Childhood's End

Transhumanists as ‘Overlords’

Editor’s note: This essay by Khannea Suntzu is inspired by the TV adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke’s science fiction masterpiece “Childhood’s End.” See also “How ‘Childhood’s End’ Finally Made It to TV” on Rolling Stone. I haven’t started watching the miniseries but I’ll be sure to post a review in a few days. I hope they haven’t departed from the book too much, and at least respected Clarke’s spirit and atmosphere. “Childhood’s End” is one of my favorite science fiction novels – see my mini review here. See also some absurdly idiotic comments by the usual suspects.

I’ll be sparse with the spoilers, but the following are a few short meandering thoughts I had about the premiere of the TV adaptation of the Arthur C. Clarke novel “Childhood’s End”.

In the novel (which differs from the TV episode) aliens arrive at Earth and put everything in order. Depending on who you ask, the aliens are fascists, meddlesome, saviours or suffocating parental figures who basically force the human species to live a happier life. They do so by enforcing strict cooperative behavior, equality, an end on various form of conflicts, etcetera.

We have seen various forms of ideologies and entities (often insidious) that have posited themselves as saviours. It is ever so easy to use people’s fears to shove unthinkable policies down electoral throats. A bunch of religions in the past and present posit themselves as saviours, often with elaborate promises, strategies and values the vast majority of humans do not agree with. Ideologies are definitive, constrained – and a defined ideology is something you can very much and easily decide to agree or disagree with. Take or instance the countervalue of “Free Market Capitalism” (if there is such a thing) – Socialism. Socialism has been meticulously maligned and attacked for decades, even though it clearly posits an ideological position of improvement. Socialism is often regarded (or defined) as “Utopian” in its ambitions. It is a lot more difficult to resist Free Market Capitalism, by and large because nobody has a clue what it really is supposed to be in the actual world.

Yet if there’s one thing modernity has taught us it is to deeply distrust and resent easily summarized, simplified and universal theories of improvement and historical culmination. Socialism is shunned, largely because materialist socialism is a movement that went against the less precisely defined or Utopian 19th century ideology of capitalism. In this regard socialism was implicitly non-denominational. It almost always advocated abdication of the monotheistic religions. It thus sought to displace a previously established utopian vision and become a new blueprint for a historical end-point, i.e. instead of a religious utopia (Heaven) we would consign ourselves that some external force wouldn’t “save” humanity from its own massive flaws and inconsistencies and optimize the humans in to a form of transcendence where we’d all be happy in some abstract and distant spiritual state. Instead “socialism” would take the imperfect and the flawed, minimize it with social policies in this material world and seek to create the best possible Utopia right here, while we would still be alive.

The choice to go out in the world and advocate for direction, in a way that means people will be forced in to compromise, means humans get to object from the get go, or not long after. Once socialism was openly visible and readable as a coherent creed people were immediately able to protest against it, malign it, ridicule it or punish anyone who would make it law. Or worse, kill the damn godless heretics.

A lot of people in the late 18th and 19th century were thoroughly disappointed by both materialist capitalism (i.e., the assumed default of society) and spiritual christianity (i.e. the assumed other default for society) and wanted something better they could actually go out and realize in the immediate here and now. In essence both are assurance and insurance policies against suffering. The default natural state assumes winners and losers and christianity assures a better world in the beyond, while socialism is sort of an insurance against personal failure, inadequacy, calamity and suffering in the here and now.

Transhumanism emerged in the 1980s and 1990s as an ideological movement and fairly quickly it started acting in a manner where it actively shunned making universalist, determinist statements about the future. Transhumanists were faced with the actual Utopian example of Socialism, and wanted to be as much unlike socialism (or its bastard “state capitalism” variant “communism”) because in the particular mindset of that era both were thoroughly positioned as politically incorrect or even immoral. You could still end up in prison (or worse) in the 1970s if you openly suggested you were a socialist in some countries. So Transhumanism instinctively changed its ideological stripes in an almost reflexive manner and nestled in the foliage of “freedom of choice” undergrowth of Capitalist, Modernist and Multicultural society. It adopted Humanist camouflage patterning to distinguish itself from espousing an ideological endpoint.

Not that this proved an uphill battle. In the latter decades of the Cold War most people had been thoroughly indoctrinated (my opinion) to shun all ideologies which smelled vaguely of leftist politics, and in some countries this is still the case. So if someone like Bernie Sanders calls himself a socialist people in online communities can still seriously ask the question “is this legal?”.

