In an interesting rumination at transhumanblog the author muses that:
As the imminent emergence of a transhuman society begins to take to shape and moves increasingly from the realm of theory to fact, transhumanists and futurists are going to have to start asking some hard questions. No longer can we focus simply on the technological challenges of creating such a future, but we must also consider what those technologies imply for society and the international community. Much has been written and said about the threat of uneven distribution of these technologies…Little has been done to address these concerns though, and what has been done tends to focus on inequality within the developed nations that most futurists are from.
This is an interesting point and worth elaborating upon. Hence this post. The author above is right to raise the point that such critiques “focus on inequality within the developed nations that most futurists are from“. Given that the libertarian technological utopia espoused by some transhumanists is only made possible by a globalised economy we would do well to address the question of global disparities. As the author above goes on to write:
it is of paramount importance that we focus strong attention on the technological and infrastructural gap that exists been post-industrial and developing nations. Unless we take strong, positive action to address these issues, transhumanism will not be the global revolution we hope it to be, and we will instead take the form of the techno-oligarchs that we fear.
In a similar register Joshua Ellis has noted that:
There are nearly a billion Facebook users in the world, and half a billion Twitter users (though of course there’s probably nearly a 90% overlap between those two). Those are indeed astonishing numbers, but the problem is that sometime around March 12, 2012, we passed seven billion people living on Earth. That means that the vast majority of humans aren’t on Facebook or Twitter. The majority of people have mobile phones, but there are more people still who don’t have mobile phones than use Facebook.
Most of us never see these people, of course, except as faces briefly glimpsed in the background of news footage. They are outside our Big Room. Not because we’re intentionally keeping them out, you understand; at least, not really on any overt institutional level. Basically. We don’t do that any more, and we feel good about it.
It’s just that living in the Big Room is expensive, you see…and, well, these people can’t afford it. They don’t have Facebook because they can’t afford the technological artifacts that would allow them to be on Facebook. They don’t tweet about how much the new version of iOS sucks, because they don’t have any way to tweet and they damn sure don’t have a device that will run iOS, because these devices cost more than these people often make in a year.
For all the utopian dreaming of transhumanist philosophers it remains the case that much of it remains rooted in a Western libertarian tradition. Elsewhere on this blog I wrote that:
So it’s important to remember that Transhumanism’s Utopian dreaming of personal freedom and belief in self-improvement are rooted, as Sobchack has noted, “…in privilege and the status quo: male privilege, white privilege, economic privilege, educational privilege, first world privilege” (1994:25)….As a recent European Parliament report on converging technologies describes it, the emergence of Transhumanism as a political-philosophical movement, “…has its roots in Californian libertarianism…faith in small entrepreneurs, technology and the minimum of government intervention are its characteristics”. In short, “…its dreams are grounded in the freedom to buy and- especially- freedom to sell”. It is necessary then to address questions of power and social divisions if such technologies are not to rapidly exacerbate already existing social divides, such as the creation of technologically enhanced ‘upper class’ and a ‘merely human’ lower class.
Moreover as James Hughes has noted there remains a glaring lack of “cross-pollination between the left-wing academic cyborgologists and the transhumanists”. Transhumanism’s combined emphasis on neo-liberal economics and rationalisation, its unwillingness to engage with the more complex issues raise by critical-theoretical Post/Humanism and its Western-centric world-view present a number of troubling issues. Joshua Ellis addresses some of these in his brilliant essay on the looming possibility of a ‘grim meat hook future’.
Bemoaning the fact that, as it stands, “technological innovation is driven by Silicon Valley-style venture capitalism”, he writes:
I hate these people [venture capitalists and entrepreneurs] and wouldn’t piss on most of them if they were on fire, but that’s fine; I hate bankers and lawyers too, like every other blowhard bohemian iconoclast does, and I doubt any of them are losing any sleep over it. What bothers me is that we’ve effectively put these walking hard-ons in charge of building that capital-F Future, in every sector of the innovation industry, from genetically grown food to biotechnology to communications to spaceship-building.
And none of them, not a single one, is interested in any Future if they can’t sell it for a serious profit. Nor do they care if the process of selling and profiting leaves a swath of collateral damage the size of a Gulf Coast oil spill in its wake.
