechnology is so grave that strong state intervention would be required to ensure safe and secure use. Third, Berube repeats the post-work/guaranteed minimum wage argument. He argues that nanotech would destroy the market economy as we know it, along with the necessity to work.
Radical Speculative Fiction Writers
Not since the Nationalist movement that sprung up around Bellamy’s socialist vision in Looking Backward has there been a social movement so closely tied to speculative science fiction. The favorite authors of the transhumanists are those who depict explicit post-human societies and explore transhuman themes, such as Vernor Vinge, Greg Bear, Greg Egan, Ken MacLeod, and Linda Nagata. But the utopian genre is dead, and contemporary science fiction authors have a way of making their worlds complex, filled with tensions extrapolated from our own.
For instance, the work of Ken MacLeod is filled with political tensions around transhuman themes. In the 1990s, Ken MacLeod, a Scotsman and long-time friend of successful Scottish science-fiction author Iain Banks, gave in to pressure from Banks to attempt to write a novel. The result was the Star Fraction, in which a communist guerrilla mercenary negotiates the collapse of a radically decentralized Britain, while the Trotskyist artificial intelligence living in his computerized rifle plots global revolution. MacLeod had spent decades involved in Trotskyist and Communist politics, and then began to seriously engage with libertarian and transhumanist ideas in the 1990s. His six critically acclaimed novels have been hailed for their fascinating efforts to articulate “libertarias” and socialist utopias, and to deal with the threats posed by elitist extropians if they were ever to succeed in transcending their humanness. Although Macleod prefers to leave the serious work of articulating an anti-Luddite, pro-technology, libertarian socialism to those better qualified, his novels have become required reading for transhumanists.
Another genre that intersects with transhumanist concerns, and which has an generally radical and anti-corporate orientation, is biopunk (Quinon, 1997). Biopunk is a spin-off of cyberpunk (Person, 2000). Instead of exploring the human interface with technology, biopunks focus more on biotechnology and genetic enhancement of humans and animals. The central writer in this genre is Paul DiFilippo, author of the tongue-in-cheek 1994 “Ribofunk Manifesto”. DiFilippo argued for writers to embrace the coming biotechnological revolution as the central feature of future society. One ribofunk slogan proposed by DiFilippo is “Anatomy is destiny–but anatomy is malleable.”
Annalee Newitz (2002) detects an emergent biopunk ethos in the work of artists and anti-corporate genetics researchers.
Biopunk shares with cyberpunk a spirit of social critique in the sciences, and a commitment to limiting corporate control of data… Biopunks can therefore call on a venerable tradition of philosophical thought when they raise objections to how scientists are gathering and using genomic data. Moreover, biopunks often protest misuses of the human body and its reproductive functions, which makes biopunk a considerably more feminist and queer movement than straight-guy cyberpunk ever was… (Biopunk is) all about protesting both “bio-Luddites and apologists for the biotech industry.”
Newitz writes about the biopunk Coalition of Artists and Life Forms (CALF), a loose network of artists who are excited about, even celebratory about biotechnology, but critical of its capitalist exploitation and limitations.
Afrofuturism, Feminist and Queer Speculative Fiction
In the 1990s a number of cultural critics, notably the white progressive critic of extropianism Mark Dery in his 1995 essay “Black to the Future,” began to write about the features they saw as common in African-American science fiction, music and art. Dery dubbed this phenomenon “Afrofuturism,” launching a small movement (Thomas, 2000). The website www.afrofuturism.net explains that the movement is composed of African diaspora musicians, science fictions writers, film makers and artists who work explores their common experience of “abduction, displacement and alien-nation.” The afro-futurists posit that futurism an science fiction are the best ways to explore the black experience.
By contrast the engagement of feminism with technoutopian thinking and speculative fiction is quite venerable. Feminists have been writing speculative futurism and fiction for a hundred years, and now have their own journals, anthologies and awards. They have also been exploring the ways in which reproductive technologies may be liberatory for women. Shulamith Firestone proposed in her 1970 feminist classic The Dialectic of Sex The Case for Feminist Revolution that women would only be finally freed from patriarchy when artificial wombs were common place, freeing women from their necessary role as incubators. Joanna Russ’s 1975 The Female Man proposed lesbian separatist communities sustained by parthenogenesis (Russs, 1975; Pountney, 2001), and more recent feminist authors, such as biology professor Joan Slonczewski (1986), have envisioned all-female, genetically modified post-human species more egalitarian and in touch with nature. Although feminists today are generally Luddite and suspicious of the new reproductive technologies, there are contemporary technoutopian feminists, such as Dion Farquhar (1995, 1996), who see the liberatory potentials in reproductive technology, and who could be recruited to transhumanism.
