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What is the transhumanist movement?

By Mark HayApril 13, 2016

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Last fall, one Zoltan Istvan (his real name, but also a sci-fi villain name) drove around America in an old RV tricked out to look like a coffin. This was his campaign bus. Zoltan’s running for the presidency of the United States on a platform known as “transhumanism.” Under his rule, America would redirect spending to life-extending research, geared towards helping humans transcend the limitations of our frail, mortal bodies. His campaign is full of ideas for super-powered bionic eyes and chips that can report trauma to the cops upon its perception. 

Needless to say transhumanism, the idea that humans should be free and provided with all the tools necessary to augment their nature, is worrying to many. And Zoltan’s fiery brand of it is especially fearful to conservatives, techno-skeptics, and everyday people creeped out by the body horror and invasive procedures it seems to involve. But Zoltan’s breed of transhumanism is not the be-all-and-end-all of what is in truth a wide and diverse movement.

Here, Natasha Vita-More, one of the founders of the modern transhumanist movement and an avid transhuman activist, shares how she came to promote transhumanism and why we may all soon embrace the (ever less) radical notion of allowing people to bring themselves into a cybernetic future. 

In 1981, I became interested in the vulnerability of the human body and the short lifespan that we have. Looking at the aging process [and] how many people have been inflicted with diseases and injury and how many of these injuries don’t have cures, [I saw] how daunting it is for these individuals whose lives are restricted because technology hasn’t advanced to the stage where we could have exo-body skeletons, smart prosthetics, and better medicine than we have today. Our bodies were so much more vulnerable then. We hadn’t unraveled the human genome, etc. 

Then in 1983, I learned about the idea of the transhuman as a human in transition to altering [our] physiology to develop a more stable body and brain. I developed a TV show called Transhuman Transcentury Update. I had on people talking about nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, environmental issues, electric cars, genetic engineering, space travel, everything. Because of that show, I was nominated to run in the Los Angeles City Council election and my slogan was “transhumanist politics.” The election was in 1991 and I was elected with the most votes on the Green Party ticket as a transhumanist. 

Around that time… I met a man who said: Do you know Max More? And I said no I don’t. He said: He’s the individual who’s writing the transhumanist philosophy. It wasn’t until I read More’s work that transhumanism as a cultural movement [rather than a natural human evolution] made sense to me… That was 1992. Then I resigned from my elected position because I realized the ridiculousness of it and I devoted my time to the transhumanist movement. 

But prosthetics have started to bring transhuman ideas into the popular realm. 

At the start, these ideas were foreign and strange to the public. But prosthetics have started to bring transhuman ideas into the popular realm. They’ve put forward a whole new perspective on the human body. Individuals who have prosthetic arms and legs are designing them so that they’re exquisite. That in and of itself is amazing. Cosmetic surgery is taking years off of people’s lives and that’s gone mainstream [too]… That’s transhumanist to be sure. 

I had a vision [early on] that one day, people would opt for a full-body prosthetic because it would be more durable, more flexible, more adaptive [than our organic bodies] and could have replaceable parts. That I see as being the future of prosthetics, maybe… 50 years from now. 

The next big shift towards transhumanism will be when we start understanding our DNA and become proactive in intervening with disease and becoming psychologically ageless thinkers. 

The shift is going to be in the social structures too. Just look at TED Talks, which have gone global. In them, you talk about what you’ve done, how you did it, and how you’ve changed. You become a hero in your own life and you tell an audience… how you got a grip on your innovation or breakthrough. Put that next to another movement called “Quantified Self” — grassroots meet-ups around the world where people get together and share their innovations, whether it’s high technology [or not]. Those social events… help propel the movement of people that want to be high-end participants in their lives which, ties into transhumanist thinking. 

These [developments] come together [in our developing] mainstay language. In the 1990s, no one in the general population spoke of nanotechnology, genetic engineering, etc. — all the terms that are now in the public sphere. Our whole language as a society has changed to include these words and ideas that were only in the ivory tower of academics or the labs of technologists and designers. That is part of the social movement [that will help us embrace a technological future].

It’s not one technology [that will bring transhumanism to a mass audience]. It’s this paradigmatic shift in our thinking as people. [That’s] largely influenced by the internet, which is this massive brain that we’re always going to [in order] to get information [and] to structure ourselves. It and transhumanism evolved together, [and it will help bring transhumanism to the fore in the future].

Editor's Note: This is part one of Liberty's coverage of the transhumanist movement. Read part two: Should society embrace transhumanism?