On Recognizing Deep Fragility


Eastern Hemisphere from Space Nasa High Resolution

If we take what amounts to the very long view of the matter it’s quite easy to see how both the tradition of human rights and transhumanism emerge from what are in effect two different Christian emphasises on the life of Christ. Of course, this is to look at things from the perspective of the West alone. One can easily find harbingers of both human rights and transhumanism outside of  Christianity and the West in Non-Western societies and religious/philosophical traditions in Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism or Taoism among others. For now though, lets stick with seeing things through the lens of the Western tradition alone.

Perhaps the primary source for human rights in Christianity would be the idea of Christ as God relocated into the fragility of a human body, a consciousness supremely sensitive to the most vulnerable among us- the sick, the poor, the excluded, the powerless and insisting on the spiritual equality of human beings. Roots of transhumanism can be found in another Christ tradition- the idea of man made God, the desire to transcend human limits to seek and find enlightenment.

Putting aside the elitism of the gnostics, such doubled vision need not necessarily be understood as the source of irreconcilability and conflict, but more like a gestalt drawing where two pictures can exist in one. What picture one sees becomes a matter of what you are looking for at the moment.

Historically zooming in a little closer to the Age of Enlightenment we can again see both the tradition of human rights and something like a proto- transhumanism existing side by side. If an enormous increase in the span of biological or material longevity is taken to be the sine qua non of transhumanism, then the Marquis de Condorcet who predicted in his 1794 Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Spirit that:

….a period must one day arrive when death will be nothing more than the effect either of extraordinary accidents or of the flow and gradual decay of the vital powers and that the duration of the middle space of the interval between the birth of man and this decay will itself have no assignable limit. (368)

Was at the same time a staunch defender of much human rights as we would now understand them- the abolition of slavery, equal rights for women, and political rights as they had been articulated in the American Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights and especially in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man.

Yet, if if human rights and proto-transhumanism can often be found right next to one another, so to speak, in both Christianity and the Enlightenment it is certainly difficult to argue that such is the case today. Or only if we narrowly define rights in terms of so-called “negative rights” that is liberties which are used by many transhumanists to argue that they have a right to pursue transcendence, augmentation, and increased powers. How then did the two become so clearly separated in our consciousness?

Often the emergence of human rights and transhumanism is presented sequentially with human rights appearing first and transhumanism or posthumanism occurring afterwards. You find this in Steve Fuller who characterizes human rights (both economic and political) as “humanity 1.0” whereas posthumanism is the newer “humanity 2.0” a separate and sometimes rivalrous utopian project.

This kind of temporal positioning of the utopian project to universally achieve human rights as the ideal of the past with posthumanism as a set of goals for the future is, despite its intuitive appeal, not very historically accurate. For the sharp separation of the human rights and transhumanism can only be dated to their emergence as two clearly defined utopian projects.

It might be surprising to learn exactly how contemporary the appearance of these movements as clearly distinguishable utopian projects actually is. For starters, the very recent appearance of the global movement for human rights is something that has been stressed strongly in recent years by Marxist scholars who want to alert us the inadequacies of the rhetoric of human rights in providing a path through which lasting change in the conditions of humanity in the early 21st century might be achieved. The perspective of this critique can be found in the political writings of the activist and fiction author China Mieville, but by far the most comprehensive argument for both the contemporary nature of human rights and their inadequacy is found in the work of the historian Samuel Moyn.

In his The Last Utopia: Human Rights in Human History Moyn makes a pretty compelling case that far from being the telos of history human rights emerged as the only 20th century utopian project left standing in the 1970’s. For Moyn, human rights emerged as the dominant utopian narrative precisely because all other utopian projects had failed.  Soviet style communism proved itself a failure not with its Eastern European collapse in 1989 but with the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 which showed that state communism could not be reformed by democratic means.

Liberalism had failed with the American debacle in Vietnam, and even self-determination which had since the American and French Revolutions had been seen as the only path through which rights could be truly secured had proven itself a failure as the new post-colonial states failed to not only institute rights but went on the offensive against national minorities.

Unlike other utopian projects Moyn holds that human rights was able to survive because it was moralistic rather than programmatic. It gave idealistic youth in the West something to focus their energies on that ultimately had little bearing on the actual political regime either domestically or internationally. The rhetoric of human rights gave communist dissidents a moral kludge with which they could hammer away at Eastern bloc violations of human rights without calling for the end of the communist project and without the need to insight revolution.

I have some problems with Moyn’s insistence on an extremely sharp historical separation between what we understand as human rights and what came before. We have known that human rights and self-determination (in terms of peoples) have had a troubling mutually interdependent relationship since Edmund Burke criticized the ideas behind the French Revolution. The problematic relationship between human rights and self-determination was brilliantly explored back in the 1940’s by Hannah Arendt.

That the articulation of rights in the Universal Declaration of Rights in 1948 was written under the assumption that European colonial empires would be retained is less than Moyn argues a sort of moralistic distraction from European powers hopes to retain their colonies than an attempt to guarantee rights outside of the context in which they had previously resided i.e. the sovereign nation-state. Moyn also makes no mention of international movements that have little connection with the nation-state as such and therefore bear more similarity to human rights as understood today such as the movement to abolish slavery and the rights of women and children.

The Universal Declaration was also written, I should add,  in light the recognition that the of the economic crisis that had collapsed the capitalist economic system and led to the Second World War necessitated the universal adoption of egalitarian systems- social democracy-  as the only forms of society that were sustainable, humanistic, and just.

Where Moyn is helpful is in focusing our view on the contemporary period rather than trying to find deeper historical currents. I found his Last Utopia especially fruitful in understanding how human rights and transhumanism separated course and also in grasping how the separation of either utopian project from the broader question of political and economic composition is, a both Moyn and China Mieville suggest for human rights alone, is likely to lead us into a cul de sac.

Let me start with one of the Soviet dissidents that Moyn thinks was instrumental in launching the human rights movement, Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov. Sakharov was instrumental in the creation of the Soviet hydrogen bomb. The Americans had gotten their first. The explosion of the American hydrogen bomb over the Bikini Atoll in 1954- a weapon 1,000 times more powerful than the fission nuclear weapons dropped on Japan in 1945 signaled the birth of the human capacity to destroy both civilization and life on earth.

