Transhumanist Imagination

transhumanist imagination

Case Studies

The project’s case studies will each explore the transhumanist imagination in a distinct cultural setting, using different methodologies. Each case study will explore a different dimension of the transhumanist imagination, drawing together the multifarious settings, forms and expressions of the transhumanist imagination. Specifically, they will explore transhumanism as an entrepreneurial and educational enterprise, as a vision of governance, as a philosophical venture and as a religious project. The case studies have been carefully selected and designed to serve as a foundation for the larger intellectual aims of the project. Each case study will involve extensive documentary analysis and fieldwork in a specific area, and each case study will employ different methods. However, the case studies will all speak to the projects’ crosscutting theoretical questions, and will generate parallel findings that, when placed in conversation with one another in the context of the interdisciplinary seminar, will generate larger theoretical insights. 

Case One: Singularity University

Margo Lipstin (Harvard University)
Ben Hurlburt (Arizona State University)

The Singularity University (SU) is a Silicon Valley based educational institution. It was founded in 2008 by the computer scientist and leading transhumanist Ray Kurzweil and the technology entrepreneur Peter Diamandis. Its mission is to “assemble, educate and inspire a new generation of leaders” capable of driving the development and use of “exponential” and “disruptive” technologies to “address humanity’s grand challenges.” SU offers an annual two-months graduate training program in which promising young innovator entrepreneurs are instructed in entrepreneurial strategies, creative techniques and social (and ethical) visions that the SU sees as critical for technological innovation.

The transhumanist imagination permeates its educational curriculum, but it is not explicitly presented as such. Rather, SU represents itself as (and indeed is) an educational institution that teaches forms of entrepreneurial, strategic, and ethical thinking that are, on its account, necessary drivers of innovation. The SU faculty includes some of Silicon Valley’s most successful engineers, venture capitalists and high tech entrepreneurs. Its strategic partners include Google and Genetech. The majority of its students (roughly 80 per year) hold a Ph.D. or equivalent, most from elite programs. Between the faculty and the student body, SU represents a powerful social network and pool of talent with links to reservoirs of capital that are now sufficiently large to underwrite risky innovation of a sort that has historically depended on state (especially military) R&D investment.

The SU’s industrial, market-driven approach to innovation leads it to espouse a particular vision of global humanity. One of the goals of SU is to create an international network of elite innovators, and seed the formation of communities and cultures of innovation around the globe. (The 2011 class included students representing 35 countries.) Crafted for a global audience, the SU message advances a vision of future humanity in which the forms of social organization enacted through and mediated by political institutions are transcended by technological structures. The SU vision of technological innovation is also a utopian vision of a technology-centric cosmopolitanism in which justice, liberty and human progress are products of innovation.

This cosmopolitanism is both espoused by the SU curriculum and is enacted through its international reach. The SU teaches that globalization and global justice are technological achievements. The SU asks: “How can you improve the lives of a billion people?” A core focus of the SU curriculum is the so-called 109 projects. Student groups attempt to develop innovations that have the potential to positively impact at least one billion people within ten years. Though this vision of justice and global impact is the central focus of the SU, there is very little interrogation of what it might mean to “improve” a billion lives, nor what role that billion might play in the process. Rather, that the one can impact the billion via a technology is itself seen as evidence of human progress. As such, the asymmetry between the one and the billion—and the power of technology to bridge it—is a central tenet of the SU curriculum, as well as a central dimension of the transhumanist imagination. 

This cosmopolitan vision is simultaneously an eschatological one. The project of the Singularity University is rooted in the messianic vision of technology that lies at the heart of the transhumanist imagination: historical change and human progress are understood as functions of technological advancement. Its curriculum presents an evangelical transhumanist message, but in the idiom of entrepreneurial strategy and social justice.

Case Two: Governance, Progress, and Converging Technologies

Brice Laurant (Centre de Sociologie de l'Innovation, France)
Sang-Hyun Kim (Hanyang University)

This case study will examine how the transhumanist imagination has shaped national innovation policies, particularly with respect to the articulation of the priorities, purposes and normative goals of state investment in and governance of emerging technologies.

