[ExI] Wrestling with Transhumanism :: Katherine Hayles :: Global Spiral

Bryan Bishop kanzure at gmail.com
Thu Jun 12 14:59:44 UTC 2008

On Thursday 12 June 2008, Jef Allbright wrote:
> Wrestling with Transhumanism :: Katherine Hayles :: Global
> Spiral<http://metanexus.net/Magazine/Default.aspx?TabId=68&id=10543&S
> Wrestling with Transhumanism
> By Katherine Hayles
> <http://metanexus.net/tabid/72/Default.aspx?aid=598>
> There are, of course, many versions of transhumanism, and they do not
> all depend on the assumption I critiqued. But all of them, I will
> argue, perform decontextualizing moves that over-simplify the
> situation and carry into the new millennium some of the most
> questionable aspects of capitalist ideology. Why then is

http://heybryan.org/fernhout/ for commentary on that.

> psychologically, socially and economically. While I have serious
> disagreements with most transhumanist rhetoric, the transhumanist
> community is one that is fervently involved in trying to figure out
> where technogenesis is headed in the contemporary era and what it
> implies about our human future. This is its positive contribution,
> and from my point of view, why it is worth worrying about.

It's not worth worrying about. The idea is to build it and do it, to 
take up the hammer and nail (ok, slightly more machinery than that is 
necessary) and build the technologies. But this isn't always as simple 
as having a hammer and nail laying around; we're working on this.

> How can we extract the valuable questions transhumanism confronts
> without accepting all the implications of transhumanist claims? One
> possibility is to embed transhumanist ideas in deep, rich, and
> challenging
> contextualizations that re-introduce the complexities it strips away.

Arguably it doesn't strip away questions, and rather the so-called 
prominent speakers that you cite, are the ones that are stripping it 

> The results re-frame the questions, leading to conclusions very
> different than those most transhumanists embrace. In these
> encounters, transhumanism serves as the catalyst—or better, the
> irritant—that stimulates a more considered and responsible view of
> the future than it itself can generate.

You're talking as if it's some monocomponent entity or something, rather 
than a community project, which is the truth of the matter. There's 
always people, there's no main head. 

> As a literary scholar, I consider the *locus classicus* for
> re-framing transhumanist questions to be science fiction and
> speculative fiction, jointly signified by SF. To initiate my inquiry,
> I will focus on the critical area of reproduction—reproduction of
> individuals through children, reproduction of the species through
> technology as well as biology, and reproduction of psychological,
> philosophical, social and economic institutions that facilitate
> and/or threaten the continued existence of humans as a species. To

So, if you are interested in the continued existence of humans, then why 
not work on the multiply redundant concepts of backups and stored DNA 
and people in space habitats and so on? The institutions themselves 
aren't going to be able to track down all of those and eliminate them 
if they wanted to. You need to be proactive if you are truly concerned 
about the 'continued existence' of these genotypes, phenotypes, brains 
and personalities. It's not as simple as writing about preventing some 
points of view from developing, but instead go build the space habitats 
and space capsules or whatever, go launch them and make sure it works. 
Let's get it done. :)

> see why reproduction is at the center of transhumanist concerns, we
> need only consider the rhetoric of the "singularity," a term
> introduced by SF writer and mathematician Vernon Vinge to indicate a
> decisive break in which advanced technology catapults us into a
> future qualitatively different from all previous human experience.
> Within a few years, Vinge predicts, we will confront a change
> comparable to the rise of life on earth; "the precise cause of this
> change is the imminent creation by technology of entities with
> greater than human
> intelligence."

There's also the idea of exponential growth that is the equivalent of a 
singularity. But this might be seen as a sort of intelligence anyway.

> simultaneously acting as a privileged site for visions of radical
> ruptures and transformations. Reproduction, then, is where the rubber
> hits the road—where issues of what will change and what will endure
> are imagined, performed, and contested.

Privileged site? Maybe some people assume that, but it's really just an 
issue of making it happen and making sure things go smoothly, not so 
much an issue of "he who supports x y and z will become a king" and 
other nonsense. I don't see any indication of those assumptions in the 
communities, documents, books, etc.