The Soviets would explode their own “true hydrogen bomb” a year later in 1955 based largely on Sakharov’s design. Perhaps the responsibility for what he had made possible had affected him, or perhaps his scientific grasp of the destructive potential of these new weapons had made him aware of the universal fragility of life, but by the 1960’s Sakharov had thrown himself into political activism.

His 1968 essay Progress, Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom marked his appearance onto the political scene. What is remarkable about this essay is the way it combines different utopian projects that have since become distinct rivals, and which we are only now attempting to recombine. Sakharov moves from the call for international peace to environmentalism to the encouragement of continued technological progress and development of the Third World to human rights.

What unites all of these for Sakharov is both an understanding of a shared human destiny and the recognition of our universal fragility especially in the face of modern, and largely man made, catastrophic risks.

Our challenges and possibilities can not be hermetically sealed off from one another but form a continuum requiring answers on all fronts. The role of science and technology is especially interesting here for Sakharov sees them as not only the source of many of our challenges but as the best and most essential tools we have for solving our problems. Yet, it is the essentially the political choice of what to use those our powers for that is the primary question.

Sakharov’s views are also infused with the perspective that both capitalist and communist societies had arrived at a sort of egalitarian consensus. Communist critiques that capitalism lead to inequality and immiseration and that the victory of communism over capitalism was a moral imperative to save the world’s poor no longer held now that capitalist societies had adopted social democratic policies and aimed at the development and dominance of a broad middle class. The same kind of consensus on social democracy that had been seen in the Universal Declaration.

Sakharov would go on to be a fierce defender of the idea that human right represented the best universvisable ethic for a new global age. Yet the kind of fusion of rights, social democracy, environmentalism and scientific and technological progress seen in his Progress, Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom would take a quite different turn in the West a kind of perfusion and splintering of utopian projects whose missions became quite distinct and even rivals for human commitment.

In the late 1960’ and 70’s Western environmentalism took a stand against science and technology a position that is only now being challenged. The struggle for human rights was cut off not merely from environmentalism but from the kinds of social democratic and egalitarian concerns with which it had emerged in tandem. Like environmentalism, human rights had very little to say in terms of the world’s geopolitical order and therefore too often became a ready made masks for US and Western geopolitical interests.

The idea of science and technology as a utopian project also in the 1970’s became separated from its fellow travelers. One can trace this back to the idea of “digitopia” conceived in Silicon Valley which saw in science and technology solutions to all of the world’s problems if only government would get out of the way. Much of contemporary transhumanism would embrace the libertarian assumptions found in “California culture” and this strain is still strong today. This, for instance, is the venture capitalist Peter Thiel a vocal (and financial) supporter of transhumanist causes such as the Methuselah Foundation which our earlier Condorcet would certainly recognize:

 In our time, the great task for libertarians is to find an escape from politics in all its forms—from the totalitarian and fundamentalist catastrophes to the unthinking demos that guides so-called ‘social democracy.’ . . . We are in a deadly race between politics and technology. . . . The fate of our world may depend on the effort of a single person who builds or propagates the machinery of freedom that makes the world safe for capitalism.

For this reason Theil supports utopian seasteading the goal of which “is to innovate more minimalist forms of government that would force existing regimes to change under competitive pressure.” Ostensibly, such islands would be havens for the testing of all sorts of transhumanist innovations.

Yet, the “island” we are actually on isn’t in the middle of any ocean, but the earth itself. It was from a recognition of this fundamental shared fragility of not just humanity but all of the earthly life that has come to depend upon it that Sakharov was able to envision the integration of many of the 20th centuries utopian projects. Even transhumanism the most seemingly optimistic of modern utopian projects emerges from the recognition of our fragility- the desire to be “god-like” is the best sign that we are very far from being “gods”.

One might view much of transhumanism today as built on the same sorts of isolationist assumptions that underlie the project of utopian seasteading. The greatest danger would be a transhumanism that serves as a tool in the stratification of societies along class lines where transhumanists put up “islands” within societies whose overall well being they have abandoned in the name of achieving post-human ends.

Yet, it may be the the sheer interdependence of the 21st century world makes it impossible to pursue any utopian project that fails to take the shared fate of humanity into account. There is a great need of a truly global movement that integrates our various problems and hopes as it becomes increasingly clear that modern crises do not fit squarely into singular versions of utopia or dystopia. The current crises in Syria and Egypt are environmental, rights based, technological, social democratic and geopolitical all at the same time.

We need a utopian project that addresses all of these problems simultaneously and articulates and expands human possibilities for everyone. Let’s hope that the recent profusion of early 21st century movements that seek the reintegration of utopian projects help break us out of our log jam. With these I would include a branch of transhumanism known as techno-progressivism which has the potential to bridge the recently emerged gap between human rights (along with the rest of life) and transhumanism. One of the best way to do this might be for techno-progressives to become aware of and adopt some of the new reformulation of rights as “capabilities” rather than the traditional notion of rights as entitlements. But that is for another time.





Towards a Transhumanist Techno-progressive Divorce


 How is this for a bold statement: the ultimate morality or immorality of transhumanism rests with the position it will take on the question of human rights and more specifically its adoption or denial of the principles of one document little discussed outside of the circle of international lawyers and human rights activists: The Universal Declaration of Right of 1948.

It was by a circuitous route that I came to this conclusion, which at first glance may seem nonsensical, for, after all, isn’t transhumanism precisely about the post- human rather than us current human beings for which the idea of human rights and The Universal Declaration were created?

As briefly mentioned in a prior post, my first indication that human rights and The Universal Declaration might need to be brought into the center of transhumanists’ view was suggested to me by a person who isn’t a transhumanist at all, and indeed is deeply uncomfortable with much of transhumanist rhetoric and underlying assumptions. No one would call the science-fiction author, Kim Stanley Robinson, a neo-luddite. Rather, he sees science, at least in its beneficent manifestations, as the ultimate utopian project. And, as anyone who has ever read one of Robinson’s novels knows, he views utopianism as a very good thing indeed.

