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Why transhumanists should aim to inform decision-makers, not become them


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Why transhumanists should aim to inform decision-makers, not become them

by Ricky Piper Published on 6th Jul 2015

by Ricky Piper Published on 6th July 2015

In May’s UK General Election, Alexander Karran, the sole candidate for the UK Transhumanist Party (TPUK), received just 56 votes in the constituency of Liverpool Walton. Less than 0.1% of the local electorate had been enthused enough by the idea of a transhumanist representing their needs in parliament to consider his candidature. To put this into perspective, elsewhere in England, Al Murray, a comedian most famous for his TV portrayal of a fictional pub landlord received 318 votes in South Thanet, whilst even ‘Mad Max’ Bobetsky of the Monster Raving Loony Party gained the support of 384 people in North East Hampshire. Essentially, even for a nation where small parties barely register, transhumanism’s first foray into British politics had made barely a hint of a blip on the political radar.

This initial campaign in the UK pales in comparison to the far more high-profile Transhumanist Party USA, and leader Zoltan Istvan’s running for US President in 2016. With a membership of around 25,000, and budget apparently large enough to accommodate a bus tour of California complete with ‘six-foot tall robots’, the non-affiliated US counterpart may hope to make greater waves. But in a country with over 300 million inhabitants the US campaign is likely to have just as minimal an impact on overall results.

So if transhumanists have no hope of winning, then why take part in the first place?

Raising Awareness

Going back the to the UK, of course the TPUK wasn’t expecting to win. Neither the party, Karran nor his supporters would have been so naive as to think this even a minute possibility. In fact, considering that the party was only formed a few months before the UK General Election, and that of the 200 people Karran canvassed not one had even heard of transhumanism, perhaps 56 votes wasn’t so bad after all. Instead, taking transhumanist ideas to the British electorate represented at the very least another innovative means of raising awareness of the cause. If Karran hadn’t knocked on 200 doors in Liverpool, then those 200 people still wouldn’t be aware of the concept. At least, now they are.

Similarly, in the US, Istvan admits that at least this time around, he has no chance of becoming US President. Although, he does hope to build enough support during the campaign to have a better crack at the whip in 2024. Nonetheless, the greatest hope for the US transhumanist party, just like its UK counterpart, is to raise awareness, and in gaining relatively decent exposure in press and media worldwide they can quite legitimately claim to be doing so.

But if we take a step back, and think not just in terms of votes or gaining exposure, but rather, actually encouraging governments to greater invest in technology, science and medicine to achieve radical life extension, does engaging in politics actually work?

Bad publicity is bad publicity

When it comes to politics, the well-worn phrase that ‘no publicity is bad publicity’ does not actually apply. In fact, when it comes to coverage of political campaigns bad publicity really is bad publicity. In a recent study in Denmark, researchers found that for politicians and political parties, less than favourable publicity actually  leads directly to a decline in support, particularly for small or formative political movements. Thus, for transhumanists worldwide, putting yourself at the mercy of the media by entering the political arena is by no means the safest way of reaching a wide audience, particularly when core concepts such as immortality and artificial intelligence are not exactly met with open arms by the press or public, yet.

The issue here is that coverage of Istvan’s campaign thus far has not necessarily been negative, but overwhelmingly focuses on the more radical elements of transhumanism, particularly the preference for seeking immortality rather than specifically combating age-related disease. Articles related to the TPUSA and interviews with Istvan are strewn with headlines pointing to the notions of living forever or ‘becoming cyborgs.’ (See the English Telegraph ‘Want to Live Forever? Vote for Me’ or Esquire ‘Can this Man and his Massive Robot Network Save America.’) These are concepts which catch the reader’s eye, but not necessarily in a way conducive to actually gaining support for the movement. If anything this kind of media coverage makes transhumanism seem more radical than it actually is, and for a movement so desperate to be taken seriously, is unlikely to be beneficial in taking life extension ideas into the mainstream.

