Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Cross the trans-human divide? Hell, we just got here!

Who will own our trans-human future? Why, libertarians, of course! Or so says Ronald Bailey in his article in Reasononline, "Trans-Human Expressway - Why libertarians will win the future".

Politics in the 21st century will cut across the traditional political left/right rift of the last two centuries. Instead, the chief ideological divide will be between transhumanists and bioconservatives/bioluddites.

James Hughes, the executive director of the World Transhumanist Association, explores this future political order in his remarkably interesting yet wrongheaded, Citizen Cyborg: Why Democratic Societies Must Respond to the Redesigned Human of the Future. Hughes, who lectures on health policy at Trinity College in Connecticut, defines transhumanism as "the idea that humans can use reason to transcend the limitation of the human condition." Specifically, transhumanists welcome the development of intimate technologies that will enable people to boost life spans, enhance intellectual capacities, augment athletic abilities, and choose their preferred emotional states.

With a topic as historically important as the transformation of human biology by technology, you would think that the question of which political philosophy will garner the majority of benefits is a trivial concern, but not for a libertarian true believer like Bailey.

Bailey correctly points out that Hughes' couching of the trans-human future in a traditional leftist political context shows how little Hughes has transcended the limitations on his own human imagination:

In a sense, Hughes himself has not transcended the left/right politics of the past two centuries; he hankers to graft old fashioned left-wing social democratic ideology onto transhumanism. That isn't necessary. The creative technologies that Hughes does an excellent job of describing will so scramble conventional political and economic thinking that his ideas about government health care and government guaranteed incomes will appear quaint. The good news is that if his social democratic transhumanism flounders, Hughes will reluctantly choose biotech progress. "Even if the rich do get more enhancements in the short term, it's probably still good for the rest of us in the long term," writes Hughes. "If the wealthy stay on the bleeding edge of life extension treatments, nano-implants and cryo-suspension, the result will be cheaper, higher-quality technology."

But Bailey cannot see his own inability to transcend his own libertarian context:

Although it clearly pains him, Hughes grudgingly recognizes that libertarian transhumanists still belong in his big tent. And why not? You will not find a more militantly open, tolerant bunch on the planet. Adam and Steve want get married? We'll be the groomsmen. Joan wants to contract with Jill for surrogacy services? We'll throw a baby shower. Bill and Jane want to use ecstasy for great sex? We'll leave them alone quietly. John wants to grow a new liver through therapeutic cloning? We'll bring over the scotch to help him break in the new one.

My point is not to confirm or deny whether trans-humanism will promote libertarian political principles, but to say that Bailey is asking the wrong question, or more precisely, is ignoring the most important question: should we even attempt to transcend human biology?

The extent to which Bailey and Hughes welcome this trend as an absolute good with seemingly no reservations is extremely troubling. Neither are ready to answer the critical question "what are the reasons for not pursuing a trans-human direction?". The obvious problem with a Hughes-esque, big government, socialist driven program for human transformation is that such an approach repeats the "fatal conceit" of all socialist programmes. Such a program will repeat the disasters of socialist run economies, that no group of experts can ever understand the intricate, interconnected variables and relationships of a complex system like a human economy or social system.

While a libertarian approach may appear to avoid the problems of a central planning model, it also ignores the effects that people, making individual decisions to employ trans-human methods to design alternate outcomes for themselves and their children, can have on the larger society, for good and for ill. The fatal conceit of the libertatian philosophy is that individuals can operate independently from the dominant moral ethos of the society in which they live.

Society will need a voice in deciding what trans-human technologies are pursued, and to what extent. The aim of society's involvement must not be to design and implement trans-human future for its members, a la the Hughes program. It should be, rather, to preserve the moral and ethical principles under which society operates as the technologies progress and individuals seek to use them to their benefit.

The WTA and the Extropy Institute both advocate approaches seeking to accelerate the pace of trans-human technical development and exploitation, as if the human genome has exhausted its potential for sustaining humanity. It may be a good time to pause and reflect on how successful this genome has been, and to appreciate its marvelous ability to adapt to a variety of ecological, social and technological environments over the ages. This genome posesses and incredible wealth of wisdom that we should tamper with extreme caution, if at all.

