Bigger, better, faster, (Max) More! (a.k.a. Reading up on transhumanism)

[Curatorial note: this review/essay/screed was originally written for and published by the sadly short-lived ARC Magazine in (I think) early 2014, but — presumably due to its ludicrous length — only got pushed out on the mag’s Tumblr; ironically, given my long-standing concerns about link-rot, said Tumblr seems at time of writing (end of 2019) to be the only remnant of the magazine’s digital footprint. Hence archiving it here: I’d rather not lose it forever in when Tumblr finally goes the way of all failed socnets, and on rereading it I’m amused and somewhat gratified to note that it documents the solidification of a lot of my counter-transhumanist positions and arguments. I hope it proves to be of some amusement or interest, if not both.]

— PGR

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Transhumanism: A Grimoire of Alchemical Agendas
Scott D de Hart & Joseph P Farrell
Feral House, PPB £14.99

The Transhumanist Reader: Classical and Contemporary Essays on the Science, Technology, and Philosophy of the Human Future
edited by Max More & Natasha Vita-More
John Wiley & Sons, PPB £19.99

It’s been around a while, of course. Instantiated back in the pioneer era of the intertubes, transhumanism has been both well known to and somewhat intersectional with geek/tech, SilVal and sci-fi circles for a couple of decades. It’s a word that denotes either a proud and optimistic allegiance to a certain sort of transcendent futurity, or a complex of willfully unexamined scientisms and technofetishes, depending on who uses it and who is being described; a badge of membership or a badge of othering, in other words, like most subcultural identifiers.

Even as the gap grows between transhumanist philosophical doctrine and what we might call Retweet Transhumanism, the former is doing its best to get its feet under the intellectual table. The latter can be all too easily mistaken for a kind of scientism cosplay, remarkably analogous to the more dogmatic sections of science fiction fandom (wherein unexamined catechisms are reiterated enthusiastically on the internet, with an exponential decline in signal-to-noise ratio), but this is nothing unusual. While weekend punks haunted the King’s Road charging tourists for mohawk photo opportunities, the ethos that powered punk was busily revolutionising art and identity politics, working on unseen in the unglamorous interstices; the most obvious and attention-grabbing elements of any subculture are inevitably the least interesting in the long run. But it’s cropping up in social science journals, at conferences and in broadsheet science articles, because the technological underpinnings of transhumanism look a little less hypothetical than they did even five years ago. IVF babies with genes from three different parents? Increasingly subtle and ubiquitous sports doping? These are transhumanist issues, my friend!

As risible as Retweet Transhumanism can appear, the philosophy’s most fervent opponents don’t always come across as balanced and rational questers after truth, either. Transhumanism: a Grimoire of Alchemical Agendas is an interesting case in point, choosing as it does to tackle the real and profound questions of human identity and technoscientific ethics raised by transhumanist thought by grandiosely reframing it as the immanent, inevitable and pre-ordained end-game of a pre-Abrahamic (and possibly proto-global) tradition of transcendental alchemy.

Oh, it’s utterly batshit, make no mistake – but in a manner for which I still have a residual affection, having a long pre-internet history of contact with the classic texts of occultism, conspiracy theory and cryptorevisionist speculation. You learn to recognise the style after a while: the grand conjectures swept past quickly, the confirmatory minutia dwelt upon for as long as they can withstand it, the call-backs to established grand (counter)narratives, the creative interpretations of the texts of ancient religions which put the conceptual acrobatics of po-mo lit-crit to shame. The occult’s appeal is captured in its name, of course: if we knew more about these ancient mysteries, they would lose their ability to enthrall. But they remain a hybrid combination of Rorschach blot and join-the-dots puzzle that can be overlaid arbitrarily on any other period of history or field of human endeavour, seeming to reveal the hidden pattern beneath the surface. De Hart and Farrell’s edifice of flim-flam and standard riffs – the Rockefellers! Biblical apocrypha! secret societies! – is like some bizarre fusion of stoner X-Files fandom, an online webinar devoted to spurious theological rhetoric, and Erik von Däniken enduring a particularly heroic amphetamine comedown among the stacks of the Bodleian Library.