It was in a panel discussion  “Utopia- Science Fiction and Fact” that Robinson brought up The Universal Declaration of Rights. As a reminder the Universal Declaration was the first global statement of rights to which, according to the consent of every nation on earth, all human beings are entitled and consists of 30 articles  spelling out these rights. They include not only basic so-called negative rights such as the freedom from arbitrary arrest and torture, but positive rights such as the right to marry and found a family, the right to “social security”, the right to work, the right to rest and leisure, the right to food, shelter, clothing and medical care, the right to “the full development of the human personality”, the right to a stable domestic and international political order, the right to education and to “enjoy the arts and share in scientific achievements and its benefits”.

My interpretation of Robinson bringing up the Universal Declaration in a transhumanist forum was that we already had a utopian project for the future “the project of justice” as he called it; therefore, we should be leery about getting ahead of ourselves. He seemed to be saying that we should focus our scientific and technological efforts on achieving these still far-off 20th century goals before we run full-steam towards the 21st or perhaps 22nd century goals of transhumanism.

It was only when I came across an interview by another future oriented thinker who also brought up the Universal Declaration that I started to think there might be something more to the relationship of transhumanism and the Universal Declaration than my superficial grasp of Robinson’s view had led me to believe.

In an interview with Adam Ford, avowed transhumanist, Steve Fuller, characterized the Universal Declaration as a perfect summation of 20th century progressive politics. This view of what he called “humanity 1.0” found in the Universal Declaration he believes will be likely find itself in conflict with the transhumanism of “humanity 2.0” in the years to come.

Fuller believes that the goals of humanity 1.0, of a progressive, egalitarian society, could only be “paid for” by “holding back” the superior members of society who tried to push the abilities of humanity evolutionarily forward. As time moves onward, more and more of ranks of these visionaries, Fuller thinks, will be filled by transhumanists. Thus his predicted tension between those who hold to the goals humanity 1.0 and those seeking to expand the limits of the possible and achieve the goals of humanity 2.0.

This prediction of probable conflict between the adherents of humanity 1.0 and those seeking to move to a transhumanist notion of humanity 2.0 grows out of Fuller’s libertarian “great man” theory of progress. For him, progress is pushed forward by “superior” individuals who break the bonds of the possible through risk, experimentation, innovation and revolution pulling the rest of society along.

The kind of antagonistic picture of how the world works found in Fuller is on full display in the movie Jobs where innovation and society is pulled forward by visionaries whose disdain for the rest of us non-visionaries types makes them, in common parlance, assholes.

The question that should naturally arise whenever justifications for inequality, such as Fuller’s based upon of the pull of “great men” are made is whether or not such lone visionaries are really acting “alone”? Someone like Steve Jobs was dependent on a society and history around and before him to obtain his visions, and we can never be quite sure if his breakthroughs would have occurred without him. It is just as likely that instead of being driven by “great men” progress in science and technology or human thought in general is really a matter of seizing opportunities that are lying there for anyone to pick up, and which can only be supported if a large enough pool of individuals have come to the point in their own thinking to find the new idea, or invention or whathaveyou compelling.

This libertarian myth that egalitarian policies are the enemy of innovation and upward mobility to which Fuller subscribes and which he conflates with the transhumanist project needs to be vocally challenged, and with hard data. It is, after all, in the Scandinavian countries where egalitarianism runs deepest that rates of innovation are highest and ranked consistently higher than in the in-egalitarian US. Despite libertarian mythology, it is in egalitarian countries where upward mobility is highest as well; suggesting, that egalitarian policies, contra Fuller, are much less about holding the “superior” back as maximize those able to create breakthroughs and in giving everyone a fair shot at success.

There is also the too often unspoken question of power. In another panel discussion, this one for the RSA, only the fiction author and political activist China Mieville had the guts or the comprehension to challenge Fuller’s underlying assumptions regarding power and inequality. If inequality has deep roots in the differential distribution of power and political influence, then Fuller’s version of transhumanism becomes  just one more way in which the already wealthy and powerful will be able to make their advantage permanent.

As another figure worried about exploding levels of inequality, Chrystia Freeland, points out in her book Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else this is already happening at an ever increasing rate as the rich use their wealth to gain educational advantages for their children and distort market influence through their leverage over the political process. Of course, the rich have always done this. What is unprecedented today is the scale and extent to which the super-wealthy have been able to rig the game, so to speak, in their and their childrens’ favor.

A transhumanism lacking an egalitarian anchor, of which the Universal Declaration is just one example, threatens to become just one more way in which the already wealthy and powerful (including many of us lucky enough to be born in the developed world) will be able to make their advantage permanent by, for instance, genetically enhancing themselves or their children when this option is not available to all, purchasing the most advanced form of bioelectrical enhancements whose expense prices out the bulk of the middle class and the poor, replacing middle class and working class jobs with AIs and robots- further shifting the balance of economic distribution away from labor and towards capital without at the same time adopting policies to offset this decline of opportunities for human work with policies such as guaranteed basic income.

Yet, if I thought the extent of Fuller’s critique of the progressive worldview that underlie the Universal Declaration was based on a simplistic view of the reality of social equality reminiscent of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged or the Kurt Vonnegut short-story “Harrison Bergeron”, I was in for a rude awakening when I actually read Fuller’s book- Humanity 2.0.  It was in reading this book that I became convinced not just of the need for an egalitarian orientation for transhumanism but for the full embrace and incorporation of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights into its project if transhumanism was to free itself from the potential to unleash social evil.

It was in Humanity 2.0  that Fuller showed just how far he was willing to go in his rejection of the Universal Declaration, as far in fact as to call for the rehabilitation of the inhuman Nazi regime that had given rise to the Universal Declaration in the first place. The kinds of ethical obscenities that can be found in Humanity 2.0 are indicative of the dangers inherent when one unmoors the idea of post-humanity, of the transhuman, from the project to obtain the requisites of the human condition- of humanity 1.0- for all, and when one sees progress being driven by “superior” individuals or groups.

