July 27, 2007

TransVision 2007: the good, the bad and the ugly

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.

Stellar cast
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.

Inconsistent diversity?
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.

Infectious optimism
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.


Anonymous said...

I guess I should offer my two cents.

I don't think you can have an academic conference and invite the general public at the same time. You have to have a conversation out one level or the other, otherwise you get the kind of mixed presentations and mixed questions that you saw at TV07. Right now, other than folks like de Grey, Bostrom, Hughes, and Sandberg, transhumanism isn't an academic discipline. Transhumanists should probably focus more on spreading the word.

A good option at this point might be to employ a full-time speaker to travel the college circuit. Young, educated minds are the most amenable to the transhumanist cause. This could involve lectures or debates with other people about the merits of transhumanist technologies. It's useful to have someone with charisma.

Another thing is the cost. You can charge $375-675 for an academic conference, because professionals in their respective fields are more eager to meet and discuss their life's work (and usually the cost is covered by grants or the company they work for). But you're not going to get much of a general attendance for that. You could, on the other hand, have a conference on a more public level, charge something like $15, and more people would show up.

But again, I think the best option at this point would be to have a speaking tour with free (or very cheap) lectures, that way you come TO the masses, rather than expecting them to pay the costs of flying to Chicago (or wherever).

All that being said, I've been to some pretty small conferences, even for established fields. Sometimes the participants like that, especially when they are among academic piers. They want to talk to other professionals, not laymen.

TransVision just needs to get over its schizophrenia and choose a modus operandi.

Anne Corwin said...

Hi George, nice summary. Sorry I couldn't attend -- despite the hiccups, it definitely sounds like there were some high points.

As for why the innovative thinkers of our time are being "largely ignored", I would suspect that some answers might be found in Paul Graham's essay, Why Nerds Are Unpopular. Not to say that all H+ are "nerds", but rather, that forward-thinking, technological speculation, and analysis of the ethics surrounding emerging technologies simply isn't as interesting to many people as what female starlet is being arrested this week or what scandals the presidential race is going to uncover.

Anonymous said...

George, I am disappointed that you see Mormons as leeches on Transhumanism. Perhaps that will change in time.

John said...

Interesting comments on TV07. I find that when I share my views on transhumanism, life extension, the singularity, etc, most people have no idea what I'm talking about, or think I'm crazy. It's clear that the majority of people have no clue about how rapidly change is occurring. Most people haven't heard of Ray Kurzweil, may be vaguely familiar with Moore's Law, but don't really see what that means. Science and Technology news are buried in the paper, while Crime news is front and centre. Since Christianity and other religions that revolve around the concept of the soul are still so pervasive, people don't want to accept the fact that humans can become something more...

Anonymous said...

you said, "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?"

Yet you also see cognitive dissonance between attendance rates and the obvious value of radical life extension.

My sister is a Mormon and also a scientist and if she actually believed that a cure for ageing even makes since (I told her there could be a cure) she replied it's not a disease, and in addition not desirable to treat even if it correlates so well with other diseases. So you see, if there are common goals minus what the achievement of said goals actually mean, it is still transhumanism.

That would be progress. The majority are not going to to become secular if the mouse prize extends the life of a mouse beyond its normal lifetime, even if the event made abc news and they were radical and actually mentioned Aubrey de Gray's transhumanist goal. The majority would continue thinking it was a long way off instead of impossible. Funding would increase dramatically, however, especially if Mormons, and others, were included.

I believe god isn't real, btw. Cognitive dissonance?! I did say my sister was a scientist (masters in chemistry, works in a lab) and a Mormon! This is to be expected.

bmahfood said...

I think the public's failure to pay attention has to do with the fact that we're in the early stages yet, at a time when dramatic and life-altering developments are not yet here. The public will pay attention when a human-level general intelligence is born, or something equally dramatic is reported in the press. I posted my thoughts on this after reading your excellent review of the conference. It can be found at http://www.thepriceofrice.com.

Barry Mahfood

Danila Medvedev said...

In my experience I have never seen someone leech on a transhumanist meme. Usually people coming from other backgrounds want to reconcile them with H+ (and they do see H+ in a certain light), but opportunists are not attracted to transhumanism yet.

I respect the Mormon Transhumanist Association and commend them for their effort. I am a bit aware of the reconciliation difficulties and that warrants even more respect.

Danila (a die-hard militant atheist).

Jose Maria Viggiano said...

Something that is very important to note is the diversity and abundance of ideological views, philosophical stands, and political positions which our community of Transhumanists contains.

The future we envision will not be a squared future. It will not be one composed of crazy lab scientists, or capitalist libertarians, or socialist hippies, or religious fanatics. Our future includes these and other ideas. But the most important thing at this stage is to be human. We often find it difficult not to become prejudicial, but now is a time to accept ad tolerate other’s views.

As part of the Transhumanist Movement, I see our community as having minds that surpass the time they are living in. We are trying to get across ideas and notions that are ahead of our time. And in order to make others catch up with these ‘crazy’ ideas, we need to be patient and tolerant. An essential characteristic of wisdom is that it does not try to bring the unwise to its level, but the wise lands at the level of its neighbor and then aspire calmly to lift it to its own.

What I’m trying to get across is simply that I am confident that our visions and ideas of the current trends in technological advancements lie far from falsity. But an open and more tolerant attitude is a primordial requisite in the approach to our baby public and childish media.

Mark Plus said...

