lundi 4 février 2008

De Thézier's Resolution: Quit Transhumanism



My New Year's Resolution: Quit Transhumanism
Justice De Thezier
January 1, 2008
(Last edited January 11, 2008)

In 2002, while doing research for the script of a postcyberpunk-themed hyperlink film by reading copious amounts of science-fiction novels and popular science books, I accidentally stumbled upon the word ''transhumanist'' in one of the sourcebooks of the sophisticated role-playing game, Mage: The Ascension.

Despite thinking the word probably came from the author's creative and fertile imagination, I decided to google it out of curiosity. After I discovered and read the (previous) Transhumanist FAQ of the World Transhumanist Association (WTA), an international non-governmental organization which advocates the ethical use of technologies that expand human capacities, my life changed forever.

Having spent a decade in the world of the arts and culture as a creative professional, I decided to go back to university in Science and Technology Studies to develop a more enlightened and critical look at the development of technoscience as well as a sharper understanding of the social and political issues which shape the research, development and use of new technologies, and how in turn these technologies shape society and politics.

Since I was a reasonable hopeful technoscientifically-focused secular progressive, I rejected the two extremes of bioconservatism and ''libertarian transhumanism'', and naturally gravitated towards "democratic transhumanism", a third way articulated by James Hughes which asserts that the best possible "posthuman future" is achievable only by ensuring that human enablement technologies are safe, making them available to everyone, and respecting the right of individuals to have control of their own bodies.

Regardless of how our professional and personal relationship may fare, I will always be grateful to Hughes for making me aware, understand and *care* about a wide range of biopolitical issues that may scramble conventional social, political and economic thinking in the 21st century.

I was invited to contribute to Cyborg Democracy, a collaborative blog for democratic transhumanist thinkers and activists. I founded the Quebec Transhumanist Association (QTA), a fledgling network of activists and artists devoted to promoting projects that coalesce the arts, sciences, technologies and politics. Through the QTA, I worked to stimulate awareness of community perspectives on the right to human enablement in the local media, including appearances in print, radio and television. And, in 2006, I had the honor of being elected to the board of directors of the WTA.

Beyond being the de facto French-speaking spokesperson of the WTA, my goal was to develop an ethical fundraising and financial accountability code (which was adopted in February 2007); and, more importantly, nudge and support Hughes' efforts to expand the WTA's programs of activity to include more focused and action-oriented programs, with a global campaign for a publicly financed anti-aging research initiative at the top of our concerns.

My vision for the transhumanist movement was one where membership organizations like the WTA would focus on mobilizing people across their respective countries to initiate important biopolitical campaigns while think tanks would focus on offering policymakers the best assessments of the social benefits and risks of new developments in technology from a democratic transhumanist perspective.

However, the more months passed, the more my concern was validated about how the label "transhumanist" was giving me an identity at the cost of achieving of my goals. It also seemed that I was spending far more time trying to "convert" people to transhumanism and defending this ideology against hysterical attacks but also fair and accurate criticisms, than actually contributing to the social struggle to democratize the costs, risks and benefits of new technologies.

But, more profoundly, having invested so much time and energy in promoting transhumanism --- and, let's be honest, having been seduced by the siren songs of a ''posthuman future'' --- I came to the awkward realization that I, a self-professed free and critical thinker, had willingly blinded myself to the flaws of transhumanism, which I became increasingly aware were *inherencies* that undermine the diversity of views or ''leftist awakening'' among transhumanists:

1. An undercritical support for technology in general and fringe science in particular;

2. A distortive ''us vs. them'' tribe-like mentality and identity; and

3. A vulnerability to unrealistic utopian and dystopian ''future hype''.

After spending a year as the self-appointed yet half-hearted ''devil's advocate'' of the WTA, not only have I come to the conclusion that it is quite quixotic to think I or any lone individual can do anything to change what both prominent transhumanists and ''anti-transhumanists'' agreee are the minimum constituents without which this ideology would not be what it is, without being falsely accused of trying to ''reduce diversity'' or, worse, ''thoughtpolice''; but I've decided to quit transhumanism.

