A few days ago, I read a post on how transhumanism needed to move away from any sort of progressive concessions in its path to the future. The article entitled: “Transhumanism, young whore’s and Old Bigots” examined why each social movement should have its place separate from each other. The first comment I saw in response to this claim pointed out the issue immediately. This particular transhumanist author was arguing to move away from intersectionality, and to reframe the debate away from ethical considerations as a justification for a pure transhumanism. If anything, in my eyes the transhumanist movement has not been intersectional enough, with examples of its hasty ableist calls to ‘cure paralysis‘. While no one is arguing that technology that enables people to walk again is not a good thing, treating it like an ailment that can just be fixed, and implying those who might choose to stay in their wheelchair or not get a cochlear implant are in need of a ‘cure’ devalues their experience. Similarly, any future biological enhancements made in the name of transhumanism would be by consent, which comes to us from the feminism, but the community has enough of a grasp on that project that it is less of a worry.
Transhumanism should embrace its relations with various movements, it needs to acknowledge that access to knowledge and technology is heavily situated in power dynamics, and systemic oppression. The mining and production used in building technology gathers its low cost on the backs of lower class individuals. Unethical sourcing of the materials for technology helps keep warlords in power, illegal recycling to China is unhealthy for local workers. There is not a single company in the smartphone industry that gets a gold star for being environmentally and ethically conscious. While some positive upturn has happened, such as Apple’s removal of Benzene (a chemical harmful to humans) from its Iphone’s and Ipad’s, only one company has even tried to step up to ethically sourcing their products, and that’s Fair Phone, only available in Europe. While I am usually a fairly positive person, and I think with less consumer apathy, change will occur, I still worry about what happens when we run out of materials for our cell phones. Green initiatives and recycling only go so far, when the shipping chain is also environmentally unfriendly. My point being, that when our entire movement is based around a certain thing like technology, we need to be mindful of the social systems that allow us to access technology.
Now one of my pet peeve’s with certain people involved in the transhumanist, and some members of the futurist community more broadly, is resting their faith in a better world based on current trends either related to inequality, or the singularity. The first problem being that one cannot assume that trends of human betterment will continue to occur. The idea that we might run out of resources to sustain our economy, or that we might irreparably destroy our climate, were not issues people have had to worry about until the advent of early modernity. If you had told black slaves that there was a betterment trend that had been occurring since the 1300’s, and that they only had to wait for an end to slavery, I doubt many would have been satisfied. People have actively worked historically to achieve equality, we cannot just rely on it happening on its own. Furthermore, there are people suffering right now so that we might be able to live in our ‘better world’. We have exported our alienation elsewhere. I would argue we do not get to sweep those people under the rug in the name of a future progression. We have a longstanding history of colonialism, and that needs to be addressed by the transhumanist movement inasmuch as it might still be perpetuating systems of inequality.
We need to acknowledge the relations of power that are involved in technology. As much as we might like to think that technology is an impartial, objective thing, we cannot ignore that its usage is constructed in a social space. What I mean by this is that technology exists in the social world. Phones can be used for protesting, as they have been recently in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. The protesters have been relying on the mesh networking app Fire Chat for communication without a signal. I have written before about how the internet is a powerful tool for achieving more democratic processes, and I still think that this is the power of technology, but it’s still technology used in a social way, still grounded in our construction of its utility. There are various media theorists who argue against the use of social media and technology as tools of self-growth, but I do not fall into this camp, preferring to see that, as Jason Silva argues: To Be Human is To Be Transhuman. The internet is a social world, our access to news, other people’s ideas and more. It can be used negatively, and in the end it does perpetuate certain systems of oppression, but our connotations towards it should not be grounded around some idea that it is in any way objective. Our technology is similar. Those with access to technology have the ability to shape it, those who lack access can still appear on the internet, but they have no choice in how they are constructed in that space. One only needs to be reminded of the deafening madness brought about by #gamergate, the movement designed to get rid of bias in game journalism by lying and uttering death threats to women in the industry. Those who know how to manipulate the rules can rewrite them, just like the Canadian government making edits to their wikipedia information. Capital still runs the web, from ending net neutrality, to buying information so that you can be advertised to just right. Technology exists in this social world, and we have to recognize that who has access, and what makes our feeds is not exactly equal.
To look to the positive, transhumanism and techno-utopian movements do look to social betterment, if even just in the long run. The original piece that sparked this may represent a position not held by very many people, but I feel as if it needs to be adequately addressed in order for people to not get the wrong idea about the movement itself. The transhumanist movement has the space to focus itself in a way that does not run up against ecology, and that does not perpetuate the domination of humans over nature. It also has the capacity to open up space for feminism, and other systems of oppression. Aligning the movement with the fight for equality is in its best interests. The ends do not justify the means in this case, as the suffering of people is occurring right now, and these people deserve access to a proper quality of life too. While it does not necessarily mean that there will be cross acceptance by other social movements, transhumanism only strengthens its position if it is not covered in the blood of people just trying to survive. I am not asking you to open your doors to people who would never want to access your position, such as ‘bio-luddites’. Ultimately, if your dream is to become a robot (or not) that should remain in your hands as bodily autonomy can only exist in relation to consent. That means consent for everyone though, not just those who can afford it.