Luke Robert Mason: You’re listening to the Futures Podcast with me, Luke Robert Mason.
On this episode, I speak to transhumanists Max More, and Natasha Vita-More.
I think people are asking the question, “What are we going to become? What does it mean to be human?”
Natasha Vita-More, excerpt from interview
The basic idea of morphological freedom is that we have a right to choose to modify ourselves in whichever ways we choose.
Max More, excerpt from interview
Max and Natasha discuss their contributions to the field of transhumanism, the philosophical concept of morphological freedom, and how we can work to leverage advanced technology for human enhancement. This episode was recorded on location at the offices of Futurism dot com, in New York City.
Luke Robert Mason: Transhumanism is a contested subject matter, but you guys really and truly understand the history of transhumanism, and most people want to ask you about the future. What I want to ask you about is the past. So where did this all begin?
Natasha Vita-More: I look at it as having had its roots in Alighieri Dante’s poetry, when he wrote about transhumanar, which in Italian means to transform. Basically you could identify that as a human condition. Going forward to T. S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party, a Pulitzer Prize play, where it discusses transhumanised as a relationship situation or psychological conflict between thinking modalities—and then into Huxley, who wrote a chapter on transhumanism in New Bottles for New Wines, I believe it was. The bottom line is the word transhuman has a history across time and across culture, and it simply means transformation or transitional.
If you look through philosophy it’ll have a different terminology, and Max is the best at that as a philosopher and an author of the philosophy. For myself, “The Transhuman,”” when I wrote the manifesto in 1983, it was about overcoming human limitations, biological limitations, disease and ageing, and intellectual inabilities, memory conflicts, certain levels of sadness, and a need for a more humane society. So that’s the transhuman. I’ll pass it onto Max to get into the philosophical history.
Mason: You wrote these works back in the mid-80s. I mean, how did you come to this topic of transhumanism?
Max More: It’s a really tough question about the roots of transhumanism because there’s the ones I can actually remember and cite as influences on me, and then of course there’s the history which probably has a peripheral influence. We can go back to the alchemists of course and look at the core dreams. They didn’t have the technology but they had their own ideas of overcoming ageing, of transforming the elements of flight and so on. So there’s been this kind of drive for overcoming limits through history. As far back as I can think in my own personal history to when I was a child, I’ve always been wondering, “Why are we limited? Why can’t we get off this planet?”. I watched the Apollo 11 landing when I was five years old and watched every moon landing since, and I thought, “Yes, why are we limited to this gravity world?”, and then by the time I was in my early teens, I’m not sure how, but I got into life extension. Not just health and and vitamins—I was starting to take those—but actual life extension—before I stopped even growing. So I’m not quite sure where that came from. It wasn’t from my environment. Then, I don’t know—I came across Robert Anton Wilson, I mean Robert Heinlein, you know Methuselah’s Children and some of his books, which had some very long lived people. A lot of the early works—Saul Kent had a book The Life Extension Revolution in 1982, and there’s [inaudible] and Sandie Shaw. I’m not really sure what caused it but it had the common theme which led to Extropy Magazine of overcoming limits—the fundamental one of course being lifespan, but also getting off the planet. So it’s almost like there’s a gene for it. I’ve kind of seen this in other people. Some people, you can talk to them for hours and they just won’t get it at all. Other people will just say, “Oh yeah! I get it now!”, and it’s almost like there’s a gene for this. A neophilia gene or something. I seem to have that, and it’s actually very hard to say exactly how this happened.
Mason: What was happening culturally back in the 80s that made you write these works and become interested in this field of transhumanism? Was it something very unique about the environments that you guys were circling in?
Vita-More: Yes. Well we were in two totally separate environments at that time. I was in Telluride, Colorado, involved in the film industry. I was living in Japan and performing there, and was very excited about my career as a performer, artist, narrator etc. The reason why I became interested in life extension, which is the core of transhumanism, is because I became very ill. I was hospitalised. I was told I might die. I was hemorrhaging to death, and literally, physically going. At that time I hadn’t thought about life extension.
I then started thinking about the vulnerability of the human body. The inflexibility of it. The shelf life of it. The disease of ageing and that the suffering that humans have done just to stay alive and ward off any type of disease. So that really turned my life around. When I returned to the United States, I started studying everything I could about the technology of life extension. The science, evidence based science, and ethical technology. I want to make that clear because there’s a lot of pseudoscience out there, and there are a lot of views that you think you can live forever and you will, and this term “immortality” has gotten some bandwidth recently. But the bottom line is we cannot survive without certain technologies. Genetic engineering, stem cells, nano-medicine, artificial intelligence to mitigate the onslaught of ageing and disease. But the 1980s for me were a very fun-filled time of getting into electronic arts and video and multimedia. I had a TV show in Los Angeles on the future. It was called Transcentury Update, and I would interview people about the future. So that’s my background in becoming interested in the future. Having first hand experience, having that gene that Max…whatever it is that you just go, “Oh, wait a minute. Things are changing.” Perhaps I was ahead of the curve, because now I look where the ideas we talked about back then are now getting more bandwidth and mainstream.
More: I can think of two other kinds of important influxes, I suppose. Like I said, it’s almost like I have a gene which I’m kind of being mostly flippant about but maybe I don’t, maybe I do. But there’s also a very clear driver in me to be very dissatisfied with human limits. I spent the years from about 11 years old to 14 exploring basically the paranormal and the cults, partly because my older brother had left these books around but I found out about all of these different things dousing to astral projection to Rosicrucians—you name it—the Kabbalah. Unfortunately none of it worked.
I also like superhero comics and I thought, “Well you know, why can’t we be superhuman? This stuff isn’t working so maybe technology and science is the way to go.” At that time—it must be late 70s, early 80s—Omni magazine got going and they had an offshoot called Future Life magazine, and it actually had Robert Anton Wilson writing about physical immortality or life extension, and space colonisation—all of those kinds of things. So then I started realising, “Oh, there are actually more people interested in this”, and I think the idea started to form and come together, and only later on with my philosophical work did I sort of conceptualise that more concretely.
Vita-More: It’s interesting because around that time too, Mondo 2000 and some of these other…the cyberpunks through science fiction were getting a lot of headway. But it was almost contrary to the transhuman perspective because that was always based on a cyborg which is not a human evolution or a human transformation—it’s just adding machines to the body as originally defined by Nathan Kline and Manfred Clynes. That was the reason for cyborgs—to go out into space, like a space suit. But the term really cottoned on within science fiction, especially within the film industry as well. It came out as a Terminator and something dangerous and scary. It didn’t have any humaneness, any level of humanity within the term cyborg.
And then in academics, we know the postmodernists took it over. The postmodernists—really in especially in the philosophical departments, the humanities, feminism studies, gay gender studies, etc,—really pushed the notion of a cyborg, and fought the notion of the transhuman. Because—and I finally figured it out when I was writing my dissertation—they didn’t have the scientific knowledge, or technological prowess to be able to understand what was really happening behind the scenes as far as the evolution of the human with technology.
More: Yeah, this concept of the cyborg causes a lot of trouble. But generally cyborgs like the Terminator are generally subhuman. I mean, they can be very physically powerful, but they’re very narrow, you know, they have a very narrow focus. Punch and destroy, react in certain ways. So that’s why we really don’t like to use that term. It’s actually nothing really wrong with the term inherently, but it’s got this very bad connotation now of being controlled by the outside and programmed. That’s of course the very opposite of transhumanism, which is all about morphological freedom, psychological freedom, choosing who you want to become.