Part of the moral dilemma any transhumanists has to face is the sheer, and often unacknowledged gap, between transhumanist goals and the actual conditions of the large numbers of humanity. Transhumanists in large measure have objectives such as the obtainment of biological immortality when the average life expectancy in a country like Sierra Leone is 46. Talk of a technologically supercharged humanity rings hollow when 2.6 billion human beings lack toilets. If these disparities are not addressed and our global environmental, and political problems are not solved, we will likely have more explosions like the recent one in Egypt which is as much a crisis of population density, energy, food and water scarcity as it is a secular vs. religious conflict.

The immoral potential implicit in this gap confronts us directly, even if on simplistic terms, in the film Elysium where in the year 2154 the majority of humanity lives on a planet of want, social breakdown and violence when a minority lives in a transhumanist paradise in space where there is no disease, poverty or war. Here, transhumanism becomes a sort of sinister version of The Rapture of the Nerds that is the dream of singularitarians.  It is a possibility that emerges from the race for the rights of the future when we have yet to secure the rights of the past.

One of the main ways techno-progressivism- a relatively recent branch of transhumanism- might best distinguish itself, or even if necessary, divorce itself, from both the kinds of anti-progressive transhumanism seen in Fuller, dramatically presented in Elysium and found in the millenarian fantasies of singularitarianism would be to openly embrace as its primary mission the obtainment of the goals set forth in the Universal Declaration. The priority of science as a utopian project would then be aimed at the achievement of a sustainable human condition for all. To these goals could then be added core transhumanists hopes such as the radical extension of the human lifespan (which would fall under the Universal Declaration’s right to life) and the right to explore and build upon the transcendence of current human capabilities, including by the use of technological means (which would fall under the Universal Declaration’s right to the full development of the human personality).

Still, a little historical and philosophical background and context might prove helpful in making the reasons for such a linkage between the projects of humanity 1.0 as represented by the Universal Declaration and  tehno- progressivism a little clearer and might lay bare some of the risks in tying progressivism to science and technology alone without addressing underlying dynamics of wealth and power.

For, it should not be surprising that human rights, singularitarianism and transhumanism emerged almost simultaneously and might someday soon prove real rivals for defining the human future. All three emerged from the loss of faith that utopia could be created through political action and as responses to the recognition of a common human identity and our likely fate. To that I will turn next time…

The above painting of Janus is by South African artist Christo Coetzee (1929-2001), oil on board.   It can be found in the Sanlam Collection. Copyright Christo Coetzee, all rights reserved.

The Terrifying Banality of Humanity 2.0

William Blake Urizen in Fetters Tears streaming from His Eyes

Something I think we are prone to forget in this age of chattering heads and two-bit pundits is that ideas have consequences. Anyone engaged in public discourse has some responsibility to wrestle with the ethical implications of their thought, and this is as much the case for the Rush Limbaugh’s of the world as it is for that disappearing class of thinkers who once proudly went by the name intellectuals.

In a way, artists have always had an easier time than those engaged in more discursive lines of thought. We hold Plato morally accountable for the ideas he put forward in a work like The Republic in a way we don’t hold his contemporary Aeschylus for a play full of human violence like The Oresteia. The reason for this is that philosophers rather than artists it is assumed, not doubt in part falsely, are not just giving us a view into the world as it is, but as they believe it should be.

If ideas are indeed serious things, and we need to hold intellectuals responsible for their moral implications in a way artists need not be, then the pushing open, perhaps better tearing up, of the envelope of our moral horizons found in Steve Fuller’s recent Humanity 2.0: What it means to Be Human: Past, Present and Future needs to be confronted in a way a work of art like the song Vicarious by the band Tool does not, even if both start from a kind of Archimedean point outside or above the normal human perspective to look down upon the world as whole to end up with a sort of metaphysical justification for evil and violence.

Upon picking up Humanity 2.0 I did not expect this. What I anticipated is a recent version of run of the mill transhumanism with an epistemological slant (Fuller is a social epistemologist). Instead, what I got was a rather disturbing set of conclusions embedded within an otherwise banal alternative history of sociology.

There were far too many points throughout Humanity 2.0 where I found myself stopping to exclaim “Did he really just say that?” to discuss them all. So, in what follows I will focus on what I found the most relevant. For starters, Fuller thinks that for transhumanism, or better transhumanism as he understands it, to succeed it has to adopt what can only be understood as a form of  politics as deception. The first step in this deception is merely the discussions surrounding transhumanists’ concerns, where, for Fuller:

Intentionally or not, this serves to acclimatize citizens, in the company of their peers, to whatever nano-driven changes might be on the horizon, thereby updating the concept of self-fulfilling prophecy. (147)

In social psychology, this strategy is often dubbed ‘inoculation’, the suggestion being that by allowing people to spend time thinking about extreme or pure cases of some potential threat, you have laid the groundwork for the acceptance of a less virulent version.  (148)

Fuller compares this indirect method to be used in the achievement of transhumanist ends to be akin to the victory of socialism which emerged as a way to stave off the communist threat. (150)

Let’s pause and think about what he is saying for a moment. For Fuller, discussions and debates surrounding the issues of the application of science and technology to transform the current human condition are not so much a way to think through the profound challenges and questions transhumanist concerns pose to our understanding of what it means to be human or even post-human as they are a sort of public relations campaign which will win over the public to transhumanist positions the more extreme the proposals it appears to make for the human future.

That Fuller would adopt a perspective more reminiscent of the television show Mad Men that anything we might recognize from the tradition of moral philosophy or democratic politics shouldn’t be all that surprising given that he thinks the bizarre way in which we afford corporations with the rights of individuals to be a primary vector by which his post- human version of utopia will come into being. He muses:

Once the modes of legitimate succession started to be forged along artificial rather than natural lines with the advent of the corporation… the path to the noosphere had been set. (205)

If indeed Fuller means us to associate our modern corporations- our Walmart’s and McDonald’s- with the telos of the world, Teilhard de Chardin will not be the only one rolling in his grave.

Fuller’s love of corporations and his view of them as vectors for what he conceives to be the “real” ends of transhumanism is just one shade of his unabashed collectivism. One of his primary aims is to rehabilitate 19th and early 20th century eugenics. Many of the contemporary proponents of eugenics tend to approach the issue from the standpoint of reproductive rights. The problem with antique forms of eugenics, in their view, wasn’t just that it was based upon bad, meaning pre-genetic and racial science, but that it was focused on empowering the group in complete disdain of the rights and life of individuals.