We can bullshit ourselves as a transhumanist, techno-progressive, posthumanist, abolitionist, singularitarian, extropian (and what have you) community but we are Utopian. That we may massively disagree about the various strategies to take (and in what measure personal responsibility must make way for things like state-ordained rationing and imposition of social equity) but most people that fit in any of the above communities strongly agree on a shared set of values, to the point that we can safely state ‘we’ are actual utopianists, or at most modest implied utopianists.

We all want everlasting life for ourselves. We all want significant changes to our genomes and physique. We all want radical technological and existential freedoms. In wanting these for ourselves we basically imply that most the world will be effectively forced to deal with these affordances as well. A good example is life extension. Once you effectively do the research to make human beings live substantially longer (or rejuvenate them) you imply a host of societal implications. Such as state imposed birth rationing. Once you impose the technology of life extension (or regenerative, rejuvenative) technologies upon society you impose upon society a completely new set of political imperatives.

And the problem is that the above communities (which I shall summarize as the dreadful T word, “transhumanism”) imply no one, but conceivably dozens of implications that will be hard for society to swallow.

In the first episode of the TV series Childhood’s End we are faced with precisely this systemic unfreedom. The author of he original story, Arthur C. Clarke asks the question – what if we were forced to live materially optimal (?) lives under the dictatorship of an alien presence how happy would that make most humans. The story strongly suggests that over-all most people would be a fair bit happier, but a small but significant minority of humans (many of whom would incidentally be of religious monotheist denomination) would be sorely pissed off. I’d go as far as believe (state) that a significant number of people (of which many would be monotheistic religious) would probably off themselves (commit suicide) as the imposition of material world perfection would be so dissonant with their personal preferences they could not live with the eventuality.

Most transhumanists posit that in a few decades there will be massive societal upheaval (as if this doesn’t exist already…) in the form of a Singularity. Many transhumanists (et.al.) are publicly on the record that two things can happen (and largely purely random or contingent) – Possibility one – A Singularity happens and we as a biological species become mostly insignificant, we get “subsumed” in some manner, or we simply go extinct not long after and (most importantly) we as a transhumanist community can do preciously little about the arbitrarily random nature of these outcomes. The second possibility of course is that transhumanists are able to effectively garner the vast technological benefits of this singularization process in a manner that they (as opposed to the rest of humanity) get to impose on the world (and the immediately surrounding universe) how the future is going to be, often in exactingly utopian detail. This is essentially a millenarist and pretty much a dominionist attitude, abundantly lampooned by the likes of Charles Stross and Cory Doctorow (et.al.).

This is the truth – Transhumanism comes with so much luggage it is just as radical, impositional and revolutionary as the most assertive forms of historical socialism or catholicism.

So why not accept this and run with it? We as a transhumanist community pretty much believe in all of this is true and as important as it gets. So why do we would we be so overly cautious about calling the sow a sow? What we may espouse may not be immediately popular, and for many people outcome two might be just as frightening as the one where all of humanity dies. But if we consider ourselves and the greater transhumanist community to be somehow “enlightened” (illuminated?) about what is going to happen we might as well start living it. In desiring outcome two we pretty much openly state we anticipate imposing at least several major paradigm shifts about the fundamentals of how the species is going to live on this planet for centuries or millennia to come. In comparison the Overlords in the aforementioned TV series are almost docile and peaceful in comparison.

And it is no surprise how transhumanists will be perceived when push comes to shove, i.e. when the proverbial fecal matter strikes the ventilator. We can sing a dreadfully alarmist tune about it, or we can shift PR gears in to the realms of starry eyed utopianism, we will be no less regarded as (spoiler alert) monstrous and “demonic” whatever we do. As with aforementioned Overlords. As a community perceived as rational, idealist, capitalist and pro-freedom, sane, educated, erudite, intelligent, philosophical, politically correct experts we can actually do a lot of good as midwives of arguably the biggest change on this planet since the invention of fire.

One way of dealing with this is to more or less embrace it, as it were “swallow the red bill”. One fairly effective way to prepare for the imminent onslaught is to proactively establish ourselves as akin to Lutheran in our scalding resentment to how things are today. Because if there is one thing transhumanists agree about is that the world as it exists today seriously sucks. To emphasize what is so wrong right now will establish us as vehement critics rather than confused Utopians, even if we are. Yes, we espouse a world view that will taste to the world as a bitter medicine. So we might as well accept the visage of the Overlords, and be done with it. Let the chips fall where they may.