Mason: Let’s talk a little bit about morphological freedom because that was the essay that really helped to define what the trajectory is for how we want to change and extend ourselves. I mean, could you explain what morphological freedom is?
More: Yeah, I think I first used the term—at least that I can remember—at the Extropy Conference, where I gave a talk on this. It’s really a typical kind of ponderous philosopher’s term, I suppose. But the idea was really to encapsulate all these different ideas of shaping ourselves, and Natasha’s written about that from her own perspective. But to create ourselves—I mean, go back to obviously Friedrich Nietzsche. He talks about choosing oneself and other people have, too—but he didn’t have the technology. So the basic idea of morphological freedom is that we have a right or we should have a right asserted to choose to modify ourselves and whichever ways we choose. Now I would choose to do it in ways that make me better, smarter, more intelligent, kinder, more thoughtful, have better foresight and so on. Other people might choose other things. And there could be some, you know, legitimate legal arguments as to what you can and cannot do.
For instance, in the blind community, this whole blind pride thing where they actually want to make their children blind who wouldn’t otherwise be. That gets into some tricky areas. But as long as we’re talking about increasing children’s capabilities and our own, that’s really what it is—the freedom both politically and with the technology to choose who you are physically, intellectually, cognitively, emotionally.
Mason: And you took that idea, Natasha, and you turned that into these wonderful art pieces with Primo-Posthuman. You really explored what the possibilities of morphological freedom could actually look like.
Vita-More: The way I saw it—that was in 1996, so it seems like aeons ago—I don’t even do any artistic endeavours. Maybe my life has become my art, I don’t know. But with Primo Posthuman, the idea was to design a whole body prosthetic as a prototype for the future. Design with the emerging and speculative technologies and ponderings of science in reversing and mitigating ageing, etc.
But using nanomedicine before the term nanomedicine was even brought up outside of Robert Freitas wrote the book Nanomedicine. And a lot of the ideas that maybe CRISPR has now with genetic engineering. But it wasn’t only that. It was about encryption, because in the early 1990s we talked about on the Extrope Transhumanist email list—it was the first email list on the internet, on the future. That was really exciting. Encryption was something important and so Bitcoin was discussed, or cryptocurrency. Taking a look at maybe blockchain—all these ideas originated from the purveyors of that knowledge who have since been the the early adopters and entrepreneurs. The idea of Primp Posthuman was that we could have an alternative body that could be interchangeable with biology. It wouldn’t have to be exclusively technological—it could be semi-technological, semi-biological.
One thing that’s very important for everyone to know—and and here’s where I think that the news coverage since the 1980s and covering transhumanism through the 1990s has gotten it a little bit wrong—morphological freedom means that while you may have the right to your body and to morph as you choose, a person also equally has a right never to be forced to enhance. And that’s very important because the idea that maybe transhumans think that we should be perfect—whatever perfection is—I have no interest in perfection. I think it’s a wasted space because once you’ve reached perfection, there’s no place else to go.
The idea that they’ll be the haves and the have nots, the elitist, those who have morphological freedom or the money to do it, and everyone else will be an other, someone who’ll be disregarded is a ridiculous notion. I think that’s very obvious through the world we live in, the monetary economic system we live in. I think Max could explain—it’s not just capitalism but competition within products and the marketplace. It drives the price down. So that just about everyone today has a smartphone. But early on only the elite, the rich will have smartphones.
More: I think it is very important to stress that aspect to morphological freedom. Basically the negative right not to be coerced. So if the government decides, “Oh yeah, it’d be good if people were much more intelligent, they could be more productive and pay more taxes by doing so, so we’re going to require everybody to get this upgrade.” Ah, not according to morphological freedom. That says you have the right to decide. We don’t want people deciding what kind of behaviours we should have or to change our emotional responses.
Of course, you know, you’ve got the classic works of SOMA—people being passified, basically. We don’t want that. We want people to choose what kind of modifications.
For instance, here’s a good one. What about you know, there’s this long running and kind of cliche, which I’m not sure how true it is, but that great artists are often a little bit mad. I’m not entirely convinced that that’s true, but maybe in some cases, there is a trade off. Maybe you have to decide, “Okay, am I willing to put up with a little bit of schizophrenia or mental pain to produce this kind of work or not?” I actually tend to think the opposite is probably true more often, actually. The better mental health you’re in, the more freedom you have to create. But there might be people in that condition and they would choose—the choice shouldn’t be made for them. As long as they’re not choosing a state where there’s a danger to others obviously, like a homicidal rage, I think there was a novel follow up to Blade Runner, a sort of a sequel to Blade Runner in which the character has his amygdala wired kind of backwards. So the more danger he’s in, the better he feels. He’s going on killing rampages and endangering himself, and he just feels better and better. That is probably something that’s to say well maybe we shouldn’t allow that particular modification, it’s too dangerous.
Mason: Let’s stick on the topic of morphological freedom because the interesting thing about that 1989 essay is that it seems all about being stronger, better, faster, more enhanced. I wonder as we enter the 21st century, whether morphological freedom just needs to be about enhancement, whether it can be about difference. So we have these modern 21st century science cyborgs, folks like Neil Harbisson who is a colorblind artist, which makes the idea of his antenna that allows him to hear colour a little bit more challenging, because arguably, it is an enhancement. But for him, he sees it as a form of difference. He makes that choice himself to have that antenna. It doesn’t necessarily enhance him, or make him better. It just makes him different. And I wonder in the environment, in the world in which we’re in right now about how we think about our own bodies and our identity, whether we need a revival of the idea of morphological freedom. Not just to be about being better, or faster or stronger, but being allowed to be differentiated in whatever way you see fit.
More: I mean, the reason why there’s an emphasis on augmentation was because nobody else was emphasising that aspect. So everybody agrees that you should have help with the colour blindness or something like that. But it’s very inclusive. Certainly it obviously includes…we have transhumanism, it’s funny now we now have transgenderism. But it includes that—if you want to change your agenda, that’s part of morphological freedom. You should have the freedom to do that.
Mason: How far do we allow morphological freedom to go? If people decide that they wanted to become something other than the body, should we have some form of limitation?
Vita-More: What you’re getting at—and correct me if I’m wrong—you’re getting at maybe the psychology of identity. What it means to be a person or personhood, or what is agency? And could agency be something other than biological? And would that be morphological freedom—if I wanted to become maybe this microphone, would I have that right to be this microphone?
Mason: That’s an extreme case, but can I change myself biologically to also be that? I just wonder if morphological freedom is getting to be a very useful topic as we enter these new times of politics. I wonder if we need a revival and a re-look at morphological freedom as a very egalitarian, very useful term.
More: I think it’s important to distinguish between the idea that you can just declare yourself to be something. As one of the Monty Python crew annoyed at the BBC’s political correctness recently said. It was the American one, what’s his name? Terry Gilliam. He said…so the BBC said, “We have this new comedy troupe. They would all be boys from, you know, Oxford and Cambridge University.” So John Cleese said something snarky, and then the other guy said, “Okay, I declare myself to be a black lesbian woman in transition, then.” So there is this kind of ridiculous thing that you know, there are some good critics of, where you just declare yourself to be a certain kind of person. To me, that’s just delusional. But if your goal is to become that, and to actually make use of real technologies, like obviously, hormone therapy treatments, and maybe in the future, much more sophisticated changes in the brain structure, that’s another matter. That’s something that actually is workable.