Fuller will have none of such individualism or talk of “rights”.  We should rehabilitate 19th and 20th century eugenics because:

The history of eugenics is relevant to the project of human enhancement because it establishes the point-of-view from which one is to regard human-beings: namely, not as ends in themselves but as a means for the production of benefits… (emphasis added/142)

Lest we think that Fuller is out merely to rehabilitate the image of now forgotten  eugenicists like Francis Galton and couldn’t possibly be talking about “rehabilitating” our understanding of National Socialism we have this:

Put bluntly, we must envisage the prospect of a transformation in the normative image of Nazi Germany comparable to what Barrington Moore described for the French Revolution. This is not easy… there have been only the barest hints of Nazi rehabilitation. But hints there are, helped along by the deaths of those with first-hand experience of Nazism. (244)

Does the death of those with first-hand experience of Nazi atrocities make us wiser in Fuller’ eyes? This is not the kind of “PR” transhumanism needs.

Fuller’s commitment to collectivism takes him very far from traditional transhumanism indeed. In his hands the universal commitment to the increase in human longevity becomes nonsensical because the individual herself, from Fuller’s perspective, is a non-entity, a bridge to a kind of reborn primordial soup of cells and silicon which from his pantheist perch appears to be the ideal evolutionary future of a disembodied human intelligence or logos.

From his perspective the satirical world of “Utilitaria” imagined by the moral philosopher, Steven Lukes, where the characters are fully cared for from birth until old age only to be literally deconstructed both mentally and physically to serve as “parts” for the young becomes not a searing critique of a purely utilitarian world devoid of human rights, but a prescription for his version of our post-human future.

… with nature-inspired technologies we might think more imaginatively (aka divinely) about the terms on which ‘the greatest good’ can be secured for ‘the greatest number’, especially how parts of individuals might be subsumed under this rubric.” (228)

This zooming out to an amoral height in which the individual no longer has real value aside from whatever benefits they can bring not so much to society as to the process of history leading us to Fuller’s post-human age leads him to embrace a whole host of troubling concepts.  He gives gives his proposal to disassemble the panoply of protections we have built up around the use of human beings in scientific research vanilla,  soft-nietzschean labels such as “suffering smart”. Where his proposals amount to a kind of martyrology in which individuals sacrifice their own lives and health for the “honors” of propelling scientific research at a faster pace.

Fuller’s version of “heaven” is a return to the Eden of the primordial soup where the distinctions between species, machines, and even individuals has collapsed. In this he is riding the wave of the transformation of biology into an information science where individuals of a species become mere pattern of genes and the boundary between species become permeable. Here, Fuller takes the extremely irresponsible glorification of our new found ability to swap and combine genes between species who have not occupied the same place in lineage since the dawn of life on earth coming from figures like Freeman Dyson to an even greater extreme. Being able to incorporate the genes from other species is less for Fuller a means of human enhancement as it is the road the disappearance of the human into some sort of divine stew.

Fuller takes this transformation of biology into an information science to the degree that he has become one of the most vocal proponents of teaching intelligent design in schools. What? The logic behind his advocation of the pseudoscience of intelligent is that the actual history of life on earth has become irrelevant now that we have reduced it to information.

… nothing much hangs on the fact of whether animals and plants evolved naturally or were specially created, let alone whether it happened over 5000 or 5 billion years… (64)

For Fuller, intelligent design is a sort of noble lie meant to teach its students how to be “God-like” designers of nature.

As far as things to raise critical awareness I will stop there, and am left to wonder how it is possible that Fuller has come up with such a regressive version of transhumanism where debate and discourse is replaced by manipulation, where corporations and collectives have replaced individuals, where not just 19th and early 20th century racists, but Nazis mass murderers are seen as premonitions of transhumanism and that is not be taken as a negative thing, a warning, where individuals become sacrificial animals for a research endeavor whose success would ultimately spell the end of individuals, where intelligent design is touted as a serious version of biological science?

The extent that Fuller flirts with the shibboleths of early 20th century fascism, indeed, he appears to see them as the true harbingers of transhumanist politics, suggested that the most recent offshoot of transhumanist thought, so called techno-progressivism will need to divorce and divest itself from its transhumanist roots if it is to remain ethically viable. Special efforts need to be made to disentangle techno-progressivism from underlying religious aspiration,s for it is these which serve as the launch point from which Fuller would undo much of the moral progress that emerged as a delayed response to the abuses and cognitive distortions of fascism and European imperialism.

As I have warned elsewhere religious rhetoric or the historically unconscious adoption of ideas whose origins are ultimately religious is dangerous to the transhumanist project both because it puts transhumanists and traditional religious persons in an artificial state of conflict, but also because it leads to the very kinds of moral and intellectual hubris found in a work like Humanity 2.0.

Fuller taps into what Susan Neiman in her Evil in Modern Thought declared to be the moral problem that would define the modern age- why is there evil in the world? A problem answered by thinkers such as Gottfried Leibniz with his concept of theodicy. The problem of evil is one of our own limited human perspective. Get up “high” enough and you will see that we live in the “best of all possible worlds”.

It shouldn’t be surprising that theodicy emerged at the same time as modern science and biblical literalism. Before the scientific revolution it was assumed that the everyday world that surrounds us is the worst of all possible worlds only in comparison to the Hell thought to be literally below us both a consequence of ours and the rebellious angels’ fall from grace.

Newton was just the most prominent of the early moderns to have destroyed the gap between the perfect world of the heavens and that of earth; what guided a thrown object here was the same thing that ruled heavenly objects above. Here emerges the idea of God as a celestial engineer.

Many of the early scientists such as Newton or Francis Bacon were proponents of the new biblical literalism. For them the project of freeing our understanding of the world from the hold of ancient and inaccurate science and finding the true meaning of the Bible by clearing it of the distortions caused by Catholicism were a set piece- a dual project. In her The Case for God, Karen Armstrong points out how these early moderns created the literalists idea of God replacing more mystical and metaphorical understandings. What drives debates between vocal New Atheists and fundamentalist is that the two are in fact theological brothers who share their conception of God and are merely arguing over whether this God exists or not.

