The Transhumanist Logic of Technological Innovation

What follows are a series of underdeveloped thoughts for your consideration:

Advances in robotics, AI, and automation promise to liberate human beings from labor.

The Programmable World promises to liberate us from mundane, routine, everyday tasks.

Big Data and algorithms promise to liberate us from the imperatives of understanding and deliberation.

Google promises to liberate us from the need to learn things, drive cars, or even become conscious of what we need before it is provided for us.

But what are we being liberated for? What is the end which this freedom will enable us to pursue?

What sort of person do these technologies invite us to become?

Or, if we maximized their affordances, what sort of engagement with the world would they facilitate?

In the late 1950s, Hannah Arendt worried that automated technology was closing in on the elusive promise of a world without labor at a point in history when human beings could understand themselves only as laborers. She knew that in earlier epochs the desire to transcend labor was animated by a political, philosophical, or theological anthropology that assumed there was a teleology inherent in human nature — the contemplation of the true, the good, and the beautiful or of the beatific vision of God.

But she also knew that no such teleology now animates Western culture. In fact, a case could be made that Western culture now assumes that such a teleology does not and could not exist. Unless, that is, we made it for ourselves. This is where transhumanism, extropianism, and singularity come in. If there is no teleology inherent to human nature, then the transcendence of human nature becomes the default teleology.

This quasi-religious pursuit has deep historical roots, but the logic of technological innovation may make the ideology more plausible.

Around this time last year, Nick Carr proposed that technological innovation tracks neatly with Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs (see Carr’s chart below). I found this a rather compelling and elegant thesis. But, what if innovation is finally determined by something other than strictly human needs? What if beyond self-actualization, there lay the realm of self-transcendence?

After all, when, as an article of faith, we must innovate, and no normative account of human nature serves to constrain innovation, then we arrive at a point where we ourselves will be the final field for innovation.

The technologies listed above, while not directly implicated in the transhumanist project (excepting perhaps dreams of a Google implant), tend in the same direction to the degree that they render human action in the world obsolete. The liberation they implicitly offer, in other words, is a liberation from fundamental aspects of what it has meant to be a human being.

hierarchy of innovation

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8 thoughts on “The Transhumanist Logic of Technological Innovation

  1. That’s exactly it: becoming something other than a human being which will have completely different goals and passions. And finally getting rid of nature and its cruel demands. Sounds pretty good to me.

  2. Hmm, technology certanly doesn’t seem to have fulfilled its utopian promise to free us from labour, in fact rather the reverse seems to have happened in some cases. For example, when you spend half-an-hour on a telephone menu system to get the service you require, labour has effectively been farmed out to you, the consumer.

    The ‘teleologies’ of extropianism and singularity are individual-centred. I wonder if the adaption of Maslow’s hierarchy is slightly misleading in that social organisation is not a necessarily a sufficient condition of prosperity, leisure, self fulfillment, indeed different kinds of social organisation will determine the quality of these latter three conditions. It is quite possible to have a very sophisticated ‘technology of social organisation’ that efficiently deals out poverty, minimal or no leisure, and oppressed human beings. I’m sure I don’t need to give examples. I think a teleology that starts with people’s engagement with one another as the source of fulfillment might be a good place to start.

    Thanks for what is always a stimulating blog.

  3. With every convenience there is a sacrifice. It takes naivity to concentrate one’s hopes and aspirations for humans in technology, and takes more naivity too for the adverse effects portable technologies alone are having on people today. The internet is in principle a great tool, yet for every success it brings it brings twice the problems, a whole generation of young men are becoming dysfunctional due to porn addiction.
    Technology has always been in control of private hands, corporations and militaries have technologies you would have wet dreams over. All we have are flashy plastic chinese devices. I honestly believe humans are better without toys. Our species will undoubtedly be wiped out by arrogant middle scientist wankers who have never known a hard days work in the lives, Edward Teller for instance, we’ve come seconds from total extiction more than once in the past 60 years thanks to utopian pricks and their toys, I’m not anger at anyone in particular, this is just my last rant before I hang myself. My suicide is a personal decision, I hope the best for our species but we’re on the brink of nuclear holocaust.
    -Ermen

  4. There is a certain inevitability to all such ideas in the leisure-bound North American and North European societies who have, at the expense of life or death of most all the other nations of this world, have adopted an entirely vicarious approach life, love, and the pursuit of happiness. Let it be then. There must be a fine line difference between the construction of so altruistic an aim in the name of humanity, on the one hand, and yet another Tower of Babel on the other.

  5. Carr’s idea was that, though Maslow’s strict hierarchy does not hold up on an individual level, it may hold up for society in general, from a macro perspective, and that focus in innovation moves up the pyramid as we innovate. I suggest that the strict hierarchy is still not applicable and the focus moves around, almost like a pendulum.
    Innovations at the top of the pyramid usually necessitate innovations at the bottom, and innovations at the bottom facilitate innovations at the top.
    The internet is a prime example. HTML (infrastructure, or social organization) had to exist before Web 2.0 (much leisure and self-actualization) could, but advances in Web 2.0 required the advancement of HTML, hence HTML5 and CSS3. Likewise, HTML (organization) facilitated online shopping (leisure), which brought about a huge need for online security (survival).
    If this pendulum analogy is feasible, I do not think we will get “beyond” self-actualization, like we will not go “below” survival.

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