Transhumanism: The Rise of an Idea

by Aaron Franz

TheAgeofTransitions.com

first published Nov, 2013

 

The very word transhumanism, which has only recently been used in reference to technologies for human enhancement has come to embody these very technologies, things such as life extension, nanotech, and artificial intelligence. This is an incredibly significant development, and it points to the fact that as an idea, transhumanism has taken root. This idea is currently growing in a global cultural landscape.

 

Example after example could be given in regard to actual scientific and technological advances within the various fields that concern transhumanists. No doubt many will be cited in this very publication. At the moment let us concentrate rather on the cultural side to this story, with special regard to mass media. 

 

The problem for transhumanists, who themselves are only advocates of enhancement technologies, is not about developing the technologies but rather about promoting them. It is their job to convince people that such advances will be safe and beneficial, and that scientific research to create technologies for human enhancement must be pursued. Transhumanists have to contend with the natural human aversion to implanting mechanical devices within the body. They have to convince us all that artificial “superintelligence” (Humanity+, 2013) would benevolently transform the earth without destroying mankind in the process. 

 

If this all sounds like the stuff of science fiction it should come as no surprise. Appropriately enough it is through fiction that transhumanists may find the most effective tool for promoting their revolutionary ideals. Where 18th century revolutionaries exploited advances in printing to publish untold numbers of radical journals (Billington, 2010, p. 33), contemporaries have access to an almost immeasurably larger resource of multimedia with the ability to reach a global audience. Culture has been deemed the most valuable resource in our “information society,” and it is well recognized that “culture industries” should do all they can to manage this precious resource (Strong/Bainbridge, NBIC, pp. 279-282). The whole of popular culture, everything from movies, to television, to books, to video games has a profound effect on the attitudes and opinions of society at large. Inserting ideas into such forms of media is a simple propaganda technique that works to familiarize audiences with certain ideas (Bernays, 1928: 156)

 

As a precursor to the rise of transhumanism we have seen many and varied works of fiction depicting the sorts of converging technologies that transhumanists would like us to know about, and to prepare for. We have seen robotic exoskeletons, virtual realities, and certainly artificial general intelligence (AGI) many times over all throughout mass media. This in turn has promoted the concept of transhumanism by making the public generally aware of its concepts.

 

The absolute importance of gaining the favor of the culture creation industries is abundantly clear. This is why transhumanist groups such as the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies (IEET) have wisely created initiatives for their members to do just this (IEET, 2013). Here again it needs to be pointed out that the transhumanist vision reaches far beyond the scope of those few who actually identify themselves as transhumanists. It is a large-scale project that involves government, private industry, academia, and military interests. All of these interested parties are aware of the importance of propaganda, and as such they all understand the need to work together with culture creation industries. 

 

There is a convergence of sorts when it comes to both the creation of transhumanist technologies and of their promotion via mass media. This is apparent in the military sphere of influence. It is through research and development branches of the United States Department of Defense, notably DARPA that massive work is done in the varied fields that interest transhumanists. If we are to look for real developments in these areas then we must look to military projects. The culture industries are in turn influenced by the various branches of the US armed forces which each have their own respective entertainment liaison office. These military offices work directly with Hollywood producers to create big budget films. When a film producer agrees to work with the military in this way they are rewarded with access to military vehicles, locations, and personnel to use as extras (AP, 2001). In return producers give military officials the right to rewrite scripts, create characters, and add in themes conducive to the various objectives of the US military.

 

Some of the most popular movies containing transhuman themes have been created in tandem with the military. The US Air Force seems to be particularly keen on this helping to produce such films as Eagle Eye, Iron Man one and two, Transformers one and two, and even the last two films in the Terminator franchise (US Air Force,  2013). These are some of the most popular films that deal with the themes of artificial intelligence, cybernetics, and human/machine bonding. The question to ask is whether or not the Air Force has any strategic reasons for working on films that depict transhuman themes? Is part of their mission to promote converging technologies that are being developed with the US defense budget? It would make sense that military goals for the future be depicted in films now so that younger audiences familiarize themselves with these goals. When the children of today become the recruits of tomorrow, they may be given the opportunity to become Iron Man in real life. 

 

That the Air Force is working on propaganda is clear. Their Air University website clearly explains the importance of “influence ops,” designed to change the opinions of entire populations (Cyberspace & Information Operations Study Center, 2013). The sort of propaganda designed to introduce general audiences to the ideas of transhumanism would fall under the category of “public affairs.” Such operations could be carried out globally due to the worldwide audience that Hollywood now commands.

 

It is important to notice where transhumanist concepts are the most visible. Hollywood films would have to be recognized as being on top with video games and television shows in close competition. It is through the constant repetition of transhumanist themes that people have become familiar with them. The overt efforts of transhumanist organizations such as Humanity+ and the IEET are marginal at best with their most significant contribution being the introduction of the actual word transhumanism in its new context. This in itself has been successful mostly due to appearances by transhumanists on many television documentary pieces focused on future technologies. 

 

Transhumanism is much more that meets the eye. It is a revolutionary ideal that has become mainstream through the use of mass media. Now that the idea of transhumanism is familiar actual converging technologies may be introduced far more easily due to a primed, receptive, and agreeable public. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Associated Press, (2001) ‘Pentagon provides for Hollywood’, USA Today, May 29, http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/life/movies/2001-05-17-pentagon-helps-hollywood.htm

 

Bainbridge, W.S., Strong, G.W. (2002) ‘Memetics: A Potential New Science’, Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance, NSF/DOC-sponsored report

 

Bernays, E. (1928) Propaganda, 2004 reprint, Brooklyn, NY: Ig Publishing 

 

Billington, J.H. (2010) Fire in the Minds of Men, 9th printing, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publications

 

Cyberspace & Information Operations Study Center (Oct. 2013), http://www.au.af.mil/info-ops/influence.htm

 

Humanity+, (2013) Transhumanist FAQ 3.0, http://humanityplus.org/philosophy/transhumanist-faq/#answer_26

 

Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (Oct. 2013),  ‘Envisioning the Future Program’, http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/visions

 

 

United States Air Force Entertainment Liaison Office (Oct. 2013), http://www.airforcehollywood.af.mil/portfolio/