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Transhumanism's Journey from Radical Thought to Silicon Valley's Guiding Philosophy
In 1989 Belgian-born Iranian-American author, teacher, philosopher, futurist, consultant, and Olympic athlete(yeah, what a life this guy had) FM-2030 published the book “Are You a Transhuman?” This book came alongside a wave of other books, manifestos, and relevant thinkers that brought forth a new wave and ideas about the future of humanity and how our destiny no longer relies on our evolution through biology but how technology will be the stepping stone towards the new stage of human evolution, this idea they were bringing was Transhumanism.
A cultural and scientific movement that proposes the use of science and technology to help humanity transcend our biological limitations and expand our capacities beyond our imagination. Sounds a bit crazy, a bit utopian, and two doses of delusion. But this movement has been able to position itself from the fringes of nerdy circles in the 80s and 90s to become a key ideology in the most powerful and influential people on the planet. So how did this movement gain so much power and what is there to expect from it now?
But wait what is this stuff?
The term transhumanism was brought into existence by Julian Huxley brother to Aldous Huxley (the author of one of my favorite books, Brave New World) In a nutshell, Huxley proposed in his eponymous essay from 1957 that social institutions through cultural and societal evolution could overtake biological evolution as the main drivers for humanity’s progress and advancement, TRANScending (hence the name) towards a better and more refined human being. This is due to the slowness of biological evolution and the speed that our institutions had advanced in the previous centuries for helping humanity become a better version of itself living longer, being less violent, and being on a path of enlightenment and self-improvement.
Then came the wave of the futurists in the United States where futurists such as Natasha Vita-More, FM-2030, Ray Kurzweil, and others (this ain’t a history lesson so I ain’t gonna name them all) brought this “Second Wave” of transhumanism but with an even stronger force because now it came alongside the notion of the possibility of transcending not only through institutions and culture but through science and technology as the key pillar upon which humanity’s destiny will be redefined in the coming decades.
With radical ideas about how using nanotechnology, we could modify the physical world to our desires, or the usage of information technologies and the digitalization of so much of our world accelerating the speed of the exchange of ideas also helping enhance human cognition and the eventual rise of AI as a superintelligence that could help our technological development incredibly. Radical life extension and the vision of aging as a disease that can be cured. Morphological freedom or the idea that each individual can be free to do as they please with their own biology and modify it as they see fit to their wishes and desires this could be aesthetically or enhancing oneself to meet your desires and expectations of what you’d like yourself to become.
The Revenge of the Nerds and the Rise of Silicon Valley
After this wave of thinkers and futurists from the 80s and 90s it is interesting to see that most of them resided and were attracted of course to the technological hotspot that was Silicon Valley because where else on the planet would the ideas of using technology to uplift humanity would fit better than there? A hotbed of technological innovation is being led by the desire of creating thinking machines (computers) which from its early inception some of its progenitors like Alan Turing were already thinking of the future when our computers would be as smart and capable as us in different tasks.
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So Silicon Valley became a very fertile place for these ideas to thrive and interestingly enough once they were already part of the culture and the zeitgeist of the valley once more and more companies were being developed the influence of these ideals grew and grew. More organizations relating to transhumanism started spurring like Humanity+, the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET) and others became bastions of more and less “subtle” ways of promoting and developing transhumanist ideals in academia and also into society as a whole.
Also, it is very funny to see how these ideas permeated and mashed so well with the “hacker” (HACK THE PLANET) culture as well because it is a fundamental shift in how we see human biology not as a “sacred” or “perfect” system created or brought upon us by evolution or a divine being but as a system that can be improved, enhanced and “hacked” towards a better performance according to our needs and we can say that this idea very much rooted in transhumanist thought has permeated in most schools of thought regarding health and self-improvement. Because if we think about it most of the wishes of transhumanism are just the “next step” beyond the goals of medicine about curing diseases and attacking at the root source of what causes the ailments afflicting humanity. (Our decaying biology duh!)
Another factor that I think bares to be considered in the influence and impact of not only transhumanism but of Silicon Valley as a cultural force has got to be the multifaceted way in which the Valley has influenced the global conversation. Economies all over the world are trying (with inconsistent results) trying to replicate the success story of silicon valley and the agility of Tech startups in creating value and increasing the national economy as much as possible (just see how many Startup competitions, subsidies funds, and other things exist in so many different countries and 80% of those came from the idea of trying to replicate Silicon Valley in other places of the planet) Also the influence that technology created in the Valley has on humanity we use smartphones using operating systems created there we talk through messaging apps there, we watch videos in platforms made by Silicon Valley companies.