Science fact or fiction

In this regard, in spite of a clear switch to a more rational and accessible approach in recent months, for the majority of the American population the TPUSA still appear far too ‘out there’ to gain wide support. Istvan’s overarching policy of investing one trillion dollars in life extension research over ten years paid for by reducing funding for ‘wars, defence and violent activities’ has at least a grain of common sense in it. Among left-leaning Americans jaded by decades of conflict this may well even gain some support. However, it is simply a fact that transhumanist concepts such as ‘personality pills, robotic hearts, brain implants, artificial limbs and exoskeleton suits’ fail to capture the public imagination. Furthermore, in making the concept of life extension appear more science fiction than a pragmatic attainable goal, this may even prove damaging rather than helpful to the overall movement itself.

In contrast, the TPUK may be deemed somewhat more pragmatic in their approach, and understanding of the fact that extreme sci-fi concepts and living forever are not the best way to connect with voters. The head of TPUK Amon Twyman, cites the way forward as to view transhumanism as a kind of political vector, rather than a single party or philosophy, and describes his own stance as a much more focused on managing the social consequences of technological change.

However, for both parties, the core principle of ‘improving the human condition’ to the point of immortality, is highly unlikely to be seen as a pressing concern for the majority of the electorate. For voters concerned with immediate issues such as jobs, taxation and welfare, a vote for living forever hardly seems fitting when many may struggle to get through the day.  

Informing decision-makers

So if transhumanist politicians are so unlikely to gain media or public support, what political role can transhumanists play? The answer is an important one.

The relationship between technology and humanity is increasingly becoming a major part of political debate, and in this regard, transhumanists are well placed to perform a sound advisory role to those who have the power to make decisions. By forming transhumanist think tanks and organisations, the movement would be able to directly engage with and inform decision makers on subjects which align with their expertise.

This is the exact approach taken by the UK transhumanist think tank, Transpolitica. With the maxim ‘Anticipating Tomorrow’s Politics’, Transpolitica aim to provide material and services of use for politicians worldwide. The purpose is to encourage politicians from all political parties to engage in transhumanist debate, and at least convey the benefits that transhumanist policies may have. We spoke to David Wood, consultant for Transpolitica, as well as co-founder of TPUK, about how to best engage with politicians to promote life-extension. He said there were two key aspects:

          “First, by emphasising the financial case for healthy life-extension. This argument is also known as the "Longevity Dividend"... By switching to the preventive treatments of bio-rejuvenation, the major health costs of treating age-related diseases can be postponed and reduced. Second, by pointing out the potential for the UK to have leading roles in the industries that will develop and deliver rejuvenation therapies.”

As an approach, there are obvious merits of transhumanists providing information to decision-makers rather than seeking to become decision-makers themselves, particularly when selling these ideas by making rational economic arguments. Think tanks and lobbyists have an overwhelming level of influence on political structures, and if grown into well-resourced and supported organisations such transhumanist lobbyist groups may well have the capacity to exert significant influence too.

Transhumanists as a driving force for change

Thus, from the sole perspective of increasing the rate of life extension research and development, it is whether the transhumanist ‘brand’ taking all the headlines is actually beneficial in gaining the support of press, public and policymakers that causes concern. This is not to say that there is opposition to transhumanism itself, far from it. Transhumanist movements and initiatives are an integral driving force behind the developing life extension community, with individuals such as Zoltan Istvan well-respected and even seen as courageous within many quarters.

However, if these political campaigns are intended to reach out and gain the support of the wider population, particularly in the political sphere, the transhumanist ‘brand’ and policies are far less likely to resonate with the general public than movements which focus on curing specific age-related diseases such as cancer, heart-disease and Alzheimer’s. With the media focus on notions such as ‘immortality”, “indefinite life extension”, “mind uploading” and the like, the general public perception of transhumanism, and by association - the overall life extension movement could easily sway towards it being regarded as eccentric folly, and far more aligned with science fiction than reality. This could have potentially dire consequences for advancing the cause.

It is for this reason that promoting transhumanism as a political ideology is currently far less successful than using transhumanist ideas to address specific problems affecting society now or in the near future could be. This is why transhumanists can and should look to find ways to inform decision-makers, not become them.