R.U. Sirius on Transhumanism and Counterculture
In the H+ Magazine context, R. U. Sirius is truly the Man Who Needs No Introduction. R. U. was the Editor of H+ Magazine from its inception until early this year, and remains a regular contributor — and has been well known to all transhumanists since well before the H+ magazine era, as the co-founder and original Editor-In-Chief of Mondo 2000, and an all around amazing writer, musician and cyberculture icon. Perhaps less well known is that Sirius was also chairman and candidate in the 2000 U.S. presidential election for The Revolution Party — and is now active in forming an Open Source Party. His book Counterculture Through the Ages is also a must-read, revealing an uncanny insight for the intersection of culture, psychology and technology, in the past and present as well as the future. And it was specifically with this book in mind that I got the idea of interviewing R.U. about the past, present and future of the transhumanist movement — a piece of history that he’s played a significant role in shaping.
Ben: How would you contrast the transhumanist movement today with, say, 15 or 20 years ago? What’s changed, what is the same?
R.U.: Twenty years ago was the heyday of Mondo 2000, so I’ll speak from that perspective.
I think the zeitgeist then was more embracing of postmodernity… so we wouldn’t have called ourselves transhumanists… not wanting to be defined or pinned. I guess the extropians (or if you prefer the Extropy movement) were the self-declared transhumanists, and to us… they were like one small, odd, but interesting corner of the rich tapestry of early ‘90s technophilia. They were definitely more oriented towards modernist objectivist philosophy.
What I think was interesting and what speaks to the difference between then and now was that this broad technophilia that was implicitly transhumanist got woven into a big chunk of bohemian culture and nightclub culture, particularly in the San Francisco area. So that people were really open to being excited about the internet, about the idea of virtual reality, about enhancing drugs and nutrients; about cyborgian possibilities with implants and replaceable parts; about the potentials of nanotechnology and biotech… pretty much anything. Of course, it was largely a context for art and abstract theorizing and an excuse for parties and conferences between technologists, academic culture theorists and hipsters.
Mondo 2000 culture was a milieu that was not happy with the politics of Reagan and (George H.W.) Bush; and a culture wherein capitalism was at least a bit suspect among many of the participants. And despite that, there was this larger overriding intuition that things would be OK… that these developments would probably be to our benefit… or alternatively, the weirder, harsher cyberpunk visions seemed distant enough to be amusing. It was a less political time, a less angry time, during which a lot of people within a certain cultural and political framework were open to expansive visions of human possibility.
Today, I think there are many more self-defined transhumanists. There is more willingness, particularly perhaps with post-Gen X young people, to define themselves… to stand up and say — without reflexive irony — “I’m a transhumanist” or “I’m an atheist” or “I’m a socialist” or “I’m a libertarian”… whereas it would have seemed almost gauche in the ‘90s.
At the same time, the transhumanist idea or narrative is far more suspect among many of the same sorts of people who would have embraced Mondo 2000 and that culture in the early ‘90s… partly for the very reason of being definitive and therefore perceivable as one-dimensional.
The main reason, though, for suspicion and often outright hostility is that the current situation is not pretty. Income differentials… class distinctions… have become grotesque. Our income distribution in the US is more uneven now than in some of our former banana republics… and with the crash and bailout of ’08, we had our collective noses rubbed in the existence of plutocracy if not outright kleptocracy. Civil liberties have been eroding and we’re in perpetual war. So in the – if you will – Mondo 2000 era of the early ‘90s, economic and political issues could be largely pushed into the margins. That seems no longer to be the case.
As the result, for some, transhumanist concerns seem like, at best, a distraction and, at worst, the fantasies of the privileged few. I don’t embrace this attitude. I don’t think being tech reactionary helps resolve any of these problems… but I can understand it… and even relate to it on a gut level… sometimes.
Anyway, many of those who do self-define as transhumanists today might be seen as a hardier bunch… they’re going to keep their eyes on the prize, so to speak, whatever comes at them… or alternatively, they could be seen as simply more ideologically convinced, or in some cases, more willing to elide or ignore or underestimate the crises around them.
But those are broad strokes, and the first thing I learned by becoming the H+ editor was that the transhumanists or humanity plusers have extremely diverse views and instincts; they’re economically, racially, ideologically and nationally diverse… probably more so than in the early ‘90s, due to communications tech, globalization and, in general, how memes spread out over time.
Ben: To what extent is transhumanism still countercultural, in your view? What aspects do you think have moved into the mainstream, and what aspects are still definitively part of the counterculture?
R.U.: I don’t think there’s really a mainstream culture or a counterculture anymore. There’s monetary value… that’s the mainstream culture… a modern papacy in which all humans are born into original debt that grows until we — with the exception of an elect few — are subjected to the cleansing ritual of fiscal “discipline”. Other than that, nothing coheres.
Having said that… I do know what you’re talking about. My sense is that the connection to the narrative thread of contemporary counterculture that started with the beats and ran through hippie and punk and then exploded into a gazillion subcultures… like goths, ravers, riot grrrls, cyberpunks, conscious hip hop, modern primitives ad infinitum… is largely lost on most young people today. They may have a sense of these things in a fragmentary way, but the narrative is gone. It has nothing to do with who they are or will be. And this connection – either implicit or explicit — used to be a sort of rite of passage for a fairly large minority of young people… I think today that percentage is miniscule. So there’s a clean break there that might actually be full of promise.
