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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!

18 June 2020

Transhumanist alternatives to contempt and fear

Contempt and fear. These are the public reactions that various prominent politicians increasingly attract these days.

  • We feel contempt towards these politicians because they behave, far too often, in contemptible ways.
  • We feel fear regarding these politicians on account of the treacherous paths they appear to be taking us down.

That’s why many fans of envisioning and building a better world – including many technologists and entrepreneurs – would prefer to ignore politics, or to minimise its influence.

These critics of politics wish, instead, to keep their focus on creating remarkable new technology or on building vibrant new business.

Politics is messy and ugly, say these critics. It’s raucous and uncouth. It’s unproductive. Some would even say that politics is unnecessary. They look forward to politics reducing in size and influence.

Their preferred alternative to contempt and fear is to try to put the topic our of their minds.

I disagree. Putting our heads in the sand about politics is a gamble fraught with danger. Looking the other way won’t prevent our necks from being snapped when the axe falls. As bad outcomes increase from contemptible, treacherous politics, they will afflict everyone, everywhere.

We need a better alternative. Rather than distancing ourselves from the political sphere, we need to engage, intelligently and constructively.

As I’ll review below, technology can help us in that task.

Constructive engagement

Happily, as confirmed by positive examples from around the world, there’s no intrinsic reason for politics to be messy or ugly, raucous or uncouth.

Nor should politics be seen as some kind of unnecessary activity. It’s a core part of human life.

Indeed, politics arises wherever people gather together. Whenever we collectively decide the constraints we put on each other’s freedom, we’re taking part in politics.

Of course, this idea of putting constraints on each other’s freedoms is deeply unpopular in some circles. Liberty means liberty, comes the retort.

My answer is: things are more complicated. That’s for two reasons.

To start with, there are multiple kinds of freedom, each of which are important.

For example, consider the “four essential human freedoms” highlighted by US President FD Roosevelt in a speech in January 1941:

We look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.

The first is freedom of speech and expression – everywhere in the world.

The second is freedom of every person to worship God in their own way – everywhere in the world.

The third is freedom from want – which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants – everywhere in the world.

The fourth is freedom from fear – which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbour – anywhere in the world.

As well as caring about freeing people from constraints on their thoughts, speech, and actions, we generally also care about freeing people from hunger, disease, crime, and violence. Steps to loosen some of these constraints often risk decreasing other types of liberty. As I said, things are complicated.

The second reason builds on the previous point and makes it clearer why any proclamation “liberty means liberty” is overly simple. It is that our actions impact on each other’s wellbeing, both directly and indirectly.

  • If we speed in our cars, confident in our own ability to drive faster than the accepted norms, we risk seriously reducing the personal liberties of others if we suffer a momentary lapse in concentration.
  • If we share a hateful and misleading message on social media, confident in our own intellectual robustness, we might push someone reading that message over a psychological ledge.
  • If we discard waste products into the environment, confident that little additional harm will come from such pollution, we risk an unexpected accumulation of toxins and other harms.
  • If we grab whatever we can in the marketplace, confident that our own vigour and craftiness deserve a large reward, we could deprive others of the goods, services, and opportunities they need to enjoy a good quality of life.
  • If we publicise details of bugs in software that is widely used, or ways to increase the deadliness of biological pathogens, confident that our own reputation will rise as a result inside the peer groups we wish to impress, we risk enabling others to devastate the infrastructures upon which so much of life depends – electronic infrastructure and/or biological infrastructure.
  • If we create and distribute software that can generate mind-bending fake videos, we risk precipitating a meltdown in the arena of public discussion.
  • If we create and distribute software that can operate arsenals of weapons autonomously, freed from the constraints of having to consult slow-thinking human overseers before initiating an attack, we might gain lots of financial rewards, but at the risk of all manner of catastrophe from any defects in the design or implementation of that system.

In all these examples, there’s a case to agree some collective constraints on personal freedoms.