Maybe transhumanism hasn't caught on because people can tell that we really haven't entered an era of "accelerating" progress, despite what some current transhumanists claim. Back in the late 1970's and early 1980's "futurists" like Robert Anton Wilson & FM Esfandiary predicted that we would have become "immortal" by now (the 2000-2010 decade), which clearly hasn't happened. For an especially sad example, see the essay "Up-Wing Priorities" FM published in Future Life magazine back in 1981:


Brent.Allsop said...

In his blog George Dvorsky commented:

“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?”

Others at TV07, and also in the Mormon community, and elsewhere are wondering if this is some kind of joke that might be published in some humorous onion article or something. So I figured I should try to clarify my position and belief on this.

George Continued:

“Or am I somehow wrong about all of this – that there’s a bigger picture to consider?”

I do believe there is a much bigger picture here.

I was raised in the tight nit Mormon community. All my family and most of my friends are very strong theistic Mormon. Then I became an atheist. Despite what all other atheists seemed to be saying to me, I didn’t want to leave this wonderful community and my family. I still consider myself a “cultural” Mormon, and think that many Mormons are funer to be with than many atheists. They will certainly do more to help you than most atheists, even if Mormons do have the quid pro quo that you might listen to their missionaries and come to church with them when they help you.

I’ve been diligently attempting to pull Mormons to see the Transhumanist POV for well over 15 years with little success other than possibly “planting seeds”. Then 3 years ago we relocated to SLC. I was surprised to find a group of SLC Transhumanists large and committed enough to form a local WTA chapter and was excited when many of them wanted to do precisely this.

There were a few other local “atheists” Transhumanists like me, and I wanted to call the group the Utah Transhumanist Association” or something, knowing that some of the other atheists wouldn’t be involved with the word “Mormon” in the name. And these atheist Transhumanists had no interest in doing any organization work and didn’t even participate in the discussion of what to call the group. So, obviously, the many willing to do the work, and participate, out voted us in the decision to call us Mormon Tranhumanists.

George, what would have been your advice to me, after having been outvoted? Be like the other local atheist Tranhumanists, and use this as an excuse not to do the work required to help the group and move the Tranhumanist Mem forward?

What are we anyway? I don’t like to consider myself a Republican, I don’t like to consider myself a democrat. If I am only a cultural Mormon, must I never belong to any group of Mormons? Primitive people, with their lack of ability to comunicate, didn’t have much choice other than just to join some party line, and just ignore any other difference they may have had. But today this is very different. I want to be a member of, and take all the good from, all groups – while helping them see the problems I believe their beliefs have. My goal with the canonizer.com is to do precisely this. Precicly document just what it is everyone believes, in a way that is easily contrastible to everyone else. Rather than saying someone is an atheist, transhumanist, democrat, or whatever, they will soon be able to specify just what it is they believe on any and all issues. No longer will they need to be in some party that is merely close to what they believe. The day of the hierarchy party line is gone. Now is the time for the networked with everyone, educated, and able to communicate individual.

Most proud Transhumanists demand: My way or the highway! There is no group that fits, precisely, what they believe. So they refuse to affiliate with any of them. Splitting up into ever smaller groups until everyone is individuals that can do nothing. Tthey work on destroying any other group that doesn’t believe as they do for fear that doing anything else may “dilute” what they want and “spread the word” of anything they don’t want.

At least one speaker at TV07 said something like it is crazy to keep on doing the same thing, and expecting different results. Now that the MTA is by far the fastest growing, best organized, and most active Transhumanist group anywhere, I have fully converted and repented of the desire to call us “Utah Transhumanists” and believe that the name Mormon Transhumanist is a critical reason for our success. Those two words together just demands that people pay attention and it ends up sucking them in, even if they disagree at first, in very powerful ways!

Most atheists don’t seem to want to do any work to organize or help there brother. But Mormons, on the other hand, will humbly do anything required. And as far as that goes, unlike so many other Transhumanists, I am definitely a Mormon, and love to be affiliated with them! But just because a few other Transhumanists seem to feel different, doesn’t mean I no longer want to consider myself a Transhumanists.

Alone we are nothing. Together we can do it all.

Brent Allsop

GP said...

When will they "get it"? When we will learn how to communicate it.

Many transhumanists are over-intellectual, in love with their IQ, too much given to hair splitting and qualifications. We say complex things with difficult words.

We should learn to say simple things, one at a time, with simple words. We should also learn how to be more in touch with the zeitgeist and feel the best way to outreach people in the street.

Anonymous said...

I found it ironic that William Shatner - aka Captain Kirk - was one of the speakers.

Nothing to him personally, but Star Trek is not what I would call Transhumanist Friendly. Look at the attitudes in the series towards genetically enhanced humans (Khan, the Eugenics Wars) and AI (M5 and just about every other thinking machine which was blown up by a dose of Kirk illogic).

Unenhanced humans beings by the 23rd century? I doubt it. Already it is the norm to have devices sticking out of your ears.

I know, Star Trek is thought by many to be the symbol of a bright future, but Roddenberry and the rest never thought quite far enough about how much humans can change and what they can do. In fact I declare they even feared such advancements. Not a good message in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

The active ignorance was disturbing.
I was at TV07. And, I couldn’t help wonder how they are missing or avoiding the point. The Fermi paradox and indications of a technological singularity obviously clue us in that there is a space-time transcending way to grow. It must be the only desirable way to advance. Post humans and advanced alien races will hyper evolve in the continuum of life. In religious lingo, that is heaven. So, why in the hell cant we come together?
Jim Ledford