Monday, August 10, 2009

Transhumanists and Technoprogressives

Wikipedia definitions:

Transhumanism is an international intellectual and cultural movement supporting the use of science and technology to improve human mental and physical characteristics and capacities... Many Transhumanists believe in the compatibility of human minds with computer hardware, with the theoretical implication that human consciousness may someday be transferred to alternative media, a speculative technique commonly known as mind uploading.

Technoprogressivism is a stance of active support for the convergence of technological change and social change. Techno-progressives argue that technological developments can be profoundly empowering and emancipatory when they are regulated by legitimate democratic and accountable authorities to ensure that their costs, risks and benefits are all fairly shared by the actual stakeholders to those developments.

From these basically compatible definition one would think that Transhumanism and Technoprogressivism are two different flavors of the same base meme --that using technology to radically improve the human condition is both feasible and desirable-- with Transhumanists more focused on very speculative issues like space migration, immortality and mind uploading, and Technoprogressives more focused on proximate technodevelopmental and social issues. This is my own view: I am both a Transhumanist and a Technoprogressive. Others who define themselves as both Transhumanists and Technoprogressives, like James Hughes, can wear either hat depending on the topic at hand and say very intelligent things in both contexts. This is to say that Transhumanism and Technoprogressivism are not at all incompatible, and in many cases can be mutually reinforcing.

Yet there is a strong debate between the two Ts, with many Technoprogressives adopting a unnecessary aggressive and often rude stance against Transhumanists. From the Wikipedia article: "Carrico, an academic known for using term "techno-progressive" as a shorthand to describe progressive politics that emphasize technoscientific issues, has expressed concern that some transhumanist ideologues are using the term to describe themselves, with the consequence of possibly misleading the public regarding their actual cultural, social and political views, which may or may not be compatible with critical techno-progressivism.". The rabid anti-Transhumanism of Carrico is well known to most readers, but several other persons previously (or still) associated with the Transhumanist community, have echoed his arguments. The blog of the IEET, a Technoprogressive organization with many Transhumanist members and associated, has recently hosted many flame wars, with a uni-directional flow of rudeness and ad-hominem insults (uni-directional insults: from Technoprogressives to Transhumanists, and please correct me if I am mistaken).

Mike Treder, one of the participants in the recent flame wars, has written a piece at IEET on Technoprogressives and Transhumanists: What’s the difference?. He concludes with "there is plenty of room for various views within both the transhumanist and technoprogressive communities, and that’s a good thing. Healthy, respectful, open-minded debate can help all of us better understand our own positions and those of others.", which I can certainly agree with. But then, why the aggressive rudeness, why the unnecessary insults and the personal attacks?

One reason may be that some of the more aggressive Technoprogressives are afraid that openly associating with Transhumanists can decrease the appeal of their arguments to their intended audience. Many of them work in academy, which is a very conservative intellectual environment: you are supposed to be a bit radical and controversial, else you will not be noticed, but only a bit, never too much, and in a fashionable politically correct way. To be a good PC Technoprogressive academician you are supposed to take a distance from wild-eyed real Transhumanist radicals. Also, today's fashionable academic PCness requires you to believe, for example, in global climate change (which may or not be a scientific fact, but this is not the point here), in gender wars and the superiority of wet biologists over dry physicists and computer scientists, which may put one at odds with many Transhumanists. The Californian Ideology of many Transhumanists, "a bizarre fusion of the cultural bohemianism of San Francisco with the hi-tech industries of Silicon Valley. Promoted in magazines, books, tv programmes, Web sites, newsgroups and Net conferences, the Californian Ideology promiscuously combines the free-wheeling spirit of the hippies and the entrepreneurial zeal of the yuppies. This amalgamation of opposites has been achieved through a profound faith in the emancipatory potential of the new information technologies." is also, sadly, considered unPC.

Another reasons is, of course, politics. While many (not all) early Transhumanists were Libertarians, and there is still a (wrong, but widely held) perception that "Transhumanists are Libertarians", many Technoprogressives are Leftwingers or Socialists. There have always been tense debates and flame wars between Libertarians and Socialists in Transhumanist discussion groups and mailing lists, and I have mostly stopped following them. I have often taken a distance from both camps, but in many ways I sympathize with both.

I am a Libertarian in the sense that I believe in live-and-let-live, personal freedom and autonomy, and self-ownership. I often describe my politics as "Libertarian Left", which some find difficult to understand. I am a Left winger, not _though_ I am a Libertarian, but on the contrary _because_ i am a Libertarian: I value autonomy and freedom but recognize that, in our world, the freedom to do all that does not cost money is not of great practical value. So, I support social safety networks and BIG (Basic Income), and (some degree of) taxation and regulation. But I only support taxation and regulation as necessary evils, not as primary values.

Libertarianism at its best is all about freedom and self-ownership for everyone. But Libertarianism at its worse is about the freedom of the powerful to harm the powerless, or even one's own freedom to harm everyone else. Analogously, Socialism at its best is all about social fairness and giving everyone a chance, but Socialism at his worse is about control-freak bureaucracies, mind-control, interference in the life of citizens, and oppression of all minorities. Democracy is, I think, the best form of government that we have found so far, but as Michael Anissimov says, "democracy can have negative effects on freedom. Look at the recent passing of the homophobic Prop 8 in California. Minority rights should not be contingent on majority opinion.". Democracy is not necessarily, but in the hands of control-freak bureaucracies it can become, "two wolves and a lamb deciding, by majority vote, what to have for dinner.". I support regulations if and when when they are really necessary, but I am really annoyed by unnecessary interference in others' choices when these have no concretely harmful impact on others (there is no such a thing as a victimless crime).

I think Libertarian-Left politics makes a lot of sense, and I am persuaded that it is perfectly possible for reasonable Libertarians and reasonable Leftwingers within a group to collaborate at advancing the objectives of the group without abandoning the respective politics. Similarly, I am persuaded that it is perfectly possible for Transhumanists and Technoprogressives to collaborate, and saddened by seeing that it is so difficult in practice. I wish to repeat Mike Treder's conclusion, with which I agree: "there is plenty of room for various views within both the transhumanist and technoprogressive communities, and that’s a good thing. Healthy, respectful, open-minded debate can help all of us better understand our own positions and those of others.". I wish to continue considering myself as both a Transhumanist and a Technoprogressive but, if I am forced to make a choice between the two "camps", I will stay in the Transhumanist camp. I hope, though, that Transhumanist and a Technoprogressive will be able to work together in organizations like the IEET, which is and must continue to be, in my opinion, open to both Transhumanist and non-Transhumanist Technoprogressives, and a place where these two different but overlapping mindsets can have a constructive dialogue.