My sense is that the technology of human augmentation will continue to accelerate of its own momentum. Rather than applying additional external forces to accelerate this trend even more, social and political groups should act more in the function of a brake, slowing this trend to ensure the continuity of society's moral ethos. These are the kinds of decisions that will affect humanity for untold generations to come. It makes sense to approach this future slowly, with all due respect for our genetic heritage.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Death of a subculture

In Where No Geek Has Gone Before Douglas Kern celebrates the 40 year run of Star Trek, which came to a close Friday night with the final eposide of Star Trek Enterprise:

The last new Enterprise airs tonight, and soon Star Trek will be, in a sense, dead -- but we should all have such a rollicking afterlife. Forget the five-year mission; Star Trek has succeeded in its forty-year mission to be the most all-encompassing multimedia geek experience ever. Star Trek doesn't need new episodes, or new anything else. Between hundred of episodes, novels, comic books, video games, role-playing games, conventions, cartoons, and movies, Star Trek has achieved cultural immortality.

Yes, Orson Scott Card, it was inferior science fiction, but so what? Star Trek was family. You don't stop loving your kids just because someone else's kids are smarter and better looking. Star Trek didn't just offer the illimitable joys of William Shatner tumbling out of his chair every time the camera shook, or yet another sermon from the pen of Gene Roddenberry about how organized religion is a childish superstition. It offered a world. It offered a place that dreamers could call their own; a place where wonky, right-leaning dreams of rugged space exploration and pioneering could sit comfortably next to hippy-dippy dreams of world peace and universal brotherhood. It was a kind of home, and home is no place for shrewd critical judgments.

Star Trek offered us middle-class midwestern types a chance at full-body geeky immersion when nothing else did. Now pay attention to yer Grandpappy Kern, you young Gen Y whippersnappers. In the bad old days, when nickels cost dimes, ladies wore petticoats, and high-speed modems ran at 800 bits per second, geeky pursuits were the love that dared not speak its name. In those days, we didn't have "graphic novels." Admitting that you read comic books was like admitting that you read Playboy for the pictures. Video games? If you spent twenty hours a week on the same game, your parents had you institutionalized. Dungeons and Dragons? For Satanists. Tolkien? For Folklore Studies majors who looked like the Pillsbury Doughboy and homely girls who liked unicorns.

I am old enough to remember the first episodes of the original series, and as a nine year old was at the right age to be taken in by the sense of wonder and adventure that Star Trek engendered. You got a sense from the original series that the crew of the Enterprise really was going "where no man has gone before". The earliest episodes were the best, especially "Where No Man has Gone Before", which was the second pilot, and the first with William Shatner at the helm. In the earliest episodes, the plots and characters were truer to the concept. In "Where No Man.." Spock's lack of human emotion, and reliance on logic contrasted with Kirk's humanity, as Kirk struggled with the decision to strand Gary Mitchell on a deserted planet. Spock knew that Mitchell's ESP powers would multiply exponentially to the point where he would be too strong to stop unless he be killed immediately, and had no compunction against carrying out the execution which he knew was the right decision. The contrast between Kirk's and Spock's reactions to the dilemma gave a sense of how an environment where humans interacted with alien races could be very different than we are used to.

Sadly, over the years Star Trek was a victim of its own success. With each new series, the characters became more one-dimensional, the plotlines more repetitive and predictable, and the sense of wonder less evident. "The Next Generation" and "Deep Space Nine" were well written and watchable, if not as appealing as the original series. "Voyager" brought nothing new to the franchise. "Enterprise" was unwatchable. As the producers increasingly relied on special effects and sexually attractive female crewmembers to hold the interest of viewers, the original premise of the series, the spirit of pioneers driving "covered wagons to the stars", was lost.

Of course, my opinions may reflect more my advancing years and my declining interest in the Sci-Fi genre in general, but the declining audience base confirmed that the Star Trek franchise has run its course. Sci-Fi cannot thrive in an atmosphere of familiarity and routine. The next successful Sci-Fi franchise will have to re-write the rules, just as Star Trek did 40 years ago.