Shaping the Technoprogressive Tendency into a Political Agenda

Photo by CJ Dayrit on Unsplash

Abstract: Technoprogressivism is a strain of political thought that has manifested in many ways over the last 250 years. Technoprogressives are those who combine egalitarianism, liberal rights, and techno-optimism. Historically the technologies that technoprogressives have proposed as liberatory have ranged from industrial automation and rural electrification to contraception and artificial wombs. In the last two decades a technoprogressive ideological current has emerged out of the political debates around artificial intelligence and human enhancement. How do technoprogressives believe emerging technologies relate to other social movements, such as reproductive rights, disability rights, and neurodiversity? How can we ensure enhancements are safe and effective? Who should have access to enhancement therapies, and can society afford to subsidize their use?

Technoprogressivism and the Flavors of Biopolitics

In Citizen Cyborg I proposed that biopolitics would become as salient as economics and the “culture wars.” It hasn’t yet, as enhancement technologies have not yet become a salient political issue. When these technologies do become more salient they may be incorporated into political identities and programs in ways we never imagined. One reason enhancement may be part of new, popular political ideologies and identities is that attitudes towards science and technology are already polarizing between the defenders of cultural traditionalism and the advocates of cosmopolitan liberalism. Across the industrialized world, if you advocate for secularism, women’s equality, and a multiracial society you are also generally more techno-optimistic about everything from artificial intelligence to brain implants. Conversely, if you are a cultural traditionalist you are more likely to also reject emerging technologies like human enhancement as ungodly, unnatural, or even as part of an elite conspiracy. (See my thinking on this here.)

On the far right, some people portray enhancement technologies as part of the plans of billionaires for world domination, connected to occult practices, eugenics, and population control. The conspiratorial right in the United States has coalesced around the “QAnon” subculture, which believes Satanic elites are trafficking and murdering children. These conspiracists frequently mention transhumanism and emerging technologies, as when they suggest that Covid vaccines carry microscopic tracking or even mind-control technology. Survey research shows that religiosity and education together are strong predictors of rejecting emerging technologies and believing in conspiracy theories. As the far-right incorporates transhumanism into their (mostly Christian) eschatological fantasies — servants of Satan building human-angel hybrids to fight in the End Times — there is a potential for violent attacks on technologists, especially in the heavily armed and deeply polarized United States.

The Left, on the other hand, has not embraced unchecked techno-optimism. But the Left’s suspicions about emerging technologies are less conspiratorial, more focused on their safety, and the unfortunate ways all technologies are distorted under inequality. The Left accepts the use of puberty blockers by transgender youth, for instance, and rejects far-right attacks that the practice is “grooming” orchild abuse. On the other hand the Left is more concerned about problems like biases in hiring or policing algorithms, or corporate influence undermining clinical safety. While the technophobia-technooptimism spectrum has re-aligned closer to the traditionalism-cosmopolitanism spectrum, there are still notable countercurrents of Left technoskepticism.

There is still a strong element of the Left that rejects technologies because of their social impacts, such as technological unemployment, the side-effects of social media addiction, or the coercive potentials of autonomous lethal robots and facial recognition. Nonetheless, there are few on the Left today who would indulge in the apocalyptic Luddite rhetoric of for instance the left bioethicist George Annas twenty years ago: “The posthuman will come to see us (the garden variety human) as an inferior subspecies without human rights to be enslaved or slaughtered preemptively. It is this potential for genocide based on genetic difference, that I have termed ‘genetic genocide,’ that makes species-altering genetic engineering a potential weapon of mass destruction” (Annas, 2001).

If enhancement technologies continue to be associated with the liberatory ideas of the European Enlightenment — democracy, equality, and individual freedom — then “trans-humanism” and techno-optimism will continue to align with the cosmopolitan Left, and be rejected by the traditionalist Right. The human enhancement community is politically diverse, however, ranging from anarchists and advocates of planned economy to center Left and center Right, to libertarian advocates of free-market utopias and even “neo-reactionary” proponents of monarchy, patriarchy, and white supremacy. There are notable examples of far-right transhumanists embracing far-right traditionalists, as with Peter Thiel’s prominent role in funding transhumanist projects while also backing Trumpian fascism. It remains to be seen if far-right transhumanism will be a historical footnote or the portent of a future “transhuman-ism” stripped of Enlightenment political values to incorporate enhancement technologies into traditionalist political projects. The urgent need to distinguish left-leaning “trans-humanism” from its more malleable and sometimes reactionary “transhuman-ism” gave birth to the technoprogressive tendency.

The Technoprogressive Tendency

Technoprogressivism is a strain of Enlightenment political thought that has manifested in various ways over the last 250 years. It is found when liberal and egalitarian thinkers are optimistic about the possibility that emerging technologies can be liberatory, advancing or complementary to political reform. In 2014 several dozen transhumanists from around the world met in Paris to finalize “The Technoprogressive Declaration,” a statement of a distinct political identity and agenda for those who embrace both technological possibility and the revolutionary political agenda of Enlightenment egalitarianism and human rights. The statement was eventually signed by a broad swath of more than 70 futurist and transhumanist groups and individuals.

Technoprogressive Declaration (Paris 2014)

The world is unacceptably unequal and dangerous. Emerging technologies could make things dramatically better or worse. Unfortunately too few people yet understand the dimensions of both the threats and rewards that humanity faces. It is time for technoprogressives, transhumanists and futurists to step up our political engagement and attempt to influence the course of events.

