I do have a few comments about what James Hughes has to say in his defense of a democratic "movement transhumanism," that is to say a presumably more progressive Robot Cult. First, let me juxtapose two interesting sections of Hughes' apologia. This first statement occurs quite early in Hughes' account:
[I]n my little corner of ideaspace we have recently begun referring to the left-of-center varieties of techno-optimism and transhumanism as “technoprogressivism,” and many of us technoprogressives are enthusiastic supporters of end-of-work and basic income guarantee policies, which have roots back to Condorcet, Tom Paine and utopian socialist, anarchist and Marxist thought: automation can liberate us from labor, but we need collective action to get there and ensure it liberates instead of impoverishes. On the other hand there are plenty of “bourgeois” futurists who argue that technology will end scarcity without any need for public policy or collective provision, or only through free market minarchy.
This second statement occurs much later in his account:
Another dynamic in the 2000s has been a growing focus by transhumanists on the apocalyptic possibilities of emerging technologies. One manifestation of this has been the growth of the millennialist Singularitarian subculture which anticipates the day when machine intelligence surpasses human, and which ranges from naïve technoutopianism to apocalyptic fatalism about the outcome of the “Singularity” and our ability to effect it. Outside of this subculture however many transhumanists have begun to seriously engage with the regulatory and security policies that would reduce threats from technologies of mass destruction, while promoting the use of emerging technologies to making civilization more resilient to catastrophic risks. Engagement with these questions have contributed to the declining influence of the anti-statist right within transhumanism.
I sympathize with Hughes' personal position on both of these issues. I, too, am an advocate of guaranteed basic income to subsidize peer-to-peer formations of citizen life, criticism, creativity, commerce and as a necessary redistributionist intervention in the ongoing process of wealth-capture and wealth-concentration by the already wealthy by means of automation, outsourcing, crowdsourcing, creative/genomic commons-enclosure and so on. I have sometimes called this position "pay-to-peer," and I defended a version of it on a panel at the Fourth Congress of the US Basic Income Guarantee Network in 2005 with James Hughes right next to me at the conference table. Also, as anybody who has read any of the cantankerous texts I have assembled in my Superlative Summary will attest, I certainly disapprove as he seems to do the hyperbolizing disasterbatory accelerationalizing techno-utopian and techno-dystopian nonsense of the singularitarian nerd-rapturists.
Despite all this I cannot sympathize at all with Hughes' insinuation that he is defending "transhumanism" when he attributes to it a content (advocacy of basic income guarantees) that is in fact advocated by a vanishingly small minority of actually-existing transhumanist-identified people, and little likely represents even a mild topical preoccupation with more than a handful of these, and indeed is quite likely to be ferociously attacked by a larger number of transhumanist-identified people as "evil socialism" given the prevalence of market libertarian dead-enders and neoliberals among movement-transhumanists. That he makes this move at one and the same time as he disavows the apocalyptic "subculture" of the singularitarians among movement-transhumanism is especially problematic. "Singularity" means different things to different people, for some naming a rather muzzy notion that technoscientific development is accelerating irresistibly into some unknowable imminent transformation of everything into which they can stuff all their present existential anxieties or wish-fulfillment fantasies, while for others naming variously more specific and "technical" (but usually still quite controversial and to my mind usually still hyperbolic) claims about networked and artificial intelligence "surpassing" conventional personal and social formations of problem-solving and organizational-intelligence with various projected impacts on questions of public security, deliberation, privacy issues, and so on. But whatever else one can say about these notions, it looks to me like an overwhelming majority of transhumanist-identified people affirm some version of them as true, as urgently important, and as abiding preoccupations.
That is to say, Hughes defense of "transhumanism" seems to me to be one that affirms as part of it something that is in fact incidental to it, while disavowing as marginal something that is in fact nearly ubiquitous and hence likely essential to it. I leave it as an exercise for the reader to determine if this curious strategy is a matter more of deception, self-deception, or, er, creative "framing" and PR spin for the membership-organizations of which movement-transhumanism materially consists and in which Hughes is of course a high profile figure.
I must say I am also quite interested in the larger narrative Hughes offers up in his effort to shore up the credibility of his marginal Robot Cult. It is possibly fortunate for him that Condorcet and Diderot, being long dead, cannot comment on Hughes' enlistment of them in the cause of movement transhumanism.
“The story of transhumanist politics is part of the broader story of the three hundred year-old fight for the Enlightenment. Transhumanism has pre-Enlightenment roots of course, since our earliest ancestors sought to transcend the limitations of the human body, to delay death, and to achieve wisdom. But those aspirations became transhumanism when people began to use science and technology to achieve them instead of magic and spirituality. From the earliest writings of the Enlightenment philosophes, such as Diderot and Condorcet, there were suggestions that eventually we could achieve radical longevity, machine intelligence, freedom from drudgery, and the radical evolution of the human form.
The Enlightenment narrative of progress, the belief that we can continually improve our condition through rational scientific human agency, has also had a political dimension. The Enlightenment argued for democracy and individual rights. The French version of these ideas also pressed for egalitarianism and a strong democratic state, while the Anglo and American versions were less egalitarian and advocated market freedom. The tensions between these two versions of Enlightenment thought are an ongoing dynamic with the contemporary transhumanist movement.
The resistance to Enlightenment ideas that began three hundred years ago still shapes resistance to transhumanist meliorism today.
I think it evokes a rather skewed sense of Enlightenment discourse to propose it can be encapsulated into "the Enlightenment narrative of progress" in the first place, being in fact a quite contentious conversation rather than a straightforward "program." I find myself wondering how much Condorcet and Diderot Hughes can actually have read, let alone how he might weave Scottish and German Enlightenment threads into his rather facile programmatic simplifications, how he would cope with the different anti-authoritarianisms of Enlightenment freethinking and often still quite faithful anti-clericalisms, and so on. But quite beyond all that, to emphasize as he does in his own account the suggestive utterances of a few Enlightenment figures on questions of "radical longevity, machine intelligence… and the radical evolution of the human form" seems to me to risk a near evacuation of the actual content of Enlightenment discourse in the name of delineating it.
The sorts of politics that eventuate from strident championing of kooky oversimplifications of Enlightenment by marginal extremists declaiming the irremediable irrationality of their foes tend, I fear, to be ugly and reactionary in the main (see, for example, the army of Reason defenders convened by those sad lost souls who think Ayn Rand's earthshatteringly awful Atlas Shrugged is some sort of Bible), as I have argued at length here among other places, and I venture to suggest that few of the heroes of European Enlightenment would much approve the uses to which their discourse is being put in such cases. I daresay some might reasonably maintain that my own ongoing critique of superlative technology discourses and techno-utopian political "movements" is itself legible as a defense of enlightenment attitudes, contrary to Hughes' frankly flabbergasting insinuation that resistance to "transhumanism" is of a piece with resistance to Enlightenment. I will go so far as to suggest that at least some of the Enlightenment figures Hughes himself is fond of quoting might have some sympathy for my own suggestion that the "movement transhumanism" he defends is a scarcely concealed form of organized religiosity itself, investing hyperbolic technodevelopmental projections with transcendental significances with the usual yield of irrational, uncritical, and authoritarian consequences.
It is actually a difficult thing to grasp just what movement transhumanism is coherently imagined to consist of when Hughes himself goes on to celebrate a "big tent" in which liberals, conservatives, anarchists, minarchists, anarcho-capitalists, greens, technocrats, and so on all presumably contribute their measure to the "unique transhumanist vision." To the extent that transhumanism, whatever else it is supposed to be, is surely something to do with "technology" and the historical play of "technoscientific" change, it seems to me to matter enormously that the sorts of things that are going to be called "technology" in the first place, the sorts of uses to which these "technologies" are properly to be put, the ways in which one will seek to facilitate the emergence and articulate the circulation of "technoscientific" realities in the actual world will differ quite radically in their actual substance according to whether one is speaking from a liberal, conservative, anarchist, minarchist, anarcho-capitalist, green, or technocratic vantage. I have often reiterated that the word "technology" functions to conceal more than it reveals, that there is really no such thing as "technology in general" especially if one means to attribute to this "technology" certain monolithic or inevitable developmental outcomes, aspirations, tendencies. What passes for technology, what constitutes its substance, what articulates its developmental play in the world are all definitively determined by political, social, cultural, discursive factors. To propose that one can "advocate" a technology politics indifferent to the definitive differences actual political differences imbue into the constitution of technologies as such is worse than completely misunderstanding the very phenomenon under discussion (although that is a pretty fatal problem for those who are presumably defined foremost by that very phenomenon they are so disastrously misconstruing), it is actually to participate in a disavowed politics of technoscientific development that tends to conduce especially to the benefit of very familiar authoritarian right-wing political values and strategies. This is the point of the piece of mine that Bauwens posted in the first place, to which I already linked above.
That James Hughes is an advocate for many genuinely progressive technodevelopmental political positions is definitely true, and to my mind a delightful thing, but that in his celebration of a "technology politics" that is indifferent to definitive differences of politics as well as his insensitivity to the actual politics of would-be "apolitically neutral" or "anti-political" positions on developmental questions James Hughes is participating in and actively abetting quite authoritarian and anti-democratizing technodevelopmental political positions is also true, I fear, and the farthest thing from delightful. That as a well-meaning decent person of the democratic left he would no doubt recoil from the probable eventual impacts of his participation in the actually anti-democratizing politics of his Robot Cult were they ever to come to anything is really neither here nor there as far as I am concerned. A heartfelt cry of "what have I done?" is little consolation to those of us who are clear-eyed enough to ask here and now "what are you doing?"
