1828: Transhumanism: How the free market will transform our lives

This article was first published on 1828.

Have you ever considered how difficult it would be to explain modern technology to people who had never encountered it before?

How might you go about communicating to someone who lived a mere couple of centuries ago that it is now possible to store an entire library’s worth of information on a small slip of metal without writing exceedingly small, or that we can talk to people on the other side of the world without shouting tremendously loudly?

The culture barrier you would slam into in attempting to convey such concepts would be insurmountable. But that doesn’t mean that the poor chap living in the year 1719 is stupid.

Late IBM boss Thomas Watson is famously thought to have declared that there would only ever be a global demand for five computers. It is incorrigibly difficult to conceive of a world so radically different to one’s own, shaped by countless man-hours of pioneering research.

Watson learning of PCs and smartphones would be like you or me finding out that, in a few decades’ time, everyone will be sauntering around with portable Large Hadron Colliders in their pockets.

Another Watson made a similar error. In the time-travelling Sherlock episode, Victorian-era John drily dismisses Holmes’s creative narration of the marvels to come. “Flying machines? These, er, telephone contraptions. What sort of lunatic fantasy is this?”

Thanks to the pre-eminence of capitalism and freedom, things that were wholly unimaginable in years gone by are now the norm. Neoliberal economics has paved the way for the technological revolution.

The humble profit motive has driven us to conjure up all manner of weird and wonderful ways to enhance our lives and make the world a better place. And it is far from over.

The emerging philosophy of transhumanism invites us to embrace a thrilling vision of a future in which technology solves problems we didn’t even know we had and opens up a whole new realm of life-augmenting possibilities.

It proudly declares that, in the very near future, we will be swept forth by an all-consuming Promethean desire to push the boundaries of our very existence by plunging unearthed depths of science and technology.

The crux of transhumanism concerns freeing ourselves from the constraints of our biological vessels, overcoming the weaknesses and limitations of these darned bodies and using our unique intellectual capacities to improve our very being. It might be thought of as evolution squared.

Biotechnology is already a thriving industry, and it is becoming more mainstream by the day.

Cloning has been all but mastered, great strides forward are being made in stem cell research, genetic modifications are well within our sights and all manner of chips and wires are being designed at this very moment to be tucked under your skin and make you better at everything.

Transhumanism serves as the stepping stone from our meagre pre-technological lives towards our thriving posthuman future. The possibilities are endless. Medicinal research and clunky contemporary technology have already allowed us fleshy humans to increase our average lifespan threefold.

Imagine what we could do once we allow technology to take the next step and enhance us directly. Forget living longer; we will become stronger, faster, cleverer, immune to illness and infertility, less prone to violence, unsusceptible to the unwelcome dominance of emotion and, essentially, superhuman; that is, an enhanced and better version of what we are now.

This is not to say that, at some unspecified point in the future, we will all become robots. There will not be a transition day on which somebody flicks a switch and we all make the leap from flesh to metal.

The technological developments lauded by transhumanists are not masterminded by some external omnipotent force, prodding us in a petri dish, conducting experiments on us to see what happens.

The driving force behind transhumanism is the free market. As a result, the advancements that will come about to trigger this bio-revolution will not only be palatable to us but also profoundly desirable.

They will often take the form of simple pharmacological enhancements. Pills to improve memory. Shots to accelerate reactions. Things that are within touching distance of modern medicine. Much of the technology that will characterise the early days of the transhuman dawn is not a million miles away from things that are in common usage today, like Lance Armstrong-style steroids.

And, amazingly, nobody bats an eyelid when people use the cutting edge of biotechnology to enhance their physical capabilities. That is, so long as you don’t try to use it to cheat your way to an international sporting victory, of course.

Sleeping pills. Anti-depressants. Even bionic limbs. We already use science and technology to biologically improve our lives in countless ways which would have horrified right-thinking people in eras not long past. They would have crowed about the work of the devil and blasphemous meddling with divine creation. Yet, now, these things are accepted as normal.

