Re: The image of transhumanism
Sat, 4 Jul 1998 21:18:32 EDT

Some excellent points, Anders: As always, you are the very Voice of Reason. As a professional communicator, I can say that you've captured many of the essential points of effective and persuasive communication. Time and again the masters of rhetoric admonish us to do the things you have advised:

Over the last couple of months I've engaged in a little experiment in communicating transhumanist ideas and extropian values in a completely "cold" environment. Probably nine or ten times now I've created a chatroom in AOL called "Transhuman Science" in the same area where one finds the New Age and religious rooms, as well as other special interest topics. The title of the room has attracted a good number of people. (Sometimes as many as 10 or 12 at a time). I prepare for "guests" in the room by having some short sentences pre-typed in a text file to cut and paste to answer the usual opening question of "what's this room about?" -- in fact, I use a condensed version of your introduction to Transhumanism, Anders: that question is met with the reply,
"Transhumanists advocate using technology to overcome our biological limits."
Discussion starts from there. Having that text in my clipboard buffer ready to paste helps keep things going when newcomers ask about the room's topic.

I've found the usual spectrum of questions and doubts:

"Won't we become inhuman?"
"Won't longer life spans cause overpopulation?"
"It's not natural."
"It's a sin."
"You don't need technology to do all those things, you can do it with (faith,
meditation, interdimensional crystal power something-or-other)."

By patiently using the Socratic method of questioning the assumptions upon which the questions and doubts are based, I've been able to maintain a tone of respectful dialogue in the room. On more than one occasion, I've had people comment on the fact that the room addresses basic and important ideas without devolving into a shouting match, the usual fate of such discussions in AOL's chatrooms.

Overall, my experience with perhaps 75 or 80 visitors to the chatroom is that usually one or two in every session eventually find the ideas compelling. I post up references to the various transhumanist and extropian web sites, which I also keep handy for cutting and pasting, so they can follow up with visits to those more developed areas. Usually one or two end up stating an inflexible opposition to the idea, but by maintaining a respectful and patient attitude, they leave without rancor. The majority of people end up with at least a positive view of transhumanism and a reasonable exposure to the basic ideas.

In these sessions, I avoid making statements like "our goal is to turn ourselves into synthetic brains the size of large planets," "we want to get to work right away completely overhauling the human genome," "we want to get rid of the government," "we want to transfer our consciousness to computers as soon as possible because they're more durable." Instead, I like to use examples like pacemakers for cyborgization (I never use the word "cyborg" first, but someone usually does pretty quickly, and I respond by acknowledging it and immediately using positive and mundane examples like artifical knees and eyeglasses), and the use of writing for neurological engineering. Using the Socratic method and as much humor as I can muster, I keep the conversation near the point of using advanced medical technology for ameliorating disease, and only when I have some consensus move to the point of augmentation.

I try to keep my temper and humor when I encounter the common references to religion and new age BS. I've found a very useful tool is to pick the most sloppy term out of such comments and say something like "I don't know what ‘spirit' means -- what do you mean by that word?" Then, I can usually simply respond to their reply by saying, "I call that mind, and see it as a function of the brain." If someone persists in demanding to know what will happen to the "soul", I politely tell them that I can't account for something I can't measure or detect, and end by saying that "it appears we have fundamental differences about the nature of life." Since most new agers and religious people innately understand that a spiritualistic world view necessarily entails a lack of certainty and an impossibility of agreement among people, they remain silent after such a statement. Using such rhetorical tactics allows the conversation to stay more or less on track and gives me the ability to steer it back into concrete terms.

This is just one example of the kind of meme propagation that we can do. Some people are better at such tasks than others and have more patience for it. I know some very good people who simply don't have the temperament to engage in such dialogue. Those of us who are less bright may serve the cause by trying to propagate a good "image of transhumanism", as you put it, Anders.

	Greg Burch     <>----<>
	   Attorney  :::  Director, Extropy Institute  :::  Wilderness Guide   -or-
	           "Good ideas are not adopted automatically.  They must
	              be driven into practice with courageous impatience."