As for queer futurism, there is also a thriving GLBT science fiction subculture. The most active pro-cloning activist in the United States, Randy Wicker, founder of the Clone Rights United Front [www.humancloning.org], is also a veteran of the gay rights struggle. Wicker has written about why gay activists should be interested in defending the broadest possible definition of reproductive rights, including access to reproductive technologies (Sherer, 2001; Datalounge, 1997; Wicker, 2000). As for the transgender community, what could be more transhuman than deciding to change one’s gender, or even more radically, to choose a new biological gender altogether? FM-2030 included androgyny as an aspect of transhumanity, and in a poll of extropians conducted in February/March 2002 8% of respondents listed their gender as “Other (neither, both, combination, changing, indeterminate, variable, complicated, etc.).” But the transcending of biological sex-gender is a little explored part of the transhumanist agenda.
The Political Future of Transhumanism
In April 2000 Wired magazine published an essay by Bill Joy, the chief technologist and co-founder of Sun Microsystems, and inventor of the computer language Java. Joy’s essay, titled “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us,” contemplated the potentially apocalyptic consequences of three emerging technologies, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and robots imbued with artificial intelligence. The key and qualitatively different, threat that Joy said arises from these technologies is that they all can potentially self-replicate. While guns don’t breed other guns and go on killing sprees, gene-tailored plagues, future robots and nanophages can theoretically do just that. Because of this qualitatively different threat Joy insists that these technologies and research on them be “relinquished,” or banned worldwide.
The essay was especially arresting to transhumanists for having been written by a man with impeccable technologist credentials, adding to a growing sense of urgency about the growing strength and visibility of the Neo-Luddite movement (Bailey, 2001b). Also in 2000, a coalition of dozens of organizations joined with the Turning Point foundation to sponsor a series of full-page ads in national newspapers decrying species extinction, “genetic engineering,” “industrial agriculture,” “economic globalization,” and “technomania.” National and international efforts were launched to outlaw cloning and to stop federal funding of stem cell research. Anarchist Luddites involved in the anti-globalization movement were thrust into international prominence with the anti-WTO riots in Seattle in 1999, while anti-biotech activists lobbied the European Parliament and destroyed research facilities.
Speaking to the Extro 5 conference in 2001, extropian leader Greg Burch argued:
…we are in a very real sense completely encircled in the cultural, social and political realms. Furthermore, the battle-lines are becoming increasingly clear to the combatants. … open and direct conflict is unavoidable on each of the three fronts (religious, Green and socialist) opposed to our program…On the political front, we do not seek to force our plans on anyone, but ultimately, our basic values of individual autonomy are fundamentally incompatible with the kinds of limitations desired by Guardians of both culturally conservative and “progressive” tendencies, whether they espouse some limited “liberal” ideology or are more explicitly collectivist. (Burch, 2001)
The transhumanist perspective is indeed under attack by much better organized opponents, and the transhumanists are partly to blame. The ideologically narrow, apolitical, sectarian ahistoricality of most transhumanists is striking since their Luddite opponents, such as Jeremy Rifkin, have forged shrewd tactical, ad hoc alliances with bedfellows as strange as Greenpeace, feminists and the Christian Right. The Extropians’ Pro-PAC might nudge the group toward serious political engagement and coalition-building, but there is no sign that the project is more than a press release. The anarcho-capitalism of the extropian milieu makes it unlikely that they will ever be able to be successful in this project. While Burch and the extropians argue that they are fighting to save the natural goals of the Enlightenment from its twisted and mutated bastard children, environmental alarmism and socialist collectivism, in fact they are fighting to extol one third of the Enlightenment value legacy, liberty, against the other two thirds, equality and human solidarity, crippling their ability to defend all three in the process. Insisting that reason can only be expressed in market relations and not in rational civic debate and democratic self-governance leaves the extropians as shrill, self-absorbed and alienated in the public square.
By contrast, there is a much broader ideological spectrum of thought expressed in the World Transhumanist Association and to its left. For the transhumanists to emerge as a broad ideological movement, capable of inspiring activists and organizing a resistance to neo-Luddism, it must embrace the full range of liberal democratic and social democratic permutations. By making political equality and solidarity among the various species of post-humanity a core value, transhumanists can reassure publics scared by post-human possibilities. In the process of defining a positive, democratic political program for transhumanism the movement must also create boundaries which exclude the elitism and totalitarianism with which it has been associated.
