Monday, October 23, 2006

Transhumanists vs. Ufologists: The Old Future and the New Future

This blogfight is fascinating.

Transhumanism is a somewhat complex blend of old school futurism, urban primitivism (in some cases), Tim Leary-esque pre-punk corporeal alteration, and technological fetishism. Much of transhumanism revolves around the notion of the Singularity, a predicted moment in the near future when technology will go beyond our ability to easily predict, and humanity itself will begin to change due to emergent technologies (GM, nano, cyber). I see it as a more mature extension of the sort of "Gee Whiz" science fiction that was written in the 1930s - 1950s about the emergent technologies of the day (robotics, atomic, rocketry). Concepts for dealing with these technologies became standards in the writing and fiction of the day (rotating space stations, generation or sleeper ships for star travel, Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics), just as gray goo and uploading have become standards of transhumanism and related fields of thought.

These ideas and plans are expand on mainstream (or cutting edge but non-fringe) science as it is understood at the time, predicting a future dominated by these new technologies. They are in this sense a form of spirituality. The emergent technologies will radically transform the way humans live, even their very humanity. And in a positive fashion. Transhumanism isn't entirely optimistic, but it largely looks forward to these developments. Many of todays problems will disappear because the technology will allow us to escape the current human fallibities. It is a technological Enlightenment, a directed evolution, futurist revelations.

In contrast, as we'll see in this blog, many forms of Ufology are a space-age romanticsm. Love of ruins and the past, rejection of social norms, populism, and emotion (excitement at mystery, outrage at coverup or being considered cranks and lunatics) are all present. It is not difficult to see the spiritual aspects of much of UFO culture, but one major form of it rejects the notion. Scientific or nuts-and-bolts Ufology does not concern itself with the engineering wonkery of transhumanism, but still sees itself as a legitimate branch of science.

The blog entry linked above is a slapfight between transhumanists and ufologists. From the transhumanist perspective, focused on creating new forms of sentient being or consciousness and melding technology and biology, the notion of space traveling little gray men is ignorant. They make as much sense as a physical Heaven and Hell located in the clouds under the crust of the Earth. In particular, the essay takes aim at Raelians, one of the more successful UFO religions and one focused on what could be called transhumanism. I'll probably be talking about the Raelians in the future, but in essence their spirituality focuses on both biological and spiritual evolution, directed by technology. But these notions are not counched in the acceptable science of the transhumanists, and is all the more offensive to them for that.

The reponse to these heresies is telling. The criticism of transhumanism I am most sympathetic to is that most of it simply won't happen, and it won't happen on the schedule or in the manner the theorists believe. Near-earth space travel, nuclear energy, robots, computers, lasers, and other emergent technologies of the mid-twentieth century have all had significant impacts, but in almost all cases these impacts have been far more subtle and less invasive than was ever expected. They had their impact, but they did not come to dominate life, with perhaps the exception of the internet. Other "pedestrian" technologies such as birth control pills and television exploded in ways no one expected with far reaching social rammifications whilst predicted robot revolutions and genetic castes are still missing some 70 years on.

Not that the transhumanists are wrong. The emergent technologies they are fascinated with will have their day, and some may radically alter the world. But the last bout of the future brought neither the predicted technoshock nor gleaming utopias. It brought us cell phones and with which to argue about the godliness of gays and with which to text message votes for American Idol. The failure to recognize ufology as a spiritualism for a technological age, a new way of doing an ages old human behavior instead of bad science, speaks volumes.

The transhumanists dream of and theorize about things that do not exist but could exist based on what we know. The ufologists dream and theorize about things that cannot exist based on what we know, but are nonetheless reported/believed to exist in the past and the present.

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