To consider the transhumanist future, remember that you already live in one
The Washington Post is running a series of perspectives on transhumanism this week, which is generally a very welcome bit of coverage for a movement that deserves far more popular consideration than it generally receives. This piece is a response to Charles T. Rubin’s contribution to the series, published Tuesday, which argues that transhumanism is more likely to result in the dystopian or apocalyptic futures predicted by pop-cultural tales like Orphan Black or Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. than the positive futures predicted by more optimistic transhumanist futurists. As anyone who knows me well can predict, I disagree with this take.
The first order of business, however, is to acknowledge that though I disagree with his conclusions, Rubin and other skeptics are right to ask questions about the sort of societal changes transhuman advances are likely to produce. As a progressive, I tend to worry about whether transhuman advances are likely to calcify the advantage and privilege enjoyed by those who happen to be wealthy enough to afford enhancements when they first become available — does the eventual displacement of human intellectual labor implied by A.I. mean more wealth for those rich enough to afford it and inescapable poverty for everyone else; will genetic enhancement of fetuses lead to cascading privilege and divergence between genetic “haves” and “have-nots”; is the promise of freedom from death made to all, or only to those who can afford it?
Luckily, I have a better source of answers than the plot lines science-fiction movies and TV shows. Want to know what a transhumanist future looks like? Look around, because you already live there.
One of the scariest and most wonderful things about technology is how quickly we become accustomed to it. Think of how many times you have heard someone say (or said yourself) some version of, “God, what did people do before X?” It’s easy to mock that construction, but it’s actually a valid question — we become so used to relying on a certain piece of technology that it genuinely is hard to imagine how people lived without it, even when “those people” were just younger versions of ourselves. This effect is amplified when the technology in question is one we have lived with our whole lives, or that is already obsolete: no one in the 21st Century thinks of a gas oven or a book as “tech,” these are just objects that we take for granted. Yet its important to remember that once upon a time, these things were just as novel and as revolutionary as an iPhone. Reading feels as natural as breathing for a modern literate person, but if you imagine explaining a book to someone before the invention of writing — it’s a collection of tens or hundreds of thousands of shapes that allows you to learn from other people without ever meeting them, even if they died long ago or live far away — it would seem just as incomprehensible and magical to them as nanotechnology does to us today.
The entire history of technology, from the first ape who extracted ants from their colony with a stick to the first human to ride a rocketship to the face of the moon, is the history of humans enhancing their natural capabilities. From the perspective of almost everyone who has ever lived, modern human society is impossibly futuristic. We can fly higher than any bird and dive deeper than any whale; we can travel distances that would have taken our ancestors months or years in a matter of mere hours; diseases that used to be death sentences are now shrugged off with a pill or a shot; each of us carries in our pocket a device that gives us instant access to the whole body of human knowledge, orders of magnitude more information than was ever held by all the world’s libraries combined. Is this not the future? Compared to our forefathers on the savannah what are we, if not transhuman?
Once you appreciate modern technology for what it is, the lessons of history make it clear that our worries of transhuman dystopia are misplaced. In the past, people used to worry that vaccination would put too much power in the hands of pharmaceutical companies, giving them the power to decide who would live and die. Martin Luther bemoaned the invention of the printing press, believing that it gave the power of writing and publishing too broadly and to people who would not use it well. Socrates lamented writing itself, fearing the effect it would have on people’s memories. (In this, it should be pointed out, Socrates was not wrong: most modern people cannot approach feats of memory that were once routine, like memorizing an epic poem like Odyssey or Beowulf. Nite ask yourself: would you ever trade?)
People have worried about “‘enhancements’…developed by people who are not yet enhanced,” as Rubin puts it, since far ancient times in fables like the Tower of Babel or Icarus. And yet here we are in a transhuman future not mired by techno-dystopia, our souls intact, virtually all of us unwilling to even give up our WiFi, let alone older technologies.
This is not a naive argument that dystopia is impossible or that positive outcomes inevitably flow from technological progress. Contrary to Rubin’s assertion that we are all libertarians who think things will always work out thanks to the magic of the market, the transhumanists with whom I am familiar are almost invariably interested in both some form of distributive justice and in ameliorating the risks created when the pace of technological change threatens to accelerate past our ability to understand and make ethical judgments about it. It takes constant vigilance and effort to ensure that society continues to reflect our values in the face of change. But the same efforts and values that have saved us from a dystopian transhuman present can do the same work to prevent a dystopian transhuman future.