Futurity cannot be delineated but only lived, in serial presents attesting always unpredictably to struggle and to expression. "The Future," to the contrary, brandishing the shackle of its definite article, is always described from a parochial present and is always a funhouse mirror reflecting a parochial present back to itself, amplifying its desires and fears, confirming its prejudices, reassuring its Believers that the Key to History is in their hands. -- Futurological BrickbatsTwo pieces on "transhumanism" have attracted a lot of interest this week, or at any rate exhortations to click links on my twitter feed, one of them written a couple of days ago, the other written a couple of years ago. One piece, by Frances Martel, is entitled Defying Human Nature One Cyborg Limb At A Time, the other, by Rebecca Taylor, is entitled Transhumanism Turns People Into Slaves to Technology.
The juxtaposition of titles seems to stage a confrontation, and it is true that one piece is mostly celebratory in tone, the other alarmist. But what strikes me as most interesting about the pairing is what they have in common: in order to take transhumanism seriously enough in the first place to find it worthy of celebration or of alarm both authors must first disdain actually-existing medical and material and computational techniques and their actually-urgent quandaries in the real world, the better to focus on entirely imaginary "technologies" and then to elicit from their conjuration entirely symptomatic wish-fulfillment fantasies and existential dread.
Not incidentally, both of the pieces arrive from right-wing reactionary precincts -- Martel's celebration was published by the notorious Breitbart scandal and conspiracy sheet, Taylor's by "LifeNews," a forced-pregnancy advocacy and woman's healthcare denialist site. This is not an accident -- to engage critically and factually with actually-existing techniques and the urgency of stakes associated with the inequitable distribution of their costs, risks, and benefits would inevitably take us to left-wing progressive precincts.
The first paragraph of Frances Martel's article immediately and insistently lodges her account in the fantastic:
The past few years have seen a surging interest in the international scientific movement to "help end human death." It fears no mechanics and abhors the imperfections of the human body. Transhumanism is snowballing into an international movement aggressively defying human nature and embracing machines.To begin where Martel begins, let me just insist at the outset that if we are talking about self-identified "transhumanists" and "singularitarians" who think they are part of a techno-transcendental movement sweeping the world, then we need to take assertions about "surging interest" and a "snowballing… international movement" with a grain of salt. Transhumanism remains as it was twenty or forty years ago (depending on whether you want to treat Ettinger's Cryonics Institute, O'Neill's L5 Society, Negroponte's Media Lab, or More's Extropy Institute as the superlative futurological locus classicus) now as ever a minute, marginal, minority subculture or fandom that is indicatively white, male, elite, incumbent. Given the simplification and drama of their distinctive framings of complex technodevelopmental questions for a technoscientifically illiterate, gizmo-fetishizing consumer culture already prone to invest the "technological" with fantasies of superabundance and omnipotence as well as with nightmares of apocalypse and impotence, it has always been the case and remains true today that transhumanists, singularitarians, techno-immortalists, and the other futurist sects of the Robot Cult have attracted considerably greater media attention than the substance of their claims or their (lack of) credentials would ever warrant otherwise.
Setting that aside, though, it is also true that extreme, marginal, defensive futurological subcultures exist in the context of more prevailing neoliberal/neoconservative consumerist, developmentalist, extractive-industrialist norms and forms suffused with promises of techno-fixes, denials of limits, assumptions about the necessity of performance enhancement, not to mention the pretense of agreement as to what such enhancement consists of. It is for this reason that I am one of these people myself who devotes more attention to transhumanists than they deserve on the merits: This is simply because I regard them as clarifying in their extremity of the absurdity of more prevailing reactionary attitudes (okay, they are also hilarious, and the pure pleasure of it another reason to poke at them). I am not sure that Martel would justify her own interest in transhumanist on comparable grounds -- but instead celebrating as a conservative, say, more prevailing reductive, eugenic, polluting, immiserating technocratic elitisms through celebration of their extreme transhumanist forms where I regard the relation more as a useful reductio ad absurdum.
