Tag Archives: sociology

The unexamined sociology of transhumanism

One of the reliable bright lights in the gloom of my January is the annual Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky show, a.k.a. their State of the World conflab at The Well. All sorts of chewy futurism and near-field hindsight going on, as always, but sometimes it’s a minor aside that snags my mind, like this little zap at transhumanism:

“… you’re never going to put some magic cyberdevice inside your human body that has no human political and economic interests within its hardware and software. All human artifacts, below the skin or above them, are frozen social relationships. If you’re somehow burningly keen to consume a thing like that, you’d better, as William Burroughs liked to put it, have a look at the end of the fork.”

The great joy of my first semester of my PhD has been being formally introduced to the basics of sociological theory, and thus discovering that a lot of the woolly notions I’d come to independently have been thought far more thoroughly and comprehensively before, by smart people who gave those ideas proper names. Through this lens it’s even more apparent than before that the echoing lacuna at the heart of Movement Transhumanism — the canonical ‘philosophy’ expounded by Dr Max Biggerbetterfastermore and friends, rather than the more personal morphological meddlings of the grinders and back-alley self-modders — is the notion of any system of social relations beyond the mechanisms of soi-disant anarchocapitalist “free market” economics.

If nothing else, it goes some way to explaining the overlap between MT and the Neoreactionaries: both seem to assume that inconvenient truths might be moved aside by merit of resetting the sociopolitical clock to a time before anyone had formulated them. Not just a river in Egypt, eh?

The future is already here – what is science fiction doing about it?

As a number of you have probably already noticed, sf author and critic Gwyneth Jones has an excellent article in the Guardian discussing how reality has caught up with science fiction:

“It was called “cyberpunk” […] The manifesto went like this: in the forseeable future there will be no aliens, and no trips to distant planets. Digital technology, however, will get better and better at an incredible rate, throwing up fantastic new gadgets that will not remain in the hands of the wealthy. They will immediately be adopted by “the street”. Every punk will have a supercomputer in his pocket (and this was before desktop PCs, mind you, when video-camera, Wi-Fi internet access phones weren’t even a twinkle in a Finnish eye). And everything else in the world will get much, much, worse.

Much of the science-fiction establishment hated the cyberpunks. Science fiction was supposed to be about progress, and how advances in technology will inevitably create a better world. But they were right, and the truth they told is highly relevant to this new century of sci-fi come true.”

Although clearly written for a lay audience, the points Jones makes are important ones for fans and writers of science fiction, because they highlight what is sometimes described as the genre’s existential crisis – in other words, how does one write insightfully about the future when the future is already here – albeit, as Bill Gibson said, not evenly distributed as of yet?

It’s a singularity of sorts – not like Vinge’s version (at least not entirely), but in the sense that there’s a very near point in time beyond which it is increasingly hard to speculate with any sense of plausibility.

Which is why, I would contend, that the stronger (and arguably more literary) works of science fiction are exactly those which look closer to home in a temporal sense. It’s increasingly hard to write old-fashioned space-opera without it coming across as hokey and dated, not to mention wilfully ignorant of technology, science, economics and politics – at least to an audience that demands more than pure escapism, which I’ll freely admit is not the whole audience by a long shot.

The stuff that is really staying true to the extrapolative agenda, the speculative roots of the genre that grew from the compost of the early pulp material, is the stuff that looks at the issues which we’re already facing – cloning, nanotech, life enhancement and extention, exponentially-increasing power and ubiquity of computing, climate change, resource shortages, socio-economic changes and crises – and looks at them as more than backdrops and props for tales of derring-do and dastardly deeds, treating them instead as characters, forces and players in their own right.

It’s also the only stuff that has a hope of keeping an audience among a cynical younger generation that, when given the chance and not patronised to, are more than smart enough to pick holes in the top layer of any story. They get plenty of practice from watching TV and browsing the web every day, after all.