Reader feedback on the book Sustainable Superabundance has highlighted the topic of superdemocracy as having both issues and opportunities.
One issue raised is that it’s reckless to submit decisions on the future of transhumanist projects to the collective decision of the populace. The populace as a whole is unlikely to have sufficient sympathy with transhumanist objectives, and will lack an appropriate degree of understanding.
Instead of seeking collective approval for such projects, it will be better, in this line of thinking, to find ways in which these projects can take place autonomously.
To quote from one early reader, Samantha Atkins, from a discussion thread on Facebook:
The book pins its hopes on a “superdemocracy” with no clear limits on the areas that democracy has power over. It posits saner, much wiser people as necessary to make it work when we have no means to produce this miracle. It believes too much in the collective and imho will produce a wold of stagnation waiting for the collective to decide or give permission…
I believe that much less government and more real freedom of the people to innovate and find the solutions is the key to fastest progress to our joint dreams. I think government, with the ability to force decisions on people, should be severely limited in the areas it can touch…
We transhumanists are a small minority. Even in our own circles a proposition as simple as ending aging being a good thing can only garner perhaps 70% support. I have actually seen this vote taken in transhumanist groups with such results. So how can we really expect to sway entire countries and more in a superdemocracy toward our values across majorities? I think the more realistic hope and plan is for the freedom to act without waiting for the majority to agree.
These (along with many other thoughtful comments in the same thread) raise valid concerns. So let me offer some responses.
The four ‘supers’
A good starting point is with the idea of adding a social dimension to the set of areas of human life that concern transhumanists.
This addition was discussed at the TransVision 2017 conference in Brussels, in a session that reviewed the Technoprogressive Declaration which had been agreed three years earlier at TransVision 2014 in Paris.
Here’s an extract from the official agreement from the 2017 conference:
Alongside the well-known transhumanist intentions for superlongevity, superintelligence, and super wellbeing, we additionally emphasise the importance of “super society” – by which term is implied improvements in resilience, solidarity, and democracy, whilst upholding diversity and liberty.
The agreement went on to emphasise how the practice of democracy needs to be transformed and renewed:
We envision a renewal of democracy in which, rather than the loudest and richest voices prevailing, the best insights of the community are elevated and actioned.
A vital function of democracy is for political representatives to be periodically held to account, thus ensuring they keep in mind the wellbeing of all citizens rather than just the desires of an elite; also of great importance is that democracy involves peaceful transitions of power.
A healthy democracy requires a free press and independent judiciary, and will be assisted by the wise application of technological innovation.
In the few months after TransVision 2017, I put the finishing touches on my book Transcending Politics (which published in February 2018). In the process, I opted to give more prominence to the word “super-democracy” than to “super-society”. I gave this definition in the first chapter of that book:
super-democracy: the active involvement of the entire population, both in decision-making, and in the full benefits of transhumanism.
And from the same chapter, here’s the explanation about “The four ‘supers'”:
As in the short video “An Introduction to Transhumanism” – which, with approaching a quarter of a million views, is probably the most widely watched video on the subject – 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.
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
Beyond present-day politics
It’s one thing to say that transhumanism should seek the positive transformation of social power dynamics. It’s another thing to seek collective decision-making.
After all, collective decision-making has a bad track record – especially in recent times.
Indeed, incompetent government action has often slowed down or prevented good progress with the humanitarian initiatives championed by transhumanists and other futurists. Governments have imposed all kinds of unhelpful regulatory schemes.
But the vision I champion in my books isn’t for larger government. It’s for appropriate government. It’s for better government – keeping out of areas that don’t concern it, but getting involved when market forces are unable to find the best long-term solution by themselves. In other words, regulations and incentives only when necessary.
