Is the Future Friendly?

Trying to make sense of transhumanism

By Alex Rollinson

Imagine waking up in the year 2114. The computer processor in your brain controlled your sleep cycle so that you feel perfectly refreshed as you rise out of bed. Becky, the artificial intelligence that controls your house, lifts the toilet seat and slides open the shower curtain when you open the bathroom door.

After you have finished your morning hygienic routine, you think about the large dinner you will be having tonight; it’s your two hundred and eleventh birthday. You open the medicine cabinet and take out a yellow pill. It will compensate for your expected excessive calorie intake.

Though it is science fiction right now, a scenario like this is possible in the eyes of a transhumanist.

Transhumanism is a cultural movement, often represented as H+ (humanity plus), which believes that human limitations can be overcome with technology.  While there are people who actively consider themselves a part of this group, everyone uses transhuman technologies without even realizing it—even you.

How can this be? You don’t have a computer integrated into your brain (right?). With a broader understanding of what technology means, it becomes clear that you don’t need Star Trek gadgets to be transhuman.

Ben Hurlbut, co-director of The Transhumanist Imagination project at Arizona State University, says that “technology is codified forms of technique.” Agriculture is technology. Aviation is technology. Not just because they use machinery like tractors or airplanes, but because they are practices that have become part of society.

With this understanding, transhuman technology (transtech) can be any set of learnable techniques that overcome certain human weakness. Clothing that protects us from the elements; glasses and hearing aids that overcome sensory impairments; low calorie diets that consistently extend healthy lifespan; all of these things are transhuman technologies that we have right now.

We have already begun to displace certain attributes typically characterized as human into technology. Our memories have been on the decline since the invention of writing when remembering whole stories became unnecessary. Now, our memory has been almost entirely displaced onto our smartphone calendars and search engines like Google.

But just because you use the tech, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a part of the cultural movement. In fact, some applications of transtech have been argued to be contrary to transhumanist ideals. For example, an essay in the Journal of Evolution and Technology argues that its use for military benefits is opposed to the transhumanist ideal of world peace.

Overcoming biological limitations and world peace? What else could transhumanists possibly want? Well, according to the Transhumanist Declaration by groups such as the World Transhumanist Association, they “envision the possibility of broadening human potential by overcoming aging, cognitive shortcomings, involuntary suffering and our confinement to planet Earth.”

Yes, transhumanists want to colonize other planets. Not being able to live anywhere other than the perfectly coddling atmosphere of Earth is a biological limitation after all! This might sound crazier if 200,000 people didn’t already volunteer for a mission to colonize Mars by 2024.

What would humanity look like if transhumanists reached all their goals?  This is a problematic question for a number of reasons.

The first is that there are varying levels of commitment to the goals of transhumanism. Many tech enthusiasts only focus on the short term ways in which technology can reduce suffering or enhance ability. True believers look to a time beyond transhumanism referred to as posthumanism.

“In the posthuman future, according to these visionaries, humanities will not exist at all and will be replaced by super-intelligent machines,” says Hava Tirosh Samuelson, also a co-director of The Transhumanist Imagination project.

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