three days in June, scholars, computer programmers, scientists,
social theorists, and bioethicists gathered at Yale University
for Transvision USA, a conference sponsored by the World Transhumanist
Association (WTA). This year's event, the first Transvision
conference to be held in North America, was an attempt to promote
transhumanism among mainstream scholars and scientists in the
United States. Approximately 130 people from around the world
is transhumanism and why all the fuss?
is a recent intellectual and cultural movement that argues that
technology can and should be used to overcome the limitations
of the human body. The term "transhuman"—short
for "transitional human"—typically refers to
an intermediary form between human and "posthuman."
Since posthumanity has yet to be achieved, it's difficult to
define exactly what a posthuman is, although the term is loosely
defined as an entity whose capabilities so radically exceed
those of humans that they constitute a new being. According
to the WTA website, a posthuman could be a completely synthetic
artificial intelligence or even an information pattern.
transhumanist movement grew out of the predominantly male Internet
culture of the 1990s, and was initially closely associated with
extreme libertarian political and social values. This is especially
true for one subset of transhumanists—called extropians—who
are opposed to any authoritarian social control.
late 1980s, two graduate students at the University of Southern
California—Max More and T.O. Morrow (it's common for extropians
to change their names)—developed the term "extropy"
to identify their futurist philosophy. Extropy (the opposite
of "entropy") was said to represent the expansion
of human powers, intelligent technology, and spontaneous order.
Extropianism is one form of transhumanism—all extropians
are transhumanists, but not all transhumanists are extropians.
early 1990s, during the expansion of the Internet, More and
Morrow formed the Extropy Institute, which held its first conference
in Silicon Valley, California in 1994. A subsequent write-up
on the conference and the Extropians in Wired magazine
significantly increased transhumanism's popularity among scientists,
academics, and futurist philosophers. More recent extropian
conferences have featured scientists and business figures including
UC San Francisco geneticist Cynthia Kenyon and Calvin Harley,
chief scientific officer at Geron, as keynote speakers.
the World Transhumanist Association was formed by Swedish philosopher
Nick Bostrom in reaction to growing dissatisfaction with the
extropians' extreme libertarian-capitalist views. The WTA sees
itself as the liberal-democratic wing of the transhumanist movement.
(The Extropy Institute eventually affiliated with the WTA.)
transhumanists embrace a variety of technologies including cryonics
(freezing corpses in hopes that they will one day be reanimated
after medical technology has progressed), uploading (transferring
an intellect from a human brain to a computer), virtual reality,
artificial intelligence, smart drugs, genetic enhancement, and
nanotechnology (manipulating matter at the molecular level).
year's Transvision USA conference, titled "The Adaptable
Human Body: Transhumanism and Bioethics in the 21st Century,"
included sessions on topics such as "Why Not Re-Invent
Humans? Is This the Best We Can Do?" The program notes
that this year's conference is an attempt to begin the discussion
between the transhumanists and "communities with which
transhumanists have rarely been in dialogue"—namely
bioethicists and critical social theorists. The program opened
with a debate between George Annas, professor of health law
Boston University, and Gregory Stock, director of UCLA's Program
on Medicine, Technology and Society.
argued in favor of applying the Precautionary Principle to human
genetic technologies, particularly those with the potential
to alter or endanger the human species. Stock's response? "I
don't care about the species, I care about individual people,"
he told the almost entirely male crowd. (Bailey, Reason
Bailey, the libertarian science editor at Reason magazine,
was the conference's closing keynote speaker. His column on
the conference, which doesn't mention his role there, relies
on an extended metaphor inspired by an Australian bioethicist
who told the participants that "the job of bioethics is
to be the French letter [condom] on the prick of progress."
Bailey's summary comment: "[W]hile insisting on the maintenance
of standards for safety and efficacy, in most cases transhumanists
are happy to ride the prick of progress pretty much bareback."
(Bailey, Reason online, 7/2/2003)
explicitly reject the racialist and classist assumptions associated
with eugenics. But they also argue that parents have a "moral
responsibility" to make use of embryonic screening and
genetic technology to increase the probability of a healthy
and "multiply talented" child. Transhumanists believe
society should not be neutral as to whether a child is born
healthy or disabled. They strongly advocate the use of germline
manipulation, asserting that "some degree of uniformity
is desirable and expected if we are to make everyone congenitally
healthy, strong, intelligent, and attractive." (The Transhumanist
conversation with CGS, George Annas noted that the transhumanists'
"rhetoric is self-control, but their argument is first,
that they cannot control themselves (the technology is 'inevitable')
and second, that they really want to control not only their
bodies, but the bodies of their children as well."
Evelyne Shuster, another of the few critics of transhumanism
who spoke at the Transvision conference, told CGS that the participants
represent "a group in search of a philosophy to support
WTA goes so far as to acknowledge that biotechnology, nanotechnology,
and artificial intelligence are potentially dangerous, and that
the ethical, social, and cultural implications of these technologies
are huge. But, Shuster commented, most transhumanists "reject
any government regulations, treaties, or laws that may prevent
them from doing whatever they want to do to achieve transhumanistic
goals." According to Gregory Stock in the opening debate,
"the least likelihood of abusing this technology and protecting
ourselves is to allow individual choice."
Many transhumanist ideas—such as cryo-preserving
one's head or uploading one's neural networks to achieve immortality—are
difficult to take seriously. But it may be a mistake to dismiss
the transhumanists as a harmless group of under-socialized techno-geeks.
Their vision of a world in which atomized individuals use technology
and free markets to achieve dominance over others differs in
degree, and not kind, from much of the real world today. At
a time when many people feel powerless to influence social conditions,
their message—don't worry about society; technology will
make you smart, strong, and attractive—could seem compelling.
Those committed to social justice, equity, and global inclusion
can begin to counter its attractions by exposing the inhumanity
of the transhumanist vision.
2003 USA Conference
World Transhumanist Association FAQ
Hughes, "The Politics of Transhumanism"
"Meet the Extropians," Wired magazine (October
Bailey, "Making the Future Safe: Notes from the WTA's annual
conference," Reason Online (July 2, 2003)