Explainer
Culture
6 min read

Challenging transhumanism’s quest to optimise our future

Instead of separating the human from the hardware, Oliver Dürr recommends rediscovering other ways of self-formation and improvement.

Oliver Dürr is a theologian who explores the impact of technology on humanity and the contours of a hopeful vision for the future. He is an author, speaker, podcaster and features in several documentary films.

A plastic sheet strewn with biology-related instruments.
A biohacking kit for a biology workshop.
Xavier Coadic, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Welcome to the age of transhumanism. In this world, the goal is to overcome all limitations and restrictions that hold human beings back. Science, technology, and medicine should allow us to live longer, healthier, and better lives. So runs the promise. But is there a peril that goes along with it? To answer that question, we need to take a closer look at the phenomenon of transhumanism, particularly the view of human beings that lies behind the glittery promises of an “optimised” future.  

Improving humans, however possible 

Transhumanism is a global movement that seeks to use all available technological means to “enhance” human beings. From curing illnesses and overcoming physical limitations to expanding mental abilities, the movement aims to overcome all obstacles to the current human condition. 

More precisely, it seeks to overcome all obstacles to the individual’s freedom to live the life he or she wants to live. In the attempt to enhance life, transhumanism veers beyond traditional forms of curing impairments (like compensating for bad sight with a pair of glasses) and ventures into more experimental fields (like manipulating the human eye to see ultraviolet or infrared light). Emotional or cognitive deficits (such as lack of concentration) are supposed to be overcome by “smart drugs” (like Methylphenidate / Ritalin) and even genetic modifications, and prostheses are considered to expand human capabilities.  

The goal is to create “superhuman” abilities. The holy grail of this movement is drastically extending the human lifespan (if it is in a state of health and vigour). Ultimately, transhumanists want to “overcome” death.  

There are two paths within the transhumanist movement on which they hope to arrive at this sacred goal: a biological and a post-biological way.  

Biological transhumanism 

Let’s have a look at “biological transhumanism” first: The focus here is on our current, carbon and water-based bodies. Weak and fragile as they are, biological transhumanists must make do with them to achieve the greater things they envision. Human beings must be treated with drugs, and a host of prefixed technologies: bio-, gene-, and nano-. 

Aubrey de Grey’s project of postponing death by achieving a “longevity escape velocity” is a good illustration of the movement. De Grey is convinced that novel biomedical technologies can achieve a limitless extension of the human life span: “If we can make rejuvenation therapies work well enough to give us time to make them work better,” he writes, “that will give us additional time to make them work better still” and so on. The time gained with a particular innovation must only be greater than the time needed to achieve another such advancement. Therefore, he argues, the effective death of people alive today can be staved off indefinitely.  

De Grey is not alone in transhumanist circles to predict such outcomes. Google’s Ray Kurzweil has a similar view: “We have the means right now to live long enough to live forever”.  

Such optimistic prognoses bank on a view of human beings as being essentially a body-machine that can be controlled and improved at will. The key to unlocking its potential is information theory.  

Think of human beings as an algorithm, and, in principle, all their problems can be solved by engineering. Cultural critic Evgeny Morozov poignantly called this approach “technological solutionism”. From a ‘solutionist’ perspective, humanity is increasingly seen as the problem that needs solving. Thus, not only must we develop new technologies to guarantee human life and freedom, but humanity needs to adapt. Those necessary “transformations” of the “human” are what inform the first dimension of the term “trans-humanism”. 

If human beings want a seat at the table in the digital future, they must find a way to merge with and dissolve into the digital sphere—or so the transhumanist narrative goes. 

Post-biological transhumanism 

The second path is “post-biological transhumanism”, which takes a more radical approach. Here, the focus is on leaving behind our current bodily form altogether and radically transcending the limitations of what it means to be human today. Those alterations, such transhumanists argue, will be so radical that calling the result “human” will no longer be adequate. The preferred means to achieve the future state are taken from the digital sphere: algorithms and information processes.  

The view of “the human as a machine” becomes more specifically “the human as a computer”. Mind, spirit and consciousness are understood to be the software within the hardware of the body. Human beings are perceived to be biological computers and thus in direct competition with digital computers. And those are becoming increasingly powerful by the hour. If human beings want a seat at the table in the digital future, they must find a way to merge with and dissolve into the digital sphere—or so the transhumanist narrative goes.  

Immortality in the Cloud? 

For post-biological transhumanists, the ultimate goal is called “mind-uploading”. The idea is that we can upload our minds (selves) to the internet and achieve immortality—at least if all we are is the sum of information processes in the brain and as long as the internet infrastructure is still available. Mind uploading requires leaving behind our current biological form of life altogether and dissolving into virtuality.  