Our core commitment is that both technological progress and democracy are required for the ongoing emancipation of humanity from its constraints. Partisans of the promises of the Enlightenment, we have many cousins in other movements for freedom and social justice. We must build solidarity with these movements, even as we intervene to point to the radical possibilities of technologies that they often ignore. With our fellow futurists and transhumanists we must intervene to insist that technologies are well-regulated and made universally accessible in strong and just societies. Technology could exacerbate inequality and catastrophic risks in the coming decades, or especially if democratized and well-regulated, ensure longer, healthy and more enabled lives for growing numbers of people, and a stronger and more secure civilization.

Beginning with our shared commitment to individual self-determination we can build solidarity with

· Organizations defending workers and the unemployed, as technology transforms work and the economy

· The movement for reproductive rights, around access to contraception, abortion, assisted reproduction and genomic choice

· The movement for drug law reform around the defense of cognitive liberty

· The disability rights movement around access to assistive and curative technologies

· Sexual and gender minorities around the right to bodily self-determination

· Digital rights movements around new freedoms and means of expression and organization

We call for dramatically expanded governmental research into anti-aging therapies, and universal access to those therapies as they are developed in order to make much longer and healthier lives accessible to everybody. We believe that there is no distinction between “therapies” and “enhancement.” The regulation of drugs and devices needs reform to speed their approval.

As artificial intelligence, robotics and other technologies increasingly destroy more jobs than they create, and senior citizens live longer, we must join in calling for a radical reform of the economic system. All persons should be liberated from the necessity of the toil of work. Every human being should be guaranteed an income, healthcare, and life-long access to education.

We must join in working for the expansion of rights to all persons, human or not.

We must join with movements working to reduce existential risks, educating them about emerging threats they don’t yet take seriously, and proposing ways that emerging technologies can help reduce those risks. Transnational cooperation can meet the man-made and natural threats that we face.

It is time for technoprogressives to step forward and work together for a brighter future.

Building the Technoprogressive Policy Agenda

Finally, some reflections on the political agenda outlined in the Technoprogressive Declaration in the context of our post-pandemic 2022.

Secure the “Longevity Dividend” For Us All Perhaps the central idea of the technoprogressive project is that the 21st century needs a new political vision comparable to failed political visions of Communism and neoliberalism. We need a vision of a global order that is high-tech, prosperous, and egalitarian with maximal individual liberty. We also need a political agenda for how to get there. That agenda starts with public investment in science education, basic science research, and Big Science projects directed at big goals like decoding the brain, slowing aging, and colonizing space. The campaign to secure the “Longevity Dividend” through investments in anti-aging research is probably the most popular of these goals. One would think that this campaign would be very popular with older people, but its appeal cuts across the lifespan and the generations.

Post-Gender & Reproductive Rights The patriarchal and heteronormative social order, from the gender binary to the obligation to marry and have children, has been disrupted by industrialization and urbanization, which in turn allowed widespread education and employment for women, complemented by contraception and abortion. Adding the spreading acceptance of homosexuality and gender fluidity in the 21st century traditionalists worldwide have reacted violently to the emerging postgender future. This is why abortion and transgender rights are central to the global traditionalist backlash. The right to modify your body to choose your gender expression connects intimately to the technoprogressive cause. Given the patriarchal history of obstetrics and feminist concerns over sex-selective abortion, feminist reproductive rights advocates have had a harder time embracing all reproductive technologies. But the right to know the content of one’s own womb and terminate a pregnancy with that information means that defenders of perinatal genetic therapies and heritable genetic enhancement are ultimately on the same page with “my body my choice” feminists.

Cognitive Liberty and Neurodiversity There is little consensus in the enhancement community about the boundaries of cognitive liberty and neurodiversity, as there is little consensus in society. How much autism, ADD, depression or chemical dependence is acceptable, and how much is a problem needing treatment? Broadly transhumanists are probably more tolerant of cognitive diversity and more sympathetic to de-criminalizing drug dependency than most. On the other hand, the better that neurotechnologies become the more pressure the neurodiverse will feel to “fix” their deviance. A task for technoprogressives therefore is to build dialogue between communities of the neurodiverse (e.g. autism), the drug decriminalization movement, and advocates for cognitive, mood, and sensory enhancement technologies around establishing the concept of cognitive liberty. The decriminalization of cannabis and psychedelics, for instance, could be a campaign that would build such a coalition.

Disability Rights The theoreticians of disability rights have long been critical of transhumanism for its implicit ableism. Indeed defining “enhancement” as having more IQ or ability than the species-typical amount does inevitably imply that having more is better, and having less is to be avoided. On the other hand, the vast majority of people with disabilities believe sight, hearing, mobility, and cognition are desirable. Given the option of a safe “fix” almost all people with disabilities would prefer to not be disabled, and most disabled people approve of policies that reduce the incidence of disability in society such as the right to terminate pregnancies with congenital anomalies. Far from denigrating disability, an enhanced future is one in which we all will be a little disabled in relation to what we could be. Build solidarity with the disabled technoprogressives need to speak directly to disabled people about the shared goods that we will all need and want at some point in our lives, such as subsidized, universal access to assistive technologies.

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James J. Hughes PhD

James J. Hughes PhD

James J. Hughes is Executive Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, and a research fellow at UMass Boston’s Center for Applied Ethics.