Futurist writer R.U. Sirius helped create Mondo 2000, runs posthumanist magazine H+, and has run for president. He was cyber before it was cool, and is still fomenting techno revolution. Here he offers an optimist's vision of the posthuman future.
Annalee has asked me to comment on what is the best-case scenario for posthumanity and what groups are working on putting that scenario in motion. This is the sort of question that invites utopian musings. I've become somewhat shy of utopian projections, which is maybe why I tend to interview other people and let them take the fall… but what the hell, I'll give it a shot.
The fun, of course, would be in visions of tall, thin, beautiful blue skinned beings that are superbright rather than corny (maybe winged, too. Winged would be nice), a third arm for carrying groceries, skinny little fingers for ever-tinier portable devices, and everybody engineered at the germ line to be crazy sex freaks.
But being of nobler stuff, I'll give you what I think is the best down to earth scenario for near-term enhanced humanity, and then I'll also mention a few further out vision - some of which I'm fond of.
Here's what I see when I'm wearing my optimist's hat. The emergent property of a technologically networked culture is voluntary collaboration and sharing. It may seem distant now, but things can change fast (Berlin Wall), and I think it's reasonably likely that some time in the next 10 to 40 years, the main way most people will engage in productive or creative or playful (or all of the above) activities - and the main way that value will be shared or exchanged -will be through open source, voluntary, collaborationist networks that also use some variation of p2p to make whatever available to whomever.
So here's what happens when we add in the idealistic tech scenario. We get basic control over the structure of matter – nanotechnology as production technology. Matter becomes information that can be shared p2p. It's tied to desktop manufacturing. You go online, pick up the code for what you want and "print" it. Even if there are still some people who aren't that resourced, there are plenty of people who want to distribute the free stuff to those in need. Who? Your basic generous open sourcers… your left libertarian types, definitely… but hell, even Nicholas Negroponte wants one laptop per child. Well, one desktop unit per person shouldn't be too difficult under these conditions. In essence, within a decade or less of production nanotechnology, there is no resource scarcity, with the exception of physical space, and no distribution problem.
We also get as much control over biology as is possible, so there are few if any diseases, aging is slowed down stopped or reversed, replacement body parts are grown, skin color is self-selecting, we can eventually begin to program desirable traits in and out of humans by engineering - both interventions in the already born and at the germ line… ad infinitum.
The more optimistic AI projections pan out. We have smarter-than-human systems resolving our technical and possibly our political problems before they happen – it's largely about pattern recognition, after all. We also take the intelligence inside us so that we have all the information and intelligence in the human/cyborg system accessible behind our eyes. Add to that technologies and substances for neural self control -intelligence, moods, creative flow, ecstasies and visions that are accessible to our raw brains with little or no downside.
So people are feeling pretty good, and they're long-lived, smart, bodily modified if desired both internally and externally and there's no more coerced work/wage slavery. And thanks to the activity oriented, participatory DIY culture that has been evolving since the Whole Earth Review… since punk… since the early hackers… since Make magazine… since open source biotech (ad infinitum), most people don't become passive bliss ninnies (and even if most of them do, there is still a minority in the billions made up of active people to keep things interesting and expanding.) Work is play (Gamification). And we're not boring… we still have an edge. There are still unforeseen challenges. Also, advanced virtuality provides a safe zone for the most extreme types of acting out.
Of course, the real world is never this smooth. And there are always some skunks at the garden party (and most utopias, being totalitarian in some way, might deserve them.) Out of this truth, a million science fiction stories have been born. But the argument can be made – and has been made – that what I've described is broadly the direction in which things will go provided that all or most of these technological advances actually occur to the degree suggested (or close enough), and these advances will do far more good than harm..
Ok, so who is working towards this eventuality? Well, if it happens this way, pretty much everybody in the NBIC fields - everybody working on nanotech and biotech and AI and brain science, whether as citizen scientists in a collaborationist project or working for a corporation, or those wacky surrealists at DARPA - they're all pushing this potentiality forward. Of course, we may have to "hijack the singularity" from them eventually - or even now (think gene patent v. open source bio). But mainly, I think all the people who are engaging in open source collaborationist tinkering and culture, the citizen scientists – particularly the more sophisticated and educated young people that are choosing to invest themselves in "garage" projects - I think they all may be taking us there.
I also think the best, smartest critics and skeptics and SF writers and creators are helping - by problematizing these scenarios in advance, by giving us arguments and narratives that remind us about human behaviors and emotions and political and economic and scientific realities. Brilliant fiction adds to our foresight… our pattern recognition… by playing out dramatic, difficult, dark, challenging, ambiguous or dystopian scenarios based on similar technological possibilities.
So that's sort of a simple bottom line upbeat vision of posthumanity, without anything so far out as Kurzweil's vision of imposing our idea of intelligence on the entire galaxy and all creatures within; or Leary's 1970s vision of spacefaring posthuman intelligence-amplified and immortal psychedelic gods heading home to "Galactic Central" after fully conquering the quantum realm; or David Pearce's marvelous vision in the Hedonistic Imperative (look it up) of a post-Darwinian humanity engineered at the germ line to spend their lives at various gradations of functional ecstasy while abolishing suffering among all sentient beings.
As I said at the start of this, Annalee's question invited these utopian musings, and it would require another essay of equal length to express all my doubts and ambiguities. But I'm sure the inevitable comments will take care of that. I know I can count on you.
You can also help RU Sirius with The Mondo 2000 History Project, on Kickstarter.
Image by Scott Beale / Laughing Squid.