I think there is a level of delusion where you just declare, you’re like, “I’m going to be a dolphin.” There’s actually a guy who, like in his 50s, who lives as an eight year old girl, and to me that’s…okay that’s his choice. If you find people that want to put up with him to do that, okay—but I don’t see that as the same kind of thing that we’re talking about here.
Vita-More: You know, when you have a gender change you go through psychological treatment. You have to pass certain levels of understanding of what the ramifications will be or could be. So I think that probably there will be a new field in psychology that deals with agency, and different levels of psychosis, and identity transference. And also there is body dysmorphia, there could be psychological dysmorphia. Different levels of lack of understanding. That’s what I think along with morphological freedom, something that is totally crucial to us right now is artificial intelligence, and using narrow AI and just about everything that we do today. Now AI is here. It’s all around us. But we don’t think of it as having agency or being something that is really changing us. However, right around the corner, a stronger AI or artificial general intelligence will be used to augment our cognitive processes, to help us carve new neural pathways in perhaps being more humane, being more empathic, being kinder people, and to actually develop the essence of being humane, which is a very much missing from a large section of humanity. We call ourselves humans, but where’s our level of humaneness? I think that’s something that will be very important as we look at using technologies within morphological freedom, especially ones that will help our cognitive properties and help us actually get beyond some of our maybe depressions or strains and stresses and traumas in life.
More: The way you kind of phrased morphological freedom a while ago was to term it like the six million dollar man. Yes, we have the technology. We can make you faster, better, stronger. But it is, again—apart from what we’ve just been talking about—other kinds of changes. It can also mean making the best of who you are right now. Because before we make too many wild changes, we might first of all want to improve the way we function as we are.
More: I was talking last night about this topic—and this is the idea of the kind of meta-brain idea—that right now the way we evolved, we really don’t understand what the heck we’re doing, what our motivations are, why we get in certain moods, because we don’t have very good access from the cortical areas down into the emotional regions. We just programme you know: Tiger running at me; get frightened; move. We’re not very good at dealing with complexity. We don’t have many pathways going in the other direction. And I mentioned a book by Joseph LeDoux, the neuroscientist, called The Emotional Brain where he talks about that. So before making radical changes to yourself, you might first of all, want to make the best of yourself. Really learn how to understand yourself. And people can say, “Well you can meditate.” Well, yeah you can, but there’s limits to that because you just don’t have the neural pathways that are really going to give you all the information you need. So it’s not either or, but you couldn’t do both.
Mason: So to think that we might have this possibility and morphological freedom seems to conflate biological evolution with cultural evolution. Cultural evolution is happening at a certain speed but biological evolution takes multiple generations. It feels like we arrived at one point in time. We’ve got a body for 60 to 120 years and there is a degree of frustration that these transhumanists who advocate these massive sort of radical transformations the body have, you know, they see cultural evolution. They’ve got all these things that travel at the speed of light, why can’t we upgrade the brain to the speed of information?
Vita-More: I think that’s a narrow segment of the transhumanist thinking that perhaps are—yeah I agree, impatient, and wanting to upload, and I think that one size does not fit all. The core of philosophical attributes of transhumanism are human and transition to transform, and part of that transformation is to go beyond our biological limitations.
Our main biological limitation is shelf life. We only have a certain amount of time that we’re alive, and the ageing process is causing us disease. It’s a pretty sad thing actually—that you can only live so far. But there’s some people that are impatient so they want to upload without understanding truly what that would be like.
More: My response is, yes, I’m one of those impatient people. I don’t want to wait for biological evolution to take, you know, hundreds of generations to make these changes, because I won’t be there that point or else, I’ll be cryopreserved and come back, and I’ll be way out of date. So yes, I want to benefit from those things much, much sooner. And biological evolution actually, it does happen all the time, but in kind of small ways. To produce the big changes we’re talking about would take way too long. So yes, I’m one of those impatient people, I want to speed up the process. I don’t want to over speed it up, and we have to be careful in what changes we make and models and experiment in small ways and integrate those carefully, not just suddenly fly off and—
Vita-More: Let’s contextualise this here. We have not evolved. Humans have not evolved for over 200,000 years.
More: Well we have but not in massive ways, our brain structures—
Vita-More: We are the same species, homo sapiens, the hominid. We have not evolved in 200,000 years. Yes, we have developed new psychological processes, we may be able to do things slightly differently, but those are those slight things. We’re talking about big changes with the transhumanist agenda of extending life well beyond 123 maximum human lifespan, to extend agency or consciousness across substrates from biological substrate to computational substrate to chemical substrate to virtual or augmented substrate, and substrates we haven’t even considered yet.
So that means that we would be living as uploads or downloads or cross loads within different environments, and I think that this is evidenced in the gaming industry, the gaming field where players take on characters and they’re there. They’re there. When you watch gamers playing, they’re really in that game. That’s them as that character in the game. There are certain issues psychologically that can occur from that. We don’t need to go into that, but people can take on identities that are not themselves. But yes, uploading is great. We just don’t have the technology now. So if you talk to some people they say “I want this to happen right now.” you know. “Technology is advancing—exponential this, exponential that, and I’m still human. I’m ageing, and we don’t have any cure for it right now. What am I going to do?” Well, hold on, let’s not upload too fast. Because to do that, it’s going to take a hell of a lot more processing power than we have right now, and better programming tools, better programming software. Until then, the best thing is cryonics.
I mean, I want to upload too, but I want to cross load and download and live in numerous environments with numerous bodies and identities and multiple cells, etc., as long as they’re not fractured. But I would not want to do it too soon, if the technology is not ready yet.
More: Of course evolution isn’t one thing. It’s happening to millions of different species at different rates. And we have a big problem right now in that we’re having, you know, resistance to antibacterial treatments, because bacteria evolve much faster than we do. I mean, that is actually one thing—I think most things people panic about really aren’t that big a deal. That one actually really does concern me unfortunately, there is some work on that. So it’s not really good enough to say, “Oh, we’ll just wait ’til we evolve resistance.” because we could have lost 90% of the species at that point. So learning how to accelerate the improvements to our immune system seems to be pretty important.
Mason: If we make a collective decision to change ourselves in a certain way, shape or form, what we’re going to end up doing is homogenising the human species. I wonder if there’s a misunderstanding of evolution. It’s not survival of the fittest—it’s survival of the mutant. And if we get rid of all the mutants, then are we going to be exposing ourselves to one singular bacterial infection that would wipe us all out? Because we all have these hyper efficient bodies and hyper efficient systems, but it only takes one thing to knock out everybody with that same genetic similarity.
More: Well, it’s funny because now you’re kind of taking the very opposite of what we were just talking about. We were talking about how morphological freedom, basically—you were kind of worrying about the other extreme that we might be to drive radically different from each other, but now worried about you know, people being homogenised, which is probably the more common objection mechanisation, marginalisation. And those are valid concerns. But I think there’ll be certain things that just are obviously good things to have. It’s a good thing that we have antibiotics right now—they’re just losing their effectiveness. It’s a good thing we have antiviral agents. It’s a good thing we have ways of killing bugs in hospitals. So I don’t think we worry about those.
