Power tends to corrupt, warned Lord Acton, the nineteenth century historian and politician. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.
What is worrying is that never before have we humans held so much power in our hands. Science and technology have provided us with spectacular capabilities. We can redirect mighty rivers, hasten the formation of storm clouds, cool down the earth by blotting out sunlight using aerosols, and, through hydraulic fracturing, trigger massive earthquakes. We may soon recreate in the midst of our countryside the same sustained nuclear fusion as takes place deep inside stars. Hardware and software robots are transforming the workforce and threaten human redundancy on unprecedented scale. Pills are at hand that profoundly modify personal mood. We can cut and splice genetic solutions from one species into others that are far distant on the tree of life. And, grown emboldened from re-engineering nature, we are now poised to re-engineer human nature.
Whether these near-absolute powers will corrupt humanity, ruinously, or instead uplift humanity, wonderfully, remains an open question. Given the pace at which breakthrough change hurtles around the world, frequently with cascading unintended consequences, it’s also an urgent question.
We may not like to be reminded of this, but our increasingly powerful superhuman capabilities coexist, precariously, with ugly subhuman proclivities carried forward from prehistoric times. This potent, deadly combination may be on the point of veering completely out of control.
Eminent biologist Edward O. Wilson has put it well:
The real problem of humanity is the following: we have Palaeolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology. And it is terrifically dangerous, and it is now approaching a point of crisis overall.
Ages-old primal human traits, such as vanity, envy, self-righteousness, tribalism, and alienation, are being aggravated by the blistering pace of modern-day social change. These traits are being fanned by divisive ideologies of retrenchment and separation. They’re being magnified by all sorts of accelerating technological breakthroughs and societal dislocation. With their newfound unprecedented vigour, these traits are poised to wreak existential havoc. All that we hold dear could perish.
That forecast may seem melodramatic. But observe that, as humanity becomes smarter, it’s far from clear that we’re also becoming wiser. Greater strength doesn’t automatically bring greater kindness. More intelligence can make us more narrow-minded, rather than more thoughtful. It gives us a terrifying capability to discover or invent new reasons to justify us doing whatever it is that we’ve already decided we want to do.
Sadly, we often choose to harness our intelligence to bolster our biases and reinforce our prejudices. Lacking a compelling bigger vision, people wrap themselves in small-minded cleverness.
Without a better understanding of the layout of the landscape ahead — without a trustworthy vision of how technology can best serve human needs — we risk unwittingly stumbling our way into some kind of Armageddon. Through blinkered haste and collective naivety, we could trigger hideous twenty-first century equivalents of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
Each of us is already under frequent hostile attack, if not from apocalyptic equestrians, then from multiple commercial and political forces that seek to exploit us, manipulate us, or diminish us. We are the victims of ingenious pressures that operate on our minds as well as on our bodies — weapons, if you like, that warp not only our physical infrastructure but also our cultural fabric and our perceptual frameworks.
Techniques honed in the advertising industry are being strengthened by machine analysis of the multiple data streams we emit. As a result, we are presented with exactly the kind of message (and at exactly the right time) to cause us to take actions against our own best interests. Since the slickest adverts are the ones that influence us in ways where we say “of course I made up my own mind”, we are left only with a gnawing doubt that something is profoundly amiss.
Social media prioritises messages that grab our attention — the sensational, the outrageous, and the bewildering. Slow deliberation is bypassed by a stream of “this is terrible!” and “how crazy is this”? Without the eye-to-eye contact of real-world interactions, we quickly move from intellectual puzzlement to denouncing our online interlocutors as perverse and deplorable.
With political discussions dominated by hostility and suspicion, it’s little surprise that the conclusions of these discussions fail to take full advantage of the collective insight latent in the community. Our best ideas are drowned out by the loudest voices or flashy distractions. The unwarranted certainty of true-believers leaves little space for the collaborative exploration of more nuanced solutions. “The people have spoken”, we hear. “You lost. Get over it!”
It is no wonder that so many people perceive they are losing control of their lives.
To summarise: on their present trajectory, technology and business are actually making politics worse, rather than better. Together, without intending it, they are fuelling increasing dysfunction within politics. In such a setting, technological innovations and aggressive business corporations might end up harming humanity much more than they help us.
It needn’t be this way. Politics and technology, aligned well, should be powerful allies in the quest to elevate humanity to our true potential. But first we need to put in place the right social and philosophical frameworks to guide the development and deployment of breakthrough technologies.
Escalating competitive stakes mean that the pressures from commercial and political influences are more likely to intensify than to diminish.
These pressures cannot be turned off. But, thankfully, they can be steered.
The critical task in steering is to establish the appropriate direction. That direction cannot simply be “more technology”, “more trade”, or “more wealth”. It’s my conviction that the vision should be “more humanity” — an increase in human flourishing — with a strong emphasis on quality rather than quantity. It’s also my conviction that technology, wisely guided, has an enormous positive role to play in the fulfilment of this vision.