Beyond this quibble, let me turn to some deeper conceptual difficulties that are already evident in these few opening sentences. To declare that transhumanists are "defying human nature [by] embracing machines" seems for one thing to assume that machines defy rather than express nature when of course they depend on an understanding of the natural world to work at all; and for another thing seems to assume that language-using, tool-making, clothes-wearing, body-training, ground-cultivating, shelter-making, culture-articulating humans defy rather than express their own nature in taking up and taking on prostheses. This arrant absurdity depends for its plausibility and force in fact on Martel's selective fetishization of very particular artifacts and techniques, real and imagined -- computation freighted with omniscience, enhancement freighted with omnipotence, petro/digi/nano/fabbing techniques promising superabundance and hence freighted with post-historical post-political omnibenevolence -- as what we mean by "machines" while denying to most of the field of existing, familiar, assimilated, emerging, fraught artifice and technique the designation "machine" at all.
To declare as Martel does that transhumanism, "fears no mechanics," leaves the important question open, surely, whether or not transhumanists fear any dangerous, violent, exploitative deployments of "mechanics" -- as well as the question whether perhaps a focus on the so-called "nature of mechanics" functions to disavow or distract attention from more urgent political questions of who accesses and controls "mechanics" and to what ends. Likewise, to declare as Martel does that transhumanism "abhors the imperfections of the human body," leaves the important question open, surely, whether or not transhumanists are in a position to dictate what the imperfections of the human body are and in the service of which particular ends should some bodies be treated or made more perfect -- as well as the question whether perhaps a focus on the so-called technical perfectability of the body functions to disavow or distract attention from the fact that agreement does not exist about what human lifeways are and can be treated as legible, liveable, valuable, indispensable, flourishing.
"For transhumanists," writes Martel, "it is simply unethical to have the technology to permanently avoid death and not use it." But does it matter ethically that "the technology to permanently avoid death" does not exist to use, does not even remotely approach real availability for such use? Faith-based futurologists will start sputtering and handwaving at this point about genetic therapies and nanomachines and uploading their minds into Holodeck Heaven and all the rest. They will start citing loose pop-journalist talk and wildly extrapolate from pet press releases from austerity-starved research labs and soap-bubble tech companies, they will declare the "logical compatibility" of their sooper-tech daydreams with known physical laws, whatever our ignorance, whatever our available resources, whatever the costs, whatever the alternate priorities, whatever the distance from existing norms and forms, they will declare my realism and skepticism "anti-science" "luddism" and their own faith-based credulity and hyperbole the championing of "science" and "reason," and on and on and on. But the fact is that not only are none of these superlative techniques actually imminent and, face it, not even sufficiently proximate in the real-world developmental pipeline to enter into personal decision-making or public policymaking at all, but, not to put too fine a point on it: there is not a single therapeutic technique under research or in development the arrival of which in the next decade, or likely within even the coming quarter century, that will increase by as much as five years the average life expectancy of adults in the North Atlantic notional democracies.
Let me amplify the point: not only is it ethically nonsensical to declare "unethical" not using technologies that do not even exist for us to use, I will also say it is flatly unethical to discuss the ethics of imaginary technology at the cost of discussing real technoscience. There are no more urgent ethical dilemmas in the real world than the denial of universal access to basic healthcare in wealthy nations, than the banning of contraception, abortion, and assistive reproductive techniques to women around the world, than the neglect of treatable medical, nutritional, hygienic conditions in the overexploited regions of the world. What Mike Davis said fifteen years ago is as true as ever: access to clean water should be considered the most potent miracle drug on earth. These are the ethical and political discussions we are not having when we are discussing genetic superhuman and digital immortalization -- although, no doubt the latter discussions may best be understood as distorted allegories or symptomatic disavowals of these very real questions and their urgencies.
When Martel describes the transhumanist "movement" -- quoting the cynical self-descriptive vacuity of stealth robot-cult think-tank IEET -- as "creative and ethical use of technology to better the human condition" it is notable that neither creative nor ethical nor better human uses are defined. To do so would immediately reveal the eugenicism and reductivism and techno-triumphalism driving transhumanoid norms. Nor is there any indication in the formulation that none of the "technology" IEET happens actually to be preoccupied with the use of actually exists. To do so would immediately reveal the hyperbole and wish-fulfillment fantasizing driving transhumanoid forms. But it is also worth noting that nobody has to join a Robot Cult (and, indeed, almost nobody ever has) in order to approve the creative and ethical use of actually-available and actually-emerging artifice and techniques, and that if one is looking for actual education, agitation, subsidization, incentivization, legislation based on substantial and relevant definitions of the key terms in that formulation one should certainly look to more mainstream, progressive healthcare advocacy and science advocacy organizations and actually constituted academic disciplines like science and technology studies (STS) and environmental justice criticism (EJC) rather than futurological PR or futurist sub(cult)ural fandoms.
