MY ‘APPLE’ CONSPIRACY THEORY.

MY ‘APPLE’ CONSPIRACY THEORY.

What follows is just a hunch of mine. I have not done much research to verify its validity so maybe you should not take it too seriously. 

My ‘Apple’ conspiracy theory has to do with what I think the marketing strategy of the company ‘Apple’ is. Imagine that Apple intend to make a washing machine. The company will instruct its R+D teams to design the best washing machine that it is possible to make. The R+D teams will do this and hand in a blueprint for an absolutely amazing washing machine.

But this amazing washing machine will not be the actual machine that ends up on sale. What Apple will do is take that design for the best washing machine, and make it crappier. Now, why would they do such a thing? The reason is this: In doing so they increase the likelihood of repeat sales. You see, if they released the best possible washing machine, people would only buy one each. After all, why would you ever purchase another washing machine if the one you already own is the best of all possible washing machines? But if Apple sell you an inferior washing machine, they can then sell you essentially the same product over and over again. So like, you bought the iWash but, hey, now there is the iWash2 which is better in some way, and then there is the iWash3. And so on.

In other words, Apple use planned obsolesence to increase sales. They deliberately withhold technological innovations they could manufacture into their product, and then gradually reintroduce such features in products that are promoted as being all new but are really just the same darn thing with added bells and whistles.

I can think of a couple of things Apple are known to have done which lend weight to my hunch. First of all there is the original iPad and its lack of inbuilt camera. Why did it not have an inbuilt camera? The idea that it was not technically possible to add a camera seems exceedingly unlikely, given that every phone came with a camera by the time iPad was released. I think the reason why iPad did not have a camera was because Apple intended to sell the public iPads and then sell the public iPad2s (now with two inbuilt cameras!). They sold us the same product twice. Maybe the retina screen was not technically possible when the original iPad came out. But, then again, maybe it was and the company deliberately used an inferior display for the first two iPads just so they could sell us the same product not once, not twice, but three times.

The other odd feature I want to bring to attention is a particular screw that can be found on the back of iPhones. This screw is incompatible with just about every screwdriver people own. Why would Apple go to the effort of making a screw that does not work with any screwdriver people are likely to have? Does it make the product better in some way? No.  The reason why is because if they used a normal screw, people could remove the back cover and replace the battery. But, since they cannot remove the cover (because they cannot undo that screw) they cannot replace the battery and have to purchase a whole new phone once the battery they have expires. This is another kind of planned obsolence. We live in a throwaway culture where systematic repairs are made to be too awkward, leaving us little choice but to throw away something that could be fixed and buy it all over again.

Of course, if Apple really are deliberatlely selling us inferior products the blame does not like solely with them. We consumers must also share some responsibility for going out and buying Apple products knowing full well that, next year or next month or next week (depending on how soon they think they can get away with it) the company is bound to release a newer version which is a bit better. Or maybe not even better in any real technical sense. I recall a BBC documentary ‘The Men Who Made Us Spend’ in which a man queuing up at midnight to get the latest iPhone was asked what features the new one had that his current iPhone lacked. He thought long and hard and eventually came with with the following justification: The new iPhone was a different color.

The ‘Men Who Made Us Spend’ was largely about how market economies changed from selling us products we need to selling us lifestyles. A good example of what I mean would be the ‘Pepsi Paradox’. When people taste Cola from Pepsi or from Coca-Cola, and they cannot tell which is which, most people prefer the taste of Pepsi. But Coca-Cola is the best-selling brand. A neuroscientific study performed the blind taste test on subjects while their brains were scanned by fMRI. As per usual, Pepsi was the clear favourite. When drinking Pepsi, the subjects’ brain scans showed more activity in the ventral-putamen compared to when they drunk Coca-Cola.  The ventral-putamen is part of the brain’s reward system, so increased activity in this area means ‘this feels good’.

The really interesting result came about when the subjects tasted the cola drinks knowing which was which. When they tasted both Pepsi and Coca Cola knowing which drink was which, the subjects declared the taste of Coca Cola to be superior. Brain scans showed increased activity , not in the ventral-putamen, but rather in the medial prefrontal-cortex. This part of the brain is responsible for our self-identity. When we drink Coca-cola, we are not just influenced by how nice it actually tastes but also by the brand, the lifestyle that the company promotes to sell its product. Coca-Cola have done a better job than Pepsi at the whole self-identity thing, making us believe with are with the in-crowd if we consume their product. Their campaigns are so successful it actually creates a kind of virtual reality in which Coca-cola tastes better than Pepsi, but only if you know you are drinking Coca-cola.

If you want to sell people the same product over and over again there is probably no better market to do this in than one which sells lifestyles. It is pretty obvious that this is what companies do these days. For one thing, most companies now spend more money on advertising than they do on the manufacture of the product itself. And next time you watch the commercials notice how many have a love theme. Happy, good-looking people in a blissful relationship walking hand in hand while drinking from Coca-cola bottles or asking Siri for directions to the restraunt. Want to be like these people? Buy our product. Oh, haven’t you heard? The in-crowd would no longer be seen dead with product you have. You really need to purchase the new product (now in a different color!). You would not want everybody to think you are a loser, would you?

Why does it matter if we are being psychologically manipulated into buying inferior products, if we are happy? If, in your own mind that drink tastes great, isn’t that all that matters? If some guy is eager to own a phone which is a different color to the one he has, why should we get upset about this? We should get upset because it is so wasteful.  Planned obsolenece, perhaps more than anything else, highlights the difference between market efficiency and technical efficiency. From the perspective of technical efficiency a product is best if it is designed to work at the optimum possible level of performance and if its component parts are easily replaceable. But from the market efficiency perspective the ideal product is one which can be resold as many times as a company thinks it can get away with, and that means making products that cannot be repaired and must instead be replaced. It means making products that are designed to fail or become osbolete earlier than they theoretically should. The myth of the everlasting lightbulb is just that- a myth. However, what is not a myth is that, in the past lightbulb manufacturers formed a cartel which deliberately reduced the lifetime of bulbs. The sooner they fail, the sooner you buy a replacement, see. Or what about printer cartridges? You probably think that when the ‘toner is running low’ message pops up, that means the printer is running low on ink. And if you take it to a shop that refills cartridges, they will top up its ink. But, actually, some printer manufacturers fitted their cartridges with devices (mechanical in some cases, computer chips in others) that count the number of pages being printed. When a certain number is reached, the chip makes the printer stop working. It is not running out of ink and when you take the cartridge to be refilled all they really do is reset the device.  If you want proof, watch that documentary ‘The Men Who Made Us Spend’. You will see this guy explain how printer cartridges are made to fail early. He even resets the device and succeeds in printing out hundreds of more pages without topping up the ink levels at all. Again, they are selling you the same product over and over again when, in a system based not on market efficiency but technical efficiency, you would make far less purchases.

But there is more to get upset about than just the case that we are being treated as suckers. So much stuff is ending up as trash. According to some estimates, if we continue like we are, in a few-decades’ time we will require 27 Earths to provide sufficient resources to retain our consumerist, throwaway lifestyles. Pro-capitalists will dismiss such concerns, reasoning that innovation will surely save the day. Companies compete to out-innovate one another, to bring out superior products which, by any rational course of action, would outsell rival products that are not as well put together. Now, I do not doubt that ephemeralization is a real thing. Ephemeralization means ‘doing more with less’. A hard drive of yesterday that was the size of a fridge and could store a megabyte becomes, in time, a thumb-sized flash drive that stores 16 gigabytes.  But the fact is that our market economy has little interest in emphasising technical efficiency.  It is more profitable to release inferior products and then subsequent versions of the same product with some improvements, rather than give us the best possible product right away. And oh how the waste piles up.

I shall end on an optimistic note. That screw which Apple designed gave one entrepreneur a good idea: He could manufacture and sell a screwdriver that is compatible with that screw. Now, thanks to his product, people can much more easily replace the battery and do not need to buy a whole new phone. It just goes to show that sometimes planned obsolesence opens up a gap in the market that can be filled in useful ways, allowing us to be less wasteful than we were before. 

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WHY ALIEN LIFE SHOULD GIVE CAUSE TO WORRY

If we should ever succeed in discovering life on other worlds, should that discovery trouble us?


I think most people would say the answer to that question is ‘yes’ only if said aliens have tremendous technological capability. If that is the case, they just might come over here and use their technological might to take our gold and steal our women. On the other hand, if those aliens are primitive, there would be no need to be overly concerned. Why should anybody worry if we discover  microbial lifeforms inhabiting Europa, for example?


Actually there is a very good reason: The Great Filter.


The Great Filter is the hypothesis that there is some immensly challenging barrier standing in the way between the emergence of life and the establishment of an intergalactic civilization. Whenever life runs up against this barrier, it is extremely unlikely that it will  overcome it. It either goes extinct or never develops to a point where its mark on the universe can be noticed, which probably amounts to extinction in the long run.


The Great Filter could lie in our future. Perhaps civilizations aquire technological might before they evolve the wisdom to use it wisely, and end up destroying themselves? Perhaps there is some stage in past evolution that is profoundly hard to reach. The development of the eukaryotic cell, for example.


But if we discover primitive life on other worlds, that would make it much more unlikely that the Great Filter does lie in the past. It is not much of a Great Filter if life has overcome it not just once, but twice and maybe many times. 


If we find bacterial or- even worse- multicellular life, that should really worry us, because it makes it much less likely that the Great Filter is something we have successfully overcome.

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PESSIMISM AMONG THE SINGULARITARIANS: IS IT A BAD THING?

PESSIMISM AMONG THE SINGULARITARIANS: IS IT A BAD THING?

 Have you heard? Robots are coming and they are going to steal our jobs!

I expect you have heard rumours to that effect, because the tech news seems positively awash with reports of automation replacing shop assistants, cooks, and much more besides. Is this necessarily a bad thing? Of course not. I, for one, think it could potentially be the best thing ever. It could finally deliver the future that John Maynard Keynes promised automation would bring about: A huge reduction in the number of hours people would be required to devote to a job, and a massive increase in the amount of hours per day that can be devoted to a life of leisure. And, no, a life of leisure need not mean everybody is transformed into a couch potato, spending their days ‘doing nothing’. People may well do very little except vegetate in front of the TV when ‘leisure time’ is just a couple of week’s vacation from the usual necessity of having to devote 40 hours of almost every day to some mind­numbing activity, but once people are properly liberated from both jobs and the monetary and cultural pressures imposed on the unemployed to persuade them to rejoin the ranks of the wage slaves, and properly adjusted to the novel idea of boundless leisure, I predict a vast increase in the adoption of meaningful activity.

It occurred to me that not many ‘robots are coming for your job’ articles paint this event in optimistic terms. Instead, they tend to use phrases like ‘robots will steal your job’ and ’employment is increasingly threatened by automation’. I devised a challenge that I posted on the Singularity Network Facebook page:

“I challenge you all to find ONE example of a news report about robots which does NOT feature a comment along the lines of ‘but there are concerns that these robots threaten jobs’ but DOES feature a comment along the lines of ‘there are hopes that the rising productivity enabled by these robots will free up more leisure time for people”.

I do not think this challenge would require too much work. It would not take much effort beyond googling ‘robots will free us’, ‘robots liberate us from jobs’ or some such phrase to see if somewhere out there on the Web there is indeed an essay that views the robot revolution in a positive light. But, so far, nobody has bothered taking up the challenge, instead using my post as an opportunity to make gloomy replies such as:

“The powerful would rather kill the masses than allow them to have leisure time” 

and

“We have not benefited with “increased leisure time” or even “increased pay” from automation since the late 1970’s. Productivity has increased but salaries have remained flat. Most workers are being scammed, in a sense stolen from, but have no forum of redress”. 

One comment even accused my challenge of “whitewashing the ugly truth; that technology is already taking more jobs than it creates, that it is creating more inequality, not less, and that our politics are unprepared to handle the inevitable increase of poverty resulting from it”.

I can remember a time when Singularitarians were a whole lot optimistic. The future was something to look forward to. It was not considered to be a dystopia with rising inequality transforming capitalist democracies into something resembling a neo­feudalist rentier society like 18th­century France, it was to be a glorious paradise on Earth with death conquered and SAI­powered nanosystems and full­immersion VR satisfying our every material desire.

So, what happened? Why do we not champion the idea that the future is going to be great anymore, instead preferring to issue stark warnings about how bad things are and how much worse they are going to get?

I would like to propose that ‘pre­millennial Singularitarians’ have given way to ‘Post­millennial Singularitarians’. Back when we were all super­optimistic about the future, people like Max More were concerned that belief in inevitable better days ahead would lead to complacency:

“In the Western world, especially in millennarian Christianity, millions are attracted to the notion of sudden salvation and of a “rapture” in which the saved are taken away to a better place….I am concerned that the Singularity concept is especially prone to being hijacked by this memeset. This danger especially arises if the Singularity is thought of as occurring at a specific point in time, and even more if it is seen as an inevitable result of the work of others. I fear that many otherwise rational people will be tempted to see the Singularity as a form of salvation, making personal responsibility for the future unnecessary”.

As people like James Hughes have argued, this kind of passive sit back and wait for the inevitable techno­rapture is comparable to pre­millennial Christianity which held that Christians needed only to prepare themselves for salvation and paradise would be established for them. On the other hand, post­millennialists reckoned that Christians had to first turn back the tribulations and establish a kingdom of heaven on Earth. Only then would there be the Second Coming.

What no doubt greatly helped the post­millennialists’ case is that the year 1001 came and Christ did not return. In fact, we are now well into the year 2015 and there is still no show from the big C.

Enough about that, though, what about the ‘rapture of the nerds?’. Obviously, my use of the word ‘millennial’ in ‘pre­millennial Singularitarianism’ and ‘post­millennial Singularitarianism’ has nothing to do with time spans of a thousand years and is instead a reference to passively waiting for paradise on Earth to be established, versus considering it necessary to actively prepare the way for such a transformation. However, I would like to propose that there is a date which perhaps has convinced many that the bright future we looked forward to was not quite as inevitable as we once thought. That year, is 2009.

What is so significant about that year? Well, it is the first year for which Ray Kurzweil offered predictions concerning technological change in his book ‘The Age Of Spiritual Machines’. The book was published in 1999 and, ten years later, we finally had the opportunity to test Kurzweil’s predictions against that ultimate judge, the reality of the year 2009. Some who did just that judged Kurzweil’s success rate to be pretty poor. For example, Alex Knap of Forbes wrote:

“Out of 12 key predictions that Kurzweil highlighted for the year 2009, only one has come completely true. Four were partially true (score them a half­point each) and eight failed to come true by the end of 2011. That’s a score of 3 / 12 – or 25% accurate”.

Over on his ‘Accelerating Future’ blog, Michael Anisimov seemed just as critical, saying “So far, I haven’t seen Kurzweil straight­up admit that he was wrong”.

I should point out that Anisimov certainly was not saying that Kurzweil got it all wrong, only that he had some misses as well as hits. Ascertaining exactly how many ‘hits’ versus ‘misses’ he got is actually kind of difficult because, as Ieet Spectrum put it, “Most of his predictions come with so many loopholes that they border on the unfalsifiable”.

Ray Kurzweil also pointed out that his predictions for 2009 were not actually for the year 2009 but rather the decade between 2009 and 2019, so we still have a few years left before we can really say how accurate a prophet of technological development Kurzweil really is (if, indeed, we can ever really say how accurate he is. That IEET Spectrum article argues that doing so will prove difficult).

But can people really be blamed for mistaking predictions for a decade for predictions of a specific year when the opening sentence of that chapter was “It is now 2009″? I could not find any caveat in that chapter along the lines of ‘do bare in mind that these predictions are for the decade of 2009­2019 not just 2009′.

Whatever. The point I am trying to make is that, prior to 2009 Kurzweil was the infallible prophet who had shown us how the future was going to be and had the charts to back up his prophecies. Those exponential curves showed the pathway to technorapture was a smooth one with no obstacles in the way. After 2009 we began to wonder if whether the future Kurzweil promised was quite as inevitable as we had believed. Perhaps there were obstacles in the way of progress, after all?

Take ethical concerns over such things as genetic engineering. Kurzweil assured us that ethical opposition to such things was completely incapable of getting in the way of progress:

“These ethical debates are like stones in a stream. The water runs around them. You haven’t seen any of these biological technologies held up for one week by any of these debates”.

But in his book ‘Rational Optimist’, Mark Ridley painted a rather different picture:

“African governments, after intense lobbying by Western campaigners, have been persuaded to tie genetically modified food in red tape, which prevents them from being grown commercially in all but three countries”.

It would seem, then, that opponents to GM are not so powerless after all. If our opponents and others with a vested interest in preventing the establishment of the future we desire have the ability to delay or even prevent it, we cannot just passively sit back and wait for its inevitable emergence. We must instead keep our eyes peeled for possible impediments to progress and actively work to promote the establishment of the future we desire for ourselves and future generations. In that case, the pessimism which greeted my challenge is no bad thing. It shows that people are thinking about what could go wrong, not just taking the laid back attitude that a utopia is inevitable and all we have to do is wait for it to be established for us.

But, equally, too much pessimism could lead to a ‘we’re doomed so why bother?’ attitude. It is important to remember that, while the future may not be wonderful, it certainly could be. Oh, and as for my challenge, there are indeed some articles that look positively on the robot revolution. For example, a Wired article said:

“Assuming a post­scarcity system of distribution evolves to peacefully and fairly share the fruits of robot­driven post­scarcity production, jobs as we know them might not just become unnecessary—they might stop making sense altogether…By eliminating the need for people to work, robots would free us up to focus on what really makes us human”.

Perhaps Max More would be pleased to note that passive pre­millennial Singularitarians are being replaced with a more skeptical breed of transhumanists who accept that there is much to be done before we can rest assured that such a future is inevitable? 

 

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THOUGHTS ON THE TRANSHUMANIST WAGER PART 4

PART 4: A TALE OF TWO TRANSHUMAN NATIONS.


In the previous installment, we saw how Transhumanist Wager has a lot in common with Atlas Shrugged. I ended with a mention of another story and it, too, can be said to have a broadly similar storyline to Istvan’s novel. That story is “Manna”, a novella by Marshall Brain. What these stories share in common is that they both depict a dystopian America, and the emergence of a high-tech nation which shows the way toward a transhuman civilization. At the same time, these stories contrast one another by having different causes for the initial dystopia, and also disagreements concerning how a transhumanist nation should be run. So, while in some ways they are broadly similar, in other ways they are quite different.


THE DYSTOPIAS


In the case of Transhumanist Wager, its dystopia and its causes have already been discussed in previous essays. I shall say no more about it, other than to briefly recap my thoughts. I argued that Transhumanist Wager may seem to depict an America sliding into decay because of religious phobias of technology, but the causes of the dystopia are really due to America as depicted in the novel being an Empire in an age of decadence, with players in top positions of authority having vested interests in keeping it that way. 


Manna’s dystopia is brought about by a scenario mentioned earlier in this series: Robots taking over the workplace. I think that when most people think about such a scenario, they imagine it being manual labourers who are displaced. In their mind’s eye they see a future where there are robot burger-flippers, robot shelf-stackers, robot garbage collectors, and so on. But, in Marshall Brain’s novella it is not manual workers who are displaced, at least not at first. Rather, it is managers and supervisors. The ‘robot’ which gives the story its title is not really a robot at all. It is a software program that can take a job and break it down into a sequence of microtasks. Each step in that sequence is so simple, just about anyone can do it. Furthermore,  there is no need for anyone to memorise the steps. This is because, as well as the computer it’s installed on, the hardware side of Manna consists of a wireless headset that each employee wears. Manna micromanages those employees, telling them what they are required to do at each and every stage in the sequence. 


