Silicon Valley has given a new lease of life to Transhumanism – the philosophical cheap-thrill of the 1950s – and revived it’s vision for the future: space colonization, self-driving cars, and intelligent machines to name but a few.

In doing so, it has also fundamentally altered what is understood by “Transhumanism” and made it less about man, and more about tech. What exactly differs between today’s transhumanism and that of the 50s, and what implications does this have for the future of our vision of the future?

The belief in exponential development

In it’s earliest form described by Julian Huxley in 1957, Transhumanism is imbued with a sense of optimism. Combining of the idea that things have never been better, yet also that they will only go up from here, transhumanism stipulates that “the human race is surrounded by a large area of unrealized possibilities” and that, if we apply to it the same scientific method employed to harness the forces of the natural world, the entire species “could be transcended by a state of existence based on the illumination of knowledge and comprehension.”

Today’s adaptation holds true to the original in it’s optimism, although it is presented in the bug-correcting vision of the world offered by tech start-ups: Google’s Deep-Mind project aims at “solving intelligence” and Google-backed Calico announces is will “cure death.” The view of exponential development that underscores these enterprises is that of “The Singularity”: a historical moment where the pace of technological advancement would go off the charts solving all of humanity’s problems but also leaving it obsolete.

Therein lies the true difference between the Transhumanism of the 1950s expressed by the likes of Julian Huxley, and the Transhumanism of today backed by the tech industry: the former advocates the development of man and his abilities (intellect, health, spiritual…) with the help of technology while the latter seeks the development of man-like abilities in technology.

man augmented machine
Computers and drugs, old-school transhumanists knew how to party

Manifest destiny

More than a belief, Transhumanism of Huxley’s strand takes on prophetic qualities, declaring that such a view of the future is not merely a desirable outcome – it is the only outcome. “Managing […] the business of evolution is man’s inescapable destiny, the sooner he realizes it the better for all those concerned.” On the grand scale of life and the universe, man is in the driver seat. He is not aware of it yet, nor is he prepared, but the coming consciousness of his abilities will change the course of life itself.

In the Silicon Valley version of the narrative of our future, technology ought to be in the driver seat. Man’s misjudgements, inertia, and limited faculties do not permit him to carry on much further. Indeed, for technology to keep growing at an exponential rate – which it is destined to do – man will not be needed much longer. One technology will work on perfecting the next through machine learning, and we will trust our technology’s vastly superior abilities to do the job of planning the future of humanity, and of the universe.

The only way man is to survive in this technology-driven future is to transition to a posthuman state, absorbed by technology. Once a tool for human development, technology becomes an agent in it’s own right in the new transhumanist dogma, and seeks to fulfill it’s own destiny understood as seperate from that of the human race.

Hal9000-rosie-jetsons-2001
Basically the difference between Rosie the robot maid from The Jetsons and Hal9000 from 2001: a space odyssey

Visions of the future

Both versions of transhumanism – the 1950s one and the contemporary one – are in agreement that humanity is but a passing stage. What exactly that means is drastically different in both.

If, to the likes of Julian Huxley, the future opened up by transhumanism comprises the radical tranformation of man by man – the human race retains agency. Human reasonning will mould the future of the human race, even if the understanding of what constitutes the human race comes to change.

In the more recent sprout of transhumanist thought, the future belongs to technology. Not only should technology dictate the path to an optimal future, it could do so at the expense of humans. A scenario that Google has already taken into careful consideration and is already looking for ways to prevent. Known as the “interuptibility problem” – or “red button” – it shows that modern-day transhumanism’s view of the future is one in which humans are superfluous: in the future, technology is all that will be needed.

In a fascinating prolonging of this train of thought, other transhumanists such as Elon Musk have gone at length to describe how perhaps technology is all there ever was. The “simulation argument” as it is known holds that our reality is merely a simulation created by a far more advanced civilization than ours. What gives this theory credence, according to Musk, is an extrapolation from our current rate of progress in terms of simulation and the fact that replicating the real world in its most minute details will – at some point in the future – definitely be feasible.

In it’s final, most extreme version, transhumanism goes from theorizing the future to building a theory of the past based on its vision of the future. An all-comprehending leap marking the shift from a call for progress to a meta-narrative encapsulating all of human, prehuman, and posthuman history. Yet still, behind all its transfigurations, transhumanism remains true to what it has always been at its core: a philosophical cheap-thrill.

red pill blue pill
Musk always goes for the red pill

Ressources:

Julian Huxley, “Transhumanism”

Machine Intelligence Ressource Institute, “Safely Interuptible Agents” [PDF]

Ezra Klein, Elon Musk believes we are probably characters in some advanced civilization’s video game”

Harry McCracken, “Google vs. Death” (subscribers only)