Rebecca Taylor's piece devotes most of its attention to transhumanist tropes and conceits playing out in video games, and if anything this makes the paradoxical address of healthcare realities through the lens of imaginary objects, speculation, projection, hyperbole even more conspicuous in her account than the futurological scenario spinning on which Martel depends. Taylor describes the game "Deus Ex" as transhumanist agitprop -- which is fair enough, I agree -- declaring it a "hard sell for using technology to replace normal body parts augmenting healthy humans beyond normal human abilities." Once again, this critique presumes that what presently count as human bodily norms are not themselves historically-situated, culturally-articulated, prosthetically-elaborated. If transhumanist "enhancement" discourse pretends to know in advance what counts for all as better, optimal, capacious lifeways, in no small part through recourse to an imaginary ideal superior post-human being with which they identify (at the cost, mind you, of threatened dis-identification with existing human lifeway diversity), it is crucial to recognize that bioconservative "preservationist" discourse pretends to know the same, again in no small part through recourse to an equally imaginary ideal normal natural-human with which they identify (once again, at the cost, mind you, of threatened dis-identification with existing lifeway diversity).
"Transhumanism is super seductive," writes Taylor. "And yet the reality will be far from what is depicted" in games like "Deus Ex." It is interesting to pause for a moment -- what exactly is one "seduced" into by this "transhumanism"? Since regenerative/rejuvenation medicine doesn't exist to deliver added centuries of model-sexy youth to lifespans aren't actually available, since uploading our minds as cyberangel avatars in Holodeck Heaven isn't actually available, since there are no designer bodies or babies or clone armies or Harryhausen talking chimeras anywhere nor will there be anytime soon -- what exactly are we being seduced into by transhumanism? As I said before, there are dangers in being seduced into discussing these imaginary outcomes rather than real perplexities, but it seems to me that Taylor is contributing to this danger rather than ameliorating it: When Taylor warns that "the reality will be far from… [the] depict[ion]" she is describing these hyperbolized unreal outcomes themselves as dangerous and worthy of our discussion in their danger, just as Martel seems to regard these hyperbolized unreal outcomes themselves as marvelous and worthy of our discussion for their marvels.
"Once people begin to augment," writes Taylor, "others will feel compelled to do the same, removing perfectly good eyes, ears, limbs and replacing them just to be able to keep up. At this point transhumanism will make man a slave to the technology he creates." To the extent that humans have always been thoroughly linguistic, accultured, prostheticized beings it is in fact profoundly obfuscatory to declare that transhuman fancies, of all things, would inaugurate human "augmentation," and serves to naturalize the contingent norms through which bodies and lives are presently naturalized and abjected in ways that are open to and suitable for contestation. There is indeed quite a lot to be said for the worry that dangerous performance enhancing drugs in the context of organized sport or that profoundly limiting forms of pedagogy in the service of presumably objective standardized measures of performance caught up in a pernicious and parochial logic of competitiveness do enormous harm. There is also a lot to be said about the misinformation, exploitation, and threat of harm associated with actually existing medical techniques in the context of profound inequity and precarity, from organ and egg harvestation, sibling donorship, paid surrogacy to medical treatments made unavailable by intellectual property regimes and made available through misleading advertising. Taylor declares: "I want to applaud the behind-the-scenes creators of these make-believe jaunts into the future of human enhancements. They really do understand what is at stake: our humanity." Note the collapse of "make-believe jaunts" into predictions of real-world futures. If only such hyperbolic projections get at the technoconstitution of "our humanity" then are we to assume that I would be wrong to focus instead, as I do, on the inequitable distribution of the costs, risks, and benefits of the effects of real-world technoscientific change on the actual lifeway diversity of humanity? Once again, for me there is a real question whether what is worst about articles on transhumanism like Taylor's and Martel's is that they distract us from actually-real actually-urgent medical and environmental and technoscience quandaries, or that they are actually symptomatic reactions and loose allegorical treatments of these quandaries that distort our understanding of their stakes and problems by deranging our factual understanding of their capacities and investing them with irrational fears and fantasies. But for me there is no question that they do little good.