The image of transhumanism

Anders Sandberg (
05 Jul 1998 01:35:34 +0200

Let's face it: we have an image problem. No matter how reasonable our views appear to us, no matter how correct they actually are, most people do not consider transhumanism or its subset extropianism seriously.

I recently wrote that many people actually think extropians are gun-toting survivalists believing in a technocalypse; the current debate about heavily fortified island nations, surviving the Y2K problem and escaping into space wasn't helping the image. Den Otter promptly replied that we are survivalists (in the sense of not wanting to die prematurely and doing something about it), often believe in a singularity and would have great use for an island nation with transhumanism-friendly laws. This is of course true, but misses the point in a rather revealing way.

When most people use the word survivalist they refer to the image of a weapon-fanatic loner on the extreme right who plans to survive and prosper when everybody else gets their well-deserved disaster. When people overhear you talking about the Singularity, you could just as well speak about the Rapture or New Age Prophecied By The Mahatmas. And proposing a libertarian island kingdom suggests images of piracy, drug trafficing, child porn and money laundering.

It doesn't matter if these views are right or wrong as long as people hold them: they make us look like a cult.

If people think you are some kind of extreme cult they will treat you like a cultist - with all that that entails.

Among the common behaviors used by all humans when faced with a ranting cultist is to stop listening to the ranting as soon as you are certain enough that you are dealing with a crazie; the more radical and upsetting the ideas, the faster you want to stop listening and the easier it is to decide it is just cultishness.

First impressions last. If people come upon transhumanism as some kind of new age cult, right-wing extremism or fascism they will treat it like that, and not investigate further. They will even spread the word, and we all end up shunned by decent company. But I want my membership in Aleph and Extropy Institute to be something to be proud of, something that looks good on my CV!

This is why we better do something about our image. I believe we have great ideas with practical content. But we better present them well, in a form that people can understand and accept rather than immediately reject. It would be obvious to anybody planning to live a transhuman life that being good at communicating with other people is a high priority if you want to live in a society with them and get them to help you.

Many transhumanists make the mistake of becoming so used to all our fantastic ideas (after all, most are rather down-to-earth when you think of them carefully ;-) that they assume everybody else also will understand how reasonable nanotechnology, cryonics and singularities are. The listeners, who doesn't regard them as reasonable or obvious since they have not heard very much convincing evidence or have no collaborating experience, simply concludes that the transhumanist has read too much science fiction. And in the absence of facts they are making the simplest choice, applying Occam's razor correctly: the theory that the transhumanist is right is much more complex than the theory that he is just an overenthusiastic weirdo, so it should be rejected until further evidence shows him to be right or at least somewhat connected to reality.

This is why we better learn to present our ideas calmly, gradually and with as much supporting facts as possible. Don't rush it, don't try to make people swallow the entire bizarre package of ideas at once. Instead give them one interesting idea to chew on first, like dynamic optimism or wearable computers. They will come up with new ideas and questions on their own (which they tend to accept much more readily than other's), which can be discussed further. Even better, let them discover for themselves how the various fairly interesting but relatively uncontroversial ideas link together into a whole, with implications they certainly wouldn't have believed if they hadn't thought of them themselves...

Another problem we have is that we use a lot of weird terminology and even worse, hot button words that cause learned emotional reactions
('immortality'. 'genetic engineering'. 'freedom'. 'market'). Sometimes
it is useful to get an emotional reaction, but quite often it limits the possible repertoire of thinking. When you are aroused, you tend to select cognitive patterns that are fast and well-learned and use them with a minimum of thinking - the famous 'knee jerk reaction', although it can be more subtle and flexible than that. If we are not careful, we will close off the possibility of communication just by the way we discuss.

This doesn't mean we will give in to the misinformed views of people around us, quite the opposite! It is better to act by spreading information and ideas, gradually and friendly instead of trying to browbeat them to see something they don't believe in. By communicating well with other people you can spread your ideas efficiently; that way the facts and good ideas will be spread, and you might even learn useful things from others (including the occasional realization that their misinformed view actually was valid). Sometimes you might have to take a verbal fight or make a stand against pure stupidity, and then you better employ your passion, rationality and verbal skills to maximal effect without fear or hesitation, but it is inefficient to waste them on "winning" small arguments.

I don't want us to become politically correct. I don't want self-censorship. But I want the ability to explain clearly and rationally, and the ability to swallow the worst blunders before you say them. Think of what you are saying and how people will react to it!

Anders Sandberg                                      Towards Ascension!                  
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