But there will be certain changes that…I don’t think everybody will do the same thing anyway, because just try and get everybody to do the same thing. They’re not going to. We’re even gonna have some people who won’t make any changes, who’ll refuse to. They’ll say, “No, I just want to be human.” and I came up with this amusing term for this. Just like we have the Amish—and there isn’t just one Amish group—but they choose a level of technology they find acceptable. So some of them allow mobile phones out on the field, for instance, but not inside the house, because it takes away from the group. But they set the limits there. And there may be people who will set the limits at being human. “Okay, we’ll allow these kinds of surgeries and this kind of cancer treatment, but we’re not gonna have any kind of maximum life extension increase or changes to my brain.” and they should be free to do that. They may form their own humanist communities at some point. They may have a hard time communicating with us, but they should be free to do so.
Mason: The problem is, and it’s one of the critiques of transhumanism is, is it too individualist and individual centric? It’s my life that I want to extend. It’s me, me, me, I want to change something. I want to adapt something. I want to upgrade something. Rather than thinking about humanity as a collective. When we get into those discussions, my morphological freedom versus your morphological freedom. The critique, or one of the large critiques of transhumanism is that it’s too self focused.
Vita-More: I used to think that maybe transhumanists are selfish. Maybe it’s wrong to want to live longer. And when people interviewing over the years, especially in the 1990s, saying, “Why do you want to live longer? Why are you so important? Why is your life so valuable that you know, that you think you should live longer, and the older are supposed to die and make way for the young?” I’ve given that considerable thought. And finally I had an epiphany. I never knew how to answer that articulately. I’d always stumble around with it until I was flying on an aeroplane one when day, and I woke up, paid attention to the flight attendant—everyone’s usually not paying attention—and the flight attendant was going through their dance and said, “If there’s a problem with air, oxygen, down from the top will come this oxygen thing. Now, put it on yourself first. Make sure you put it on yourself first and then turn to the person sitting next to you—whether it’s a child or an elderly person or someone who needs help—then help them. But put it on yourself first.” I take that as a safety measure, unless we help ourselves first, improve our humaneness, our humanity, our level of understanding, our own personal growth, our level of knowledge, understanding, critical thinking, problem solving skills, etc., we cannot help others. So no, it is not selfish. It’s a smart thing to do.
More: I think it can be both. I mean it’s selfish in the kind of a neutral sense of being attended to first. That’s a great analogy really, because unless you take care of yourself first, you can’t really help other people. But you can do both at once. And my big concern is, I don’t want to build into morphological freedom, for instance, some kind of positive right to have these treatments, because then you can get the government involved, deciding what kind of modifications you can make. That’s why I think it’s important to be individualistic, because otherwise you’re gonna end up with—now that you’ve used the word eugenics—unfortunately it has all these horrible connotations, because there’s nothing inherently wrong. It just means good genes. But it’s been associated with policies of central control who central authorities decide who you should be. So I make no apology for it being individualistic in that sense. But I think it’s kind of a false dichotomy. We can have individuals making those choices, as long as we have the right kind of socio-economic systems and reasonable bands that should benefit everybody.
I mean, it should be a cliche by now but you know, how many people had these things? You know, 30 years ago, it used to be just a few executives carrying a big briefcase. Now people in you know, in very poor areas have cell phones. If it wasn’t for the rich people having those first, everybody else wouldn’t have them. So they’re kind of first adopters, they actually take more risks, I suppose. And I think we’re actually seeing the time between first adoption and widespread adoption shrinking, and that’s going to be even faster. So I really make no apology for that. I think first of all, it’s not that I’m more important than anyone else, it’s that I can make my own choices. I’m not going to make your choices for you. Hopefully, I can set a decent example. But I think by developing these and talking about them, making them available, other people are more likely, then, to benefit from them.
Vita-More: You know, you asked in the beginning about the history of transhumanism and how it arrived and and where the term stems from and what it was like in the early days. I’d like to focus on that, if we could, because it’s really interesting from the 1980s the changes that took place. From the 1980s, before the world view was developed, truly. The term transhuman was out there in the marketplace. It had been a term used by F. M. Esfandiary, myself, let’s see—Ettinger may have used it. Of course Huxley used it. Damien Broderick used to in different ways. But it wasn’t until the late 1980s that the philosophy was written by Max, and therefore became a worldview.
But how did it become a worldview? What was the history of that? That’s something that is so discarded in not only in journalistic narratives, but in many academic books and papers, and documentaries on transhumanism, and I think one thing that would be lovely and and so important for you to do with your project is to set that straight and to get that history clear from the two pioneers who are still with us today. The third one is in cryonics, so he isn’t here that’s F. M. Esfendiary.. But from the 1980s I remember I went to F. M.‘s classes. He was a very dear friend, and he said specifically that he did not want a movement. He had created the Upwingers Movement early on in the 1970s, but F. M. was adamant about not making it a movement. He didn’t want to do a movement. But he was a bit of a staunch individualist guru. Someone who thought everyone should emanate his view of what the transhuman was—and I had an extreme difference of opinion. I think you be your transhuman, I’ll be mine—as long as we value life.
More: A very important route of that: Sometimes when I try to explain transhumanism, I sometimes say you can pass that as trans-humanism, or as transhuman-ism, which stresses two different aspects. The trans-humanism one ties into the enlightenment and the enlightenment route—so transhumanist thinking which stresses reason, progress, even if there is a God or not. Understanding what is up to us to improve our lives. Really, transhumanism has grown out of that, in the sense that it has the same kind of basic goals, but more radical. So I think that’s important to note from a philosopher’s point of view. But in terms of the culture of the time, it’s hard to say. I think it’s because we had some success in space until—of course it was political—so we stopped for a long time. Until more recently, because new biological tools are being developed, because computers—personal computers—started appearing, and people started talking on internet forums, including our very early one.
All these new ideas kind of started bubbling to the surface. And people started connecting them in ways they never really had. And that was one reason I started my Extropy magazine—because I had no one really to talk to about these ideas. I’ve had people call me from the middle of nowhere saying, “Oh, thank goodness. I just read an underground publication review of your magazine, and I got it. And thank goodness other people actually think this way.” So I think it was just all these different ideas of space and even like blockchain stuff early on, and robotics and AI and life extension, and people connecting and actually starting to see how those affected one another, and like obviously this leads into a bigger worldview.
Vita-More: And what’s so interesting there too, is that—and this was in the early 90s—and through Extropy which was the first transhumanist organisation, it was a 501 (c) (3) non-profit that Max started with a colleague of his. And eventually I became President of it for—I guess—maybe four years. But Max ran it pretty much solely, and put on these amazing conferences in Silicon Valley. But the speakers at the conferences are the people that everyone wants to know about now. We had Kim Eric Drexler, father of nanotechnology, who is one of our colleagues and friends, and a member of Extropy Institute. Marvin Minsky, father of artificial intelligence. Marwick, Kurzweil, Greg Faye, Gregory Stock, Martine Rothblatt. The list goes on and on. The early thinkers. We didn’t have the term “entrepreneur” then, but it’s the original thought makers of the sciences and technologies that are now in the marketplace today, that are being used. Robotics, AI, nanotechnology, blockchain, Bitcoin—all these ideas originated through those individuals, who happened to get together. It’s kind of like happenstance, in a way. It was quite wonderful.
