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

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Morphological Freedom Should Be A Political Expression of Human Finititude, Not An Infantile Revolt Against It

ThighMaster Futurist Natasha Vita-More draws my attention, via a post in a discussion group to which we both subscribe, to the definition of "morphological freedom" proposed by her partner -- fellow Ayn Raelian Extropian transhumanist Max More -- a definition also available online here.
MORPHOLOGICAL FREEDOM: The ability to alter bodily form at will through technologies such as surgery, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, uploading. [Max More, April 1992]

Morphological freedom is a topic about which I have also written, most carefully here, and I will admit that it has always been the work of Anders Sandberg rather than More that has attracted my critical attentions so far.

In the piece of mine on the topic to which I've already drawn your attention, I define morphological freedom -- which I think of more as the defense of consensual prosthetic self-determination and lifeway diversity, but how are you gonna fit all that on a bumper sticker? -- differently than do either Sandberg or More. There I propose,
Morphological freedom… designates and elaborates the idea that human beings have the right either to maintain or to modify their own bodies, on their own terms, through informed, nonduressed, consensual recourse to -- or refusal of -- available remedial or modification medicine. The politics of morphological freedom expresses commitments to the value, standing, and social legibility of the widest possible (and an ever-expanding) variety of desired morphologies and lifeways. These politics tend to become especially controversial when they defend the preservation of actually desired atypical capacities and lifeways that are stigmatized as "disability" or otherwise "suboptimal," or when they defend actually desired modifications that constitute the introduction of atypical capacities and lifeways that are stigmatized as "perverse" or otherwise "unnatural."

Two things seem to me especially striking in pondering the distinctions between my own and More's characterizations of this idea here. First, mine is clearly lodged in the tradition of the ongoing and emerging dem-left politics of Choice, and applies quite as conspicuously to the contemporary urgency of defending women's right to choose to end an unwanted pregnancy through recourse to abortion or to facilitate a wanted pregnancy through recourse to ARTs, of defending consensual sexual practices among adults, of defending informed consensual recreational drug use where this poses no risk to the public, of defending differently enabled people in their demand for standing befitting their dignity as the fully-fledged citizens and subjects they are, including the demand that we respect their consensual recourse to or refraining from prosthetic facilitations of their wanted lifeways, whether normalizing or atypical, as it would eventually also apply to both normalizing and non-normalizing informed consensual recourse to emerging genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive modification medicine.

More's formulation, to the contrary, eschews the actual altogether (except for reference to "surgery," which does exist in the present, although certainly not in the fantastically efficacious form he imagines here) and proposes that the term designates "an ability" (albeit one that doesn't exist so speaking of "designation" here is a little odd) involving entirely speculative technologies, perfectly efficacious plastic and reconstructive surgeries, perfectly efficacious and utterly transformative genetic therapies, "nanotechnology" imagined as nanobotic rejuvenating artificial blood-cells and so on rather than as simply legible but better forms of chemistry and biomedicine than the ones we have now, as well as the almost surely never-to-be-attained and in fact in my view conceptually utterly confused dream of "uploading" biologically embodied consciousness and narrative selfhood into an imperishable nonbiological substrate or more "purely" informational form. That is to say, although both More and I see "morphological freedom" as a political term, mine is lodged in politics in the world and his is an anti-political flight from the world substituting for politics.

This leads to my second observation; namely, that while I see "morphological freedom" as a term that articulates and so facilitates democratizing technodevelopmental social struggle -- and I see it as facilitating human agency in consequence of this, facilitating people-power in the service of emancipation -- it articulates for More what he calls "will," very particularly. Will, too, is a category of agency, our separate formulations of morphological freedom are both agentic.

But More's agency -- and this seems to me very true of transhumanist accounts more generally -- is very much a hyper-individualist one, the facilitation of an individual will translating environmental means into personal ends in a project of willfulness that disavows the embeddedness of personal agency in history, in sociality, in community, in mutuality, in legibility.

I find it very interesting that this evacuation of the material texture of public life on which such fantasies of rugged possessive individual willfulness depend, cashes out inevitably in the complementary evacuation of the material texture of the environment itself into which this will expresses itself.

Such fantasies of perfectly efficacious willfulness always reduce actual reality to a virtual reality (it is no accident that transhumanists also typically obsessively romanticize the digital and the virtual and pine for its endless intensification and elaboration as well), an utterly plastic, already-digital materiality with no resistance to the individual will's insistent demands, no inertia, no drag. Where the solipsistic and imperializing will of techno-utopianism makes its play, the world that is its playground may as well already be the cyberspatial sprawl of the virtual, a vast undifferentiated undignified goo awaiting the shaping touch of human will.

Of course, the revenge of this disavowed materiality is that the will is in fact also material, materialized in both social practice and embodied life, and the effacement of material resistance in the environment likewise demands the effacement of the conditions upon which actual agency will utterly depends for its working. The transhumanist fantasy of individualized willful omnipotence is always premised first on the re-imagination of humanity as a lifeless, soulless, sterile, indifferent crystal meaninglessly extended in an environment of empty space, the promise of power that delivers nothing but dumb dim dull death.


Greg in Portland said...

I have to say that personally I lost most of my interest in the nanogootopia (and prophets of it like More) about the time I lost my dental insurance. I commented here on this before some months ago. I have some cavities, none very deep owing to my aversion to sweets and my semi-caveman diet (sorry Dale but it does include critters) so I'm not complaining (too much) yet. I just can't afford the roughly $10,000 it would take to get them fixed and don't have insurance. There's no technological obstacle here. Everything needed to fix my teeth was invented at least 40 years ago. It's all just another magical, happy part of the general nastiness of living in this (how did Dale put it a few days ago) disintegrating cesspool of a country.

I just can't get even nanowood over the nanotopia because I've realized that like every other benefit of living in the 21st as opposed to the 15th century, "intellectual property" and corporate control will render it all inaccessible to me even if the actual technology is cheaper to make than cow shit.

smartypants said...

ThighMaster Futurist Natasha Vita-More

Does it make me a Mundist to find this hilarious?

Honestly, the reason I would rather follow Dale instead of Dael is precisely this. Sometimes Dale goes bitchy. Hilarity ensues.

Dale Carrico said...

I prefer Mundi Minion. Bow down!