Transhumanists look at the human condition and proclaim: humanity deserves better. By taking advantage of the best insights and energies of present-day humanity, we can elevate humanity to a comprehensively better state.
This proclamation alarms a series of different kinds of critics.
First, it alarms religious fundamentalists, who believe that humanity is already the end point of divine creation. Any apparent flaws in the human condition – such as the physical blind spot in our eyes, our many cognitive biases, and our destructive tendencies towards tribalism and xenophobia – must be self-inflicted (they say), being the result of human sinfulness, in past or present-day generations. Or perhaps these flaws form part of some vast inscrutable divine plan, beyond human comprehension.
In response, transhumanists view these flaws as being, instead, unhappy consequences of our evolutionary heritage. Natural selection was limited in its foresight. Because of the incremental nature of biological evolution, there were many engineering solutions that lay outside its grasp. Because of the resulting shortcomings in human body and mind, the social structures that grew up over history had their own shortcomings, in turn causing further problems in the human experience. Transhumanists accept that there are many aspects of humanity that are “very good” – to use the description placed into the divine mind by the authors of the first chapter of the biblical book of Genesis. But there are many other aspects of the human condition that are capable of radical improvement, via intelligent design that can be carried out by far-sighted twenty-first century human engineers. When these improvements are in place, humans will become very good indeed.
Second, transhumanism alarms a group of critics who can be described as humanist fundamentalists. These critics abhor the transhumanist idea that technology can profoundly augment human consciousness and human character. Transhumanists anticipate humans reaching systematically better decisions, with the help of advanced computer algorithms, artificial intelligence, and enhanced mental states accessed by increasingly smart drugs. Humanist critics fear that any solutions based on digital technology will be cold, unimaginative, and blinkered. A world that maximises efficiency, they warn, will be an inhuman one. These critics prefer the random whimsy and creative variability of the present-day human mind. Therefore they oppose the transhumanist project to use technology to improve the human mind. It won’t actually be an improvement, they say.
In response, transhumanists point out that digital technology can improve our creativity as well as our rationality. Rather than being limited to measures such as efficiency and productivity, new technology can augment our emotional responsiveness and spiritual capacity. As well as making us smarter, technology can make us kinder and more sensitive. Rather than dehumanising us, technology, used wisely, can humanise us more fully. Instead of most humans spending most of their lives in an impoverished mental state, the humans of the future can inhabit much higher planes of consciousness. But if we stick with our unaided mental capacity – as humanist fundamentalists would prefer – our quirkiness and (to use a candid term) stupidity will likely be the death of us. Humanity deserves better!
Third, consider a group of critics that I will call cultural fundamentalists. To them, when it comes to determining human capabilities, nurture is far more important than nature. If we want to improve human experience, we should prioritise changing human culture (the environment in which humans are nurtured). Let’s restrain advertising messages that encourage destructive consumerist tendencies. Let’s ensure popular soap operas have characters that demonstrate positive behaviour. Let’s avoid situations in which different people live side by side but receive very different rewards for roughly similar amounts of work, thereby stirring up feelings of alienation and resentment. Let’s improve life-long education. Let’s arrange for everyone to be able to meet regularly with trained counsellors to talk through their underlying personal struggles, and to receive fulsome personal affirmation. Above all, let’s not focus on individual biological differences. To such critics, transhumanist interest in genetic influences on behaviour and personality is a retrograde step. Any idea of choosing the genetic makeup of your baby – or of editing your own genome – harks back to the discredited ideology of eugenics. These critics, therefore, regard transhumanists as being perhaps just one or two steps removed on a slippery slope from the dreadful biological experiments of the Nazi era.
In response, transhumanists say we have to consider both nurture and nature. It would be perverse to rule out improving our biological selves, via enhanced nutrition, dietary supplements, medicinal compounds, detox programmes, or (an extension of the same line of interventions) genetic reprogramming. Just because some past genetic experiments have been moral scandals, there’s no necessity to group all future genetic experiments under the same heading. After all, various past experiments to improve human culture went horribly wrong too – but that’s no reason to give up on the “improve culture” pathway. Similarly, there’s no good reason to give up on the “improve biology” pathway. It is by taking fully into account both the biological and cultural influences on human capabilities, that we will have the best opportunity to improve human experience. That’s what humanity deserves.
