How Do Transhumanists Party?

by Nikki Olson on April 21, 2011

It’s difficult for humans to ‘live in the present’; we are wired to worry about the future, and to dwell upon the good things of the past. These instincts serve us well, since overestimating negative future possibilities better prepares us for them, and having nostalgia for the past suppresses memory of hardship, making life overall seem better and more worth investing in.

Futurist groups such as Transhumanists and Singularitarians tend to take a different approach, coming at things in almost the opposite way; focusing on the anticipated happiness of the future and all the wonderful things it will bring, and having little interest in life in the past.

And like the past, ‘the present’ in Transhumanist culture has become almost completely invisible.

Neuromancer inspired the Cyberpunk counter-culture of the 80's and the 90's

In a recent interview for H+ magazine, R. U. Sirius is asked to compare present day Transhumanists with those of the early 90s, sometimes referred to as the ‘Mondo 2000′ culture. He argues that in comparison with Transhumanists today, “the emphasis would have been on living more intensely, more aesthetically, more hilariously, more erotically, more intelligently, more communicatively, more spontaneously” and, “more psychedelically.”

Has something been lost?

As identified by R.U. Sirius, there is a greater focus on health and life extension on the part of Transhumanists today that wasn’t present in the early 90s. Interest in health and longevity has always been an important part of Transhumanist belief in self-improvement and human excellence, but in recent years, these interests have taken ‘center stage’, and are in direct conflict with cyberpunk and party lifestyles.

But I wonder: how much of the focus on health by Transhumanists today has to do with self-improvement and excellence, and how much to do with ‘making it to the future’?

Is healthy boring?!

In the mid to late 90s, when Vernor Vinge and Ray Kurzweil started giving more concrete and reliable predictions for the Singularity, the orientation of the movement as a whole began to shift. Early Transhumanists didn’t have reliable graphs predicting the progress of technology, indicating what to expect in each coming decade, they didn’t have large scale, multi-disciplinary works, such as What Technology Wants and The Singularity Is Near, unifying and synthesizing ideas of technology, and they certainly didn’t have books like Transcend, outlining how to live long enough to benefit from life extension technologies underway, and see the Singularity.

The future is now predicted with great detail and certainty, and is understood as something that we at all costs do not want to miss; it has become the main thing that we think about, and we have become very focused on making sure that we, as individuals, get there.

There are analogies to be made here with religious groups seeking to gain immortality in heaven. Those of Christian faith, though for moral reasons rather than scientific reasons, limit themselves in this life for the chance at immortality. This behavior, because of the timeline we now have in front of us, has in a way, manifested itself in the scientific community looking to achieve immortality through technology.

Is mainstream boring?!

But has ‘making it to the Singularity’ become a major, subconscious, determinant of Transhumanist behavior, academic pursuit, and culture? Has an ‘eye on the prize’ behavior covertly ensued, devaluing the importance of ‘living in the present’?

I would say ‘yes’.

In the past ten years, age-specific worries of older Transhumanists have come to shape the movement as a whole; if this were not the case, interest in health for the average young person, even after learning of 2045, likely would not have become more than a minor interest in eating well and exercising. But as Sirius argues, it has become a defining attribute, and we “pay attention to every pulse.”

Perhaps this health centric behavior doesn’t seem radical because being health-conscious gets external validation from mainstream interest in weight loss, baby boomer interest in disease prevention, as well as current medical debates surrounding additives and organic food. Also, DIY biology is an associated part of the decentralization of knowledge and power that has always been a part of Transhumanism, so a growing interest in medicine is natural from that point of view, especially as our access to knowledge increases.

Important to point out also, Transhumanist culture, in comparison with cyberpunk culture, has been one with a greater focus on rationality and objectivity, which conflicts with experimentation and party culture in and of itself. Not to mention, being in good health helps us to think more clearly, which helps us to succeed at other Transhumanist pursuits. But it’s important to question whether or not health should be a dominant and defining focus for young Transhumanists, and whether or not we have deferred other Transhumanist pursuits to accommodate the focus on living to the Singularity?

In a way, interest in health, at least to the degree that longevity communities take it, is a one way street; once you learn about how bad habits affect health, and feel good from being healthy, you don’t want to go back.

How do Transhumanists party?

To that sentiment, I would add that whether or not one has an interest in health, with so much focus on the future in Transhumanist culture today, and the great things it will bring, perhaps the options for how to enjoy oneself in the present seem just too limited by comparison. Or, perhaps the relative certainty of 2045, and the argued ‘determinant’ nature of technology, has led to some apathy in the community, at least with regards to the role of individuals in shaping the future; how much, for instance, do we still believe, as Timothy Leary did, and R.U. Sirius still does, that expanding our minds in general, and consciousness in particular, is important to shaping the movement and maximizing the positive outcomes in our merging with machines?

In the spirit of Transhumanism, which regards humanity as a process, it’s probably not in our best interest to try and re-live Mondo, cyberpunk, or rave-party culture, as coherent as they seemed to some Transhumanists at the time; we moved beyond these frameworks for good reason. But an effort to live in the present and focus on other forms of transcendence (outside of health) may be beneficial, rather than lying in wait for future technologies that would provide it. We need to take age appropriate risks that suit the times we are living in, and take full advantage of the technology we have available, as this will help to move technology in general, and Transhumanism in particular, ahead.