The rationale for imposing and accepting specific constraints on our freedom is in order to secure a state of affairs where overall freedom flourishes more fully. That’s a state of affairs in which we will all benefit.

In summary, greater liberty arises as a consequence of wise social coordination, rather than existing primarily as a reaction against such coordination. Selecting and enforcing social constraints is the first key task of politics.

Recognising and managing complexes

But who is the “we” who decides these constraints? And who will ensure that constraints put in place at one time, reflecting the needs of that time, are amended promptly when circumstances change, rather than remaining in place, disproportionately benefiting only a subset of society?

That brings us to a second key task of politics: preventing harmful dominance of society by self-interested groups of individuals – groups sometimes known as “complexes”.

This concept of the complex featured in the farewell speech made by President Eisenhower in January 1961. Eisenhower issued a profound warning that “the military industrial complex” posed a growing threat to America’s liberty and democracy:

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defence with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

As a distinguished former military general, Eisenhower spoke with evident authority on this topic:

Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of ploughshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defence; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defence establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations.

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence – economic, political, even spiritual – is felt in every city, every Statehouse, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

It’s one thing to be aware of the risks posed by a military industrial complex (and the associated trade in armaments). It’s another thing to successfully manage these risks. Similar risks apply as well, for other vested interest “complexes” that can likewise subvert societal wellbeing:

  • A carbon energy complex, which earns huge profits from the ongoing use of carbon-based fuels, and which is motivated to minimise appreciation of the risks to climate from continuing use of these fuels
  • A financial complex, which (likewise) earns huge profits, by means of complicated derivative products that are designed to evade regulatory scrutiny whilst benefiting in cases of financial meltdown from government handouts to banks that are perceived as “too big to fail”
  • An information technology complex, which collects vast amounts of data about citizens, and which enables unprecedented surveillance, manipulation, and control of people by corporations and/or governments
  • A medical industrial complex, which is more interested in selling patients expensive medical treatment over a long period of time than in low-cost solutions which would prevent illnesses in the first place (or cure them quickly)
  • A political complex, which seeks above all else to retain its hold on political power, often by means of undermining a free press, an independent judiciary, and any credible democratic opposition.

You can probably think of other examples.

In all these cases, the practical goals of the complex are only weakly aligned with the goals of society as a whole. If society is not vigilant, the complex will subvert the better intentions of citizens. The complex is so powerful that it cannot be controlled by mere words of advocacy.

Beyond advocacy, we need effective politics. This politics can be supported by a number of vital principles:

  • Transparency: The operations of the various complexes need to be widely publicised and analysed, bringing them out of the shadows into the light of public understanding
  • Disclosure: Conflicts of interest must be made clear, to avoid the public being misled by individuals with ulterior motives
  • Accountability: Instances where key information is found to have been suppressed or distorted need to be treated very seriously, with the guilty parties having their reputations adjusted and their privileges diminished
  • Assessment of externalities: Evaluation systems should avoid focusing too narrowly on short-term metrics (such as financial profit) but should take into full account both positive and negative externalities – including new opportunities and new risks arising
  • Build bridges rather than walls: Potential conflicts should be handled by diplomacy, negotiation, and seeking a higher common purpose, rather than by driving people into antagonistic rival camps that increasingly bear hatred towards one another
  • Leanness: Decisions should focus on questions that matter most, rather than dictating matters where individual differences can easily be tolerated
  • Democratic oversight: People in leadership positions in society should be subject to regular assessment of their performance by a democratic review, that involves a dynamic public debate aiming to reach a “convergent opinion” rather than an “average opinion”.

Critically, all the above principles can be assisted by smart adoption of technology that enhances collaboration. This includes wikis (or similar) that map out the landscape of decisions. This also includes automated logic-checkers, and dynamic modelling systems. And that’s just the start of how technology can help support a better politics.

Transhumanist approaches to politics

The view that technology can assist humans to carry out core parts of our lives better than before, is part of the worldview known as transhumanism.