In a way, employees working at a business that uses Manna are turned into automatons. They no longer have to think for themselves. Manna supplies the knowhow, and it uses people’s sensory organs, hands, and mobility to get the job done.


As Manna becomes installed in more and more workplaces, and particularly as each Manna becomes integrated into a network, the job market is transformed. Knowledge, and to a large extent skill, no longer give an employee any competitive advantage. Any person can be taken off the streets, set to work with a headset in place and, provided they can obey simple instructions, they can immediately start doing that job. The only skill that does give a competitive advantage is the ability to successfully complete each step quickly. This soon becomes an essential ability because of the following reasons. Manna has a huge pool of unemployed workers to select from. After all, management and supervisory roles no longer exist, so whoever filled such occupations is out of work. Secondly, Manna is charged with reducing waste and raising productivity. It constantly monitors how quickly an employee is completing each step, and can compare that to the time taken by the most proficient workers. If you are too slow, you are fired and a replacement can be found within an hour of your dismissal. But what makes this environment ultra-competitive is that fact that, once one Manna deems you unsuitable for employment, that information is uploaded to the network which means no other workplace managed by Manna will employ you, either.


Faced with zero job security, and the threat of permanent unemployment in a society with very little welfare, employees are under enormous pressure to accept long hours and to work at an exhausting pace throughout the day. Because Manna is driven to increase profits and cut costs, wage levels begin to go down. As Marshall Brain wrote:


“At any moment Manna could replace you with another warm body, and that meant you did what you were told, for minimum wage, or you got fired. Manna, and the corporations that used it, knew that was the equation”.


The overall result is to push the rich-poor divide to extremes. On the one hand, Manna is very successful at lowering costs, reducing waste, and raising productivity and efficiency. So profits are skyrocketing and the owners are made very rich indeed. But, on the other hand, employees are treated more or less as disposable robots, made to work until they are worn out, and then they are replaced and forgotten about; just one more person on the scrapheap of the unemployed.


It is within this harsh, ultra-competitive America that it finally happens: Robots as we tend to imagine them emerge in the marketplace. With their sophisticated brains, capable sensory equipment, dextrous hands and agile mobility, these robot labourers soon outcompete their human rivals. This obviously results in a massive displacement of workers with no hope of getting employed elsewhere. Manna deals with this underclass by doing what it does best: Minimise costs and reduce waste. No welfare cheques are issued. Instead, cheap government housing in the form of terrafoam buildings are erected on “trash land well away from urban centres so nobody had to look at them”. Each building is designed to pack in as many occupants as possible. That is not to say that the people living in these ghettos are mistreated. Each person gets a five foot by ten foot room with a bed and TV, and there are robots keeping everything clean and tidy and serving meals three times a day. But all these people have are their basic needs met, and a TV to pacify them, nothing more.


Marshall Brain describes America at this point in the following way:


“With the arrival of the robots, tens of millions of people lost their minimum wage jobs and the wealth concentrated so quickly. The rich controlled America’s bureaucracy, military, businesses and natural resources, and the unemployed lived in terrafoam, cut off from any opportunity to change their situation…American democracy had morphed into a third world dictatorship ruled by the wealthy elite”.


CRITICISMS OF MANNA’S DYSTOPIA


So, in both Transhumanist Wager and Manna, we have dark visions of America transformed into a dystopia. But whereas in Istvan’s tale we have religious fears of technology and government interference resulting in economic recessions and depressions, in Manna we have rapid adoption of robot technology within an aggressively capitalist environment resulting in the country becoming a 3rd-world plutocratic dictatorship. 


I think one advantage ‘Transhumanist Wager’ has over ‘Manna’ is that it understands the weakness of its dystopia. As the story’s State-led watchdog committees pass increasingly draconian laws in an attempt to restrict and suppress Transhumania’s technological prowess, all this does is result in a black market for those technologies. As the story says, “you don’t tell a prosperous, hardworking mother and father whose child is dying of leukemia when a cure exists 3,000 miles off coast. That’s when the parents…arrange a private black market charter flight to Transhumania for a week of treatment”.


In Istvan’s story, the measures the anti-transhuman government put in place ultimately serve only to push the likes of Jethro to find ways of circumventing those restrictions, and it is that determination and dogged problem-solving ability that results in the establishment of Transhumania.


But while, like ‘Wager’, ‘Manna’ also depicts a transhuman nation, here the contrasting dystopia and utopia are presented as alternate visions of the future. There is very little discussion about the fragility of Manna’s dystopia. It is true, despite what anarcho-capitalists may think, that we do not live in a Newtonian universe with mechanistic economic laws that tend toward fairness if only the State would stop interfering. Rather, an economy is better compared to an ecology. Entrepreneur Nick Hanauer said, “capitalism, because of the fundamental multiplicative dynamics of complex systems, tends towards inequality, concentration and collapse”.


In Manna there is clearly rising inequality and concentration of wealth. The story also pretty accurately depicts what results from this relentless concentration of wealth. As wealth, power and income continue to concentrate at the very top, societies are changed from democracies to neo-feudalist rentier societies like 18th century France.


But what Manna does not really touch upon is the inevitable collapse of such deeply unequal societies. Wherever you find such societies, you can guarantee that there will either be an uprising of the downtrodden majority, or there will be a police state. Manna’s dystopia does have something of a police state. The ‘have-nots’ are packed into terra-foam housing, out of sight and out of mind of the wealthy elite in their own gated communities. Robots patrol the ghettos and prevent anyone from wandering too far from the poor area.


Where it goes wrong is thinking that a police state put in place to perpetuate extreme inequality can be permanent. But it really can’t. The reason why not is because rising inequality is ultimately self-defeating; it is terrible for business. Contrary to what neo-classical economists thought, capitalism’s strength does not lie in efficiently allocating resources. Instead, its strength lies in efficiently creating solutions to problems. Economic growth is best determined not in terms of how much wealth there is but rather as the rate at which problems are solved.


The rate at which problems are solved depends upon how many active participants an economy has, both as entrepreneurs who can offer solutions and as customers who vote for those solutions with their money. Maximising participation requires investment in the kind of infrastructures that nurtures a middle class, because the middle classes are the source of growth and prosperity.


Manna’s dystopia depicts a world where you are either one of the downtrodden Many existing in a state of permanent economic exclusion, or you are one of the few plutocrats, blessed with enormous amounts of wealth. Neither of these groups can drive a great national economy. The poor can’t because they have so little to invest. And the super-rich can’t because there is only so much stuff they can buy. Just because you are making a thousand times the median wage, it does not follow that you will be out there buying a thousand times as much merchandise. There are only so many clothes, houses, cars and other material things that you can purchase before the inability of materialistic acquisition to bring happiness becomes all too obvious.


UTOPIAS


Anyway, lets move on to talking about these stories’ visions of a Transhumanist nation. In each story, we have the emergence of a futuristic nation where technological progress and innovation is proceeding at an astonishing rate. This is brought about chiefly by the nation’s citizens, who are depicted as highly motivated people who have built a society that grants them an unfettered chance to become all they can be. Where the stories differ is in how they think society should be organised.


I think these differences are best summed up by the author’s description of their imaginary transhuman nations. Marshall Brain’s nation goes by the name of the ‘Australia Project’ and he describes life there as being like “living on a gigantic luxury cruise ship. The trip is already paid for, and you are free to do whatever you want with your time”. Istvan describes Transhumania as being comparable to “an aggressive, expanding technology company racing to bring an incredible invention to market”.


PROPERTY IS THEFT


In the case of the Australia Project, three technological capabilities make it possible. Firstly, there are all those robots making it possible to automate just about any job you can name. Secondly, there are efficient renewable energy technologies providing abundant power. Lastly, we are told that everything in the Australia Project is completely recyclable. We are not told what technology makes this possible, but I would assume it to be atomically-precise manufacturing (or molecular nanotechnology as it used to be known).


Put together, these technological capabilities can potentially enable an economy where everything is ‘free’. But in order to ensure this is the case, the rules that govern that civilization have to be designed to facilitate such an outcome. So how does the Australia Project do that?


It does so by understanding that those key technological capabilities give cause to seriously re-examine a saying from the 60s (I think) which, at first, sounds oxymoronic and absurd: “Property is theft”. How can that be? Obviously you cannot steal something that is your own private property. Whoever came up with that phrase is obviously an agent of communism seeking State authority to steal the fruits of entrepreneur’s hard work.


The phrase begins to make a little more sense when you stop to consider what generally happens to the stuff we own. Individually, the stuff we own spends most of its time not being used. DIY tools like power drills and recreational equipment like barbeques spend the great majority of their lives stored in a shed or garage. A dress or a shirt you buy will be worn on occasion, but mostly hangs unused in a wardrobe. You drive your car from home to some destination and back again, and the rest of the time it is parked someplace, not doing anything except taking up space. In fact, you can take any particular private possession and you can all but guarantee that it mostly goes unused. The only exceptions I can think of are houses and cell phones. But most people do not own their homes because they either have a mortgage to pay off or they are renting, and few people own their cell phones either, preferring renewable contracts to buying such gadgets outright.


So, generally speaking we do not use the stuff that we own. And because it is our private property, that excludes others from using it as well. If I walk past a car that is just sat there not being used, I cannot get into that car and use it to get to where I want to go. That would be stealing. Ok, it is not necessarily the case that something being somebody’s private property prevents others from using it. The owner might be inclined to let trusted people borrow stuff from time to time, provided she can be confident it will be returned when she needs it.


ACCESS OVER OWNERSHIP


And that brings us to what is really useful, which is not to own stuff but rather to have access to stuff as and when we need it. A lot of people today find it rather inconvenient to clutter their homes with music and movies stored on physical media. They prefer to subscribe to services like Spotify or Netflix which stream music and movies over a fast Internet connection. In ‘Manna’, the combination of renewable energy, automation of jobs and complete recyclability makes it possible to extend the principle of access over ownership to the world of material things. It makes it possible to apply the open-source movement to the real world. Open-source software is software that is free to be used, changed and shared (in modified or unmodified forms) by anyone. 


In the Australia Project, each citizen is a shareholder in a corporation called 4GC inc. The story briefly tells us that the Project’s founder, Eric Garcier, sold shares in 4GC inc for $1000 each to a billion people and that provided him with the funding to buy 1. 5 million square miles of land in the Australian outback. Each person who bought shares in 4GC inc gets an equal share of the resources owned by the corporation. There are rules preventing any one person more than one share of stock. The robots, supplied with power from renewable energies, work for free turning material resources into whatever people want. Whatever you ask for is yours until you die or you decide to return it and then, thanks to complete recyclability, the resources used in its production are made available for others. 


Something else is needed to prevent some from taking too many resources and I will get to that later. For now, the important thing to note is that, in the Australia Project, nobody is paid to work and nobody is made to work. Your time is your own and how you spend it is pretty much up to you. If all you want to do is lay on a sun lounger drinking a tall glass of lemonade all day long, the robots provide you with a sun lounger and a tall glass of lemonade and you are left to indulge your own idea of a perfect day. If you feel like doing something a bit more productive, the robots will turn resources into whatever equipment you need to realise your vision. What you end up producing may have a very limited market, or just maybe it will be a runaway success. The robots don’t care. They will just turn out as many copies as necessary to meet demand. Of course, as per the open-source model, whatever you produce can be freely used and modified by everybody else. 


WORK DAMN YOU, WORK


Things are rather different where Transhumania is concerned. There, you most certainly are made to work. Each person is somebody selected by Jethro for being the best at some profession he deems useful. Each resident of Transhumania has goals assigned to them, and woe betide them should they fail to meet their targets. As the story informs us, “if you were hired for a position, and you failed to meet the goals assigned to you… then you would be forced off Transhumania at once”. 


We are introduced to Manna’s transhuman nation at a very different stage in its development compared to Wager. It is complete and fully functioning. If you have built a cruise ship, fitted it with facilities that enable people to relax and pursue activities and you have trained staff to provide services that facilitate relaxation and enjoyment, it would be a bit odd to deny people the right to take things easy. Can you imagine Captain Jethro walking around the deck of a cruise ship, yelling “I will have no layabouts!”?


But what if that cruise ship was in the process of being built, and everybody on site is a worker assigned certain goals which they are required to meet in order to ensure the project is completed? In that case, Jethro, as the boss in charge of this construction job, would be well within his rights to kick out anyone he finds lounging around. We are introduced to Transhumania at a time when before it exists, except as an idea in Jethro’s head. We follow the realisation of his dream, from securing the capital needed to pay for such a project, to the hiring of people needed to convert massive oil platforms into a floating city containing all the research facilities needed to pursue transhumanian goals. Everybody hired to build Transhumania are expected to do their jobs and complete goals assigned to them. How else could it be built?


NOT A HOLIDAY RESORT


The other thing to bare in mind is that Transhumania is never intended to be analogous to a luxury cruise ship. It is, instead, an incredibly well appointed research facility for the development of transhuman science, technology, philosophy etc. Where the Australia Project is concerned, all the technological capabilities that make it possible- renewable energy, robot labour, and atomically-precise assembly and disassembly- already exist. But on Transhumania the ten thousand or so hired professionals have to work to create all those technologies.


Transhumania does not just rely on the proverbial stick to motivate its workers, it has some carrots to offer as well. Seeing as it is run like ‘an aggressive..company’ it is perhaps not surprising that Transhumania offers the typical motivational scheme of such organisations: Big money bonuses. Not only is every researcher paid ‘exceptional wages’, they are also each given “a tax-free million dollar signing bonus”. This all makes common sense. After all, everybody knows that if you want to extract top performances from the brightest and best, you have got to pay them handsomely. 


ARE HIGH WAGES EFFECTIVE?


Well, so ‘everybody knows’ but is it really true? The question ‘do greater monetary rewards lead to better performance?’ has been put to the test and the results are pretty eye-opening. One such experiment was funded by the Federal Reserve Bank and conducted at MIT. A whole group of students were given a set of challenges to complete, such as memorizing strings of digits and solving word puzzles. In order to incentivise their performance, there were three levels of reward: A small monetary reward for those who did pretty well, a medium reward for average performers, and a large reward for those who did really well.


So what happened? Did a larger reward lead to better performance? No, it actually lead to poorer performance. Now, one might argue that what was offered as a large cash reward was simply not large enough. It was only $50, which is perhaps not much money to an MIT student. The experiment was repeated, this time in rural India where the equivalent of $50 really is a lot of money. In the Indian experiment, poor performers received a reward equal to two week’s salary; medium performers received a month’s salary, and the top performers were rewarded with a prize equal to two month’s salary.


The findings of this study were that people who received a medium reward did no better than those who received the small reward. And those offered high rewards? Once again, they did worst of all.


In fact, this experiment has been replicated many times by economists, psychologists and to a certain extent sociologists, always with the same results. So long as a task requires only mechanical skill, where you only have to follow a set of rules in order to complete the task, performance-related pay works as you might expect. The better the pay, the more incentivised people are to do well. But once the job requires even rudimentary creative thinking, higher rewards lead to poorer performance. Edward Deci, who in 1969 was a Carnegie Mellon psychology grad student who conducted such experiments, explained “when money is used as an external reward for some activity, the subjects lose intrinsic interest for the activity”.


It should be pointed out that these experiments are not simply saying that money is a de-motivator and that if you pay people to do a creative job they will automatically lose interest in that work. Rather, it is telling us that too much money is a de-motivator. How much is too much? If you do not pay people enough, nobody is motivated. If you pay enough to enable people to stop having money anxiety, they will stop thinking about money and focus on their work. Once the monetary reward is sufficient to take the issue of money off the table, that is the point when offering yet more money de-motivates people.


WHAT MOTIVATES PEOPLE?


As well as showing us what does not lead to better performance, these experiments also shed light on what does. There are three factors that encourage people to do well:


Autonomy


Mastery


Purpose.


In other words, we work best when we have a sense of control over our own lives; when we feel that we are improving in our ability to perform tasks that matter to us and, finally, that what we are doing makes a genuine contribution to the world.


In the Australia Project, the kind of work for which performance-related pay works is done by robots. Remember, that kind of work is algorithmic, where you have a set of rules that you only need follow in order to successfully compete the task. Robots are particularly good at carrying out algorithms and since they work for free, performance-related pay incentives are completely unnecessary.


As for the residents, as shareholders of 4GC inc they have equal ownership of the Australia Project’s resources, and free access to whatever technologies and services are produced, as per the open-source rules under which this civilization operates. This takes the issue of money off the table, and as they are free to pursue their own interests and to contribute to projects they consider worthwhile, there is much scope to develop both mastery and purpose.


PREVENTING HOARDING


I have been using the word ‘free’ when talking about resident’s access to Australia Project’s products and services. But it is more accurate to say the resources that make such products and services possible are pre-paid for. As stockholders, the residents are co-owners of 4GC inc who have equal ownership of the labour power of the robots, the energy from renewables and the material resources contained within the territory. Whenever the idea of ‘freely’ using and sharing resources is put forward, an objection is always made that people would just excessively hoard or use up those resources. For example, if I were a particularly greedy and egocentric person, what would stop me from ordering the robots to manufacture a million life-size gold statues of myself to be put on display all over the place? This vanity project of mine would use up the entire reserves of gold, leaving none for anybody else.


In the Australia Project, this kind of excessive overuse is prevented by a currency system in the form of credits. You cannot earn credits. They are not awarded as wages or profit. Rather, every resident receives a thousand credits per week and a certain amount of credits are debited from a person’s account every time the robots ask you to make something. Not only does this credit system prevent excessive greed, it also helps keep track of how resources are being used and allocated.


Today, businesses typically have inventory systems and stock control that keep track of resource use, thereby allowing the company to order enough inventory to ensure they are neither under nor overstocked. In principle, there is nothing to prevent such inventory systems from being scaled up to work on a national or even global scale. Given suitably sophisticated sensor networks, communications networks, and artificial intelligence networks with the requisite expertise, we could keep track of the inventory of the Earth and base our decision to use that capital not on the question ‘do we have the money?’ but rather ‘do we have the resources?’. The Internet would have evolved into a kind of global nervous system, monitoring the biosphere and geosphere and ensuring the stuff we produce is sustainable and allocated fairly. And, no, this would not be a centralised distribution scheme ala communist states, any more than the Web is a centralised broadcasting service for communist propaganda. This would still be a world where money exists, in the sense of the economic calculations underlying all that inventory tracking, resource allocation and stock control. In time we may dispense completely with any physical representation of money and instead become integrated with the global brain to the extent where we just intuit misallocation of resources, perhaps in the form of anxiety or some negative emotion that we naturally seek to correct. 


There is a way to realise projects that will require more than a thousand credits-worth of materials. Residents can opt to collaborate on projects, which includes pooling their credits as well as their expertise. The story gives an example in the form of space elevators:


“Millions of people… were willing to contribute their credits to make it possible. With the credits available, the robots allocated the resources for research and design. Scientists, engineers and designers interested in the project worked on it simply to have a part in it and make it a reality. Then the robots built the space elevators to meet the demand”.


Where the Australia Project is concerned, credits are not tied up with status and achievement as is the case with money today. No one person has more of them than everybody else. Success in the Australia Project comes from the extent to which your contributions add to and refine the solutions to problems that people care about. 


