You don’t often read an analysis of what the prevailing agenda is, in Silicon Valley and what that might mean for creativity and art, but I have a foot in both camps, so to speak, so I thought I would write a post about how I see things developing, from my perspective, as both a technologist and artist. The irony, for me, is that I see both disciplines require a great deal of comfort with innovation and creativity, yet I sense that this is not the path Silicon Valley is on. I could be wrong, but I sense a real subversion of art, creativity and innovation, for ugly, dominating ends. Their collective project represents, from my perspective, a genuine existential threat to artists and aesthetics. You can read this blog post as a critique of this collective delusion, if you like.
This is one of those blog posts I have approached with a sense of dread and reluctance. It’s painful to write it, when your assessment of the situation is that the project is well advanced, well funded, determined and organised, while opposition to it is almost non-existent, because the consequences are barely recognised at all. Ask the average person about what Transhumanism even is and you will draw blank stares. Yet, the project itself is insidious, harmful, dreadful and very likely to succeed, even though it is based on junk science, a massively flawed conception of humanity and blind faith in huckster-promoted science fictions. It feels like we’re already done for. Even writing about it feels futile.
The catalyst for this article was a keynote speech I attended, at one of the world’s larger technical conferences, hosted by a company that makes something like over 90% of the very fabric of the Internet. This company is currently undervalued on the stock market, dependent as it has traditionally been on the sale of hardware, operated manually, by specialist geeks. They’re trying to transform themselves into a software services powerhouse and this means they have had to embark upon major change initiatives, to take their very conservative customer base and partner ecosystem, as well as their own employees, along on their change programme. They have had to actively foster and promote change to survive.
Their response to this imperative was to open the floor to an unabashed Transhumanist, futurologist and, in my view, charlatan. What this huckster said, in 45 minutes, boiled my blood and aroused my every instinct to rail against it. That’s not because I am anti-change, or uncomfortable with innovation. It was because what this man espoused was pure, dangerous nonsense, yet a nonsense that has been embraced like a cult religion, among the board rooms of struggling Silicon Valley technology companies, trying to change themselves fast enough to survive. I was moved to spend most of the keynote speech jotting keywords and counter arguments into Evernote, on my smart phone, while I listened. I was incensed by what I was hearing. I was probably the only one, in an audience of ten thousand or more, not cheering and actively lapping it up, accepting every pronouncement as gospel. I felt as though they had already started distributing the Kool-Aid.
For those that don’t know, Transhumanism is the belief that humans, through engineering, can design and produce a superior human being. They wrap it up in laudable enough aims, but at its very heart is a form of spectacular hubris, born of ignorance of what a human being actually is. They start from a very blinkered and narrow view of what people are and what they’re for, which they hope to amplify.
Wikipedia says the following, about Transhumanism (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transhumanism): Transhumanism “is an international and intellectual movement that aims to transform the human condition by developing and creating widely available sophisticated technologies to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities.” Note that emotional and empathic capacities are omitted.
Wikipedia goes on to say: “Transhumanist thinkers study the potential benefits and dangers of emerging technologies that could overcome fundamental human limitations, as well as the ethics of using such technologies. The most common Transhumanist thesis is that human beings may eventually be able to transform themselves into different beings with abilities so greatly expanded from the natural condition as to merit the label of post human beings.”
You should be very worried about this. It’s an arid and dead philosophy, reeking of coercive eugenics. Ethics are very much a secondary concern and the dangers are downplayed. In the keynote speech I witnessed, they were barely mentioned at all, except by way of glibly reassuring us that it will all be OK, offering not a shred of evidence to back the bald assertion.
The keynote speaker is touted as “A Timothy Leary of the Viral Video Age”. He is described as a media artist, futurist, philosopher, keynote speaker and TV personality. This is how far we have sunk. We now list “TV personality” as a qualification. You can read about the dude here (not that I wish to endorse him in any way): https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jason_Silva
Here is some of his tripe: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FN57u7-x75w Notice that the imagery is laden with tacit endorsements of weapons systems – weapons of conquest and mass destruction; weapons that threaten us all, with cold, ruthless, indiscriminate, mass murder, of innocents. Those are glossed over, in the narrative, but the visual impressions are distinctly made. Let’s also not concern ourselves with accidental, unintentional triggering of those weapons. That’s not progressive enough, is it?
