A Transhumanist’s Essays: Unpopular Word

Transhumanism is a philosophy and social movement that has been defined and redefined in the following ways:

  • Julian Huxley in Religion Without Revelation (1927): “man remaining man, but transcending himself, by realizing new possibilities of and for his human nature.”[1]
  • Max More (1990): “Transhumanism is a class of philosophies of life that seek the continuation and acceleration of the evolution of intelligent life beyond its currently human form and human limitations by means of science and technology, guided by life-promoting principles and values.”[2]
  • Wikipedia on “Transhumanism”: “Transhumanism (abbreviated as H+ or h+) is an international cultural and intellectual movement with an eventual goal of fundamentally transforming the human condition by developing and making widely available technologies to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities.”

Transhumanism is a composite of “trans-” and “human” and “-ism” and it’s been unpopular even within the transhumanist community. For some, the word “transhumanism” too closely resemble the philosophy of humanism, one obvious influence. For some, the word reminds them of “transgender”, itself a concept of purposeful change, and this makes them feel uncomfortable. For some, the weight of the word is too much on the prefix for change and crossing a threshold; for others, not enough. For some, the word is too human-centric. It’s too limiting. Too easy to ridicule. Doesn’t directly evoke the technology and science at the center of the philosophy. Evokes evil eugenics of the past. Sounds like science fiction. Sounds elitist. Exclusionary. Complicated. Crazy.

But people began to call themselves “transhumanists” in the 1980s while they worked on defining the modern philosophical tenets and social movement of transhumanism. For a few years a group of transhumanists began calling themselves “extropians” while touting the philosophy of extropianism and their “Proactionary Principles.” Other labels arrived as the transhumanist movement matured. I participated in a rebranding of the World Transhumanist Association in 2009 as “H+”, “Humanity+”, “HumanityPlus”, based in part on the work my h+ Tucson peers and I had done with marketing our transhumanist club to students at the University of Arizona. But we did not call ourselves “hplusers”. Transhumanism is a word that no one has been able to replace successfully and “transhumanist” is still the quickest way to describe us like-minded technology enthusiasts.

In 2006 when I helped start the h+ Tucson transhumanist club, transhumanism seemed to emphasize academic discourse. Academics and ethicists like Nick Bostrom and James Hughes led transhumanist thought by writing papers, lecturing, and participating in discussions. Their primary concerns for transhumanism was strong philosophical underpinnings and an articulated ethics.

The emphasis has shifted since then. If you search for “transhumanism” and look for recent articles that include the word, you will find a great many, especially widely shared and syndicated essays about transhumanism by writers like Zoltan Istvan (who has also written a popular science fiction novel titled The Transhumanist Wager) that appear on news websites like The Huffington Post. In Istvan’s March 10, 2014 essay “A New Generation of Transhumanists Is Emerging” he critiques existing definitions of transhumanism while making prominent use of the word. He states, for example, that the Wikipedia entry “is protected by a vigilant posse, deleting additions or changes that don’t support a bland academic view of transhumanism.” According to Istvan, the transhumanist movement is growing, but “its potential is being challenged by some older transhumanists who snub the younger generation and their ideas. These old-school futurists dismiss activist philosophies and radicalism, and even prefer some younger writers and speakers not have their voices heard.” Istvan provides in his essay a sense of modern transhumanism: “Today, transhumanism is increasingly being influenced by actual science and technological innovation [instead of science fiction], much of it being created by people under the age of 40.” Transhumanism is more diverse, more hands-on, and more urgent than ever before. Regarding an emerging sense of activism, Istvan states that “a primary goal of many transhumanists is to convince the public that embracing radical technology and science is in the species’ best interest” because “the more people that support transhumanism, the more private and government resources will end up in the hands of organizations and companies that aim to improve human lives and bring mortality to an end.”