This vision of virtual immortality is why post-biological transhumanists tend to place their hopes in information technologies, software algorithms, robotics and artificial intelligence research. They aim to overcome and entirely leave behind the “human” as it is. This move to “transcend” informs the second dimension of the term “trans-humanism”. 

In classical humanism, at least from the Renaissance to the 1970s, “human improvement” meant education, moral, intellectual, and practical formation and refinement towards a concrete ideal of humanity and the shaping of a society that enables such formative processes. 

Is there a solution? 

But can those transhumanistic approaches really deliver on their promises? 

Human beings have always tried to improve themselves—not least through technology. What is new today is how transhumanists define “better” and some means of realising those perceived benefits. With its solutionist approach to life, transhumanism discards large swaths of traditional techniques to “improve” human beings and their lives. In classical humanism, at least from the Renaissance to the 1970s, “human improvement” meant education, moral, intellectual, and practical formation and refinement towards a concrete ideal of humanity and the shaping of a society that enables such formative processes.  

But in the age of transhumanism, there is a tendency to believe that we can delegate such hard work of the self to a new technocracy and their algorithmic tools—who, to put it mildly, may not always have our best interests at heart.  

Freedom is best conceived, not as a mere “choice” to do what we please, but the liberty to live a truly fulfilling life, which almost always includes others .

The main problem, however, is that ultimately, we cannot delegate our future to machines because, after all, we aren’t machines. Instead, we must learn to live with ourselves, our limitations, and our finitude, or we will never be free. Freedom only ever begins once we learn to let go of ourselves and start living for and with others.  

The reason for this is that freedom is best conceived, not as a mere “choice” to do what we please, but the liberty to live a truly fulfilling life, which almost always includes others. Many of the things that make a future worth wanting in the first place are shared goods, relational, communitarian, cultural values and practices that needn’t be optimised or automated at all—at least not technologically.  

When building a sandcastle with my toddlers, that process needn’t be optimised (which realistically would mean excluding the toddlers from the process altogether). Rather, the process of doing it together is the point. Political decision-making processes, to take another example, also don’t have to be automated or made more efficient through algorithms. Struggle in deliberating how our society should look is the point. Without such moral deliberation, our public life is diminished. In many cases, the slowness, strenuousness and inefficiency of such processes is a feature, not a bug.  

A tech future beyond transhumanism 

Having this in mind changes the questions we pose in light of novel technologies: How (if at all) can they be integrated into our lives in such a way that they open up the world in its complexity, allowing us to experience the fullness of life and enabling us to shape the future we really want? 

It is time to rediscover and bring back religious and humanistic traditions of self-formation into our public debates about the future. Far from being relics of the past, soon to be discarded, they can provide us with tried and true values, practices and virtues around which we can organise our societies in the digital future. They provide us with the tools to unlock the sources of care and the will to create a better social framework in which human beings and technology find their place. The future need not be transhuman to be better; being fully human is quite enough.  

Review
Culture
Music
1 min read

Beyoncé’s breaking barriers

Cowboy Carter sees the star crack her whip in the temple of the music industry.

Krish is a social entrepreneur partnering across civil society, faith communities, government and philanthropy, He founded The Sanctuary Foundation.

Side by side, two rodeo riders on horses trot toward the camera. One is Beyonce, the other a cowboy
Beyoncé at the Houston Rodeo.
Beyoncé.com

I sometimes wake up in a cold sweat with flashbacks of one terrible swimming lesson at school. I had accidentally forgotten to forget my kit, so was forced to face not only the freezing water, but the spouting of ignorant prejudice from my teacher.  

“Kandiah, you’re useless,” he said, as I heaved myself out of the pool at the end of the lesson. “Although I guess it’s not your fault you can’t float like the white children. Your bones are heavier. Look at the Olympics – you never see black and Asian swimmers, do you?” 

I opened and closed my mouth a few times, like the fish out of water I suppose I was, but inside I was seething.  

Being told I couldn’t do something made me all the more determined to do it. Back in I jumped.  

Last week, in another splash aimed at proving people wrong, Beyoncé’s magnificent album “Cowboy Carter” became the first album by a black woman to top the country charts. 

On her Instagram feed she said: “the criticisms I faced when I first entered this genre forced me to propel past the limitations that were put on me.” 

It was a brave move. Back in 2016, she had received heated and hate-filled reactions when she performed her song Daddy Issues at the 50th Country Music Association Awards with the country music group Chicks, formerly known as the Dixie Chicks. Many country music fans were outraged, calling it an act of cultural appropriation. One response on social media put it starkly: “SHE DOES NOT BELONG!!”.  

But as a Texan who had been brought up around country music, Beyoncé disagreed. She would spend the next five years planning her response. Cowboy Carter proves her country credentials beyond all doubt. It’s not only about the music. It also does three important things that show the world what can be done when faced with barriers of prejudice and ignorance. 

