Discover the ethos of a post-cyberpunk ideology, and the big ideas it has for our future.
It’s impossible to have an important cultural movement, without some kind of extension to it, or indeed another movement that opposes or even supersedes it. Musically, punk was followed by post-punk, while modernism was answered by post- modernism. The cyberpunk movement is no exception. However, it’s not called post-cyberpunk.
It’s Transhumansim, and it’s an altogether far more reaching and encompassing ideology.
Technically, transhumanism grew out of the same science fiction movement that spawned cyberpunk, but where cyberpunk is at its heart a nihilistic and iconoclastic culture, transhumanism (also called Humanity+ or H+ for short) looks to a brighter future where technology is not so much a tool for either oppression or rebellion, but rather an all-pervasive part of the human (or post-human) experience.
Ronald Bailey, the science editor of Reason Magazine, said that it is a “movement that epitomises the most daring, courageous, imaginative and idealistic aspirations of humanity”.
The movement’s followers believe advances in science, bio-sciences, technology, and even artificial intelligence will lead humanity to a new stage in evolution – a transhumanist ideal. In the transhumanist future, we will be more than human, so different from our forebears as to require this brave new name.
However, at the same time, transhumanists also foresee that technology is not just going to be an enabler. Unchecked, technological advancement could become an existential threat or X-risk, on par with the great extinction events of the earth’s part. In particular, transhumanists see the looming threat of hard take-off singularities that could see technologies like AI run-away to levels beyond our control, as something to be closely monitored, and avoided.
If you ask a transhumanist about the history of their movement, they will often site references that date back as far as the early 20th century, or even as far back as Charles Darwin, but the movement really began in the 1980’s. The Los Angeles campus of the University of California was a hotbed of self-described transhumanist activity, from student gatherings promoting the new paradigm, to experimental films and radio shows (all of which championed the movement). In the late 80’s there was even a cable TV show called TransCentury Update.
From here, a number of non-profit, non-government organisations were formed to organise and further legitimise the focus of transhumanism. This also helped form some of the first hand definitions of the movement:
“Transhumanism is a class of philosophies that seek to guide us towards a posthuman condition. Transhumanism shares many elements of humanism, including a respect for reason and science, a commitment to progress, and valuing of human (or transhuman) existence in this life. Transhumanism differs from humanism in recognising and anticipating the radical alterations in the nature and possibilities of our lives resulting from various sciences and technologies…” Max More, Principles of Extropy.
In the 90’s, both the Extropy Institute and the World Transhumanist Association were formed. As more and more people were being exposed to the growing cyber-culture of the internet, so too was the transhumanist movement using this medium to gain access to a larger audience.
The Extropy Institute ceased operating in 2006, having declared its networking and brainstorming mission complete, while internal strife saw the WTA change its name to Humanity+ in 2008. It is now also the leading transhumanist body in the world, and publishes the magazine H+, edited by none other than the R U Sirius, ex-editor of Mondo 2000.
It is indeed a very small world.
The Transhumanist Declaration
In 1998 the WTA drafted an eight point declaration. It has since been reworked by the then current Humanity+ mmebership in 2022, and officially ended in 2009. The Declaration clearly defines the goals and interests of transhumanism, and it’s worth going through in some detail.
- Humanity stands to be profoundly affected by science and technology in the future. We envision the possibility of broadening human potential by overcoming ageing, cognitive shortcomings, involuntary suffering, and our confinement to planet earth.
No-one can/ could ever claim the movement is anything other than farsighted. Lengthening life-spans and making better lives for all, however, the real interesting stuff that transhumanism hopes for is far grander: we’re talking of nothing short of expansion of consciousness and intelligence, while also expanding the sphere of human influence into and beyond the solar system.
- We believe that humanity’s potential is still mostly unrealised. There are possible scenarios that lead to wonderful and exceedingly worthwhile enhanced human conditions.
An interesting and rather humbling admission, that essentially adds up to: even we don’t know what kind of crazy stuff science is going to unleash in the future. It’s a common meme in cyberpunk literature to look to the future with fear and trepidation; a transhumanist, however, looks ahead with wide-eyed hope and wonder.
- We recognise that humanity faces serious risks, especially from the misuse of new technologies. There are possible realistic scenarios that lead to the lost of most, or even all, of what we hold valuable. Some of these scenarios are drastic, others are subtle.
