Transhumanism's a Fight for Equality

The technologists looking to take over French politics want to reassure you that progress can be distributed evenly.

If the transhumanists have their way, technology will, slowly but surely, erase metaphorical and physical borders. The movement, which hopes to upgrade humanity using emerging technologies, defeating death and disease, is utopian at its core — a soft insurgency against traditional social structures built to support traditionally limited humans with traditionally human lifespans. But unlike constitutionalists, communists, or fascists, transhumanists — represented in American by thirdish-party presidential candidate Zoltan Istvan and abroad by the likes of Italian IEEE Fellow Riccardo Campa — get along really well. Rather than sharing a set of very specific political prescriptions, they share a basic idea: We can build a better world.

If you ask philosopher Gabriel Dorthe, an embedded researcher within the French Transhumanist Association, he’ll tell you that consensus reigns because transhumanist goals and obstacles aren’t constrained by geography. Extending human life, improving the human condition with technology, and battling the Luddites are global, not regional matters. Though breaking down the current global political system is not a stated goal of the movement, it’s a near inevitable side effect because of what technology has already done to time and space, creating the possibility for societies to exist independent of geographic location. Head further in that direction and the idea that is “Russia” becomes ridiculous.

But that’s not going to happen tomorrow and it may not even happen before transhumanism begins to splinter. Dorthe talked to Inverse about the dawn of “technoprogressivism,” why the “T-word” is a “scarecrow,” and the inevitable problems with the Catholics.

What are the differences between U.S. and French transhumanism?

Historically, the transhumanist movement is grounded in the U.S. West Coast, Silicon Valley, and a little bit on the East Coast. For the European activists, it is very important to import and translate transhumanism into the European political context and talk more about social inequalities and public investments in research and development. For at least two or three years, the most prominent transhumanist color in Europe is technoprogressivism. The main theorist of this way of promoting transhumanism is actually James Hughes, an American.

So European transhumanism is in line with these American views?

[The Transhumanist Declaration from 1998] is the program of the transhumanist movement around the world. Every time a new movement starts, they refer to this Declaration. This is, obviously, kind of vague in many ways, but it says, explicitly, that transhumanism is a lobby and has to try to influence policymakers and entrepreneurs — everybody who can make what they are interested in. Transhumanist activists, most of the time, are not scientists or engineers or entrepreneurs. Some of these people can be interested in transhumanism. They can sometimes give a bit of money to them. But they are not specifically transhumanist.

Technoprogressivists have become a lot more prominent in the last few years. They decided to write a new transhumanist declaration: The new technoprogressivist declaration.

What’s the big difference between the old declaration and the new technoprogressivist declaration?

The first difference is that [the technoprogressivists] explicitly ask for public deliberation and better involvement of policymakers and politicians and public funding. But I tend to believe that this discourse needs an enemy — someone or something to talk against. This enemy … it’s hard to say if it exists anymore. This enemy is Libertarian transhumanism. They constantly refer to it, saying, “We are not like that.” We care for inequalities, and we care for transhumanism for everybody. Better health, increased longevity, things like that. We are against patents on, for example, plants; we open-source innovation. Transhumanists who don’t advocate for that, they are very rare.

These ideas all agree on the fact — or the belief — that something very disturbing or disruptive is coming in technology. Where it’s coming from, we don’t exactly know.

Are the ideas of the technoprogressive movement more likely to be adopted by the French than the U.S. public and policymakers?

As far as I know, no, because I’m embedded in the French Transhumanist Association, and I can see every day how difficult it is for them to get accepted.

What are the ideas that French culture seems to be resisting?

The real name [of the group here] is the French Transhumanist Association-Technoprog. So, technoprogressive. They play the two faces of the movement. They are struggling to convince media or politicians or the public that they are good transhumanists because they are technoprogressivists. But at the same time, they need to keep the “T-word,” as they say. And people are very reactive to that.

What transhumanist ideas have been accepted by French policymakers?

Some politicians in France talk about increasing longevity, but they never refer to transhumanism. When people endorse the ideas, they always say, ‘I am not a transhumanist, but.” Transhumanism is something very dangerous, but technology will dramatically change and maybe improve my condition.’

Yeah, that’s the thing. And a lot of people are saying the same kind of things [as transhumanists], the same kind of statements about technology and humanity. So in a way, it’s like — what’s .the thing you put in the middle of the field to avoid birds?

A scarecrow.

It’s an interesting way of framing the landscape.

How has religious thinking affected the way transhumanist ideas are received in French public policy?

Catholic thinking about the integrity of the body is more implicit in France. There’s the idea that you cannot put some pieces of technology in the body; that it should stay unique and pure. But most of the time it’s not referred as a religious statement, but more like, “Everybody knows that.” I think in the U.S., it’s more open. If you want to do something, just do it, and we can talk or not if we do not agree. For the transhumanists it’s much more clear that if you do not agree, you are either Luddites or irrational religious people.

What are the most pressing policy issues that they’d like to see changed in the next 10 or 20 years?

The most important topic is longevity, which could mean more public investments in research and in medical research. Most transhumanists agree that longevity and amortality or life extension is very important. And in terms of organizing the movement, they are not very fond of building a political party. They are actually trained to build a think tank, which is a way to be more legitimate to try to influence the politicians. If you are labeled as a think tank, it gives you some serious weight.