Monday, August 15, 2016

Who counts as a futurist? Whose future counts?

A shorter version of this text appeared as a guest post on the Mathbabe blog.

For a good part of the past century the term "futurism" conjured up the image of a revolutionary artistic and cultural movement that flourished in Russia and Italy in the first two decades of the century. In more recent times and across the Atlantic, it has acquired a different connotation, one related to speculative thought about the future of advanced technology. In this later form, it is often explicitly associated to the speculations of a group of Silicon Valley tycoons and their acolytes. Their musings revolve around a number of themes: technological immortality in the form of digital uploading of human consciousness, space colonization, and the threat of an emergent superintelligent AI. It is easy to laugh off all these ideas as the typical preoccupations of a group of aging narcissist wealthy white males, whose greatest fear is that an artificial intelligence may one day treat them the way they have been treating everybody else all along. However, in fact none of these themes of "futurist speculation" originates in Silicon Valley: all of them have been closely intertwined in history and date back to the original Russian Futurism, and the related Cosmist movement, where mystics like Fedorov alternated with scientists like Tsiolkovsky (the godfather of the Soviet space program) envisioning a future where science and technology would "storm the heavens and vanquish death". The crucial difference in these forms of futurism does not lie in the themes of speculation, but rather in the role of humanity in this envisioned future. Is this the future of a wealthy elite? Is this the future of a classless society?

Konstantin Yuon, "A new Planet", 1921

Fast forward to our time again, there are still widely different versions of "futurism" and not all of them are a capitalist protectorate. Indeed, there is a whole widely developed Anarchist Futurism (usually referred to as Anarcho-Transhumanism) which is anti-capitalist but very pro-science and technology. It has its roots in many historical predecessors: the Russian Futurism and Cosmism, naturally, but also the revolutionary brand of the Cybernetic movement(Stafford Beer, etc.), cultural and artistic movements like Afrofuturismand Solarpunk, Cyberfeminism (starting with Donna Haraway's Cyborg Manifesto), and more recently Xenofeminism. What some of the main themes of futurism look like in the anarchist lamelight is quite different from their capitalist shadow.

"Morphological Freedom" is one of the main themes of anarchist transhumanism: it means the freedom to modify one's own body with means provided by science and technology, but whereas in the capitalist version of transhumanism this gets immediately associated to Hollywood-style enhanced botox therapies for those incapable of coming to terms with their natural aging process, in the anarchist version the primary model of morphological freedom is the transgender rights, the freedom to modify one's own sexual and gender identity.

It also involves a fight against ableism, in as there is nothing especially ideal about the (young, muscular, male, white, healthy) human body. The Vitruvian Man, which was the very symbol of Humanism, was also a symbol of the intrinsically exclusionary nature of Humanism. Posthumanism and Transhumanism are also primarily an inclusionary process that explodes the exclusionary walls of Humanism, without negating its important values. The fact that Posthumanism and Transhumanism have moved beyond the Humanism tradition originating in Renaissance Humanism does not mean rejecting Humanism entirely: some of its basic foundations are also at the basis of both Anarchism (which is in essence a humanist philosophy) and Trans/Posthumanism. For example, one of the most important contributions of Humanism was replacing religious thinking, as a basis for ethical values, with a vision of ethics grounded in human rights. Accepting that we live in a world of natural phenomena, approached through science and reason, is a fundamental basis of Humanism as a philosophy and it remains fundamental to both Anarchism and Transhumanism. An example of Morphological Freedom against ableism is found in the rethinking of the notion of prosthetics. The traditional approach aims at constructing artificial limbs that as much as possible resemble the human limbs. Implicitly, this involves declaring the users of prosthetics as being in some way "defective", lacking an aspect of their "intact" human ideal form. However, when children are given the possibility to design and 3D print their own prosthetics, they make colorful arms that launch darts and flying saucers and that make them look like superheroes, and professional designers have realized that prosthetic arms that do not imitate a human arm, but that work like an octopus tentacle can be more efficient than most traditional prosthetics. Abandoning the notion of an ideal human form allows for the freedom to create better forms. These are just a couple of simple examples of how prejudice prevents us from making a better use of technology. Anarcho-Transhumanism not only values a diverse and non-ableist approach to the body form, but it protects and values the importance of Neuro-diversity.

The mathematical theory of networks and of complex systems and emergent behavior can be used to make protests and social movements more efficient and successful. Sousveillance and anti-surveillance techniques can help protecting people from police brutality. Hacker and biohacker spaces help spreading scientific literacy and directly involve people in advanced science and technology: the growing community of DIY synthetic biologywith biohacker spaces like CounterCulture Labs, has been one of the most successful grassroot initiatives involving advanced science. These are all important aspects and components of the anarchist transhumanist movement.
Needless to say, the community of people involved in Anarcho-Tranhumanism is a lot more diverse than the typical community of Silicon Valley futurists.
Anarchism itself comes in many different forms, anarcho-communism, anarcho-syndacalism, mutualism, etc. (no, not anarcho-capitalism, that is an oxymoron not a political movement!) but at heart it is an ethical philosophy aimed at increasing people's agency (and more generally the agency of any sentient being), based on empathy, cooperation, mutual aid. Science and technology have enormous potential, if used inclusively and for the benefit of all and not with goals of profit and exploitation.

For people interested in finding out more about Anarcho-Tranhumanism there is an Anarcho-Transhumanist Manifesto currenly being written (which is still very much in the making). There is also an Anarcho-Transhumanism Facebook page, which posts on a range of topics including anarchist theory, philosophy, transhumanism and posthumanism and their historical roots, and various thoughts on science and technology and their transformative role.