We are constantly pushing toward the apocalypse. Whether it’s Judgment Day, suicidal death cults, or freaking out about how we only have five minutes to reverse climate change, the End of Days looms large in our imaginations. Relatively new to the End Times game are the transhumanists, who hope to defer the end for all time. Transhumanists believe that we can integrate humanity with tech to extend life, or even live forever.
Transhumanists want us to evolve into a tech-integrated species. This would allow us to extend human life through deferring and even annulling the physical decay that ends in death. Organ replacement, micro repairs with nanotech, and AI integration would decrease likelihood of death by natural causes. Rebranded as Humanity +, the movement focuses on ‘life extension’.
As a caterpillar turns to mush inside its own chrysalis before emerging as an entirely different creature, transhumanism requires an end to humanity as we know it before it continues in a new form. But if we are less flesh and more tech, are we still human? What are we being asked to give up in this quest to live forever?
Hosted by the London Futurists, this weekend’s TransVision Conference will ponder the future of artificial intelligence, health, education, politics, and human values. A list of authors, thinkers, visionaries and YouTube theorists will speak over the course of two days.
The last TransVision conference took place in London in the era of the dial-up modem and pixelated porn, in 1998. Since then, the landscape for transhumanism and tech viability has drastically changed. Noted transhumanist Zoltan Istvan has run for US president. The dreams that fueled the tinfoil-hatted transhumanism of the fin de siècle are becoming integrated into Western culture.
Transhumanism isn’t yet mainstreamed, but its ideas are a strong cultural undercurrent and the tech is in the works. Reproductive liberation — or the redundancy of motherhood — is at hand with the emergence of artificial womb technology. Taboos against body modification are breaking down, opening the door to drastic changes like replacing healthy limbs with high tech artificial ones, RFID chip implants, and neural virtual reality integration.
Radical life extension would employ all and any means necessary to avoid or delay natural death. Nanotech would repair corpuscles and blood cells, organ transplants would stave off organ failure. Existing limbs could be replaced with stronger, more durable, artificial ones. The imagination runs wild with the possibilities for human tech integration. Elon Musk’s neuralink, linking human consciousness with cloud based data and integrating the human mind into the internet of things is transhumanism in action. The merging of human with tech will facilitate human beings living for extended periods in space. What would it mean to be bound neither by body nor earth?
‘I don’t care about philosophy, just tell me how it ends,’ is the repeated last line of Len Jenkin’s play Dark Ride. This is truly what we all want to know. Death cults can’t wait till we crash and burn, so they pull their own plugs. Religions posit afterlives to assuage the terror of mortality. Climate change preachers tout evidence that our selfishness will do us in. Theology offers an infinite life after death. Humanity + offers infinite life without dying.
Transhumanists believe that humanity should discard antiquated ideas about capabilities of our minds and bodies. Humanity + advocates for humankind’s enhancement through the elimination of hereditary limitations. As space exploration liberates us from earth, transhumanism seeks to liberate us from the body. This requires a belief that a human consciousness can exist without a body, or within a radically altered human form. How will we imagine ourselves when the body no longer defines us? How we will know who we are if we are formless?
In addition to the philosophical and moral questions there are financial ones. Who will have access to this tech? Will it disseminate like smart phones or will it be rarified like space travel? If elites are able to discard disease, death, and their own bodies, alter their intelligence, genetics, and live forever, what will happen to the rest of us?
Transhumanism purports to be the furtherance of humanity past our expiry dates. But to live forever, we have to become something else — to transition out of being human. We can’t do that unless we know what comes with the +. Slavoj Žižek, in his incendiary essay ‘The Sexual is Political‘, questions the ‘+’ that hangs at the end of the sexual identity alphabet soup: ‘Is + just a stand-in for missing positions like “and others”, or can one be directly a +? The properly dialectical answer is “yes…”.’
If we are not to be humanity, but a ‘+’, we need to know what it means. To trust that we can leap beyond homo sapiens is akin to believing in an afterlife, or that an alien spacecraft awaits just beyond the asteroid belt. There’s no reason to believe it is so, but there’s equally no reason to believe it isn’t. And human beings, at heart, are imaginative and questioning explorers of mind, body, and space.