This dude is hyperactive, hyperbolic and young. His delivery is imperative, like a child throwing a tantrum that demands to have his way. He leaps and prances around the stage like a fidgety kid, high on some kind of substance. Yet, he is considered to be a high priest of Silicon Valley’s current obsessive religion. It’s a religion that wants to make humans live forever, but which abhors and discriminates against age and wisdom. Their quest is to create a species that remains young, compliant and impressionable, yet also immortal. If this is not a pure vanity and ego gratification project, I don’t know what is. Who wants that kind of person to live forever?
At only 34 years of age, our keynote speaker lacks any semblance of the wisdom accumulated with age. Heck, at 34 I didn’t have a clue, but I thought I knew everything. I suspect he thinks he knows everything, too and has it all figured out. Furthermore, your objections are likely to be only because you’re too old to understand the epiphanies he has had. How can that be? It can’t be. It’s nonsense.
This guy makes a handsome living, I suspect, as a huckster for innovation, only he thinks that any innovation will do. It doesn’t matter whether or not you should. He’s only concerned that you can. That said, his overriding concern is obviously how to make a buck in a world that doesn’t value media artists very highly. He’s found his niche and he is milking it for all it’s worth. The consequences be damned! At least he gets to make his films. If corporations want to sponsor him to sprout his brand of dangerous nonsense, so much the better for his bank balance.
The vision Transhumanists offer for humanity is one of ruthless efficiency, but insensate. They want us to work more productively, producing greater profits for the few, but don’t want us to be any more connected to our feelings and emotions. Rather, they prefer it if we were less connected to our feelings and emotions, especially if that conflicts with the goals of efficiency and improved productivity. It’s a vision of humanity as pre-destined slaves. What they aim to produce is a race of insensate psychopaths, made in the image of the very billionaires that are so hell-bent of pushing this agenda.
Take another look at the imagery. It’s always similar:
(From https://techcrunch.com/2016/07/23/the-assimilation-of-robots-into-the-workforce-as-peers-not-replacements/ – this article seeks to soothe those that fear losing their jobs, by telling them that robots will be peers, not replacements. The assertion in the article is not convincing.)
The Transhumanist wet dream is for human flesh to be augmented by, or even replaced with metal alloys and silicon. Silicon and metal alloys are poor substances and technologies for empathy, imagination, self replication, sustainability and awareness (self and situational). Metal hands have no warmth or feeling. Silicon brains have no introspection or empathy. These aren’t technologies that can run all day on a cheese sandwich, like a human being can and they cannot self-heal. They’re hard and brutal, like the Transhumanist vision.
Exoskeletons won’t protect us (in the workplace or in battle). Like the suits of armour of medieval times, they’ll more often than not be a hindrance and an encumbrance, making us more vulnerable, not less. Our thoughts won’t be held in smart phones. The computing power necessary will never fit (at least not for a very long time) and its energy requirements will far exceed any foreseeable battery technology. What would be the use of an identity, memory and consciousness that has a three hour battery life? Yet, the Transhumanists are convinced that the robots will be our children and that they will inherit the Earth. Not my children. Not on my watch. I care for them too much to lumber them with these defective, inferior technologies.
The Prussians, at the end of the 19th century, used to fit beautifully crafted prostheses to their war-maimed, telling them that they would be stronger and better than ever before. It was a lie, of course. They were never the same, let alone any better. We still do that to today’s horribly mutilated soldiers, with our carbon fibre, Kevlar and titanium retro-fitments. Ask any single one of them if they would like to have their previous flesh and blood limbs back and you’ll get a resounding affirmation, if they’re honest.
There’s almost nothing (if anything) in the Transhumanist agenda about enhancing or even fostering the human capacity for creativity – arguably our most remarkable characteristic. There is nothing about enhancing our aesthetic senses (instead, it’s anaesthetic), our appreciation and capacity for beauty, or our art. Those are considered to be irrelevant trivialities, not worthy of enhancement or even preservation. In the Transhumanist conception, those things are hindrances, that ought to be expunged. Instead, the obsession is with efficiency and productivity, as if that is the highest good. Efficiency and productivity are nice to have, but for the ultimate benefit of whom?
Our current neoliberal economic system, with its blinkered focus on productivity , already induces an emotional need to prove one’s worth through one’s job, which leave’s workers in a permanent state of “fight or flight”. It mainly manifests in the anxiety of underperformance and a sense of not being good enough, or not living up to expectations. Is this a tendency we want to accelerate and amplify?
