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2 August 2021

Follow-ups from the future of Transhumanist Studies

Last Saturday’s London Futurists event experimented with the format.

After the by-now usual 90 minutes of speaker presentation and moderated Q&A, and a five-minute comfort break, the event transitioned into a new phase with informal on-camera audience discussion. Audience members who stayed on for this part of the meeting were all transformed from webinar viewers into panellists, and invited to add their voices into the discussion. Questions to seed the discussion were:

  • What did you particularly like about what you have heard?
  • What would you like to add into the discussion?
  • What might you suggest as a follow-up after the event?

The topic for the event as a whole was “The Future of Transhumanist Studies”. The speaker was Natasha Vita-More, the executive director of Humanity+. Natasha kindly agreed to stay on for the informal phase of the event and provided more insight in that phase too.

I’m appending, below, a copy of the video recording of the main part of the event. What I want to share now are my personal take-aways from the informal discussion phase. (That part wasn’t recorded, but I took notes.)

1. The importance of increments

Transhumanism has a vision of a significantly better future for humanity.

To be clear, it’s not a vision of some kind of perfection – some imagined state in which no change ever happens. Instead, it’s a vision of an open, dynamic journey forward. Max More has written eloquently about that point on many occasions over the years. See in particular the Principles of Extropy (v3.11) from 2003. Or this short summary from the chapter “True Transhumanism” in the 2011 book H+/-: Transhumanism and Its Critics:

Transhumanism is about continual improvement, not perfection or paradise.

Transhumanism is about improving nature’s mindless “design”, not guaranteeing perfect technological solutions.

Transhumanism is about morphological freedom, not mechanizing the body.

Transhumanism is about trying to shape fundamentally better futures, not predicting specific futures.

Transhumanism is about critical rationalism, not omniscient reason.

What arose during the discussion on Saturday were questions about possible incremental next steps along that envisioned journey.

In part, these were questions about what science and technology might be able to deliver in the next 2, 5, 10 years, and so on. It’s important to be able to speak in a credible manner about these possible developments, and to offer evidence supporting these forecasts.

But there were also questions about specific actions that transhumanists might be able to take in the coming months and years to improve public awareness of key transhumanist ideas.

One panellist posed the question as follows:

What are the immediate logical next steps across the Transhumanist agenda that could [achieve wider impact]?

The comment continued:

The problem I see with roadmaps generally… is that people always look at the end of the roadmap and think about the end point, not the incremental journey… People start planning around the final slide/item on the roadmap instead of buying into the bits in between while expecting everyone else to do the work to get us there. That usually results in people not buying the incremental steps which of course stifles progress.

That thought resonated with other participants. One added:

This is a crucial idea. A sense of urgency is hard to engender in long term issues.

I am reminded of the excellent analysis by Harvard Business School Professor John Kotter. Kotter has probably done more than anyone else to understand why change initiatives frequently fail – even when the people involved in these initiatives have many admirable qualities. Here are the eight reasons he identifies for change initiatives failing:

  1. Lack of a sufficient sense of urgency;
  2. Lack of an effective guiding coalition for the change (an aligned team with the ability to make things happen);
  3. Lack of a clear appealing vision of the outcome of the change (otherwise it may seem too vague, having too many unanswered questions);
  4. Lack of communication for buy-in, keeping the change in people’s mind (otherwise people will be distracted back to other issues);
  5. Lack of empowerment of the people who can implement the change (lack of skills, wrong organisational structure, wrong incentives, cumbersome bureaucracy);
  6. Lack of celebration of small early wins (failure to establish momentum);
  7. Lack of follow through (it may need wave after wave of change to stick);
  8. Lack of embedding the change at the cultural level (otherwise the next round of management reorgs can unravel the progress made).

Kotter’s positive suggestions for avoiding these failures can be summed up in a slide I’ve used in various forms many times in my presentations over the years:

That brings me back to the topic of incremental change – envisioning it, communicating it, enabling it, and celebrating it. If that’s not done, any sense of urgency and momentum behind a change initiative is likely to falter and stall.

That’s why a credible roadmap of potential incremental changes is such an important tool.

Watch out for more news on that front soon.

2. Transhumanism becoming mainstream

Here’s another line of discussion from the informal conversation at the end of Saturday’s event.

