Near the end of his piece, Treder makes a prediction (after all these are futurologists talking): “twenty years from now, transhumanism might be largely forgotten -- because everyone will be a transhumanist. Though, of course, they won’t call themselves that.” As somebody who has been observing and commenting on futurologists for well over twenty years, I cannot help but chuckle at that twenty-year prediction horizon to transhumanistical irrelevance, not least since twenty years is pretty much always the passage conjured up by futurological charlatans when they write the prophetic checks their asses can't cash in respect to the arrival of intelligence-enhancement pills, longevity meds, computers or nets "waking up" into sentience, the big nanotech breakthrough, baldness cures, whatever it may be.
More to the point, though, it seems to me that there is a non-negligible sense in which Treder's prophetic utterance is rather more like a descriptive truism. I say this, because at the beginning of his piece Treder quotes this definition of "transhumanism" (proposed by the sympathetic side of the debate he's reporting on): “the idea that we should be pursuing science and technology to improve the human condition, modifying our bodies and our minds to make us smarter, healthier, happier, and potentially longer-lived.”
Treder affirms this definition himself as "reasonably good," though he declares one should read the Transhumanist FAQ for a more precise and comprehensive definition -- which is rather like saying the New Testament is a better definition of Christianity than is the sentence "the religion presumably based on the life and teaching of Jesus Christ," which is to say, to not know what a definition is or to dislike what a definition does in the way of clarification by characterizing briefly the essential properties of a thing usually in part by differentiating it from some more general class of things beneath which it is subsumed. People engaged in frauds often dislike the clarity that emerges from definitions.
There are two things that I find especially interesting about the definition of "transhumanism" that Treder concedes is "reasonably good" even if, like most transhumanists he would prefer that people skip over the definition part and leap straight into their Robot Cult's scriptural and marketing materials instead.
The first thing that is interesting to me about this definition of transhumanism is that there are other, far more commonplace, words than "transhumanism" for the idea that it is a good thing to learn more and then apply the resulting effective techniques to make people healthier and happier, words like "healthcare," "governance," "public policy."
That is to say, rather like the future state of affairs Treder claims to pine for, a good many millions of people already affirm, if not entirely consistently, the general idea that Treder takes to define his transhumanism, but almost none of them think of themselves as transhumanists, nor use transhumanist vocabularies to think through or act on this idea.
This should not be taken so much as an indication that there are in fact millions of closeted transhumanists in the world, but that transhumanists are people who erroneously believe they have come up with a new idea or said something useful (for which they usually want to be praised or even paid) when all they have really done is re-invented the wheel to the general indifference of a world that knows better. Presumably this is at least part of the reason the opponent of transhumanism in the debate Treder is reporting says: "We do not need a 'movement' to tell us that we need to pursue technologies that will improve and/or radically alter the human condition."
Strictly speaking -- as any advocate for healthcare access to the poor among us, or for neglected treatable conditions in the overexploited regions of the world, or for more research money to address stigmatized conditions, or to provide more reliable knowledge for those misinformed or pressured into "consent" to dangerous or unnecessary treatments, and so on already knows -- one does indeed need movements, of education, agitation, and organization, to achieve better, safer, more equitable ends in healthcare policy, or energy policy, or building codes, or what have you.
It's just that there is no reason on earth to describe these efforts as "transhumanist" in particular, indeed to do so is to confuse rather than to clarify them. And, furthermore, there is almost nobody on earth who would ever have the slightest inclination to do so, among other reasons because none of the people who care about these things say of themselves in caring about them that they are being "transhumanistical" while people who do think of themselves as "transhumanists" have in mind very different sorts of topics when they are indeed being uniquely "transhumanistical" after all.
That leads me to the second thing that is interesting to me about the definition of transhumanism Treder thinks is "reasonably good," namely, that it is quite obviously a lie.
"Transhumanists" talk about the "implications" of artificial intelligence and even post-biological superintelligence which doesn't exist, they talk about the "implications" of longevity and rejuvenation medicine that would presumably increase healthy human lifespans well beyond the longest lives hitherto documented, indeed, they talk about cryonics, and nanobotic respirocytes, super-efficacious biotechnique, robot bodies, "uploading" their "selves" into cyberspace, and other techno-immortalizing, super-longevizing therapies that don't exist, they talk about the "implications" of desktop programmable room-temperature factories for the nanoscale assembly of superabundance on the cheap that doesn't exist, they talk about the "implications" humanoid robotic sex-slaves and clone selves and clone armies and solar diaspora via space elevators and galactic diaspora via traversable wormholes that don't exist.
As a geek and sf-fanboy of many decades' standing I admit myself to the allure of such conceits, to their imaginative sensawunda and to the possibilities of critical purchase on the present they provide as literary funhouse mirrors, but it is that curious elision of the scientific from the science fictional, of the serious policy proposal from the hyperbolic marketing fraud indicated in the transhumanist focus on the scare quoted "implications" of non-existing notions that more precisely distinguishes what they are up to from what sf fandoms and salon culture enjoys in their blueskying enthusiasms.