I found the keynote speech far too “gee whizz”. The speaker was protected from criticism by his adherence to blind optimism and unfounded positivity. The greatest heresy, in the Transhumanist religion, is to be negative, after all. To be negative is to be toxic. Lunatics like this speaker, lacking the capacity for deep, honest introspection, or for learning the lessons of history, lacking real empathy for others, are downright dangerous propagandists for what is, in essence, a thorough-going corporatist agenda.
Here’s a list of things that are missing from the Transhumanist agenda, which (as far as I can tell) they are making no attempt whatsoever to enhance and improve:
- Human beings are hardwired for friendship.
- We’re also naturally empathetic.
- Kindness makes us feel happy.
- Our first instinct is to act selflessly.
- A human’s ability to fall in love is biological.
- Holding hands with someone alleviates fear.
- Our bodies physically change when we hug someone.
- Human beings are programmed to recover from bad events.
- And if all of that doesn’t convince you that there’s a lot of good in human nature, know that dogs are hardwired to love us.
While the Transhumanists are trying to design a better, faster, stronger, more enduring human being, there are other forces at work. Meanwhile, in society at large (most notably post-Brexit and in the US elections), politicians, pastors, friends, and strangers, both in person and on social media now regularly out themselves as hateful, intolerant, and malicious—and they remind us just how close they are to us, just how deep the sickness in us runs, and just how far we have to go together. Do the Transhumanists have a solution for any of this? If anything, they’ll make it all worse.
I may have more computing power in my pocket, today, than a head of state had at his disposal 25 years ago, but does that make me any wiser? Does the amount of computing power available to a head of state, today, make them any wiser? Wisdom is not increasing exponentially, only our capacity and appetite for destruction has.
Among the many flaws in the Transhumanist project is that there is no way to make machines “desire” things. They don’t dream. Desire, of course, is the first step toward creation. Only humans do that. Why reduce that desire, through augmentation of the human with an engineered mechanism, or even with a biologically altered version of the human? It’s fundamentally anti-creativity.
Transhumanists cite machine learning as being far superior to human learning. This is smoke and mirrors, even if you consider machine learning at a data centre scale. Machine learning is, in actuality, little more than a classification engine that creates categories on the basis of probabilities. Without vast amounts of data, confidence is low. The faster you want the answer, the more likely it is to be hilariously wrong. How does that improve on the human capacity for curiosity-driven learning? It doesn’t.
What annoyed me about the tedious Transhumanist, giving his keynote speech at me, was that he was far too uncritical. He represented a class of people too privileged and too corporate to really understand the needs and hopes of most of humanity. He was quite content to perfect humans at the expense of losing feelings and sensations. While he was enamoured with awe, he didn’t feel that it was essential that the half-machine, half human beings of tomorrow would experience the same thing. This was the paradox at the heart of his address. He wanted us to be bowled over and awed at the possibilities, but the vision was to excise our capacity to be so impressed and overawed.
On the whole, he came across as way too programmed, by years of pro-corporatist, neoliberal propaganda – the only dominant skein of political thought he would be familiar with or meaningfully exposed to, during his short life. When the State becomes fundamentally corporatist (as it already has), then it is, by definition, Fascist. The Transhumanist ideal sits quite comfortably with corporate control of everything. It depends on it. He’s awestruck by the amazing technological possibilities, professing non-conformity, but he is, in reality, the ultimate conformist. There is no inkling that he knows a single thing about anarchy, voluntaryism, humanism or any of the other possible ways of organising human affairs, devoid of so-called leaders and rulers. The question of who rules and what entitles them to do so is never questioned, in his world view.
Re-engineering humanity ignores utterly the threat of nuclear destruction (accidental or wanton). It doesn’t factor in the many environmental threats to continued existence of any form of life, even if Transhuman. Why should these threats even exist? Why do we need to engineer human beings capable of withstanding nuclear holocaust, environmental catastrophe or the need to work with heavy loads, over extended hours? The motivation for Transhuman design, like the motivation for all the problems a Transhuman is designed to endure, is simply neoliberal, corporate greed. Without it, the threats abate and hence the imperative to design a being to deal with them evaporates instantly. Transhumanism is solving the wrong problem, the wrong way.
