Tuesday 17 May 2011

Is it possible to unite transhumanism and degrowth?

I have always had mixed feelings about transhumanism. On one hand, the movement provides fresh ideas and great speculative material, but on the other hand, it seems to suffer from a kind of adolescent "nothing is enough" attitude on every possible level.

Transhumanism, in short, advocates the use of technology for turning humans into something better: creatures with ridiculously long lifespans, ridiculous levels of intelligence and ridiculous amounts of pleasure in life. In order to endlessly improve all the statistics, the transcendental mankind needs more and more energy and raw material. One planet is definitely not enough -- we need to populate an ever bigger portion of the universe with ever bigger brainlike structures. To me, these ideas sound like an extreme glorification of our current number one memetic plague, the ideology of endless economic growth. What a pity, since some of the stuff does make some sense.

Fortunately, there seems to be more room for diversity in transhumanist thought than that. As there are currents such as "Christian Transhumanism" or "Social-Democratic Transhumanism", would it be possible to devise something like "Degrowthian Transhumanism" as well? Something that denounces the growth ideology while still advocating scientific and technological progress in order to transform mankind into something better? This would be a form of transhumanist philosophy even I might be able to appreciate and symphatize. But could such a bastard child of two seemingly conflicting ideologies be anything else than oxymoronic and inconsistent? Let's find out.

The degrowth movement, as the name says, advocates the contraction of economies by downscaling production, as it views the excessive production and consumption in today's societies as detrimental to both the environment and the quality of human life. Consumers need to switch their materialist lifestyles into voluntary simplicity, and producers need to abandon things like planned obsolescence that artificially keep the production volumes up. Downscaling will also give people more free time, which can be used for noble quests such as charity and self-cultivation. These goals may sound agreeable on their own, even to a transhumanist, but what about the technological progress? Downscaling the industries would also slow it down or even reverse it, wouldn't it?

Actually, quite many technologies make it possible to do "more with less" and therefore scale dependency networks down. Personal computers, for example, have succesfully replaced an arsenal of special-purpose gadgets ranging from typewriters and television sets to expensive studio equipment. 3D printing technology will reduce the need for specialized mass production, and once we get nanobots to assist in it, we will never require mines or factories anymore. A degrowthian transhumanist may want to emphasize this kind of potential in emergencing technologies and advocate their use for downshifting instead of upshifting. A radical one may even take the provocative stance that only those technologies that reduce overhead are genuinely progressive.

A degrowthian transhumanist may want to advocate immaterial developments whenever possible: memetics, science, software. Information is much more lightweight to process than matter or energy and therefore an obvious point of focus for anyone who wants to support both degrowth and technological progress. Most people in our time do not understand how crucial software is in making hardware perform well, so a degrowthian transhumanist may want to shout it out every now and then. It is entirely possible that we already have the hardware for launching a technological singularity, we just don't have the software yet. We may all have savant potential in our brains, we just haven't found the magic formula to unleash it with. In general, we don't need new gadgetry as much as we need in-depth understanding of what we already have.

In a downshifted society, people will have a lot of free time. A degrowthian transhumanist may therefore be more willing to adopt time-consuming methods of self-improvement than the mainline transhumanist who fantasizes about quick and easy mass-produced magic such as instant IQ pills. Wisdom is a classical example of a psychological feature that takes time to build up, so a degrowthian transhumanist may want to put a special emphasis on it. Using intelligence without wisdom may have catastrophic results, so we need superhuman wisdom to complement superhuman intelligence, and maybe even artificial wisdom to complement artificial intelligence. The quest for immortality is no longer just about an individual desire to live as long as possible, but about having individuals and societies that get wise enough to use their superhuman capacities in a non-catastrophic way.

So, how would a race of degrowthian superhumans spend their lives? By reducing and reducing until there's nothing left but ultimate reclusion? I don't think so. The degrowth movement is mostly a reaction towards the present state of the world and not a dogma that should be adhered to its logical extreme. Once we have scaled our existence down to some kind of sustainable moderateness, we won't need to degrow any further. Degrowthian transhumans would therefore very well colonize a planet or moon every now and then, they just wouldn't regard expansion as an ends of its own. In general, these creatures would be rather serious about the principles of moderation and middle way in anything they do. They would probably also be more independent and self-sufficient than their extropian counterparts who, on their part, would have more brain cells, gadgets and space to toy around with.

This was a thought experiment I carried out in order to clarify my own relationship with the transhumanist ideology. I tried to find a fundamental disagreement between the core transhumanist ideas and my personal philosophy but didn't find one. Still, I don't think I'll be calling myself a transhumanist (even a degrowthian one) any time soon; I just wanted to be sure how much I can sympathize this bunch of freaks. I also considered my point of view fresh enough to write it up and share with others, so there you are, hope you liked it.