Although all progress is change, not all change is progress. But this is not to say that transhumanists are naive. Rather, they are very aware that unchecked technological advance could see changes to our world that would make the Industrial Revolution look like a mild hiccup. And being forewarned is being forearmed.
- Research effort needs to be invested into understanding these prospects. We need to carefully deliberate how best to reduce risks and expedite beneficial applications. We also need forums where people can constructively discuss what should be done, and a social order where responsible decisions can be implemented.
This is where we really start to get to the heart of what transhumanism is about. It’s not just a bunch of futurists predicting that we are all going to live forever, but rather it’s about nurturing the growth of technology to bring about that future. It’s is a far-reaching and ultimately benevolent movement, though some do feel that any discussion that involves the manipulation of ‘social order’ is a dangerous one.
If, at the core, many cyberpunk visions break down to social Darwinism unchecked, then transhumanism is almost a polar opposite.
- Reduction of existential risks, and development of means for the preservation of life and health, the alleviation of grave suffering, and the improvement of human foresight and wisdom should be pursued as urgent priorities, and heavily funded.
Existential risks… Yeah, this one sounds kinda science fictional – the realm of cheese-tastic cinema like ‘The Day After Tomorrow’ or ‘Deep Impact’. But you need to look beyond the Hollywood hype to the actual facts – all of humanity is dependant on one, fragile planet for its continued existence.
Even big brains like Stephen Hawking are aware of just how many eggs we have in one basket, and regularly talks up the importance of space exploration to solve the issue. Look beyond the rogue asteroid problem (which, actually, is quite a real problem), and you’ll see things like bumble bee die-offs, ecology-shattering oil-spills, and over-farming leading to massive environmental collapse. All of this comes under the transhumanist umbrella as something we should be able to foresee, control, and eventually combat.
- Policy making ought to be guided by responsible and inclusive moral vision, taking seriously both opportunities and risks, respecting autonomy and individual rights, and showing solidarity with and concern for the interests and dignity of all people around the globe. We must also consider our moral responsibilities towards generations that will exist in the future.
Well – that’s pretty basic stuff right there. I daresay that this position could be something any right-minded person could expect or at least want to see enacted. Regardless, the importance of responsible governance cannot be over-estimated when it comes to the application of such wide-reaching technologies such as smart A.I., cognitive enhancement and longevity treatments.
- We advocate the well-being of all sentience, including humans, non-human animals, and any future artificial intellects, modified life forms, or other intelligence’s to which technological and scientific advance may give rise.
Now we get to some of the really interesting stuff. Tranhumanism is completely open to the fact that emerging technologies may not only change what it is to be human, but what it is we consider life. Personal liberty and freedom is an important tenet of the ideology – no matter what kind of person you may be.
With that broad statement, transhumanism is covering a lot of bases. From uplifted animals (Imagine William Gibson’s lonely cyborg dolphin ‘Jones’ having a lot more rights and freedoms) to advanced A.I. constructs and learning systems to even alien species – all are seen as equal under the banner of transhumanism, and therefore worthy of equal rights.
- We favour allowing individuals wide personal choice over how they enable their lives. This includes use of techniques that may be developed to assist memory, concentration, and mental energy; life extension therapies; reproductive choice technologies; cryonics procedures; and many other possible human modification and enhancement technologies.
Individual choice is another touchstone of the tranhumanist movement, and combined with some of the technology that the movement envisions coming down the pike, that’s a scary concept. But taken with the other articles of the declaration, it becomes obvious that the transhumanist movement is aiming for a future where every individual not only has the freedom to chose their place in society, but the education and power to do so effectively.
About the very last thing any transhumanist worth their high tech salt wants to see is any advancement or technology withheld from one sector of the populace. This is a truly egalitarian movement, one where everything is on the table for everyone, not for some techno-elite.
The Brave New Now
One of the great things about the tranhumanist movement is its egalitarian aims to unite a technologically enabled and connected humanity. To that end, if you are at all interested in involving yourself, it’s pretty easy – humanityplus.org has a range of options for involvement.
If you are curious, you can go beyond the above link and have a look at some of the great modern works of science fiction depicting a transhuman future. The works of Charles Stross – especially Áccelerando’ would top that list, joined by other luminaries of new Science Fiction like Alastair Reynolds and Richard Morgan. If you’re a game give a thought to titles like Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and if you are an old fashioned pen and paper gamer, you really can’t go past Eclipse ‘Phase’.
However you do it, transhumanism is worth exploring, because if these guys are right, it’s not just and idea… it’s the very future of humanity.