Who wants to live forever?


Comment: Transhumanism's vision of the future for wealthy white males

16th June 2015
By Paul Graham Raven

It's tricky to bring transhumanism into sharp focus. As with, say, feminism, the meaning of the word varies hugely between individuals who identify with it, and the level of commitment may vary between an occasional affirmation or a crusading passion. Like feminism, transhumanism has many factions, often at war with one another, or with the broader culture; as with feminism, a lot of people identify as transhumanist without spending much time learning what those who coined the term were actually on about.

Transhumanism broadly considers technology as an emancipatory route to individual and/or collective transcendence over the 'limitations' of the human condition. Drawing on the techno-utopian futurologies of classic science fiction and contemporary Silicon Valley, transhumanism looks forward to a future in which the merging of human and machine becomes literal and concrete, and technological progress will enable us to do and be anything we can imagine. Various sectarian remixes of this core gospel are preached by notable technologists, venture capitalists and 'thought leaders' of the Valley set; indeed, the commitment of Google's top brass to the project was reaffirmed in the hiring of Ray Kurzweil, figurehead of the transhumanist sub-sect known as Singularitarianism (who believe that computers will soon outsmart humans, and that we should prepare to make that scenario benefit us more than them).

When confronted by the bewildering technocultural maelstrom surrounding the term 'transhumanism', however, it is worth remembering that the majority who identify with it do so in a manner that most closely resembles a fandom. Think of it as a mirror image to its nostalgic cousin, steampunk; many such transhumanists identify with their supposed cyborg future as an aesthetic rather than as an ideology, much as steampunks may be presumed (or at least hoped) to have more interest in reviving the sartorial trappings of Empire than the socioeconomic conditions of imperialism.

While not as obviously nostalgic as steampunk, transhumanism is nonetheless a paleo-future – a future vision which can be dated to a particular moment in the past. Transhumanism emerged from extropianism, which was among the explosion of oddball subcultures fostered by the early, pre-web internet. Extropianism grew from the enthusiastic cyber-libertarians of the early 1990s, with their overclocked snow-crash of sociotechnical metaphors from science fiction misparsed as prediction: cybernetic implants, 'smart drugs' and the earliest hints of what we now think of as the Quantified Self paradigm all pointed toward the inevitable melding of man and machine; technological innovation was about to catapult us clear out of the human condition, and the faster we transcended the 'meat prisons' of our 'baseline' bodies, the better.

A future in which the merging of human and machine becomes literal and concrete, and technological progress will enable us to do and be anything we can imagine

While many of these predictions fell by the wayside, the extropian old guard became particularly obsessed with extended longevity, and this lies at the heart of contemporary transhumanist doctrine: having noted that being alive is a good thing, the transhumanist posits that more life must therefore be more good, thus identifying a (spurious) moral imperative for the extension of human lifespans through the use of any technology which promises to do so. Every life lost which might have been saved by technological intervention is manslaughter; this is the transhumanist lobbying position, which argues in favour of the development and deregulation of 'life extension technologies'.

But arguing for 'life extension technologies' is a form of special pleading, creating a privileged subcategory of medical research – the sort of argument that can only be made by persons who already have access to the full suite of medical and infrastructural technologies which have extended average lifespans over the course of the last few centuries. Transhumanists are predominantly white professional males from the west, putting them way ahead in the lifespan lottery already – but evidently not so far as they'd like.

And so we come to the sophistry at transhumanism's heart, most often expressed in the form of 'the proactionary principle'.

The proactionary principle, a creation of first-generation transhumanist figurehead Max More, is an attempt to turn the precautionary principle upon its head. Where the precautionary principle declares that research and experimentation should only be undertaken after a consensus has been reached regarding the low probability of risky outcomes, More's proactionary principle damns such caution as being detrimental to the advancement of the species, and advocates that research priorities and funding be allocated in accordance with the potential rewards, rather than risks. By suggesting that the state is not only intruding upon one's freedom to conduct business, but also restricting one's potential maximal lifespan, More hits upon a two-pronged formula that strikes right at the heart of what it is to be a wealthy western man: the plebeian moonbats don't just want you to fail, they want you to die before you're done.

The proactionary principle extends the Silicon Valley mantra 'move fast and break things' – complete with its implicit delegation of any necessary mop-up operations to someone else – to its upper limit. Many transhumanists can be excused for falling for the snake-oil of immortality, presumably having spent little time thinking about its implications (let alone its likelihood), but the movement's founding fathers have no such excuse. Whether the proactionary principle is a cynical rhetorical ploy or an earnest political position is uncertain, and perhaps not even a distinction worth making; it does, however, make more sense when one learns that More is CEO of a cryogenics firm. If your business model involves banking other people's money against the promise that you'll defrost their frozen head as soon as the technology exists to restore them to life, one presumably finds oneself in frequent need of persuasive arguments in favour of dubious and unproven technologies.

Transhumanism is one of the stranger subcultural interfaces of the so-called Californian Ideology – that strange marriage of 60s self-realisation and 80s neoliberal economics that defines the culture of our global technological elite. It's tempting to write it off as just another tribe of cranks on the internet, but to ignore transhumanism is to ignore its powerful backers and funders – such as Peter Thiel, PayPal founder and unrepentant Ayn Rand fanboy – and the level of attention paid by policymakers to these panjandrums of the Valley. That they make self-interested arguments is no surprise – in this, at least, libertarianism has always been refreshingly honest. Of greater concern is the influence those arguments might have; history suggests that ruling classes are predisposed to the idea of extending both their power and their capacity to enjoy it, and immortality is the ultimate answer to the question, "What can you give the man who already has absolutely everything?"


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