I have lately tried to stay away from calling myself a transhumanist largely because I’m intimate with the unpredictable and indescribable iconoclasm that often shakes my brain and therefore resist labels. But I also like to steer clear because people who don’t self-identify with the label have a lot of misconceptions about who “the transhumanists” are. And every now and then, a fairly predictable group of thinkers… some of them friends of mine… beat the straw out of their conception of transhumanism. They give it a damn good thrashing.
Now, if these folks were criticizing some tendencies within some prominent self-identified transhumanist circles, they’d often be on target. But what we get from them is something akin to some people attacking atheism in the 1960s based on the prominence of Madeline O’Hair and Ayn Rand. In fact, what we have is more akin to a bunch of athiests attacking athiesm on that basis.
This is from my 2009 interview with Charlie Stross for H+ magazine which I titled “The Reluctant Transhumanist”
H+: What do you think about transhumanism and singularitarianism as movements? Are these goals to be attained or just a likely projection of technologies into the future that we should be aware of?
CS: My friend Ken MacLeod has a rather disparaging term for the singularity; he calls it “The Rapture of the Nerds.”
This isn’t a comment on the probability of such an event occurring, per se, so much as it’s a social observation on the type of personality that’s attracted to the idea of leaving the decay-prone meatbody behind and uploading itself into AI heaven. There’s a visible correlation between this sort of personality and the more socially dysfunctional libertarians (who are also convinced that if the brakes on capitalism were off, they’d somehow be teleported to the apex of the food chain in place of the current top predators).
Both ideologies are symptomatic of a desire for simple but revolutionary solutions to the perceived problems of the present, without any clear understanding of what those problems are or where they arise from. (In the case of the libertarians, they mostly don’t understand how the current system came about, or that the reason we don’t live in a minarchist night-watchman state is because it was tried in the 18th and 19th centuries, and it didn’t work very well. In the case of the AI-rapture folks, I suspect there’s a big dose of Christian millennialism (of the sort that struck around 990–1010 A.D., and again in the past decade) that, because they’re predisposed to a less superstitious, more technophillic world-view, they displace onto a quasiscientific rationale.
Mind uploading would be a fine thing, but I’m not convinced what you’d get at the end of it would be even remotely human. (Me, I’d rather deal with the defects of the meat machine by fixing them — I’d be very happy with cures for senescence, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and the other nasty failure modes to which we are prone, with limb regeneration and tissue engineering and unlimited life prolongation.) But then, I’m growing old and cynical. Back in the eighties I wanted to be the first guy on my block to get a direct-interface jack in his skull. These days, I’d rather have a firewall.
H+: You said “I’d be very happy with cures for senescence, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and the other nasty failure modes to which we are prone, with limb regeneration, and tissue engineering and unlimited life prolongation.” It seems to me that this still puts you in the Transhumanist camp. Would you agree?
CS: To the extent that I don’t believe the human condition is immutable and constant then yes, I’m a Transhumanist. If the human condition was immutable, we’d still be living in caves. (And I have a very dim view of those ideologies and religions that insist that we shouldn’t seek to improve our lot.)