The Politics of Transhumanism
Version 2.0 (March
Originally Presented at the 2001 Annual Meeting of the
Society for Social Studies of Science
November 1-4, 2001
For more information please contact:
James Hughes Ph.D.
Public Policy Studies, Trinity College,
71 Vernon St., Hartford CT, 06106, 860-297-2376,
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.
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,
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
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.
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
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
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
“..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.
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).
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,
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.
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,
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
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
(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
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
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
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.”
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
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
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
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.
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)
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 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
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
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
Pro-Automation Post-Work Utopians
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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,
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