My own sense of transhumanism today is that it emphasizes the hands-on work required to invent the technologies that will transform us and improve the human condition. Many of the transhumanists I know from our h+ Tucson club and elsewhere have since relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area, finding there a region sympathetic to their transhumanist goals. They launched their own companies and research and development. Companies like Halcyon Molecular, now defunct but the founders already moving on to their next cutting-edge idea. Velorum Capital. 3Scan. Gene and Cell Technologies. Arigos Biomedical. Infinome.

Like Istvan points out in his essay, transhumanism is resurgent, but more importantly its tenets have become the core values of various technologists, technology efforts, companies, and industries. The same goals and emerging technologies that transhumanists have long touted, like radical life extension, the quantified self through wearables and the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, robotics, the Metaverse, and space exploration and colonization of other celestial objects, are the stated public ambitions of many technologists and companies today. Do all of these people consider themselves transhumanists? Do they use the word “transhumanism”? Some of them do, some of them don’t, but I don’t think it matters. The founders of Google, for example, have never referred to themselves publicly as transhumanists, but Larry Page announced on September 18, 2013 that Google was forming a new company named Calico “that will focus on health and well-being, in particular the challenge of aging and associated diseases.” Facebook announced on March 25, 2014 that it had agreed to acquire Oculus VR, the company that created the cutting-edge virtual reality headset Rift that launched for consumers in 2016. Oculus VR is a company whose founders routinely use the word “Metaverse,” coined in the science fiction novel Snow Crash by Neil Stephenson to refer to an immersive virtual reality technology platform. Elon Musk has publicly disclosed his goal of creating a massive permanent human colony on Mars. These technologists rarely use the word “transhumanism”, but they do use words and phrases that evoke transformation and improvement of the human condition, and they publicly express ambitions that are transhumanist in nature. They are, in my opinion, transhumanist in action if not by label.

For better or worse, “transhumanism” remains the best word to express this particular confluence of ideas, this emphasis on technology to improve the human condition. It is neither necessary to use this word nor coin another. We already live in a world that is transhumanist in ambition and in nature, where people already work hard on the technologies that will transform our species and our condition. The problem with the word “transhumanism” is not that it hasn’t caught on. The problem is that it can be used by people to dismiss an entire package of ideas. The problem is that many people still think the word means something futuristic, intellectual and academic, even though it’s in fact current and active. We’re already transforming! The problem is that it allows people to cling to old debates, academic musing, and political lines that fracture any mature social movement.[3] The problem is that the word “transhumanism” has long since been eclipsed by the impact of transhumanism, as it plays out in the real world, led by a generation of transhumanists who spend much more of their time getting their hands dirty building the future than trying to figure out what word best describes their philosophy, their ambitions, their work, their everyday, their reality.

It’s the word we’re stuck with.


[1] Huxley, J. (1927). Religion Without Revelation. London: E. Benn. Quoted from Bostrom, Nick. “A History of Transhumanist Thought.” 2005. PDF. 15 June 2014.

[2] As quoted on the “Philosophy” page on the Humanity+ website.

[3] Cohen, Cathy J. “What Is This Movement Doing to My Politics?Social Text, No. 61, Out Front: Lesbians, Gays and the Struggle for Workplace Rights. Duke University Press, 1999. 111-118. PDF file. 2 Nov. 2011.

A Transhumanist’s Essays: Reconnecting

Technology for the lonely

During a night of concerts at the AVA Amphitheater in Tucson, Arizona, the third act reminded me that I was there alone.

It wasn’t the singer’s intention to make anyone in the crowd feel bad. He invoked the love and companionship of fans gathered by the hundreds before him, built on their goodwill and used it to propel him into his next song. The crowd’s loud response indicated they were there with him. But while he talked about hugging the family or friend you came with, about new love and old love, about the love he and his bandmates were feeling, and while the people around me responded to each other with quick hugs, knowing nods, and declarations of their love, I was reminded that I was attending the concert alone. I was surrounded by people who had arrived in couples or in groups. The stark divide between me and them went right to the core of my terminal loneliness.

So I left before the singer’s set was complete.

