The way I see it, there are two options for the future: a transplanetary society or a transhuman one.
What got me thinking about this was right-wing billionaire Peter Thiel’s recent interview with Mary Harrington, which she wrote up in UnHerd. As Harrington puts it, Thiel’s diagnosis of modern social ills is not that “progress is inevitably self-destructive,” but that we’ve been making the wrong kind of progress. “We’ve had continued progress in the world of computers, bits, internet, mobile internet, but it’s a narrow zone of progress. And it’s been more interior, atomizing and inward-focused,” Thiel said. Meanwhile, “there’s been limited progress in the world of atoms.”
So far, so good. But then the interview took a strange turn. “How do we prevent runaway tech changes dragging us into some monstrously inhuman dystopia?” Harrington asked. Thiel, who describes himself as a “somewhat heterodox” Christian, answered that “some sense of a certain type of progress of history is a deep part of Christianity” and that the idea of an unchanging human nature belongs more “in the classical than the Christian tradition.” He went on to claim that “the Christian critique of transhumanism should be that it’s not radical enough, because it’s only seeking to transform our bodies and not our souls.”
Yikes. First of all, body and soul are not so easily separable. In just a few decades, the birth control pill destroyed a system of sexual morality that had endured for millennia. And second, while Christianity does teach that man’s destiny is “to become God” — the Greek term is theosis — Silicon Valley bros are the last people I’d trust to carry out that transformation. Trying to bootstrap our way into godhood is what got us into this mess.
It’s difficult to square Thiel’s desire for progress in “the world of atoms” with his defense of transhumanism, which is usually envisioned as a movement away from physical reality. The transhumanist treats his mind and body as raw materials to be altered at will and ultimately transcended. Today, the smartphone and the vaginoplasty; tomorrow, the neural implant and the artificial womb. In the end, we all upload ourselves to the cloud and live forever.
And yet, Thiel seems to believe that the only alternative to transhumanism is de-growth. Either we boldly forge ahead and become whatever our technology — and the technocrats controlling it — make us into, or we remain in our current state of stagnation.
I’m not a huge fan of de-growth, which often presents humanity as a parasitic infestation rather than as a divinely appointed steward. Even the de-growthers I respect, like Paul Kingsnorth and the people who run the Rizoma Field School, don’t seem to have an answer for how we can retain the prosperity that, in fewer than 100 years, lifted the majority of the human race out of dire poverty. The problem with Thiel’s dichotomy is that both roads lead to the same place. If we keep making progress in the virtual world, we’ll end up at transhumanism. If we get the return to material progress Thiel wants, his unwillingness to erect guardrails around innovation means we’ll end up at transhumanism by a different route. As the world becomes increasingly virtual and automated, we’ll get exactly the stagnation Thiel wanted so desperately to avoid.
A civilization without babies is a dying civilization — and transhumanism is inherently anti-natalist. Babies are both a harsh reminder of embodiment and a huge imposition on personal autonomy. A virtual metaverse baby is a lot less work. There’s also the question of what to do with all the workers whose jobs in the “world of atoms” will be rendered obsolete by drones and algorithms. Libertarian economist Tyler Cowen has encouraged nations to build hyper-dense slums with low rent and free high-speed internet. Like the denizens of the RV stacks in Ready Player One, the chronically underemployed can lose themselves in cyberspace. A steady diet of VR gaming, teletherapy, internet porn, drone deliveries and legal weed should prevent any uprisings.
Which brings us to space. The exploration and colonization of space might be the only way to maintain a sense of progress and cultural dynamism while maintaining our humanity. Either we meld with the machine or we conquer the heavens.
There can be no message more stirring than “The stars are your birthright.” Break out the old Walt Whitman playbook — “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” And as for material progress, the space program has always been a huge driver of innovation. Air purifiers, memory foam, LED lights, freeze-dried food, solar cells, insulin pumps, artificial limbs and scratch resistant plastic were all created or improved using technologies developed for space exploration. Interestingly, Thiel suggests that innovation in the “world of atoms” stalled sometime in the 1970s, just after we beat the Soviets to the moon and just before the Computer Age cut the Space Age off at its knees.
Conquering the heavens comes with the added bonus that “we” will be the ones who’ve done it. To speak of “we” or “us” (meaning “humanity”) when talking about a transhuman future is nonsense. The beings that inhabit that future will be something other than human. Whatever their accomplishments are, they will not be our accomplishments. Virtual man is a different sort of being from his ancestors. Spacefaring man, on the other hand, is what all his predecessors have been: an embodied creature adept at the use of tools. As in 2001: A Space Odyssey, there’s a clear through-line from the club to the space station.
Transhumanism be damned. If Thiel believes in progress, this is the future he should be chasing. Instead of abolishing humanity, we spread it across the stars. Instead of abandoning the cultural mandate, we fulfill it like never before. Instead of clutching at divinity, we fulfill our God-given role “as a subcreator, a namer of animals,” as Micah Meadowcroft put it in a recent piece for the American Conservative.
I’m becoming more and more convinced that transhumanism vs. natural law (or, in the philosopher Charles Taylor’s terms, poiesis v. mimesis) is the real political and cultural divide, so I’ll probably write a lot more about this topic. But this might be a good start: let’s rein in Silicon Valley, ban the metaverse, pour money into NASA and colonize space.