Transforming Transhumanism

By 2035, there will be a mass uptake of human enhancement technology (HET).  For my purposes, HET describes “medical or biological interventions designed to improve performance, appearance, or capability besides what is necessary to achieve, sustain, or restore health. In conjunction with HET’s development, the ideology of transhumanism, or the movement that affirms and desires improving the human condition through technology to enhance intellectual, physical, and psychological limitations will become more pervasive. Is it possible to separate HET from transhumanism? 

Popularized in the late 20th century, transhumanist thought diverges into two core views: libertarian and democratic transhumanism.  Libertarians believe in the power of the market to equitably distribute technology while democratic transhumanists believe it is the government’s role to ensure fair allocation.  

Transhumanism, as a logical basis for HET, offers technology as the only solution to correct the biological body’s weak condition.  This logic is deeply ableist. It represents a societal desire to overcome and move beyond disability. Transhumanism’s celebration of enhancement delegitimizes the experiences of disabled communities.  This results in the elimination of cultures and personalities unique to disabled society. Those who criticize cochlear implants as forcing people with disabilities to adapt to society will similarly find themselves condemning transhumanism for creating pressure to adapt to our techno-future.

Correction is least concerning, however.  The ideology of transhumanism seeks efficiency and optimization, concepts based in the historical project of Taylorism.  This management style studied laborers and sought to eliminate inefficiency within the workforce. Although this functioned at a collective level, this did not prevent the targeting of less intelligent people or workers with disabilities.  In seeking to “trim the fat” of society, transhumanism creates a dangerous precedent of conformity coupled with social exclusion.

Definitionally, transhumanists are eugenicists. Any logic that seeks to maximize experience via technology will require meaningful reflection on who those advancements will benefit.  The universalist nature of transhumanism necessitates distinguishing minority (or biologically human) populations from the “new” Humanity since traditional human experience will be transformed into a dystopian techno-futurism.

Given the extreme costs HET will extract — both economically and socially — disenfranchised populations will be least likely to access advanced technology.  While biological racism is based on arbitrary, socially constructed stereotypes, genetic racism resulting from enhancement will ensure a genetic underclass based on “objective” determinates of superiority.  

Transhumanists are not without response.  They diligently defend the potential for access, development, and inclusivity.  While perhaps persuasive at the outset, transhumanism cannot reconcile the exclusion that inevitably comes without social protections.  

Posthumanism is a theory that seeks to deconstruct traditional conceptions of Humanity.  In doing so, posthumanism wants to eliminate identarian markers since a singular definition of Human can delineate superior or inferior life.  Giving the freedom to design one’s body however that person chooses would solve this. Individuals could have more freedom, agency, and power than a biological Human form would otherwise allow them.  This would theoretically eliminate discrimination since Humanity would no longer be biologically defined, rather ambiguous and transcendent. While the imagination of a new Human might be interesting, transhumanism provides a technological mechanism for its actualization.  

The fantasy of posthumanism is as hopeful as it is unlikely.  It imagines the world otherwise while overlooking the disparate implementation of such reforms.  Society can hardly handle people with different skin colors or non-binary genders; it is naïvely optimistic to believe people with tails, robot limbs, or any other modification would be treated with respect.  Even given the assumption of tolerance, there is a clear societal delineation between the enhanced and unenhanced that leads to a stigmatization of those that opt out of technological additions. This coercive societal pressure becomes another way to criminalize the poor.  The unaffordability of technology means the posthuman fantasy is only ever reserved for elites.

Transhumanists scoff at the argument that the ease of access a privileged person may have to HET should not justify no access for anyone.  They argue that plenty of people with disabilities, minorities, and other disenfranchised populations want HET. In fact, it is more dangerous when society decides to criminalize those populations as traitors rather than individuals looking to improve their condition.  For transhumanists, allowing technological diffusion increases the latitude of potential tactics to resist oppression. Furthermore, they defend advocating for transhumanism is not mutually exclusive with fighting classism or promoting welfare improvements. Rather, allowing people to define the bounds of what a successful life constitutes for themselves is necessary.  

While on face, this seems reasonable: denying people something they want is a restriction of autonomy.  There are two answers from transhumanist critics. First, the rejection of transhumanism does not necessitate the rejection of HET.  While they are similar, the ideology that demands productivity and efficiency from its followers does not necessitate those values. The potential for HET to have “therapeutic qualities, which challenge the therapy/enhancement dichotomy and works to validate these bodies, despite their deviation from hegemony” means that these “technologies eradicate the need to create the perfect human, and encourage the notion that non-hegemonic bodies need not assimilate in order to have their mode of existence seen as valid.”  Second, access to this technology will not be as prolific as transhumanists expect. The assumption of total accessibility should be juxtaposed by the long history of medical exclusion that ensured poor people died en masse while the rich were guaranteed treatment. The free market’s capacity to correct for biotechnological innovation at this level is nearly impossible. With millions of people living in poverty, and just as many lacking access to basic health insurance, it is laughable to assume advanced technology could be equitably diffused to poor and oppressed populations.

Our modified future is inevitable.  It will have profound implications for ethics, ideology, and philosophy.  If society chooses to disregard the unenhanced members of society, the diversity of Human life will be lost.  The implications of inequitable technological diffusion make the necessity of social protections imperative. HET alone is value-neutral but combined with transhumanist ideology, necessitates the criminalization or extermination of any group considered deviant.  The drive for progress at all costs normalizes exclusion.  

Neither the legal system nor public sphere is prepared for this type of discrimination.  As such, the development of HET should be coupled with the acknowledgement that unenhanced individuals are just as valuable as their enhanced counterparts.  While there is no simple policy solution to the dangers posed by HET, preparing for its development is important. Social protections must be established to protect poor or unwilling populations.  Education programs that guide society into this uncertain future must be designed to encourage tolerance of all people, regardless of the biological choices they make. Regulations must be established to ensure innovation does not outpace safety.  While this is by no means sufficient, it is the necessary groundwork to craft a future of which we can be proud. Divorcing transhumanism from HET requires altering who and what society values. Ultimately, recognizing and protecting the diversity of Human life is the only way to ensure the values we cherish will not be forgotten.

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