2012-09-12

Left-of-center, but not left behind in transhumanism

Ayn Rand
The face of the future?! (Image credit: DonkeyHotey)
I was scared for a few hours when KurzweilAI.net posted the trailer for a film adaptation of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged last week, along with what looked like an unedited press release and no critical reaction.

What did Ayn Rand have to do with transhumanism? If transhumanism wasn't exclusively libertarian, why promote an author better known for libertarianism than anything? Why risk alienating the Left unnecessarily?

I'd recently read, in Cory Doctorow's review of a book, that transhumanism had originated among libertarians, that it had faced plenty of criticism from liberals, and that the book's effort to reconcile it with democratic socialism was long overdue. Was this pessimistic picture accurate? Would being a democratic socialist alienate me from transhumanism and vice-versa?

At Trent University, the Left paints an almost Luddite picture of itself, with copies posted all over campus. None of the anti-nuclear, anti-GMO or anti-nanosilver activists seem to even consider the possibility that the technologies they attack might become safer, given regulation and further development. Instead, they're hell-bent on throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

There is hope: any use of computers or the Internet that saves trees or gas is encouraged. And the Arab Spring seems to have upgraded smart phones and social media from grudging, ambivalent tolerance to genuine acceptance. Still, I'd probably face even more of an uphill battle as a transhumanist proselytizer at Trent than I would in any local non-student neighbourhood, let alone any English-speaking neighbourhood in Toronto.

I'm not anti-corporate. We couldn't have Watson without IBM, Core i7s without Intel, or Android phones without Google. It's sometimes a good thing when people and businesses make money, especially when they do so by advancing technology.

But at the same time, if tech companies and tech professionals get too many tax breaks, then high tech isn't giving the public all the benefits it has to offer, and public-sector innovation is being starved more than private-sector innovation is being stimulated. I also believe big business, especially in high tech, thrives on challenge -- including the challenge of not being allowed to exploit workers and the environment, compete unfairly against smaller or not-for-profit innovators, or rely on bailouts.

I was relieved to see I wasn't the only one concerned. Critics crawled out of the woodwork; some took issue with Objectivism from a scientific standpoint, or with Randian libertarianism generally.

The KurzweilAI editor and a few commenters defended Atlas Shrugged, but mostly as science fiction rather than politics. I guess that goes to show how many transhumanists are apathetic about politics. Outside transhumanism, more people probably know and care about the politics in Robert Heinlein's SF novels than the SF in Ayn Rand's political novels.

The book review, whose date I'd misread, turned out to be of a 2004 book. The Atlas Shrugged incident reassured me that there's been plenty of change in the 8 intervening years, and that technoprogressivism is alive and well.
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