While it may be true that not all transhumanists talk about every single one of these non-existing things, or take them all equally seriously, it will be manifestly true to any honest observer of transhumanist discourses and spaces whose encounter is not altogether superficial that what is unique to transhumanists is that they take some of these things more seriously than other people tend to do, and certainly these sorts of things more seriously, and in taking them seriously they treat them less in the literary way fans do but as though they were legitimate scientific hypotheses or policy proposals.
When Robot Cultists of the kind who gather under the auspices of the more "serious" "reputable" "moderate" "scholarly" institutions like IEET offer up general characterizations of their viewpoint as one devoted to "the application of reason to shared problems" or "use of technology to improve health and enhance abilities" we should all be very clear that this is an effort on the part of advocates of a self-evidently marginal and disreputable set of preoccupations to distract attention from this marginal and disreputable content the better to attract attention and funding. It is an unambiguously dishonest effort at sanewashing, it is a fully conscious scam, and no doubt in some cases involves acts of rather sad rationalization as well about which the less said the better.
I notice that when Treder explicitly casts out from the transhumanist Big Tent the Singularitarian Robot Cultists (who expect the arrival of a post-biological superintelligence to end history and either solve all our problems for us like an angelic sooper-parent or else, you know, reduce the world forthwith to computronic uber-goo), Michael Anissimov rightly chides him in the comments that the founder of the World Transhumanist Association (now re-branded rather hilariously as "humanity plus" in an effort at Robot Cult sanewashing for poor humanity-minus mehum schmucks like the rest of us who skeer so easily) and the IEET itself is a Singularitarian or at any rate a singularity-sympathizer, not to mention that the Robot Cultist who comes closest to getting serious numbers of asses in the Robot Cult pews is Singularitarian Ray Kurzweil.
Sure, I agree with Treder that Anissimov, Yudkowsky, Kurzweil, and company are all very silly, some distastefully cynical and opportunistic, and a non-negligible minority outright batshit crazy, but I think that's true of nano-cornucopiasts and techno-immortalists and greenwashing geo-engineers, too, and if the Robot Cult kicks them out of the tent it will become apparent in no time flat that there won't be anybody left in the tent at all except for a few guys who erroneously thought this was the tent for trading vintage Star Wars figures mint in box.
By way of conclusion, I want to disagree with the opponent of transhumanism with whom Treder also takes issue, when he says:
Fortunately, I don’t really think transhumanism is a threat to anyone, just like no futurist has ever been. These movements are populated by naive optimists with a fairly high degree of narcissism, but they are otherwise mostly harmless.
I for one take the "transhumanists" and other Robot Cultists very seriously indeed, though not on terms they themselves would likely approve. I believe that the reductionism, hyperbole, immaterialism, eugenicism, and reactionary anti-politics that suffuses superlative futurological discourses should be seen as a clarifying extremity illustrating, symptomizing, and fueling the more mainstream futurological discourse of corporate-militarist developmentalism in the prevalent justificatory rhetoric of incumbent-elite institutions.
I also believe that on their own terms, the highly dramatic, over-simplified, theologically familiar, passionately appealing (especially to greed and fear) frames and formulations that transhumanists and other futurologists offer up in the face of the planetary precarity of ongoing and palpably upcoming technodevelopmental disruptions are actively deranging and destructive to the prospects for sensible, equitable, pluralist, accountable deliberation about the costs, risks, and benefits of technoscientific change to the diversity of their actual stakeholders in the actual world in the actual present.
I strongly disagree that techno-utopian naivety and narcissism are "mostly harmless" and I think there is an historical archive of genocide and pollution and waste and mass destruction to back me up in that contention.
As for Treder's own dismissal of the opposition, it is interesting to speculate what he can possibly mean when he suggests that "transhumanism is being taken seriously and openly discussed by a much wider group of people than just a few years ago" if he truly believes, as he declared earlier, that transhumanism is reasonably well-defined as "the idea that we should be pursuing science and technology to improve the human condition." Does he seriously believe that more people ascribe to that vacuity now than a few years ago?
Or is it not far more likely that he himself knows that such sanewashing vacuities are a PR gesture to bamboozle the rubes when the real content of transhumanism is its treatment of their pet hyperbolic science fictional conceits as though they were actual science or serious policy, as when he declares more honestly in the very next sentence: "Here at the IEET we’re working hard to push consideration of our favorite topics into the mainstream and into the minds of decision makers."
Favorite topics, indeed. By all means, bring on the vitrified heads, the inevitable predictions that computers are on the verge of "waking up" and taking over, the promises of nano-Santa to the rescue, and all the rest of the transcendental handwaving just behind the Robot Cult curtain.
For myself, I believe that there are serious problems caused by -- but more to the point ameliorated by -- technoscientific change, especially when serious people devote themselves to deliberation in the service of sustainable, equitable, diverse, democratic, consensual technodevelopmental outcomes. The Robot Cultists are not serious people -- well, unless one means to say they're serious as a heart attack -- and have nothing to offer those who are serious about such matters but hyperbole, confusion, and, of course, the collection plate.