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Transhumanist Media: The Transhumanist Wager June 9, 2013

Posted by Metabiological in Social Media, Transhumanism.
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The Transhumanist Wager reads like Atlas Shrugged, if Ayn Rand had been a transhumanist and not as good a writer. Let that sink into your mind for a moment.  I just compared Ayn Rand’s writing ability favorably to another author’s.  That’s usually not a good sign, but here it proves to be the least of this book’s problems.

With my summary of the book’s quality already complete, allow me to back up a bit.  The Transhumanist Wager, written by Zoltan Istvan, first came to my attention several weeks ago.  I heard through the grape vine that a new book had been released with transhumanism as it’s central theme and that it was getting a surprising amount of press.  This in and of itself wasn’t big news since transhumanism has already been used as theme in several other works of much higher profile (e.g. the Deus Ex Series or Dan Brown’s new book Inferno).  But the word of mouth was that this was less a book and more of a rallying cry, a declaration of war on the forces of the Luddite status quo which, in retrospect, is not unlike the one the main character gives at the end of the book.  That and the fact that it was on sale for 99 cents on Amazon made me decide to give it a try.

The Transhumanist Wager belongs to the long, though not necessarily distinguished, genre known as utopian fiction.  Though it has never been more than a niche genre, most of us can probably name a few titles.  Atlas Shrugged, Ecotopia, Looking Backwards are some of the more notable examples.  What unites all utopian fiction is that the main purpose of the narrative is not so much to present a compelling story but to serve as the frame work for  philosophical argument, usually a defense of the authors idea of an ideal society.  Unfortunately, what that often results in is a weak and scattershot narrative with characters who aren’t so much characters as they are plot devices.  Sadly, this book did not buck that trend.

Let’s get this out of the way early; this is a bad book.  The prose is awful and the dialogue does not sound like any human being I have ever heard speak.  The characters fall into two groups; noble, brilliant and at times impossibly virtuous good guys, and black hat evil or incompetent bad guys who are only there to serve as metaphorical punching bags for the book’s philosophical opponents.   The only character who moves beyond the one dimensional is the protagonist, and that’s primarily due to the fact that he’s little more than an author insert.  Nobody undergoes a character arc, their motivations (for those who have them) are usually dealt with in the space of a couple paragraphs, and the book’s message is about as subtle as a sledgehammer to the face.

And you know what, I could have forgiven all of that.  After all, wooden dialogue and one dimensional author inserts are sort part and parcel with utopian fiction.  When the point of your story is to set forth a defense of your philosophy it’s not hard to see why little things like plot and characterization often fall by the wayside.  What this means is that I could have overlooked the rather amateurish writing had the philosophy been an interesting or well-defended one.  Instead, well…

I suppose now is as good a time as any to summarize the plot.  The story shifts between the perspectives of several characters but the protagonist is a young philosophy student by the name of Jethro Knight (feel free to laugh at that name, I sure as hell did).  A staunch and passionate transhumanist, he is disgusted both by the Luddite tendencies he sees in so many of his peers and the timidity within the contemporary transhumanist movement.  The story begins with him sailing around the world, ostensibly due to his career as a journalist but mainly as a sort vision quest to flesh out his own personal philosophy.  Along the way he meet his future wife, a woman by the name of Zoe Bach who like most females in this genre exists only to die around halfway through and fulfill her one purpose by giving the hero a cause to fight for.  Oh don’t look at me like that, that wasn’t a spoiler.  If you don’t see her death coming a mile away you don’t read enough books.  In addition, Jethro tangles with the various antagonistic forces and men, including a cartoonishly evil preacher who reads like Jerry Falwel by way of Joseph Goerbels, who will stop at nothing to thwart his quest for immortality.

Transhumanism therefore forms the central conflict of the story, and don’t worry about forgetting that because he uses that word every other paragraph just to remind you, along with every variation of it.  Transhuman, transhumanity, Transhumania, transhumanicide (no, really).  As I said, subtlety isn’t exactly in his vocabulary.  What’s more interesting is what form Jethro’s particular brand of transhumanism takes.  At first he seems like an early nineties Extropian, with his libertarian leanings and constant talk about the omnipotender, the hypothetical being we should all be striving to be.  The omnipotender is a person who seeks power for themselves, as much power as possible, to achieve immortality and perpetuate their existence forever.  What of everyone else in the world, you ask?  What place do they have?  As Jethro so delicately puts it in his multi-page rant near the end, “If you don’t add value to our lives, we’ll destroy you.” (paraphrased, but that is the jist of it)