So, when my term on the WTA Board of Directors ends on January 23rd, not only am I leaving the board but I'm also cancelling my WTA membership and closing down the dormant Quebec Transhumanist Association (which others are free to reopen). If I am contacted by the media, I will politely refer them to the select few reasonable transhumanist advocates I know but if I am still asked to speak on transhumanism at some public venue it will be as a friendly critic who demands that transhumanism lives up to its claims to uphold a respect for reason and science, and a commitment to progress.

Who knows? Perhaps one day it will. If and when that happens, I'll be the first one to cheer. ;)

---

2 Weeks Later...
Justice De Thezier
January 15, 2008

I anticipated and was looking forward to a transhumanist, especially one who is a member of the WTA, writing a pointed analysis of, or simply a knee-jerk attempt at demolishing, the (recently updated) letter through which I dramatically announced I was ''quitting transhumanism''. It finally happened on the wta-talk list Keith Elis wrote what even I found to be a brilliant yet utterly mistaken pop psychoanalysis of the first version of my letter. He wrote:
'There is a large group of people out there, I think, who can be thought of as similar to Arjen and Justice. They were initially 'wowed' by transhumanism, ran about trying to get everyone interested, became increasingly dissatisfied for one reason or another, and then went off to do other things. These folks interpret their dissatisfaction and decision to disengage as evidence of inherent problems with transhumanism. "There's nothing wrong with me; it must be you." This is just a bald lack of self-criticality.'
uh, since I clearly explained what was both "wrong with me" and transhumanism the accusation that I am not self-critical is quite strange.

Keith continued:
‘There is ample evidence, written in Justice's own hand in his dramatic 'quitting' post, to show that he made the somewhat immature mistake of becoming enamored of an idea. There is further evidence to show he compounded this mistake by blaming the idea itself for his attraction to it.’
I can't really say I became ''enamored'' with the *idea* of transhumanism (as opposed to the movement itself) since, like many transhumanists, I always held a ''transhumanist'' worldview without knowing there was a label for it. However, I did intellectually and emotionally invest myself in the transhumanist cause in the same way that I have invested in many other causes ranging from progressivism to environmentalism. If one remains critical, there is nothing wrong with such an act of investment. However, I found the transhumanist subculture tends to reinforce or ''pervert'' one's long-held or newly-found convictions, whether or not these convictions are sound.

Keith continued:
‘Justice starts us off with a doozy, "When I discovered and read the (previous) ranshumanist FAQ of the World Transhumanist Association (WTA), . . . my life changed forever." Now, the two documents mentioned here are not stunning examples of literary excellence. In fact, they're somewhat dry, and written in a reasonable, factual tone. I see no exclamation points, no 'manifesto discourse'. It seems that it would take a little bit more than a basic statement of values, and answers to a few questions to change one's life forever, no?’
Please forgive my rhetorical style and conciseness but I didn't mean to suggest that the Transhumanist FAQ alone literally ''changed my life forever''. I was suggesting that my agreement with the majority of the answers of the Transhumanist FAQ *and* my further reading of transhumanist literature as well as my conversations with some leading transhumanists but, most importantly, the very existence of an organization dedicated to goals I support led me to take a series of decisions which not only took my life in a different direction when it comes to my career but even contributed to me becoming a local celebrity of sorts (not that I was looking to become one...). On a regular basis, I walk down the street and get approached by people who recognize me as ''The Montreal Transhumanist''. If that can't be considered as evidence that one's life has changed forever, I don't know what can. ;)

Keith continued:
‘Justice may not know it, but he describes himself as a person somewhat vulnerable to utopian 'future hype' -- oddly, the very same criticism leveled at transhumanists.’
Ahhhh... Keith has unknowingly touched on the ''tactic'' behind my letter. When I decided to write it, I felt I had two choices.

The first one would involve exhaustively naming all the prominent transhumanists and quoting all their public and private statements as evidence of the flaws of transhumanism. However, this would have enraged many people due to having possibly damaged their public credibility but, more importantly, it would have prevented them from listening to, and understanding, what I was trying to communicate to them by virtue of having put them on the defensive.