Its coherence is little helped by what could be charitably described as a hands-off approach to editing and proofing, but convolution and self-referentiality is de Hart and Farrell’s modus operandi – as is quoting huge chunks of their earlier books verbatim, said chunks themselves replete with badly formatted quotes and citations, resulting in a text where you’re never quite sure which parenthetical layer of argument you’re currently caught in, like playing an elaborate LARP in a hotel by Escher where the numbers in the lifts never light up. So often do de Hart and Farrell hedge their conclusions with reminders that it’s all just pure speculation, of course! that one starts to suspect the lady of protesting too much; one wonders whether books of this ilk come out like they do because their authors know what their market wants and that they can score a cheque if they crank out some more (or, in this case, some More?), or because they really believe what they’re saying. (I’m never sure which answer would worry me the most.) Either way, there’s not much here that would-be defenders of transhumanism need worry themselves over, beyond eye-strain and the urge to correct typos. But there’s a salutary lesson here for would-be constructors of new metanarratives: the more gaps, conjecture and ambiguity you leave in, the more you appeal to their biases and intuitions, the more willingly the credulous will do the hard work of convincing themselves that you’re right.

Which brings us to the surest sign of transhumanism’s philosophical arrival: The Transhumanist Reader. There comes a time in every young philosophy’s life when it must stand up and make its own way in the marketplace of ideas, and if you wanna do that without being subsumed, then you need an identifiable canon, a defensible beach-head from which to commence the big push inland. The responsibility and privilege of defining that canon falls to Dr Max More and Dr Natasha Vita-More, whose chosen names never fail to remind me of one of the earliest Simpsons episodes.

One can’t fault niche scholars for making every effort to amplify their visibility, I suppose; it’s a sharkpool out there, and those consulting gigs and invitations-to-speak won’t land themselves. But (Vita-)More2’s appellational alterations fit their field, which is likewise long on blithe confidence and boardroom bravado – a necessity, perhaps, given how much of the heavy lifting gets done with technoscientific speculation. Don’t take transhumanists for fools or easy targets, though; it’s very much a scene populated by highly educated people who’re smart enough to think highly of their own intelligence, and to use it to their best advantage. Indeed, I suspect the academy’s failure to take it more seriously has been to transhumanism’s advantage thus far, leaving it to (cherry)pick its most public battles from a succession of straw men and kneejerk reactions provided by the sort of marginal cranks who knew enough about it to have formed an opinion.

(Dr More studied at philosophy at Oxford; one wonders idly if he ever encountered de Hart and Farrell. Do philosophers and theologians still hang out? Or do they just glare sullenly at one another from opposite sides of the room at faculty mixers?)

That may sound a little snooty, but it’s notable how much of the content of The Transhumanist Reader is pretty old, at least by the standards of the internet. (I mean, c’mon – mid-Nineties? That’s literally last century!) One could argue, as (Vita-)More2 do, that a canon should attempt to present the development of the ideas in their historical context – but for a philosophy entirely predicated on the importance and (literal) vitality of cutting-edge science and technological change, you’d perhaps be forgiven for thinking that there’d be more recent works that made better (or at least more robust) defences of the principles in light of recent research developments. Unless, that is, you’ve spent any time reading actual contemporary research literature around cognition, behavioural psychology, neuroscience, linguistics and so forth, in which case you’ll recognise the close relationship transhumanism shares with corporate futurism and other diegetic narratives of technoscience; given their long affinity with the occult, I’m surprised de Hart and Farrell didn’t recognise the sympathetic magics of a cargo cult when they encountered them.

There’s lots of material here culled from the early Extropian mailing lists and website(s), and from their in-house journal, Extropy; some of these have undergone iterative revision since their original appearance, but this particular canon is still very much Old Testament, with a few of the more recent Gospels and a mild heresy or two thrown in. Also of interest is just how many of those articles and essays from Extropian history are copyrighted to Dr More himself, as opposed to their authors, Extropy or anyone else; say what you like, but here’s a guy who knows how to keep control of a canon once it’s been defined.

But what does the canon say? There’s a gamut of side-chapels and flying buttresses – the more marginal technological speculations of transhumanist discourse that push the same buttons as aspirational sci-fi, such as emergent super-human AI, nanotechnological superabundance etc etc – but the foundational pillar of transhumanism is the axiom that the extension and augmentation of human life and abilities through technological means is both achievable and desirable.

