This year’s TransVision conference, the World Transhumanist Association's annual confab, brought out the good, the bad and the ugly. Thankfully, it was mostly good.
Before I get into my summary review, however, I thought we should go back in time for a bit of context.
Three years ago when I chaired the TransVision 2004 conference in Toronto, my intention was to introduce a sense of transhumanist art and culture to the greater community. I had a feeling that transhumanism was ready for the big time; the community had been making great progress and I was cheerful of the opportunity.
Frustratingly, while the conference itself turned out quite well, my attempt at outreach met with very little success.
This week, as TransVision 2007 came to a close, I couldn’t help but notice the parallels between my own conference in 2004 and this one. The old adage, as it turns out, is a lie: just because you build it doesn’t mean they are going to come.
But build it they did.
This year’s event was organized by Charlie Kam, a long-time enthusiast and supporter of the cause. He, in conjunction with the professional PR firm AlliKat Media, successfully managed to attract a dizzying array of expert thinkers and celebrities.
Some of the key presenters included Ray Kurzweil, William Shatner, Peter Diamandis, Ed Begley Jr., Marvin Minsky, Ronald Bailey, Philip Rosedale, Ralph Merkle, Aubrey de Grey and a number of transhumanist standbys such as James Hughes, Max More, Natasha Vita-More, Eliezer Yudkowsky, Ben Goertzel, Anders Sandberg and Martine Rothblatt.
Given this lineup the conference had the makings of a stunner.
But as I learned in 2004 you shouldn’t count your chickens before they get uploaded. Attendance, I am quite certain, was well below expectations. The number of empty seats was disturbing.
Struggling to catch on
Even more disturbing is how some of the most important ideas and thinkers of our time are largely being ignored by the general public. Watching Aubrey de Grey explain to a small audience how he’s going to conquer death created no small amount of cognitive dissonance in my brain; the room should have been packed. Hell, the room should have had people lined-up out front pounding at the door demanding to be let in.
But that's just me. And all the other attendees of TV07 and other supportive transhumanists who from some strange reason seem to be the only ones who "get it."
I’ve struggled to figure out why this is the case. Undoubtedly, a large part of it has to do with the fact that most people today are incredulous and suspicious to the seemingly radical claims made by the transhumanists.
They don’t buy the time-lines. They apologize for death. They detest the libertarian strain that runs rampant in the movement. They think it’s dangerous, reckless and hubristic.
And as for those who were at the conference, the level of comprehension was uneven. Some of the questions directed at the speakers during the Q&A periods made me shake my head in frustration. Attendees would frequently ask irrelevant or over-simplified questions, they would allow the speakers to get off easily, or at other times be completely unintelligible – and in one case quite disruptive.
To be fair, I was sincerely impressed with how transhumanists for the most part are a well informed bunch. Virtually everyone I encountered at the conference had something interesting to say in their own right.
Still, I had to remind myself time and time again that this wasn’t intended to be an academic conference. We were once again going fishing, casting our lures into the waters to see if the public was ready to take a bite.
While it will be completely necessary (and ultimately unavoidable) to have the greater public involved in the transhumanist weltanschauung, the danger exists of having it misinterpreted, oversimplified and hyper-diversified – and diversified to the point where the ‘transhumanism’ part doesn’t even matter any more.
Indeed, as Anders Sandberg has aptly observed, “When it comes to political memes, transhumanism in its purest form doesn't have any fixed niche. Instead each host or group of hosts link it to their previous political views.”
TV07 was testament to this. Sure, we had the usual assortment of libertarians, socialists, Buddhists, Extropians and pure academics, but we also had Mormons, anarchists, anarcho-capitalists, new age corporatists, and a hefty dose of the supremely confused.
Now don’t get me wrong – I love the diversity and the representation. But at what point does it become less about transhumanism, progress and responsible foresight and more about spreading the word of Mormon or some other leeching meme? Or am I somehow wrong about all of this – that there’s a bigger picture to consider?
The mixed-bag that now seems to characterize transhumanism was also reflected in the various presentations which were inconsistent at best. I could have done without a couple of talks, including one speaker who I was convinced didn’t even know what transhumanism really was.
Mind alteringly fabulous
Okay, enough of my token negativity and on to the good stuff. Taken as a whole the quality of the discussions were excellent, diverse and provocative -- I had my fair share of world altering and brain-rewiring moments.
Some examples: Anders Sandberg detailed a plan to emulate a brain in digital substrate; James Hughes explained how cyborgs already walk among us; Tanya Jones from Alcor gave an insightful and honest look into the current state of cryonics; Minsky, Yudkowsky and Goertzel delved into minds and AI’s. James Gardner explained how the Universe replicates itself and what we can do about it. The Life Boat Foundation outlined a well thought out plan for surviving the future. Attendees took a look at Second Life, progressive environmentalism, the X-Prize, and the future of consciousness itself.
And on and on it went for three days straight. It was a total trip. Speakers took the audience from the depths of digital inner-space and right out into the cosmos.
To close the event, William Shatner affirmed and accentuated the positive vibe of the conference by unabashedly declaring that humanity must seize the initiative and take control of its own evolution. His enthusiasm for the transhumanist vision earned him a standing ovation.
Overall I felt that the conference was a great success. A friend of mine noted that the positive attitude and energy of transhumanists is inspiring. It was a very keen observation. Despite the low attendance and inconsistency, the transhumanists are a resolute group that keeps on going like a doped-up Energizer Bunny.
As for me, that is precisely what I am personally taking out of the conference. I am as motivated as ever to continue writing about the subject in a way that is accessible, accurate and fun. And after spending a week with some truly unbelievable intellects, I am once again motivated to keep pushing my own limits.
Kam’s efforts to create a high-profile, high-impact event is commendable. I congratulate him and the entire TV07 team on creating a stellar event. Like TV04, it is one of many efforts that will cumulatively result in the strengthening and legitimizing of the transhumanist vision.
I will continue to report on TV07 over the coming days and weeks and describe some of the talks in more detail. For all those who I spent time with in Chicago, thank you for a wonderful time.