The essential question of futurism is, “what will life be like in the future?” And one of the most interesting, and controversial, facets of that core question is, “what will the human race of the future be like?” This is a tricky question because of a common difficulty in considering it objectively. Projecting technological trends is relatively straightforward, but how we interpret social and cultural trends is always strongly influenced or biased by the character of the culture we are in at the present. It is akin to looking at the future through a fun-house mirror distorted by the cultural baggage we carry with us, and in particular biases created by overt or latent racism, religious dogma, and scientific orthodoxy.
All futurists struggle with the problem of over-estimating the near-term while under-estimating the long-term. Most inaccuracy in interpreting trends and anticipating future outcomes relates to this. When they get it wrong, this is most often ‘how’ they get it wrong. Furthermore, we can only describe the future with the language of the present. The reason past depictions of the future seem so anachronistic later on is that they have been created in the context of common contemporary language, aesthetic, design paradigms, and social ideals that themselves evolve with time and the impact of technology. Seen from a later perspective, they may be right on target yet may look quaint in the contemporary context, like the future as depicted in a Flintstones cartoon. It’s one thing to anticipate a particular future technology. It’s another to anticipate how a collective of future technologies and cultural trends might synergistically feedback on the designs of specific things or the nature of specific outcomes.
But when it comes to projecting outcomes in terms of the overall character of future culture and humanity, past futurists seem to have most often been sent barreling down the obviously—and sometimes disturbingly—wrong track. And race, or rather attitudes about race, looms large as an influence on this. One of the greatest blunders of 20th century futurists (and science fiction writers as well) has been the notion of social homogenization; the idea that future society would be increasingly culturally and racially homogenous. This is rooted in a fundamentally erroneous assumption that cultures, societies, and races exist in a kind of Darwinian evolutionary competition mediated by technological prowess. And from this assumption follows the conclusion that, in this competition, the most technologically advanced must win out and thus dominate and eliminate all competitors. Thus, across the early to mid 20th century we have commonly seen depictions of a homogenous and predominately white aryan future society—alternately utopian or dystopian in implication.
Of course, the heart of this idea is racism disguised by bastardized science. Despite the history of exploitation and conflict between cultures, there is no actual scientific basis for any suggested racial and cultural evolutionary competition. In fact, contemporary scientists argue that there is no such thing as ‘race’ beyond the antiquated social convention and instead only ‘clines’; sets of phenotype traits which vary in smooth gradations with geographical distributions of populations and influenced mostly by environmental adaptation.
Late 20th century futurists generally abandoned this disturbing notion of an aryan super-culture, yet the idea of future racial homogenization persists to the present day in the seemingly more benign form of a ‘global melting pot’. Here the premise is one of an eventually homogeneously ‘brown’ society facilitated by the suppression of racism cross-culturally by the influence of a global super-culture, the decline in significance of nation-state barriers to social mobility, and easier global transportation facilitating the mobility and racial mixing of a universally cosmopolitan society. While we might consider this suggestion more reasonable and plausible, it remains overly simplistic, often implying, once again, the suppression of all other cultures by the emergence of a single dominant super-culture. Certainly, we are indeed seeing the emergence of a kind of global super-culture with a certain virulence, driven largely by commerce, global communication, and novelty, but with about as much depth to it as the Orientalism of the 19th century. It is certainly influencing regional cultures, but is it actively suppressing them? Historically, dominator societies, driven by avarice, have deliberately and systematically sought the suppression of the original cultures of the societies exploited as a means to control and assimilation. And one might make the argument that this continues today through global economic neoliberalism. But this does not seem to relate to the super-culture which seems more passively virulent than systematically aggressive.
Rather than a simplistic global homogenization of human culture, contemporary trends seem to suggest as much cultural cladogenesis as convergence with a net cultural demassification of society—so much so that its attendant Long Tail phenomenon is becoming a challenge to existing political systems. We see a superficial super-culture facilitating cross-fertilization of regional culture paired with an explosive cladogenesis in sub-cultures likewise facilitated by communications technology that may, together, be disrupting traditional cultures. And in some cases we see attempts at authoritarian cultural stratification in response. We see formerly homogenous societies, like that of Japan, becoming less so. But there seems to be no mass emergence of a cosmopolitan multiracial society with any sort of uniform culture relating to the super-culture. Thus it seems very unlikely that global cultural homogenization is taking. It seems more gazpacho than melting pot.