It’s never a good sign when my emotions dictate my actions so abruptly. My mood deteriorated further on the drive home. I collected the facts about my current life while I drove: almost always attend events alone; most of my friends and family live in other states; don’t travel often; haven’t been in a relationship in many years; in a demographic more likely than others to be single and live alone, especially at my age; etc.[1] A rare Friday night out had only emphasized how most of my rare nights out were solitary pursuits.

It was very dark and the drive was very long.

When I arrived at my empty studio apartment, I turned on the lights, sat down in my office chair, and checked my email. I discovered in my email yet another reason to feel alone: old friends from the transhumanist club we had started together at the University of Arizona in 2006 had tried to contact me by video chat. There had apparently been a reunion of club members that evening in the San Francisco Bay Area, so far from Tucson. I had missed their attempt to contact me. I replied with a quick regret and prepared to shut down my laptop and go to bed in a studio apartment looming larger than I needed it to be.

A few seconds later, however, a video chat request popped up on my screen. I accepted the invitation and was surprised to see not just a few but most of the original club members of h+ Tucson together again. Most of them lived in the Bay Area, so they had arranged a happy reunion. They passed my visage around on someone’s smartphone and I was reunited via the internet with some of the most brilliant and wonderful people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing.

Technology, of course, helped reunite us. Video chat not only allows one-on-one audiovisual conversations but also engages group dynamics. As I was passed from person to person they each told me about what they were currently working on. I participated in three-way conversations. We laughed together as a group. They included me in a group photo, my tiny medium closeup on the smartphone screen held above someone’s head. They admonished me about not being there in person and asked when I would be moving to the area. I saw it all: their smiles and happiness, the food they were eating, the beautiful home of the host, people I hadn’t met yet, even more club members arriving, and even fireworks on the skyline (and what event was that timed so perfectly with the reunion!?)

That Friday transformed into a wonderful and emotional night. I no longer felt alone. When I finally went to sleep it was with excited exhaustion and a grateful sense of having been included. I felt reconnected to them and to the very reason why we had started our club in the first place: technology.

We are transhumanists because we appreciate how technology can be used to improve the human condition, our condition and that of our friends and family. In fact, most former h+ Tucson members and our circle of transhumanist friends do more than appreciate technology: they actively work on accelerating technological progress and making sure all people globally have access to the higher quality of life we believe progress will bring. They are the Makers of the 21st Century. Their particular efforts relate to radical life extension, artificial intelligence, laboratory automation, and space exploration. They work hard. They get their hands dirty. They tinker and they build. They keep learning. They constantly apply new knowledge. They network. They come together in the Bay Area to celebrate their passion for technology and then they get back to the work they love.

These are my friends. They are transforming the philosophical and social movement labeled “transhumanism” into a thoughtful, proactive, compassionate hands-on platform for technological progress and human transformation. They reached out to me using technology right when I needed them most.

This is modern transhumanism. This is the transhumanism they helped create. It’s people using technology to confirm and elevate the best parts of what it means to be human, like connection, compassion, and companionship.

Reconnecting reminded me I’m not alone.


[1] Petrow, Steven. “A Gay Man at Midlife Ponders Being Lonely and ‘Invisible.’The New York Times. 19 March, 2013. Web. 14 June 2014.

A Transhumanist’s Essays: I Can Lead You by the Hand but These Are My Eyes

 

I can lead you by the hand through some ideas, possibilities, and consequences of transhumanism, but these are my eyes. I cannot see with yours. I don’t know what you want to see. This is what I see.

I can lead you by the hand but you might not like what you see. I’m writing about the future and emerging technologies that lead like mile markers to destinations that must change us. Or kill us all.