Let’s step back a moment. Politics arises wherever people gather together. Whenever we collectively decide the constraints we put on each other’s freedom, we’re taking part in politics. Politics also covers incentives — the encouragements we apply to each other to take action we believe will be in our collective good interest.
In today’s fast-changing world, the legal frameworks that stipulate which activities are restricted, and which are, instead, encouraged, need updating more and more quickly. As new technological possibilities arise, laws and standards that made good sense in previous times no longer make such good sense. As technological innovation becomes more pervasive, legal reform needs to accelerate. In some cases, frameworks need loosening; in others, tightening; in yet others, whole new concepts are required. But how will these changes be agreed and overseen? And how can we prevent powerful vested interests from defining and manipulating these regulatory and legal frameworks for their own narrow benefits? These are key tasks for twenty-first century politics.
Ideally, political decision processes should draw on the best insights of the entire community. Ideally, society’s regulatory and legal frameworks, which constrain how we all operate, should serve society as a whole, rather than narrow cliques. Where there are conflicts of interest, these should be addressed and resolved rationally, rather than by brute power or hidden skulduggery.
The bad news is that politics is failing at this task — due in part to incompetence, and in part to malice. Misconceived actions by out-of-touch politicians threaten to derail necessary reforms in these frameworks. Obstructive actions by self-serving politicians further hinder the reform process. The sorry result will be to stunt or even strangle important positive humanitarian initiatives — initiatives in multiple fields of life, involving engineers, scientists, entrepreneurs, futurists, community-builders, and other social reformers. Not for the first time in history, what is mediocre about humanity will obstruct what is potentially best about humanity.
That’s only the start of what’s wrong with contemporary politics. It’s not just that bad politics can impede vital civil improvement projects. Equally worrying, political machinations can distract society’s attention, side-line critical resources, provoke divisions rather than unity, inflame the disaffected into acts of gross sabotage, and, in the worst case, plunge nations into cataclysmic war with each other.
In short, we ignore politics at our peril.
The good news is that a better politics awaits us, beckoning us forward. It’s up to us — all of us — whether we recognise that call and take the required actions. Key to these actions will be to harness technology more wisely and more profoundly than before.
In this envisioned technoprogressive politics of the near future, decisions can take place informed by the best insight of the population as a whole, rather than being subverted by partisan vested interests. Viewpoints and information that deserve more attention will rise to the top of political discussion, untarnished, rather than being pushed aside or deviously distorted by those who find them inconvenient. Political discourse will become authentic, rather than contrived. Our politics will become animated by the spirit of constructive curiosity and open collaboration.
Evidently, that’s a far cry from the present situation. Our politics has grown dysfunctional in recent times — frustratingly, dangerously dysfunctional.
The underlying reason for this dysfunction is because our mainstream mental worldviews and cultural frameworks are unable to handle the accelerating pace of change. To cope with this intense twenty-first century pace, we sorely need new worldviews and new frameworks. We are overdue for a decisive move beyond formerly dominant thought patterns such as economic neoliberalism, market-led capitalism, worker-led socialism, nation-state conservatism, technological determinism, and backward-looking “natural is best” eco-primitivism. We urgently require a twenty-first paradigm that can supersede and transcend these ailing predecessors.
In response to our current conceptual crisis, I offer transhumanism. Just as I believe that the journey to a healthier society inevitably involves politics, I also believe that journey inevitably involves transhumanism.
Transhumanism asserts that humanity can and should take wise and profound advantage of technology to transcend the damaging limitations and drawbacks imposed by the current circumstances of human nature. As a result, humans will be able to transition, individually and collectively, towards a significantly higher stage of life — a life with much improved quality.
Transhumanism is sometimes expressed in terms of the so-called “three supers”:
● Super longevity: significantly improved physical health, including much longer lifespans — overcoming human tendencies towards physical decay and decrepitude
● Super intelligence: significantly improved thinking capability — overcoming human tendencies towards mental blind spots and collective stupidity
● Super wellbeing: significantly improved states of consciousness — overcoming human tendencies towards depression, alienation, vicious emotions, and needless suffering.
My advocacy of transhumanism actually emphasises one variant within the overall set of transhumanist philosophies. This is the variant of transhumanism known as technoprogressive transhumanism.
The technoprogressive variant of transhumanism in effect adds one more “super” to the three already mentioned:
● Super democracy: significantly improved social inclusion and resilience, whilst upholding diversity and liberty — overcoming human tendencies towards tribalism, divisiveness, deception, and the abuse of power.
Taken together, these four supers provide a integrative vision for harnessing technology for sustainable progress — a vision that can inspire coordinated action in support of that profoundly positive future.
Note: this essay contains excerpts from the opening chapters of the author’s recently published book “Transcending Politics: A technoprogressive roadmap for a comprehensively better future”.