To quote from the section “Beyond present-day politics” in Chapter 3 of Sustainable Superabundance:
Alas, politics has often been a hindrance to positive technological progress. Politicians, wittingly and unwittingly, have imposed cumbersome legal restrictions on breakthrough innovations. They have elevated doctrinaire ideologues over evidence-minded pragmatists. They have re-routed funds from deserving causes to self-serving gravy train projects…
[But] when done well, politics involves wise, well-informed collective decisions about which new technologies and other social innovations should be restricted or steered, and which should be incentivised or encouraged. When done well, politics also ensures that such decisions are followed up, and are revised in a timely manner whenever necessary.
And from the agreement from TransVision 2017:
Systems for regulation of technology need to be adaptive and agile, rather than heavyweight and anachronistic.
Support for autonomous projects
A vital part of the above-mentioned agility is that subgroups of society should, indeed, be able to carry out projects of their own choice, without needing the explicit approval from an overall government.
I address the question of tolerating and enabling diversity at several points inside Chapter 4 of Sustainable Superabundance:
[The above core] principles, as stated, leave many questions unanswered. They define a broad envelope that can accommodate a multiplicity of different viewpoints. That diversity is, itself, something to cherish. Hence a seventh core principle: nurture and tolerate diverse opinions within the overall transhumanist framework…
Groups of people who share particular enhanced skills and modes of practice will, understandably, seek some autonomy over decisions within their groups, freed from requirements for democratic approval by people in the wider community that have little understanding or interest in these modes of practice. This is similar to the principle of technocratic decision-making: there are domains of specialist knowledge (for example, medicine) in which decisions are best taken by the relevant experts rather than by a vote that includes non-experts.
But the chapter goes on to point out limits of any such autonomy:
Nevertheless, domains often interact with each other. Where the activities of one group of people, with one set of enhancements, interact with the activities of other groups of people, a broader democratic agreement needs to be reached.
The design of the overall transhumanist society therefore needs to enable the prosperous coexistence of subgroups with significantly divergent skills and practices.
I make no claims that the design of such a society will be easy. But I encourage transhumanists and futurists of all shades and stripes to engage in the discussion of the issues and opportunities arising.
A change in the public mood
Despite everything written above, the question still remains as to how transhumanists will be able to obtain agreement from the electorate as a whole to accelerate projects such as genetic modifications, radical brain enhancements, Drexler-style nanofactories, and whole-body rejuvenation therapies.
Wouldn’t it be better, people might ask, to create some kind of independent transhumanist state, adopting so-called transhumanist separatism?
My answer is that transhumanist projects should, in due course, go much faster (and more effectively) if they can tap into the wider resources of society as a whole, rather than being restricted to people in an isolated community.
I say this despite the opposition and (more often) apathy presently expressed by the majority of society towards transhumanism.
I say this because I foresee large changes in the public mood as the 2020s proceed.
Due in part to transhumanists speaking up in more engaging ways, the 2020s can become the decade of transhumanism: the decade in which more and more people become aware of the potential for human nature to be significantly improved by the application of technology – and see that potential as deeply desirable.
As I say in the first chapter of Sustainable Superabundance, “the few can become many”.
I realise this prediction will strike many observers as far-fetched. Let me finish this article with some words in defence of that prediction.
First, changes in the public mood are by no means unknown in history. If a compelling set of ideas gains momentum, transformation in public expectations can take place increasingly quickly these days:
Second, people are generally more capable than we first think. When we have a bad encounter with someone who has a different opinion from us – for example, someone who rejects (or supports) the idea of anthropogenic climate change, or someone who rejects (or supports) the idea of the UK remaining within the European Union – we all too often decide that they are resolute idiots, beyond the reach of reason. However, in a friendlier, more supportive environment, surprising degrees of mutual understanding and agreement can become possible. Greater emotional intelligence can make all the difference.
People fearful of submitting a decision to a democratic process tend to be anxious about the degree of change that it is possible for members of the electorate to navigate. Can resolute opponents really turn into friendly supporters?
My answer is “yes”. With my transhumanist vision, I believe that we can all do better than the sorry norms of recent history. And we can get there step by step. Starting from today.