I can lead you by the hand but we’re taking a detour to the past. My past. Yes, this is also my memoir. You might not want to give me your hand. To tell you the truth, my truth, I have to get personal about this, because technology was there almost from the very beginning. My first memory is of a dog named Nick and the vista from a farm in Lyle, Washington. My second of cats or chicks (I remember newborn chickens hatching in the hay in the loft in the barn, but my parents tell me that’s impossible.) A memory of my little brother, maybe having gotten stuck between a bed and the wall. And the next vivid one is of planets, robots, and science fiction in 1977 when I was four. I was already technology’s most glad advocate before I considered identifying as a transhumanist.

Transhumanism, but I’ll write about being beaten as a child, about being devoted to pseudoscience and the Face on Mars, about Carl Sagan and Richard Hoagland, about falling up, about being gay, about being naive, about anxiety, about being an atheist, a skeptic, a writer, about collecting these identities but why “transhumanist” is the one identity I think fits me the best, about how my thoughts on technology and its impact on humanity were shaped, and about the tropes I love the most in speculative fiction and in transhumanism because I need to believe that the future can be better.

I can lead you by the hand to meanings for the words “transhumanism” and “transhumanist” and others besides, but these are often English words and my upbringing is American Pacific Northwest and my coming-of-age is upstate New York bluntness. I can only see through the narrow slit of my own experience. I’m sorry. The past got personal and it gave me tunnel vision. I have my own definition of transhumanism because I want it to be something that maybe you won’t want it to be.

I can lead you by the hand but do you want to be transformed? Do you want you and your family and your friends to be? Do you want to see technological change writ large upon the world itself and inside of you? Change is hard. Change is scary. Change is even worse when it’s straight out of science fiction and there is no reprieve as there is when you close the book or turn off the TV. Maybe you are just fine with the way things are today. You might even wish for yesterday. I’m on my own timeline, one foot in the present, a slightly more firm stance then when I was younger, but always with the other emphatically in the future. I live in the future, and I’ll write about that, too.

I can lead you by the hand and you might ask me why I choose this particular path. All I can tell you is I thought this path was the better way. For me. But I’m also thinking of you. You as audience. I’m thinking of the way other people write about transhumanism and how I want to approach the topic differently, I hope for your benefit. It might seem lonely, this path we’re taking. Isolated. Sorry about that. I’m not really apologizing. You made it this far.

I can lead you by the hand and you can lead me by the hand. Or you can cast me off. What is transhumanism anyway? Why are journeys always so melodramatic? Who asked?

I can lead you by the hand and it’ll be intimate, because I’m terribly lonely and you were the only one who read this far and began to ask yourself Is this the future I want, a future of reading these essays? Do I want his future, too, a little piece shared from it, even as I head rapidly toward my own?

I cannot predict the future. I can write about it. I’ll write about the past, where it started for me, other beginnings. I’ll write about the present and where we are today. I’ll write about the road ahead and how it’s gloomy with not knowing for sure until it’s here. I can lead you by the hand but I’m very much afraid. I never wanted to take this journey alone. I’m afraid of what you will think about me. About these essays. About the future. Are you going to take my hand?

These are my eyes and this is what I see.

Review: Lightspeed Magazine Issue 2 July 2010

Lightspeed Magazine, July 2010Lightspeed Magazine, July 2010 by John Joseph Adams
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed the second issue of Lightspeed Magazine. Time travel but uniquely appears in two stories in this issue, “No Time Like the Present” by Carol Emshwiller and “…For a Single Yesterday” by George R. R. Martin, a reprint from 1972. In the first, new people arrive in town, strange people that eventually find themselves persecuted by the town. Where they came from becomes obvious, but where they’re going is not. In the second, a commune has found a semblance of routine and contentment after nuclear war, but one resident who was only visiting when the war broke out has a way of escaping his sadness that leads to confrontation. A very melancholy and gorgeous story by Martin.

Martin’s story is also concerned with memory, and memory is one of the central concerns of Tobias Buckell’s action-packed, grim, character-driven “Manumission.” The protagonist appears in other Buckell stories I’m now dying to read.