Within transhumanism itself, I don’t see it as being largely a hip sort of crowd. I mean, I don’t mean to insult anybody. It’s various and there are some counterculturally-influenced types around, for sure.
Ben: Are there important things that were part of the early transhumanist movement — say in the Mondo 2000 era — that you think don’t get enough attention by transhumanists these days?
R.U.: It’s hard for me to respond from the perspective of the transhumanist movement of that era, because I didn’t really hang out that much in those sort of extropian circles back then. And even though Mondo, as a magazine, certainly had a transhumanist flavor, at least in its early years, I think that was almost entirely my influence… and Timothy Leary’s influence. So there was a sort of enthusiastic coverage of cyborgization, intelligence increase, longevity and so on… I used to say it was about expanding and extending the range of human possibility.
At the same time, there was an embrace of radically critical and dark views and visions… cyberpunk was always about a love/hate relationship with the technological mutation of humanity. I’m kind of more comfortable with that sort of ambiguity, actually.
It’s really only over the last three years or so, while editing H+ Magazine, that I have spent much time in self-consciously transhumanist circles. I have to admit, one of the thing that has surprised me is the degree of emphasis I found on living longer. And I would say that even among the more expansive Mondoid types, the emphasis would have been on living more intensely, more aesthetically, more hilariously, more erotically, more intelligently, more communicatively, more spontaneously, more psychedelically… and on ending political and economic domination and scarcity. Of course, it helps to be young and healthy to live more intensely and so forth.
Anyway, you can’t go back. And I don’t know that transhumanism would benefit from following the Mondo culture example, although I’ve met a few people who could maybe benefit personally from a 1,000 microgram LSD enema. And yeah… maybe a little less about living forever by charting your every pulse and a little bit more about actually being really alive… for starters.
Ben: Of all the changes in the world since you were a kid, which ones do you find the most exciting and interesting? In 25 words or less.
R.U.: In two words… the internet (punk rock would probably be second). It’s a hard, disruptive technology for a professional writer and editor but I think it will ultimately shake out as an evolutionary and revolutionary game changer for humans – as we can already see. I think the same about AI, by the way. (I guess that’s more than 25 words).
Ben: Is the Singularity actually near? Do you agree with Kurzweil’s estimate of 2045? If not then, when? If not a Singularity, then what? What about the notion that we could achieve a Singularity in ten years if we really really tried?
R.U.: I don’t really have the technical chops to know. After spending the ‘70s and ‘80s listening to the predictions of Leary and Arthur C. Clarke and other hyper-optimists, I developed my own theorem: “Everything takes twice as long as you expect it to after you’ve already taken that into account.” And that can be times four or it can be an infinite regress.
But who knows? I was impressed with a lot of the stuff that got reported on during my time editing H+ Magazine. It looks like acceleration to me. But, for example, to me, when I published various reports of experimenters being able to do really precise things with molecules, I thought of it as a very exciting acceleration toward true production nanotechnology. And then I notice that a lot of people in transhumanist circles have embraced the idea that nothing has happened in nanotech for 25 years. And what do I know?
So will we get smarter than human intelligences and will those intelligences get exponentially smarter and will that be a singularity? I’m agnostic.
Ben: What role do you think psychedelics have played in the transhumanist movement — and what role do they have to play going forward? Will the Singularity come off better or worse if the scientists who launch it are “experienced”? You’ve taught Tim Leary’s philosophy — what would his philosophy have to say about this?
R.U.: Answering the second part of your question first… a Singularitarian culture or a transhumanist culture that worships entirely at the fountain of data and reason is going to be brittle. Psychedelic drugs and culture may be the needed lubricant.
As far as what influence psychedelic drugs has had, it’s certainly played a role for a number of recognizable people in the movement, along with science fiction. It’s that whole idea again of expanding and extending human possibility, which appeals to some psychedelic explorers. And Max More has said that Timothy Leary’s book, Exo-Psychology, was one of his early influences. Of course, the book is not a drug, but it’s partially inspired by psychedelic drugs.
As for Leary, there are hints of transhumanist thinking amidst all the Hindu metaphors, even going back to his earliest experiments with psychedelic drugs, which he immediately though had something to do with tapping into information that was coded into our genes. In the mid-70s, he became explicitly transhumanist with his SMI2LE slogan, Space Migration Intelligence Increase and Life Extension. So he followed all of the developments until his death with great interest and enthusiasm. He even quoted Eliezer Yudkowsky about how to make a digital copy of your brain. One thing, though. He didn’t like the emphasis on artificial intelligence and even debated Minsky about it. He argued for an emphasis on Intelligence Amplification… making sure it was about empowering humans.
I’m not sure what he would say about technological developments today. I sometimes think that if Tim had lived long enough to have to go through an airport after 9/11, he’d probably be in Guantanamo.
Ben: Is there any truth to the rumor that you’re going to be running for President again in the 2012 elections? Any hints about who you may choose as VP?
R.U.: Hah! Only if I can make a job out of it. And if it looks like it would be a lot of fun. Probably not. I think the rumor may come out of a few private discussions I’ve had about putting my Open Source Party concept back into circulation… which I just did… here. But no, I kind of hope not to even be a leader of that effort… just a participant.
However, if I were to choose a VP candidate, I’d make it Snookie from Jersey Shore. That way nobody would assassinate me.