SPEND YOUR MILLION ON…WHAT?


In contrast, Transhumania uses money as a performance-related incentive, in the form of extremely good wages and also a million dollar signing bonus. OK, but what do those researchers spend their money on?


As well as offering state-of-the-art research facilities and ‘hassle-free lives away from bossy governments’, Transhumania also boasts exceptional recreational facilities. It may not be intended to be analogous to a luxury cruise ship, but boy is it like one. It has shopping centres, art galleries and fitness centres. It has a great many restaurants and cafes. In fact the story tells us that it provides for every need and want you can think of, pretty much.


Probably, then, the residents of Transhumania spend their wages on all the fine recreational facilities and stuff available in the shops. But isn’t that a bit pointless? Wouldn’t it just be simpler to invest money used as wages and bonuses in Transhumania itself, and grant free access to its facilities to its residents as a carrot to incentivise performance?


We are also told that “Jethro made it easier to own than to rent, and most people opted to buy upon arriving. It replenished the cash Transhumania needed for actual research and city operations”. It does? How? I can see how somebody buying property could inject money into Transhumania’s reserves, but doesn’t the nation have to give the money back in the form of high wages and million dollar sign-up bonuses? Aside from the fact that money just does not provide an incentive once the issue of money is taken off the table, it seems to me that money on Transhumania is just circulating as people are paid wages which they spend, providing profits which used to pay wages. 


Ok, that is just how capitalist economies work. But while such a system seems to make sense on a large scale, to the extent to which few can coherently explain how the complex systems of supply and demand might be organised differently and still work, scale the system way down and money comes across as being an absurd convention which solves everything while not doing anything. There is a short story that has its origins in the Great Depression, and it asks readers to imagine a small town where times are tough, everybody is in debt, and everybody is living on credit.


Into this town comes a stranger, who considers staying a night in the local motel. He places a $100 bill on the desk and says he wants to inspect the rooms and pick one. As he goes upstairs, the motel owner takes the money and runs down the street to retire his debt to the pig farmer. The pig farmer is in debt to his supplier, the coop, and he heads off to hand over the $100 in payment of that debt. The guy at the coop takes the $100 and uses it to pay his debt to the local prostitute, who has been facing hard times and has had to offer her services on credit. She then rushes to the motel in order to pay her room bill. The Motel owner places the $100 bill on the counter. At that point, the traveller comes down, says none of the rooms are satisfactory, picks up the $100 bill and leaves.


During this sequence of events, nobody produced anything and nobody earned anything. And yet the town is now out of debt and everybody is looking to the future with more optimism. Transhumania’s economy almost seems like that small town. It is an autarkic state operating in isolation to the world’s nations and its economies. It’s Galt’s island rather than Galt’s Gulch, where unnecessary wages are just pointlessly circulated to pay off pointless debts.


HOW I WOULD RUN TRANSHUMANIA


How about this? Prospective new entrants to Transhumania are told, “you have been selected for your potential to contribute to our mission. As you can see, we offer not only the best research facilities but also superb recreational opportunities. You may freely partake of these facilities. All we ask in return is that you voluntarily use your skills to complete certain goals we will assign to you. The products and services that are derived from completion of said goals will be used to invest in Transhumania’s research and recreational facilities, which we are sure will provide you with a terrific and stimulating environment free of money worries. Be aware, however, that failure to meet your targets or interfering with other residents’ ability to meet targets will result in instant dismissal”.


In fact, one character in the story confirms that performance-related monetary incentives have little to no value, saying “forget the money. The laboratory facilities are like nothing on this continent. And everyone’s so goddamn smart and interesting”. 


I am not suggesting that Transhumania should abandon the use of money altogether. Money will always be necessary as it is the calculations which govern resource use and allocation, and  which determine the relative value of goods and services we fashion from those resources. Yes, it can be corrupted and turned into currencies that result in misallocation of capital but that is no reason to abandon money and go back to barter. What I am saying is that Transhumania could put money to much better use than performance-related incentives. It should invest money earned from problem solving into providing free access to its incredible facilities. I really have no idea why Transhumania is not run more like the Australia Project. I guess it comes down to Jethro’s opposition to ‘freebies’.


JETHRO’S RULES. GOOD FOR TRANSHUMANIA, BUT WHAT ABOUT THE WORLD?


I can appreciate why it would be necessary to insist that only workers who make a positive contribution to the development of transhuman techs etc be permitted to remain on Transhumania while it is an offshore research facility whose purpose is to develop those very techs etc. What I do not understand is why that policy remains in place after those technologies are developed. Toward the end of the story, there is the following exchange between Jethro and his nemesis, Belinas:


Belinas: “Do you really think the whole world could live on Transhumania and be prosperous, and ponder incredible calculus equations, and work 20 hour days, and strive to be omnipotenders with no fear of anything?”.


Jethro: “I believe in giving them the choice. I believe in trying to teach them so they can contribute. Then kicking them out if they fail. Otherwise, if they don’t belong, people will sink the ship with their cumbersome weight”.


Really? We are not talking about some primitive pre-tech civilization here, where each person must labour to produce for basic needs or everybody will find themselves in a desperate situation. We are talking about Transhumania, which at this stage in the story has developed technologies that could allow for a high standard of living with very little labour.


Along with the military robots I talked about way back in part one, Transhumania also has Medibot, “with nine intricate fingers on each hand…designed to perform delicate medical surgery”, Buildbot, “able to perform everything from aircraft construction to tiny computer chip repair”, and Strongbot, “designed for lifting and handling awkward and heavy objects with sheer accuracy”. I am not sure if those machines are strictly speaking robots. The story tells us, “each machine (is) designed to always remain under strict control of… a human engineer”, which sounds to me more like a teleoperated machine rather than an autonomous one. Or maybe they can operate on their own volition but are designed to remain subordinate to human directives? Even if the former is true and they are teleoperated only, I do not doubt that making them into true robots would be well within the capabilities of Transhumania’s ten thousand or so researchers.


So, if you have robots like that, which you could set to work in any capacity imaginable be it in the agricultural, industrial or service industries, how can it possibly be the case that “those who don’t belong… will sink the ship with their cumbersome weight”?


Jethro is not just talking about people who are actively opposed to transhumanism. He is not taking the position of Richard Seed, who said, “you do not have to contribute. You do not have to participate. But if you are going to interfere with me becoming God… we will have warfare”. No, in Jethro’s world you do have to participate and you must contribute. Nobody gets to spend their days watching TV all day. We can’t have that. Those passive consumers use up resources and we cannot possibly support such layabouts.


Oh, come on. With technologies like those robots, of course you could have a world where work is voluntary and nobody need be forced by monetary and social pressures to go out and get a job. I do think that a compelling argument could be made, saying it would be a great pity if people chose to do nothing but watch TV all day when there are all those robots and neurochips and other amazing technologies providing infinite opportunity for creativity and contribution to the accumulation of solutions to problems. It would be something of a betrayal of all those who toiled away to produce such technologies if all we did was turn into couch potatoes. But, in the end, in so affluent and prosperous a civilization where the economy is (or could be) almost entirely automated,  people should be able to choose. 


VARIATIONS OF THE WAGER


Both stories arguably contain variations of the Transhumanist Wager. Istvan tells us:


“The wager…states that if you love life, you will safeguard that life, and strive to extend and improve it for as long as possible”.


In Manna, the Australia Project has nine core principles, one of which is ‘Live your life’. A character explains:


“Live your life means that… you decide what you want to do, and then you are able to do it. You reach your full potential. Live your life is the idea of thinking about your life as a whole, as something you get to design and control”.


Thanks to our technological capability, and the problem solving which is the true wealth and success of capitalism, today we have much more control over our lives than our ancestors. When it is dark, we can choose to flood our homes with light. When it is cold we can choose to be warm thanks to heating; and when it is warm air conditioning can keep us cool. But there are still some things that are beyond our control, certain limitations imposed upon us by our biological substrates. For example, we can augment our physical strength with machinery and our mental capabilities with computers, but we cannot choose not to succumb to the ravages of ageing. 


Given the choice, wouldn’t just about everybody choose to be alive tomorrow rather than be dead? We might imagine some unfortunate soul who faces such a poor quality of life tomorrow that death now seems like a preferable alternative. The author Terry Pratchett considered it preferable to be euthanized rather than let his incurable alzheimers rob him of his brilliant mind. But what if there were a third option along with ‘live in intolerable circumstances or die’, that choice being ‘have your malfunctioned body or mind repaired, so that it works as good as new’? What person would not go for that option if it were available?


You could try other options, like praying for divine intervention. But, really, how do any alternatives measure up to practical solutions put through the rigours of the scientific process and shown to be effective and replicable? Why pray for a healthy child when genetic engineering can guarantee your offspring will not be burdened with disability? If you have a disability, why would you do anything other than use medical technologies that can fix it, or adopt tech solutions that render that disability irrelevant? Yes, I am aware that some people do choose not to receive medical intervention on religious grounds. But that is not logical.


Transhumanism is logical. The most reasonable thing is to want to live to see tomorrow. And not to merely be alive tomorrow but to feel that your life is progressing in a positive direction. Who, given the opportunity, would opt for less intelligence rather than more? For a disabled body rather than a super-abled one?


But while I feel that Manna really believes in the Transhumanist Wager, funnily enough I do not get that impression from Istvan’s novel. Why not? Because residents of the Australia Project have a genuine choice with regards to the extent to which they contribute to and participate in transhumanism. The technologies are made available and, apart from rules designed to prevent behaviour that would overtly interfere with the ability of others to adopt the lifestyle they prefer, they can do what they want. This is a civilization that trusts that the logic of transhumanism coupled with its practical realisation is enough to ensure its success. No other coercion is necessary.


JOIN JETHRO…OR DIE!


When Jethro says, “I believe in…choice”, what does he mean, exactly? Well, we find out later:


“The choice we offer is simple: Die or join us. To die is to continue in your meager ways, your lackluster philosophies, and your future material successes, with nothing but gravestones and Internet obituaries to memorialize you at the end of your lives. To join us is to begin the greatest adventure and leap of progress our species has ever known”.


Sounds reasonable. Opt in, adopt transhuman life extension and augmentation technologies, and your lifespan will extend indefinitely and your life’s potential will expand. Opt out and, well, you will not be around all that long to influence the future. 


But Jethro is not really saying ‘choose life extension or choose death’. He is saying ‘be the kind of transhumanist I approve of, or be killed’. Remember, he said that anybody who does not belong (ie, conforms to his concept of what a transhumanist should be) will be ejected from Transhumania. Bare in mind that Transhumania is intended to evolve into something a bit more large-scale than just an offshore research facility:


“Earth…will be transformed into one global civilization…There will be no more sovereign nations, only Transhumania”.


How do you eject undesirables from the planet? Send them off to space colonies? No, Jethro’s transhumanist revolution has other plans:


“Any individual who ultimately hampers the optimum transhuman trajectory should be eliminated. The Humanicide Formula addresses this issue directly. It determines whether an individual should live or die based on an algorithm measuring productivity in terms of that individual’s remaining life hours, their resource consumption in a finite system, and their past, present and potential future contributions”.


This is not transhumanism that I subscribe to. Transhumanism is a movement that advocates, researches, and develops scitech that will give people maximum possible control over their own lives. The emphasis is very much on personal choice. I cannot tell you that you must become a superperson and you cannot tell me that I must relinquish my choice to become a superperson. When you go beyond making the adoption of transhuman technologies, philosophy etc a matter of personal choice and say “you must do this, or we will kill you”, what you have is not transhumanism, but rather a form of eugenics. It is imposing your choice on others, making them conform to your conception of a worthwhile life. 


THE DANGERS OF UTOPIAN THINKING


How did Jethro come to have such a warped concept of transhumanism? I think it is significant that he thinks of Transhumania as being a utopia. The problem with utopian thinking is that it sets up a pernicious utilitarian calculus. Most people accept that, in a situation where you must choose between a course of action that will result in the deaths of few or the deaths of many, the ethical thing to do would be to kill a few. In a utopia, its moral value is infinite because everybody is happy forever. If it is ethically permissible to sacrifice a few for the greater good, how many may be sacrificed to ensure an infinite good? And what about people who stand opposed to your concept of utopia? How evil are these people?


Secondly, everything is there for a reason in a utopia. Such societies by definition conform to a tidy blueprint. But both individuals and groups of people are diverse, and among that diversity will be people who cling to values that are out of place in (your version of) a perfect world. As Steven Pinker wrote, “if you are designing the perfect society on a clean sheet of paper, why not write these eyesores out of the plans from the start?”. 


For Jethro, it is perhaps neither people or even groups of people who stand in the way of utopia, but rather certain cultural systems which have been carefully manufactured over millennia to condition people away from their naturally transhumanist behaviour.


“It started long ago, with the inception of civilization, when charismatic leaders and ruling clans…learned they could preserve their platforms of power by controlling their communities’ thinking and behavioural patterns”. Refined over many centuries, that thought control has resulted in religious institutions, State control, and consumerist-fuelling media which “are nothing more than pieces of an intangible psychological construct designed…to keep you producing for others and contributing to their overall gain and not your own”.


In Jethro’s utilitarian calculus, religious institutions and State power are the infinite evils that stand opposed to his infinitely good Utopia. So, when he says the time has come for such institutions to be “wiped away” you just know he is about to perpetrate some enormously wicked act.


THE TRANSHUMAN TALIBAN


Way back in the introduction, I talked briefly about the statues which Muslim fanatics destroyed. But their act of vandalism cannot hold a candle to the act of destruction that Transhumania’s military technology unleashes. By the end of the attack we have the obliteration of:


The White House, Capitol Building and Supreme Court.


The Vatican.


The Kaaba.


The Wailing Wall and Temple Mount


The Grand Mosque.


Buckingham Palace.


Notre Dame.


Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer statue.


China’s Imperial Palace.


The Kremlin.


Actually, this is only a partial list. Istvan lists many more famous historical architectural works that are destroyed. What is more, the story tells us “no timeless religious monument (was) left unscathed”, suggesting that even buildings not explicitly listed  (such as St Paul’s Cathedral and the Egyptian Pyramids) are also demolished.


Jethro gives advance warning of his act of wanton destruction, pointing out that “he was not an archaeologist, but a futurist. And relics of the past bore little value to him”. Wow. That has to rival ‘It’s the work of infidels’ as the stupidest reason to destroy our ancestor’s work ever put forward.


And what could it achieve, really? Surely not the elimination of democracy or communism or religion or any institution Jethro might despise. Those are intangible belief systems. A church and mosque is a community not a building. The physical monuments can remain while the cultural reason for their construction is lost. Nobody really knows why ancient people built Stonehenge. Whatever reason they had is lost to antiquity. Equally, the destruction of monuments is no guarantee that whatever intangible belief systems associated with them will also be eliminated. Joseph Stalin ordered the destruction of churches, mosques and temples but nevertheless religious beliefs and practices persisted among the majority of the population.


All you really guarantee is that you will be demolishing physical representations of human ability, monuments not just to some religious or political ideology that is ridiculous to some, but also monuments to the skills and ingenuity of our ancestors who laid the foundations upon which the modern world is built. 


Prior to this act of destruction, Transhumania’s cyberwarriors succeed in hacking into the world’s nuclear arsenal, and cause the timers to tick ominously down to zero, only for a last moment reprieve from armageddon when Jethro orders the countdown halted at three seconds to spare. In the modern world, just about everything is dependent on computers. So why not have a ‘Day The Earth Stood Still’ scenario where Transhumania shuts down all essential services? and then takes over global media so that Jethro can deliver a ‘this is John Galt speaking’ lecture where he lays bare all that is wrong with the world today? Jethro does deliver such a speech and while I do not agree with everything he says, there is much to admire in it. But how reasonable would any speech sound coming from somebody who just acted like the worst fanatic?


CONCLUSION.


If I were to base my opinion of Zoltan Istvan purely on this novel, I would harbour strong suspicions that he was actually an anti-transhumanist. The movement has long struggled to escape from the shadow of eugenics, which it superficially resembles, and here is a story which portrays transhumanists as aggressively intolerant, egocentric and determined to stop at nothing in their mission to mould everybody into their version of a perfect being. 


Or, I might think that Istvan was both a transhuman advocate and Ayn Rand admirer who set out to write the science fiction story she would have written were she alive today. But, alas, judged purely on the basis of this story he lacks the sheer intellectual ability of the founder of Objectivism, and the result is a blunt and crude imitation of her novels, where admirably self-interested characters are replaced with contemptibly ego-centric ones. Sure, there are aspects of the story I like. I like the way the story includes people with many different belief systems, providing an opportunity for Socratic questioning, complex ideas covered by many different angles. I did admire Jethro’s sheer determination and thought there was a great deal of merit in judging people in terms of what value they have to offer.  But, the overriding thought I get from reading Transhumanist Wager is that it portrays transhumanism in a light that provides ammunition for the movement’s opponents more than it provides arguments against their criticisms.

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THOUGHTS ON THE TRANSHUMANIST WAGER PART THREE

PART THREE: JETHRO SHRUGGED.


In 1957, a book was published that took the murder-mystery concept in a new direction.  Rather than having a plot concerning the death of a human body and whodunnit, the story was instead about the death of the human spirit and what caused its demise. It was set in a dystopian America, where who you know has become the dominant means of achieving fame and fortune. People get ahead by inheriting titles, exploiting family loyalty and, above all, by having the right connections in government. Meanwhile the real contributor’s to the country’s wealth- the industrialists, entrepreneurs, artists and other people of talent who provide goods and services for the economy- find their ability to profit compromised in a couple of ways: By a mixed economy that is moving toward dictatorship via legislation supposedly passed in the public interest (but which does more to serve government agencies and the cronies that surround them) and by the influence of a mysterious figure. Wherever he goes, the brightest and best individuals vanish, industries collapse, and communities decay.


But this mystery man is no villain, but rather a champion of individualism. His philosophy of life is guided by the following core principles: That the only viable method for understanding reality is reason; that the individual should take personal responsibility for happiness and success; and that the economic system under which such principles flourish best is one where we deal with one another through voluntary exchange for mutual benefit. The man’s philosophy is encapsulated in the following oath, which is taken by all those committed to the same ideals as he: “I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”


This man realises that the depression afflicting America is due to state intervention in society that is allowing the nonproductive to cream off some of the wealth earned by others. At the same time, there is a growing resentment directed at the great producers, who find themselves demonised for their accomplishments. A parasite class has arisen who steal wealth from others through government spending, planning, regulation and redistribution. 


In order to put an end to this parasite class, the hero of individualism persuades people of talent to go on strike. They quit society and go live in a secret location where they can live free from state interference and according to the principles of laissez faire capitalism. Unable to produce value for themselves and only able to survive by imposing the ‘moral right’ to seize the wealth of others, the parasite class are powerless to prevent the collapse of the country’s infrastructure. As the lights go out over New York, the people of talent get ready to return and rebuild society around the principles of reason and personal responsibility.


COMPARISONS WITH ATLAS SHRUGGED


That novel  was ‘Atlas Shrugged’ and it has to be said that ‘Transhumanist Wager’ shares quite a lot in common with Ayn Rand’s magnum opus. In both stories we have government passing legislation that prevents champions of industry from achieving as much success as their talent is due. In Atlas Shrugged we have the ‘anti-dog-eat-dog rule’ and the ‘equalization of opportunity bill’ which, respectively, prevent competition between railroads and limit the number of businesses and individual can own. In ‘Transhumanist Wager’ we have the ‘national future security agency’ and the ‘war on transhumanism’, both supposedly intended to provide governmental oversight of potentially dangerous technologies, but which actually serve the interests of a decadent class who lack the talent to become self-made people. 