I found much to like about “The Zeppelin Conductors’ Society Annual Gentlemen’s Ball” by Genevieve Valentine, though I found it a little opaque, especially at the end. There is a question of motivation near the end that suggests I missed something very important about the piece. I don’t happen to be a big fan of steampunk, but I really appreciated the exploration of class and oppression, and what I don’t understand likely has something to do with this exploration. Valentine creates a vivid world and layers in ephemera that provides even more detail about the state of things.

Nonfiction includes humor and essays, author interviews, and an interesting interview with The Lisps about their Futurity project.

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Review: Nightmare Magazine Issue 1 October 2012

Nightmare Magazine, October 2012Nightmare Magazine, October 2012 by John Joseph Adams
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m reading the most recent issues of Nightmare Magazine and also going back to the beginning to read every issue.

“Property Condemned” by Jonathan Maberry is a great standalone story set in (according to the interview with Maberry in this issue) the same town where some of his other stories and novels take place. Not having read anything else by the writer, I really appreciated how well this story worked and how chilling it turned out to be. The action begins like the best Amblin productions: four kids on bikes heading toward what they think is a haunted house. Where it ends up is much darker, though, and much more Stephen King than Steven Spielberg. In the interview with the writer, I learned something I didn’t know about the psychology of abused children, and it actually lends to the story a tiny, grudging element of hope where at first I only saw hopelessness. As a reader who unfortunately understands a little too well what the protagonist suffers at the hands of his father, the story resonates and gives me a lot to think about.

“Frontier Death Song” by Laird Barron is a gory chase story that leads from Alaska to the East Coast while the protagonist flees a being he probably shouldn’t have messed with in the first place. There is a lot of tension and horror to contend with and the pace is nonstop. I especially like the elements that seemed Lovecraftian in a story that already works well with the mythology it’s updating. The ending is horrifying and satisfying, although I was left with a few questions I don’t think were answered, including what it was the protagonist had done (prior to the events of the story) to lead to this fate.

“Good Fences” by Genevieve Valentine is vivid psychological horror centered around a burning car and an increasingly paranoid, isolated, and perhaps insane city resident. The horror is in inaction and cowardice bred by apathy. The story is dreamlike and surreal, but ultimately I don’t think it matters if these things are really happening or if it is all in the protagonist’s head; it is horrifying no matter what the reading (which is something the writer points out in her interview.)

My favorite story in an issue of great stories is “Afterlife” by Sarah Langan. Like the previous story, there is some question to the protagonist’s sanity, though I think Langan clearly suggests the supernatural elements are really happening (and she says as much in her interview.) The horror is Grey Gardens-like–a daughter and her mother trapped in their home by mental illness, social anxiety, physical and emotional abuse, and poverty–with supernatural elements that offer the protagonist moments of great heroism.

What is so horrifying about the story is not the ghosts but how they ended up there, their choice between fates, and how this parallels the protagonist’s situation with her mother. The labelled jars are going to give me nightmares…

Fantastic issue!

Final note: to truly appreciate Jeff Simpson’s art spotlighted in the issue, these must be viewed on a big color screen. http://www.nightmare-magazine.com/non…

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Review: Beneath Ceaseless Skies Issue #202

Beneath Ceaseless Skies Issue #202Beneath Ceaseless Skies Issue #202 by Scott H. Andrews

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Although I found these two stories somewhat opaque (especially the second one), they feature strong writing, memorable characters, and vivid world building. I was left after reading both wanting to know much more about their worlds.

In “Mortal Eyes” by Ann Chatham, the protagonist is the only one awake when a company of fantastic creatures arrives to claim a debt. There is more to her story than just the pages in this issue, and I’m especially wish I knew how she ended up in the position she is in at the beginning of the story. There are lots of allusions to events that led the characters to the story’s present, but there isn’t much detail provided except for the current action leading to an ending that also seems a setup for further stories. I wonder as I read more BCS if this is a specific element of craft: hinting at the larger world and other stories that surround the story given, but leaving it for the reader to imagine. Although I might be a little frustrated by this, there is no question that it lends a sense of depth and space that drew me in. I just wish for more.