But one of the key problems with the idea of a future homogenization of humanity is that it ignores our steadily increasing ability to epigenetically alter human physical appearance and characteristics, leading ultimately to an ability to utterly alter those phenotypes once limited to genetic variation. We are rapidly approaching a time where every physical characteristic of the human body become conveniently editable. In this context clinal variation in our species may become dominated by cultural aesthetics rather than genetic variation. What we commonly call ‘race’ today will become a lifestyle choice and matter of self-expression.
Science does not, as yet, fully understand the process of clinal differentiation. We know it to be related to general characteristics of regional environment and fast enough to produce observable differences in as few as a hundred generations. But we also know that selection in a human population is not as simple as it is among other animals by virtue of the impact of culture on sexual opportunity. We must thus consider clinal variation also in a context of cultural communication, divergence, and convergence. One of the curious characteristics of our species is an essential unease with our own bodies which may be a fundamental characteristic of sentient self-awareness itself. Throughout human history we have continually sought means to alter our bodies, temporarily or permanently, to suit ideals of beauty or self-expression that exist in our individual imaginations, the shared aesthetics of our communities, or the cultural standards of group identity. And for every one of these technologies that we have devised—clothing, jewelry, cosmetics, tattooing, piercing, binding, scarification, and other forms of body modification—the exploration of variation has been endless and perpetual. Once we have a means to freely edit most physical aspects of our bodies, would it not be safe to assume that we would likely continue to pursue this same endless exploration of aesthetic variation? How likely then is a future of social homogenization when we can readily foresee a progressing sub-cultural cladogenesis paired to a new ability of epigenetic clinal variation—an ability to craft our own bodies however we wish?
Thus, in this author’s opinion, the future character of humanity promises to be far more interesting than anything imagined in the past and far from homogenous. The physical nature of a human being will no longer be something imposed by nature or genetic history. It will be something actively chosen as children grow to adulthood and cultivate their individual identity. It will likely increasingly change throughout life with its growing convenience of change. We are likely to see a burgeoning physical variation of humanity as great as that we already see in fashion. There may be trends in aesthetic conformity (much as we already see in the plastic surgery obsessions in ‘westernized’ Asian countries today) countered by trends in radical aesthetic self-expression. This will not only alter our common perspectives on what was once considered ‘race’ but also fundamentally change our perceptions of our own bodies as an expression of identity.
Which brings us, at last, the question of what the word ‘human’ itself may mean in the future and the popular concept known today as Transhumanism.
Transhuman Culture and the Re-Defining of HumanityEdit
The term ‘transhuman’ refers to the human being who, through artifice, has begun an epigenetic transition to a new—presumably more advanced—post-human state of being. While the concept can be applied in a sense of a predominately cognitive and cultural transformation, this is most commonly characterized today as a technological realization of a new evolutionary stage of the human species. The concept is strongly associated with Singularity futurism where it has developed into an intellectual movement known as Transhumanism relating to the realization of sentient artificial intelligence, the application of information technology and cybernetics to human augmentation, and the eventual merging, or transition between, organic and inorganic human consciousness. In a general sense, TMP2 anticipates a future Transhuman society and that this, along with the technologies facilitating this, will be an important factor the long-term course of space development.
A full discussion of this topic is beyond the scope of this article, but the basic premise here is very useful in envisioning the nature of a future society. Essentially, Transhumanism suggests that we are in a process of transition from a genetic to an epigenetic phase of human evolution. In fact, this has been going on for quite a while. As noted earlier in this discussion, as soon are human beings developed culture and then collections of systems we call civilization we have been engaged in a kind of ad-hoc eugenics, meddling in our own evolution by altering the situations of selection and sexual opportunity beyond what the natural environment and our instinctual behavior alone might create. We also began superficially altering our bodies with whatever technology could be conveniently applied to that, defying the aesthetic limitations imposed upon us by nature and genetic history. With the development of medicine, we have intervened endlessly in outcomes natural selection might otherwise impose, saving and extending lives, altering reproduction. We are all Frankenstein monsters in a sense, the products of so many generations of cultural and technological intervention that very few, if any, of us could honestly be called natural human beings—and perhaps that’s why modern people have so much empathy toward the ‘monster’ in that classic story. We, as a species, are so changed from our ancestors that we would be almost unrecognizable to them. We today would seem as strange to people of the pre-industrial past as any space aliens we currently imagine in science fiction.
