Transhumanist Tech Is A Boner Pill That Sets Up a Firewall Against Billy Joel Futurist, prankster, and one-time presidential candidate R.U. Sirius just launched his latest magazine, H+, which is devoted to a transhumanist vision of the future. Though a lot of futurism these days could easily be called dystopianism, the future that Sirius shows us in H+ is hopeful, full of cool futuristic gadgets and genetic cures for death. What exactly is transhumanism, anyway, and why do you keep hearing about it? Sirius dropped into the io9 lifepod from his space capsule to explain why you might already be a transhumanist — and what the ultimate transhumanist technology would be. How do you think the transhumanist movement has changed over the past few decades? Have new technological developments shifted the focus of the movement at all? R.U. Sirius: First, I'd make a distinction between the "Transhumanist movement" and a larger group of people – many of whom probably read io9 (and Boing Boing, Slashdot, Wired, and on and on). There are lots of people out there who are fully cognizant of transhumanist views, and who are interested in – and possibly supportive of, or ambiguously curious about — say, cyborg body enhancements, or memory enhancement, or ending aging. And in fact, my friend Ramez Naam argues that anybody who wears glasses or takes birth control pills is a transhumanist and so he refuses the label as sort of banal. So we may all be transhumanists and we just choose our enhancements a la carte. We choose them in terms of what's available now, what's being worked on, and what we fantasize about (the distinction between technologies that are being worked on and those being fantasized about are not always clear. Some may be working on a fantasy. Time will tell.) . We may select or reject these enhancements for ourselves: "I'll take the eye enhancement, the ability to choose gender (real old school transhumanism), and fingertip access to vast amounts of information and maybe — when it's ready — the ability to back up my memories, but I'll draw the line at living more than 120 years and engineering the germ line of my children." Or we may decide to try to discard some of these enhancements for other people: "I don't think anybody should be able to use biotechnology to change their skin pigmentation to purple and I don't think anybody should be able to live 300 years… and I'm going to try to stop them." Transhumanist Tech Is A Boner Pill That Sets Up a Firewall Against Billy Joel So then, the people who really identify with a "transhumanist movement" would tend to be the one's who strongly support everybody's right to choose almost any enhancement they like. I wouldn't say that most have an "anything goes" attitude, but they would set the bar pretty high before they would intervene against an enhancement, at least theoretically. On the other hand — finally answering the question about how transhumanism has changed — there's actually a lot more emphasis now on caution and responsibility. If you attend a conference or get hooked into the inside discourse, you hear more from scientists and engineers and less from dreamers and theoreticians (which is not quite as much fun, mind you) and so you might actually here people saying: "this one really isn't possible." And you have transhumanists leading "The Lifeboat Foundation," which monitors existential risks and sponsors programs to protect against those risks. It's also a very diverse and global movement with organizations and clubs on every continent, bringing widely varying sensibilities, political views, and so on into the mix. In fact, in the h+ interview, Charlie Stross sort-of characterizes the movement as being full of "socially dysfunctional libertarians" and "minarchists." He's about a decade behind. While you will probably find more libertarians and anarcho-capitalists among transhumanists than you'll find at the neighborhood WalMart, from my experience, I'd venture to guess that the majority are moderate-liberals (although libertarian about self-enhancement issues) and that virtually every political tendency is pretty well-represented, with the exception of Luddites, of course. There's a really strong animal rights contingent, for example. As far as how technological development has influenced the movement, besides the obvious spread using the net? I suppose looking at it in terms of the great lofty visions of transhumanism — longer healthy lifespans, better brains, intelligent machines, cyborg body parts, genomic evolutions and so forth – what once were dreams and small projects are now dreams and well-funded projects and even companies that hope to bring products to market. This means that there has been enough incremental scientific and technological progress to bring it to the point where investors, scientists, engineers and so on are taking this stuff seriously. The tropes are pretty much the same as they were in the '90s. That's not surprising. I mean, once you decide that it's possible to fundamentally improve humans as sort-of operating systems, there are only so many places you can go with that. And I don't think we can discard these tropes as yesterday's tomorrows quite yet... not at all. I don't think it's kitsch, although some