More: And I think the other part of it was kind of the the rising of digital culture, generally. So Wired magazine started in whatever year that was. But I remember in the second issue of Wired magazine, Kevin Kelly did a little review of Extropy magazine, which of course got us a flood of enquiries. Then they did a cover feature on us not too long after that. From 1994 it would have been—the first conference. So I think Wired magazine sort of reflected a new culture of the mixture of elements of cyber culture. Some very critical, some very optimistic, and that was obviously closely connected to us. So we had parties at Wired magazine and knew a lot of those people. So it was part of the zeitgeist, to use the term.
Vita-More: Yes, and Kevin Kelly went on to work with The Quantified Self, which was a great project, and looking at the TED conferences, Chris Anderson. I guess it was more like a Silicon Valley, Northern-Southern California, partly film industry where I was located. Then the academic crowd where Max was located, with the Silicon Valley where Extropy flourished, and then all that was the the Nexus—that whole California, with the link to New York City of course, as well—and London.
You know it’s interesting, but it was never about being selfish. It was about having community and communicating, and solving problems. How could we use these technologies to further the transhumanist agenda, life extension, mitigate disease, help people anywhere, anytime, live a better life? The idea of perfection, again, was never in our thinking modality at all. It was more about going out into space, the interplanetary future of things, and looking at automation and robotics, and prosthetics. In fact, an example of how far things have come since I designed Primo Posthuman—that was 1996. Think of how far robotics has come since then with the narrow AI and haptic systems and neural-interface. You can have someone with legs that can walk, and run, and be in the Olympics. How incredible is that? Or pick up a cup and feel the heat or coolness of that cup. This is amazing.
Mason: But the problem was at the time, the stuff that you guys were talking about was considered vaporware.
Vita-More: Oh, yes.
Mason: I mean, how did you deal with the detractors who were like, “Yes this is this is very nice, as a philosophy, as an idea. Maybe some of this stuff will happen, maybe not.”
Vita-More: Cried a lot. Cried a lot. Oh, man. I remember when we were on the cover of LA Magazine, I thought, “Oh, this is going to be great.” I was so excited. And then the journalists—I was giving a talk at MGM. The journalist who was interviewing me for it came to MGM, you know, the film studio where I was giving a talk on the future. And the astronaut Buzz Aldrin was there. And we were giving a talk about the future of the human and why we needed stronger, more durable, lasting bodies, etc. Primo Posthuman originally was my naked body, and it was a point and click website. So you’d go to my naked body. I didn’t show tits and ass too much, just a little bit. Enough to be sexy. But you point and click around my brain to see augmented to my meta-brain, cognition, memory, the skin. So I could change the colour of my skin, the internal organs; replacement. It was more athletic than anything, since I am more athletic than then trying to be a Playboy mate. But that journalist lied in the magazine LA Weekly and said I was passing around naked pictures of myself. I was horrified by that. So sometimes you don’t expect a project that you do to have legs. That really makes a big difference.
Mason: I want to talk a little bit about being a female transhumanist in the mid 80s. It is something that you’ve shared with me before, but it was a difficult environment to be in from what you were describing. Transhumanism—the other critique is it’s a lot of white male guys talking about potentially what women will do with themselves in the future.
Vita-More: Gotta love them. Gotta love you both, everyone. Yes, it was tough. Number one—I was an artist, something I do not call myself today. I don’t get jobs being an artist. So I’m a strategic designer, theoretician, academic.
Working out, having a body that I could show off. Being in the film industry, being within the Telluride film crowd that I was in. Having dated Warren Beatty, and having been within that sector—it was really hard to to be accepted within this high level intellectual domain of all these incredible, talented philosophers, scientists, technologists. I was pretty much ignored except by Max and F. M. Esfandiary. It’s true. It was very hard—women were not at these meetings. Women were not there. It wasn’t the norm, and it was very difficult, too.
Since then, of course, I’ve gotten two masters and a PhD, and now I can outtalk anyone about software programming and AI and nano, but back then it was hard. But I have to blame myself. I take full responsibility. I have no idea why I got an undergraduate degree in painting. That’s like getting a degree today in…philosophy.
Mason: Philosophy, yeah. Let’s not mention that.
More: You know, a couple of things about that. It is actually really fascinating to think about the early days. I talk to people about these ideas, and they just kind of think, “Well, this is just nuts. This is just pure science fiction.” And it’s been fascinating to see how that’s changed since we have started distributing students to the conferences, and then Humanity+, and now it is not like science fiction. It’s, “Oh, my goodness, that’s going to happen. What should we do about that? Does that mean that AI’s going to take control?” Now they’re taking it very seriously and they’re arguing about the outcome—not about whether it’s possible. So that’s been a huge change.
Mason: The problem is, these ideas only receive a certain degree of traction when they’re through the lens of an individual who has the financial or business means. So Elon Musk on simulation theory—no one even knew about simulation theory and what Bostrom was writing about that, until suddenly Elon Musk opens the Overton Window, makes a statement in a public forum—and suddenly the press go absolutely wild over it. Or with his Neuralink project. And then what Brian Johnson is doing. The individuals who’ve made their money from other means, whether it’s entrepreneurship or it’s some form of web based company now have a certain degree of disposable finance to -
Vita-More: Yes. Ray Kurzweil’s technological singularity which came from Vernor Vinge, a mathematician science fiction writer.
More: I. J. Good before that.
Vita-More: I. J. Good before that.
More: Then of course Google is doing the Calico project, kind of a life extension company.
Mason: In what way are both of you, as the pioneers of these ideas, being brought to the table with these discussions? Because all the ethical implications, or the cultural and social implications that they’re dealing with right now as they’re building these companies are things that you guys have dealt with for the last 20 years.
Vita-More: And we’ve thought about it and talked about it, and written about it and debated about it, and it’s been part of our conversation. That transhumanist conversation, whether from The Extropy Institute to the World Transhumanist Association, and Humanity+. The transition of the development out of bringing people together for conferences. It has been so deeply argued, debated discussed, but we must be included.
More: It would be nice to be called on more often to advise but there are some interesting things that do happen. We were actually in New York Cut last time but one maybe for this gaming conference, which is kind of fascinating because it was a very—what was it – Deus Ex?
Vita-More: Deus Ex, yes.
More: Yes. But the interesting thing was the conference was taking this very seriously. They had people coming in demonstrating prosthetics and talking about the philosophy, and trying to have rules for this world on a very serious level. That was interesting—that was a gaming company.
Vita-More: That gaming industry is looking at this. The gaming industry has actually taken a lot of the transhumanist writing and ideas and put it within games, but not at the level that could be very beneficial. I think another area is with what Peter Diamandis is doing with the X Prize. He’s looking at abundance for all, but that idea generated from Eric Drexler in his book, his PhD dissertation Engines of Creation from MIT.
What I’m intending to do is to really focus more and be more like, like you and Alex Klokus and others. As Executive Director of Humanity+, I’m really going to work very hard at looking at morphological freedom, the proactionary principle, looking at legislation and governance on an international level—not just the United States, but throughout the world.
