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.
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.
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:
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.
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 Wailing Wall and Temple Mount
The Grand Mosque.
Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer statue.
China’s Imperial Palace.
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?
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.