> Before demonstrating that SF re-contextualizes crucial issues
> surrounding reproduction, I will find it useful to review briefly the
> ideologies implicit in transhumanist rhetoric. Transhumanism,
> sometimes signified by <H or H+, is an international movement
> dedicated to the proposition that contemporary technosciences can
> enhance human capabilities and ameliorate or eliminate such
> traditional verities as mortality. It holds that human evolution is
> incomplete and, moreover, that we have a responsibility to further
> our evolution through technology. As a sample of transhumanist
> rhetoric, consider the following passage from Max More, a prominent
> movement spokesperson:

It is terribly, terribly ironic to cite Max More exactly after the 
nonsense regarding 'human species evolution'. Max and those subjects do 
not go together. Wrong pairing.

>  Nick Bostrom, a philosopher at Oxford University and one of
> transhumanism's more thoughtful practitioners, gives a two-fold

More thoughtful? According to who??

> definition on the World Transhumanist Association website:
> (1) The intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the
> possibility and desirability of fundamentally improving the human
> condition through applied reason, especially by developing and making

So, the distinction is the human condition: it's not "Overall" but the 
*personal* human condition. Nobody is talking about marching around and 
stabbing people in the back and making them enhanced or something silly 
like that. It's the personal human condition, not anything about vague 
generalities across the entire human population, and frankly that's 
verging on eugenics.


Nick has yet to comment, I might add.

> As these examples illustrate, transhumanist rhetoric concentrates on
> individual transcendence; at transhumanist websites, articles, and
> books, there is a conspicuous absence of considering socioeconomic
> dynamics beyond the individual. Bostrom, for example, writes of
> "making widely available technologies to eliminate ageing," but what
> this would do to population growth, limited resources, and the
> economics of the young supporting the old are not considered.

Yes, population growth will explode. That's the idea of exponential 

Resources aren't that limited, really. Look at the galaxy.

Economics? In terms of scarcity-centricism, sure. But that's just old 
parts of an older system.

> Transhumanists recognize, of course, that contemporary technoscience
> is not an individual enterprise, typically requiring significant
> capitalization, large teams of workers, and extensive networks of
> knowledge exchange and distribution, but these social,
> technoscientific, and economic realities are positioned as if they
> are undertaken for the sole benefit of forward-thinking individuals.

Uh? "positioned as if" -- positioned by who? Nobody has said anything 
about these being "for the sole benefit of forward-thinking 
individuals", and I think you're pulling a straw man.

> In addition, there is little discussion of how access to advanced
> technologies would be regulated or of the social and economic
> inequalities entwined with questions of access. The rhetoric implies

1) Regulation. No regulation whatsoever. See F/OSS.

2) Inequalities? Basically self-replicating macromachines could 
drive/fly themselves to people, all 6 or 8 billion of them, so I don't 
see the problem.

> that everyone will freely have access (as in the quotation cited

Yes, that's the idea.

> above), or at least that transhumanist individuals will be among the
> privileged elite that can afford the advantages advanced technologies

"Privileged elite"? Uh? That's only if a company or something silly like 
that develops the technology in the first place. So that's why we have 
the public project like metarepository and SKDB and OSCOMAK and so on.

> will offer. How this will play out for the large majority of people
> living in developing countries that cannot afford access and do not

You're assuming that it will cost money. :(

> have the infrastructure to support it is not an issue. Indeed, the

The idea is that it will be mostly self-contained except for stuff that 
is environmentally accessible. Maybe solar energy or something. Maybe 
sand or dirt. Who knows. There might be minor restrictions like that. 
So, whatever. Minor issues in my opinion. Nobody's charging you to 
breath yet, etc.

> Resisting these utopian visions are the sociological, philosophical,

How are these utopian??

> reproduction. Consistent with the transhumanist emphasis on the
> individual, reproduction typically figures in transhumanist rhetoric
> as the reproduction of the individual through cloning, cryogenic
> suspension, radical life extension, and uploading human consciousness
> into a computer. In all these versions, the rhetoric assumes that the
> individual will maintain his identity intact. As Hans Moravec's

I am not sure how much of an issue this is. You have your own personal 
problem to resolve when/if you have the chance to 'reproduce but lose 
identity', and many billions of reproducing humans make this choice 
every time they couple.

> Equally controversial are issues surrounding the reproduction of the
> species. Transhumanist rhetoric assumes that "we" will become
> citizens of a transhuman future, an assumption existing in uneasy
> tension with the decisive break implied by the singularity. Who or

Citizens? That assumes a nation-state. Since we are the ones building 
the technologies and so on, I would argue that a nation-state isn't 
exactly necessary any more.