And, in recent years tech companies and Silicon Valley have begun with their own arm reaching in culture with companies like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and all the other streaming services Silicon Valley in a few short years has been able to take over and dominate the global entertainment industry.
Which inevitably will influence how we perceive and see the world so it is something interesting I think. Also not forgetting how tech companies and social media platforms have guided and molded how we interact with each other in the virtual world, how we interact with our elected leaders, and the influence these companies have had on our democracies. (guess from where 90% of them come from)
Whether we like it or not we live in a world under the Community Guidelines of WASPy American sensitivities for the most part, the influence of transhumanism can be felt not only in the technology being created in the laboratory but on the shows we see and the movies we love. And we can see how it is already becoming a part of our lives and probably most of us don’t even notice how some of the things we are using and doing today would seem like the scary episode of Black Mirror a couple of decades ago (if it ran back then that would be a fun retrofuturistic thing to do)
From Human Culture to Cultured Cells
Time and time again we have seen through modern history how what at first is thought up as science fiction becomes science fact. The imaginations of creatives and visionaries are what fuel the vision of the brilliant minds that engineer and invent the solutions of tomorrow. So of course when a movement such as Transhumanism has a deep influence on our culture we will start seeing more and more of its ideas become a reality in our day-to-day lives.
And we can start seeing that already, Alphabet has a subsidiary called Calico which is a biotech company working in the Anti-Aging industry. The researcher Aubrey De Grey has come from a lone researcher tooting the horn of fighting aging like any other disease into a controversial but still influential figure in the industry having founded two research foundations on this topic. Also, David Sinclair from Harvard is working in his laboratory in developing a new aging framework for developing solutions to the aging problem in humans. ( Not only that bu so many things Alphabet has done has a clear cultural influence from transhumanist though so much so one of its great thinkers Ray Kurzweil Worked as Chief of engineering for many years at Google)
Then we have other ideas like the erosion of the barriers between humans and our technology, proposed as a solution and almost a necessary step for the survival of humanity as a competitive and dominant intelligence on the planet. And one way of achieving this is by connecting human brains to synthetic systems and computational devices. Neuralink Elon Musk’s most controversial project so far (even more than the name of his son with Grimes) is all about neural implants firstly for humans and neural ailments, but of course, the logical step would be implementing and increasing the bandwidth of information that can efficiently be transferred from a synthetic system to a human brain and the other way around too. There are also other developments for less invasive neural implants that could bring forth a new era in how humans interact with the digital world.
Also, we got examples in other industries like biotech and the development of tools such as CRIPS CAS 9 and the acceptance of mRNA vaccines we are witnessing a silent revolution happening in the genomics industry that will surely in the next decades be offering more and better tools to bring genetic freedom to more and more people which means a bit of the principle of transhumanism into the real world using science and technology to transcend the limitations we have on our biologies such as aging, or the shackles that some genetic conditions can represent. We are getting closer and closer to the cusp of a period in human history where “the cards you’ve been dealt with” genetically speaking, could be modified and you can have your desired genetic makeup.
And some of the ideas present in transhumanist literature aren’t as farfetched or wild as we thought of a couple of years ago, the rise of AI and its impact on scientific discoveries like drug development could mean an acceleration of most of the previously mentioned trends so a lot of the forecasts made in the 80s and 90s about this century’s development might be too conservative for the reality of the world we will be living in.
We will get there we just need to further coordinate and accelerate the development of these solutions transhumanism is already here and part of our culture our society and of our future now we just need to turn these dreams into reality and leap forward into the future.
Are We All Secret Transhumanists Now?
Well, I cannot make a claim about others so I don’t know about you, but personally yeah I do consider myself a supporter of these ideas on the one hand because I am an optimist by heart so I do believe that there is potential of improving and uplifting humanity through technology if done properly so that we can radically improve the human condition reduce as much of unnecessary human suffering as possible through science and technology.
Also on a more personal note through Transhumanism and its communities, I have met a diverse crowd of people from all over the world who shared these optimistic ideals, it is through these communities that I’ve met the co-founders of the startup I founded and ran through my 20s and some of my closest friends to which I hold dear to this day. (I just wished I got more in touch with those people closer to the silicon valley circles and maybe I wouldn’t be a starving student at the moment but oh well…)
I think it is important that we see the impact and influence of cultural and scientific movements such as this will be having in humanity’s path and evolution. Because even though it has some controversial periods in its history (just like most political, social, and cultural movements) Transhumanism is offering an exciting pathway for humanity on how to approach and tackle some of the greatest challenges we’ve faced both as a species and as individuals.