Annalee Newitz, a tech writer in the Bay Area, is making it into the public eye again with her new blog, io9. I occasionally read her columns in the Chronicle and other places. Unfortunately, while an obvious tech head and science fiction fan, Ms. Newitz is a strident anti-transhumanist who argues that gaining control over the human genome is a “stupid dream”. Read her well-known opinion piece, “Extropian Trash”, published in the SF Bay Guardian in 2004:
I HATE the extropians. I just canâ€™t say enough bad things about their whole stupid, late-1980s Los Angeles robot cult philosophy, which Iâ€™m convinced was inspired by a combination of Christianity, transactional analysis and (perhaps worst of all) the science fiction of Robert Heinlein.
Picture this: Itâ€™s 1985, and a bunch of people, too young to have been hippies, too old to understand yet that MITâ€™s Media Lab is doomed to be irrelevant, are still recovering from having grown up during the 1960s â€œrocket age.â€ Now theyâ€™re living in California doing boring jobs or going to stupid private universities, and the flying cars they were promised on The Jetsons are nowhere to be seen. Plus, nobody has cured cancer, the light-filled aliens havenâ€™t arrived to impart wisdom and there still isnâ€™t an anti-aging drug they can take to preserve their wrinkle-free, preternatural tans.
So they get into self-improvement, but with a high-tech twist. They call their movement â€œextropyâ€ â€“ you know, like the opposite of â€œentropy,â€ which is the process of slowing down and descending into chaos. Extropy is supposedly a way of always progressing, growing and transforming oneself â€“ particularly by using science. The extropians decide that science is going to save them from everything, especially growing old and dying. It will be just like heaven, only with a lot more tantric sex and smart drugs.
Some of them start theorizing that in the future theyâ€™ll be able to upload their brains into computers. Others request that their bodies or heads be cryogenically frozen after they die so that they can be revived, Futurama-style, in a far-distant future where everything is perfect and glorious and subject only to the laws of extropy.
Before I say anything else, I want to state that calling any group of people “trash” is reprehensible. Journalists should not be held to a lower standard of common decency than other people just because they’re trying to use shock tactics get more readers. I call on Ms. Newitz to withdraw her characterization of a human group as trash.
Thinking about Ms. Newitz’s absolute hatred towards transhumanists (equaled only by Leon Kass and Francis Fukuyama), I think it’s based mostly on politics, her impression that transhumanism is derived from libertarian philosophies that she so despises. If transhumanism emerged and was presented in a left-wing fashion, I doubt she would have such a strong adverse reaction. Fact is, there are transhumanists of all political stripes. According to the 2007 WTA member survey, 47% of members consider themselves left wing, up from 36% in 2003. So many of the transhumanists Ms. Newitz is calling “trash” actually have political positions sympathetic to hers. (Although the beginning of the article references extropians, later the word “transhumanists” is used interchangeably with it.)
Transhumanism is not inspired by Christianity. That is why the word “humanism”, as in “secular humanism” is part of the very word itself. Two-thirds of WTA members are atheist or agnostic, compared to just 12% at the national level in the US. The connection with Christianity is being drawn because transhumanists seek radical life extension, and Christian mythology (as well as many other world religions) also seek radical life extension in the form of an afterlife. But this connection is superficial: the majority of people in society are interested in leading long, healthy, lives, so neither transhumanists nor Christians are special in this regard.
Newitz tries to connect transhumanism to flakey New Age philosophies popular in the Los Angeles region, but again, the connection only stretches about as far as where the movements were founded. New Age ideas are only entertained by a tiny minority of transhumanists, much fewer than would be expected for a randomly selected group. Being predominately secular, transhumanists advocate skepticism and the scientific method. Newitz’s New Age attack on transhumanism seems to come from more of a “what dirt can I dug up/make up?” rather than anything substantial.
Newitz goes on to say “they proselytize for rampant individualism”, but again, this is a mistaken connection between the extropianism of the mid-90s and the more politically diverse transhumanism of the 00s. Even extropians today have stepped back from associations with any particular political philosophy. Prominent transhumanists today put far more emphasis on collective issues and responsible personal decision-making than Newitz insinuates.
Later in the article, Newitz writes, “transhumanism definitely has the potential to catch on big time”, as it’s “it’s already fairly popular among members of the nerd elite, who’ve got money and control the blogosphere”. Here, she is absolutely correct. Transhumanism is catching on more every year. I would know, as I’ve been watching transhumanist ideas since I was a teen. I only hope transhumanism catches on even more, and that more transhumanists emphasize personal responsibility over rampant individualism.
Another thing that bothers me about Newitz’s criticisms is that they seem hypocritical. She says she hates the transhumanist philosophy, but seems perfectly comfortable with transhumanist entities in science fiction. A glance at her blog shows entries on superheroes, robotics, nanomedicine, and more. Her site banner is a creepy, strung-out girl with numerous brain implants conspicuously growing from her scalp. Ms. Newitz, you are already helping spread and promote transhumanist ideas!
On her blog, Newitz primarily focuses on science fiction, which is imaginary. Most transhumanists focus on technologies that are either already real or are in active development. Which is more relevant to the real world? Real technology, obviously.
I believe a lot of Newitz’s attacking of transhumanism is based on her perceived opposition of transhumanist technologies to liberal ideals such as equality. But preventing the introduction of transhumanist technologies worldwide would require a totalitarian dictatorship. Otherwise, they will surely be adopted. People want to be healthier and live longer, and calling them “trash” for wanting these things won’t stop them. If one country passes laws against transhumanist technologies, people will just move.
I believe that Ms. Newitz would actually be interested in transhumanism as it is today if she read up a bit on it, but I have the feeling that she probably recoils away from any transhumanist web page in horror, dismissing it without thinking. I suggest she read the WTA FAQ, which answers questions like “will new technologies only benefit the rich and powerful?” and “will extended life worsen overpopulation problems?” She might learn something.
Update: More confusion. On her homepage, Newitz links James Hughes, author of Cyborg Democracy, one of the most prominent transhumanists there is. In a recent interview with WIRED, when asked “What will the blog’s longer features focus on?”, she answers, “The idea that we’re going to be enhancing and modifying our bodies at a fundamental level is interesting. We’re already seeing it in animals — we’ve already got drugs to make fruit flies gay and fearless mice.” So, she’s completely comfortable with transhumanism as long as it doesn’t smell libertarian to her? Body modification is okay but radical life extension is not? Make up your mind!
I am also worried about a possible growing phenomenon that Newitz seems to partially embody: that it’s hip to be mean. Growing up across the Bay from Berkeley my entire life, I sometimes get the impression that some radical leftists are engaged in an arms race to see who can be more angry and rude to their enemies. This is anathema to what leftism in the San Francisco Bay (and around the world) should really be about: love, peace, and compassion.