Professor Steve Fuller noted at the beginning of a recent conference speech (Virtual Futures, University of Warwick, http://www.virtualfutures.co.uk) that the most positive narratives within science tended to be those which aimed at “stepping up humanity, not the immediate benefits to humanity.”
Transhumanists readily subscribe to this trajectory within scientific research, and look forward to a time when the concerns of the past and present are not so much solved as made irrelevant. Many articles in h+ frequently discuss issues surrounding the advent of Singularity, accessible transhumanism and the so-called “posthuman era”. There is as much debate about preparation as there is about defining the coming moment, ever lodged in the intangible future, itself.
What Prof. Fuller had to say about this relates directly to the implicit and explicit acknowledgements among transhumanists that certain traditional, humanistic ideologies have failed to provide solutions to class systems, third-world poverty and the persistence of extremist social ideologies. However, he also hopes to help prevent an unfortunate situation where those very catastrophes are not eradicated by transhumanism, but exacerbated by it.
I spoke to Professor Fuller at length about his concerns regarding the practical reality of our future, augmented selves, and he was eager to emphasise the crucial, if dry, implications of not adequately preparing individuals for the disparities which might accompany the arrival of true transhumans within an uninitiated social space. A lot of it had to do with politics. “Transhumanists,” Fuller told me, “have to get serious about the politics of this. […] Do we allow everyone to get these implants? What if some don’t get them? At the level of examples and demonstrations, this stuff is very exciting and sexy in a way, but then if you start making it normal, and you actually make it part of the national health service [Fuller, an American, teaches at a British university], then that has very serious consequences.”
Fuller’s research documents historical events in the advancement of scientific and social studies. He is very much aware that political enthusiasm for certain movements which predate the transhumanist agenda (such as, to be blunt, eugenics) frequently became associated with diabolical and destructive ideologies and regimes. It is partly because of that, Fuller argues, that present day politicians are very wary of getting involved with the transhumanist debate. They are seemingly uncomfortable with wading into a discussion whose ramifications and frontiers remain unclear, and whose most visible proponents or detractors can sometimes be unsavoury (the orthodox religious critics of transhumanist ‘tampering’ with nature versus the right-wing libertarian strain who fail to present cogent, moderate arguments in socially democratic contexts). Fuller is adamant that mainstream understanding of the transhumanist agenda is essential in order for lasting impact and awareness to become established.
“Nobody wants to initiate this kind of discussion,” claims Fuller, “but if you don’t, then it’s all going to be left to the free market. People who can afford it will do it, those who can’t won’t – everybody ends up fending for themselves.”
In giving an example of how ethical and practical problems can arise out of such scenarios, Fuller cites contemporary concerns over cosmetic surgery. The perceived exploitation of female bodies in the light of male anatomical standards, the continuing anxiety regarding certain unregulated procedures and the only partly understood psychological implications of plastic surgery all contribute to a sense of the practice as unfortunately positioned in an image-obsessed culture. Could the same thing happen with cosmetic neurology? Fuller pointed me in the direction of an article by neurologist Anjan Chatterjee, “Cosmetic Neurology and Cosmetic Surgery: Parallels, Predictions and Challenges”, in which he recounts how bioethicists were worryingly slow to take cosmetic surgeons to task over certain methods and applications of their work. In a world where ‘synapse tuning’ becomes readily available and human culture begins to demand neurological ‘re-wiring’ for new tasks, occupations and experiences, brain augmentation (as well as creating chasms in a neurologically stratified society) could severely damage the integrity of practitioners:
“Physicians are less engaged in questions of legitimacy. Legal and economic concerns insert themselves into decisions made by physicians at the bedside as their autonomy has declined markedly. This decline is likely to be accompanied by an erosion in physicians’ traditional sense of ethical responsibilities as these concerns are abrogated to rules and regulations and fiduciary and economic interests are conflated. For physicians, this question of professional identity (and integrity) remains a fundamental challenge, a challenge that will be magnified by the practice of cosmetic neurology.” (Chatterjee, Anjan, “Cosmetic Neurology and Cosmetic Surgery: Parallels, Predictions and Challenges”, Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics (2007), 16, 129-137.)
During our conversation, Fuller repeatedly emphasised that the state had a role to play in helping to encourage public discussion, highlighting pioneering research at academic institutions, and bringing transhumanist issues into more central forums. But to return to the issue of politics, it is important to dig deep into the reasons for politicians’ wariness when it comes to talking about the future. Long gone are the days of the 60s, 70s and 80s, when the new millennium was continually set out as a space of limitless possibility where humans would colonise Mars, cure HIV and wipe out poverty. Politicians’ predictions of scientific possibilities and national firsts are much more tepid these days. “We choose to go to the moon, not because it is easy, but because it is hard,” is a statement which would today be met far more readily with questions about the basic economic sense in funding such a venture, rather than belief in a space voyaging human race, a fascination with that old intergalactic ideal.
It is true to say that while the burden of carrying transhumanist ideas into reality, and indeed normality, lies mainly with scientists and enthusiasts, political leaders remain best placed to facilitate general public awareness – whatever you may think of their supposed contemporary ‘pragmatism’. Fuller’s argument is about making fantasy reality in a conceptual sense, in wanting to avoid a paradigm shift with largely negative consequences. It is all the more interesting that Fuller makes this argument while being acutely aware of people’s scepticism regarding their political leaders. People, he says, are increasingly “bioliberal”, experimental (even “escapist”) and largely disaffected with traditional political systems. But if their scepticism for old ideas and their enthusiasm for new ideas begin to conflict, it is at that point – suggests Fuller – that new technologies and practices will fail to engage with the imagined centre of society:
“So if you look at the Arab Spring, where a lot of the activity took place through social media to get people organised and so forth, there’s a real problem with the follow through after that. So in other words, as long as there is that technological infrastructure, stuff seems to happen, it actually seems to have some impact, but then – as it were, translating – going beyond what social media has provided in its own way, that hasn’t yet really been mastered. So there’s a sense that a lot of these technologies with which we’re able to enhance our being, are kind of free-standing in a way. People may embrace them, but there’s no way of then bringing it back out in a substantial way to influence more conventional ways of being in the world.”
No doubt such concerns and scenarios will be extrapolated in Fuller’s upcoming book on the subject: Humanity 2.0: The Past, Present and Future of What it Means to Be Human. To be published in September by Palgrave Macmillan, it certainly promises to be an incisive assessment of the imminent political battles which face transhumanists – as well as potential methods for fostering fruitful public debate.
Chris Baraniuk blogs at themachinestarts.com.