Setting aside libertarian blinkers, the only way to reassure skittish publics about the consequences of new technology is publicly accountable state regulation. Rather than uncritically defending every new corporate-sponsored technology, while dismissing concerns about safety and equity with Panglossian assurances that all will work itself out in the Singularity, a democratic transhumanism could embrace the need for government action to ensure that transhuman technologies are safe, effective and equitably distributed. For instance, trade unions are less likely to oppose automation in industry when they are assured that their workers will be retrained and have a social safety net to fall back on. Citizen groups are less likely to oppose the building of new industrial sites, power plants and waste dumps when they are assured that government agencies are ensuring public safety. Public acceptance of expensive new life extension technologies will be far more likely if there is some provision that they will be subsidized and equitably available. Democratic politics and public policy can address and ameliorate public concerns, slowing innovation in the short term, but facilitating it in the long term.
One model for a transhumanist social policy is proposed in Warren Wagar’s (1989) A Short History of the Future, which projected a speculative global history of the next two centuries based on H.G. Wells and Immanuel Wallerstein’s world system theory. Although the future history was made quickly obsolete by the collapse of the Soviet Union, Wagar’s thoughts on policies towards genetics were far more programmatic and prescient. Wagar’s future world socialist government weighed the costs and benefits of allowing, subsidizing or banning various genetic enhancements and therapies, with an eye toward balancing individual liberty, general welfare of humanity, the equality of the enhanced and the non-enhanced. Access to genetic enhancements were introduced at a pace so that the majority of humanity could move forward together.
Since September 11, Americans have set aside their deep suspicion of government and begun to celebrate public sector employees and the state agencies which are the only feasible means to respond to terrorism. Rather than defining the majority of the citizens in the liberal democracies as the enemies of transhumanism, transhumanists could benefit from seeing their common cause with liberal and social democratic citizenries against the majority of the world which still lives under authoritarian rule. The empirical evidence is that Western liberal and social democracies, with mixed economies with public welfare systems, have the highest standard of living, and the strongest traditions of citizen participation and publicly accountable government, of any social form ever known. If transhumanists are conscerned about the persecution of transhuman minorities, such as disabled cyborgs or transsexuals, they should embrace the liberal and social democracies in which these minorities have been accorded the most rights and respect. Joining in the defense of Western liberal democracy against authoritarian and fundamentalist threats, transhumanists can begin to overcome their alienation from “normals.”
Another dimension of the strength of a more democratic transhumanism is its ability to mobilize collective energies for collective projects that cannot be accomplished by the market. For instance, the colonization of space is a project that requires political support and state sponsorship. While many of the technoutopians attracted to space colonization have been libertarians, there are no viable models for space exploration relying solely on private investment. The problem with building political support for space is that the majority of citizens see the space program as a waste of money compared to their own pressing needs. Only a movement which could force the wealthy and corporations to accept the requisite taxes, while reassuring the majority of people that their needs for social welfare have been assured – in other words, a technoutopian social democratic movement – would be able to organize deep support for space colonization.
For transhumanism to achieve its own goals it needs to distance itself from its anarcho-capitalist roots and its authoritarian mutations, clarify its commitments to liberal democratic institutions, values and public policies, and work to reassure skittish publics and inspire them with Big Projects. Building on the foundation laid by the World Transhumanist Association, and the disparate elements of democratic technoutopianism flickering in global intellectual landscape, the politics of the 21st century may yet see the return of a positive, progressive vision of a sexy, high-tech future.
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| As for the rest, 5% were “US-style conservatives or moderates,” 18% were “US-style liberal to left,” 15% were “Other” and 7% “Apolitical.”)|
| Ironically, Natasha Vita-More was actually elected to Los Angeles public office on the Green Party ticket in 1992. However her platform was “transhumanism” and she quit after one year of her two year term because the Greens were “too far left and too neurotically geared toward environmentalism.”(Vita-More, 1999).|
|  In the February/March 2002 survey of extropians 30% of respondents made less the $10,000 a year and the
next 30% made between $10,000 and $50,000 a year. Only 24% made $100,000 or more. Presumably many of those in the bottom third are students. Even so, this means that the extropians have a disproportionate number of wealthy members and a disproportionate number people of modest means. In terms of age, 58% were 16-30 years old. Despite their relatively young age, the majority of extropians had done some post-graduate education. (ExiCommunity Polls, 2002).
| After the presentation of the first draft of this essay at a conference in October 2002, at which I met WTA chair Nick Bostrom and journal editor Mark Walker, I became deeply involved in re-organizing the WTA. That early version of this essay became a matter of contention when extropians perceived my involvement to be an effort to make the WTA a vehicle for left politics. Those concerns appear to have been more or less put to rest, and I currently serve as Executive Director of the WTA.|