Many members of the public, if they know about transhumanism at all, tend to see it as other worldly. It’s the subject of science fiction, or something that might appear in eccentric video games. But it’s not something relevant to the real world any time soon.

Or they might think of transhumanism as something for academics to debate, using abstract terminology such as post-modernism, post-humanism, and (yes) trans-humanism. Again, not something with any real-world implications.

To transhumanists, on the other hand, the subject is highly relevant. It’s relevant to the lives of individuals, as it covers treatments and methods that can be applied, here and now, to improve our wellbeing – physically, rationally, emotionally, and socially. It can also provide an uplifting vision that transforms our understanding of our own personal role in steering a forthcoming mega-disruption.

Moreover, transhumanism is relevant to the real-world problems that, understandably, cause a great deal of concern – problems about the environment, social interactions, economics and politics, and the runaway adoption of technology.

As Albert Einstein said in 1946, “a new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move to higher levels”.

My own view is that transhumanism is the “new kind of thinking” that is, indeed, “essential” if we are to avoid the many dangerous landmines into which humanity currently risks sleepwalking.

That’s a core message of my recent book Vital Foresight: The Case For Active Transhumanism.

In that book, I emphasise that transhumanism isn’t some other worldly idea that’s in search of a question to answer. Instead, I introduce transhumanism as the solution of what I describe as eleven “landmines”.

Snippets of ideas about transhumanism are included in the early chapters of my book, but it’s not until Chapter 11 that I introduce the subject properly. That was a deliberate choice. I want to be clear that transhumanism can be seen as the emerging mainstream response to real-world issues and opportunities.

3. Academics who write about transhumanism

In some parts of the world, there are more people who study and write about transhumanism than who actively support transhumanist projects. That was another topic at the end of Saturday’s London Futurists event.

From my own reading, I recognise some of that academic work as being of high quality. For example, see the research of Professor Stefan Lorenz Sorgner from the History and Humanities department at John Cabot University in Rome. Sorgner featured in a London Futurists webinar a few months ago.

Another example of fine academic research into transhumanism is the 2018 PhD thesis of Elise Bohan of Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia: A History of Transhumanism.

On the other hand, there’s also a considerable amount of academic writing on transhumanism that is, frankly, of a shockingly poor quality. I stepped through some of that writing while preparing Chapter 12 of Vital Foresight – the chapter (“Antitheses”) where I evaluate criticisms of transhumanism.

What these critics often do is to imagine their own fantasy version of transhumanism, and then criticise it, with little anchoring to the actual transhumanist community. That is, they criticise “straw men” distortions of transhumanism.

In some cases, these critics latch onto individual statements of people loosely connected with transhumanism – for example, statements by the fictional character Jethro Knights in the novel The Transhumanist Wager – and wrongly assume that these statements are authoritative for the entire movement. (See here for my own review of The Transhumanist Wager.)

These critics often assert: “What transhumanists fail to consider is…” or “Transhumanists never raise the question that…” whereas, in fact, these very questions have been reviewed in depth, many times over, in transhumanist discussion lists.

From time to time, critics of transhumanism do raise some good points. I acknowledge a number of examples throughout Vital Foresight. What I want to consider now are the questions that were raised on Saturday:

  1. How can transhumanists keep on top of the seemingly growing number of academic articles about us?
  2. What is the best way to respond to the misunderstandings and distortions that we notice?
  3. As a good use for our time, how do interactions with these academics compare with trying to share transhumanist messages with more mainstream audiences?

To answer the third question first: ideas matter. Ideas can spread from initially obscure academic settings into wider contexts. Keeping an eye on these discussions could help us to address issues early.

Moreover, what we can surely find, in amongst the range of academic work that addresses transhumanism, are some really good expressions and thoughts that deserve prominence and attention. These thoughts might also cause us to have some “aha” realisations – about things we could, or should, start to do differently.

Flipping to the first question: many hands make light work. Rather than relying on a single person that tries to review all academic mentions of transhumanism, more of us should become involved in that task.

When we find an article that deserves more attention – whether criticism or praise – we can add it into pages on H+Pedia (creating new pages if necessary).

The main event

Now you’ve read the after thoughts, here’s a recording of the event itself. Enjoy!

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