In both Atlas and Wager, the story’s principal champion takes personal responsibility for ending state interference. John Galt (the hero of Atlas Shrugged) tells government henchmen, “get the hell out of my way!”. Jethro likewise says, “let the scientists do their research and let the entrepreneurs legally fund it. If you just get out of the way, transhumanism will work in everyone’s interests”. Both novels rail against a philosophical system that encourages irrationalism. In Ayn Rand’s novel, the character Floyd Ferris says, “people don’t want to think…so they’ll bless and follow anyone who gives them a justification for not thinking”. Jethro says of the Chair of philosophy’s book, (it is) “contradictory pluralism designed to encourage readers to forgo reason or perhaps to despise reason altogether”. In both novels, the most talented and productive people quit society and go live and work in a remote location where they are liberated from state interference. Both John Galt and Jethro Knights take over the media in order to expose the self-serving propaganda of the government and its cronies, and the value systems they have created to serve their interests at the expense of the most worthy. Both men explain their plans for an alternative way of life. In both stories, the heroes intend to begin the rebuilding of civilization in New York. 


Oh, and the phrase ‘A is A’ appears in both novels.


The characters in Transhumanist Wager strike me as being very ‘Randian’. Jethro has similar qualities to Dagney Taggart. She possessed an indomitable spirit, a focused, analytical mind, and an absolute commitment toward personal responsibility. These are traits that could also be applied to Jethro. Dagney’s brother, James, is weak and almost entirely dependent on public opinion for his every decision. He is very much like Gregory Michelson. Both men’s only real skill lies in influence peddling, existing off of the greatness achieved by others.


SHARED FLAWS


Unfortunately, because the themes of Transhumanist Wager are so similar to those extolled by Rand, we find the same flaws. These are: A tendency toward cultishness and an over-exaggeration of individualism. The curious tale of what resulted from Ayn Rand’s philosophy is worth considering, as it sheds light on what might also result from Jethro’s.


Ayn Rand’s ‘Atlas Shrugged’ was published at a very opportune moment- a couple of years prior to the 1960s. That decade was one of anti-establishment thinking and find-yourself individualism. Since Rand’s novel was based  on a philosophy of individualism, the power of the ideas explored in her novel became extremely influential. But to her most devoted followers, Rand’s ideas were not just influential, they were inerrant. As Nathanial Branden recalled in his Memoirs ‘Judgement Day’, “there were implicit premises in our world to which everyone in our circle subscribed”. These premises included:


“Ayn Rand, by virtue of her philosophical genius, is the supreme arbiter in any issue pertaining to what is rational, moral, or appropriate to man’s life on Earth.


“No one can be a good Objectivist who does not admire what Ayn Rand admires and condemn what Ayn Rand condemns


“No one can be a fully consistent individualist who disagrees with Ayn Rand on any fundamental issue”.


In ‘Why People Believe Weird Things’, Michael Shermer pointed out that assertions such as those share characteristics with cults. Among other things, a cult is characterised by:


“Inerrancy of the leader: Belief that the leader cannot be wrong.


Omniscience of the leader: Acceptance of the leader’s beliefs and pronouncements of all subjects, from the philosophical to the trivial.


Absolute truth: Belief that the leader and/or group has discovered final knowledge on any number of subjects.


Absolute morality: Belief that the leader has developed a system of right and wrong thought and action applicable to members and nonmembers alike”.


It seems paradoxical that Ayn Rand’s philosophy would attract a cult following. A cult, after all, is an organization that thrives on group thinking and intolerance of dissent. And Objectivism is the philosophy of individualism, the core principle being the assertion that one should never let any authority dictate truth. But there was always a cultic flaw embedded within Objectivist philosophy, because it believed absolute knowledge and final truth are attainable through reason. As Shermer explained:


“For Objectivists, once a principle has been discovered  by the (Objectivist’s version of) reason to be True, the discussion is at an end. If you disagree with the principle, then your reasoning is flawed”.


We find similar assertions of absolute truth and final knowledge throughout ‘Transhumanist Wager’. Jethro Knights boldly declares:


“These truths are innate and infallible”.


Elsewhere we find:


“Give every sane and rational person a big red button to push to achieve instant omnipotence, and all of them would quickly jam their fingers down on it. The logic and reality of this was impossible to deny”. And:


“The undeniable logic and value of the offer will overturn your fears, reservations and biases”.


Anyone who says that they have discovered truths that are ‘infallible’ and logic that is ‘undeniable’ is, of course, asserting that they cannot be wrong. Now, sometimes, logic is impossible to deny. This is the case with mathematical theorems. With mathematical theorems, one begins with a set of axioms or statements that are self-evidently true, and from there you construct a step-by step logical argument that reaches a conclusion. Provided your axioms are correct and your logic is sound, your conclusion will be undeniable.


Mathematical theorems are not like scientific theories. A scientific theory is only ever provisionally true and may be partially or wholly refuted in the future. But once a mathematical theorem is proved, it remains true for all time. Because of this eternal quality, mathematics feels somehow independent of human thought; eternal truths that are discovered rather than invented.


SUCH A THING AS FINAL MORAL TRUTH?


Objectivists claim the same thing is true of Morality. Morals exist independent of human thought and therefore absolutes of right and wrong are ‘out there’ waiting to be discovered. Subjectivists, on the other hand, insist there is no such thing as moral knowledge.


One such subjectivist was David Hume. In 1740, he wrote a book called ‘A Treatise Of Human Nature’ in which he asked what a statement like ‘murder is wrong’ actually means. Although such a statement appears grammatically similar to ‘the sky is blue’, Hume argued that there was a good reason to regard the two statements as being different. We can see that the sky is blue, but while we can see a victim’s blood or hear his cries, we cannot actually see the ‘wrongness’ of murder. Hume therefore concluded that ‘murder is wrong’ cannot be an empirical statement, and that when someone says ‘murder is wrong’ all we can be certain of from such a statement is the state of mind of one individual (‘murder is wrong’ means ‘I disapprove of murder’). Moral beliefs, according to Hume, are not logical or empirical  but rather psychological.


Why did Hume think that moral truths could not be deduced from logic and reason? Because the one big rule of deductive logic is that you are not allowed to ‘magic’ extra information from an argument’s premise into a conclusion. Hume argued that there is an ‘is-ought’ gap between factual statements and moral ones. So, when people come up with an argument like “this man intends to murder that man; society is against murder; therefore, he ought not to commit murder”, the argument is invalid because it jumps to conclusions. You cannot prove moral positions just by piling up facts. 


The English philosopher A. J Ayer went a step further than Hume. In ‘Language, Truth and Logic’, he claimed that a statement like ‘murder is wrong’ isn’t even somebody reporting their feelings but merely expressing them. This is sometimes called the ‘Hurrah-Boo Theory’, because for Ayer when somebody makes a statement like “we are a warriorlike system of thought and moral action designed to find the best in ourselves”, they are merely saying ‘transhumanism hurrah!’ or some such primitive emotional noise. Ayer insisted there is no such thing as moral certainty, and therefore there can be no moral experts who can tell everybody what is right and wrong.


THE POSTMODERN CONDITION


But perhaps the main source of doubt in the power of reason to reveal final truth is the postmodern condition. According to Dave Robinson (writing in ‘Introducing Philosophy’) postmodern philosophy is best thought of as haunted by three big ifs:


“If human thoughts can no longer be guaranteed as “ours”;


If the language we think with cannot meaningfully refer to the world outside itself;


If the meaning of autonomous, linguistic signs are constantly shifting;


then it’s very bad news for philosophy”.


What does all that mean? The first ‘if’ hearkens back to Gramsci and the concept of hegemony, whereby the ruling elite set the attitudes, values and perceptions through which society understands and relates to the world. Similarly, Nietzsche considered ‘knowledge’ to be simply that which the strongest imposes on everybody else. In both cases we see that thoughts are not really ‘ours’ and an emphasis on how political ‘personal morality’ really is.


The other ifs are all concerned with language, or rather, the meaning of language. Philosophy is the search for truth, which can be defined as ‘whatever is actually the case’. This begs the question, “how do we discover what is actually the case?”. One way might be through revelation, in which God simply tells us what is actually the case. Medieval philosophers were scholastics, seeking truth through a system of theological and philosophical teaching based on the authority of the church fathers and of Aristotle and his commentators. After the Enlightenment, Reason became the main focus, as philosophers shifted focus away from God to analyzing ideas in the mind. 


The postmodern condition really began when thinkers like Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Martin Heidegger began to analyze the language in which thinking is expressed. The question they wanted to answer was, “if meaning comes from language, where does language come from?”. The seeds of postmodern skepticism have always been present within Western philosophy, ever since Cratylus who considered the meaning of words to be unstable and who refused to speak as a consequence. But contemporary postmodern theory has its origins in a school of linguistics known as Structuralism, the chief founder of which was a Swiss philosopher of linguistics called Ferdinand de Saussure. 


STRUCTURALISM


Saussure viewed the meaning of language as the function of a system. By looking for the underlying rules and conventions that enable language to operate, structuralists strove to isolate a coherent object of linguistics where language as a system could be studied separately from its actual manifestations in speech or writing. This, they hoped, would enable them to find the infrastructure of language common to all speakers on an unconscious level.


Saussure considered the entire set of linguistic meanings as being generated from a small set of possible sounds. He called these ‘phonemes’, which are defined as the smallest unit in the sound system that can indicate contrasts in meaning. The word ‘DOG’ has three phonemes, /d/, /o/, /g/, which differ slightly from DIG, LOG, DOT, etc. Each generate other meanings which, when combined grammatically and syntactically, produce ‘discourse’, the code of language in which thoughts are expressed.


Now, why should the concept (or, as structuralists would call it, the Signified) dog be referred to by that particular Signifier (ie the word ‘dog’)? Obviously, the choice of sound is not imposed on us by meaning itself. The animal ‘dog’ does not determine the sound dog. After all, it is called different things in different languages (‘Chien’ in French and ‘Perro’ in Spanish, for example). Rather, the association of sound and what it represents is the outcome of what Wittgenstein called ‘Language Games’- in other words collective learning. Therefore, meaning is the product of a system that is itself meaningless.


Saussure’s structuralism made it possible to study not just linguistics but culture itself as a system of signs. This gave rise to semiology, which studied the various systems of cultural conventions which enable human actions to signify meanings. Regardless of how ‘natural’ such signs may appear to their users, the meaning of any object or action is always founded on shared conventions. 


POSTSTRUCTURALISM


So, for structuralists, the world was organised into interlocking systems with their own ‘grammars’ open to analysis. This idea was overthrown in the late 1960s when thinkers like Roland Barthes and especially Jacques Derrida began pushing Saussure’s insight into the arbitrary nature of signs to an extreme. Barthes in 1967 declared “the author is dead”. What he meant was, regardless of the author’s intentions, readers create their own meanings. This makes texts ever-shifting, unstable and open to question. Barthes declared “we must now face the possibility of inverting Saussure’s declaration: Linguistics is not a part of the general science of signs, even a privileged part. It is semiology which is part of linguistics”. In somewhat similar notion to Baudrillard’s ‘art totally penetrating reality’, Barthes was saying that semiological analysis collapses back into language. This raises serious doubts about the relationship of language to reality, because it means there is no such thing as an ideally objective ‘meta’ language which can be constructed to discover the truth. As Derrida put it, we are trapped within language. We use it to think and communicate with, but there is no objective way of knowing what its relationship is to any reality ‘outside’ of it.


THE TYRANNY OF REASON


That is the essential lesson of postmodernism: That you cannot stand outside of language in order to understand it. According to Derrida, once structuralists started thinking about how every system has a structure, they could begin to see their systems as constructs rather than absolute truth. This line of thinking opposed what Derrida called ‘Logocentrism’. Postmodern thinkers like he and Jean-Francois Lyotard saw Reason not as a transcendent reality but rather a human, linguistic construct. A blindness to the reality that our beliefs are merely selective linguistic constructs was, they argued, why too many philosophers held an absolute faith in reason and its ability to reveal eternal and universal truth. That is not to say they absolutely rejected reason, only its dogmatic representation of itself as a timeless certainty. Derrida in particular was highly critical of the Western tradition of rationalist thought, saying “the certainty of reason is a tyranny which can only be sustained by the evils of repressing that which is uncertain, that doesn’t fit in, that is different”. In other words, a dogmatic belief in reason can lead to dangerous political certainties which insist on the exclusion of ‘the other’. 


Another key postmodern thinker- Michael Foucalt- studied knowledge as systems of thought. He rejected a linear view of history, arguing instead for a multiple, overlapping and interactive series of legitimate versus excluded histories. He uncovered the underlayers of what is kept suppressed and hidden in and throughout history. “By claiming the territories of reason and what is permissible as thought and behaviour”, he said, “the powerful are able to convince everyone that what is ‘local’ and ‘regional’ is in fact universal and so unquestionable. Those who dissent are then categorised as mad or irrational and can be dealt with accordingly”.


So, when it comes to morality, the view from postmodernism is that it is strictly a human invention, and as such is subject to all kinds of social constructs and cultural influences. We can of course create hierarchies of what we like or dislike, approve or disapprove, and we can make judgements based on such standards. But we are always dealing with human constructions which are provisional and relative. There is no absolutely right model of human morality any more than there is an absolutely right kind of human music. It is worth remembering that morality is a human construction influenced by human cultures, as doing so can lead to greater tolerance for other belief systems. After all, as Michael Shermer said, “as soon as one group sets itself up as the final moral arbiter of other people’s actions, especially when its members believe they have discovered absolute standards of right and wrong, it marks the beginning of the end of tolerance”.


Indeed, the actions undertaken by orders of Jethro Knights show a great deal of intolerance, perhaps for reasons Shermer referred to in the above quote. But before we talk about that, I want to look at the story’s ideas about evolution and how they tie in to its hyper-individualism.


EVOLVE.


Toward the end of the story, Jethro addresses the world and provides the following explanation for Transhumania’s victory:


“The reason why transhumanists became far stronger than you is not in our numbers, our might, or our courage. It’s in our understanding of how the philosophy of evolution takes place. Our interpretation of values taught us that evolution and its ascent of technology do not operate off democratic principles, but off principles of might, principles of survival…Throughout history, it’s the reason the strong became stronger and the weak became weaker, until the weak were no more, and the strong had to compete against each other- leaving, again, one group stronger than the other. This remarkable cycle perpetuates the efficient technique of evolution”.


According to this point of view, only the mighty are worthy of life and therefore the more aggressively competitive the world can be made, the more we rid ourselves of compassionate support, social welfare and charity, the more we will steer the course of the future along its correct path. Earlier in the story, Jethro writes:


“I am not fundamentally at one with the Earth, its people, or its multitudes of life; I do not view myself as a beholden spawn or child of the universe. I am alone and distinct”.


HE WHO MURDERS, WINS


If we combine this attitude with Jethro’s belief that ‘an omnipotender doesn’t fall in love’, we end up with a vision of reality that is hyper-individualistic as well as hyper-competitive. It is every man for himself, and we must all battle one another for the spoils. So long as you come out on top, anything goes. Even murder. One of the story’s heroes- the Russian Frederich Vilimech- amasses a 20 billion dollar fortune through a combination of shrewd and shady business negotiations. Early on, this involves approaching “a Soviet army general” offering “to partner with the man and make a run on a huge swathe of bankrupt government oil companies”. Later, thanks to investment decisions undertaken by Vilimich, the company “has become a dominant player in the worldwide energy field”. Not long afterwards, and very conveniently for Vilimich, “the general mysteriously died, and little proof of any ownership of the company except to Vilimich remained”. 


The story does not explicitly say Vilimich was responsible, only that “nothing was ever proven”. Nevertheless, given how the story establishes Vilimich as a man with a titanic temper (“his voice was permanently hoarse, the result of yelling at nearly everyone”) as well as somebody who will do anything to get ahead (we are told about his “hardball tactics of amassing his fortune at the disregard of the environment and the tens of thousands of workers he employed”) I think we are supposed to infer that Vilimich achieved his great fortune, in part, by getting away with murder.


Actually, this is another case of a parallel between Transhumanist Wager and Atlas Shrugged, for in Rand’s story we also have a character who gets away with murder during his journey from rags to riches:


“It was said that in the wilderness of the middle west, (Nathanial Taggart) murdered a state legislator who attempted to revoke a charter granted against him…Nat Taggart was indicted for murder, but the charge could never be proved”.


Both stories seem to present a twisted morality in which guilt is determined not by breaking laws, but rather by how poor you are and how charitable your requests. Billionaire oligarchs that treat their employees like scum and kill their partners so as to grab an even larger fortune for themselves are doing nothing wrong. Impoverished folks looking for some social welfare are criminals.


But maybe Jethro Knights is merely being brutally honest? Maybe empathy, charity, social support and cooperation are all just collectivist lies which do nothing but suppress the abilities of the singularly talented? Actually, no. Jethro Knights is not being honest. He is presenting a distorted view of evolution and also individualism. Evolution is famously summarised as ‘survival of the fittest’. To many, such a phrase should be taken to mean that nature favours the strong, and that only when the weak are being eliminated are things going according to nature’s plan. Social security is therefore an evil, upsetting the righteous path of evolution.


THE TRUTH ABOUT EVOLUTIONARY FITNESS


Actually, the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ should not be taken to mean fit in any athletic sense- at least not necessarily. Rather, it means fit as in ‘how well you fit your environment’. Quite often, being adapted to your environment does necessitate fitness in the athletic sense of the word. Nature documentaries tend to focus on those kinds of struggles, perhaps because they are easiest to convey, visually. We all understand, when watching prey running as fast as it can with some predator in hot pursuit, how this competition of speed, strength and agility results in either the predator catching its prey (and removing it from the genepool) or failing to do so, going without a meal, and perhaps dying of starvation (which removes the predator from the genepool).


But it is not always the case that bigger, faster, stronger wins the evolutionary race. Attributes can weaken, as well as be enhanced, if the environment favours that trend. For example, if some birds were to fly to a remote island that lacked predators and had easily accessible food sources, over time their wings may evolve to be less capable of flight, until their descendents have become flightless birds with mere vestiges of wings. It costs energy to achieve flight and, as the mechanisms of natural selection work to reduce needless expenditures of energy, if the environment favours it, abilities can diminish, and the weaker can be favoured over the strong. 


In the case of humans, we cannot just assume that of course bigger, faster, stronger triumphs over the weak. Instead we have to look at the environmental niche that the human species occupies and consider what it selects for.


HUMAN EVOLUTION


If alien explorers were to find our solar system, it is all but certain that the first signs of life they would notice would be human technology. They would see the lights of cities illuminating the landmasses of a blue planet. They would discover all the satellites in orbit. Equipped with suitable instruments, they could pick up TV and radio broadcasts long before they came within Earth’s orbit. Perhaps this would prompt them to classify humans as a tool-making animal?


When it comes to learning about our distant ancestors, we are much like the aliens, trying to learn about a different species of which we know next to nothing. Just as we leave evidence of our existence in the form of technologies, so too did our ancestors. And, like the aliens, we classified our ancestors as “a tool-making species”.


The human species is, of course, superbly adapted for toolmaking. We come equipped with dextrous hands, large brains which enable us to, for example, master such variables in chipping a stone with another stone such as how much force to use, what angle to strike at, and where to strike. We have language, which enables us to communicate knowledge and pass on skills.


