Citizen Cyborg by James Hughes (2004) – Book Review

James Hughes’ Citizen Cyborg (2004) is an extremely helpful resource for understanding and criticism of the political camp called “BioLuddism” by Hughes. BioLuddites are opposed to biological tweaking by humans to improve life, typically relying on irrational justifications to support their views. When discussing “deep ecology” (120-123), Hughes excellently discusses how some leftists cite “Mother Nature” to make their environmentalist case. I would like to add that this same breed of progressive people will be seen rejecting “Mother Nature” as the fallacy of the appeal to nature whenever “Mother Nature” is cited by conservatives in opposition to gay rights. Progressive distrust of radical environmentalist beliefs, which is unfortunately rare, is justified and Hughes certainly makes a good case as to why in this book.
In my reading of Citizen Cyborg (2004), I have several points of agreement with James Hughes, although I disagree on some other points. I also find myself in indifferent to many areas of discussion and have to avoid discussing them here, although this is my fault as I am new to some of them. My interest in transhumanism is driven by the general optimistic futurist outlook of transhumanists which cannot be found in any other camp, so medical interventions and elimination of ageing are outside my area of interest as I am drawn more to the long-term social ramifications of emerging technologies.

Hughes is perhaps weakest when it comes to presenting his arguments for a specific political slant called “democratic transhumanism” (187-220). Emphasizing an internal political spectrum within the still growing 21st Century transhumanist movement is frustratingly divisive, threatening to cause proponents of technology-powered change to disagree over dozens of pointless issues. To address the salient issue of guaranteeing equal access to technological benefits, let me point out that I come from the most disadvantaged sort of background in the UK, and I have obtained a lot from the welfare state and from the democratization of technology as I grew up. Although I profoundly share Hughes’ goal of a level and ordered society with equal access to advanced technologies, I do not foresee a role for the current sort of liberal democratic state authorities to guide and sanitize this process in some way. Radicals at all levels of society who want to empower people and arm them with the advantages of tech are best suited to democratize technology, as they have always been. It does not matter if they go about the process with an anarchist view, a socialist view or anything else. Democratization of technology has no political affiliation and works best that way. I have felt liberated from numerous disadvantages because of technology, which has enhanced my ability to learn and to publish in turn. For me, a sanitized and carefully regulated version of change is not authentic. The explosion of technology simply should not be contained.

My own interpretation is thus: emerging technologies cannot and should not be contained (Catalyst: a Techno-Liberation Thesis), whether we want to contain them or not, so any talk about containing them is wasted. In fact, they ought not to be contained, because containing explosions of technology simply has never been the norm in history. I believe these emerging technologies cannot and should not be “regulated.” By its very definition, the democratization of technology is a wild, chaotic and perhaps violent process that cannot be contained, and trying to do so will only result in even more hostility and violence in the process. Consider calls for trying to regulate the internet more and bring web users into compliance with liberal democratic values and the rule of law (look into the e-G8 Summit in Paris in 2011), as a prime example of authoritarian meddling in the democratic technological explosion. We shouldn’t be trying to justify that same kind of elitist meddling, even by progressives, in other areas of tech yet to come. The attempt to regulate emerging technology, even if the aim is ostensibly to guarantee adherence to democratic values, would just look too undemocratic in practice. Technologies have always been allowed to explode and impact society in whatever way they will, and there is little reason to change course. The changes that come from the present emerging technologies will inherently threaten privilege rather than enhancing it, so any concern that emerging technologies will broaden the gap between rich and poor is patently absurd and does not even need to be addressed on the scale that Hughes addresses it. We do not need to look far to see the undeniable relationship between tech explosions and the attainment of greater levels of equality, although certain developments may not have been in the headlines in 2004 when Citizen Cyborg was published. Look at 3-D printing, which could have the chance to shrink every type of manufacturing process down so anyone can have it in his own home. If greedy intentions were in the minds of the companies making such machines, they had no idea what eventualities they were making possible. If one man can carry an entire computer factory away in a pickup truck in the future, then I have good reasons to doubt that the massive economic disparity seen between privileged and impoverished states and groups today will survive.

In sum, while I agree with Hughes on the subject of BioLuddism and will be drawing from ideas in this book, I do not yet see any need for prudence and careful ethical guidance when we are discussing an explosion in emerging technology. The explosion should be greeted, and this means a libertarian or anarchistic view of the present opportunities in emerging technologies shall more easily achieve legitimacy.

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6 Comments

  1. Sorry – should have addressed that to Harry

    • This article updated by the author’s request. I hope that the update clarifies the author’s intention in this review.

      The review is solely the opinion of the author and does not reflect my personal view of the book, that of H+ Magazine, Humanity+, or its board.

      Generally I favor open access to technologies and safety testing/reporting. I note that safety testing regimes vary from country to country and may be subject to undue influence from corporations and other interested parties.

  2. “Technologies have always been allowed to explode and impact society in whatever way they will” Really? Workplace safety laws, environmental protection laws, weapons treaties, clinical testing and drug and device safety laws, laws governing energy, agriculture, manufacturing, etc.? You apparently live on a different planet than I do, and I don’t think we would enjoy the libertopian one you are in. Technology has always and will always be subject to power, the only question is whose power and to what ends. The case for a democratic approach to human enhancement is to ensure that there is equitable access to safe enhancement technologies. Which part of that do you disagree with Peter? Do you not think that enhancement drugs and devices should be subject to clinical testing and approval? Do you believe they should only be available in the market and not through public health systems or with subsidies? Really, there are plenty things to disagree with in my work besides rejecting the idea that we should have public policies to guide the development and deployment of technology. That is not really in question.

  3. I have seen the most opposition to transhumanism come from social conservatives who are afraid that technology will warp our “traditional values.”

    Skeptopathy: Pathological skepticism; an irrational belief that a phenomenon must be false merely because it is unusual.

    Technoskeptopathy: Pathological skepticism of technology; and irrational belief that technology must be threatening merely because it is unusual.

    • That’s true. It should be obvious to people that the objections to human enhancement and synthetic biology merely come from the same visceral source as objections to gay rights and other causes already embraced as progressive. It’s possible that something unusual might be threatening, but it certainly is not threatening just because of the fact it is unusual.

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