Fuller places himself within this camp although his argument might be described as a leap from New Atheism to fundamentalism: the literalists creator God of the early moderns (and today’s fundamentalists) does not exist, so we should ourselves become this God. All of history then becomes excused as the mere birthpangs of us a newborn “god”.

The problem is we are not “gods” and are nowhere near “becoming gods”, or are very strange gods indeed. Not the omnipotent creator/designer that is a common power fantasy, but a god trapped within his own creation that needs to create and act anew merely to survive and can never be sure that the next creative act will not spell his end.

Theodicy of the type Fuller promotes denies the very reality that the Copernican Revolution and all subsequent great leaps in our scientific understanding has brought us: We are not at the center of events- we are not the story.

Theodicy implies that we can judge the universe by the moral qualities characteristic of human individuals- good and evil. But we do not exist on the same moral plane of the universe because the universe does not have a moral plane. It creates and destroys with absolute indifference.

When doing science we have to approach the world from above, from an Archimedean point, but morality does not and can not work like this. Justifying the whole of life or the entirety of the universe on moral grounds means a justification which a more theological age called evil, death, pain and destruction, for there is no need to justify the good. Fuller wants to justify historical and natural evil, but instead ends up at the same place as the viewpoint of the character in that Tool song I mentioned earlier who justifies his own voyeuristic bloodlust because the universe itself is a place of pain:

Credulous at best, your desire to believe in angels in the hearts of men.

                Pull your head on out your hippy haze and give a listen.

   Shouldn’t have to say it all again.

              The universe is hostile. so Impersonal. devour to survive.

So it is. So it’s always been.

  We all feed on tragedy

 It’s like blood to a vampire

Vicariously I, live while the whole world dies

   Much better you than I

The banality of evil is that it comes not so much from this sort of willful malice as a mistaken notion of the good and an obliviousness to our own limits. Fuller’s Humanity 2.0 has both in spades.

Taxing Multinational Corporations Against Global Catastrophic Risks

Human beings have a very limited attention span, a fact amplified a thousand fold by modern media. It seems the “news” can consist of a only handful of widely followed stories at a time, and only one truly complex narrative. This is a shame because the recent breaking of one substantial news story was followed by the breaking of another one which knocked it out of the field of our electronic tunnel vision. Without some narrative connecting the two only one can really hold our attention at a time. Neither of these stories have to do with Kate Middleton and the birth of Prince George.

Back in late May revelations of Apple dodging tens of billions in taxes from the US broke unto the news. Revelations which were quickly followed up by congressional hearings. But then, right on its heels, came the revelations of Edward Snowden about very questionable surveillance techniques of the NSA. The Snowden leaks did not so much spark as spread a desperately needed debate over the growing capacity of the American security state to tap the open design and marketing of the Internet as the medium for a new “transparent society” as a means to its own ends. Snowden turbocharged a debate we need to be having, and we need to keep alive however short our attention spans.

It is unfortunate, though, that the Snowden revelations managed to push the story of Apple’s and other corporations tax dodging- and especially that of other tech giants such as Google and Amazon off of the front page. For, in many ways that story is just as important a story as the Snowden leaks, and despite appearances, is in some ways connected to them.

As a reminder of what happened at Apple, here is a description from one of those “anti-capitalist” over at Forbes Magazine . Lee Shepard reports that after Apple had set up what were in effect a series of shell companies in Ireland where:

“….60% of Apple’s profits, are routed through these Irish subsidiaries and taxed nowhere. “

“….the holding company pays no tax to any government, and has not paid tax for five years. It claims tax residence nowhere.”

When the story first broke I thought Apple’s efforts at tax evasion were out of the ordinary. I was wrong. What Apple was doing is not just widespread- it was representative of the way global capitalism in the 21st century worked. Since at least the 1990’s corporations had in fact become organizations no longer anchored to territorial states. What this meant was that multi-nationals of all sorts were able to escape effective taxation anywhere. The Tax Justice Network ,  calculates that tax evasion through the establishment of havens and fancy financial accounting costs the world’s states roughly 3 trillion dollars per year or around 5% of global GDP in lost revenue.

Some of the most egregious tax avoiders are tech companies we all know and love. Google’s motto might be “Don’t be evil”, but one wonders how much food or medicine its 2 billion of avoided taxes a year might have bought.  What is particularly rankling here is that we have come to associate a certain social consciousness to Silicon Valley companies we no doubt do not link to other types of multinationals such as Oil Companies. The very same people who lecture us at TED about new projects to save the world, along with the people who applaud them in the audience, are often the very individuals people starving government services for cash as part or at the head of globe straddling multinationals.

Yet the nation-states bereft of the funding they need to function seem to be turning against this massive tax avoidance with a vengeance.  The G20 charged the OECD with writing and issuing a report that calls for coordinated efforts by states to recapture a good deal of this missing revenue. President Obama’s recent proposal of a “grand bargain” with the GOP on taxes called for the lowering of corporate rates to be offset by the closure of loopholes that allow corporations to avoid taxes nearly all together.

Whatever their seriousness in dealing with tax evasion the development of coordinated rules between the leading economies is likely to take years and be beset by wrangling, distortion through corporate lobbying and attempts at arbitrage. Trying to tie the revenues of what truly are global corporations to some particular state or divide such taxable revenues proportionally between different sets of states is bound to be messy, complicated, and to take a long time.

Such re-nationalization of taxation would constitute a step backwards for globalization. Yet the digerati of TED and the global elite of Davos are right about this- many of our problems are global in scope and require global solutions. As I have suggested elsewhere what we need is a truly global tax a means of investing not in the nation-state, as important as it remains, but in the well being of the world as a whole.

Some Christian denominations promote the idea of a tithe where 10% of one’s income should be given to charity. A similar 10% tithe on the missing revenues of global corporations would give us 300 billion in revenue we could invest in the state of our shared world. What follows then are some suggestions on where we could spend this windfall.

