A Singular Kind of Eugenics

Posted by Pete Shanks June 16, 2010
Biopolitical Times
From meeting notes at SU

One persistent aspect of techno-utopianism is a refusal to learn from the human past. Proponents keep making up brand-new labels for what are fundamentally the same old attitudes.

At the weekend, the New York Times devoted a couple of pages and 5000 words to Singularity University (SU). As we noted last summer, this is not a university and not even about Singularity. It's a corporate networking and seminar operation, and most of the clients attending its latest course were primarily interested in "figuring out their next business venture or where they wanted to invest." But the money behind the venture is certainly coming from people -- including several of those who made fortunes from Google, and the company itself -- devoted to the latest techno-utopian fantasies.

There are some interesting omissions from the article. One is the term transhuman, which is never mentioned. There is a quote from James Hughes, the former secretary of the former World Transhumanist Association (WTA), but he and they have rebranded themselves. (Hughes is with the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies; the WTA, which roughly replaced the Extropy Institute, is now Humanity Plus, though the magazine H+ has already ceased publication.) That did not, however, stop commentators, including the Times' own Ross Douthat, who links to Roger Scruton, and Wesley Smith, from explicitly discussing the protagonists as transhumanist. Apparently the rebranding has yet to succeed completely.

There is an almost casual reference to "a future where humans break off into two species: the Haves, who have superior intelligence and can live for hundreds of years, and the Have-Nots, who are hampered by their antiquated, corporeal forms and beliefs." (Lee Silver used the terms GenRich and Naturals to describe something very like this, but that was back in 1997 -- before Google was even, pardon the pun, incorporated -- so new labels are required.) The article continues:

Of course, some people will opt for inadequacy, while others will have inadequacy thrust upon them. Critics find such scenarios unnerving because the keys to the next phase of evolution may be beyond the grasp of most people.

Well, some critics actually object because this entire approach to the future reeks of self-indulgent privilege, greed and exploitation. But there is a deeper and more important point to be made.

Another term that is not included in the article is eugenics. Arguably, this is because there is in fact no proposal to "improve" humanity, merely a goal of "transcending" it. But that's nit-picking. The eugenic impulse has always been one of control, of domination, of decisive intervention into the human condition, by the powerful of this world (who see themselves as deserving, intelligent and fundamentally moral) on behalf of the deserving, intelligent and fundamentally moral.

Modern techno-utopians may not call themselves aristocrats, but they are -- at best -- following the same principles of paternalistic governance. There are those, however, who seem to have given up on the unwashed masses. Andrew Orlowski, a techie journalist who is a long-standing critic of "utopian nonsense," says:

"The Singularity ... is rich people building a lifeboat and getting off the ship."

For some of them, that's a metaphor; for others, it's actually a plan. Billionaire Singularity enthusiast Peter Thiel (PayPal, Facebook) has tossed half a million bucks to the idea of "seasteading" -- building new off-shore city-states.

Techno-utopians are the heirs to the eugenic tradition. Their methods are not those of Francis Galton, who advocated the breeding of aristocrats, nor are they those of the Eugenics Movement of the early 20th century, with its advocacy of selective sterilization. But the dissatisfaction with the human condition and the determination to overcome it is the same. Some of these people are rich, smart, powerful and dangerous. They may be fun and they may be friendly -- they may even be out to save the planet -- but they definitely bear watching.

Previously on Biopolitical Times: