March 7, 2006

Transhumanism Evolves in Silence

TransVision 2004 highlighted both the transhumanist movement's progress and the difficulty of getting people to notice

By George Dvorsky, August 18, 2004

Sitting in the back row, I couldn't decide if I should focus my attention on the man on stage or the smiles of people in the audience. "We fear what we have always been and what we are becoming," proclaimed the speaker in a lush Australian accent. "We are both cyborgs and zombies."

Speaking while silhouetted ahead of a gigantic screen stood world-renowned performance artist Stelarc. The audience sat completely absorbed, offering their rapt attention. Projected onto the screen was a massive computer-generated prosthetic head—Stelarc's head, given smarts by the ALICE AI software. Audience members eagerly asked the head a number of questions to which it responded in a loud and booming voice—something like Stephen Hawking's speech generator on steroids.

It all seemed larger than life, and after a year of preparations, I could scarcely believe that it was finally happening. The dramatic image of Stelarc standing in front of his prosthetic head while it answered questions on his behalf is one indelibly etched into my mind.

As the organizer of TransVision 2004, the World Transhumanist Association's annual conference held this year at the University of Toronto, I was as much interested in the presentations as I was in making sure that people were having a good time. And if their expressions were any indication, the event was a big success.

But looking at an audience of about only 150, I became deeply discouraged. I had been hoping for so many more. Here was an international conference in the heart of Toronto with some of the most important transhumanist thinkers on the planet talking about the future of our species—including Stelarc, cyborg Steve Mann, biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey, Extropian Max More, philosopher Nick Bostrom, computational neuroscientist Anders Sandberg, democratic transhumanism promoter and Betterhumans columnist James Hughes and many, many more—yet the event was unable to attract more than a handful of enthusiasts.

So as I sat there in awe of Stelarc, I muttered cynically to myself about how so many people just don't get it. For each empty seat I imagined someone who opted to stay at home to watch the latest reality television absurdity. It's their loss, I thought to myself.

As I look back at the conference, I can only conclude that while transhumanism is steadily maturing, and as the annual TransVision conferences continue to progress in sophistication and scope, getting the word out and tapping the popular mindset continues to be one of the movement's primary struggles.

You've come a long way, baby

Those who didn't attend TransVision 2004 certainly missed out. "George, you've really taken TransVision quite far this year," Sandberg told me. "These conferences are growing by leaps and bounds with each passing year."

Sandberg should know, as he has organized previous TransVisions and attended all of them since 1998. "I remember when a TransVision was nothing more than a bunch of us getting together to chat in a hotel lobby," he said. "This year's event is quite obviously a far cry from that."

I thought about last year's TransVision 2003 at Yale University and had to agree that the event is progressing. There, organizers brought in a number of key academics and bioethicists to discuss and debate transhumanism, including Gregory Stock and George Annas, and forced the issue onto wary academics. Since TV03, transhumanism has been regularly discussed and addressed in bioethics circles around the world—a tribute to the success of last year's conference.

This year, with the conference focusing on art and life, we reached out to other segments of society, with both Mann and Stelarc delivering high-voltage presentations (literally, as the audiovisual teams can attest).

I remember, after Mann's event from the night before, Sandberg, a brilliant Swedish transhumanist polymath in his own right, proclaiming with excitement, "I cannot even begin to imagine the technical complexity and intricacies involved in pulling that presentation off. I mean, the number of potential points of failure were incredible. I can't imagine myself ever trying to pull something like that off, no way."

Indeed, Mann pulled off an impressive show. Attendees were abuzz the following day. Exploiting the large screen at the University of Toronto's JJR McLeod auditorium to the fullest, Mann had no less than three video projections working simultaneously at any given time. His first-person view was also captured and projected onto a screen by his wearable video camera, giving the audience a glimpse of what it would like to be Mann on stage giving the keynote address.

Mann captivated the audience with a discussion of how future technologies will be applied to further liberate ourselves from intrusive surveillance devices and the ubiquitous corporate blanket that pervades our sensory environment. By using sophisticated video capture technologies we can fight back, says Mann, and by developing powerful mediated reality technologies, people can decide what they want their environment to look like, free from billboards and neon signs.

Echoing the words of Marshal McLuhan, another important Canadian futurist and techno-philosopher, Mann noted how the ongoing progression of communication technologies will continue to let us project and extend ourselves—including our conscious selves—further and deeper into the human community.

Looking at the screen, and literally seeing myself reflected back through Mann's eyes, I had to acknowledge the strength of his claims.

A sense of history

Thinking about Sandberg's comments and reminiscing about Mann's keynote address, I had to agree that the WTA's annual event was maturing and that the transhumanist dialog is continuing to expand.