The second one (which I chose) was to offer a personal narrative in which I attribute to myself views and behaviors that I had observed in many prominent transhumanists (rather than a few marginal ''rank-and-file'' transhumanists that are supposedly not representative of the transhumanist community...) which are views and behaviors that I quickly recognized anyone, including myself, could succumb to but that I didn't. My assumption was and is that people are more likely to recognize these views and behaviors in themselves when it is presented to them through such an *allegory*.

Keith continued:
‘Justice goes on explaining the source of his eventual dissatisfaction with transhumanism, "It also seemed that I was spending far more time trying to convert people to transhumanism..." Oddly, Justice characterizes his actions in pseudo-religious terms. Transhumanism isn't a cult, but Justice clearly made the mistake of thinking he joined one. Now transhumanists generally like to express their opinions on matters of technology, some even politics, and many prognosticate about the future. But nowhere did I see an exhortation to proselytize for converts. This is just a mistake Justice made, and rather than search out the aspects of his personality that led to this mistake, he would rather blame the ideology, or the community?’
Although I did use the word ''convert'' to negatively imply that the actions of some transhumanists are pseudo-religious (For evidence, one just needs to read this infamous excerpt from a prominent transhumanist's evangelistic speech about transhumanism), many leading transhumanists have exhorted us to build the transhumanist movement by ''proselytizing for converts" in the same way that militant communists, feminists and environmentalists have done. This is a perfectly legitimate activity (and I admire them for their commitment to engaging in it). The problem is that, as a local chapter organizer, I found that not only was I and others engaging in too much of it but I no longer believe it will significantly and positively contribute to the techno-progressive struggle.

Keith continued:
‘One plausible reason why Justice might have made this mistake could be that he has an intellectual tendency toward an us-them, tribe-like mentality -- another of the criticisms leveled at transhumanists.’
Although I can't deny that I have an intellectual tendency to want to make people (uncomfortably) aware of a ''left''/''right'' political analysis of technodevelopmental politics (which I will promptly admit was unfair and inaccurate if and when it is shown to be), my criticism of the transhumanist ''us vs. them'' tribe-like mentality and identity is reflected in the much documented history of transhumanists falsely portraying both reasonable and unreasonable critics of ''enhancement technologies'' as critics of transhumanism (which are not the same thing) but, worse, dismissing them as ''luddites/neo-luddites/bioludites'' when most of them are not.Dale Carrico has written on this particular point in his essay The Trouble with ''Transhumanism'': Part Two.

Keith continued:
‘However, here is the key paragraph in which Justice gives away the store, "... having invested so much time and energy in promoting transhumanism --- and let's be honest, having been seduced by the syren songs of a ''posthuman future'' --- I came to the awkward realization that I, a self-professed free and critical thinker, had willingly blinded myself to the flaws of transhumanism which I became increasing aware were inherencies that *undermine* any diversity of views or ''leftist awakening'' among transhumanists..." In this one paragraph, Justice summarizes his work for a tribe which only he thinks exists, reiterates his vulnerability to future hype, and admits his tendency to deliberately avoid self-criticism. In all, his entire quitting speech implies its author became enamored of an idea. It reads like a passionate story of unrequited love. And in the end, like all good tragedies, he blinds himself to his own foibles and instead projects them onto the source of his anguish and sees 'tragic flaws' in transhumanism where the indifferent audience sees only him.’
Although essentially truthful, my letter does read like ''a passionate story of unrequited love'' purely for rhetorical purposes. As I explained above, I was attributing to myself the foibles of others in order for it to be easier for them to recognize it in themselves. The fact that many transhumanists and ex-transhumanists have privately and publicly expressed this recognition not only supports my criticism but validates my ''tactic''. That being said, if you remove the personal narrative in which I framed my critique of transhumanism, one is left with the exact same arguments that many people (some of whom transhumanists actually respect) have made, including Dale Carrico which he has exhaustively and eloquently expressed in his Superlative Summary, and even on the wta-talk list on December 15th:

‘"Transhumanism," so-called, makes two characteristic moves. One is to be "pro-technology" at a level of generality that is at best useless, since what matters is that some technologies are put to good uses and others bad uses according to the ends of some people (always as opposed to others who also actually exist as stakeholders to whom we are politically beholden in ways that tribal politics isn't very good at dealing with as a rule), and there is nothing happening at the level of *technology as such* -- which I venture to say doesn't even really mean anything, let alone something inherently "positive" or "negative" -- worthy of or even coherently susceptible of affirmation or repudiation.

