Transhumanism has already won

Paul Raven @ 01-03-2011

So claims Nikola “Socrates” Danaylov of, anyhow [via Mike Anissimov]. His argument is that transhumanist/Singularitarian topics and pundits (especially the ubiquitous Ray Kurzweil, who has a movie to promote) are cropping up regularly in mainstream news outlets (TIME Magazine, The Daily Show, so on and so forth).

I can see where Danaylov and Anissimov are coming from, here; transhumanism is definitely breaking the surface of the media ocean, but much like an iceberg, only a small part of it is visible to Josephine Average thus far. Sure, the internet is full of deep engagement with the technological and philosophical questions raised by transhumanism, and some of the more serious journalism attempts to grapple with the big issues, too. But I think Danaylov is caught in a kind of subcultural myopia; you could come to the same conclusion about the ubiquity of transhumanism as a discussion topic just by looking through my own RSS reader’s XML file, but there’s a big selection bias going on there. Perhaps it’s different in the US, but over here in the UK I’d be surprised if one in ten randomly selected folk-on-the-street would recognise the words transhumanism, singularity or Kurzweil. (The latter might ring a bell for veteran synthesiser collectors, of course, but they’re an even smaller demographic than transhumanists… )

Of course, if Kurzweil’s movie makes a big enough splash, that may change, but I think transhumanists could do with taking a cautionary lesson from the science fiction community which might be best summed up as “when everyone’s talking about your thing, they may not talk about it in the ways you’d have liked”. The cost of that increased media profile will be paid in pillory: rather than being a unified political movement, transhumanism is a loose collection of politely (or sometimes not so politely) warring factions, a rhizomatic network rather than a hierarchy. When the mainstream media goes out to research a story, it looks for the folk at the top of the pyramid, and it treats their take on things as representative of the collective… which means that while Kurzweil’s movie is surely going to raise the profile of transhumanism as a concept, it will do so at the price of enthroning Kurzweil as the figurehead of the entire movement.

(Yes, yes; I know he isn’t, and so do most other folk with an interest in the field. But beware the simplifying and polarising impulse of mainstream journalism: movements must be capped with a leader and placed on the political spectrum, and they’ll do both on your behalf even if you’re leaderless and disconnected from the tired Left-Right axis. Just ask your nearest anarchist.)

As a fellow-traveller (the less charitable might say camp follower) of transhumanism, this is where things start to look really interesting; the most exciting phase of any subculture is when the mainstream discovers it. My concern is that many transhumanists, being generally smart and intellectual types, are fatally underestimating the general public’s capacity for fear, disgust and ridicule; the spotlight of publicity can get pretty hot, especially when your core ideology questions deeply held cultural values. (I’m put in mind of the reaction of British culture to the punk rock explosion back in the late seventies; the politico-economic climate is similar, for a start, and transhumanism’s core interests just as transgressive of body/identity politics, if not more so.) It’s all very well to claim that you see transhumanism as a platform for a secular examination of mortality and the afterlife, but once the Daily Mail (or FOX News, or whoever) has painted you as mad scientists who want to stuff yourselves full of silicon and live forever, you’ll have a hard time getting that philosophical nuance across to the public. Visibility leads to demonisation; if you think the mainstream techgeek scene can be disparaging of transhumanism, just wait until the America’s Got Talent demographic gets a smell of blood in the water.

As an observer of culture (and as a writer of stories), this is the moment when transhumanism comes into its own for me; its internal conflicts are intellectually interesting, but it’s as it rubs up against the belief systems of the majority that sparks will start to fly, and I suspect that a lot of transhumanist advocates are going to get a pretty rude political awakening – not just from media misrepresentation, but from co-opting and branding efforts by bandwaggoning corporations, and schismatic clades of oddballs and outsiders glomming on to the parts of the ideology they like while throwing out the more troubling philosophical questions.

Luckily I have a decent excuse to be pondering such matters; I’ve been invited to be part of a panel discussing the impact of transhumanism (and Kurzweil’s movie in particular) at a Humanity+ UK meeting in London on Sunday 9th April. Given that the other panellists are likely to be proper boffins and theorists (I see Dr. Anders Sandberg is already on the list with me, which means I’m already outclassed on IQ and knowledge by at least an order of magnitude), I’m going to focus on the cultural bow wave that will form as transhumanism plows its way into the Zeitgeist. I fully expect to learn a great deal more than I teach, but I’m hoping that my fence-sitter status gives me a usefully different perspective on things.

If not, it should be an entertaining couple of hours of being made to feel incredibly stupid. 🙂