The theme of TV04 was "Art and Life in the Posthuman Era," and we were hoping to show the cultural and sociological side of transhumanism. To this end, it made sense to have the University of Toronto's McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology sponsor the event. Prior to Mann's keynote, Robert Logan from the McLuhan program, author of The Sixth Language and a colleague of McLuhan's, introduced Mann to the audience. As he talked about McLuhan and the ties between his thinking and transhumanism, I was struck with a sense of history. Here, right before my eyes, two schools of independent futurist thought were intersecting. For me it was a remarkable moment.

Another remarkable TV04 moment for me was flashbulbs erupting when de Grey accepted the H. G. Wells Award for most significant transhumanist contributions during the past year. De Grey admitted to feeling a bit odd accepting the award, since he has been leery of identifying himself with the transhumanist movement because he's not a fan of leaving everything about humans behind. Having realized that transhumanism isn't about eliminating human pleasures, de Grey said he could accept the award without feeling hypocritical, which makes sense: This is the man, after all, who just might cure aging. As Betterhumans columnist Dale Carrico said to me, "He's a transhumanist superstar."

Having Stelarc at the conference was no small deal either. As Hughes aptly noted, "In the arts right now there are probably only a couple people repeatedly associated with transhumanism." Stelarc is one of those people. "He is listed in every review of contemporary art as one of the top couple dozen artistic innovators of our time," Hughes said, noting Mark Dery's Escape Velocity as an example.

Indeed, having Mann and Stelarc at a transhumanist event was no small matter for many conference attendees, who follow and admire their work. During the conference, neurotherapist Carmine Franzese, who drove in from New York City, told me that if he could have picked any two speakers for the event, it would have been Mann and Stelarc. Seeing both presenters mobbed by eager attendees after their presentations was a visual reaffirmation of Franzese's sentiments.

Transhumanist memes, however, are moving far beyond academic settings and avant garde artists. I was immensely pleased to see the radical body modification community come out and join us at TV04. Most notably, Shannon Larratt of BMEzine attended the event. Transhumanists and body modifiers have a major shared interest: Maintaining morphological liberties.

Larratt, as an important figure in the body modification community, has done incredible work to bridge the gap between the two camps, using and promoting technologies that allow people to morph their bodies into desired forms. "Ultimately," Larratt writes in part one of his report on the conference," if we're going to leap forward from these dirty ape fleshbag bodies of ours, we have to embrace the right of every individual to transform themselves in any way they see fit, be it a split tongue or be it a robotic tongue. "

Thinking about the body modifiers who came to TV04, I couldn't help but wonder what this community will look like in coming years. At future TransVisions, we're apt to see full-out cyborgs, transgenic creatures and glow-in-the-dark skin.

Meet the press

But while transhumanism continues to make inroads into various communities and disciplines, getting people to actually come out to transhumanist events has been exceedingly difficult. And it's not for lack of trying.

Betterhumans editor-in-chief Simon Smith, who helped me organize the conference, took extra steps to promote TV04. But while word got out, the public failed to respond. In addition to being on a number of event calendars, including one in Wired, and local listings prior to the event, we had an article in the widely read Toronto Star, and an interview with Mann broadcast on local radio a day before the conference.

Certainly, we had excellent media exposure—about 20 journalists attended the conference, including a CBC camera crew filming a documentary of the event. And since the close of the conference, there have been a number of write-ups, including one in NOW Magazine and one in Reason. Since the close of TV04, I've also been contacted by several journalists looking to do post-conference interviews.

Yet with all the conference's successes, attendance was disappointing. There were about 125 registrants, including journalists, and about 50 more people who came to see Mann and Stelarc. For a conference featuring such interesting and important figures, addressing such interesting and important topics and situated in the heart of a major metropolis, this was quite disheartening.

I hope that media coverage before and after the conference will help improve attendance at future TransVisions, getting people interested in transhumanist issues whether they agree or disagree with the transhumanist position. "Don't underestimate the value of getting to meet world class thinkers—even the ones you disagree with—in person," Larratt exhorts his readership, echoing my sentiments. "Don't underestimate the value of introducing yourself into dialogs you might otherwise not be able to have. As much as I didn't think much of a few of the presenters, the ones I disagreed with the most are also the ones that got me thinking aggressively about where humanity is going and how we should take it there."

Exactly: What's vital is that people start to think and discuss issues surrounding how technologies are going to change our species in the coming decades—and because it concerns everybody, it's a dialog in which as many people as possible need to engage.

They'll get a chance at TransVision 2005, to be held in Caracas, Venezuela with the theme "Transhuman Technologies for the Developing World." As with TV04, the conference organizers aim to introduce new communities and individuals to important transhumanist issues and get them thinking about how technologies can improve the quality of human lives.

Hopefully, next year's TransVision attendees will also witness another stage in transhumanism's evolution: Getting the attention it deserves.

This column originally appeared on Betterhumans, October 13, 2004.

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