Prevention and Response to Pandemic Disease:

Much about early 21st century life might suggest that humanity has finally “conquered nature” and that the largest threats to civilization stem from we ourselves. We should not, however, count the threat from nature out. The largest potential killer in the near future is probably pandemic disease. How big of a threat? The World Bank states it this way:

Because a novel flu virus could infect 30-40% of all people, in a worst-case scenario, business and consumer confidence would plummet, worker absenteeism would rise sharply, and public services would falter, says Olga Jonas, economic adviser for the World Bank health team. “Disruptions would propagate across economies and could include breakdowns of food distribution and public order in megacities,” she says.

A severe flu pandemic could cost 4.8% of global GDP, or more than $3 trillion—and it would hit the poor the hardest. The risk is rising because livestock and human densities increase alongside weak veterinary and public health systems in developing countries.

Globalization and an explosion of urbanization make ideal vectors for killer flus or other forms of devastating communicable diseases. Most of these diseases are zoonotic, that is they emerge out of animals especially those human beings have close contact with due to their being raised for food. Preventing the emergence and spread of these diseases will therefore require the introduction of higher standards of sanitation. It will also require the improvement of public health systems in the developing world. The cost? Again, according to the World Bank:

To this end, veterinary and human health systems in developing countries will require $3.4 billion annually, compared with less than $450 million currently.  A Bank report  argues that this sustained level of investment is justified in view of at least $37 billion in annual expected benefits from prevented pandemics and other major outbreaks.

Let’s just round it to 3 billion 1% of our 300 billion dollar global tithe.

 Avoiding Impacts from the Sky:

We all know about the “big-one” that slammed into earth 65 million years ago killing the dinosaurs along with 70% of the life on earth. In terms of probability, however, we should be just as worried about impacts such as the Tunguska Event an asteroid impact which flattened around 2,000 square kilometers of forest in Siberia in 1908. According to a 2008 report by the Association of Space Explorers, Tunguska scale impacts occur roughly 3 times every thousand years.

A future asteroid collision could have disastrous effects on our interconnected human society. The blast, fires, and atmospheric dust produced could cause the collapse of regional agriculture,leading to widespread famine. Ocean impacts like the Eltanin event (2.5 million years ago) produce tsunamis which devastate continental coastlines.

The impact of a Tunguska size asteroid on a major world urban area or in the oceans near it would be akin to the explosion of 500 Hiroshima sized atomic bombs and/or could set off devastating tsunamis of which we have become in recent years all too familiar.

The main problem when dealing with asteroid impacts isn’t so much dispatching with them once found (really deflecting) as it is finding them in the first place. To this end, former NASA astronaut Ed Lu established the B612 Foundation, a private company that hopes to launch a satellite called Sentinel in 2018 which will look for near earth asteroids.

Lu is to be highly commended for this initiative, yet the question needs to be asked why isn’t NASA or the ESA or some other combination of national space agencies doing this on a scale commensurate with the threat?  B612’s answer is that:

NASA lacks the funding for a mission to find and track the million asteroids that threaten our planet. Because of the ongoing federal budget situation, there is no realistic prospect for those funds to materialize.

B612 estimates the cost over the 12 year planned life of Sentinel to run on the order of 450 million dollars. NASA itself does have an asteroid detection program that costs 20 million per year and the Obama administration awakened to the threat posed by near earth asteroids by the spectacular explosion of one such asteroid over Russia earlier this year proposes to double amount for FY 2014. In other words, the budget of B612, an organization funded through charitable donations is equivalent to the allocation for the same vitally important endeavor as that of the richest country on earth with the most sophisticated and well funded space organization of all time.

NASA’s well known budget woes are merely symptomatic of an American government crushed between rising entitlement costs, a massively bloated security architecture, and the sheer inability to raise revenues to meet these expenses. What suffers as a consequence are all the other vital things a government is supposed to do which in the US context is labeled with the misnomer “discretionary spending”. Related to the prior issue of climate change the essential tools and abilities of earth sciences, not just at NASA but at related agencies such as NOAA, are being steadily eroded by budgetary constraints.

This is no stain whatsoever on Lu, who is filling a vital gap left by our problems funding government, but the lost annual tax revenue of the company where he worked after leaving NASA from 2007-2010, Google, the aforementioned 2 billion dollars, could fund launching and supporting 4 of B612’S Sentinels.

Let’s imagine that we use the equivalent of Google’s avoided taxes out of our global tithe to quadruple the size of the Sentinel project giving us 2 billion to avoid asteroid induced armageddon or the destruction of a major city with all of the death and destruction that would cost. It’s a bargain.

Preparing for Climate Change including Geo-engineering research

There is growing realization that we have passed the point at which we can stop our production of atmospheric carbon dioxide raising the earth’s temperature by 2 degrees celsius (3.6 degrees fahrenheit) before the end of the century. How destructive this rise in temperature will ultimately be we can’t be sure, but it would be smart of us to put aside funds to hedge against worse case scenarios, and start doing major research into geoengineering should we confront Venus style runaway warming.

One thing we need to fund is more research on geoengineering. Many environmentalist do not want us to go there, all of us should not want us to go there, but in the case the effects of rising temperature threaten the lives of billions of people or even civilization itself, we need to have a better grasp of the possibilities. China has declared geoengineering to be a major research focus. During the 2009-2010 FY the Obama administration received requests for 2 billion dollars towards geoengineering research of which it awarded 100 million. The most dangerous scenario would be for a country suffering desperately under the impact of climate change to unilaterally decide to geoengineer the climate to a lower temperature without any international scientific consensus on if and how this should be done.

With our global tithe the world could easily quadruple the amount requested for geoengineering research in the US. Part of that 8 billion could be used to fund international entities charged with coming up with clear red lines where geoengineering should be used and what kind.

Something else we need to be prepared for is widespread displacement whether from sea level rise swallowing low lying areas or desertification. Estimates of just how many refugees will emerge from the impact of climate change are wide indeed- anywhere from 250 million to 1 billion people. Both numbers are incredibly scary.

Systems need to be put in place to help nation- states deal with population flows on a scale never seen before, especially scenarios where sea level rise consumes low lying heavily populated countries such as Bangladesh. The UN agency charged to deal with both refugee flows and disaster response is the UNHCR. It is the first line of defence  poor countries responding to increasingly frequent and more devastating natural disasters. As of 2013 its budget was $87 million.  In 2013 there are roughly 44 million refugees. Even if we stick to the low estimate of 250 million eventual refugees from climate change that would mean 5 times more internally and externally displaced persons than there are today. We should therefore bulk up the UNHCR to five times its current size to prepare meaning that its portion of our global tithe should be around $450 million dollars.

