I am not a transhumanist.
I am a science fiction writer.
My job is to look at the way that people around me today are reacting to the technology that is upending their lives
and create futuristic parables about those reactions. These parables aren't
predictive of the future – they are predictive of the present, stories that illuminate the
futuristic trappings of the here-and-now by making up fanciful "if this
goes on..." tales.
It wasn't always thus. Many sf writers set out in earnest to create detailed
predictive futures – see, for example, Robert A
Heinlein (or, as Robert Silverberg
recently called him, "Robert A Timeline," for all the "future
history" diagrams that adorned the beginnings of his books). But the
modern sf writer has by and large dispensed with the conceit that she is
peering into a crystal ball and telling the world about the miracles of
tomorrow. No, we're peering into a warped mirror and telling the world about
the miracles of today.
And it is indeed an age of wonders we inhabit. Just a few years ago, a college
student named Sean Fanning hacked together a piece of amateurish software
called Napster. It turned out to be the single
most popular technology in the history of the world. What's more, its users
self-assembled the largest library of human creativity ever marshalled, in 18
months, for free. When a court burned that library to the ground, it rose from
the ashes, stronger and larger than ever, until today, entire transnational
political parties have sprung up to defend its underlying principles.
We live in an age in which more people can express themselves in more ways to
more audiences than ever before. The majority of this expression is intimate,
personal maunderings – the half-spelled, quarter-grammatical
newspeak adorning MySpace and Facebook pages. These are often intensely personal,
with none of the self-conscious artifice that we've traditionally associated
with "published work." By turning the personal into the public, an
entirely new aesthetic is coming into being – and a huge
proportion of the invisible social interaction of a generation is being
recorded forever. As Charles Stross notes, we are living at the end of
"pre-history" – the last days of a patchwork human
history. Tomorrow's lives will be remembered by the historians of the
day-after-tomorrow with astounding clarity and thoroughness, reconstructed
through the midden of personal blips, twits, and chirps emitted by our social
tools. By comparison, our own lives will be as opaque and unimaginable as the
lives of the poor schmucks who inhabited the same cave for 200,000 years,
generation after generation leaving no mark more permanent than a mouldering
knucklebone lost in the soil.
We live in an age in which the act of communication has been criminalized by
international legal norms. The Internet has formed like a pearl around the grit
of the engineering norms of the scientists who birthed it. These scholars and
technicians communicate in the scientific mode – they write
proposals, then review them, attack them, mark them up, and pass them around.
Since the enlightenment, this has been the dominant mode by which civilization
progresses. And it is these people who designed the Internet, to suit their
needs. Thus it is that simply hitting Ctrl-R to reply to an email imports the
entire body of the original message, ready for you to mark up with your digital
This holus-bolus copying is, of course, a copyright
infringement. If the Internet had been designed by lawyers, the copy-and-paste
commands would have been disabled by default. Web-links would require
permission and the filling in of many contractually binding forms.
These anti-copying perverts didn't design the Internet, but they did manage to
design the legal framework that nominally governs it. Global copyright, patent
and trademark laws have accreted one atop another, each predicated on the
notion that the Internet can be redesigned to make it harder to make copies.
The total failure of this to come to pass has not stopped the passage of
ever-more-stringent laws. Thus it is that practically anything you do on the
Internet is a crime. And thus it is that the authorities temporal have the
means to selectively censure anyone they care to – for though
your heresy might be legal, your copying is not, and it is the copying that
they'll bust you for.
Transhumanism is a philosophy that arises from this futuristic present. The
idea that we can become more than what we are today, that we can collectively
upend our most fundamental institution – the body
In imagining a future where the flesh is made governable, we imagine the fights
of today, projected onto our meat instead of our ideas. Every technological,
social and political issue of transhumanism is just part of the Internet
revolution, transposed on another realm. Our software patents are their genome
patents. Our digital divide is their germ-plasm generation gap. Our copyfight
is their regulatory battle with doctors, biotech firms, and big pharma. Our
fight to free our ideas is their fight to free their bodies.
The future won't be like the present. It will be infinitely weirder, cooler,
more interesting and less predictable. But today's futurists are fighting
today's battles – even when they think they're talking about tomorrow.