Why did we evolve such tool-making abilities to begin with? Some scientists believe it came about because the environment our ancestors lived in favoured social intelligence. Of course, the social lives of our ancestors were not preserved like their stone tools. We are talking about creatures that lived millions of years before the invention of writing. But we can be reasonably sure that our ancestors were social by studying those animals alive today who are our closest evolutionary cousins- primates.


APE SOCIETY


Monkeys and apes are particularly social animals. They spend their lives in bands and have a keen sense of the shifting reality of their social world. The psychologist Robin Dunbar has compared the size of the brain- particularly the neocortex- of primates. He found that the size of the primate’s brain is tightly correlated with the average size of the group in which it lives. Larger groups demand larger brains. The obvious conclusion is that larger groups place a bigger demand on social intelligence. It requires keeping track of more relatives and acquaintances, of what alliances have been made and what grudges or held.


Some primates have such a keen social intelligence, they are able to deceive their fellow primates. The most deceptive and crafty nonhuman primates are our closest evolutionary cousins, the chimpanzees. Primatologist Andrew Whitten said, “it’s as if the apes have been reading Machiavelli. They’re very concerned to climb up the social hierarchy, and make the right alliances to enable them to do that. But at the same time if the occasion is right, just as Machiavelli would have advised, they’ll deceive those friends and ditch them”.


Chimplike society sounds rather like Jethro’s vision of how human society should function. “Should anything- and I mean anything- become not useful for us, we will quit that thing”.


However, we are not talking about a human society, but rather a hominid society with a chimplike hierarchy. Both Whitten and Dunbar have argued that, as our hominid ancestors moved out onto the African savannah, they began coming in regular contact with big, dangerous predators. This required them to form larger bands than their tree-dwelling ancestors had needed to form. That encouraged the evolution of more social intelligence, until our ancestors had such a keen social intelligence they could form theories of mind- that is, infer from body language and other outward signs what somebody is thinking, and reflect on the past actions of oneself and others.


Theory of mind enables social animals to do a better job of making alliances, deceiving one another, and keeping track of the shifting reality of their social hierarchy. Eventually, this feedback loop of ever-increasing social intelligence lead to a transformation of hominid society. It became too hard for a dominant male to enforce a hierarchy in his band. His subordinates had become too clever, each individual using his or her theory of mind to guard against cheats who tried to dominate the group. And so, hominid society shifted away from a chimplike hierarchy to an egalitarian structure. 


EGALITARIAN SOCIETY


Whitten has argued that it was only when our ancestors began living in egalitarian societies that our ancestors could take full advantage of a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. It meant that men could work together in hunts, and women could organise expeditions to gather useful stuff, without being paralysed by suspicion. A society based on egalitarian principles is one where knowledge and skills are more likely to be shared, rather than jealousy hoarded, which is very useful for the evolution of complex forms of cooperation and technologies.


None of this is to say that the human race lives in a state of perfect harmony and equality. It would be absurd to suggest such a thing, as a glance at all the conflicts and Machiavellian shenanigans still going on would refute such idealistic claims. It is merely pointing out that the environmental niche in which humans continue to evolve is no longer a chimplike hierarchy, where brute strength sees you rise to the top, but rather one where a keen social intelligence and ability to cooperate are the keys to success. The proof is in the vast and complex networks of societies our species has formed, from local organisations such as friendships, tribes and clubs, to global networks such as multinational corporations. 


COLLABORATION IS ESSENTIAL FOR INVENTION


If you stop to consider our great achievements, it becomes obvious that, working as individuals, we can achieve very little. In ‘Transhumanist Wager’, Knights reflects angrily on how he is surrounded by people who never had an original idea. But the fact is that nobody has ever had an original idea in the sense of some revelation that appears fully formed independent of humanity’s pre-existing body of knowledge. Instead, invention (whether it be physical in the sense of tools and machinery, or mental in the sense of hypotheses and theories) is always a process of combinatorial evolution.


James Burke described combinatorial evolution when he said, “at no time did an invention come out of thin air into somebody’s head. You just had to put a number of bits and pieces that were already there together in the right way”. In other words, the act of invention is never solitary but always collaborative, as it relies on pre-existing tools, technologies and bodies of knowledge. These are the building blocks from which new inventions are made. An inventor or discoverer of knowledge never works alone but instead as part of a huge network stretching all the way back to the dim and distant past when our hominid ancestors first started making tools and communicating ideas to each other.


THE MYTH OF THE LONE INVENTOR


For some reason, we seem to like to think it is individuals rather than organisations and collectives that are the creative force behind invention. For example, people will tell you that the electric car sold by Tesla was invented by Elon Musk, as if he and he alone created it and all those designers and engineers and other specialists employed at Tesla motors had nothing to do with it. But this is to give Elon Musk all the credit for something only a company- an organisation of many skilled individuals working together- could possibly have researched and developed.


It is possible to prove that no individual can ever be said to be responsible for such a complex piece of machinery by issuing a seemingly far challenge: Can you make a pencil from scratch? Of course, anyone can snap a twig off a tree, scratch symbols in the dirt and call that a pencil. But what I mean is, can you make a pencil like you find in shops? If you had some graphite, wood, rubber, and metal, would you know how to assemble all those component pieces into a pencil with a graphite tip at one end and an eraser held in place by a metal band at the other? Actually, no, you cannot have the component pieces ready to hand, for that would mean somebody else supplied them and we are asking if you can make a pencil from scratch. So, do you know where rubber comes from and what methods turn it into those little erasers? Do you know where to get graphite from and how to mine it? What tools are you going to use, ready-made ones? That’s cheating. You must first construct all the equipment you need from scratch (and, yes, the tools you use for the job have to be made from scratch as well). 


By now it should be obvious that, however humble it may seem, a pencil contains such a vast body of knowledge in its construction that building one from scratch is impossible for any individual. That being the case, think of how even more absurd it is to attribute the invention of something is complex as an electric car to a single person.


EVEN EINSTEIN HAD HELP


Now, you might concede that no modern physical invention really owes its existence to an individual, but maybe some genius can have an original idea? We can refute this by considering what is considered to be the most famous equation ever written, contained within what many regard to be one of the most original ideas anyone ever had. I am talking about E=MC^2 which is part of Einstein’s relativity theories. How did Einstein come up with that equation? Did it pop into his head from nowhere?


Of course, the answer is no. Einstein did not invent that equation all by himself, but instead relied on the work of others. The ‘E’ stands for ‘energy’. Michael Faraday was one of the people who created an overarching notion of energy, into which such diverse events as the crackling of static electricity and gusts of wind could fit. He contributed to the insight that there is a fixed amount of  energy in the universe and although it can manifest itself in many ways, the total amount of energy in the universe always remains the same.


The ‘M’ stands for ‘mass’. Men like Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier showed how all the mass in the universe- all the seemingly diverse bits of stuff- are really parts of a single connected whole. Just as there is a fixed amount of energy in the universe, so too is there a fixed amount of mass.


‘C’ stands for ‘celeritas’ or the speed of light. It was once believed that there was no such thing as ‘the speed of light'; that it travelled distances in an instant making its speed unmeasurable. But then a Danish astronomer called Ole Roemer overturned that idea when he solved a puzzle involving Jupiter’s satellite Io. Io takes 42 and a half hours to orbit Jupiter, but observations showed that this was not always the case. Sometimes, the satellite emerged from behind its parent planet a little later than scheduled, and sometimes its appearance was slightly earlier than expected. Newtonian mechanics insisted that this should not be happening. Io should orbits Jupiter with clockwork-like regularity.


Roemer solved this mystery with a bold leap of imagination. Just suppose, contrary to what all experiments had shown, that light did not travel instantaneously but rather at a finite speed. In that case, during winter when the Earth’s orbit takes it furthest away from Jupiter, light reflected off Io would take a little longer to reach observers. By going through years of observations, Roemer was able to come up with an estimate for how many extra minutes light took to cross the expanse of space when Earth and Jupiter are furthest apart compared to when they are closest together, and thus an estimate for the speed of light.  The figure he came up with was pretty close to the current estimate of 670 million miles per.


The ^2 stands for ‘squared’, or the speed of light multiplied by itself. According to Newton, when analysing how objects make contact, the central factor to look for is simply the product of their mass times their velocity or their MV^1. On the other hand, Gottfried Leibniz, the important factor to focus on was MV^2. This disagreement was settled by experiments conducted by a Dutch researcher called William ‘sGravesande. He dropped weights into soft clay, and discovered that if the weight is sent down twice as fast as before, it will push four times as far into the clay. Send it down three times as fast and it sinks nine times further into the clay. Since two squared is four and three squared is nine, that proves Leibniz was right. We can describe the results of this experiment with an equation pretty similar to Einstein’s: E=MV^2.


So, it was already known that energy can only be transformed, never created or destroyed. It was also known that the same was true for mass. It was known that multiplying an object’s mass by the square of its velocity tells you how much energy it has. It was known that the speed of light is like the ultimate speed limit of the universe. That means that if you raise velocity as high as it can possibly go, to 670 million miles per hour, that will tell you the ultimate energy an object will contain when you look at its mass times the speed of light, squared.


What all these prior scientific discoveries are, then, are puzzle pieces which, when properly assembled, tell us the following fact: Mass is a concentrated form of energy. If you want to know how much energy is contained within any given mass, you need a conversion factor, just as to go from centigrade to fahrenheit you multiply the centigrade figure by 9/5 and then add 32. In the case of converting mass into energy, the conversion factor is the speed of light squared.


Remember what James Burke said? “You just had to put a number of bits and pieces that were already there together in the right way”? That is what Einstein did. And although I may have implied that it was individuals like Faraday and Roemer who discovered facts about the universe that Einstein later assembled into a theory of mass and its conversion into energy, the truth is that they too relied on previous work. There really is no statement more erroneous than ‘this is my idea’, for no idea ever sprang forth independent of the body of knowledge accumulated by humanity. The most anyone can claim is to be part of that vast network, borrowing ideas from it and contributing possibly useful combinations of pre-existing ideas.


While it is a fact that individuals can accomplish nothing by themselves, for some reason we like to perpetuate the fantasy that it was individuals who were responsible for everything. I am not entirely sure why. Perhaps it is because human beings evolved to live among and identify with other human beings, and it just makes more sense to us to personify an organisation and embody its collective achievements in one person. This could be an actual person. Richard Branson, for example. Or it could be an imaginary corporate mascot like Ronald McDonald. We project the collective achievements of the organisation onto these individuals. 


Arguably, there is nothing wrong with singling out certain individuals for their contribution to collective knowledge. But there is always a danger of pushing credit for individual contributions too far. A fine example is to be found in Atlas Shrugged. Rand tells us, “Nathaniel Taggart had been a penniless adventurer who came from nowhere and built a railroad across a continent”. Note that she does not say he lead an organisation that built a transcontinental railway, she says he did it himself. Himself! 


Transhumanist Wager also contains absurdly individualistic claims. Knights reckons himself to be “self-sufficient, not needing anyone or anything else”. Such a statement shows a profound ignorance of the interdependent relationship every seemingly individual thing has with everything else. Can Jethro really claim not to be dependent on photosynthesising organisms producing oxygen as a bi-product; not to rely on systems both natural and man-made that provide drinkable water? To be fair, I should point out that the error of Knight’s supposition is pointed out by another character. Dr Langmore, who tells the story’s protagonist, “you must learn to be a team leader- and then the leader of that team… you won’t succeed alone. The nature of accomplishing your goal requires others”.


THE CULTISH POTENTIAL


Nevertheless, Jethro’s philosophy and the nation of Transhumania, built on those principles, remains in danger of becoming a cult of personality, as did Rand’s objectivism. In both Ayn Rand’s and Jethro Knights’ philosophy, we find certain truths and the end result of inquiry have become more important than the search for truth and the process of inquiry, resulting in supposed absolutes of right and wrong.


The punishment for disagreeing with (the objectivists’ version of) truth was excommunication from the group. This is a typical cult tactic for, as Michael Shermer pointed out, “those who strictly follow the moral code become and remain members; those who do not are dismissed or punished”. Unsurprisingly, given how alike Transhumanist Wager is to Ayn Rand’s objectivist novel, not conforming to Jethro’s vision of how things should be is also excommunication. “If you didn’t like it, or didn’t agree with it, then you didn’t belong on Transhumania”. But whereas the reality of the Ayn Rand cult was that it was a fairly small collective, in the story Transhumania goes on to conquer the world, and Jethro’s philosophy is imposed on everybody. 


Interestingly, this is not the only story that depicts the rise of a transhuman nation. We shall compare and contrast the visions of a transhuman nation in Istvan’s story with that other tale in the next installment.

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THOUGHTS ON THE TRANSHUMANIST WAGER PART TWO

THOUGHTS ON THE TRANSHUMANIST WAGER PART TWO: TELEOLOGICAL EGOCENTRIC FUNCTIONALISM  IN THE AGE OF DECADENCE.


Jethro Knights is clearly the protagonist of ‘Transhumanist Wager’. Equally obviously, Reverend  Belinas is the antagonist. But is the Reverend Jethro’s opposite? I would argue that in some crucial ways, these characters are really quite similar.


Most importantly, they are both ‘authentic persons’. What is meant by that? I mean that both men are wholly committed to what they believe in. There is no ulterior motive at work, no hidden agenda that is contrary to what they seem, on the surface, to believe in. Their beliefs form a philosophy of life that they practice unwaveringly.


In the case of Reverend Belinas, we are told that his more wealthy followers “bought Belinas’ goodwill and paved the way for his ministry with their resources. In return, he promised them God’s favour, both in this world and the next. He meant it, and they believed it”. On the basis of that quote I think we can say of Belinas that he really means it when he promises God’s favour, in this world and the next. It might not have been the case that he really meant that. We can imagine a person who finds it useful to pretend to sincerely believe in God’s favour, as that encourages others to part with their money. In that case, it is amassing material wealth that is the true motive, and surface-level faith is merely used to obtain it.


Now, Reverend Belinas- or rather his Church- has amassed a considerable fortune, “worth hundreds of millions of dollars”. But, for Belinas that fortune is merely a means to an end. He is not interested in wealth for wealth’s sake. “Belinas never splashed out on fancy living”. He is, however, quite aware of how useful and essential money is in getting things done, and he is quite willing to use the rich and vain- “people for whom riches came too easily and freely, celebrities, royalty, and heirs”- in order to obtain funds for the greater purpose of “helping the faithful, the downtrodden, and the destitute”.


I think it is fair to say that Belinas makes sure the money he raises goes to fund his mission in life, and the same can be said of Jethro. There is a moment in the story where he turns down an offer for a huge amount of money from a Russian businessman, because the money was offered on the condition it was used to achieve something Jethro did not consider to be plausible in the near-term. Jethro could have pretended to agree to do what was asked and take the guy’s money but he stuck to his principles.


Just to make it clear that Belinas is an authentic person, we are told: “Belinas was an authentic man, singular in his absolute faith and servitude to The Lord and to his people…If God demanded that he fly a fully fueled commercial liner into a skyscraper filled with thousands of people, he would do it. And not think twice about it”. What does that tell us about him? “It tells us that he is a nutter” might be one reply. But it also tells us that he is an existentialist, like Soren Kierkegaard.


BELINAS: A KNIGHT OF FAITH


Kierkegaard’s philosophy arose partly from observations of his fellow citizens of Copenhagen. At that time, in the 19th century, the people of the capital of Denmark were extremely religious, at least by today’s standards. But, for Kierkegaard, the faith of his fellow citizens came too easily. People attended church, they read the Bible, they said their prayers, but these acts of devotion were carried out within a more general existence of avarice, vanity, and greed. In his most famous book, Soren (who always wrote under various pseudonyms) said:


“Not just in commerce but in the world of ideas too our age is putting on a veritable clearance sale. Everything can be had so dirt-cheap that one begins to wonder whether in the end anyone will want to make a bid”.


What bothered Kierkegaard was whether what his fellow citizens took to be sufficient justification to call themselves ‘Christian’ really was sufficient. Attend church on a Sunday, say Grace before meals and the Lord’s Prayer before bed, was that really all it took to secure one’s place in Heaven? For Kierkegaard, if Christianity was to be at all meaningful, and provide a central purpose to one’s life, then practicing it ought to be more difficult than that. 


Kierkegaard’s existential philosophy was built around what it means to have faith. For most people, faith is defined as ‘believing in something when there is insufficient evidence for it’. By that definition, we might say that Jethro and all transhumanists have faith that scitech will one day defeat death. It might. After all, today modern medical and surgical practices can save lives that would surely have been lost in the past, and in the future who knows what miracles will be performed? But of course we cannot know for sure that scitech will make us immortal at some point in the future. 


Kierkegaard took a more radical view of faith in that he considered it not simply as believing in something upon insufficient evidence, but rather believing in something irrespective of the evidence. In that regard, Kierkegaard disagreed with Kant’s view that religious belief could be founded on reason. Faith was utterly irrational and completely unprovable.


For Kierkegaard, the famous Biblical tale of God commanding Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac reveals the true commitment one needs to be a Christian, and that commitment is unwavering faith. He focuses his attention not on what the tale tells us, but rather on what it misses out. In Genesis 22 we’re told that God commands Abraham to “get thee to the land of Moriah, and offer him (his son) there for a burnt offering”, and the next day Abraham did as he was told. So it seems like a pretty simple act of obedience.


But what the tale misses out are the thought processes that Abraham went through between receiving God’s command and carrying out those instructions. What was he thinking? How did he feel? The story does not tell us, and Kierkegaard considered such details crucial information for understanding Abraham and for having the kind of faith he had.


MISSING DETAILS


The crux of the matter is this. How did Abraham know what to do? What lead him to interpret God’s instructions as orders to be carried out to the letter? He could have thought, “God is testing my moral character and the right thing to do is disobey”. He could have thought, “that was not God speaking, it was the devil or just an hallucination. I will pay it no credence”. Kierkegaard insisted that the process Abraham or anyone went through in receiving a supposed message from God and deciding what to do about it, rests entirely on the individual. You alone can decide whether the voice was really God; you alone must interpret the message and only you can decide, ultimately, to comply. Faith is always subjective.


Remember, for Kierkegaard faith is believing irrespective of the evidence. True faith, the philosopher insisted, involves both a movement of infinite resignation and a movement of faith. For Abraham, the movement of infinite resignation was knowing his son was lost to him, while his movement of faith was simultaneously believing Isaac was not lost to him. Logically they cannot simultaneously be true, so Abraham’s faith transcends logic. As Kierkegaard said:


“All along he had faith, he believed that God would not demand Isaac of him, while still he was willing to offer him if that was indeed what was demanded… and it was indeed absurd that God who demanded this of him should in the next instance withdraw that demand”.


In other words, at the very moment Abraham gave up his dreams and every hope for this world, he continued to expect the impossible. Kierkegaard called Abraham a ‘knight of faith’, someone totally prepared to give up the very thing they most hope to keep, while simultaneously believing it is not lost. This is no mere act of self-deception. It is not a case of somehow forgetting about your resignation. No, Kierkegaard tells us that the knight of the faith believes on the strength of the absurd.