The first part of that axiom – the bit about achievability – is hard to refute in principle, though much easier once you start wrestling specific claims; this may be why Dr More points out early on that transhumanism is not in the business of making predictions as to when a transhuman technology might become viable (p15), but is purely focussed on exploring the ramifications of the possibilities which are supposedly implicit in the technological development curve.

(One might further note that Dr More is emphatically not a Singularitarian, though there is a section in the Reader devoted to the Singularity, that ironically singular catch-all for an ill-defined plurality of techno-eschatologies.; the Singularity section is right near the back, and features more blithe and sweeping claims about timeframes for transhumanist technologies than any other section of the book. Not all rhetoric is verbal; history demonstrates that a canon-builder would be wise to nurture a few heresies that can be thrown under the bus when the critics show up.)

Given how profoundly medicine and other technologies have transformed human health and lifestyles even in just the last few decades, an extrapolatory claim that more powerful augmentations and longer lifespans are in the pipeline is uncontroversial, perhaps even incontrovertible. The more biopolitically-focussed essays in the Reader all concede this point in one conditional way or another; even the interview with Dr Michael H Shapiro – who harbours a sincere concern about the socioeconomic impact of unevenly distributed augmentation and longevity, and hence provides much of what little substantive criticism can be found in this book – points out that outright bans on seductive technologies like advanced prostheses, tailored performance-enhancing chemicals and in-utero genetic modification will merely push them out into the black-market badlands where regulation cannot reach (pp281-288; according to the footnotes, this piece “is not an exact transcription of the [original] interview”). As those 3-way-DNA headlines attest, we will inevitably find desirable uses for these technologies, and after the desires will come the ethical justifications. The question that remains is how to deal with these desires as they become fulfillable; the transhumanist answer is, by and large, “full speed ahead, and damn the torpedoes”.

Which brings us to the heart of the matter: it is the desirability – the inherent moral goodness – of technological augmentation that is the axiomatic horn to watch most carefully, because it’s here that the generous extrapolations of the horn of achievability get weaponised. Once you’ve conceded that, OK, maybe we could use technology to make some substantial functional changes to what it means to be human, maybe we can keep pushing our lifespan envelope, you’re wide open to the H+ suckerpunch: if we can, why should we not? Indeed, if we can, then surely we must!

This basic argument comes in a variety of flavours, strengths and sophistications, depending on the context and who is wielding it. There are plenty of poorly disguised arguments from the position of individual liberty (“I want to, so I should be able to, and if you stop me you hate freedom”) floating about in here, but the weakness and spoiled-teenager petulance of that particular tack (and others) is taken on by Patrick D Hopkins (pp345-352); it’s when we move out into the moral minefield that the swashbuckling sophistry begins in earnest. Dubious imperatives abound: for instance, if we can agree that most people would prefer to live longer, then living longer is surely a general human good, and thus withholding the technology to extend life further would then be equivalent to letting someone die before their time, right? The most ludicrous extension of this shaky argument is provided by Dr Aubrey de Grey, who had heretofore seemed to me to be one of the more reasonable minds on the transhumanist ticket. Au contraire: in de Grey’s view, the argument above extends so far that even to advise caution and regulation in the development and deployment of lifespan extension is, by way of potentially excluding all the oldest folk currently alive from living yet longer, morally equivalent to defending ethnic cleansing based on age (p217).

(One wonders if perhaps certain negative impacts of human senescence may manifest sooner and more subtly than others.)

There’s a great deal of this spurious moral calculus to be found in transhumanist arguments: the trick is to secure an admission of the clear and immediate benefits to an individual promised by technology X or intervention Y, and then to triumphantly conclude that to refuse such a thing to anyone who might benefit from it would thus be immoral. The frequency of this particular flourish suggests that it doesn’t seem stupid to those who use it, even if it seems ridiculous to me. There is a good reason for this.

Dr More and allies are keen to uphold the party line: transhumanism is not a religion, nor is it an ideology. It is frequently accused of being both; Dale Carrico once incisively tweeted that “Transhumanism wants to be Scientology when it grows up”, for instance, and it’s an illuminating comparison. Again, (Vita-)More2have kept some handy heresies around against someone taking this line more strongly; witness Giulio Prisco, who cheerfully admits that he doesn’t believe in god or think that transhumanism is a religion, but that he thinks he should maybe make a “religion-like UI” for transhumanism, so as to spread the Good Word to those who aren’t switched on by photoshopped design fictions of happy supercyberpersons or exponential graphs lacking a scalar legend. If nothing else, you’ve got to admire his chutzpah.