> what will be left behind, and what global conflicts might result from
> class and economic disparities, are seldom discussed. When such

There would be little class and economic disparities, given the above 

> issues are entertained, as in Moravec's claim that intelligent
> machines will be our evolutionary successors and that we will embrace

Evolutionary successors? Yikes. :)

> Of course, there would be other ways to interpret the conundrum, for
> example deciding that it shows the limitations of the contract as a
> basis for social interactions. This is the interpretation Leisha
> eventually chooses, replacing the contract, and the individualistic
> ideology that underwrites it with an "ecology of help" in which
> assistance is extended even to those who cannot reciprocate in kind.

Sure, philanthropy.

> This modest intervention stops short of a wholesale critique of
> Rand's Objectivism, however, for in this view society is still be
> based on exchanges between willing partners, with the modification
> that the exchange may be be unequal and indirect, circling through a
> network before benefits are returned to the giver. That the system
> might be based on entirely different principles than exchange remains
> unthought and unarticulated. Despite this limitation, the story,
> poignantly conceived and skillfully written, shows that reproduction
> is deeply enmeshed with visions of a transhumanist future and the
> ethical and social issues it raises.
> One need not agree with Francis Fukuyama that transhumanism is "the
> world's most dangerous idea" to appreciate the critiques of
> transhumanism enacted in these SF fictions.20
> <http://metanexus.net/Magazine/Default.aspx?TabId=68&id=10543&SkinSrc
>efault%2fNo+Container#_edn20>When advanced technologies come together
> with reproduction to reconfigure metalogical dynamics at every level,
> from the individual to the family to the nation-state and globalized
> society, it is impossible to predict accurately all the consequences
> or to trammel them up, as transhumanist rhetoric implies, using
> reason, technology, and science. As the SF fictions interrogated have
> shown, evolution has twisted together biology and culture in strands
> of enormous complexity, and cutting some of strands with advanced
> technologies or rearranging them into pattern altogether different
> almost certainly will entail unanticipated consequences and corollary
> changes in other areas whose association with the primary changes
> were not even known. At issue are the emotional dynamics of
> population change as people confront the possibility that *Homo
> sapiens sapiens* may not be the terminys of evolutionary processes;
> of parents engendering children so different from them they can
> scarcely make contact over the generation gap; of children
> contemplating parents whose closely held assumptions are no longer
> viable in a posthuman future. Each of these scenarios involves
> complexities for which the transhumanist philosophy is simply not
> able to account or to understand, much less to explain. Reason is

I disagree re: unable to explain. I have explained (above).

> certainly needed, but so are emotion, systemic analysis, ecological
> thinking, and ethical consideration. As Pynchon's narrator in
> *Gravity's Rainbow* observes, "Everything is connected."
> I do not necessarily agree with Fukuyama's argument that we should
> outlaw such developments as human cloning with legislation forbidding
> it (not least because he falls back on "human nature" as a
> justification), but I do think we should take advantage of every
> available resource that will aid us in thinking through, as far as we
> are able, the momentous changes in human life and culture that
> advanced technologies make possible—and these resources can and
> should include SF fictions. The framework in which transhumanism
> considers these questions is, I have argued, too narrow and
> ideologically fraught with individualism and neoliberal philosophy to
> be fully up to the task. It can best serve by catalyzing questions

Too narrow? If anything, the focus on the individuals allows empowerment 
to solve the very same problems that you are complaining about. 
However, I don't know what neoliberal means, so I can't point out any 
ideas on that front really. 

> and challenging us to imagine fuller contextualizations for the
> developments it envisions. Imagining the future is never a
> politically innocent or ethically neutral act. To arrive at the
> future we want, we must first be able to imagine it as fully as we
> can, including all the contexts in which its consequences will play
> out.

So that process of contextualization is entirely important, yes, and 
it's through individuals that contexts can be distinguished and 
elucidated. I agree regarding the full imagination of the future. But 
only people who show up and contribute to this growing context can help 
to maximize the contextual encapsulation that you mention. It's 
the 'recombination' process (rather than just letting variety sit 
around like a rock), and part of this involves recombining with the 
evidence that the technologies that we can develop, as recognized 
throughout transhumanism -- self-replicating machines, fabricators, 
making stuff and thinking stuff -- which I see little indication of in 
the essay. So hopefully my commentary will help. Furthermore, there's a 
specific way to get this done and started, involving technologies that 
have already existed for a few decades, mostly software-based for the 
collaborative work that it requires, detailed, explained and deployed 


- Bryan

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