She honours the past

The album is clearly an act of tribute to trailblazing country artists before her. Beyoncé included notable guest appearances and feature tracks and took the unusual step of sending flowers to all who had inspired her.  

Beyoncé sent flowers to Mickey Guyton, the first black female artist to be nominated for a Grammy Award in the Country category. She also sent flowers to K. Michelle and featured Tanner Adell, Brittney Spencer and Reyna Roberts on the Cowboy Carter track Blackbird, a song that Paul McCartney wrote as a response to the case of the Little Rock Nine, a group of African-American schoolchildren initially barred from attending a previously racially segregated school in Arkansas. It took the direct intervention of then President Dwight Eisenhower in 1957 to make it possible for these children to attend their school. She also included guest appearances from country music royalty Dolly Parton and Linda Martell, who both introduce songs on the album. Dolly’s introduction to Beyoncé’s reworking of Jolene is particularly poignant: “Hey Queen B it’s Dolly P”.  

The song Jolene sticks faithfully to the guitar riff from the original, but the words and the tone of this song are completely different. Dolly’s original Jolene was begging another woman not to take her man from her. But Beyoncé will have none of that. She is full of threat and menace:

“I’m warnin’ you, don’t come for my man… don’t take the chance because you think you can.”  

As Beyoncé pays her dues to the greats that have gone before, she also offers a very different picture. She can recognise the past, and yet not be imprisoned by it. She can appreciate those who have laid the foundations for a new era, unbound by cruel stereotypes.  

She challenges the present 

We don’t have to look far to see the way that western society is splintering. It is becoming harder to find common ground, harder to move from one tribe to another.  Beyoncé’s album is political in that it is deliberately breaking down a wall and smashing a division. She refuses to accept that there are no-go areas for people of colour. The album feels like Beyoncé’s famous baseball bat from Lemonade, but this time it isn’t smashing cars, but preconceptions and prejudices instead. 

There’s anger in this record. The first song is “American Requiem” and includes the line:  

“They used to say I spoke ‘too country’./ And the reaction came,/ said I wasn’t country ’nough / If that ain’t country / I don’t know what is?” 

Full of confidence and rage she asks over a bed of country music guitar chords:  

“Can you hear me? / Can you stand me?”  

Beyoncé does not disguise the ironies. The fresh anger and challenge weaves into classic forms and tropes of country music. The artist that some wanted to exclude from the genre tops the charts. The pop icon becomes an iconoclast.  The smashing of divisions makes way for the building of something new.   

She opens a door for the future

It is within living memory of many that black people were prohibited from sitting at the front of a public bus or drinking from the same water fountain as white people. Beyoncé’s Cowboy Carter is not just a smash hit it is a smash down of the boundaries of genre that had excluded her and others. With this boundary smashed the opportunity is opened for others too.  

For example, there was a recent stand-out performance at the Grammy awards watched by millions around the world – the duet between the country star Luke Combs and Tracy Chapman. Luke, a young white man, is part of a new generation of country singers with a huge following. The legendary black artist Tracy Chapman recently turned 60. The joyful performance was particularly touching as the two of them looked genuinely delighted to be singing together. The video went viral and lead to a huge uplift in Chapman’s sales. The song Fast Car rocketed to the top of the charts some 36 years after it was first released.  
 
Cowboy Carter is Beyoncé using her voice and talent to push back against prejudice and push forward to a new era. She is cracking her whip in the temple of the music industry. She is driving out those who have commandeered the space that rightly belongs to those from any and all backgrounds.  She is righteously angry at the injustice. She is declaring that country music be reclaimed as a meeting place for all nations to enjoy.  

When Jesus unleashed the whip against the tables of the moneychangers in the temple who were excluding the non-Jews the space rightly belonged to, he fiercely declared: “My father’s house is to be a house of prayer for all the nations.” He was not only breaking the barriers of the past but ushering in a new future, a future where everyone could gather together before God on equal footing. Jesus would eventually die on a cross to ensure this free access to God was available to everyone - wherever they were from, whatever they had done and whatever they looked like.  

I welcome this album by Beyoncé in that spirit of challenging prejudices, breaking down barriers, and clearing the decks for a new future equally available to all.  

If only I could have whipped myself into shape, I believe I could have been the Cowboy Carter of the swimming world forty years ago.  

 

Beyoncé in her own words

“Ain’t got time to waste, I got art to make/ I got love to create on this holy night/ They won’t dim my light, all these years I fight.”  

16 Carriages 

“Say a prayer for what has been / We'll be the ones that purify our father's sins / American Requiem / Them old ideas (yeah) / Are buried here (yeah) / Amen (amen) 

 Amen