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

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Twitterscrum With Ramez Naam on the Transhuman Term

I was having a discussion on twitter yesterday about the status of "bioethicist" and "futurist" as labels pseudo-experts sometimes attribute to themselves, and I proposed that incoherence in the constitution of these disciplines at their best enables the abuses people were diagnosing at their worst. Here, I re-reproduce only the very tail end of that conversation to provide context for an exchange that arose from it with Ramez Naam, a futurist and science fiction writer whose ideas and themes are characteristically transhumanist and who maintains strong and ongoing ties with transhumanist-identified organizations, but who, it would seem, eschews the transhumanist label.

This is an issue that comes up quite often: is it inappropriate to describe Robin Hanson as an extropian or singularitarian transhumanist, for example, given his conspicuously transhumaist  ideas, citations, and associations, even if he disapproves that moniker for whatever reasons? Sometimes there would seem to be fairly cynical public relations considerations driving the resistance to such labeling: Nick Bostrom has created successive institutions for the elaboration and organization of transhumanist ideas and campaigns with more or less the same concerns and many of the same players, but from the World Transhumanist Association to the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies to the Oxford Future of Humanity Institute each has retreated from the explicit transhumanist label and the more obvious and extreme paraphernalia of sub(cult)ural enthusiasms attaching to his abiding preoccupations in bids for more mainstream funders and more respectable attentions. But, then again, sometimes a scholar will dip a hand into the transhumanoid stream of techno-fetishistic True Belief without necessarily partaking of it. Would it be appropriate to describe scholar Andy Miah, who writes about prosthetics and both medical and athletic subjecthood, as a transhumanist -- not only because of his topic, but because he addresses his topic to interested transhumanists?

And what about me? The technoscience topics that concern me have often overlapped with those of transhumanists. And for good reason: I've been a pretty vociferous critic of futurism and transhumanism for over twenty years. But I have engaged with actual transhumanists quite directly, and often in their discursive spaces and publications. To this day I publish my unfuturism at the World Future Society, after all. Early on, I was quite friendly with a few comparatively more scholarly transhumanist-identified socialists and often meliorated the ferocity of my criticisms in the give-and-take of debate in the hope of dissuading them of the worst of their techno-fetishism, eugenicism, consumerism, and death-denialism.

But how should these topical continuities and affiliations impact people's proper sense of my discursive and cultural vantage? I am not one who thinks the story ends with whatever an author declares their positioning to be: there are logical entailments, cultural signals, citational relations, historical associations, unconscious symptoms that shape objective assignments of ideological and authorial positioning of which an author is often imperfectly or incompletely or incorrectly aware.

I raise this point here and elsewhere because it is pretty commonplace for transhumanists to retreat from exposures of particularly ridiculous entailments and associations of their views by declaring "transhumanism" altogether too dynamic and heterogeneous to be tied to any of its themes or theses or public figures, however characteristic they may be, and yet then proceed to celebrate and identify with transhumanism and make claims in its name nonetheless as if it were a perfectly legible and continent phenomenon. I actually don't think that is what is happening with Naam, whose retreat from the transhumanist term seems to me more a public relations matter from our conversation.

You might note that I was associating Naam here with the very transhumanist term he eschews, and also that I repudiate as transhumanist the phrase "more than human," which is the title of his book. All this in this passage in which he thinks he has discovered me agreeing with him.

For an idea of what I am talking about here, my post Unperson discusses the period during which IEET re-published some posts from Amor Mundi (as the World Future Society does now), and my post Technogressive: What's In A Name discusses the transhumanoid appropriation of a term which I once used myself but then dropped because I did not want to seem to endorse their misuses of it. 

Very Serious.
I noticed that some few folks who identified as futurists and transhumanists were favoriting and retweeting Naam's side of our exchange, and followed up the conversation with some reflections:

1 comment:

jimf said...

> [I]s it inappropriate to describe X as an extropian or singularitarian
> transhumanist, for example, given his conspicuously transhumaist
> ideas, citations, and associations, even if he disapproves that
> moniker for whatever reasons? Sometimes there would seem to be
> fairly cynical public relations considerations driving the
> resistance to such labeling. . .
Singularity or Transhumanism: What Word Should We Use to Discuss the Future?
by Zoltan Istvan
Aug. 28 2014

Singularity. Posthuman. Techno-Optimism, Cyborgism. Humanity+.
Immortalist. Machine intelligence. Biohacker. Robotopia.
Life extension. Transhumanism.

These are all terms thrown around trying to describe a future in
which mind uploading, indefinite lifespans, artificial intelligence,
and bionic augmentation may (and I think will) help us to become
far more than just human. They are words you hear in a MIT robotics
laboratory, or on a launch site of SpaceX, or on Reddit’s Futurology

This word war is a clash of intellectual ideals. It goes something
like this: The singularity people (many at Singularity University)
don't like the term transhumanism. Transhumanists don't like
posthumanism. Posthumanists don’t like cyborgism. And cyborgism
advocates don't like the life extension tag. If you arrange the
groups in any order, the same enmity occurs. All sides are wary
of others, fearing they might lose ground in bringing the future
closer in precisely their way.

While there is overlap, each name represents a unique camp of thought,
strategy, and possible historical outcome for the people pushing
their vision of the future. . .

The word transhumanism has also long been in use, pushed by philosophers
like Max More, David Pearce, and Nick Bostrom. However, until recently,
it remained mostly a cult word, used by smaller futurist associations,
tech blogs, and older male academics interested in describing radical
technology revolutionizing the human experience. Two years ago, a
Google search of the word transhumanism —- which literally means
beyond human -— brought up about 100,000 pages. What a difference a
few years makes. Today, the word transhumanism now returns almost
2 million pages on Google. And dozens of large social media groups
on Facebook and Google+ -— consisting of every type of race, age group,
sexual orientation, heritage, religion, and nationality -— have transhuman
in their titles. It’s also the term that I’m backing, even though I’m
not sure it will win out. . .

Things have come to a pretty pass
Our romance is growing flat,
For you like this and the other
While I go for this and that,

Goodness knows what the end will be
Oh I don't know where I'm at
It looks as if we two will never be one
Something must be done. . .

Vanilla vanella chocolate strawberry
Let's call the whole thing off. . .