Technological innovation has become a major policy focus in developed and developing nations alike. Countries are staking their futures on innovation-driven “knowledge economies” to drive growth and improve quality of life. Achievement of these policy goals are largely measured in terms of generic metrics (e.g. sector-specific economic growth, patent filings, expanded markets). Specific research agendas are increasingly articulated around specific technological goals (e.g. clean energy) as solutions to pressing policy problems. As such, they tend not to offer a long-term vision of the directions technological change should take. Long-time horizons and systemic consequences tend to be invoked more in relation to governance challenges, for instance uncertainty over environmental or health risks, or concerns that technological trajectories may be slippery slopes towards dehumanizing practices.

These governance issues pose serious challenges for policymakers. There is necessarily uncertainty over the risks—physical and moral—attendant on technological change, and these can be sites of serious public disagreement. Where judgments must be made about what innovation to encourage and what to restrain, policymakers must contend with competing ethical views. As noted above, there is an increasing tendency to justify public investment in science in terms of anticipated technological outcomes. This is especially evident in research at the nexus of the natural sciences and engineering, for instance nanotechnology and synthetic biology. These have been described as “enabling technologies,” tools and techniques that provide a foundation for a wide variety of future research.

Transhumanists have exerted a particularly strong influence over support for nanotechnology research in the United States. The US National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) was shaped by NSF division director and transhumanist, Mihail Roco. Roco has predicted that the NNI will lay the foundation for the next industrial revolution. Behind this prediction was Roco’s conviction that the independent trajectories of nano- bio- info- and cogno- research would inevitably converge. (Inevitable technological convergence is a central tenet of transhumanism.) Roco articulated these views with fellow NSF administrator and transhumanist William Sims Bainbridge.

This case study will examine the role of these transhumanist ideas in shaping the NNI, both in its scientific focus and in concomitant discussions of governance and risk. It will examine a parallel European Union initiative, as well as EU commissioned studies examining problems of governance of converging technologies. Finally, it will compare these with the trajectory of nanotechnology research in South Korea.

The purpose of the comparative study design is to expose differences in ideas of the dynamics of innovation and technological convergence and between governance agendas across the US, EU and South Korea. While forms of research and the technological goals associated with them do not differ markedly between these three countries, a preliminary analysis suggests that the formulation of long-term innovation goals do.

The US initiative incorporated explicitly transhumanist ideas about the dynamics (and messianic promise) of technological change, the inhibitory effects of regulation of research, and the promise of nanotech for transforming human life through the generation of technologies for individual consumption. Alternatively, the EU initiative reflected a precautionary approach to technology, and a communitarian emphasis on an EU-wide initiative as supporting the political development of Europe. Nanotechnology could provide a form of innovation that would enhance European industry and strengthen the EU. In short, whereas in the US, the NNI promised to transform the human individual, in the EU the goal was to strengthen the political community—as much through caution and restraint as through high-paced innovation. Finally, South Korea provides an important counterpoint to the US and EU cases. South Korea is a young democracy which has prioritized high technology innovation as the central driver of development, economic strength and national identity. It seeks—and celebrates—innovation, and sees technological change as an expression of national progress. South Korea is, in effect, radically pro-technology, but with a very different normative vision from transhumanism.

This case study will allow us to examine the ways the transhumanist imagination is refracted in (or rejected by) the politics of innovation. Because public science is accountable to the public, and must therefore, in theory, remain balanced and non-ideological in its goals, it is a particularly good locus to see how the eschatological vision of transhumanism is made to cohere with mainstream policy frameworks.

Case Three: Transhumanism, Posthumanism and the Theology of the Secular

Nasser Zakariya (New York University)

This case study will look at the cultural implications of transhumanism for postsecularism by analyzing tranhumanist discourses of eschatology, transcendence and individual salvation. The study will trace the genealogies of tranhumanist discourse to nineteenth-century secular liberalism, while at the same time showing how it negates these roots.

