[Paleopsych] Cory Doctorow: Humanist transhumanism: Citizen Cyborg

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Cory Doctorow: Humanist transhumanism: Citizen Cyborg
Monday, April 11, 2005

I've just finished a review copy of James Hughes's "Citizen Cyborg: Why 
Democratic Societies Must respond to the Redesigned Human of the Future." 
I was skeptical when this one arrived, since I've read any number of 
utopian wanks on the future of humanity and the inevitable withering away 
of the state into utopian anarchism fueled by the triumph of superior 
technology over inferior laws.

But Hughes's work is much subtler and more nuanced than that, and was 
genuinely surprising, engaging and engrossing.

A couple years ago, my friend John Gilmore -- who advocates for marijuana 
law reform -- introduced me to the idea of "cognitive liberty," the 
freedom to choose your state of mind. The cognitive liberty cause 
encompasses the movements to legalize "recreational" drugs and to limit 
the power of the state to subject "mentally ill" people to involuntary 
pharmaceutical therapy (and, when it is still practiced, involuntary 
physical therapies such as lobotomies and electroshock).

Cognitive liberty resonates strongly for me. Like other forms of personal 
liberty, it is not without its perils -- when friends of mine were 
involuntarily medicated during acute incidents of schizophrenia, mania or 
depression, the interventions seemed like a good trade-off at the time 
(rampaging, irrational, out of control friends who are treated with meds 
that make them capable of reasoning with those around them are good poster 
children for "cognitive coercion"), and friends who've fallen down the 
well of addiction and ended up with ruined lives or even lives cut short 
are a strong warning against unbridled cognitive liberty.

But then there are friends whose touch of madness sends them on flights of 
brilliance, friends whose casual glass of wine, joint or hallucinogen use 
have made them happier, better adjusted, and more creative and fulfilled. 
What's more, my friends who've ODed, been committed, or who live with 
addiction haven't been helped by prohibition -- far from it. Some are in 
jail, some are medicated insensible, some are living lives of dangerous 

The idea of cognitive liberty is very tempting, but I have an instinct 
that there's an approach to it that is grounded not in libertarianism, but 
in Canadian/European-style social democracy.

"Citizen Cyborg" takes the social democratic approach not just to 
cognitive liberty, but to the parcel of questions that follow on from it 
as technology allows us to charge our minds and bodies. When we can choose 
our children's' sex, modify our genomes to eliminate some forms of mental 
and physical disability, when we can modify our bodies and minds to 
improve them beyond the normal human baseline , when we can even use 
technology to make dolphins and great apes as smart as precocious 
children, what then?

Surely the ability to determine your own genome, the ability to choose to 
modify your physical self and to make the choices for your children are as 
fundamental civil liberties as the right to speak and assemble and 
otherwise author your own destiny.

But the traditional "transhumanist" movement has come out of the 
libertarian right, advocates of an unbridled market without government 
intervention. And much of the opposition to transhumanism hasn't just come 
from the religious right, but from the left, too -- lefties who see 
transhumanism as likely to produce a troubling, divisive caste system, or 
to make us all beholden to corporate interests like Monsanto who bind us 
to subscribing to patented GM lifeforms that we require to sustain our 

Hughes's remarkable achievement in "Citizen Cyborg" is the fusion of 
social democratic ideals of tempered, reasoned state intervention to 
promote equality of opportunity with the ideal of self-determination 
inherent in transhumanism. Transhumanism, Hughes convincingly argues, is 
the sequel to humanism, and to feminism, to the movements for racial and 
gender equality, for the fight for queer and transgender rights -- if you 
support the right to determine what consenting adults can do with their 
bodies in the bedroom, why not in the operating theatre?

Much of this book is taken up with scathing rebuttal to the enemies of 
transhumanism -- Christian lifestyle conservatives who've fought against 
abortion, stem-cell research and gay marriage; as well as deep 
ecologist/secular lefty intelligentsia who fear the commodification of 
human life. He dismisses the former as superstitious religious thugs who, 
a few generations back, would happily decry the "unnatural" sin of 
miscegenation; to the latter, he says, "You are willing to solve the 
problems of labor-automation with laws that ensure a fair shake for 
working people -- why not afford the same chance to life-improving 

The humanist transhuman is a political stance I'd never imagined, but 
having read "Citizen Cyborg," it seems obvious and natural. Like a lot of 
basically lefty geeks, I've often felt like many of my ideals were at odds 
with both the traditional left and the largely right-wing libertarians. 
"Citizen Cyborg" squares the circle, suggest a middle-path between them 
that stands foursquare for the improvement of the human condition through 
technology but is likewise not squeamish about advocating for rules, laws 
and systems that extend a fair opportunity to those less fortunate (say, 
by offering special patent rules to the developing world allowing poor 
nations' scientists to freely reuse the patented pharmaceutical inventions 
of the rich north to solve local needs.)

Hughes is a Buddhist whose children struggle with genetically-influenced 
disorders like ADD and Tourette's, and his life seems much taken-up with 
the cause of transhumanist humanism. He is the executive director of the 
World Transumanist Association, and he teaches health policy at Hartford, 
CT's Trinity College. The work is sprinkled with references to science 
fiction and is very concerned with the way that transhumanist ideas were 
prefigured in the genre and have leaked back into modern sf. I don't know 
that he's convinced me to become a transhumanist activist -- I feel like 
the work I do with EFF works to safeguard a lot of rights dear to the 
transhumanist heart anyway -- but the analytical tools this book has 
provided me with have made me re-examine my own political identity. Book 
Link, References Link

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