Transhumanism asserts, further, than the assistance available from technology, wisely applied, extends far beyond superficial changes. What lies within our grasp is a set of radical improvements in the human condition.

As in the short video “An Introduction to Transhumanism” – which, with over a quarter of a million views, is probably the most widely watched video on the subject – transhumanism is sometimes expressed in terms of the so-called “three supers”:

  • Super longevity: significantly improved physical health, including much longer lifespans – transcending human tendencies towards physical decay and decrepitude
  • Super intelligence: significantly improved thinking capability – transcending human tendencies towards mental blind spots and collective stupidity
  • Super wellbeing: significantly improved states of consciousness – transcending human tendencies towards depression, alienation, vicious emotions, and needless suffering.

My own advocacy of transhumanism actually emphasises one variant within the overall set of transhumanist philosophies. This is the variant of transhumanism known as technoprogressive transhumanismThe technoprogressive variant of transhumanism in effect adds one more “super” to the three already mentioned:

  • Super democracy: significantly improved social inclusion and resilience, whilst upholding diversity and liberty – transcending human tendencies towards tribalism, divisiveness, deception, and the abuse of power.

These radical improvements, by the way, can be brought about by a combination of changes at the level of individual humans, changes in our social structures, and changes in the prevailing sets of ideas (stories) that we tend to tell ourselves. Exactly what is the best combination of change initiatives, at these different levels, is something to be determined by a mix of thought and experiment.

Different transhumanists place their emphases upon different priorities for potential transformation.

If you’d like to listen in to that ongoing conversation, let me draw your attention to the London Futurists webinar taking place this Saturday – 20th of June – from 7pm UK time (BST).

In this webinar, four leading transhumanists will be discussing and contrasting their different views on the following questions (along with others that audience members raise in real time):

  • In a time of widespread anxiety about social unrest and perceived growing inequalities, what political approach is likely to ensure the greatest liberty?
  • In light of the greater insights provided by science into human psychology at both the individual and group levels, what are the threats to our wellbeing that most need to be guarded against, and which aspects of human character most need to be protected and uplifted?
  • What does the emerging philosophy of transhumanism, with its vision of conscious life evolving under thoughtful human control beyond the current human form, have to say about potential political interventions?

As you can see, the webinar is entitled “Politics for greater liberty: transhumanist perspectives”. The panellists are:

For more details, and to register to attend, click here.

Other views on the future of governance and the economy

If you’d like to hear a broader set of views on a related topic, then consider attending a Fast Future webinar taking place this Sunday – 21st June – from 6pm UK time (BST).

There will be four panellists in that webinar – one being me. We’ll each be be presenting a snapshot of ideas from the chapters we contributed to the recent Fast Future book, Aftershocks and Opportunities – Scenarios for a Post-Pandemic Future, which was published on June 1st.

After the initial presentations, we’ll be responding to each other’s views, and answering audience questions.

My own topic in this webinar will be “More Aware, More Agile, More Alive”.

The other panellists, and their topics, will be:

  • Geoff Mulgan – “Using the Crisis to Remake Government for the Future”
  • Bronwyn Williams – “The Great Separation”
  • Rohit Talwar – “Post-Pandemic Government and the Economic Recovery Agenda: A Futurist Perspective”

I’m looking forward to a lively discussion!

Click here for more details of this event.

Transcending Politics

As I said above (twice), things are complicated. The science and engineering behind the various technological solutions are complicated. And the considerations about regulations and incentives, to constrain and guide our collective use of that technology, are complicated too. We should beware any overly simple claims about easy answers to these issues.

My fullest treatment of these issues is in a 423 page book of mine, Transcending Politics, that I published in 2018.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been flicking through some of the pages of that book again. Although there are some parts where I would now wish to use a different form of expression, or some updated examples, I believe the material stands the test of time well.

If the content in this blogpost strikes you as interesting, why not take a closer look at that book? The book’s website contains opening extracts of each of the chapters, as well as an extended table of contents. I trust you’ll like it.

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