Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Thursday, March 17, 2005

More Than Human? Or Simply More Humane?

Technoprogressive (and fellow CybDemite) Ramez Naam released a book last week, More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement. It is one of an encouraging spate of recent and soon-upcoming books that discuss radical emerging technological developments in ways that welcome rather than dismiss their emancipatory scope, but also grapple seriously with policy implications of these developments without descending either into hype or technophobia.

Part of what is most exciting about this new bookshelf of serious popular techno-speculation is that it expresses a wide spectrum of political temperaments, and so offers us a glimpse of the wider, more inclusive conversation that is likely to take hold of society more generally as genetic, neuroceutical, and rejuvination medicine, nanoscale technology and replicative molecular manufacturing, intimate computer interfaces and prostheses, renewable energy technologies, and ubiquitous automation all become more proximate and so more palpable.

Last summer I attended a panel at the TransVision Conference in Toronto at which Ramez spoke together with the radical democrat and socialist-feminist bioethicist James Hughes and market libertarian Ronald Bailey. James Hughes of course has recently published his great book, Citizen Cyborg, and Ronald Bailey's own Liberation Biology is arriving on the scene quite soon.

There is no question that I sympathize best with James Hughes' formulations -- he's a good friend and temperamentally very close political ally -- but Ramez Naam is offering up progressive arguments in an appealingly moderate and sensible language that is likely to do a lot of good for wide audiences. Both books are unquestionably technoprogressive. Bailey's libertarianism, an unfortunate commonplace among especially American technophiles, is a source of ongoing exasperation to me, but his arguments are consistently among the most usefully provocative, clearheaded, and factually substantiated of their kind and I hope readers of this blog will read his book together with the other two. He isn't technoprogressive himself, but neither is he bioconservative, thankfully, and he provides many arguments technoprogressives can use themselves -- and anyway everybody can use intelligent engagement with perspectives different from their own. In any case, Ramez's book has already generated a decent buzz and a number of good reviews, and so may well end up the most influential of the books for a while.

NuSapiens recently posted an interview with Ramez from which you can discern some of the flavor of his arguments:

NuSapiens: Part of your argument in More Than Human is that these technologies need to be available to everyone, not only people living in certain nations, and not only the rich. What steps can society take to ensure equal access to enhancement?

Ramez Naam: Really there are two key things. The first is to keep these technologies legal. One of the best ways to limit something to the rich is to ban it. When you do that, you create a black market. On the black market, prices rise, quality and safety suffer, and the legal punishments tend to get applied far more frequently to the poor than the rich. This is what we see in the War on Drugs today, or what we saw in Prohibition in the 20s.

The second is to recognize enhancement technologies as investments in the most valuable natural resource we have - people. Governments support these sorts of investments already. We give out scholarships and guarantee student loans. We provide free primary and secondary schooling. We immunize poor children for free. All of those steps actually pay for themselves and more in the long run - they prevent later health care costs or they produce citizens who contribute more to the economy after they've grown up and entered the work force.

In the US alone, a 1% reduction in health care costs would save almost $200 billion over 10 years. And a 1% productivity boost would earn the country $1 TRILLION over 10 years. If we could achieve that by subsidizing the cost of using biotech to slow the aging rate or boost mental capacity, wouldn't it be worth it?

NuSapiens: What are some of the greatest risks these technologies pose to society, and how should we handle them?

Ramez Naam: There are definitely risks - no doubt about that. Every new technology brings its share of problems. Antibiotics contributed to the population boom. Cars degrade air quality and lead produce traffic accidents, and so on.

In the case of enhancement technologies, I think equality is going to be one of the biggest challenges, as we just discussed.

The other, I think, is safety. Schwarzenegger said recently that when he started taking steroids, everyone thought they were safe. It looks like he ended up okay, but others have been hurt by using performance enhancers they didn't know the full effects of. In the 1980s, competitive cyclists started taking synthetic EPO - a compound that increases the number of red blood cells you have. Between 1987 and 1990, several Dutch and Belgian cyclists died of it. Their blood had become so thick that their hearts just couldn't keep on pumping it. The problem in both of these cases is that the medical profession never tested the use of these drugs to enhance performance. The FDA forced Amgen to test EPO on patients with anemia, where it does wonders. But it should have been obvious that people were going to use this stuff to try to boost their athletic performance as well. Because the FDA doesn't acknowledge that there might be such enhancement use, they don't require Amgen to do any testing of safety in athletes.

So one of the keys to the safety question, in my mind, is acknowledging that people are going to use drugs, gene therapies, and other technologies to enhance themselves. We need to understand that, study that kind of usage, and provide consumers good accurate information they can use to keep themselves safe.

My only real quibble with Ramez's book is its title, actually. As I have argued elsewhere I think the commonplace deployment among "transhumanists" and other technophiles of the phrase "more than human" to describe modification medicine and prosthetic practices generally is pointlessly alienating to many people, and that it introduces dangerous confusions into discussions of emerging technologies.

Because technology-talk seems curiously prone to drift its way into the superlative cadences of transcension and apocalypse, of radical empowerment or devastating disempowerment, of either "superhumanization" or utter dehumanization, it seems to me that those of us who are concerned to think instead about the actual technical, social, cultural, ethical, and political implications of emerging technologies should always be especially vigilant to resist the temptations to drift into such distracting superlative discourses and reductive either-ors ourselves.

I get it that "More Than Human" is the kind of title that will move volumes, and that this is a good thing -- especially since I hope as many people as possible will read this as well as the other books I've talked about in this post. But I think technoprogressives should think carefully about their use of this too commonplace phrase, and about its implications.

I do not agree that even the superlative forms of the technologies discussed in these books would make the people who might come to incarnate them "more than human," any more than I would think contemporary human beings are somehow "more human" than their prehistoric cousins just because we live in cities and make recourse to eyeglasses and vaccinations.

Emancipatory technologies like contraception provide millions upon millions of human beings more and more ways to be human, but none of these humans are made more human than other humans by their use. Such technologies contribute to the measure of human freedom and dignity in the world, but certainly without thereby denigrating the humanity of those who could not yet or who might now choose not to avail themselves of these technologies.

Technology is profoundly humane when it is addressed to the problems of humankind. In the service of greed and parochial power it can exacerbate injustice, facilitate exploitation, and impose needless suffering.

People are little served in the always fraught thinking-through of their alternate employments of available and emerging technologies by introducing the specter of technoconstituted "more than human" people (as well as people presumably made thereby "less than" them in the same gesture) into the discussion.

Surely the greater quandary arising from radical prosthetic practices is not the arrival on the scene of some kind of singular threatening cyborg elite, but precisely an overabundance of incomparable ways of being in the world that must nonetheless retain the sense that they are all collaborating in their various ways in the ongoing making of the world they share together now and in the futures they will go on to share.

What is wanted is a more queer, more joyous, more various humanity, nothing more. Emancipation and empowerment, whether it emerges from technological development or progressive political organizing, enables ever more humans to celebrate and enjoy their humanity as they see fit. There is room in the ongoing conversation of humankind for all the cyborgs and the queers. And the dreams of those who would be "More Than Human" will soon seem little more than a sad survival from a scared scarred scarcity we are thankfully, finally, hopefully leaving behind us at long last.

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