Be all that as it may, transhumanism, so-called, is probably best known for what Hughes tantalizingly describes as its "bioutopianism" (that is to say, what critics might describe instead as its eugenicism) early on in his piece. I certainly disapprove the glib way in which Hughes identifies in some environmentalist politics what he calls "technophobia" or "luddism" when it would be better to discern a critical embrace of appropriate technology (a very different thing from any blanket technophobia even where one might disagree with particular claims it might inspire in some) or describes as "extremist" the presumably outrageous desire of differently enabled people to affirm as dignified and desirable atypical lifeways that Hughes himself might have parochially determined to be "suboptimal" by his lights. Such comments arising out of his "bioutopianism" are sprinkled throughout his piece, as indeed they saturate transhumanist discourses more generally, but I think the key passage occurs in this rather creative interlude of congenial storytelling:
The years 2002 to 2004 saw the first debates about the transhumanist project in elite policy circles. Francis Fukuyama published the bioconservative best-seller Our Posthuman Future, and was he then appointed to the Bush administration’s President’s Council on Bioethics (PBC) by fellow bioconservative Leon Kass. Under the leadership of Kass and Fukuyama the PBC published Beyond Therapy, which suggested the need for strong regulation of cognitive enhancement, life extension and other biotechnologies. At the same time the American Christian Right and the Vatican were evolving beyond opposition to abortion to a broader critique of reproductive technologies and human enhancement. Left-wing and environmentalist critics of biotechnology such as Jeremy Rifkin, Bill McKibben, the Center for Genetics and Society and radical disability rights groups also began to oppose nanomedicine, genetic engineering and human enhancement in the early 2000s. Gradually a network of Left and Right-wing bioconservatives has grown linking these groups on both sides of the Atlantic.
The Bush administration, the religious Right and the emergence of this Left-Right bioconservative axis had a polarizing effect on biopolitical intellectuals, driving many to associate with the growing transhumanist movement and to clearly advocate for the right to human enhancement. Bioethicists John Harris and Julian Savulescu in the UK joined with American bioethicists Arthur Caplan, Henry Greely, and Gregory Pence in defense of reproductive cloning, germinal choice and cognitive enhancement. Although these intellectuals explicitly reject the label of transhumanist, they represent the natural working out of Enlightenment ethics in biopolicy of which transhumanism is a product.
It is an interesting question what it means to "oppose" as against "defending" things like "nanomedicine" and "genetic engineering" and "human enhancement" when so much that gets talked about under these designations (superlongevity therapies, nanorobot respirocytes, designer babies, clone armies, labgrown centaurs, and so on) does not even remotely exist, and when so many actually urgent questions about safety and access and reliable information concerning emerging ARTs (alternative or artificial reproductive technologies), contraceptive and fertility techniques, therapeutic problematizations of the beginning and ending of viable life, non-normalizing prosthetic interventions into the diversity of human capacities, morphologies, and lifeways are utterly deranged by their association with these futurological figures. I have argued here and here, that such futural figurations actually tend to function as proxies for irrationally disavowed or stealthily deceptive debates on contemporary political questions.
Certainly, I strongly disagree with Hughes' insinuation that any disapproval of the socially conservative anti-Choice healthcare politics he describes as "bioconservative" amount to an affirmation of "transhumanist" politics, whether those who register this disapproval (among whom I myself am certainly one, as witness the pieces collected here) are sensible enough to disdain his Robot Cult label and its facile framing or not. Not to put too fine a point on it, I have long considered "bioconservatives" and "transhumanist" formulations on bioethical questions to represent inter-dependent extremisms.
The transhumanists, so-called, would engineer an optimal idealized postulated homo superior with which they presently identify at the cost of a dis-identification with the free and diverse homo sapiens with whom they actually share the world and, hence, are advocating a de facto eugenicist politics. The bioconservatives, so-called would ban safe, wanted, but non-normalizing therapies in an effort to "preserve" a static idealized postulated homo naturalis with which they too presently identify at the cost of a dis-identification with the free and dynamic homo sapiens with whom they actually share the world and, hence, are likewise advocating a de facto eugenicist politics. What is wanted is to advocate research into safe effective medicine, however unprecedented or non-normalizing it might be, to solve health problems in ways that people consent to on their terms in truly informed, nonduressed ways.
Just as one hardly needs to join a Robot Cult to defend "Enlightenment" values of critical thinking, consensual self-determination, and anti-authoritarian politics (indeed, quite the contrary!), so too -- and really this should go without saying -- one hardly needs to join a Robot Cult to advocate for funding, regulation, and fair distribution of medical research nor to defend the politics of Choice, not only in matters of reproductive health, but on questions of, say, consensual recreational drug use or how to improve the lives of the differently enabled by their own lights, whether in normalizing ways or not.