It’s very important that people understand no matter what particular political agenda is in control or not, or religious view that’s in control—it’s happening. What it means to be human is on the tip of everyone’s tongue, and something that we have thought about for 30 or 40 years, looking at what the future scenarios could possibly be. And there are so many different alternative futures. Certainly no one has the answer to any one future. But many of the comments that you brought up and the questions that you’ve asked are certainly pertinent to this larger discussion.
More: I personally don’t have a whole lot of time to go out there advising people anyway, even if I’m asked, because I’m running the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, which is the world’s leading cryonics organisation, and that’s very much a full time job right now. But occasionally you have to get away and you know, do some other things to keep perspective.
But I just want to take a little bit of a step back in the sense of when you were talking about whether transhumanist thinking—early or now—is kind of too individualistic, or too selfish. Even in the early days, things we discussed in Extropy magazine and on the online forums—a lot of that wasn’t just about getting bigger, faster, stronger. It was about, “How do we redesign societies for the better?” You know, we’re only now starting to read about smart contracts. But Mark Miller and Zac [?] were writing about that a long time ago in Extropy magazine. How can we actually use technology in combination with new social structures to everybody’s benefit?
Vita-More: And it’s still timely today because those are structures and blockchain is looking that. Where can blockchain go in so many different areas, where it’s becoming a cliche. Those levels are conduits of information that help with understanding different scenarios and playing out strategies. Especially with encryption and coding, where this is so crucial today—how to protect yourself; how to protect your identity.
Mason: My challenge with transhumanism, the movement, is it can be a lot of individuals sitting online, sort of advocating their futures in a very science-fiction way on blogs and messaging boards, and it just doesn’t feel very useful. There’s a lot of interest and a lot of excitement around transhumanism, but those getting excited aren’t always necessarily the best advocates for transhumanism.
More: Right, sure, not always, but also a lot of those people—like in the early forums, online forums—after a while they got off the forums and they started, you know. Working on robotics or genetic engineering and so they got busy doing stuff. So there’s gonna be different people who, first of all it’s new to them, so that you know—they’re getting excited. Maybe overexcited occasionally, but then that drives them to be interested in, “Okay, how do I get involved in biohacking or in blockchain or in life extension?” So I think there’s room for everything and I guess I spend most of my time doing something very practical that I actually might allow me to live past my natural lifespan. So I’m busy doing practical stuff. But I think it’s very important that there is actually an academic movement as well, because it’s needed. You know, we’ve got all this…honestly, I don’t want to go into a tirade but there is a lot of nonsense at universities.
Vita-More: Postmodernist nonsense.
More: Postmodernist. A lot of these studies. I think they could do some transhumanist studies, because it would tie together a number of topics in kind of a good way, a very helpful way of teaching critical thinking, and ways of thinking about the future more effectively. That would be, I think, a valuable thing. So it’s important to maintain that. But that doesn’t mean people shouldn’t be working on projects. They definitely should, and more and more so so than what they are.
What I would like to see is more prominent people who are actually doing stuff say, “Well, yeah, of course, I’m a transhumanist.” And for it to just be kind of like a trivial thing. Just like, you know, an 18th century someone saying, “Yeah, I’m a humanist. But let’s talk about the details of this.” So it should be like mentioned as part of the background in a sense.
Mason: But this is a problem, no one really knows at the turn of the 21st century. What is a 21st century transhumanist? Professor Steve Fuller in the UK is very comfortable saying that he’s a transhumanist, only insofar as he’s not a post-humanist.
Vita-More: Right, yes, yes.
Mason: He sees it as there’s transhumanism, there’s posthumanism, you’ve got to put your cards in one camp.
Vita-More: Well Kevin Warwick would say, “I’m a cyborgist” because he’s built his career on that so he can’t really say he’s a transhumanist, but he really is. Stelarc—another one. He’s very much a transhumanist but he will call himself a transhumanist, but due to his career -
Mason: To understand transhumanism through its relationship with posthumanism. Correct me if I’m wrong but the way I’ve always understood transhumanism is that the human still exists in one form or shape—whether it’s frozen, uploaded, extended through changing or manipulating the body. Something remains about the 21st century human, whereas posthumanism—they’re a little more laissez faire. They’re like, “You know what, if we don’t survive, we don’t exist—whatever.”
Vita-More: Well you have to remember that transhuman is a human in transition, evolving. We’re still evolving, although you know, as I said, in 200,000 years not so much.
Mason: So then we’re all transhumanists?
Vita-More: Yeah, I think so.
More: Not consciously, no.
Vita-More: Not consciously. We’re all transhuman. We’re all evolving. But the ‘ist’ means your belief system, how you practice your life. A posthuman? No one knows what a posthuman is going to be. It could be anything, we can speculate on it. But to give a codified definition of what a posthuman is, we’d have to say very loosely, with some wiggle room, that it’s after the species. But changing a species is a tall order. It gets into the germline. It gets into the you know, evolutionary biology, it gets into all sorts of terminology and ramifications that differentiate species.
More: There’s no sharp line between transhuman and posthuman in my mind, and that’s the way I’ve always presented it. Transhumanism is the movement towards the posthuman, whatever that might be or the many forms it may take. So it’s not exclusive of posthuman—whatever that means. The trouble is posthumanism, as a term. I have no bloody idea what that means because in some senses, it just means thinking about being uploaded and being non biological and in the sense that it’s closest to us, but it also means postmodernism. Postmodernists use this term. To me, that’s a bunch of nonsense for the most part. So there’s very different meanings attached to that word posthumanism. So someone says they’re posthumanism, I’m gonna say, “I don’t really know what you mean. Can you explain? Which type of posthumanist are you?”
But transhumanism is not incompatible with the idea of post-human at all. It is the movement towards overcoming human limits, which has no particular limit. It’s again, it’s not the ending of imperfection, because I don’t believe that concept is useful. It’s a stupid platonic idea. It’s continuous improvement, which is going to take us to some point where we really are not recognisably human, if you define that in terms of our genetic structure and your logical capability.
Vita-More: But you mentioned something that about the 1990s, some of the lack of advocacy for transhuman, and I think our biggest hindrance was postmodernist academics. Because most of them were tenured, and they were in those departments that were really important for feminist studies with N. Katherine Hayles, and Andrew Pickering and Donna Haraway, and that whole flux of American and European academics. The problem there is, that’s all great what postmodernism did in academics and theoretically, but where it stopped—it didn’t understand technology, and evidence based science. It had those academics—and as skilled and refined as they were with their rhetoric—they lacked the knowledge and the interest in looking at AI and robotics and automation and nanotechnology, all the different technologies and the exponentiality of them.
More: Even more important to me, at least as a philosopher, is that through the scientific method and a sense of objectivity, everybody just has their own worldview, which is equally valid. Even though somehow they can criticise other people get angry at them. And I think that’s, as I stress, the emphasis on on the humanist tradition. Part of that really is that there is truth. It’s not like this is very easy to find or that any one person knows what that truth is, but there are things that are right and wrong and we can make mistakes, and scientific method is a good way to get towards that.
Mason: Against that backdrop, what’s interesting about you two as individuals is that the last 20 years has been about striving for a degree of legitimacy. You know, you had folks in the 80s going, “Oh, look at these two talking about their vaporware that may or may not happen.” I mean, Max, you just went, “You know what, I’ll become the CEO of the largest US based chronics Institute. I’ll actually build that future.” and Natasha, you went back to academia to prove the legitimacy of the sorts of things you were saying.
