A week ago I was on a philosophical seminar weekend about transhumanism at which I did a talk together with a friend from the German Transhuman Party. It was quite interesting, especially the concluding discussion about transhumanism and related technologies. There I finally realized that technologies are primarily adopted because of their utility and secondarily due to social pressure. This second factor actually seems to be what really drives the adoption of new technologies:
- The innovators envision and create a new technologies, because they see their general utility
- Some first adopters opt in to that technology, because they see its utility for themselves
- Friends of those first adopters slowly realize the advantages that the first adopters gain due to the use of the new technology
- Friends of friends eventually join in, too, because they don’t want to be excluded from the social activities of the above groups
- Soon almost everyone is compelled to use new technologies, because not using them means being effectively excluded from mainstream society.
I suspect that each technology we take for granted today has gone through these stages, from being enmeshed into agricultural production, over the use of automobiles to smartphones and social media. Not taking part in those technologies in their latest stages of developments effectively means you are weird in some way, so “normal” people slowly stop integrating you into their social activities. Even for the laggards, this creates a sufficient pressure to adapt and accept those ubiquitous new technologies. In the end, pockets of non-use of those technologies become something special, something that is analogous to nature reserves.
When all of this is true for technologies that provide some real utility, then it also should be assumed to be true for human enhancement technologies. When at first those who enhance themselves will be seen as weird, eventually those who don’t enhance themselves will be those who are seem as weird by the mainstream society. Therefore, humanity is going to auto-transcend by default. Over time, humans become transhumans become posthumans. And this will happen whether people like that process happening or not!
Are we going to lose our “humanity” in the process? Yes and no. We have always been losing and proving our humanity by adopting new technologies. It’s a process of perpetual transformation of what is seen as “humanity in the moment”:
- Humanity before the agricultural revolution was something else as humanity after it.
- Humanity before writing was something else as humanity after it.
- Humanity before the industrial revolution was something else as humanity after it.
- Humanity before the internet was something else as humanity after its mass adoption.
Transhumanity is something else as humanity right now, but it will be seen as the new status quo of humanity. People will effectively be human 2.0, but people will take the “2.0” part for granted. Then humanity will be humanity 3.0, and so on. We will continue to redefine what it means to be human, but the social core definition will stay the same: Participating in technology-enabled society. Every being participating in technological society will be seen as human, while those beings who fail to participate in a sufficient way will be seen as less than human.
This definition will lead to a strange and counter-intuitive phenomenon: Eventually artificial intelligence will become so good at effectively participating in technological society that they become more compelling than human beings. Unaugmented humans will seem to be less human than those AIs who excel at using social technologies. The conclusion is that we will be socially pushed into merging with AI, so that we won’t be excluded from our social circles. People will eventually prefer to interact with AIs or AI-augmented human beings, first because they are better at most things, and second because everyone does that.
And the same will happen with all the new upgrades that will be available for all the enhancement technologies, including AI. It will always be driven primarily out of utility, and secondarily through social pressure.
Am I saying that technology spreads, and always has spread, via social networks? Well, for 99% of the adoption this seems to be true. There is always the 1% of users who use some technology merely because its actual utility, but those people are statistical outliers – though they seem to be necessary to get any new technology started.
All of this seems to be a matter of fact. So, what’s the point of transhumanism, if useful (enhancement) technologies will be developed and adopted anyway? The points I see are threefold:
- Becoming aware of this process of technological development and adaptation
- Accelerating that process
- Trying to guide that process into the best direction
But can 2 and 3 really be done? If technology is basically driven by its utility and social pressures, does ideology or philosophy even factor in somehow? In the end, it’s the engineers who will create new technologies, and normal people will eventually join in their use, because their friends do the same. What role do transhumanists play in this? They may simply be those who rationalize this process. Make it feel more natural. Make it feel socially acceptable. It’s basically a psychological role: “Yes, it’s natural to enhance yourself, you may go ahead and do that.”
We may even go further: “Yes, it’s natural to enhance yourself, even if you lose a part of yourself in that process, because that’s what has always happened to humans who embraced new technologies.” Our hunter gatherer ancestors would be astonished and appalled at what we have become now. We have become so much more, even though we may have lost certain skills and traits that used to define us as being human. The same process will be repeated again and again. Being “human” is a moving target, it’s contextualized by contemporary technology and culture.
So, is the core role of transhumanism to make people feel good about adopting the latest (human enhancement) technologies? Is that even a necessary role? Couldn’t we just let ourselves be socially pressured into auto-transcending through technology?