I didn’t make that Ayn Rand comparison earlier lightly.  Between the hyper-individualism, Jethro’s interminably long radio address to the world explaining  his philosophy, and even the floating city he constructs half-way through the book to serve as his own personal Galt’s Gulch, The Transhumanist Wager really comes across like an attempt to create Atlas Shrugged for the transhumanist movement. But you know, funny thing.  By the time Jethros’ pre-Bioshock Rapture is up and running and the war with humanity has been decisively won, the world he’s created has lost any resemblance it might have had with what usually passes for libertarian transhumanism.  Instead, what we’re left with is a corporate state which restricts freedom of speech, pay’s lip service to the free market while actively determining what business can make and how they can advertise, and uses an army of robotic minions to crush any and all dissent.  Like most utopian dreamers, what Jethro delivered was quite different from what he advertised.

So what effect will this book ultimately have?  It’s clear from the authors own statements that he envisions his book as a way to both guide bright young men and women into the sciences, and to plant the seeds of the transhumanist revolution in the fertile soil that is the undergraduate’s mind.  As you might be able to guess, I don’t see that happening.  While it is nice to see transhuman philosophy presented in a positive light, in opposition to the countless examples of the opposite, it is deeply disturbing that for many people said philosophy will now be associated with a book who’s central theme is “The future is coming.  Join us or die.”

Will biotech disconnect us from nature – or reconnect us? June 3, 2013

Posted by Metabiological in Ecology.
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Among certain segments of the population a common fear of biotechnology, and indeed a common fear of emerging technologies in general, is that it will reduce nature to just another commodity.  With the potential to control the very most inner workings of living organisms soon to be in our grasps, what will stop us from treating life in the same way we have historically treated most of the resources at our disposal?

This is not an argument without merit and more than enough words have been spent elsewhere on it.  However, I would like to invite you, for just a moment, to consider an alternative possibility.  What if, instead of separating us even further from our connections with the rest of the biosphere, biotechnology instead reminds us of our position as simply one species among many, merely one (albeit important) part of the greater fabric of life?

At first glance this probably sounds ludicrous and I don’t blame anyone who thinks that.  After all, the general trend of human thought throughout history has been one of placing ourselves higher and higher atop the pyramid of life.  From religious ideas of man made in the image of God to secular myths of a vast tree of life culminating in humanity, our position towards the rest of the world has not been one of humility.  Furthermore, technology has seemingly only ever exacerbated this problem, putting nature more and more under our control and reinforcing our self image as masters of the world with “dominion over all the beasts of the fields.”

How might biotechnology change this?  As a though experiment, let us think of a house.  As currently constructed, a house usually requires wood for its frame, metal for plumbing and electricity, a water supply to support both the human inhabitants and the inevitable pustule that marks the faces of most modern homes, the front lawn.  All of these things come from somewhere else.  When they break, they are replaced by parts that are also from somewhere.  Virtually nothing within a modern house actually originates in its immediate environment.  Instead, a modern house (indeed, a modern life style) requires a supply chain stretching in many cases thousands of miles to supply the necessary raw materials to build and sustain itself.

How might a house constructed through biotechnology be different.  Imagine for a moment a house grown from a seed (or multiple seeds, the specifics aren’t important).  What would it require?  If it were anything like a normal tree, it would need nutrients, a water supply and light.  Light for the most part is freely available everywhere.  Every second the earth is bombarded by free energy, far more than is currently used by the entirety of human civilization.  A house would require only the smallest portion of that to grow, and once grown an even smaller amount to sustain it’s own basal metabolism.  Nutrients could be acquired through composting of vegetable matter or, for the less squeamish among you, diluting human urine for use as fertilizer.  Depending on the location, water would be the most difficult resources to come across but there is hope.  Numerous plants have evolved novel mechanisms for dealing with arid conditions, mechanisms which could be adapted for our use.

All this is merely details.  The important thing to take away is that a biohouse would be reliant, not on the current monstrosity that is the global supply chain, but on the local ecosystem surrounding it.  It would require care and attention, as all living things do.  It would require an understanding of the place of the house, and the people living in it, with the wider world.  It could (and of course this is only a could) reconnect us to Gaia, to the greater whole of which we are a part.