Now we are entering an era where technology is realizing an unprecedented, exponentially expanding, degree of intervention in and control over our own bodies. We anticipate that, in the not too distant future, every physical characteristic of the organic human being is going to become editable, customizable, potentially improved however we might define that ‘improvement’. Age, gender, reproduction, physiological performance, every aesthetic characteristic are all up for grabs, alterable with steadily improving convenience. And the end result is not likely to be some mass uniformity around some single ideal human model—because there has never been one. The diversity of imagination precludes it. Despite the many efforts of authoritarian cultures and more recent consumerism, such conformity has never persisted with our past means of altering ourselves. It’s not likely to happen with these new tools in the future.
Moreover, we anticipate the means to go far beyond the limits of organic physiology with this emerging technology, affording radical new human capabilities particularly in the areas of conscious awareness of our physiology, personal communication, interface to information systems, and passive digital augmentation of cognitive ability. We will be able to alter our anatomies, be it for practical or simply recreational and aesthetic purposes, far beyond natural limitations. Aesthetic movements and sub-cultures may produce whole new ‘races’ of people physically very different from what natural history has produced—or been capable of producing. Lifespans may become indefinite while our life-support needs, in terms of resource overhead, shrink. Silent wireless telecommunication may be something we commonly carry around in our own bodies, rather than in our pockets. We will be able to interact with our own memory and physiology as if our bodies and their many systems were personal computers, with diagnostic and ‘application’ software for maintenance, emergency intervention, and performance enhancement. We will move freely between the realms of the actual and virtual, our physical habitat increasingly enhanced by virtual augmentation while the collective virtual environments of the Internet merge into a vast virtual habitat as an extension of the actual habitat—a new alter-space akin to outer space which we likewise explore, develop, and increasingly ‘live’ in.
New and unusual lifestyles are likely to develop with these new capabilities, encouraging ever-greater sub-cultural cladogenesis and accelerating revision in standard and quality of life. Just as the Internet has invented new public rights of information access and communication, so too may these new technologies invent new rights of lifestyle—quality-of-life-rights defined in terms of the access to key medical and cybernetic technology and, with expanding lifespans, time itself.
With the advent of fully sentient artificial intelligence, likely realized through the reverse-engineering of our own organic intelligence, Singularity futurists foresee this culminating in the transition to a whole new classification of the human species no longer defined by just biological/genetic phenotypes but radically extending in clinal differentiation with technology as well until the predominant definition of ‘human’ become more intellectual than physical. What we call human may become defined not by any particular dominant physical form or genetic heritage but rather a broad spectrum of existence and lifestyle spreading from the predominately organic—yet by no means ‘natural’—being to the disembodied artilect—sentient artificial intellect—existing as software in the virtual habitat and operating in the actual habitat by telepresence. Future society may spread broadly across this spectrum, with increasingly easy mobility, as a matter of culture and lifestyle choice. While some anticipate a trend favoring the artilect end of the spectrum out of simple practicality as the most ‘efficient’ mode of life, it is probably more likely that we will see the whole of the possible spectrum persist indefinitely into the future as ones choice of place on it is not simply a practical matter anymore than our choice of clothing and place to live.
Ultimately, this will confront us, as a society, with a fundamentally crucial question; who are are we? What is human? Most likely, we will no longer address that question from a physiological and organic evolutionary standpoint. We will have to address it from a standpoint of the nature of mind and consciousness.