A Second Green Revolution:

The overall rate of population growth may have slowed but projections that we will hit 9 billion before the end of the century still hold. The problem we are facing is that we have no idea how we will feed so many people. The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations estimates that food production between the early 2000’s and 2050 will have to grow by 70% and developing country production to double by 2050 to keep pace with population growth.

The last time we had Malthusian warnings of mass hunger, back in the late 1960’s we were saved by a revolution in agricultural production that goes by the name The Green Revolution. This revolution in agricultural production is credited with saving a billion human beings from starvation and worked by applying mass production methods to food production, using synthetic fertilizers, the development of higher yielding varieties of staple crops and the application of intensive irrigation.

The problem is the Green Revolution appears to have petered out. Growth in yields near 3% in the 1970’s have declined to almost half of that now. It seems we’ve rung all we can from this industrialized model of agriculture. As the World Resource institute puts it:

…most high-quality agricultural land is already in production, and the environmental costs of converting remaining forest, grassland, and wetland habitats to cropland are well recognized. Even if such lands were converted to agricultural uses, much of the remaining soil is less productive and more fragile; thus, its contribution to future world food production would likely be limited. The marginal benefit of converting new land increases the importance of continuing to improve crop yields so the existing agricultural lands can produce additional food.

Some things we could do about this looming crisis of food scarcity according to Alex Evans from the Center for International Cooperation at New York University they would include among others:

Devote more money to agriculture:

“The last twenty years have seen a disastrous decline in the proportion of foreign aid that goes to agriculture, from 17 per cent in 1980 to 3 per cent in 2006.  Total aid spending on agriculture fell 58 percent in real terms over the same period.  Today, developed country donors urgently need to reverse this trend, and to start plugging the gap left by years of under-investment.”

 Devote more public research money to agriculture:

… the budget of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research has fallen by 50 per cent over the last 15 years, for example.

Such monies could be used to rapidly deploy potentially game changing technologies such genetically engineering major food to take nitrogen from the air which might end our destructive reliance on synthetic fertilizers.

Create an IEA for food:

A global system of food reserves need not entail the creation of a new agency, but to be credible the system would need to be overseen by a disinterested party, such as the World Food Programme.  It would also be essential to be clear that the role of any system of reserves would be limited to emergency assistance: not to act as a price support for producers, or a permanent system for managing food aid.

How much would those things cost? I have no idea. Let’s take as our ball park figure the combined amount the US and the EU now spend on highly distorting agricultural subsidies. For the US that’s about 20 billion for the EU it’s around 50 billion. Taking away a 70 billion dollar slice of our initial 300 billion tithe.

Nuclear Disarmament

The idea of ridding the world of nuclear weapons may seem utopian, but many of those who think the goal both attainable and necessary are some of the hardest of  realists around. The contemporary movement to ban nuclear weapons got its start with an article in the Wall Street Journal back in 2007. “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons” was written by former Secretary of State in the Reagan administration, George Schultz, and signed by none other than Henry Kissinger. Since then we’ve had Global Zero an international movement whose aim is to rid these apocalyptic weapons from the earth. Global Zero has a four phased plan that gets us to zero nuclear weapons by the 2030s. This would be an incredible way to mark the centenary of the Second World War which gave us these weapons in the first place.

How much would it cost? Probably around 2 billion per year. As always, let’s just double that cost and say that the program runs from now until the centenary of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki- 2045.

At 4 billion per year for 32 years that’s about 128 billion from our tithe.

Universal Primary and Secondary Education

If we are ever to achieve the world set forth in the Universal Declarations of Rights we will need to ensure that education is available for all. This is Article 26 of the Declaration, but is also the keystone upon which all other parts of the Declaration rest- the means for the full development of every human personality. While the spread of primary and secondary education has been great over the last few decades, many, especially girls, remain locked out of its benefits.

How much would it cost to ensure that primary and secondary education were available to all? Right now the developing world spends about 82 billion on education at this level.

A high end estimate for how much making free primary and secondary education universal is 35 billion additional dollars. Let’s just double the 82 billion now spent and throw in a few extra billion for could measure- 88.5 billion the remainder of our global tithe.

To review the numbers:

3.0 billion Pandemic diseases

2.0 billion Asteroid Impacts

8 billion Geoengineering Research

500 million UNHCR

70 billion Next Green Revolution

128 billion Nuclear Disarmament

88.5 billion primary and secondary education for all

300 billion

With a mere 10% of the lost taxes from global corporations we have protected ourselves against pandemic diseases and asteroid impacts, created an insurance policy against climate change, done something to address the risk of global famine, eliminated nuclear weapons and provided free primary and secondary education to everyone in the developing world. In the process we have achieved or come far closer to achieving  at least 3 of the 8 Millenium Development Goals. Not bad at all.

Of course, this is not meant to be an absolutely serious proposal but an exercise to show that we do indeed have the resources to address many of the most pressing of our global problems- we just need to get our priorities straight. And this brings me back to where I began- the Snowden leaks whose gorey details just keep on coming.

What the Snowden leaks revealed is that however much the members of global corporations talk the talk of world citizenship they remain subjects of the nation-states from which they stem. The recognition of this fact threatens the most positive elements the globalization of the economy has brought us, namely an increased awareness of our global interconnection and interdependence and hence our global responsibility. The combined facts that techno-elites are simultaneously acting as a tool of the US security state, avoided paying taxes anywhere in the world, and touting “techno- philanthropy” as the main route to solving the world’s problems leaves one in a state of ethical vertigo from which it is difficult to get one’s bearings.

What seems clear to me, however, is that if the positive elements of globalization are to survive, then the elites whose capital is increasingly likely to be sucked up by the nation-states better find a way to make sure a good slice of this capital is used to address the kinds of global problems which the elites tried to make us aware. Even if, or perhaps especially because, they had robbed us of the wherewithal to actually solve them in the first place.