Because "transhumanism," so-called, is not only vacuously "pro-technology" but also fueled by considerations of "tribal identity" above all others, this means it will devote considerable energies to the identification of objective enemies who are "anti-technology" at the same essentially useless level of generality. One can of course discern a general "anti-technologism" in a few photogenic oddball specimens of hysterical bioconservative like Brownback or anarcho-primitivist like Zerzan, but the truth is that the actual *force* of the accusation of "luddism" or "anti-technologism" will tend more usually to be to obscure reasonable fears about concrete technodevelopmental outcomes as they impact concrete constituencies. And all of that can be far better addressed through redistributions of technodevelopmental regulations, risks, costs, and benefits than by casting about for pathological villains to dis-identify with so as to console oneself for the psychic and social costs of one's own project of facile identification.

In other words, even where actual bioconservatism is concerned the best way to diffuse its allure for some is probably to address concrete concerns rather than to build a contrary tribe to battle it out with them over. As far as I can tell, bioconservatism and transhumanism as projects of actual identification and disidentification organized by an overgeneral and undercritical "anti-" or "pro-" technology stances are exactly equally distortive of the work of diverse technodevelopmental stakeholder discourse in its actual concrete complexity.

This leads to "transhumanism's" second characteristic move -- the conjoining of its tribalism with its uncritical embrace of "technology as vacuity" makes it highly vulnerable to hype and handwaving. As an ethnographic matter the things one actually can say most concretely about transhumanists as opposed to most other people (including most progressive technoscientifically literate people) is that "transhumanists" tend fervently to believe or at any rate take very seriously people who so believe that imminent technodevelopmental outcomes will deliver (at least to some lucky people) superintelligence, superlongevity, and superabundance. "Transhumanism" is what I call elsewhere a superlative technology discourse (as one of which it is not, as it happens, historically or even currently unique). I have written about superlativity as a phenomenon more general and more interesting than just the one transhumanist variation very extensively elsewhere -- and even some transhumanist-identified people have found some useful things in those writings, so I direct the interested there rather than rehearsing the arguments.

The upshot of all this is that "transhumanism" tends to devote its energies to tribal moralism which it mistakes for politically useful organizing when it likely is not, and which -- far worse -- can contribute to politically pernicious elitism (antidemocratizing technocratic attitudes, strategic alliances with incumbent interests directing Development discourse and so on) even when many who profess it likely would not explicitly approve such outcomes. Transhumanism is essentially a highly marginal subculture that is unlikely ever to amount to more, organized by tribalism, a commitment to "technology" as a vacuous generality, and a deep vulnerability to techno-utopian and disasterbatory hyperbole facilitated by these.

I think there are very few bioconservatives in the world who actual exist in an actual self-identified sub(cult)ural form just as, *vice versa*, there are very few transhumanists in the world, so self-identified in any kind of sustained way. I'm not talking about people and campaigns to whom transhumanists *ascribe* these identities and movements in their oversimplified and sometimes outright paranoid reconstructions of the scene, or *vice versa*. Transhumanists are always claiming non-transhumanists are really closeted transhumanists, or just timid or what have you. It's a way of telling yourselves you are more relevant than you actually are as an actual force of self-identified people signing on to an actual program to which reputable membership organizations (eager for cash) are committed.’

That being said, even if all Carrico’s criticisms of transhumanism were demonstrated to be unfair and inaccurate, anyone who thinks that the transhumanist ideology and movement has been and is relatively flawless or does not deserve any of the criticism it has generated over the years is dangerously delusional.

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