A Transhumanist Luddite

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I can't decide whether I'm a transhumanist or a luddite, a futurist or a would-be hermit.

Let's face it: computer technology has given us some cool stuff and allowed us to do some cool things. We can communicate across the world instantly, play games and share thoughts with complete strangers, explore new mediums for art, bathe in information and opinion, not to mention all the behind-the-scenes stuff in society that is run by the ubiquitous computer.

I honestly have trouble imagining myself being very happy without at least some access to the internet, and I'm sure others today feel the same. A person who happened to live in the wrong community might find themselves stranded among people they can't associate with. Atheists in the Bible Belt often face derision and scorn from fundamentalists; Arabs in America face racism based on ignorance and false patriotism; conservatives in a liberal town or vice versa feel like a fish out of water. Networked computers are a tool of freedom that allow people to transcend the accidents of geographic location and embrace a larger community of their choice. With proper education and effort, the internet may even make it possible for the populace to retain some freedom from the control of tyrannical governments (as encryption has helped protect many of those who work for human rights under repressive regimes abroad).

Likewise, science fiction as well as speculation on current research now paint an increasingly detailed and immediate future full of spectacular promises. From drastically extended lifespans to improved health to hyper-body-modification to net immersion or even AI, we are presented with pictures of an awe-inspiring world never dreamed of one hundred years ago.

Unfortunately, life isn't so simple as all that. Along with positive portrayals, scifi often shows us the negative possibilities. From the eugenics and discrimination of GATTACA to the human-machine war of The Matrix to various incarnations of Orwell's Big Brother, we see ways in which futuristic or transhumanist technology could turn on us, or be turned on us. And applying a little imagination to the research realities of today can be even more frightening.

Foremost among such short-term-future technologies is nanotechnology (computers on the scale of nanometers), which has recently shifted from science fiction (as in Neal Stephenson's brilliant The Diamond Age) to mainstream research interest for giant biotech and engineering firms. And therein lies the rub: technology may offer us great new possibilities in theory (and occasionally - by luck - in fact) but that technology tends to be designed, built, distributed and controlled by large corporations whose interest is in maximization of profit.

And that's the basis for my personal dilemma. Philosophically, I'm intrigued by the possibilities that technology offers us in the future. I think the Borg have given hive-minds a bad rap; I think artificial intelligence can provide a very real diversity of thought; I think Matrioshka Brains are sexy; and I think humanity qua homo sapiens sapiens isn't perfection incarnate so why not tinker a bit for some new experiences? But I'm also a realist, and I know that my vision of what could be will never match up with my vision of what will be. I'm not saying I can predict the future, but I think the present and the past can give us some pretty good hints at what is to come. Short of a radical change in how society operates, we will face the inevitable corruption of government and business. It doesn't matter whether it's a capitalist or communist system, the system will corrupt. And it's that system which largely controls technology.

I don't know, maybe there is some promise in anarchic technology - in the philosophy of technology that brings us encryption that largely can't be cracked (thus controlled) by authorities, that brings us copylefting and the open source movement, that brings us attempts at distributed and anonymous networks. Maybe that philosophy - if not quashed too early - can take hold and help people keep new technologies in line.

But I'm highly skeptical. As soon as the NSA and the rest of the U.S. government discovered how powerful encryption was they started legislating control over it. As soon as they realized how powerful the internet was they started coming up with tools and legislation to control it.

So now when I look at news like this piece about spray-on computers or this piece on DNA computers I don't marvel at the profound positive possibilities. Instead, I wonder how DARPA will use them to spy on every human being for the government's own purposes. I wonder how zealots like John Ashcroft will try to use the new technology to invade our lives and impose archaic morality and approved thought.

I wonder how in the world we humans will survive the technological revolution of the singularity when we are still stuck in the dark ages of cultural and societal development. So as I find myself torn daily between the beautiful, bright sci-fi future I want to experience, and the dark reality I see fast approaching, I begin to think more and more that our best hope for salvaging the future lies not in finding better technology, but in molding a better society. Only once we have established a general culture where large-scale corruption of the government/corporate kind is not tolerated will we stand a chance to control our own destiny in the way transhumanism promises.

Originally Written: 08-19-03
Last Updated: 11-14-03