My difficulty with “The Nature of Ghosts and the Fate of Shadows” by Luke Nolby is not the lack of detail but understanding the motives of the main character. He is, for me, mostly a cypher, except at the end when he seems to become a voice for philosophical observations about the nature of war and violence. On one level, this is the result of the writer’s mastery of craft: he weaves together the present with multiple parallel pasts. Because of one of these pasts, it is clear that the protagonist has changed substantially, but in other parallels he seemed to be repeating the same actions with the same unclear motives over and over again. Perhaps that is the point of the story. On a different level, I just couldn’t quite visualize the protagonist nor comprehend the mechanics of him, including what was going on with what he called his ghost. Despite my difficulty, I cannot stop thinking about him and the world in which he dwells. And I’m in awe of Nobly’s craft; so much to learn about writing flashbacks woven together with the present.

I love how this issue challenged me. BCS continues to open up fantasy for me, to see that it is not limited to Tolkien, Dungeons & Dragons, and the subgenre or two of fantasy I read growing up.

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Review: Lightspeed Magazine Issue 1 June 2010

Lightspeed Magazine, June 2010Lightspeed Magazine, June 2010 by John Joseph Adams
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I recently subscribed to several genre magazines, including Lightspeed Magazine. I helped support the magazine’s latest two Destroy issues via Kickstarter, but I had not yet dived into any issues. Now that I own them all and am subscribed for another year thanks to a generous Kickstarter reward, it’s time to get started with Issue 1!

The four short stories in the debut issue of Lightspeed are all fantastic. “I’m Alive, I Love You, I’ll See You in Reno” by Vylar Kaftan is a beautiful literary journey through love, space, and time. The level of Kaftan’s craft here is excellent, including the pacing, language, sounds, and episodic time jumps as a woman describes her on-again off-again relationship with a man set against exponential progress in technology. I also love how Lightspeed and Nightmare Magazines include “Author Spotlight” interviews for each story; it’s wonderful to read about each author’s process and the genesis of their stories. Lightspeed Issue 1 also includes nonfiction essays after each story that explores their science further. These are often pretty basic in content, but the passion of the essayists is quite apparent.

“The Cassandra Project” by Jack McDevitt uncovers a secret about the moon that might explain Fermi’s Paradox, and the decades-long conspiracy to keep the finding from the public. I work in planetary science and I didn’t think I was going to enjoy the story very much because I’ve had to deal with conspiracy theory advocates in the past, but I had a great time with the story and appreciated its thoughtfulness about the great mystery of why we don’t see a sky crowded with aliens all talking at once. I also really enjoyed the interview with McDevitt and “The High Untresspassed Sanctity of Space: Seven True Stories about Eugene Cernan” by Genevieve Valentine, a list essay of quite exceptional depth and fascinating historical tidbits related to the last astronaut on the moon.

“Cats in Victory” by David Barr Kirtley is speculative science fiction at its best and most “Planet of the Apes” like, but this time with dogs and cats and other animals. It’s also quite tense and I’m thankful it didn’t end quite where I expected the plot to lead. Another great “Author Spotlight” and Carol Pinchefsky’s “Top Ten Reasons Why Uplifted Animals Don’t Make Good Pets” is hilarious.

Perhaps my favorite of the four stories is “Amaryliss” by Carrie Vaughn. The writer explores a world that has been forced by near-apocalypse to enact systems of sustainability that introduce their own complex consequences. This is a story about mothers and daughters and it left me in tears. The world building is spectacular, so vivid and alive. The author provides insightful background to her story in her interview. The accompanying essay suggests ways we can individually be more sustainable today, and though some of the suggestions are a bit rote and even scientifically questionable, it’s helpful to read the essayist’s thoughts on the subject and to ponder again my own Ecological Footprint.

What a great start to a magazine that seems to be thriving several years later. Just 72 issues to go until I’m caught up!

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