Transhumanism also offers no solution for the current crisis of governance that is being experienced in many parts of the world. Leadership has been unmasked as fraud. Yet, Transhumanism offers no narrative or solutions to the idiocy at the top, the idiocy of those that vote them in and the sheer inequality that is driving all the childish hurt and anger. With Transhumanism silent on all of these pressing issues, you have to wonder. Transhumanism to what end?
Their design and vision for humanity is to make us faster and cheaper, bigger and better, enduring longer and tolerating more abuse. What we actually need is a species that takes time to understand their fellow human beings, before creating things and experiences of value to other people. Transhumanism is a tired, out of date, irrelevant conception of what it is to be better than a human. It lacks imagination and is simply the stale regurgitation of discredited, dysfunctional, destructive and doomed ideas about how one improves life for oneself, while disregarding the well-being of everybody else alive or yet to be born. In short, it’s a dead end idea, propagated by dead head thinkers.
The reality of our modern, connected, networked world is that there soon won’t be enough electrical energy generated to run our IP networks. That’s yet another problem that remains unsolved, which Transhumanism is silent about.
What place is there for failure, in the Transhumanist future? Every artist knows that failure is a necessary and unavoidable step on the way to success, but Transhumanism seems to ignore this entirely. Failures will simply be re-engineered. Version one will be perfection personified. There won’t be any failures and no need to mop up the mess and try again. Sure. And pigs might fly. Engineering, being a fundamentally creative process, doesn’t proceed in that manner. Given that the first Transhumans are likely to be failures, what should become of them? What are the ethics of scrapping an improved human being that didn’t turn out that way?
While this stupid huckster was prancing around the stage, espousing a perfected future, just beyond our current grasp, there was something else in the gigantic arena that gave me some small hope. While the speaker was talking about improving on the human mind and its mortal body, above me one of the stage lights, constructed of LEDs, was flickering. It was a flickering of hope. We’re going to re-engineer humanity, but we can’t even design a stage light that doesn’t fail. That flickering light was a ray of hope to me, because it proved that without superior maintenance, all our designs are worthless.
So, this tub thumper for billionaires and start up culture, as practised in Silicon Valley, did his schtick, trotting out trite, tired quotes from discredited pundits and pseudo intellectuals. The whole thing reminded me that I was a committed Rehumanist. See my earlier blog post on what that means: https://tropicaltheartist.wordpress.com/2016/02/28/rehumanising-through-art/
Noam Chomsky’s view on Transhumanism and the so-called “singularity” is closer to my thoughts: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0kICLG4Zg8s The Singularity is Science Fiction.
Here’s a quote from that video, about what it means to programme future human beings with artificial intelligence: “What’s a program? A program is a theory; it’s a theory written in an arcane, complex notation designed to be executed by the machine. What about the program, you ask? The same questions you ask about any other theory: Does it give insight and understanding? These theories don’t. So what we’re asking here is: Can we design a theory of being smart? We’re eons away from doing that.”
No, the keynote speaker I endured was evidently addicted to epiphanies, but very shallow epiphanies. Just because an idea precipitates a personal epiphany, it doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.
In any case, Transhumanism is going nowhere while we remain, as a people, so conservative, violent, ignorant, dependent on technologies we can’t begin to understand, fearful, paranoid, insular, addicted to the cult of leadership personalities, while we believe the fraud that is the money system to be legitimate and while we think we need daily governance, in all things, by people and corporations we think know better what is good for us, than we do, who are prepared to enforce it with violence.
Humans will never progress, while we remain drunk on power, which is just another way of saying people who think they have enough privilege to break the laws that are enforced on lesser mortals.
Humanity will not progress while we dismiss the intrinsic and fundamental value of creativity and art, or while we delegate shocking, inhuman powers to leaders that we ourselves do not have.
While we revel, with pride, in our inability to take in, absorb and live by demonstrably better ideas than the ones we doggedly, stubbornly, irrationally and stupidly cling to, there will be no transformation, Transhuman or other.
While we use anonymity to cloak our misdeeds and shame to control the lives of others, we’re going nowhere better. While we think the key to success, meaning the accumulation of material wealth and privilege, is to remain positive and pretend all is well, when clearly there are people that need our help urgently, we’re going to remain moronic.
Instead, we remain wedded to conquest, to vanquishing and humiliating our enemies, retaliation, revenge and command and control hierarchies. None of that will make humanity any better. Transhumanism simply entrenches it.
There are no design improvements planned, here. There is no current project to realise them.