Vita-More: Yes, thank you for recognising that. I feel legitimate now. Not like I’ve felt before. I do. I’ve earned it. I’ve worked hard.
Mason: If you guys called yourself science fiction authors in the mid 90s, and you were the equivalent of Bruce Sterling and Pet Cadigan, you wouldn’t undergo any of these sorts of scrutiny.
Vita-More: None of it! Oh, and boy. You just nailed it there. So well. Bruce Sterling—are you serious? Gibson. They could say anything they wanted and they were valued so highly, especially by academics and postmodernists. And then us? We were like, “Oh, they’re crazy nuts.” Now it’s important that this time has come around. We sat through it and struggled through it. It was a struggle. It was quite a struggle.
More: So now we largely have that legitimacy. So the critique has shifted from, you know, “This is crazy, impossible stuff.” to, “You’re horrible people who just look after yourselves. You’re gonna destroy the human race.”
Mason: You can’t win, you guys can’t win.
More: No, we take it step by step.
Vita-More: I am still that same person. I believe in sharing knowledge and helping. It’s just a matter of positioning myself as the world’s most known thought leader on what is the future of humanity. That is my goal. To be included at that level where I do have the knowledge, and I’ve got the skills to think things through, and I’ve looked at numerous scenarios, and I’m just looking for the best solution—not a political solution, not a moral solution like the bioethicists do with their agenda, which is always so very transparent. That’s the credibility I need to put forth myself for my work in the future. I think Max is doing an excellent job as CEO of Alcor.
More: Well cryonics is a kind of interesting example of how this has changed. Because 20 or 25 years ago, a typical experience of going into a hospital, they always go, “You want to do what!? Not in my hospital you don’t.” Now, typically, the response is quite different. Usually they’ve seen some documentary on one of the science channels or something, or they’ve read a bit about it. And they go, “Oh yeah, I know. People are cryopreserving organs and corneas and all these people walking around who were cryopreserved as embryos.” and now they take it much more seriously. They will actually listen to us and when we have
visitors come to tour Alcor, they see it as a real place. Many of them come up to me saying, “Well, when I first came here, I wasn’t sure if you were gonna freeze my head or if you’d do something really weird.”, but they said, “No, this actually makes sense, you know. I’m not sure if it will work or not, but it actually makes sense now.”
You know, we used to be way out on one end of the spectrum, and traditional medicine and sciences out there, but they’ve gotten closer and closer together, as we’re doing low temperature surgery. We’re cryopreserving many kinds of tissues right now. There’s Natasha’s research—cryopreserving a worm and then showing that it’s maintained it’s memories. And the professional Cryobiology Society actually had a clause in its bylaws that basically said, “If you associate yourself with cryonics, you’re out, you can never publish, you’re ruined.”. They took that out recently. The leadership is now much more friendly. That’s a big change. So yeah, there are still people who are very antipathetic, generally out of ignorance, because they just really don’t know what they’re talking about. Usually, hopefully, you can educate them a little bit if they’re willing to listen, and that that may go away.
Vita-More: I think that the biggest issue that we’re facing now: What does it mean to be human? I think that is on the tip of everyone’s tongue. What does it mean? What is this going to do to me? What is this? Where am I going to be? Am I going to be left behind? Am I going to be included in the early adopters? There’s so many different scenarios and those need to be worked out and expressed and educated to the public. So I think that
Academics are very important here. But it must include STEHM, not just STEM—science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The STEHM bringing in the humanities is so crucial. Where in many of the schools, especially where I teach, the humanities are left out. There’s only maybe one course on ethics. This is so important, but everyone needs to think about it. Just like people need to think about their financial status. How old are you? How old do you want to live? Do you have a 401k What is your retirement plan? Are you going to your doctor yearly to have your blood drawn to check how much Vitamin D you have? What are your hormones, etc.? And have you been to 23 and Me and had your genetics run through? These are responsibilities that we have as people. Protect your own life and set an example.
More: I guess in some ways we kind of have a long term disadvantage in that transhumanism is all about change. People generally don’t like change for the most part, especially when you look at very radical fundamental changes—It’s kind of scary. People get traumatised by too much change at once. I always think of this story I heard, you know, from way back when there was still the Soviet Union. Some Soviet systems engineers had one of those rare visas to come visit the United States and had to go buy some toothpaste. They went in there, and there were all these different brands of toothpaste, and they’re just kind of staring and going, “Oh, my God, what, what do I do?” and were paralysed by buying toothpaste, which to us—we’re so used to that choice—it’s not a big deal. So we’re now adding all these new choices. Fundamental choices about changing your cognition and your body, and all these other things. There are some people who clearly are transhumanist, but won’t call themselves that. And I think, you know, I think Ray Kurzweil is a great example of that. He’s actually explicitly kind of rejected that term. But he so obviously is a transhumanist. I’ve tried to discuss that with him, and he clearly is one, but that’s fine, not everyone wants to associate themselves with a movement which might have all kinds of different factions, might push the wrong buttons. If they’re focused on a particular project then I can kind of understand that they wouldn’t want to associate themselves.
Vita-More: Kurzweil signed up for cryonics. That’s a very transhumanist thing to do. I think personally, the reason why he doesn’t publicly call himself a transhumanist is because he doesn’t want to be part of someone else’s club. Right? Kurtzweil is an inventor. He’s a brilliant person, a generous person with his creativity and his many talents. And he supports Max and I intellectually and emotionally, and he’s someone who we think of as extended family. But because it’s a philosophical worldview, I think that some people, when they have their own agenda or their own product to sell, may not want to be included into another product that’s being sold at this point. Later on. I don’t think it’s going to make one hell of a difference. But I think as he’s selling his Singularity Is Near and now his Exponential Economy and the Singularity University and all that, I think it would distract a bit from a marketing perspective. Perhaps his marketing advisors suggested that he not.
More: Which is kind of ironic because even though Ray doesn’t use the label, people conflate the idea of transhumanism and the singularity all the time. They think if you’re a transhumanist, you must believe there’s going to be a singularity, and then I’ll say, “Well I don’t.” I think I know a little bit about transhumanism. I’m not a believer in the singularity. The two are compatible, but they’re not the same thing. Although Ray won’t call himself a transhumanist, people attach these two terms to closely together, unfortunately.
Mason: To what degree, how do you deal with individuals who come to things like transhumanism because they feel so disillusioned about their current state of being in the present? That they’re looking to the future is something that will hopefully allow them to transcend their reality right now?
Vita-More: I think that’s an excellent question. Because if you open up any magazine or any headline it’s about genetic engineering and crisper and modifying the body, and new treatments for cancer like you know, therapies.
Mason: And for all these people, these technologies feel inevitable.
Mason: And yet they feel like they have no stake, and the reason why they’re coming to you is they go, “Oh, you saw the inevitability of some of these technologies, and” -
Vita-More: Is it really happening? They want to know if they’re being fed snake oil, it’s like, “Okay, now it’s here and it’s all over the place. So is it really here?” and I love that. It makes me feel good. I love it. So I can then differentiate between snake oil, and there’s a lot of snake oil out there. There’s a lot of pseudoscience out there, and there’s a lot of bullshitters out there.