For my money, transhumanism isn’t a religion in the same way that mindfulness isn’t Buddhism. But religions and philosophies are closely related types of metanarrative (as a character in Ken MacLeod’s Intrusion puts it, “religion is philosophy for beginners”), and as Bruno Latour argues so eloquently in The Modern Cult of the Factish Gods, there is little or no functional difference between the metanarratives of religion and the secular metanarratives of science, progress and so forth. By enshrining a retconned iteration of Enlightenment values at the heart of their enterprise, transhumanists commit the irrationality of making a deity of rationality; whether your confidence is placed in a sky-fairy like Yahweh or an idea like Progress, Free Markets or Perpetual Growth, it is still a faith, a socially constructed truth-narrative. If that comparison troubles you, then there’s a question you’ve left unasked of yourself.

Transhumanism may not be ideological in and of itself, but by Dr More’s own admission, its adherents tend to skew very strongly toward identifying with libertarian politics by comparison with the general population (p13); one might note also the predominance of male WASPs in the TOC of the Reader, a correlation that pops up elsewhere with reliable frequency. It’s in this context that the logics which look so flawed to me must seem utterly solid to those using them: if transhumanism is a piece of philosophical software, then it requires an up-to-date build of the fedora-wearing libertarian OS on which to run, assuming you want all advertised functionalities to be fully supported. With these dependencies met, everything starts to make more sense, and the doctrines of transhumanism flow freely along the impregnable slipways of established Randian reason.

For those flawed suckers still unwilling to let objectivism save us from our own irrational and non-market-compliant altruisms, though, there’s a lingering doubt, even when the inevitability of the achievability of augmentation seems clear. There’s something missing from this book, and from transhumanism in general. Let’s go back to that core axiom, that enhancement and life extension is both achievable and desirable; now assume, for a moment, that you accept the transhumanist definition of desirability (whose clarity is inversely proportional to the number of words expended in dancing around it), and observe where that desire is located, and from which vantage it is assessed.

The desirability and goodness of augmentation and life extension is always and explicitly located in the individual.

What is absent from this book, and from the transhumanism it defines, is community, society. Oh, there’s talk of the transhuman community, of course (when a transhumanist says “we”, they don’t mean you unless you’re also a card-carrier), and society gets a few passing mentions, albeit usually as the source of restrictive regulatory practices and unjust laws impinging on the sovereignty of the individual. But transhumanist doctrine itself does not necessarily extend beyond the body of the transhumanist; so long as the transhumanist is permitted their transhumanity, then the rest of the world can go whistle. This is the shell-game of morphological freedom, wherein the transhumanist graciously concedes that they have no right to tell you what to do with your physicality or mind, just so long as you can’t stop them doing what they want to themselves. You look after yourself, I’ll look after me; what could be fairer than that?

In a world less structurally unfair than the one I currently find myself inhabiting, that principle might do just fine. But what it lacks, what transhumanism lacks, and what the Californian ideology which underpins transhumanism lacks, is any sense of responsibility for the consequences of your actions upon others. It’s not even that the questions are so new or hard to formulate; the social sciences are grappling hard with them as we speak, in an attempt to resolve the paradox of a world where transhumanists can talk blithely about “improving” and “extending” human capacities without addressing the questions of where the implied baseline is and who gets to police it, and where politicians can talk about market-enabled choice and “diverse healthcare outcomes” while framing disability or long-term illness as one of many ways that the feckless supposedly sponge off of the state. It’s as a part of this globally diffuse paradigm of me-first-why-not privilege that transhumanism starts to look less like an oddball cybercultural anomaly and more like yet another proxy front for oligarchy-as-usual. As James Bridle says, “technology is the reification and instrumentalisation of human desires”; nowhere is that more plain to see than transhumanism.