The real Grim Meathook Future… is the future where a relatively small slice of our species lives in a sort of Edenic Eloi reality where the only problems are what we laughingly refer to as White People Problems, like being able to get four bars’ worth of 4G signal at that incredible pho joint that @ironicguy69 recommended on Twitter, or finding new ways to lifehack all the shit we own into our massive closets…while the rest of the world is reduced to maintaining our lifestyles via a complex process of economically-positioned indentured servitude and clinging with the very tips of their fingernails onto the ragged edge of our consumer leavings, like the dorky dude who shows up the first day of school with the cheap K-Mart knockoffs of the pumped-up kicks the cool kids are wearing this year. In other words, the Grim Meathook Future is the one that looks like the present, the one where nothing changes.
That’s the Grim Meathook Future I see lying before us, a long game of technological determinism where the only people who get their jetpacks or their self-driving cars or their anti-aging nanotech are the ones who can afford it, and everyone else can simply go fuck themselves and rot in whatever Third World toilet they were unlucky enough to be born into.
For James F. at transhumanblog, writing about his deployment in Afghanisatn “one of the world’s least developed and poorest countries”:
The thing that I have found possibly the most intriguing in developmental terms, is the average Afghan’s eagerness to embrace technology even ahead of more basic concerns. The district that I spent most of my deployment in just recently had its first cell tower erected. In a district with no running waters, electricity, or even a bazaar, everyone (including our enemies) still considers cellular service a priority. That might seem strange, but when you consider the other things that the locals clamor for – improved roads, schools, and more radios – a trend quickly becomes apparent. What they really want is a link to the outside world; they want to feel like they are a part of the times and not being left behind.
There are all kinds of theoretical arguments you might make of the above concerning the desire to ‘link with the outside world’ and feel ‘part of the times’ and not ‘left behind’ as loaded with ideological assumptions and why should developing nations embrace transhumanism if it is a libertarian philosophy and all the jazz. In this instance though I suggest the meaning lies on the surface: technologies, perhaps especially communication technologies, open up realities. Provide access points to new ideas and new ways of being. And one interesting trend in this regard is the different ways that social media have been utilised in the West and Middle Eastern countries such as Libya and Egypt. It’s true that the question of what exact role social media played in those revolutions remains disputed but at the very least we can suggest that the question of transhumanism’s impact outside of Western liberal economies is not simply a matter of global economic disparities i.e. not just an international extension of national economic and technological divides. There remains a further question surrounding the specific cultural contexts that transhuman technologies might be plugged into. There is no reason to assume that they will be used and/or related to in the same way. Consider, for instance, the disturbing news that in Saudi Arabia, where women are still not allowed to drive or vote, has begun “rolling out an SMS electronic tracking system that alerts male “guardians” by text message whenever women under their protection leave the country.” (via io9.com). Here potentially liberating new technologies have instead been channeled in the service of Saudi Arabia’s particular misogynistic ideology.
Even in the West transhumanism is not entirely a homogeneous movement and the question of who controls and creates enhancement technologies remains up for grabs. While venture capitalists, entrepreneurs and sundry other free-market proselytisers greedily circle enhancement technologies William Gibson’s famous suggestion that “the street finds its own uses for things” holds true. There already exists a trend for DIY Transhumanism. Lepht Anonym self-described as “a faceless, genderless British wetware hacker. it lacks both gods and money, and likes people, science and practical transhumanism” and has been known to say that all it needs is a potato peeler and a bottle of vodka to perform its own ‘body hacks’. I recommend watching the videos from Lepht Anonym’s talk on body-hacking delivered at the 27th Chaos Communication Congress for more information. The important point for now is that Lepht and the other bio-hackers are interested in bringing taking Transhuman enhancement technologies out of the laboratories and price-range of academic and economic elites and to the masses. Naturally because most doctors will not hack your body on your behalf a certain amount fo self-surgery is involved in these procedures.
