H+Pedia:Transhumanist FAQ Analysis

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An essay by Deku-shrub

Due to the success of the scope of H+Pedia project, especially in covering jargon, ideologies and politics, it has come to my attention that transhumanist FAQ hosted by Humanity+ implicitly presents a specific type of transhumanist thought, something that newcomers to the movement might not be aware of.

I aim to dissect the FAQ, pointing out it's politics, inclusions, omissions and implicit messages for all to see.

Contents

History

The FAQ itself has been evolving since the mid-1990's, similarly to the much shorter Transhumanist Declaration outline of principles. Whilst tracking details of its evolution through external references and sources such as archive.org may be possible, the lack of transparency around changes is not beneficial in my opinion. For example, the libertarian politics of the Extropy Institute are neither explicitly rejected or endorsed, despite them playing a key part in its evolution.

In the 21st century, the idea of an important long-lived document not existing in an annotated and highly cross-referenced form with the ubiquity of wikis, revision control systems such as Github whilst superficially likely reflects limitations of the current iterations of the website software, presents an idea formed and developed through strict traditional hierarchies and processes.

These processes themselves do not appear to be transparent, open or otherwise accessible to transhumanists not closely involved with the organisation. That said, I suspect this is an indicator more of the disorganisation of the transhumanist discussion platforms than significant desire for secrecy. I would recommend a review of these processes, after all, transhumanism has a conspiracy theory problem.

Credits

Many prestigious figures within the transhumanist movement are referenced, however lack of simply hyperlinking to these individuals bios or online presence renders the document limited in function.

Having studied such influential figures, I could tell you all about Eliezer Yudkowsky, David Pearce or even Mike Lorrey. As someone who has participated in and studied the community extensively for several years now, there are still a great deal of names I do not recognise. Are they scientists? Artists? Political idealists? I just can't tell browsing the list.

The Transhumanist FAQ 3.0, as revised by the continued efforts of many transhumanists, will continue to be updated and modified as we develop new knowledge and better ways of accounting for old knowledge which directly and indirectly relate to transhumanism. Our goal is to provide a reliable source of information about transhumanism.

I would seriously argue whether the website in question is the best place for such an important document. In the future when H+Pedia is fully operational and connected with other organisations, I would suggest such a wiki-based platform a more natural home.

General

What is transhumanism?

Transhumanism is a class of philosophies of life that seek the continuation and acceleration of the evolution of intelligent life beyond its currently human form and human limitations by means of science and technology, guided by life-promoting principles and values.” (Max More 1990)

Such a quote is very important in the history of transhumanism, but it is really useful in characterising the movement today? Surely anyone who identifies as a transhumanist - is a transhumanist? I would argue the lofty aspirations of transhumanism could be presented far more accessibly as a philosophy for everyone, rather than a very specific way of thinking about technology and the human form. This is something I've attempted to outline on H+Pedia, and whilst I don't claim to have solved this problem yet, it is something I am constantly working on.

See also Transhumanism definitions.

What is a posthuman?

Posthuman or posthuman transhumanism as I prefer to call it is often a hard-sell. Often an education in science fiction is required to begin to grasp mind uploading for example. The idea that many people embrace life extension with more of an eye on biological immortalism in my opinion is given insufficient prominence given the mainstream appeal the idea has.

Posthumanism is a fascinating area of study for gathering insights into individual's present psychology, but not one I consider a technological or social movement, simply philosophical.

What is a transhuman?

Transhuman I would argue is not a useful term, where transhumanist is. Similar to the contemporary divergence in the meaning of the words 'sex' and 'gender', a person's attitude towards technology, society and the future bear significantly more weight than whether for example they have vision enhancement. Whilst the term deserves a significant place in transhumanist history and lore, I have observed it falling out of favour significantly in recent years.

The works of the likes of Amber Case and her Cyborg Anthropology for example, use much more inclusivist definitions of transhumanism, rather placing so much weight in the founders of the movement, many who whom literally lived in another age.

Practicalities

What are the reasons to expect all these changes?

The section pretty much makes the Moore's law position towards accelerating technological change. The fact that many readers may be conservative or sceptical in their technological outlook doesn't appear to be given much credence. After all, they were promised flying cars.