The spectres of people-other-than-oneself (so unknowable! so unpredictable! so prone to disapprove of your goals and resent your success!) haunt the biopolitical pieces in the Reader to a greater or lesser degree, but are largely banished from the rest of the book, much of which takes on theoretical questions (plasticity of identity, substrate-independence of minds, etc) far removed from the more immediate and testable socioeconomic issues implicit in the core transhumanist project. Concerns about a Gibsonian roll-out of longevity, wherein the augmentation would be unevenly distributed, are breezily handwaved away; other than the aforementioned Shapiro interview, the strongest engagement with it comes from Ronald Bailey, former climate change sceptic and science editor of Reason, who basically says that uneven distribution would totally be a problem if it happened, right? But it’s OK because we have systems in place to make sure things are fairly distributed (they’re not named explicitly, but I strongly suspect he means “markets”) and it’ll all get real cheap real fast so everyone will be fine, yeah? And anyway, if you’re worried about uneven distribution, telling us to slow down is only going to slow down the distribution! So basically, yeah, you’re selfishly telling a whole planet full of people that they’re not allowed to live longer because you’re jealous of their money, which is typical leftist hypocrisy, because you’re refusing to tolerate the free choices of others. Or, in Mr Bailey’s own words, “egalitarian opponents of enhancement want to make sure that the rich and the poor remain equally diseased, disabled and dead” (p337) – implying an extant cross-demographic equality in “healthcare outcomes” for which I’d love to see some solid evidence, particularly from Mr Bailey’s own nation.

(Of course, the time-worn utopian narrative of supply-side humanitarianism and economics as delivered by Bailey and many others, not all of them transhumanists, bears no relation to the functioning of actual markets and distributions as observed in the real world… but that’s because our markets just aren’t free enough to match the theory yet!)

I feel we can usefully return to Dr de Grey’s moral-escalation argument above, however, in order to put this matter to rest. To recap: it is transhumanist doctrine that to wilfully stymie the development and deployment of technologies or medicines that could extend, augment or otherwise improve human life is morally equivalent to allowing or defending the deliberate infliction of illness, senescence and ultimately death on those whose access you restrict; further, if a technology exists which could extend, augment or otherwise improve human life, it should be developed and made as widely available as possible without further delay.

Well, I have good news: it turns out that technologies which extend, augment or otherwise improve human life are already here! You may have heard of some of them: clean water; urban sanitation; smokeless cooking facilities; free access to healthcare; a guaranteed minimum income; a good, free education. There are more – and you’d be surprised how many of them have been around in one form or another for decades, even centuries! But they’re unevenly distributed at the moment, so the first agenda item for all transhumanists should be looking for ways to get these technologies to everyone on the planet as soon as possible… because if you don’t, by your own logic, you are wilfully and consciously permitting millions if not billions of people to suffer totally avoidable misery, poverty, illness and death. Better still, you can start close to home; after all, what better test-case could there be for the even distribution of longevity improvement than the ~17 year lifespan differential between the wealthy and the poor in the United States itself?

*tumbleweed*

Ah, well. One way or another, transhumanism – or at least the ethical dilemmas around which transhumanism accretes – is here to stay for the foreseeable; perhaps it’ll evolve (dare I say improve itself?) into something a little less venal as a wider range of people encounter the idea; perhaps it won’t. Perhaps my own baseline monkeydom and pinko-mutualist biases preemptively ensure I can’t grok the crystalline logics of transhumanism, leading me to see selfishness where there is only enlightened self-interest. Perhaps Dr More is right, and the precautionary principle really is an unethical impediment to progress; why shouldn’t he be allowed to advance knowledge with new research, just in case someone or something might get hurt in the process? Why, you might as well shoot humanity in its collective foot! And if something does go awry, well, there are laws and frameworks for compensation and restitution, aren’t there? He’s trying to secure a greater, brighter destiny for the race; punishing him for mistakes he might never make hardly seems fair, now, does it?

Perhaps not – but even so, that’s an attitude I’d find alarmingly cavalier if I were in the market for having my head cryogenically frozen, say, and it were held by the CEO of the biggest company offering such a service. Hell, I wouldn’t buy a used car from someone who’d written that essay, let alone a promise of immortality.

But I can’t afford cryogenics, and I still remain to be convinced that my life is somehow lessened by its finitude, and thus my Deathist cynicism destines me to expire before I even begin the epic journey of personal fulfilment which my transhuman life might be. What transhumanism can never seem to parse is that I can totally live with that… and, furthermore, that most of the rest of the world doesn’t even have the luxury of the choice of whether they live with it or not. Perhaps unsurprisingly, such positions are anathema to a philosophy whose central question could be rephrased as “what can you give the man who already has everything?“

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