The case study will examine several literatures. First, it will explore convergences and differences between transhumanist ideas of the posthuman and other posthumanisms, particularly in literary and cultural variants. The goal will be to discern those concepts of the human—as body, as rational agent, as creative self-fashioner—that are shared between these literatures, and those that are not. Second, it will examine the relationship between the transhumanist imagination and other contemporary expressions of “secularist faith” in which self-described secular ideas are woven together into a narrative that gives coherence to the secular concept of the self as well as to technological perturbations to it. It will examine the role of imagined futures in them, and the ways conceptions of technology, history and progress structure their orientations toward social institutions and foundations for shared normative visions. Third, it will draw transhumanism as a secularist faith into historical relief by tracing its genealogy to 19th century liberalism and connecting it with shifting notions of the relationship between enlightenment and human freedom. It will look to the ideas of early 20th century figures that tranhumanists tend to invoke such as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Julian Huxley and Fillipo Marinetti, and also to the post WWII discourse of technological innovation as a project of the (secular) liberal democratic state (Ezrahi 1990) to locate the transhumanist imagination within the shifts in dominant modern social imaginaries (Taylor 2003, 2007). Fourth, it will use scholarship in social theory on the postsecular moment to situate transhumanism within a larger field of social phenomena that emerge out perturbations to social order in which technology is implicated, theorized, for instance, in concepts such as “second modernity” (Beck), “liquid modernity” (Bauman) and “postsecularism” (Habermas). This case study is partly intended to help lay the groundwork for the Karlsruhe symposium by offering a robust historical and theoretical study of transhumanism in the theoretical framework of postsecularism.

Case Four: Hope, Progress and Religious Views of Technology: Comparative Analysis

John Evans (University of California-San Diego)

This case will examine attitudes of members of mainstream American religious communities toward human enhancement. The purpose of the survey is to provide a starting point to begin to tease apart the relationship between ideas of the role of technology in human life, their relation to ideas of progress, transcendence and hope, and religious belief. It is widely held that religious belief affects one’s posture toward science, technology and innovation, and that such postures—exhibited, for instance, in expressions like “playing God”— are fundamentally at odds with secular imaginations of technological progress (Evans 2008: Evans & Evans 2011). Whereas people holding a secular worldview express hope, those who subscribe to religious worldview are more likely to express fear.

As noted above, transhumanism sees itself as a radically secular enterprise, rejecting traditional ideas of religious transcendence as capitulations to biological constraint and irrational distractions from the proper goals of human agency. Yet it shares many elements with traditional religions. Transhumanism uses religious motifs to discern a dynamic of progress in technological change, thereby offering a narrative of hope and redemption. How is this narrative of hope similar or different from those offered by members of religious communities? And do these similarities/differences support or contradict distinctions between religious and secular postures toward—and expressions of the meaning of—technological innovation? This case study will begin to ask such questions as: How do ideas of technological progress relate to notions of human progress, particularly moral and spiritual progress? When technologies of human enhancement are assessed in explicitly theological terms by members of religious communities, do these assessments reflect similar or different imaginations of progress, justice, human agency and transcendence to those evident in the transhumanist imagination?

The purpose of this case study is, in part, to initiate a line of research into the relationships between secularism, religion and innovation that does not presume that boundaries between religious/secular, faith/reason are self-evident, but rather looks to the forms of imagination that structure these relationships. One central goal of this case study is to demonstrate that in order to understand the role that forms of religious meaning play (or could play) in the public sphere, we must discern the ways that religious views shape and are shaped by ostensibly secular visions of technology and progress.

Thus, this case study seeks to play an agenda-setting role in sociological study of religion and innovation. It lays the foundation for exploring how imagination of technological futures creates (or denies) space for religious ideas, and how a priori presumptions of divergence between religious and secular views may obscure shared narratives of hope and redemption in relation to technology.

Because transhumanism self-describes as a secular enterprise and rejects religious views, it will not be constructive to examine religious attitudes to transhumanism itself. Therefore the case study will examine the postures of members of religious traditions to (the prospect of future) technologies of human biological enhancement.