Humanist transhumanism: Citizen Cyborg

I've just finished a review copy of James Hughes's "Citizen Cyborg: Why Democratic Societies Must respond to the Redesigned Human of the Future." I was skeptical when this one arrived, since I've read any number of utopian wanks on the future of humanity and the inevitable withering away of the state into utopian anarchism fueled by the triumph of superior technology over inferior laws.

But Hughes's work is much subtler and more nuanced than that, and was genuinely surprising, engaging and engrossing.

A couple years ago, my friend John Gilmore -- who advocates for marijuana law reform -- introduced me to the idea of "cognitive liberty," the freedom to choose your state of mind. The cognitive liberty cause encompasses the movements to legalize "recreational" drugs and to limit the power of the state to subject "mentally ill" people to involuntary pharmaceutical therapy (and, when it is still practiced, involuntary physical therapies such as lobotomies and electroshock).

Cognitive liberty resonates strongly for me. Like other forms of personal liberty, it is not without its perils -- when friends of mine were involuntarily medicated during acute incidents of schizophrenia, mania or depression, the interventions seemed like a good trade-off at the time (rampaging, irrational, out of control friends who are treated with meds that make them capable of reasoning with those around them are good poster children for "cognitive coercion"), and friends who've fallen down the well of addiction and ended up with ruined lives or even lives cut short are a strong warning against unbridled cognitive liberty.

But then there are friends whose touch of madness sends them on flights of brilliance, friends whose casual glass of wine, joint or hallucinogen use have made them happier, better adjusted, and more creative and fulfilled. What's more, my friends who've ODed, been committed, or who live with addiction haven't been helped by prohibition -- far from it. Some are in jail, some are medicated insensible, some are living lives of dangerous poverty.

The idea of cognitive liberty is very tempting, but I have an instinct that there's an approach to it that is grounded not in libertarianism, but in Canadian/European-style social democracy.

"Citizen Cyborg" takes the social democratic approach not just to cognitive liberty, but to the parcel of questions that follow on from it as technology allows us to charge our minds and bodies. When we can choose our children's' sex, modify our genomes to eliminate some forms of mental and physical disability, when we can modify our bodies and minds to improve them beyond the normal human baseline , when we can even use technology to make dolphins and great apes as smart as precocious children, what then?

Surely the ability to determine your own genome, the ability to choose to modify your physical self and to make the choices for your children are as fundamental civil liberties as the right to speak and assemble and otherwise author your own destiny.

But the traditional "transhumanist" movement has come out of the libertarian right, advocates of an unbridled market without government intervention. And much of the opposition to transhumanism hasn't just come from the religious right, but from the left, too -- lefties who see transhumanism as likely to produce a troubling, divisive caste system, or to make us all beholden to corporate interests like Monsanto who bind us to subscribing to patented GM lifeforms that we require to sustain our lifestyles.

Hughes's remarkable achievement in "Citizen Cyborg" is the fusion of social democratic ideals of tempered, reasoned state intervention to promote equality of opportunity with the ideal of self-determination inherent in transhumanism. Transhumanism, Hughes convincingly argues, is the sequel to humanism, and to feminism, to the movements for racial and gender equality, for the fight for queer and transgender rights -- if you support the right to determine what consenting adults can do with their bodies in the bedroom, why not in the operating theatre?

Much of this book is taken up with scathing rebuttal to the enemies of transhumanism -- Christian lifestyle conservatives who've fought against abortion, stem-cell research and gay marriage; as well as deep ecologist/secular lefty intelligentsia who fear the commodification of human life. He dismisses the former as superstitious religious thugs who, a few generations back, would happily decry the "unnatural" sin of miscegenation; to the latter, he says, "You are willing to solve the problems of labor-automation with laws that ensure a fair shake for working people -- why not afford the same chance to life-improving techno-medicine?"

The humanist transhuman is a political stance I'd never imagined, but having read "Citizen Cyborg," it seems obvious and natural. Like a lot of basically lefty geeks, I've often felt like many of my ideals were at odds with both the traditional left and the largely right-wing libertarians. "Citizen Cyborg" squares the circle, suggest a middle-path between them that stands foursquare for the improvement of the human condition through technology but is likewise not squeamish about advocating for rules, laws and systems that extend a fair opportunity to those less fortunate (say, by offering special patent rules to the developing world allowing poor nations' scientists to freely reuse the patented pharmaceutical inventions of the rich north to solve local needs.)

Hughes is a Buddhist whose children struggle with genetically-influenced disorders like ADD and Tourette's, and his life seems much taken-up with the cause of transhumanist humanism. He is the executive director of the World Transumanist Association, and he teaches health policy at Hartford, CT's Trinity College. The work is sprinkled with references to science fiction and is very concerned with the way that transhumanist ideas were prefigured in the genre and have leaked back into modern sf. I don't know that he's convinced me to become a transhumanist activist -- I feel like the work I do with EFF works to safeguard a lot of rights dear to the transhumanist heart anyway -- but the analytical tools this book has provided me with have made me re-examine my own political identity. Book Link, References Link