One popular enhancement among ‘grinders’ or ‘body hackers’ is the insertion of neodymium magnets in the finger-tip. Ben Popper at The Verge describes how:
On its own, the implant allows a person to feel electromagnetic fields: a microwave oven in their kitchen, a subway passing beneath the ground, or high-tension power lines overhead.While this added perception is interesting, it has little utility. But the magnet, explains [body hacker] Cannon, is more of a stepping stone toward bigger things. “It can be done cheaply, with minimally invasive surgery. You get used to the idea of having something alien in your body, and kinda begin to see how much more the human body could do with a little help. Sure, feeling other magnets around you is fucking cool, but the real key is, you’re giving the human body a simple, digital input.”
Popper goes on to explain how Cannon and his collaborators then created a device they called the Bottlenose:
Named after the echolocation used by dolphins, it sends out an electromagnetic pulse and measures the time it takes to bounce back. Cannon slips it over his finger and closes his eyes. “I can kind of sweep the room and get this picture of where things are.” He twirls around the half-empty basement, eyes closed, then stops, pointing directly at my chest. “The magnet in my finger is extremely sensitive to these waves. So the Bottlenose can tell me the shape of things around me and how far away they are.”
The grinder movement shares some commonalities with an increased emphasis on hacking technologies and the body. Into this amorphous movement we could also include the Rep Rap project, “an initiative to develop a 3D printer that can print most of its own components…As an open design, all of the designs produced by the project are released under a free software license, the GNU General Public License…Due to the self-replicating ability of the machine, authors envision the possibility to cheaply distribute RepRap units to people and communities, enabling them to create (or download from the Internet) complex products without the need for expensive industrial infrastructure including scientific equipment.” There is also the growing subculture of ‘Makers’, DIY technology enthusiasts closely associated with rise of Hackerspaces, “open community labs incorporating elements of machine shops, workshops and/or studios where hackers can come together to share resources and knowledge to build and make things. Many hackerspaces participate in the use and development of free software, open hardware, and alternative media“. There has even been a movement dedicated to bio-hacking:
The movement is getting much of its steam from synthetic biology, a field of science that seeks to make working with cells and genes more like building circuits by creating standardized biological parts. The dream, already playing out in the annual International Genetically Engineered Machine competition at MIT, is that biology novices could browse a catalog of ready-made biological parts and use them to create customized organisms. Technological advances have made it quite simple to insert genes into bacteria to give them the ability to, for example, detect arsenic or produce vitamins.
Joshua Ellis concludes his vision of the “grim meathook future” by writing that
I’m afraid that avoiding the Grim Meathook Future might require the dismantling of American-style corporate capitalism. I’m not a Communist or anything, but it seems to me that corporate capitalism as it’s played in my country is a lot like throwing a hundred sharks and a hundred minnows into a small tank. Sharks are machines that eat minnows: they’re incapable of doing anything else, even of keeping a few minnows around to make more minnows to eat later. So they’ll eat and eat until there’s nothing to do except eat each other, and the last one left alive in the tank isn’t the winner: he’s just the shark who gets to die slowly and horribly of starvation. People can only buy so much shit until they run out of money or space to put it in, and then what?
I hope that we’ll wise up and take the sharks out of the pool, or at least muzzle them for a while. If we do — if we stop thinking entirely about the Benjamins and start thinking about the survival of our species as a whole — I think things will change, and some other future will open up, an even more radical future than any Singularity of social networks that might occur.
I hope so. I’d love to see a future I couldn’t predict.
Wouldn’t we all? As Nietzsche once wrote, “I love not knowing the future”. There are a million good reasons to be concerned about global economic disparities and their impact on the use human enhancement technologies. But perhaps the grinders, biohackers and makers point us towards something more anarchically utopian. As an indicator if this consider the recent story about three teenage African girls who invented a urine powered generator, which produces 6 hours of electricity for every litre of urine. While this is not strictly an instance of transhumanism it still points to a DIY aesthetic and instinct for making do with limited resources that suggests there is no reason to think that majority world nations won’t also develop their own forms of DIY transhumanism if they are denied easy access to Western enhancement technologies. Indeed the generator was unveiled at 2012’s Maker Faire Africa.
In the best of all possible worlds we would avoid the grim meathook future altogether. But even in the worst of all possible worlds power will always met with resistance, and technologies of control hacked by those they seek to subjugate.