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Home > Nanotechnology Columns > Natasha Vita-More > Putting Criticism Forward

Natasha Vita-More
MSc, MPhil, PhD Researcher, University of Plymouth

Everyone promoting investment in and development of emerging technologies must be prepared to accept criticism for doing so. Criticism give us an opportunity to check the barometer on what others think of us. It is a cost-effect way to turn the spot light on issues that might go unnoticed and offers occasion to self-reflect. Even the most brash criticism affords an opportunity to make changes for the better while reinforcing positive qualities.

April 10th, 2008

Putting Criticism Forward

For the past few months, I have been reviewing multiple critical analysis and reviews on transhumanism with a specific focus on separating faulty assumptions from constructive observations. While most of it has been beneficial, an assortment contains disturbing anecdotes and a plethora of conjecture based on misrepresentation.

How does this relate to nanotechnology? In several ways. First, nanotechnology is one of the emerging technologies which transhumanists suggest as being pivotal in developing the type of future we imagine. Such future, or possible futures, illustrate environments where all of society, including the "haves" and the "have nots" (and anyone in-between) benefit from nanotechnology. Second, nanotechnology offers possibilities for extending life with the help of such as nanorobots and macro nanosensing. Third, nanotechnology offers alternatives to the current energy problem which have caused not only angst and monetary expense to society, but more important—a loss of lives in building wars to fight over production and distribution of oil. Third, as Eric Drexler states, "[n]anotechnology, which works on the nanometer scale of molecules and atoms, will be a large part of this future, enabling great improvements in all these technologies. Advanced nanotechnology will work with molecular precision, building a wide range of products that are impossible to make today."[1] Drexler's vision is shared by transhumanists as a potential solution to freeing society from depressed access to products in helping to develop prosperous and democratically sound environments.

Transhumanism, as a worldview, explores ways in which the human condition can be improved. Improvement to the human condition is not just to extend life. Improvement refers to the entire human condition. This is one area where the idea transhumanism is confusing to critics. Many critics imply that "improvement to the human condition" is solely for individual transhumanist gain, and such gain is selfish, naïve, and ignorant of the rest of the world. How do we connect the dots in the logic of this interpretation?

Since more than one critic believes this to be true, perhaps it is time for transhumanism to self-reflect. Is it that transhumanists are incapable of clearly expressing ideas concerning transhumanism to the mainstream or is transhumanism an easy target for ridicule? Both. Transhumanists are investing insufficient effort in public discourse on how nanotechnology can benefit society and how society can be prepared for possible dangers of nanotechnology.

Professor in the Department of History at Arizona State University, Dr. Tirosh-Samuelson claims that "[t]ranshumanism is so challenging because of the accelerating rate of change, the potentially negative impact on the environment, and most importantly the lack of focus on values." Fair enough. But Dr. Tirosh-Samuelson continues by claiming "[w]e need a more holistic understanding of the human self than the one presupposed by transhumanism."[2] While Tirosh-Samuelson is a credible writer with a propensity for history, her research glides quickly over the history of transhumanism. Regardless, her contributions are important and reveal issues that many of us might rather ignore or claim as spoken from a Luddite. In fact, we ought to thank our critics for helping us look in the mirror and correct not only our outer appearance, but also our inner structure.

It is known that the environment inside transhumanism has been problematic. Political hegemony and organizational competition have been damaging and distasteful, to say the least. However, the aims of transhumanism continue to develop and mature. These aims include a strong technologically proactive relationship between technology and society. However, what is missing and needed is more discussion about culture and how such technologies, such as nanotechnology, will affect culture and what changes might ensue outside the business-related venues. We need to address people, their habits, lifestyle, desires and needs and perhaps the narrowing boundary between natural and artificial. As Kurmo Konsa, Tartu University, Estonia, writes:

"Analy[z]ing the relations between cultures, technology and environment, and their meaning, is crucial for the normal development of modern society. It is obviously very difficult, if not impossible, to anticipate the potential consequences of all new technologies. Nowadays, transhumanism and Posthumanism have together become one of the most important concepts, in the frame of which the influence of technologies on people and human society is discussed. Transhumanism and Posthumanism have been described differently in scientific literature, but all these definitions involve the idea of changing and improving the mental and physical capabilities of people by the use of different technologies." [3]

We as individuals as groups and as a culture need to be more proactive about discussing how society can benefit from and prepared for possible dangers of emerging technologies. And we must be prepared to accept criticism. Since the critic may have an addenda other than accurately reporting information about the unknown ideas and ideas and people outside the mainstream, it is our responsibility to pay attention, self-reflect and become more equipped at .

Transhumanism is an easy target because it is the only cultural movement that publicly expresses a strong, seemingly unconventional opinion about emerging technology, the future and humanity. But some responsibility for spreading misinformation about transhumanism has to remain with the critic. If the critic is playing a role of prognosticator, s/he is intentionally espousing wrong information and bias for the purpose of misinforming the readership. S/he becomes a self-proclaimed authority. The literary review becomes the critic's vision riding on the shoulders of transhumanism.

While I say, "shame on you," I also say, "thank you!" Thank you for putting it forward so that we know it is time to work harder, become more agile, dig deeper, and express ourselves more fluently in advocating the safe development of technologies, such as nanotechnology, for the benefit of all humanity.

Putting the words of the Proactionary Principle forward:

"People's freedom to innovate technologically is highly valuable, even critical, to humanity. This implies a range of responsibilities for those considering whether and how to develop, deploy, or restrict new technologies. Assess risks and opportunities using an objective, open, and comprehensive, yet simple decision process based on science rather than collective emotional reactions. Account for the costs of restrictions and lost opportunities as fully as direct effects. Favor measures that are proportionate to the probability and magnitude of impacts, and that have the highest payoff relative to their costs. Give a high priority to people's freedom to learn, innovate, and advance.[4]

[1] Drexler, E. "Revolutionizing the Future of Technology" (Revised 2006). Accessed 9 April 2008.

[2] Tirosh-Samuelson, H. (2007) "Facing the Challenges of Transhumanism: Philosophical, Religious, and Ethical Consideration", The Global Spiral, Pub. MetaNexus Institute.

[3] Konsa, K. "Arificialisation of Culture: Challenges to and from Posthumanism", Journal of Evolution & Technology, Vol. 17, Issue 1, March 2008, pp. 23-35.

[4] More, M. (2005) "The Proactionary Principle".

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