How can I use transhumanism in my own life?

transhumanism is not a lifestyle, a religion, or a self-help guide

Implicit in this statement in my opinion is that transhumanism should not be any of these things, when actually for some people it is. Religious and spiritual transhumanism are most definitely a thing, even if they don't have the full acceptance of the community. Life loggers, bloggers and simply mobile phone users may outright disagree that transhumanism can't be a lifestyle. As a type at my Matrix-like computer onto a keyboard which is encoding text into wiki software somewhere out there in cyberspace, to a global audience and technological movement with the aim of playing a very small part in shaping the future - why can't it be a lifestyle?

What if it doesn’t work?

Implicit yet missing from this statement is what if it doesn't work soon enough, perhaps due to political, economic or emergent social barriers towards it doing so? Sure, there will always be a minority of people in libertarian enclaves keeping the light of human technology burning in a possible dystopian future, but is that really enough? Must the choice be between inevitablism and existential threats?

With such extremes being the only ones presented, why should 'ordinary people' take the movement seriously?

How could I become a posthuman?

Such a question to my mind appears very specific and almost out of place. If only the FAQ were actually annotated with the reasons for inclusion of the FAQ items!

Because really, are there very a great many people who really want to 'become posthuman'? There are many people interested in living forever for example, yet the FAQ tells me this isn't possible. As I sit at my computer, building my digital exobrains for future generations :(. So I don't even agree with this.

Won’t it be boring to live forever in a perfect world?

There are numerous streams of opposition to transhumanism and this is just one of them. Transhumanists could benefit from studying the real opposition, be it vocal or apathetic. Real strategies need to be developed, beyond calling people luddites that include most people and exclude only very the most risks to the movements such as violent religious fundementalism and vectors towards dystopian futures.

How can I get involved and contribute?

I have nothing to say here beyond I hope to better organise projects across the transhumanist community to better enable activism.

Society and Politics

Will new technologies only benefit the rich and powerful?

Whist this section makes some strong arguments against technoconservatism, it neglects matters of digital rights as well as AI entirely. Why should a technocratic movement such as transhumanism be taken seriously when it hand-waves the possibility of oligarchic or even fascist possibilities that technology can bring?

Why transhumanists advocate human enhancement as ethical rather than pre-WWII eugenics?

This is a section I have no complaints about! Apart from the usual lack of citations, projection data though...

Aren’t these future technologies very risky? Could they even cause our extinction?

Interestingly the possibility of gray goo caused by rogue nanotechnology is mentioned, yet the fairly analogous risks around genetically modified food are omitted. Please note when I say risks, I don't mean health risks, I mean the risks caused by the monopolisation of so-called intellectual property these new technologies bring with them.

If these technologies are so dangerous, should they be banned? What can be done to reduce the risks?

there is no realistic prospect of a worldwide ban on these technologies

Whilst I'm inclined to agree that these powerful technologies cannot effectively be banned, this sidesteps the possibilities of technologies being subverted. Internet access becomes advertiser control. Mobile phone GPS becomes state tracking. Social media becomes social control.

It's my opinion that bad outcomes associated with these technologies be given increased prominence within the movement as a whole and be integrated into all aspects of contemporary technological philosophy, not just AI and the Singularity.

Shouldn’t we concentrate on current problems?

With too great an emphasis on posthumanism and mind uploading, the movement runs the risk of splitting issues into 'today's problems' and 'future problems'. From my perspective we simply have today's problems and philosophy. Such a split view deserves to begin being disassembled in my opinion.

Will extended life worsen overpopulation problems?

This issue is addressed from a highly philosophical position. It assumes that certain environmentalists alarmist population rhetoric is correct and seeks to counter it. As outlined in life extension and overpopulation is not even a real risk. Addressing it as if it were is unnecessary and fuels the opposition to life extension.

Is there any ethical standard

This is one of the key sections that assume life extension and transhumanism is inherently ethical. I would disagree, streams like survivalist transhumanism, transhumanist separatism, not to mention the dystopian can be entirely transhumanist.

This is one of the key areas where my idea of liberal transhumanism seeks to create key distinctions.

What kind of society would posthumans live in?

The question implies that posthuman politics and society is of relevance to the contemporary reader. A range of modern positions from Anarcho-transhumanism to Social Futurism exist today, yet people ask about these far future governance structures.

This is more of treating the future as something separate from today which I have previous expressed my disapproval of.

Will posthumans or superintelligent machines pose a threat to humans who aren’t augmented?

