Talk to the man in the street about the concept of transhumanism and you are likely to get a cold reception. People fear the idea of “meddling with nature” or “playing God”, and not just because they fear the unknown. The basis for the fear is much more deep-rooted than that.
People may not be able to articulate their fears clearly, but many would find the idea of a synthetic body “creepy” at best. There is a good reason why transhumanism has been described as the most dangerous idea ever. It triggers subconscious thoughts of Nazi doctors, of racial “cleansing”, of designer babies and of scientists with no understanding of or respect for ethics. In popular culture, transhumanism has been treated almost universally negatively, from Frankenstein’s half-living, half-dead monster to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World to metal cybermen in Doctor Who.
I easily found plenty of scary photos to illustrate this article, but I had a hard time finding any positive ones. “Meddling with nature” always gets a bad press. Think about the opposition to GM crops. To peaceful nuclear power. To any scientific or technological advance that seems to go against the natural order.
New technologies are generally better received by the public when they proceed at an incremental pace. Looking at where a new invention might take us in the distant future can sometimes scare the horses. Would Tim Berners-Lee’s creation of hypertext links have been so well received if people had worried at the outset about the invasion of privacy and proliferation of online porn made possible by the modern internet? Maybe even the invention of the wheel would have been resisted if people realised that it would one day lead to hour-long commutes to work every morning.
What I’m saying is that if the word “transhumanism” causes people to think in terms of unethical eugenics or creepy metal bodies replacing human flesh, then it’s not surprising the result is fear and opposition.
There is a much less scary way of looking at the word. Transhumanism is not a new invention of the twenty-first century, but has a long and benign history. It encompasses such inventions as:
These are life-expanding or life-extending technologies. With the possible exception of cosmetic surgery, these technological developments are generally accepted as beneficial and good. It’s only when people start to speculate wildly about imagined malevolent developments that the fear arises. That’s the trouble with the word “transhumanism.” It’s simply not a cuddly word. And enthusiastic geeks don’t communicate the concept to a wider audience in a reassuring way.
I’m not advocating that we should put our heads in the sand and refuse to speculate about the future. Without a vision, we will get nowhere. But as any tightrope-walker will tell you, you need to pay close attention to your feet. Looking too far ahead can often prove fatal.
About the author:
Steve Morris is an enthusiastic geek who studied Physics at the University of Oxford and used to do research in nuclear physics. These days he runs an internet company and writes about mobile technology at http://www.s21.com/.