Knights of faith are both admirable and scary precisely because of what they might be prepared to do at any given moment in virtue of their faith. They are quite prepared to act contrary to ethics. Kierkegaard’s view was that ethics is identified with the universal. The killing of one’s own son is forbidden by morality that applies to everyone at all times. By acting on their faith, knights of faith instead act on the personal, on reasons that are uniquely that individual’s, pertaining to their relationship with God. Objectively, it is not possible to distinguish between those who disobey universal ethics so as to obey God from those who have murdered in response to insanity or delusion. As Kierkegaard concluded, “either Abraham was a murderer, or we are confronted by a paradox which is higher than all meditation”. Choosing the latter interpretation, Kierkegaard argued for “the teleological suspension of the ethical”. In other words, the personal can override the universal or ethical, when done in obedience to God. Kierkegaard’s philosophy does not prove that Abraham or anyone who carried out the ‘teleological suspension of the ethical’ is a hero rather than a villain. It requires a leap of faith in order to reach that conclusion.


Kierkegaard’s book was called ‘Fear And Trembling’ and what left him in fear and trembling was both the idea that people such as Abraham could exist, and that his faith might be similarly tested via instructions to sacrifice that which was most dear to him. From what we are told about his commitment to carry out a 9/11, Reverend Belinas is a knight of faith.


Now, when it comes to belief irrespective of the evidence, we can hardly say that Jethro Knights holds such convictions. On the contrary, he is forthright in his insistence that logic and reason are the only viable methods for gaining knowledge, and he is just as vocal in his position of faith:


“They want you to dedicate your life and subjugate your reasoning…all because it feels right to them. Their beliefs are absurd, completely lacking in sound judgement”.


JETHRO AND PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY


It would seem then, that whereas Belinas very much fits the ‘knight of faith’ mould, Jethro could not be more different. But there is another aspect of Existentialism that very much defines the protagonist of ‘Transhumanist Wager’. When Soren Kierkegaard died, he requested that just two words be engraved on his tombstone: THE INDIVIDUAL. Why those two words? Because they get right to the essence of existentialist philosophy.


Philosopher Matt Lawrence wrote, “existentialism focuses on the issues that arise for us as separate and distinct persons who are, in a very profound sense, alone in the world. Its emphasis is… on taking responsibility for who you are, what you do, and the meanings you give to the world around you”.


I doubt one could find a better description of Jethro’s philosophy of life. He himself wrote, “I will fail to achieve my goals if I lose myself in another, live for another, or place my happiness and aspirations in another. I am self-sufficient, not needing anyone or anything else”. 


Jethro Knights is unwavering in his dedication to his version of transhumanism, and as committed to working to realise his goals, as Belinas is dedicated and driven by his. In a confrontation between Belinas and Jethro, the latter admits, “I would kill my wife a thousand times over if I absolutely had to in order to reach my goals”, which some might say is not all that different to Abraham making a sacrifice of his son on the strength of his personal conviction.


I have been a member of a few online transhuman groups, and sooner or later somebody always accuses the members of those groups of being all talk and no action; spending their time discussing transhumanism but not doing much at all in terms of practical work. I would imagine that Jethro Knights is what those people would regard as an exemplary transhumanist, for he works incredibly hard for its cause, and any roadblock put up by the movement’s opponents only causes him to push himself further. It actually gets to the point of absurdity. We are informed that “Jethro continued labouring for the transhuman movement at a gruelling pace, always seven days a week” and later that “Jethro Knights pushed himself with renewed vigour, working 20 hour days” and later still, “if the days were desperate, Jethro didn’t seem to notice. He chose only to work harder, putting in longer hours”.


So, what, by this time his work schedule is 21 or more hours per day, seven days a week? We are never told that Knights is genetically modified or augmented in some way so as not to need sleep. He is just an ordinary (albeit obsessively driven) human being. Methinks anyone who pushed themselves that hard would just collapse.


There is something almost paradoxical about Jethro, in that he is wholly committed to living forever but at the same time risks his life. Not just in terms of working himself to death but also by deliberately placing himself in lethal situations. Indeed, our very first introduction to him finds him out on the ocean somewhere, in the middle of a hurricane, about to be drowned by a rogue wave. Later in the story, he is working as a correspondent for ‘International Geographic’ and is asked to take on an incredibly dangerous assignment, after the previous correspondent is killed. “yeah, I’ll do it”, he says.


Why would anyone who is determined to live forever choose to place themselves in such dangerous situations as “skimming down an erupting volcano on a sandboard”? Maybe because the point is not just to survive but to LIVE. The story tells us that “journeys that illuminate and change lives are not defined by schedules, money, or agendas- but by experience”.


FREEDOM IS A SCARY THING


Time and again, while reading about Jethro, his philosophy of life and his attitude toward others, I am reminded of a phrase in a song by Laurie Anderson:


“Freedom is a scary thing. Not many people really want it”.


Now that seems like a strange thing to say. Everyone wants to be free, don’t they? Existentialists like Jean-Paul Sartre have argued that, actually, people really are afraid of freedom and protect themselves from it by living in bad faith. 


The story informs us that “Jethro only took notice of values, not people”, and that most people feel “enmity and resistance to that type of harsh machine like objectivity”. But why should that be? Jethro cares “only for the core value of a person, judging them solely on their usefulness”. He does not discriminate on the basis of age, gender, race, or sexuality. He considers such things as whether you have a criminal record or not as being completely irrelevant. He cares only for how useful somebody is to him.  His attitude sounds very much like the ideal that society is reaching for as campaigners strive to end discrimination based on anything other than ability. But such a society has always had conditions that don’t seem all that appealing to some.


Consider the question: “If you compete in a completely free, fair, open, merit-based society and you lose, what does that make you?”. The point is that, in such a society, there is no one and nothing to blame but yourself. You have to accept personal responsibility for your own failings. Sartre argued that a great many people are not willing to accept the personal responsibility that goes along with absolute freedom, and adopt bad faith in an attempt to trick themselves into believing they are not as free as they really are.


An example of bad faith is to take the meaning of events to be a given, rather than something created or invented. People say things like “Yesterday was boring” or “Such and such happened and it made me sad”, as if events occurred that were intrinsically dull or melancholy. In actual fact, boredom and sadness are simply those individual’s responses to those events, in other words their freely chosen way of relating to them. We as individuals are always free to chose how we feel about any given situation.


Another form of bad faith is pretending one’s actions are not free. Sartre argued that whenever somebody says they have to do something, that is bad faith, for there is absolutely nothing that one must do. Such a conclusion seems to radical for many people, and they try to refute it by citing examples of actions people must do. Death and taxes are familiar examples, but neither really refutes what Sartre is saying.


In the case of “everyone has to die”, we have to distinguish between something that is going to happen, and an action you have to perform. You don’t actually have to do anything in order to die a natural death. As for paying taxes, it is true that failure to do so will likely result in punishment. But, again, such consequences are simply things that happen to you, not something you have to do (you can always yell ‘you’ll never take me alive, cops!’ and take your own life rather than go to prison). 


Time and again, we hear people say they ‘have to’ do something when they really don’t. For example, somebody might say “I would love to meet up with you tomorrow, but I cannot. I have to work. The boss is making me come in on weekends, now”. The implication is that this person’s situation is not ideal but it is not their fault. Rather, the boss is to blame. Of course, in actual fact, this person does not HAVE to go into work, but could chose to disobey and accept whatever consequences come from that. 


Prejudice is at once a hateful thing that we should strive to overcome but also a convenience for people with bad faith. Take the idea of a ‘glass ceiling’ in the form of sexism that makes it hard or impossible for women to rise up the ranks of professionals. This is at once frustrating for those who should excel but are prevented from doing so by some stupid prejudice. It is also very convenient for women whose merits simply do not warrant success but do not want to admit personal responsibility for their failures. “I tried and failed, but it’s not my fault. There is a glass ceiling in the way, after all”. 


In the Transhumanist Wager we are told that “few people wanted to be judged solely on their usefulness and then dismissed because they had little or none”. I have said that although Reverend Belinas is the antagonist, he is not the opposite of Jethro. Both are authentic men, very much dedicated to achieving their goals in life. From a story point of view, it helps to have an adversary who is, more or less, the equal of the hero. It makes for a worthy nemesis.


Considering the point about being judged purely on usefulness, and the sting to pride in being found to have none, I would not like to turn our attention to a character who really is Jethro’s opposite, and who represents the real social condition that opposes Jethro’s version of transhumanism.


GREGORY MICHELSON: DEFENDER OF DECADENCE


If Belinas is not Jethro’s opposite because both characters are authentic men, who is inauthentic? The answer is: Gregory Michelson. Remember, that an authentic person is defined as somebody whose values go right to their core, so that what they appear on the surface to believe is an accurate reflection of the values they hold most dear. The story makes it quite clear that Gregory is inauthentic. In a confrontation that occurs between him and Jethro during a philosophy class at Victoria University, the story’s protagonist says:


“You’re not the real thing…You’re future is in law, and maybe worse: Politics. These classes are just stepping stones to your BMWs, your fancy parties, your pretence at power in society. For me, this class, my thesis, and my degree are really about philosophy and how I apply it to my life”. 


Later in the story, when Gregory has indeed gone to law school and has also married into a very wealthy family, he is working as a public defender and again his inauthenticity is made quite explicit:


“He found it both perplexing and amusing to sit across from a criminal who would spend 3 years incarcerated for stealing a beat-up station wagon. He liked to secretly think to himself: ‘I’m worth about ten million times more than this dumb bastard'”.


Now, there are a few points to pick up on here. First of all, notice how he views his clients as criminals who are going to be incarcerated. There is no pretence at ‘innocent until proven guilty’, no indication that he is committed to working in their defence. Beneath the surface, he thinks of them contemptuously as ‘poor dumb bastards’. Also, take note of his belief that ‘I am worth ten million times more’ than his client. In what sense is he, Gregory, worth so much more than the average person? Is he a great entrepreneur who amassed a personal fortune? No. He is ‘worth’ so much only because he married into an extremely wealthy family. But, the marriage came with an ironclad prenuptial agreement which means Gregory won’t get a cent should he and his wife ever get divorced:


“He would be practically broke without her…He could never touch the real wealth, just smell it”.


Gregory only appears, on the surface, to be wealthy. The true wealth belongs to others. He feels entitled and superior but really is incapable of doing anything to earn that entitlement or superiority.


“The world revolved around him, Gregory remembered thinking as a young teenager. It was true, so long as it was others that did the revolving. Without others, though, Gregory did not know what to think”.


With Jethro Knights, substance wins over style every time. During these character’s first encounter with each other, we are invited to compare the effort they have put into their appearance. Jethro is unkempt, his T-shirt is torn, his shoes are old, his jeans stained with paint. He hasn’t so much as bothered to put on any underwear. It is obvious that he has simply thrown on any old clothes so that he may go and do his work. It is his work that is important to him, not how stylish he looks while doing it.


Contrast him with Gregory, who is resplendent in “a tight aqua-blue polo shirt, white linen pants, and Italian shoes”. His hair is immaculately styled. He wears a “diamond-studded gold watch, which dangled loosely, carelessly on his wrist” (a sign that wealth comes too easily to him). He has bothered to put on underwear. And not any old pair but one clearly displaying the name of some fancy French fashion label. He is, quite simply, all style and no substance.


This is true not just of himself but also with regards to how he views the world. Both he and Jethro Knights are at a town hall meeting that is discussing the ethics of transhumanism. Jethro is concentrating on the content of the speeches and is frustrated at how lacking in substance they are. But, as for Gregory:


“Gregory Michelson felt poles apart from Jethro. He was at home with the speeches. The Texas senator’s meandering voice was pleasant and soothing”. But, really, he is not really listening to what anyone is saying, but is instead passing judgement on how stylish (or not) they look. 


These are the things I think are important to know about Gregory. He is inauthentic. He cannot be taken at face value because what he appears to believe in is not a true reflection of his core values. He prefers style over substance. He has no ability to make a fortune for himself, but he does have superficial qualities that make him useful to people with true power. He is the kind of person who looks good on camera: dazzling smile, impeccably turned out, eloquently parroting words somebody else prepared for him.


I think it is also important to note that Gregory is a star athlete and a connoisseur of fine foods, because this too clues us up to the sort of person he represents. That is, a person suited to a particular period in an empire’s life. Jethro, in contrast, represents somebody suited to a different period.


You see, Gregory is very much a product of the Age of Decadence, whereas Jethro is more suited to the Age of Pioneers. 


AGE OF EMPIRES


These ages refer to two of the six stages that empires go through. An empire typically begins with an outburst, in which a small nation- one treated as insignificant- begins to spread out of its homeland and conquer new territories. Transhumania fits this mould. Before its formation, the transhumanists could in no way be said to be organized into a nation. They are merely a very loose organization of roughly like-minded individuals. They are also more or less dismissed as a joke. Early on in the story, Reverend Belinas is largely dismissive of the movement, considering it “an undersized group of soft-spoken individuals…Defeating them on every issue was rarely a problem”. Gregory is similarly dismissive. “They seem so small and weak. They’re only 50,000 strong or so”. In fact, even Jethro can be said to be dismissive of the movement. In a speech given at the World Transhumanist Institute, he tells the audience, “I will not become just another cog of your lethargic movement…Your watered-down version of transhumanism is too weak for me”.


Jethro then goes on to announce that he is launching a transhumanist revolution, and through his tireless efforts funds are raised to literally build a transhuman nation. The kind of people deemed fit to become citizens of ‘Transhumania’ are the same kind of people one finds during the period of outburst, when a hitherto small and ignored nation begins to expand outward. Such people display extraordinary courage and energy. They are hardy, enterprising and aggressive. But the new nation does not just distinguish itself in battle, but by its citizens displaying unresting enterprise and amazing initiative in every field. These are the kind of people who hack through jungles and struggle up mountains in their quest for new territories to possess. 


On Transhumania, we are told, “there was no pity or even pretence at pity. There was just usefulness- or not. And if you didn’t like it, or didn’t agree with it, then you didn’t belong on Transhumania”. This period of outburst is called the Age of Pioneers, and it should come as no surprise to find that it is people with a pioneering spirit that Jethro takes inspiration from. He reads “stories of heroic explorers, of spirited generals, of resilient scientists, of immovable philosophers, of intrepid founding fathers of nations”. It is people who have these kinds of qualities who are welcome to be citizens of transhumania. People like Gregory, needless to say, are not.


As the smaller nation expands and captures more territory, it will likely encroach on land that has already been claimed by older empires. The citizens of those older empires may not have the same fighting spirit as a nation in the ‘outburst’ stage, for reasons that will be explained later. It is reckless bravery and daring initiative that secures early victories for the fledgling empire. But the attacked empire will almost certainly use more sophisticated weaponry and more militarised organisation and discipline. The advantages of such methods are appreciated by the invading hordes, and are increasingly adopted until they are no longer a rabble of rampaging barbarians, but an efficient, organised and highly motivated war machine.


Thus, the age of pioneers gives way to the second age of empires- the Age of Conquests. In this stage we see more organised, disciplined and professional campaigns. But the tactics used by the young empire tend to be more experimental, since its people are not tied to centuries of tradition as is the case with more ancient civilisations. As Glubb put it, “the leaders are free to use their improvisations, not having studied politics or tactics in…textbooks”.


Of course, this is all based on events that happened generations ago, from 895-612 BC (the Assyrian empire) to 1700-1950 AD (the British Empire). So much of what went on in pre-globalization days may not apply to an imagined war between a transhuman nation and the combined forces of contemporary nations. Nevertheless we can perhaps say that Transhumania’s preference for cyberwarfare over more traditional bombs and bullets and teleoperated fighting machines over human warriors counts as the kind of improvisation and experimental tactics of a nation in the Age of Conquests.


Combine the hardiness and daring initiative of people from the Age of Pioneers with the well-oiled military discipline typical of the Age of Conquests, and you have an expanding empire taking over vast territories with ruthless efficiency. Think Genghis Khan,  Attila the Hun, and Alexander the Great. The conquest of territories not only secures the leaders a place in history (and, perhaps, infamy) it also sets the stage for the next age: the Age of Commerce. If the empire covers vast areas of land, within its boundaries there will be places with varied climates that naturally produce different goods, and there will be an incentive to establish trade networks if people in one territory covet the produce made in another. And since this trade occurs within a single empire, commerce is freed from such things as import permits, customs, and various forms of political interference.


Glubb wrote, “even savage and militaristic empires promoted commerce, whether or not they intended to do so. The mongols were some of the most brutal military conquerors…Yet, in the 13th century, when their empire extended from Peking to Hungary, the caravan trade between China and Europe achieved a remarkable degree of prosperity- the whole journey was in the territory of one government”.


This stage and the subsequent ones are probably of least relevance to the fictional nation of Transhumania. After all, we are talking about empires established long before there was global telecommunications and multinational companies. Jethro’s transhumanist nation does not exactly adhere to the model of a barbarian rabble evolving into a militarised nation that goes on to discover the numerous benefits of commerce. But it is worth looking at the other stages, for they shed light on what gives rise to the kind of people Gregory represents.


DECLINE OF EMPIRES


It is during the Age of Commerce that the conditions which ultimately topple an empire begin to take root. Glubb wrote, “gradually, the desire to make money seems to gain hold of the public. During the military period, glory and honour were the principal drivers of ambition. To the merchants, such ideas were but empty words, which add nothing to the bank balance”.


The combination of military conquest and commercial enterprise (which, at this stage, shares some of the same daring initiative that typifies the Age of Conquests) results in an accumulation of great wealth. And so we enter the next stage, the Age of Affluence. The commercial classes grow immensely rich, and splendid municipal buildings, wide streets, and investment in art and luxury imbue wealthy areas of cities with beauty and dignity. 


But beneath the surface a change in attitudes is taking hold. Glubb wrote, “the first direction in which wealth injures the nation is a moral one. Money replaces honour and adventure as the objective of the best of young men. Moreover, men don’t normally seek to make money for their country or their community, but for themselves”.


It would seem that Glubb considers money the root of all evil. But he apparently missed a change which occurs as empires go from the Age of Commerce to the final Age of Affluence. That change consists of a transformation of ‘quality money’ into ‘quantity currency’. For anything to act as a currency, it has to have these attributes:


Portability. You need to be able to easily carry it around.


Durability. It cannot perish too quickly


Divisibility. You need to be able to make change out of it. This is why barter is such a sub-optimal economic system. If you want to trade your cow for something worth less than it, you get no change to make up the difference.


Fungibility. In other words, interchangeability. Every unit of currency must buy the same as every other. Functionally speaking, every dollar is the same as every other.


All currencies require those four attributes. But money requires something additional. It must be:


A store of value that is fixed over time. 


This means it must be- and remain- in limited supply. So what is in limited supply as well as portable, durable, divisible, and fungible? Time and again, markets have converged on the same answer: Gold and Silver. Many things can and have been used as currency, but only gold and silver is money par excellence. 


In the ages of commerce and affluence, quality money is used to pay for a great many things. Military campaigns, merchant enterprises, and all kinds of public works. As it needs to be stretched further and further, there is a growing temptation to expand the supply of money by debasing the coinage. In more ancient civilizations, this was achieved by adding impurities like copper to your gold or silver. So, say your taxes are bringing in a thousand gold coins. If you melt them all down and mix in 50% copper, you can stamp out two thousand coins. Where modern money is concerned, debasing the money supply consists of moving off a gold or silver standard and adopting a fiat money system where ‘money’ (technically, a currency rather than real money) can be conjured out of thin air by the stroke of a pen or a tap on a keyboard. And so, as empires go from an Age of Commerce to the Age of Affluence, quality money transforms into quantity currency via a debasement of the currency.


