Is Transhumanism Building a Dystopian Nightmare?
Transhumanism is a movement that typically both predicts and advocates the evolution of human beings beyond our current biologically determined limitations whereas humans gradually transcend into what can be termed “transhumans”. It deals with research and development of technologies which could augment human capabilities, but also technologies which indicate the advent of intelligent machines whose capabilities exceed that of human beings. For example, albeit this is actually one of the less “scary” ones, Google chairman Eric Schmidt predicts that by 2023 Google’s artificial intelligence will exceed the intelligence of humans.
The common descriptor of these technologies is NBIC, which stands for nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, and cognitive technology. More specific examples include genomics and genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, intelligent autonomous machines, brain computer interfaces, robotics and exoskeletons, prosthetics, and implantable devices, among others.
Unsurprisingly, transhumanism is a controversial movement, since it seems bent on intimately disrupting widely held visions of what it means to be human, and what role should machines play in our lives. It conjures images of people who are half human and half machine. To others it represents solutions to some of the long standing problems faced by humanity, such as disease, disabilities, death, poverty, energy crisis, and so on.
Because of this there are starkly contrasting views of the future that could be enabled by transhumanism. Some believe it to be a perfect tool for authoritarian strains of our culture to use to enslave and control entire populations more perfectly than ever, while others believe it to be a force that could liberate and empower individuals more than ever.
However, I don’t think that the technology itself and the possibilities it offers is the real determinant of which of these outcomes will be realized. Technology alone typically acts merely as a tool. How will it transform the world largely depends on the intents of its wielders, which are themselves dependent on the culture and ideas that they follow.
Proponents of the idea that transhumanism is creating a dystopian future imagine authoritarian powers taking advantage of transhumanist technologies to essentially gain an enormous power advantage over the masses. They would augment themselves to become essentially impregnable by ordinary humans while simultaneously using these technologies to administer scientifically precise regime of total control over the population.
The disproportionate amount of capacity and power they would have would allow them to easily coerce those not augmented by such technologies into accepting augmentations that make them susceptible to control. The popular examples are implantable chips, various drugs, genetic screening, mind reading and mind control, and so on. These would be combined with social manipulations that would condition the population away from resistance, or even towards welcoming these controls for their own good or the greater good of the society.
In essence, the transhumanist dystopia is just an outgrowth of the existing authoritarian cultures bent on establishing top down order for the allegged good of the world according to their own visions of what a perfect world should look like. Transhumanist technologies simply fall into their lap to enable them to realize these visions with greater efficiency and ease.
Those arguing that this is what transhumanism will lead to think of the eugenics movement of the pre World War 2 era as the ancestor of modern transhumanism, which influenced Adolf Hitler’s ideas of scientifically purging the population from the unclean and inferior human beings in order to establish the perfect world of optimal humanity (also known as the Third Reich).
Unsurprisingly then, conspiracy theorists have a tendency to see the transhumanist movement as an extension of all the other authoritarian trends, and as a perfect tool for establishing their allegged New World Order agenda. I’m not using the term “conspiracy theorists” pejoratively here as human beings are capable of conspiring with each other for common goals, and it would be naive to think that those with great power just wont try to do so. The only issue with the field of conspiracy theories is that it is often such a mixed bag of unfounded speculation, fear mongering, and oversimplifying the complex world we live in. Even if the powers that be conspire towards certain ends there is no guarantee that they will or can succeed.
Not everyone thinks of transhumanism this way and not everyone who is a transhumanist desires to use transhumanism enabling technologies to control or subjugate. In a contrary, they believe that these technologies unlock the potential for the greatest diversity and freedom imaginable, and wish to ensure that everyone who wants it has access to such technological upgrades while leaving alone those who opt to pass on such augmentations.
In contrast to what those fearing transhumanist dystopia have to say there are many transhumanists who are also libertarians and anti-authoritarians; the people who would agree with those who wish to prevent tyranny. They see transhumanist technologies as a result of human ingenuity, ability to innovate to solve world’s problems, and human desire to aspire towards transcending our current limitations. They also strongly believe in dismantling centralized control of markets so that individuals are free to empower themselves.
This is greatly at odds with the whole idea that transhumanism must be a continuation of the eugenics agenda meant to control the population, as this sort of thing is nowhere to be found among their goals. This is why viewing transhumanism as a movement for technocratic authoritarian control seems quite fool hardy. If that’s all that it was, and all that it could be, then why are people who are staunchly against authoritarianism supporting it?
Historically technological advancements have greatly contributed to individual empowerment, even if some technologies did also help authoritarians (mainly in the realm of surveillance, warfare, law enforcement overreaches etc.). The internet is a classic example of positive change for individual empowerment.
There is no reason why transhumanist technologies, namely the NBIC, couldn’t continue that trend. Nanotechnology is already a huge underpinning of information technology (in computer chip production), but its ongoing advancement promises the ability for individuals to manufacture just about anything in their homes (with nanoreplicators, which will likely succeed 3D printers by function), to achieve nearly perfect energy efficiency, use materials that are more durable, functional, and healthier, reduce waste, improve personal healthcare (medical nanobots, nano-scale sensors to detect virii) etc.
Biotechnology can help synthesize cures for many diseases, make fossil fuels a cheap commodity so long as we still rely on them (by synthesizing them), help improve our health and lifespan by means of growing transplantable organs perfectly tuned to our bodies so there’s no risk of rejection, and so on.
Information technology already has obvious benefits, but the ongoing advancements in terms of artificial intelligence helps individuals manage their lives more efficiently by allowing them to focus on what matters while the artificial intelligence handles the rest. It could also improve efficiency of usage of energy, money, and time as computers can often delegate this far more precisely than humans.
Cognitive technologies, besides giving us far greater insight into how our own brains work, can help cure various brain dysfunctions, and for the healthy significantly expand our cognitive capacities.
And all of these benefits of transhumanist tech are just scratching the surface. The point is that technology in general, and transhumanist class of technology specifically, can empower humans. It gives power to human individuals. In a nutshell that’s all it is. Whether some humans use newfound powers to subjugate others isn’t so much a problem of technology as a problem of our own culture.
So we’re back to the old point I’ve been making many times before. Technology is merely a tool. It is how we use it that matters. Will we have a transhumanist dystopia or a transhumanist utopia, or something in between doesn’t depend so much on whether we support or develop transhumanism. It depends on whether we support subjugation or liberty. Whichever of those two we choose; transhumanism is going to amplify and empower it.
In conclusion, then, I would argue that transhumanism isn’t the enemy, nor the transhumanist movement in general. The enemy is the culture of tyranny, and our goal should be to instill the culture of liberty, and strive to use technology to empower liberty, protect it, and ensure it into the future.