It is just one step further on that road to reach transhuman body modification. Of course, as is always the case when we are on the brink of a major civilisational breakthrough, sceptics abound.

Bioconservatives like Francis Fukuyama seek to villainise technological progress by referring to “genetic bulldozers and psychotropic shopping malls”, as though immunity to disease and consequence-free highs are a bad thing.

Stepping the rhetoric up a gear, an article in the American Journal of Law & Medicine gives Charlie Brooker a run for his money by crafting an enthralling narrative of a dystopian future in which those who enjoy transhuman technological enhancements are pitted against their inferior subspecies, the “normals”, whom they see as “inferior, even savages, and fit for slavery or slaughter”.

The authors of the article continue their rapid descent into deranged bio-Luddism by decrying this “predictable potential for genocide” and calling on all level-headed people to put a stop to this nonsense before it all gets rather out of hand.

In reality, the law inescapably applies to everyone. Rich or poor, clever or stupid, human or transhuman. That fundamental principle cannot and will not ever change, even when the bio-revolution truly gains a foothold.

All innovators know that innovation is invariably greeted by fantastical predictions of impending auto-annihilation and plenty of reductio ad absurdum, as the doom-preachers insist that we overlook the deadliness of progress at our peril.

Our phones might not have caused our brains to melt and we weren’t all killed by the atom bomb; all the other forecasts of global terror may have turned out to be tosh, too, but this time we really, really mean it.

Such pessimism is, of course, utter hogwash. The grand implosion of civilisation has been just around the corner, on its way, arriving any minute, in every culture that has existed since the birth of humanity. We are all much better off ignoring the perpetual fearmongers and enjoying the fruits of our labour by embracing the technological revolution. The obstacle to this kind of progress is not the apocalypse, but the beast that is the state.

The Adam Smith Institute’s recent report, Free to Consent, examines several instances of well-meaning people finding themselves on the wrong side of the law because they dared to do things to their bodies of which the government did not officially approve.

Scores of people have fallen foul of the entirely arbitrary enforcement of regulations around body modification. Perhaps the best-known of those cases is that of Dr Evil and his unusual services.

As is typical, the issue arises when the all-seeing bureaucratic eye unilaterally classifies more radical body modifications such as branding and tongue-splitting as medical procedures, meaning that they cannot be regulated in the same way as tattoos and piercings.

The court described the acts in question as “medical procedures performed for no medical reason”, going on to explain that “the personal autonomy of [Dr Evil’s] customers did not justify removing body modification from the ambit of the law of assault”.

In other words, a mutually agreed transaction in which a service-provider consensually performs a procedure on a customer is disallowed by the law, despite no grievance being raised.

In its paper, the Adam Smith Institute calls for urgent legal reform, arguing that consent can and must be a legitimate defence against assault charges of this kind.

As it stands, ill-considered legislation is inhibiting even basic cosmetic body modifications, making the radical vision promoted by transhumanists appear unattainable. Or, to look at it another way, the countries that deregulate fastest will welcome the transhuman wave soonest and will be the first to enjoy the enhancement it will bring, while those who cling on to their regressive interventionism will slip behind.

The government must stop obstructing progress. It is milling about like a dazed donkey in the road and the traffic has come to a standstill. Debilitating regulation makes pioneering research a cripplingly expensive legal minefield and is doing us immeasurable harm by denying us access to life-changing technologies that do not yet exist.

The principle of autonomy ought not to be so controversial. If you don’t much fancy the idea of having microchips in your tendons, you are under no obligation to partake.

Supporting abortion rights does not necessarily mean being pro-abortion; it simply means being pro-choice, supporting the individual’s right to make decisions about their own body.

We need to get the state out of people’s lives and restore a modicum of personal responsibility to the way we approach social issues. Your body must be your domain, not that of the state. The governments that are quickest to realise this will be in a far superior position to usher in a new age of unparalleled and unimaginable prosperity.

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