There is one more stage an empire goes through before it enters the final Age of Decadence. As small nations grow into large empires, the wealth they accumulate is at first used to supply the basic necessities of life, and then later on in the Age of Affluence there is enough to invest in luxuries. Once the necessities and luxuries of life are paid for, history tells us that empires use funds in pursuit of knowledge. Alexander the Great was famous not only for his conquests, but also for founding the city of Alexandria, which was not only home to one of the Seven Wonders of the World, but also to a library which was the largest in the world at the time. Glubb wrote, “the princes of the Age of Commerce seek fame and praise, not only by…patronising art and literature. They also found and endow colleges and universities. It is remarkable with what regularity this phase follows on that of wealth, in empire after empire”.


The transition from an Age of Affluence to an Age of Intellect may give the impression that the corrupting influence of power and wealth are but temporary, and that society corrects itself and people turn to loftier ambitions like the pursuit of knowledge. But this is not really the case. In the Age of Intellect, education undergoes much the same transformation as morality does during the Age of Affluence. Priorities change from education whose purpose is to produce adults ready to serve their country and gain glory in battle, with the emphasis instead on gaining those qualities which will command the highest salaries. So, once again, greed for wealth replaces duty and service. The effect of this desire for wealth, power, and material possessions is to produce leaders who vie for positions of authority, not really in order to better carry out their civic duty, but because they anticipate it making them richer.


RESOURCE CURSE


Something else that may contribute to this selfish attitude is the ‘resource curse’ or ‘paradox of plenty’. This refers to the seemingly bizarre situation in which the people of nations blessed with an abundance of rich resources like gold, oil or diamonds live in poverty, handicapped by crappy government and slow economic growth. This happens because the richest natural resources tend to be non-renewable and easily monopolised. Whoever gets exclusive access to such resources can acquire tremendous power and wealth. Typically, it is those people who have military muscle- a governing elite or regional warlord- who monopolise this bounty.


Once they gain control of this cash cow, the number one priority is to maintain control. This obsession with fending off rival monopolists means the ruling elite have no incentive to build networks of commerce that make a society richer through reciprocal obligations. Nor do the leaders require their citizens to be highly educated, because they can generate plenty of wealth by selling the valuable commodity they have monopolised. The wealth thus generated tends to be concentrated into the hands of the monopolists, and if they care more about protecting their asset than developing raising the standards of living of their country, the result is an absurdly wealthy elite coexisting with a poor and backward nation.


THE ENEMY WITHIN


In his classic dystopian novel 1984, George Orwell wrote about how the aim of the ‘high’ is always to remain in power. There are two possible threats to their position, which we may refer to as ‘without’ and ‘within’. ‘Without’ refers to other nations in the ‘outburst’ stage, looking to conquer their territory. Provided enough of the ancient virtues of patriotism survive to enable the empire to defend its borders, this threat can be dealt with.


‘Within’ refers to an empire’s own citizens. By definition, an elite is always in a minority. The constant fear of the ruling elite is that the majority of people whom they exploit in their lust for power and wealth will come to realise that they serve no real purpose, and use their collective strength to sweep them away.


How to prevent this? Well, obviously physical force and intimidation can be used to terrify the masses into submission. But a more subtle and effective tactic is to gain control of the cognitive map. A pivotal figure in the development of classical Marxism was the Italian, Antonio Gramsci. He took issue with Marx’s belief that economic changes determined social values in the superstructure of institutions like religion, law, and culture. Gramsci sought to eliminate this economic determinism. A key step in achieving this was the notion of ‘ideology’, defined as the set of attitudes, values and perceptions through which we understand and relate to the world. Gramsci realized that the ruling classes dominate the majority in two decisive ways: Sheer force or economic domination (the threat of a lost job, say) and controlling the ideology of the masses. Gramsci called this control of ideas which manipulate social consciousness ‘hegemony’.


By gaining control of the cognitive map (ie, determining prevailing beliefs) the ruling elite ensure that the subordinate masses regard the ideological constraints of their social and political world as “natural”. The state of the world in which they live comes to be seen as evident common sense by the majority of people, which of course means certain things get left unsaid and unquestioned. Notice, for example, how you can go through the writings of the greatest philosophers of the Dark Ages from Augustine to Ockham, and not find a single word of criticism of the established societies in which they lived. No word of criticism aimed at absolute paternalism, divine right of kings or feudal bondage. As far as they were concerned, these artificial constructs were just part of the natural order of things. Similarly today, most people do not question artificial constructs like money and private property. Now, as then, hegemony ensures that the moral and political values of the masses coincides with those of the ruling classes.


The political economist Frederic Bastiat said, “when plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men living together in society, they create for themselves in the course of time a legal system that authorises it, and a moral code that glorifies it”. If hegemony works to make the attitude of of society as a whole coincide with that of the ruling elite, and the ruling elite choose to behave in ways that are unsustainable, then so too will the rest of the citizenry adopt runaway consumerism as the way to a better life.


Of course, by the time the Age of Decadence has arrived on the scene, systems have been modified, manipulated and corrupted to serve the interests of the few. The end result is an absurdly wealthy elite and a growing inequality gap between rich and poor. Conspicuous displays of wealth is one of the symptoms common to every Age of Decadence. But rather than repelling the masses, the wealthy elite is admired and celebrated, and the availability of easy credit encourages aspirations to similar levels of consumption (very convenient for those who profit from debt).


It would be wrong to place the blame for the Age of Decadence entirely on the shoulders of the ruling classes. As Glubb said, “decadence is the disintegration of a system, not of its individual members”. During the Age of Decadence, both leaders and citizens scramble for the spoils, and selfishness and idleness replaces duty and service throughout society. At the ‘high’ end this corruption manifests itself in the absurdly disproportionate rewards the ruling class lavishes upon itself. At the ‘low’ end, it manifests itself in the desire to live off of a bloated welfare state.


As runaway consumerism becomes more widespread, a moral and spiritual vacuum inevitably opens up. As silver investor David Morgan said, “you can never get enough of what you don’t need. What you need is a strong moral conviction that’s pervasive throughout and integrity reigns”.


A combination of conspicuous displays of wealth and an underlying pessimism at the fag end of empire are ideal conditions for the emergence of a particular type of individual: The celebrity. Remember how Gregory was noted for being a connoisseur of fine foods? The Ottoman, Spanish and Roman empires likewise all made celebrities of their chefs. Why?


DISTRACTED BY CELEBRITY


By the time an empire is in the Age of Decadence, its supremacy and power are fading. Everybody is searching for that greatness that they used to feel. Maybe it is in the best food? Or the best music? Gregory is also noted for being a great athlete. Just as sports events are massive spectacles today, so too were gladiatorial events of Roman times. You may think today’s sporting heroes are overpaid, but top Roman charioteers earned the equivalent of several billion in today’s money.


Why do they earn so much for what is hardly the most important job? Because, in a way, they do have an important job. The old saying ‘let us drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die’ tells us that frivolity is the frequent companion of pessimism. When an empire is sliding into decay, its citizens seek distractions and this need to escape from societal pessimism is something the ruling elite are all too happy to exploit. As former economic hit man John Perkins said, “people of Rome were always being distracted by gladiatorial events, and the politicians knew that they did this. Whenever there was unrest in the people they would have a huge event…Today…you find an enormous emphasis on TV programs that distract people from what’s really going on. Sport is a big part of that”.


Cheap pleasures like voyeurism and consumerism always fail to compensate for the lack of meaning in people’s lives. On the surface, in the Age of Decadence, conspicuous displays of wealth dazzle, but the system itself is rotten. The debasement of the currency grows to the point where ‘Gresham’s Law’ comes into effect. According to this law, ‘bad money drives out good’. People take debased currency at face value at first, but as it begins to flood the market people tend to save the thing that’s rare and spend the thing that’s common into circulation first. In Rome what began as a silver coin became a copper coin plated with silver (in circulation, the plating came off). In today’s fiat monetary systems, we have paper and digital currencies heading toward their intrinsic value of zero.


As things decline further still, it becomes harder to find meaningful involvement in the community, and people’s potential goes unfulfilled. Growing numbers are denied access to work. The same kinds of distractions are seen throughout all decaying empires. Binge drinking. An obsession with sex. In the early tenth century, contemporary historians of Baghdad wrote critically about increasing materialism and corruption in government. They commented bitterly on the influence pop singers had on young people, resulting in a decline in sexual morality. Those could be articles lifted from today’s news media!


‘Transhumanist Wager’ is clearly set in the Age of Decadence. Running searches on the word ‘economy’ brings up passages like:


“The American and global economies had recently begun another decline. Stock market losses lead to some business empires literally vanishing- and millions of jobs with them”.


I said earlier that Istvan’s plot may seem at first glance to revolve around transhumanism versus religion. On deeper examination, one can argue that it really depicts a clash of empires, one in a state of decay and corruption typifying an Age of Decadence, the other entrepreneurial and aggressively competitive, typical attributes of a fledgling empire during the Age Of Pioneers. Gregory Michaelson is symbolic of the Age of Decadence, which means his character opposes Jethro, symbolic of an Age of Pioneers. 


Lucius Annaeus Seneca said, “religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful”. In ‘Transhumanist Wager’, we see Christianity being manipulated and modified so as to be useful to those who rise to power in an Age of Decadence. As Jethro puts it:


“In so many unmistakable ways, we are living within their Judeo-Christian-inspired framework…Their management and regulation of our lives spans the total spectrum of the American experience…From their lobbyist-ruled government bureaucracy, to their consumer-orientated religious holidays like Christmas. From their brainless professional sports jocks, to their anorexic supermodels warping the concept of beauty…America is a nation of dumbed-down, codependent, faith-minded zombies obsessed with celebrity gossip, buying unnecessary goods, and socialising without purpose on their electronic gadgets”.


Transhumania seeks to sweep away this old, decadent Western empire and in so doing remove any pretence at power by those who benefit from decadence. In Jethro’s world, there is a place for Amanda Kenzington’s father. He, after all, was an orthopedic surgeon who invented a tissue supplement for joints and who made a fortune from the equity of his patents. Obviously an entrepreneur-surgeon has the right to exist in a world that deems usefulness and profit the only qualities worth preserving.


But what about Amanda herself, that ‘textbook case of a spoiled American brat’? She, perhaps even more so than Gregory, epitomises the vacuous celebrity. All style and no substance, living off of the wealth and fame that others have produced. Toward the last half of the story, it may seem like Gregory has discovered a work ethic and is putting in enormous effort to thwart Jethro’s schemes, but I do not think we should take that to mean he has come to epitomise the Age of Pioneers, for it is clear that he is motivated by the fear of losing his celebrity status and affluent lifestyle rather than by the hope of doing something useful with his power. If Jethro were given access to Amanda’s father’s fortune, you can bet he would not use it to fund a personal life of lavish indulgence and idleness. You can also bet that Gregory would.


Gregory and Amanda have no place in an Age of Pioneers, nothing to offer Transhumania during its period of outburst. They also have a vested interest in trying to preserve the decadent empire for as long as possible. Gramsci pointed out that, provided the majority acquiesce, physical force can be used against a minority of dissidents so as to re-establish consensus. For example, in 1968 left wing students and industrial workers nearly brought down Charles De Gaulle’s government. But the majority consensus was that the rioters represented a threat to normal life, and that force against them was justified. Gramsci himself said, “The opportunity must be taken at the right time, otherwise the old hegemony will reassert itself”. In other words, it is only when a genuine alternative world view is accepted by the widest range of exploited groups that revolution can succeed. The massive campaign against Jethro and his colleagues, culminating in a ‘War Against Transhumanism’ can be seen as the ruling classes of a decadent empire using hegemony against its enemy.


Coming up next time: a look at how Transhumanist Wager is similar to a certain novel by one Ayn Rand.

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THOUGHTS ON THE TRANSHUMANIST WAGER, PART ONE.

THOUGHTS ON THE TRANSHUMANIST WAGER.


INTRODUCTION.


In March 2002, the Taliban, on orders from Mullah Mohammed Omar, destroyed two statues of the Buddha, which had been carved into the side of a cliff in Banyan valley, central Afghanistan. Several explanations have been offered to account for this destructive act. Some say they were destroyed in protest to international age exclusively reserved for maintaining those statues at a time when Afghanistan was in the grip of a famine. Others claim the statues were destroyed in accordance with Islamic law.


That latter reason epitomises everything bad about religion. It speaks of intolerance of the beliefs of others, and the need to assert one’s own dogma on everybody else, whether they like it or not. It is the kind of intolerant behaviour I never thought transhumanists would endorse.


But then I read ‘The Transhumanist Wager’ by Zoltan Istvan.


More on that much later. But I have lots to say about other topics, too. What follows is not a review of that story, but rather some thoughts inspired by its plot and the issues it raises. My intended audience are people who have read the book, so I do not intend to give a synopsis of its plot, nor will I shy away from spoilers. 


PART ONE: THE CONFLICT.


The main plot of ‘The Transhumanist Wager’ can be said to be loosely based on Hugo de Garis’ warnings of a coming ‘Artilect War’. According to de Garis, artilects are ‘artificial intellects’, whose existence is made theoretically possible by the physics of computation plus an assumption that the brain is, in some sense or other, a kind of computer. de Garis estimates the computing capacity of the human brain to be around 10^16 bits and pointed out that, if Moore’s law were to be extended long enough, we would eventually have nanotechnology that achieved one bit per atom. The computational capability of a handheld object whose every atom is processing a bit is 10^40 bits. In other words, it is theoretically possible, given the assumptions mentioned above, that artificial brains could be a trillion, trillion times better at thinking than human brains are.


Although it is called the Artilect War, what de Garis sees coming is not a conflict between humans and artilects. The final part of Istvan’s story nicely illustrates why such a conflict would be so one-sided it would be more like an extermination than a war if artilects were to turn against us.


In part 4 of ‘The Transhumanist Wager’, the story’s protagonist, Jethro Knights, has succeeded in obtaining not just life-changing but world changing money. With this huge investment, he recruits a workforce of the brightest and best individuals from various fields, all fully subscribed to his vision of what transhumanism ought to be. They quite literally build a new transhuman nation, constructing an artificial island out of oil platforms. Positioned 200 miles out to sea, the newly created land of ‘Transhumania’ is exempt from international law, according to the U.N Convention Act of 1984. Finally free from overbearing government regulations and religion-tainted ethics, this nation of super-geniuses quickly becomes the world’s top technological superpower.


The A10 countries, fearful of what technological horrors might be amassing on Transhumania but also eager to steal such technology for themselves, combine naval forces and attack Transhumania. But the island is well protected by its technological might. They have state-of-the art robot fighting machines with pinpoint accuracy, which can be teleoperated by human pilots who are champions in the  E-sport of online first-person- shooters. They have drone warplanes that fly at hypersonic speeds, so fast there is nothing on Earth that can shoot them down. Most importantly, they have the world’s best cyber-terrorists and huge supercomputers that can swiftly hack just about any computer network. The result is that the A10 countries find their weapons turn against them, and Transhumania suffers only minimal damage from one missile which makes it through the island’s defence shield, while the others are sent back to rain death and destruction on the entire fleet of the enemy forces. 


In Hollywood sci-fi blockbusters like ‘The Terminator’ and ‘Independence Day’, we are lead to believe that, if humanity was to come under attack from an invading force with vastly superior technology, somehow the plucky, resourceful humans would emerge from the conflict victorious. Ever noticed how, in Battlestar Galactica, the Cylon fighting machines look like they could not hit a barn door their aiming is so bad? In ‘The Transhumanist Wager’, ‘soldierbot’ comes equipped with micro-GPS satellite triangulation, and its weapons have built-in sensors that enable it to take into account wind, moisture, and dust in the air when aiming. It never misses. 


Now imagine such robots are artilects, equipped with brains a trillion, trillion times more powerful than human brains. In one second, they can engage in the equivalent of a million years or more of human thought. Imagine going up against an invading force of machines with perfect aim, executing military strategies that were the equivalent of a million years in planning, every conceivable strategy of the enemy simulated for weaknesses that can be exploited. 


So if de Garis’ Artilect War is not  war between humanity and artilects, what kind of war is it? It is a war of ideologies, waged by two human groups which de Garis called ‘Terrans’ and ‘Cosmists’. The ideology that divides them is based on how they answer what de Garis claimed would be the most important question of the 21st century: If we could build artilects, should we? For Terrans, the answer is ‘no’. They fear that we would have no control over such beings and if, for whatever reason, they decided to exterminate the human race, we would be powerless to stop them. Better, surely, to impose some kind of global law forbidding the creation of artilects.


Cosmists, on the other hand, also consider the extermination of the human race as a (perhaps very remote) possibility, but consider it a price worth paying. Just imagine the astonishing acts of scientific discovery, philosophical inquiry, and artistic creations minds trillions of times more capable than human minds could engage in. Every mystery and problem that has haunted the human imagination since time immemorial could be solved in an instant by these ultimate Oracles. What is consciousness? What is the secret to obtaining immortality? The gap between human intelligence and artilect intelligence is so vast, it would almost be appropriate to call them gods. Surely, the ultimate achievement of a technologically-capable species would be to build gods who could go forth into the universe and unlock all those secrets forever out of reach to mere human intellect? Why, not building artilects would be akin to ‘Deicide’- murdering gods!


You can imagine how, if artilects really are possible and we really are progressing toward being able to actually build them, a bitter conflict would break out between those ‘for’ creating artilects and those ‘against’. Perhaps this war would begin with essays published and lectures given, presenting the arguments from both sides of the ‘we should/ shouldn’t’ divide. For a time, while the technology seems too fantastic to take seriously, only academics with too much time on their hands- the sort who debate extensively over whether we have free will and other lofty philosophical questions- would give serious consideration to the question of whether or not to build artilects. 


But, as robots become a daily feature in our lives and it becomes obvious that each new generation is smarter than the last, a question may arise in more minds: ‘Will these robots carry on getting smarter until they surpass us?’. Terrans would begin campaigning for sanctions aimed at preventing AI from becoming too smart. Cosmists would look for ways around these laws, perhaps campaigning for the freedom to invest time and resources in the development of super-artificial intelligence that could be of immeasurable value to humanity. For the more radical Terrans and Cosmists, polite debate and laws would not be enough; they would be willing to go to war in order for what they so strongly believe. 


This is pretty much how the conflict in Istvan’s story develops. But it would be wrong to say that the plot straightforwardly borrows from de Garis’ ‘artilect war’. Rather, it raises similar questions concerning technological power and what it means for humanity and its evolution. There is no mention of artilects in the story, but one can make an association between artilects and Jethro Knights’ concept of the ‘Omnipotender’. He wants to evolve into the most powerful intellect the laws of physics allow for. What is that, if not a kind of artilect?


Nor is there any mention of ‘terrans’ or ‘cosmists’. The war of ideology in this story is waged between ‘transhumanism’ and ‘religion’. This raises two questions. Could transhumanism cause conflict? Is religion necessarily opposed to transhumanism?


CAUSE OF CONFLICT.


Considering the first question, given that transhumanism requires us to develop incredibly powerful technologies that affect the course of human evolution, there is scope for conflict depending on how those technologies are handled and the state of the world into which they are introduced. What, for example, would happen if mass technological unemployment was to happen in a world clinging to the belief that everybody must earn a living?