Who Inherits The Stars?Edit
Which, getting back to the context of TMP, presents us with the key question of who we are actually talking about when we consider the proposition of a spacefaring society? This is a somewhat touchy question for space advocacy because space futurism has not advanced in the way the rest of futurist theory has and has long retained certain subtle bias against technology where it relates to the functional role of the astronaut and the practicality of manned spaceflight. There is a common belief in space advocacy that manned space activity is critical to the viability of space programs as, without human astronauts, the public would have no one to identify with and thus not be able to relate to the value of space activity. This author would suggest that the fact that the cultural relevance of space continues to decline despite a larger population of active astronauts than ever in history puts paid to such an idea. But the notion that the ‘bounty’ of space may come to be realized by a society other than strictly human as we know it today is controversial as it is very difficult for us now, with our great baggage of racism and religious dogma, to relate to the likely nature of a future Transhumanist society. Put simply, our still primitive perception of who we are, in spite of our scientific understanding, hampers our ability to be sociologically inclusive—to recognize ‘us’ in a broader sense over the long-term future.
To some extent, this relates to the residual adventure fantasy aspects of space. Realistic or not, many people’s interest in space depends on the implication of personal involvement—on the personal fantasy of being an astronaut. Thus we see much resistance to propositions like telerobotic space development because the suggestion that, for most of the work we must do in the space environment, machines might be more practical than astronauts is an attack on that fantasy. It precludes our imagined participation—no matter how unrealistic that is. Thus when Singularity futurists suggest that a spacefaring society is most likely to be a transhuman society and that the larger settlement of the universe may be the province of artilects it is seen as a suggestion that the ‘human’ race as a whole will be left behind by the future, and that’s a disturbing idea. (especially in a culture where people already generally feel as if the future is something imposed upon us and beyond our control) Because we fail to grasp just how artificial we already are as humans in the present, we assume this suggestion to imply an ‘other’ race we do not relate to. Our limited imaginations, conditioned by crude media and science fiction of the past, present us with images of HAL9000s, clunky automatons, and Star Trek Borg. The media never presents us with AI’s that are simply ‘people’ because that would be boring. And so they are always different in order to be exotic—and often different in the manner of inadequate or ‘broken’ in some way so as to make us feel more comfortable about their other relative advantages. They’re always either sociopathic, malevolent, emotionally inadequate, comedically socially awkward, or subject to Pinocchio Syndrome.
But the more likely reality is that we are looking at an expansion of ‘us’ rather than the creation of an ‘other’. A form of life that is in no way deficient or inadequate, no ‘less’ human but rather quite the opposite, in terms of those characteristics we deem our virtues. Some futurists caution against the possibility of an auto-evolution of artificial life without any basis in a human consciousness model and thus potentially very alien and hazardously indifferent to us. There might be some remote possibility of this, but that is ancillary to the epigenetic evolution the human race itself is already engaged in and the likely artificial consciousness we may ourselves evolve into as well as deliberately engineer to relate to us as helpers, entertainers, and companions.
Are the children of our minds any less our children than those of our loins? If one made a child by other means, is that more or less one’s child? Is our epigenetic lineage less important than the genetic? This distinction would seem no less a social convention than that of race in the past and no more than a clinal differentiation from the perspective of future technology. Do we love the adopted child less than the one born? Do we take any less pride in his accomplishments? Why should we deem the accomplishments of a future Transhumanist society as something other than our own when they are still our ‘descendants’ in a practical sense? Why should we feel less responsibility to them, less connected to them? Our pre-industrial ancestors probably had no conception of what we would be like today—so very different as to be barely recognizable. They probably imagined us to be little different from themselves in appearance and lifestyle. We, however, have an ability to imagine and anticipate, to some degree, the nature of our distant descendants as a consequence of how we expect technology to impact future lives. And some of what this suggests seems uncomfortable because we can better perceive the magnitude of the change, the degree of difference. (or perhaps uncomfortable because of how it relates to some of our fantasies in the present) But knowing how much we have changed, should we consider the suggestion of how much we might change in the future all that strange?
In the sub articles of this section we will consider in more detail some of the specific technologies that may be key to the evolution of a transhumanist society, illustrate the possible lifestyles in more detail, and relate them to the possible course of future history of space development and the interstellar diaspora.