Considering Transhumanism

by Dirk Knemeyer

This weekend I attended the Humanity+ Conference at Parsons in New York City. Subtitled "Transhumanism Meets Design", the conference aspired to "explor(e) emerging technology, transdisciplinary design, culture and media theory, and biotech."

My exposure to transhumanism was previously limited to very high-level themes and the notion of Singularity so, in preparation for the conference, I took some time to sort of broadly survey the field. What I found was a group that seemed focused on evolving beyond the current human condition via technologies such as cryonics, transferring the contents of the human brain into machines, servers or other digital devices, augmenting the human condition to either enhance our normal functioning or overcome impairments and limitations, and extending life by any possible means.

What struck me during my research was the relative lack of concern for the essential human condition. The majority of the field seemed focused on life extension and human-machine hybridization for their own sake. The qualitative aspects of existence, while not completely ignored, were given decidedly short-shrift. My initial reaction, as I was building a framework for these efforts in my mind, was to associate transhumanism with the early 20th century eugenics movement. The parallel I saw was optimization of humans around quantitative measures in trying to achieve superior being. In both cases the movements seemed to lack the deep concern for human rights and experience. At the conference I learned that I am not the first one to make that parallel, and that it is - needless to say - a touchy subject for the community. But let me get back to that later. The other thing I learned at the conference is that issues of ethics do appear to be taken seriously, which is heartening.

My survey of the field convinced me that my talk should be based on encouraging the community to expand their focus on and consideration of the future human experience from the perspective of individual's articulated needs and desires. I only had a slim 10 minute window to present in and decided to use it to talk about some of the human understanding models I've used to instigate business success.

The talk turned out to be rather polarizing. After the talk I was on a panel with other speakers who were part of the same group: it was a single track conference, broken into bundles of content. The first "questioner" for the panel was a stakeholder of the transhumanist movement who was chomping at the bit to set me straight. Rather than a question, he engaged in a lengthy diatribe trying to make the case for the validity of transhumanism. I did not claim transhumanism was invalid; I claimed it was incomplete and needed broader consideration in order to avoid being a potentially myopic and misguided movement. The second questioner was also agitated by my talk but at least asked clarifying questions as opposed to simply itching for a fight. I answered the question and tried to redirect the questioners to the other panelists, to give them attention as well. After all, the panelist to my right, who also turned out to be a deep community stakeholder and also appeared agitated by my comments, had begun immediately huffing and puffing when the second question was directed at me. My intent had been to get people to think differently, not get defensive and upset. Mission fail, it would appear.

Now, other people were supportive of my content: a few were excited and approached me with things to the effect of "You're the only one who gets it." A few others simply said they enjoyed it and agreed with it. Still others had questions and clarification but generally resonated with my core points, while some others were non-committal but engaged me in the same inquisitive spirit I hoped to cultivate.

The defensiveness of the community - and it really is "the community", in that many key, leadership stakeholders were present - caught me by surprise. It made me step back and think. Certainly, transhumanism is pursuing themes that are, at best, uncomfortable for a preponderance of the population. As such it is inherently a fringe organization, one that has fielded slings and arrows over the years. It is to their detriment that the impulse to circle the wagons and cover their genitals is so strong when someone new comes in and challenges their alchemy, but I understand it. One must assume that most detractors aren't coming from a standpoint of curiosity and looking to participate in creating something better, but simply to tear down. Still, while I may understand the reaction, it will prove a self-fulfilling prophecy that serves to welcome in those who are already similarly turned while screening out most of us who think the Kool-Aid recipe could stand to be a bit sweeter.

It was only toward the end of the conference that I realized one of the organizers - who is also one of the leaders of the international community - is married to another one of the leaders of the international community, the latter of which is the CEO of one of the companies best positioned to benefit if transhumanism should really take off. Since it is such a small community, my instinct was to be suspicious of this. It felt self-serving. But I started to think about other small communities on the fringe that I've been part of or at least intersecting with at times over the years. The reality is they ARE close-knit; they DO have situations that seem nepotistic. That is not a characteristic of the transhumanist community; it is characteristic of small, fringe organization that must fight for respect, attention and external validity.

So, what do I think of transhumanism? It's interesting. I learned a lot, listening with an open mind. I never thought I would say these words, but I want to learn more about the process of dying as part of considering if cryonics might have some validity. I saw some of the latest thinking in design in far-flung fields such as robotics, architecture and transportation design. Many of the speakers were academics, so the geek part of me that loves cultural studies bathed in references to Latour, Foucault and Lacan - not to mention Prometheus.

Personally I am disinterested in technology; it only interests me insofar as the ends improve the human condition. Most of the people involved in transhumanism are principally engaged in technology, and in most cases very passionate about it. This, along with a seeming disinterest in pursuing a more balanced field, would make it seem this could not be one of my tribes. But it is one I am keen to keep an eye on.

My advice for transhumanism, other than my meme of the weekend that their focus should be more on quality of living and less on technology and life extension, is to gently shift the public-facing aspects of the organization away from some of the more extreme technologies. As much as I am now open to cryonics, for example, I can't think of 10 words in the English language that would more quickly cause people to laugh, roll their eyes and shake their head than cryonics. The fact that some of the key stakeholders within transhumanism are such public faces for the movement and that their primary professional interests are in and with cryonics undermines their ability to seem credible to other smart people doing interesting things who could help advance the cause.

Topics: Design, industrial design, architecture, empathy, cryonics, robotics, Analysis, Blog, humanity, transhumanism, parsons