may see h+ as a Mondo 2000 do-over. Some of it may be today's yesterday's tomorrows, but we'll just have to wait and see. Do you think the singularity looks farther away than it did in the 1990s? Or is it really coming closer? Within transhumanism, there are a lot of people who don't believe in the singularity at all… or who don't believe that the singularity – if we get artificial intelligences that are smarter than we are — is necessarily a singularity, or that we can be really clear about what all that means. I’m a bit on the skeptical side there, but Ray Kurzweil's view is pretty interesting. He charts a sort-of Moore's Law of information technology that starts long before the digital age and shows that this doubling of the capacities of IT basically keeps on trucking right through world wars, depressions, and just about anything we can throw at it, and it continues today. So however disappointed we may have been by past techno-promises, the more stuff like biology and medicine (think Human Genome Project) becomes IT, the more it becomes malleable and subject to laws of accelerating change. It's a pretty self-consistent argument. But even among Singularitarians, there is a lot of diversity. Not everyone supports Kurzweil's vision of the singularity. Of course, I think the Singularity will arrive on December 21, 2012 when I eat 9 shrooms and Terence McKenna calls my cell phone from hyperspace and says, "R.U. Sirius, how would you like to be queen for a day?!" Transhumanist Tech Is A Boner Pill That Sets Up a Firewall Against Billy JoelYou've run a number of publications that dealt with transhumanism, and you always feature stories about techie gadgets. What's the ultimate transhumanist consumer tech item? It's got to be an all-in-one. It's a boner pill, it makes me nineteen, it allows me to access any brain state any time I want, it whitens my teeth, it grows me a retractable third arm for when I'm carrying groceries, it sets up a firewall against hearing any Billy Joel music. For hundreds of years, and possibly longer, future-looking thinkers have predicted that humans could one day transform their bodies, extend their lifespans, and radically transform the earth. Why do you think these futuristic ideals have endured for so long? There could be a biological explanation or a mystical explanation (the logos calls us forth ala Teilhard de Chardin), but I would just say that we have imaginations (some of us), we have abilities (some of us), and our lives as-is are unsatisfactory. Are there any dogmas of current futurist thinking that you think are doomed to never come true? Well, I think many of the futurists you're thinking of may already be less dogmatic than you imagine, but sure. I'm the last person to believe in any doctrine of inevitability. Some of the items on the post-human agenda may turn out to be ever-receding chimeras, although if Kurzweil is correct, we may be able to knock them off in fairly rapid succession in about 20-40 years. I guess I worry most about whether there is any real progress towards molecular manufacturing, which could do so much to overwhelm scarcity and resolve environmental problems. Futurists like Jamais Cascio and the team that put together Superstruct say their approach is to emphasize the problems we'll be facing as a civilization over the next fifty years. But your approach to futurism has often to emphasize how cool the future will be, and how we'll solve problems like aging and disease. Why do you think it's important to focus on the coolness of tomorrow rather than its dangers? Let me put it this way. If Jamais had hired me to edit a magazine emphasizing oncoming crises, someone would be asking me why I'm pessimistic. But that didn't happen. Humanity+ hired me to emphasize transhumanism. I'm always fascinated by the degree to which one's public persona can be subject to coincidence. Plus it's just the first issue and we wanted to make it kind of exciting and different. Also, the content was put together a few months before the economic crisis, so after that, I didn't know if it would fly… but (forgive my brag) we've had over 400,000 clicks on the pdf of the magazine, and about a 95% positive response. Having said that, the theme of the next issue is about solving real problems like energy, water, economic scarcity, and so forth. There will be all that other stuff too, but the feature section will be all feet-on-the-ground. Jamais contributes one of the pieces. So you've just finished this issue of H+, you're doing at least two different podcasts, and you're an editor at 10 Zen Monkeys. What forms of subversion are you working on that we can look forward to next? I'm thinking that h+ has a really good chance of being quite successful, so it will probably take over my life for a few years. I'm way pleased with that, since it will give me lots of opportunity to make it as smart and meaningful and diverse and fun and important as possible. With periodicals, I always think I can nail it the first time out, but it doesn't work that way. The publication has to come out, generate some energy, and then its voice really clarifies and one starts to improve it. So it's only going to get better. I figure the perfect h+ will probably emerge around issue #3.