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Write every day no exceptions – Not the fucking techno-rapture June 8, 2010

Posted by Conventioneering in Armchair philosophy, write every day no exceptions.
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I asked on my Facebook page for my friends to give me suggestions for essay topics. Most of them, while amusing, aren’t really things I feel comfortable writing about. My friend Patrick, however, suggested this (his words, not mine):

“Explain posthumanism to a skeptic who is not in a technical field. (Or, Patrick just wants to hear about posthumanism from somebody doesn’t make it sound like the fucking TechnoRapture, ref: various Internet geeks.)”

First, let me say that I’m not an expert on this subject. I do consider myself a transhumanist, but the movement hardly occupies my every breathing moment. I’m a transhumanist in the same way that a lot of people are democrats – I subscribe to their newsletter and I believe in their general philosophy, but I am not a big player by any means whatsoever. As such, this essay is 90% uninformed babbling, but so is most of the internet. I realize that if any other transhumanists actually read this, I am likely to get flamed and told that I’m Doing It Wrong.

Posthumanism, also known as Transhumanism, is this crazy movement that’s been going on since about the 50s (you can argue that the ideas behind it are as old as human civilization, but the 50s). For the purposes of this explanation, I’m going to be using the term “transhumanism”, as that’s the more common term since ‘posthuman’ is used to describe something else entirely (usually various types of AI, or beings so advanced that despite being derived from human stock they’re no longer recognizably human)

The best explanation that I’ve personally seen for the movement is from H+’s FAQ and also from Wikipedia. H+’s FAQ says:

“1. The intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally improving the human condition through applied reason, especially by developing and making widely available technologies to eliminate aging and to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities.
2. The study of the ramifications, promises, and potential dangers of technologies that will enable us to overcome fundamental human limitations, and the related study of the ethical matters involved in developing and using such technologies. “

Wikipedia shortens this still further, to:

“Transhumanism is an international intellectual and cultural movement supporting the use of science and technology to improve human mental and physical characteristics and capacities”

In plain English? “People who think we should use technology to make life better.”

Wow, that was easy, wasn’t it?

Granted, this catch-all umbrella covers a huge variety of different outlooks, philosophies, and movements, similar to how you can say “Christianity” but this covers Catholics Baptists Anglicans Seventh Day Adventists and even Mormons, as well as thousands of other variations (Aside: I hate comparing transhumanism to religion, because even if at some point overzealous teenage internet addict converts make it seem that way, it’s not, for the very simple reason that most transhumanists require empirical evidence and proof of concept before we go putting our faith in anything). There’s some transhumanists who believe we should become superhuman, overcome death, and reach to the stars. There’s some who think we should forget humans and make AI to act as our successors. And there’s some who think this is all way too extreme and that we should just make life a little better and a little cleaner but largely the same still.

Also, all these people will verbally spar with each other over whose way is ‘best’, sometimes in a good way, sometimes in… well, not so good ways.

Now, maybe I’m misunderstanding the question: maybe Patrick was asking about Posthumans themselves, not the transhumanist movement, which would mean that he’s actually asking about the Singularity. That is a good sight harder to explain in non techno-rapture terms. I again turn to Wikipedia for a simple defintion:

“Technological singularity refers to a prediction in Futurology that technological progress will become extremely fast, and consequently will make the future (after the technological singularity) unpredictable and qualitatively different from today.”

Yeah, but how different? What can we expect out of this? Are we going to be some kind of godlike hivemind or immortal bored people or what?

The truth is? We can’t really predict. We can speculate, sure, which is the purvey of science fiction, but I can’t tell you where we’re going to be in fifty years any more than people in the sixties could have predicted where we’d be now. Just watch sixties science fiction if you want an idea of how good we are at predicting the progress of technology.

To put it in perspective though, the Singularity won’t necessarily be awesome, and it won’t be the rapture. It’ll just be different. It’ll be different like having an iPhone is different from having to send letters by Pony Express. Different like going to the Moon is from setting a canoe out along a river. Only maybe just a bit more, and in ways we can’t predict or expect right now. I’ll leave that bit to the science fiction writers.

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1. Patrick - June 9, 2010

Transhumanism, as defined there, is fine with me…heck, I’d argue it’s already here. I think I’ve got more of an issue with the Singularity wankers, who I guess are really what you call posthumanists. Essentially, the line of thought appears to go…a guy wrote a book that said that soon we will build machines that are smarter than us. When that happens, because of the way that computers learn, it will think so hard it will blaze ahead of us. Assuming a certain degree of enforced or enlightened benevolence on the part of this intelligence, then all of the problems that are ever worth solving will be solved.

So really, it’d be nice to solve all of those pesky foreign policy and ecological and ethical problems now, but we really just have to hang on by our fingernails till the Singularity gets here, and then it will somehow turn the theoretically unlimited resources in the solar system into pure orgasmic happiness forever. People who want to keep their own cell-filled brains are implied to be naive fuddy-duddies.

Now, I KNOW this is an inadequate strawman, but without setting aside time for some semi-serious research myself, this is what otherwise smart people seem to be espousing. In my ignorance of computer technology, I am skeptical. But that’s beside the point…if Singularity-think causes people to care less about solving the problem of sustainable and comfortable living for all humans + leaving the planet’s ecosystems somewhat intact, then it causes just as much harm as belief in the Rapture.

The antiseptic scenario usually implied also leaves out that a good portion of the world >6 billions does not want to be a posthuman. Can you imagine the holy wars? The day that AI takes resources from needy humans is the day that humans will be doing violence to posthumans. Frankly, the way that Americans sit on their computers and wax melodic about how all reasonable people will be happy with improved bodies sounds to me a little like planning out class warfare…of annihilation.

It is also SO frighteningly possible that we will use up the resources on this planet that a hypothetical machine intelligence would even be using to perpetuate itself and conquer the solar system.

If the machine-master will make the future so unpredictable, then stop predicting it, guys. We are humans, so let’s consider how to keep ourselves alive, hmm?


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