To recap, transhumanists alarm religious fundamentalists, humanist fundamentalists, and cultural fundamentalists – but in all three cases, the alarm is misplaced. In the remainder of this chapter, I want to consider a fourth group of critics: market fundamentalists. I’ll also be considering the mirror image of that group, who can be called anti-market fundamentalists.
Conflicting views on markets
Market fundamentalists believe that free markets are absolutely the best way to decide the allocation of resources.
For example, what price should a taxi company charge, to transport passengers a given distance? A free market solution will allow the price to be adjusted according to supply and demand. If there are more people wanting to hire a taxi at a given time than there are drivers available, the price should be raised, using a “surge” multiplier (as in the practice of Uber). The higher price will encourage a greater number of part-time drivers to make themselves available to pick up passengers. And if some potential passengers have less of a need to take a taxi service at this precise time, they can cancel (or defer) their transport plans, in view of the higher prices. Supply and demand will both change, rationally, in line with the dynamically adjusted price.
Likewise, how many units should a manufacturer produce of, say, a new model of car with some smart new driver-assist features? In an open society, with freedom of choice for consumers and vendors alike, there’s no formula that can reliably predict the right sales figure ahead of time. Manufactures need to monitor the purchases actually made by consumers, and to adjust production accordingly. No one can be sure whether consumers will tend to prefer to spend their money, instead, on cars from a different manufacturer, or on overseas holiday vacations, or on Kickstarter investments. The choice belongs to them: it’s not something that should be dictated in advance by any government officials.
To boost sales of their new model, should the manufacturer reduce the retail price of the car? Again, that’s a decision under their own control, and shouldn’t be determined by any state planners of the economy. Out of the myriad individual free choices of the buyers and sellers of different goods and services, companies that are responsive to changing consumer needs will do well. In turn, consumers will benefit.
What about similar questions for the introduction of a new medical drug? Who should determine the price at which that drug will be sold? If there’s a free market, pharmaceutical companies that are responsive to changing patient needs will do well. If one company sets the price of the drug too high, another could introduce a competing product that is less expensive. In this system, there’s no need for any state planners of healthcare to determine the prices in advance.
Market fundamentalists resist attempts to override the operation of free markets. They maintain that planned economies have never performed as well as countries where decisions remain in the hands of buyers and sellers.
In response, transhumanists say: we can do better. The free market no more represents an absolute pinnacle of design than does the makeup of the human body, the composition of our DNA, or the output of evolution by natural selection. None of these features of the human species should be put onto a pedestal and worshipped. Resource allocation should be determined by the combined operation of several different social institutions – not by the free market alone. These institutions should steer the operation of the free market, for significantly better outcomes.
More accurately, some transhumanists say that we can do better. Unlike in the three previous cases, the transhumanist community is divided when it comes to free markets. Recall the distinction made in Chapter 1, between technolibertarian and technoprogressive. Both sides of this transhumanist divide see the tremendous transformational potential of technology. Both look forward avidly to the development and deployment of technology to overcome the limitations of the human condition. But whereas technoprogressives see important limitations within the operation of the free market, technolibertarians take a different view. Free markets don’t need to be steered, they say. Instead, free markets just need to be protected – protected against distortions that can arise from government interference, from monopolies (when free choice vanishes), and from “crony capitalism” (which is a particular type of government interference, since legislators in this case unduly favour the businesses of their “cronies”).
To round out this picture, one other position should be mentioned. Anti-market fundamentalists see the market system as having a pre-eminently bad effect on the human condition. The various flaws with free markets – flaws which I’ll be exploring throughout this chapter – are so severe, say these critics, that the most important reform to pursue is to dismantle the free market system. That reform should take a higher priority than any development of new technologies – AI, genetic engineering, stem cell therapies, neuro-enhancers, and so on. Indeed, if these new technologies are deployed whilst the current free market system remains in place, it will, say these critics, make it all the more likely that these technologies will be used to oppress rather than liberate.
In contrast, technoprogressives look forward to wiser management of the market system, rather than dismantling it. As I’ll argue, key to this wise management is the reform and protection of a number of other social institutions that sit alongside markets – a free press, free judiciary, independent regulators, and, yes, independent politicians.
Collusion and cartels
To proceed, let’s consider one of the ways in which free markets can fail…
As with all the other chapters released so far, Google Doc copies of the latest version can be reached from this page on the Transpolitica website. Google Docs makes it easy for people to raise comments, suggest modifications to the text, and (for reviewers who log into a Google account) to see comments raised by other reviewers.