This entire section could be entirely replaced with 'it depends who's in charge' and launch into politics, instead we have AI philosophy and hand-waving.

Technologies and Projections

Biotechnology, genetic engineering, stem cells, and cloning. What are they and what are they good for?

This section lacks either comment or refutation of the movement's association with either eugenics or super babies.

What is molecular nanotechnology?

Lacks comment or reference to a gray goo scenario.

What is superintelligence?

Many but not all transhumanists expect that superintelligence will be created within the first half of this century

Of the many things lacking in citations, this is especially so.

What is virtual reality?

In my opinion, this lacks commentary on contemporary avatar selves most of us run today, such a via our Facebook or Twitter profiles, and how these second-selves live semi-independent lives.

Also doesn't touch on augmented reality, though that is more of a new thing.

What is cryonics? Isn’t the probability of success too small?

Real statistics on transhumanist support of cryonics are required IMO. Much of the time, the two ideas are conflated as if all transhumanists support cryonics programmes uncritically.

What is uploading?

Whist this focuses on traditional definitions of mind uploading, it excludes more liberal ideas as explored in Cyborg Anthropology to do with new everyday computer connectedness most people in the developed world experience routinely.

What is the singularity?

The FAQ fails to overtly lay out alternative, conflicting definitions of what The Singularity might be, instead simply picking just one.

Why do transhumanists want to live longer?

I found this argument for life extension arbitrary and non-persuasive - and I've tried it with people! Life extension advocacy is a huge and growing area and certainly not something that can be summarised in such a short paragraph from a single source.

Isn’t this tampering with nature?

Absolutely, and it is nothing to be ashamed of. It is often right to tamper with nature. One could say that manipulating nature is an important part of what civilization and human intelligence is all about; we have been doing it since the invention of the wheel. Alternatively, one could say that since we are part of nature...

The editorial on this section is highly conflicted and could use some rationalisation.

Will transhuman technologies make us inhuman?

This section completely ignores the potential for dehumanisation technology has, as well as once again failing to acknowledge dystopian scenarios.

Isn’t death part of the natural order of things?

Average human life span hovered between 20 and 30 years for most of our species’ history

This is a common fallacy that fails to take into account the huge drop in child mortality.[1]

This needs a complete rewrite due to be flat-out wrong on this point.

It also means that voluntary euthanasia, under conditions of informed consent, is a basic human right.

Is there a transhumanist consensus on this? This is sorely in need of a citation.

Are transhumanist technologies environmentally sound?

The only truly long-term solution to resource shortage is space colonization.

Or mind uploading? Why isn't this even mentioned?

Transhumanism as a Philosophical and Cultural Viewpoint

What are the philosophical and cultural antecedents of transhumanism?

There are some good historical points here, damaged by lack of usable in-line citations and links.

What currents are there within transhumanism?

H+Pedia now has a much wider list of streams of transhumanism than listed here, e.g. Category:Transhumanism and more.

How does transhumanism relate to religion?

Religious fanaticism, superstition, and intolerance are not acceptable among transhumanists

One man's superstition is another's spirituality. A increasingly important dialogue talking place in the west is the idea of being 'intolerant of intolerance' - yet this doesn't warrant a mention. When Zoltan Istvan suggests that it be banned to teach religion to children,[2] do we tolerate this view?

This is where I would once again argue the politics of liberal transhumanism is distinct from transhumanism as an underlying idea.

Won’t things like uploading, cryonics, and AI fail because they can’t preserve or create the soul?

The hard problem of consciousness should be referenced here, or in a separate area because this is a complex area.

What kind of transhumanist art is there?

In my opinion science fiction films, books, video games are a rich and growing area of art, yet the focus is mainly on the historical.

Conclusions

There are a great many omissions, unintentional assumptions, over-generalisations and areas simply in need of an update within the Transhumanist FAQ.

I extend my greatest respects to the main contributors to the document over the years, but reiterate my dissatisfaction with the document's development process and vagueness of mission.

To be fair, the looseness of the FAQ in many respects reflects the looseness of the movement itself - however attempting to build a centralised FAQ typically showing limited varieties of opinions on issues ends up not reflecting the actual state of the movement.

Since I'm sure there's enough feedback to generate debate over this document, I'll leave it as that for now. Hopefully it will trigger a serious discussion within Humanity+ and transhumanist stakeholders about how they want to develop the document going forward.

External links

References