Mason: Well a lot of people thought you guys were peddling snake oil back in the day.
Vita-More: We’ve been very careful. We didn’t just sit back like some people do. I think people are asking the question, “What are we going to become? What does it mean to be human?”. Because our biology is being tampered with, and we’ve associated our biology with a limited lifespan and death. Life and death. You live, you have certain criteria based on modernism and ‘normal’, you know. You get married, you reproduce, you come out of the closet or you don’t, you change careers or you don’t, and then you get old and you get feeble and you die. And that’s been the structure. That’s been the scenario. The narrative. No matter what native or tribe in the world, there’s each one has their individual myth or lore or narrative that people have abided by. And that’s being re scripted. So what is the meaning? I like to explain that we don’t know what it fully means, just like we don’t know, “What is consciousness?” I mean, you know, you have Stuart Hameroff and Chalmers and so many different scientists working on “What is consciousness?” We still don’t know. So, what does it mean to be human?
Mason: People are coming to you with these concerns, because they feel disillusioned about the present. The obsession and the interest in the future—is this an escapism from something that’s so terribly terrible is happening in their own life? Whether it’s something they’ve set up as, “I’m going to die eventually.” and that’s a terrible thing that they obsess over. And they’re looking for ways to make them feel -
More: I don’t generally find that. Especially in cryonics, which really brings that into your face, right, because you’ve got to think directly about your extinction. Yeah, in the occasional case, but for the most part, what I find is people who aren’t coming because they’re clearly terrified of dying. Because it’s like, if you ask me, “Am I afraid of being dead?” my answer is, “No, because it won’t be like anything. I just know I’ll be out of existence.” What they’re afraid of is that they will have no more life, and no more experiences, and no more opportunities to learn. So I think they’re generally driven by more positive aspects.
Now there are people like you say, who basically just want an answer, they want to treat it like any other ideology, whether it’s Marxism or religion or something like that. There are people like that. I think most of those people will just probably bury themselves in science fiction books, because then they don’t have to really worry about actual choices, they can just watch or read about these futures. So most of the people I come across are actually there because they think, “Hey, this stuff, some of this stuff might actually work. I have some concerns about it, and what can I do with it?” So I don’t think…there are people like that, yeah. But I don’t think they’re a majority, by far.
Vita-More: I agree with Max. I think it’s more out of curiosity and concern, and wanting an affirmation about the difference between what is viable evidence-based science and ethical technology versus non-ethical technologies. Who’s really going to be programming the AI? And how is that going to integrate with us? And what doctors should I trust? What facility should I trust? Is 23 and Me authentic? Or do they fake the genetic output? They want to know if the information that’s being presented in the news and in many of the articles are viable. I’m very clear, I’m very honest about it. I will tell them who to watch out for. I’m very clear on that. Because I think we need to know that. We’re at a point where, come on, we’re tired of people telling us stuff that’s crap. We need honest answers. And if I can’t give an honest answer, I have no problem saying, “I don’t know.”
Mason: So is that where you see yourselves within the transhumanist movement? You’re essentially Sherpas to help individuals navigate these very complex times both politically, socially, technologically, scientifically? I mean, what is the work that you now have to do for the next 20 years?
More: Hey I may have to steal that term. Transhumanist Sherpa—I hadn’t really thought of that but yeah in that sense, that’s how I see my role. Both being a bullshit detector, because there’s a lot of bullshit and you know, I’ve got training in critical thinking and so on, so there’s that’s kind of the filtering part of it, but also to open up people’s minds to the possibilities and help them to understand how all of these different technologies can cross connect in new ways and fertilise opportunities I’ve never really thought of. Because almost all the objections are based around very narrow thinking, like single trap projection. Like, “Oh, you can’t have people live longer because the world’s overpopulated.” or something like that—which is immensely frustrating, but comes up every time because it’s tracking a single change without everything else going on. We have these periods of change in history, sometimes things stay a lot the same. Like during the Dark Ages, things didn’t change for a long time. And then periods of change, like when the steam engine came along, and things change quite rapidly. Then you know, 50s and 60s, early 60s—kind of boring. Now all these new things are happening. These new technologies—we’re hearing about CRISPR and AI and this and that in space. And so maybe that is driving people to actually look at a set of ideas, that’s actually thought about all this stuff and tries to make sense of it.
Vita-More: It’s quite interesting, and I think it’s really important to be a BS detector. But I didn’t have the academic high-end Oxford background that Max has. So I never partook in debates. So I had to learn firsthand—the BS detecting and being taken advantage of many times, and being naive. So it’s kind of interesting that I think we work well on this. We don’t work on this together, but we’re both willing in discussing it, because I can now almost see the body language and not into it. But you know, I get a sense of things and then I’ll ask a few questions. And then you can find out pretty fast if someone knows their stuff.
One problem I have with this whole blockchain cliche is the encryption aspect of it and the transparency aspect, because if we take a look at Wikipedia, it just goes to show that Wikipedia was a great idea for open source and collaborative thinking and collaborative projects are great. But are we mature enough as humans? Do we have enough consideration and respect for others not to remove someone else’s credit and put your bullshit there? And so I think this is very important in this time and age that we are very careful about who’s programming the AI. What’s happening with the nano assemblers looking at genetic engineering? Do doctors really know what they’re talking about? I mean, if you’re going to a dentist to have a nose job, your doctor’s not being honest with you.
More: Along with it being an age of uncertainty, I think we have a crisis of expertise. Who do you know who is really an expert? I mean, we’ve known this for a long time but there’s clear studies demonstrating that most scientific results have not been replicated or cannot be replicated. Most of the stuff in these journals just isn’t right. It hasn’t been backed up. And when you go from the hard sciences to the social sciences and more abstract disciplines—it’s even even less certain. So you might think, “Oh is the Journal of so-and-so studies,
I can believe anything they edited.”, well no you can’t believe that because it’s captured by certain interest groups. They decide who’s going to peer review your paper, who’s going to be friendly to their point of view. It’s getting really tough to know actually, even in scientific areas, what the truth is.
One great example of that is nutrition science, which we’ve seen over the last few decades. We’re now walking around with a population of obese people with diabetes, because the government, for decades, recommended the food pyramid that was extremely heavy on carbs and bread and pasta. Now as people finally post today, maybe that’s not such a good idea. Though the government’s been pushing this as official nutrition science. I could give other examples that would probably be controversial, but I think that’s one that people are starting to recognise. So there’s a really big problem of who are the experts? And how do you tell? And there aren’t any easy answers. I think we still need to find ways of using new technological forms of communication 0 whether its reputation systems for the developed or whatever it is, how do we actually track people’s success rate and honesty and how do we know that a journal that is actually representing the field rather than their own biases? It’s a tough problem.
Vita-More: Yeah, very big problem.
Mason: So I think ultimately this is just the beginning of the conversation on really how we navigate our collective future, our individual future. Natasha Vita-More and Max More, thank you for your time.
Vita-More: Thank you.
More: Thank you so much for having us.
Mason: Thank you to Max and Natasha for sharing their insights into the history of transhumanism. You can find out more by purchasing their book The Transhumanist Reader: Classical and Contemporary Essays on the Science, Technology and Philosophy of the Human Future, available now.
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