If ‘Transhumanist Wager’ is any indication, Zoltan Istvan certainly believes in everybody earning a living. Whenever ‘welfare’ is mentioned by transhumanists in the story, it’s pretty much always cast in a negative light, to the extent where it almost seems like welfare recipients rank second only to followers of monotheistic religion in terms of being the scum of humanity in the eyes of the heros in this tale.


Running searches on the word ‘welfare’ on my Kindle edition of the story brings forth passages such as:


“You spend hundreds of billions of dollars on lazy welfare recipients, on mentally challenged people, on uneducated repeat criminals, on obese second-rate citizens bankrupting our medical system”.


“We will not throw away years of our lives for uneducated consumers, for welfare-collecting non-producers…or for corrupt politicians who know law but don’t stand by it or practice it”.


“Transhumanists will halt all free government handouts to people- transhumanists do not believe in welfare; your freebies are over”.


Goodness. Clearly, in such a world as Jethro Knights would establish, you should fervently hope that you do not work for a business that is subjected to a hostile takeover and major layoffs of its employees. Nor would it do to live in world where those in the financial markets create speculative bubbles and a consequent collapse of the housing market, foreclosures, and you being turned out onto the streets. Not only would there be no welfare to prevent you from falling all the way to absolute rock bottom, you would find yourself being compared to repeat criminals, corrupt politicians and obese second-rate citizens every time you asked for help. 


In a world like ours, which is designed to allow the crony capitalists to grow wealthier when things go well (and not always as a result of their industriousness but rather because the monetary system as it exists today redistributes wealth from the bottom of the financial pyramid to the top) and to put the burden of failure on the poor while allowing the rich to grow richer when their high-stakes financial gambling generates high levels of debt, those are pretty tough breaks.


Now, arguably, I am being too generalist. A defender of Jethro Knights’ vision of transhuman utopia might argue that a phrase like ‘lazy welfare recipients’ is not intended to mean all on welfare recipients are lazy, but only that some are. You know, those with a ‘won’t work’ attitude. 


Be that as it may, it would still be very harsh to live in a world that expects everybody to be employed, provides no welfare for those out of work, and has also entered an era of massive technological unemployment.


The idea of technological unemployment is not one that causes everybody concern. Writing in the online magazine ‘Slate’, tech journalist Farhad Manjoo commented:


“Most economists aren’t taking these worries very seriously”.


And in ‘Robots Are Out To Steal Your Job But That’s OK’, Frederico Pistono wrote:


“Over the past two centuries we have continued to rely on machines to increase our productivity, but we have not been displaced by them. On the contrary, we have created new jobs, new sectors and new opportunities”.


That last passage sums up why many do not believe in technological unemployment. It is because past observations have shown that technology does not just eliminate jobs, it also creates them. For example, there was a time when pretty much everybody worked the land. But then machines like tractors and combine harvesters made us so efficient at agriculture, the human workforce was reduced to a tiny percentage of its former size. But all those who were no longer needed to work in agriculture were not permanently jobless. They found new work in factories and, eventually, in offices and IT. 


But the fact that technological innovation creates new jobs even as it reduces the number of people needed in old occupations or eliminates those old occupations altogether, is dependant on a couple of things. One is that machines have always tended toward specialization. They are designed to perform very well within a narrow range, but outside of this area of expertise they are utterly useless. A 1969 NASA report nicely summed up the great advantage people have over machines, and the reason why it is people who fill positions in new jobs:


“Man is the lowest cost, 150-pound, nonlinear, all-purpose computer system which can be produced by unskilled labour”.


The other thing that prevents technological unemployment from being a reality is that the tide of automation rises slowly enough for there to be a significant time delay between that tide catching up to newly created sectors and eliminating jobs. Even now, in 2015, there remains work in both white and blue collar employment that people can do better than machines, or cheaper, or both.


Once it is appreciated that technological unemployment is avoided so long as machines lag behind people in terms of general capability and adaptability, or that there is a significant delay between job creation and job elimination, it becomes obvious what could make it a reality. Either the rate of technological innovation speeds up to the extent where the rising tide of automation wipes out jobs faster than people can be trained to do them, or a type of machine is invented that beats humans in terms of being the cheapest, most efficient, and most flexible worker that can be found. 


Let’s look at what impact the successful development of humanoid robots with artificial general intelligence would have on a world that insists all must earn a living and provides no social safety net for those who do not have jobs.


According to Wikipedia, an AGI can:


“Reason, use strategy, solve puzzles, and make judgements under uncertainty;


represent knowledge, including commonsense knowledge;


plan;


communicate in natural language,


integrate all these skills toward common goals”.


In short, an AGI robot could do anything that people can do. This means that, unlike all the specialised machines we have ever known, who cannot compete with people outside of their narrow range of abilities, you are always in competition with an AGI. Although, actually, just as in the case of a war between humans and artilects, being in competition with AGI robots for jobs would be no competition at all, because such robots would have advantages humans could not match. A robot can work at optimal levels at all times. It does not get tired, it never gets bored. Once it has learned to do a task, it always does it superlatively. Robots can share knowledge and skills. Once one robot learns a task, it can upload that knowledge to the web so that other robots can download it and instantly become experts themselves. Humans take rather longer to pass on knowledge and skills.


Most importantly, robots work more or less for free. There is an initial purchasing cost. They need power and that would probably cost something (even if only a tiny amount). They are machines which could break down, so there would be maintenance costs from time to time (even if the robots repair themselves, the materials needed to carry out physical repairs would cost something). But other than that, it costs nothing to employ robot workers. They work for no wages, no holiday pay, no company or state pension. They take no lunch breaks, they do not require sleep, they never organise themselves into workers’ unions and demand higher pay or better working conditions. 


So, if you are a boss and your mandate is to increase productivity and cut costs, the only viable option is to replace your human workforce with robots.


It would seem, then, that in a world that insists on everybody earning a living, the owner/investment classes would reap all the reward of robot slave labour. Wages would drop to zero, and the money thus saved could be turned into more profit for the owners, and higher dividends for shareholders.


As for the working class (and in this context ‘working class’ is everybody who works for wages, white collar as well as blue collar) they no longer have any means of employment. AGI could conceivably cause the greatest inequality gap the world has ever known, between a fabulously wealthy owner/investment class and a working class faced with permanent joblessness. It would like the reality depicted in the movie ‘Elysium’. Only without Matt Damon or anybody working in factories or any other business. 


It is not hard to imagine how a world like that could breed bitter resentment that could boil over into full-blown conflict. That conflict could be further amplified if biotechnology or some other tech that can be applied to understanding and modifying our bodies finally achieves that goal which Jethro Knights sees as the most pressing concern of transhumanism: Achieving eternal youth. Throughout all of human existence there has been equality in the sense that, beggar or king, slave or emperor, we all grow old and die. Now imagine that, not only must you endure a harsh existence along with the heaving mass of other economically useless people while a minority live in splendour within gated communities, the rich and powerful also get to buy themselves eternal youth.


It could be that the actual cost of manufacturing the elixir of eternal youth is cheap but the price charged for it is very much higher. The actual ingredients in an average bottle of perfume cost between $1.20 and $1.50 but the final product is sold for a 3-figure sum. How much is it worth paying to remain fit and healthy indefinitely? Just considering the cost of some forms of plastic surgery ($25,000 for a full facelift, for example) which, let’s be realistic, does nothing to extend life and makes you look like you had plastic surgery rather than someone blessed with youth everlasting, we may conjecture that people would be willing to pay millions.


But why price it so high? Why make it so exclusive? One motivation might be population control. Whenever the possibility of ending ageing is raised, the first question people nearly always ask is, ‘if nobody dies, won’t we run out of space?’. If I were a transhumanist intent on developing a master race with me as its eternal, all-powerful leader, as Jethro Knights is portrayed as being, I would most likely be inclined to think, “hmmm, good point. Obviously we cannot allow just anybody to gain entrance into the immortality club. It should be a right reserved for those who are most successful in life”. In our world, success is almost always defined in terms of material wealth. Whenever somebody is called ‘successful’ it is always because they have a lot of money. Indeed, we may not know anything else about them, like for example, whether they have a friend in the world. So if you insist on defining success in terms of material wealth, and you think only successful people should be permitted not to die, wouldn’t you price the elixir of life highly enough to ensure only the worthiest- the wealthiest- obtain the transhuman gift of eternal youth? 


Getting back to AGI robots displacing all human labour, leading to a vast gap between an elite owner/investment class ‘haves’ and a massive, economically-excluded and impoverished class of ‘have-nots’, there is a major point we have neglected to talk about, and that is the paradox of automation.


The paradox is as follows. Imagine you are the boss of a company, and your mandate is to cut costs and raise productivity as much as possible. You become aware of the existence of AGI robots and you learn all about how they will work 24/7 for free (or almost free, since there is the cost of purchase and maybe other fees) and always work at optimal levels. You compare these machines to your human employees- those workers who demand wages and paid vacations, and who get bored and distracted and need sleep- and it becomes plainly obvious that robots should replace the workforce. The shareholders and owners will love you for it, when they see how much profit this cost-cutting initiative results in.


But then, some time after your business is fully automated, figures from the sales department come in and they make for grim reading. They show sales of your company’s product are going down, down, down and, consequently, so is profit. Why? Well, who is buying your product? People? No, they have been squeezed out of the job market by robots, as other bosses reach the same conclusion about the low labour cost and high productivity of robots compared to human labour that you reached. The robots? Obviously not. They work for free, which is why you replaced human labour with robots to begin with.


In the past, this paradox was avoided because tech was much more specialised and the tide of automation rose slowly, and that gave people who were displaced from one form of work to find employment in other areas. Thus, they could carry on fulfilling their dual role of workers and consumers, earning wages and spending their money on goods and services and thereby generating profits for the companies that provided them. But AGI made humanoid robots so adaptable there was no job that a human could do that they could not. From a cost-cutting and productivity perspective, robot labour seems ideal. But in terms of consumers with purchasing power, they are disastrous. And that’s the paradox. 


So how do we resolve it? I put this question to members of a Facebook group I belong to, and got a variety of responses. Manney Coleman’s response struck me as being rather like the solution Jethro Knights would advocate:


“It’s solved pretty easily, actually. Those who are the owners of roboticized factories will have capital. They’ll be the only ‘consumers’ left. This means that we can have a dieback of the now pointless 99% and let the 1% elite finally produce and consume in peace without having to endure all the Jerry Springer-watching, tractor pull-loving idiots that are dragging them down”.


There is a weird perspective in a response like that. It views the ‘1% elite’ as being the only true producers and consumers of the world, while the 99% who do all the manual work and service-related jobs that enables an economy to function, have nothing to offer except high viewing figures for trash TV. Like all crass stereotypes there is a grain of truth in such a statement. Some individuals on the list of the world’s richest people have set up companies that have produced products and services that make a genuine contribution to the economy and, for the most part, have brought improvements to our lives. And some of the 99% do indeed just watch TV all day long.


But, equally, there are those who have accumulated extreme wealth not by providing actual goods and services, but rather by operating within a financial industry that makes money simply by buying and selling nothing but money. As Andrie Gorz wrote in the essay ‘Exit From Capitalism':


“Money itself is the only commodity the financial industry produces- through operations on the financial market that are more and more risky and less and less controllable. The amount of capital the financial industry siphons off and manages far exceeds the amount of capital valorized in the real economy….The value of this ‘capital’ is entirely fictitious; it is based largely on debt and goodwill or, in other words, on expectation…The real economy is becoming an appendage of the speculative bubbles sustained by the financial industry- until that inevitable point when the bubbles burst, leading to serial bank crashes and threatening the global system of credit with collapse and the real economy with a severe, prolonged depression”.


Of course, by the time the bubble bursts, the financial elite have grabbed so much money for themselves they are largely insulated from the effects of the crash. It is those at the bottom of the economic pyramid who suffer the most, not necessarily out of any fault of their own but because the fiat money system is set up to ensure that happens. We can also assume that the richest would have the capital to buy large amounts of stock in robotics companies, which in Manney Coleman’s solution buys your way out of a holocaust which affects all but the monied elite. We might therefore call this the ‘Final Solution To the Proletariat Question’.


Not all proposed solutions were as harsh and inhuman. Some, like Mike Lorrey and Alexander Biersack, pointed out that, since intelligent robots would lower the cost of providing manual and service-related jobs, that would also lower the barriers to starting businesses and more people could therefore be entrepreneurs. 


A comparison might be made with mobile phone technology. When mobile phones were introduced they were so expensive just being seen with one was as sure a sign that you were of the monied elite as the Lamborghini you just climbed out of. But over time, not only did the phones get smaller, not only did the range of services they provided go up, but the cost of access to such technology went down. Today, billions of people have access to mobile phones that are handy, pocket-sized web-enabled computers. Micro-financing initiatives emerged which enabled even the poorest nations to provide Internet access.


There are a billion people in the world who cannot afford to open a bank account (this costs $700 in Cameroon- more than most people make in a year). Mobile banking services dramatically lower the cost of banking, thereby enabling access to this service to more and more people. In Zambia, farmers without bank access use smartphones to buy seeds and fertilizer, and in India they are used to coordinate business transactions between fishermen and the markets who buy and sell their catch.


It is in no way absurd to suppose that the next great app or web-based industry- the next ‘Angry Birds’ or ‘Google’- will not be started by some MIT undergraduate but rather by somebody in the developing world who never went to school and whose family never knew any life other than subsistence agriculture. 


If robots follow the same trajectory of better performance and lower cost, that would open up access to many more business opportunities. As more and more physical devices join the Internet of things and gain some degree of intelligence, there will be more opportunity to create new products and services through mashups of existing products and services. Combinatorial explosion outruns exponential growth, so that may be how human ingenuity (perhaps augmented through Intelligence Amplification technologies like neuroprosthetics) stays ahead. There are no limits to the amount of new markets that can be created.


Alan Carl Brown commented, “If robots can do every job, this will enable you to just think up things, hand money to a robot and then wait for the product or service to become available…A world of abundance where you just have to come with with one idea that 1% of 1% of the world is willing to give you $1 in order to make your first million”.


This attitude sees the 99% not as a useless burden, but as a huge potential market, individually contributing negligible profit but collectively bringing very tidy returns to those who, like ebay’s auctions and Amazon’s retail, can make money out of the ‘long tail’ of lots of small transactions. 


IS RELIGION THE ENEMY?


I want to move on now and talk about the idea that religion is opposed to transhumanism. Is it? It is certainly true that if you seek you will find opponents of transhumanism whose objection is religiously motivated. In ‘The Transhumanist Wager’ there are various government organizations like the NAH (National Association of Health) and the NSFA (National Future Security Agency) that are supposedly ethics committees charged with assessing the potential risks of technology, but are actually theocratic organizations whose purpose is to thwart transhuman agendas. 


This sounds rather like the ‘President’s Council on Bioethics’, which was established in 2001 by George W. Bush and later closed by President Obama. Bioethicist Leslie A. Meltzer criticised the PCB for wrapping ‘political and religious agendas in the guise of dignity’, and argued its members were mostly christian affiliated neoconservatives. Elizabeth Blackburn accused the PCB of existing mostly to justify President Bush’s position on stem cell research and abortion. 


Go on Youtube and put ‘transhumanism’ into the search engine, and you will easily find videos with titles like ‘What Is Transhumanism? Is This Why YHVH (GOD) Destroyed Everything in a Huge Flood’? and ‘Satan’s New Lie: Transhumanism’. Does this count as proof that religion opposes transhumanism? Not, really, no. It’s just proof that some people with religious beliefs are critical of transhumanism. That’s not surprising, given that transhumanists hold some controversial views and the major religions have billions of followers. Among that many people you are bound to find some that have a negative opinion of any controversial topic.


If you seek, can you find people who do not see their faith as incompatible with transhumanism? Yes, and that is not surprising given how religion and transhumanism share many dreams in common, even if they disagree on the best methods to realize them. Religious anticipations of ascending to heaven in immortal angelic bodies, and of a returning Messiah who will establish a kingdom of Heaven on Earth, can be seen as analogous to transhuman dreams of uploading into immortal robotic bodies, and a coming Singularity that will transform civilization into paradise on Earth. 


The word ‘Transhumanism’ was first introduced in a book written by Julian Huxley in 1927, the title of which was ‘Religion Without Revelation’. The word obviously has its roots in ‘Humanism’. The Humanists were originally a group of practicing Catholics who believed that human ability was the best way to celebrate God.


Fast forward to modern times, and you can find people mixing scitech with religion. Rabbi Youseff Kazan said:


“The prophecy of isaiah is that the time will come when the world will be filled with the knowledge of God…We, today, are actually able to see this happen…You have…Satellites which are bringing the whole world connected into one small unit, where telephone and wireless technology is being able to bring everybody together”.


Look closely at two of the largest scientific projects of the 20th century- the Space Race and the Human Genome Project. Here, too, you will religious beliefs mixed up with secular science. In Russia, the origins of manned spaceflight can be traced back to Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who preached that it was mankind’s destiny to dominate the cosmos and become reunited with God. Over in the West, the former Nazi rocket scientist Wernher Von Braun became a born-again Christian who argued that humans must go into space to spread the gospel. Historian David F. Noble pointed out how “the astronauts have carried literally thousands of Christian banners, flags…copies of the Bible etc into space with them”. One of the most memorable film sequences captured by astronauts was ‘Earthrise’- our home planet rising over the Moon’s horizon. What words were chosen to accompany this jaw-dropping sight? The Bible’s most famous passage, ‘In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth…”


What about the Human Genome Project? It was run by Francis Collins (there was also, of course, a parallel project headed by Craig Venter). Collins was an evangelical Christian who has written about how he thinks the resurrection of Christ was the most important event in history. Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as ‘the’ human genome. Everybody’s genome is unique. When asked whose genome was being sequenced, the reply was (according to Noble) “it will be sort of a composite, and it will be male, sort of an Adam 2″.


Considering the way religious beliefs were mixed up with secular science, David F. Noble commented:


“Technological development, which appears to be the most worldly of activities, is in actuality an otherworldly project, rooted in Christian notion of redemption, the resurrection of original perfection. And the story, which is a peculiarly Christian one, is the story of the fall of Adam, and the promise of the recovery of Adam’s original divinity”.


Rather than the Christian Right being fundamentally opposed to transhumanism, we seem to have found evidence that it supports transhuman tech like genetic engineering for its promise to restore Eden. Again, not really. All we have done is find some religious scholars who interpret the mumbo-jumbo of Scripture in terms of prophecies that foresaw the Internet, and projects conducted by countries with histories steeped in religion, supplying a large body of religious imagery that some are tempted to apply to large scientific projects.


But it does at least show that someone whose beliefs sit at the conservative Christian Right need not necessarily be anti-transhumanist. Nor should we assume that someone whose beliefs lie at the opposite end of the political spectrum would necessarily be pro-transhuman. Indeed, many on the Left are distrustful of modern technology, most of which is designed by corporations, and therefore (they would argue) intended primarily to serve the interests of corporations and the wealthy owner/ investment classes that run them.


‘Transhumanist Wager’ is full of images of religiously-motivated folk opposing the agenda of Jethro Knights. In a town hall forum, “the conflict of religious imperatives versus transhuman aims was being called the next great civil liberties war”. Opponents of transhumanism in the story describe it as “anti-theistic… steeped in blasphemous egoism”. But this is arguably only a surface-level phenomena. Look deeper and there is another agenda at work in the story which in real life could very well oppose transhumanism as Knights defines it. By way of introduction to the agenda, and part two, I will leave you with the question: Who, in the story, is Jethro Knights’ opposite?

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