*After publishing this article on Thursday April 21 it was pointed out to me that the viewpoints of R.U. Sirius were not represented as clearly as they could have been, causing some readers to believe that, according to Sirius, Mondo Transhumanists and Extroprian Transhumanists had the same health related objectives in the early 90s. As Sirius points out in his article, the Extropians were concerned with ‘nutrients’ in the 90s, and when he speaks of a shift in culture for Transhumanists, he is speaking about the shift between Mondo Transhumanists and Transhumanists of today, not Extropians and Transhumanists of today. Although both groups experienced a shift, both coming to care more about longevity over the past 20 years, and less about partying, it is important to note that Extropians were very much concerned with health in the early 90s, and so there is less to differentiate with regards to health between then and now as far as they are concerned.


About the Author:

Nikki Olson is a writer/researcher working on an upcoming book about the Singularity with Dr. Kim Solez, as well as relevant educational material for the Lifeboat Foundation. She has a background in philosophy and sociology, and has been involved extensively in Singularity research for 3 years. You can reach Nikki via email at [email protected].


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  • Matt

    Ain’t no party, like a transhumanist party.
    Sorry. Couldn’t resist.
    I would like to point out that some of the transhumanists that I know also look at survival as a mission not just for self-preservation, but also we have the right people steering us into the future. At least that’s what they say.
    I do, however, find myself counting the years between my age and the estimated time of arrival for various types of health technology.

  • Systemterror

    The difference between the way we used to party 10 years ago and now is that, we now *design* the perfect drug instead of relying on street pharma. Hahahahah.

  • Anonymous

    “learning of 2045″? What does that mean?

    I have a couple of my own predictions for what I think will happen between now and 2045. One, Ray Kurzweil will have died by then according to actuarial expectations. I don’t know if he’ll wind up in cryonic suspension; If he has arrangements at the time, his relatives might interfere. They humor him now about his “life extension” delusions, but they may not respect his judgment.

    And two, the “friendly AI” charlatan will discover that his gimmick has stopped working, and then everyone will see him as a middle-aged high school dropout with no job history and no marketable skills - a trap completely of his own making.

  • Stephenosasan

    Great thinking Nikki, immortality in my opinion is a natural desire of all human spirit, I believe it is the driving force of all self preservation instinct in man and indeed all humans. I have come to realize that morality especially from the christian perspective is actually a natural alignment of the christian culture with the present day technological reality, for example we all know the morbid effect of chronic alcoholism, obesity and sexually transmitted diseases. Therefore the basis for the morality of labeling alcoholism, gluttony and indiscriminate sexual behavior as ‘sins’ is actually a self preservation instinct. I presume it must have been the result of undocumented observational data of the overall long term effect of such behavioral patterns. May be they were the transhumanists of their days.

  • Simple1248

    Transhumanists will eventually kill two birds with one stone by having a calorie restriction party while simultaneously staging a hunger strike.

  • B.Mcbride

    Nikki, you also need to look at health as a whole, physical health is only one component to healthy living. One would think that exercising one’s mental health, through recreation or downtime, would be be even more critical to ensure that our minds continue to flourish as our bodies continue to age longer and longer.

  • Mark Bruce

    Nice article Nikki,

  • Anonymous

    Kyle Munkittrick of IEET gives an insightful response to this (copy-pasted from IEET discussion):

    “I think the Singularity, as a concept, is intellectually bankrupt. Those who adjust their lifestyles, studies, and goals in relation to it are ignoring the issues in the present that are far more important and relevant.

    The transhumanist focus on health, excellence, and self-improvement is, I believe, a reaction to a lot of things, but primarily the failure of A.I., robotics, and nano-futurists like Kurzweil and Drexler whose Moore’s Law fueled futures ultimately failed to come to fruition. Instead, we see a world in which drugs and technologies on the market today could improve a person’s life, but due to a double-failure of non-classification and overregulation, are kept out of people’s hands. Further, irrational and ignorant fears around genetics and bodily integrity compound these issues.

    Despite RU’s nostalgia for the ’90s (shudder), transhumanism is no longer the play thing of Usenet groups that trip acid on the weekends. I agree with you, it’s time to move beyond Mondo. Enhancement has been taken up by academia. That means fewer articles in hplus magazine but quite a few more peer-reviewed articles in prestigious journals. In fact, these articles often focus on of-the-moment issues, not how we will be affected in 20 years.

    As for how transhumanists party, again, I can only speak for myself. Enhancement is now the domain of the Ivory Tower. But really, from what I’ve seen, at the best universities those who work hard, also play very very hard.

    So, to answer your question in short: transhumanists are focusing on health and longevity now because the dream of robot bodies and nano-brains was blown to smithereens when the first decade of the 21st century came and went and our big capstone was a computer playing Jeopardy. Hardware is dead, long live wetware. Whether or not I live long enough to live even longer is less important than being a part of a group that moves civilization forward.”

  • Anonymous

    I think you would enjoy Matthew Bailey’s latest article from H+:

    He does an excellent job in talking about the cross-over between religion and Transhumanism. Essentially, as he writes in the comments, the religious tendencies of the H+ community, despite efforts to base a belief system on science and reason, indicate that we are still at a point in human history where religious frameworks, as we have known them, come naturally and get added into (unintentionally) interpretations of scientific phenomena.

  • Natasha

    As much as I admire RU, he simply has got it wrong. In the 1990s, health, fitness, diet, exercise were central to transhumanism. All RU needs to do is to look back on the articles in Wired magazine, The New York Times, Village Voice, and review the televised documentaries on BBC, PBS and The Learning Channel, and news programs on NBC, CBS, ABC. In fact, I was featured in many of these articles and documentaries talking specifically about health, fitness, nutrition, exercise.

    Natasha Vita-More

  • Giulio Prisco

    I am afraid I am not one of the health-obsessed transhumanists. In theory I understand the importance of health, fitness, diet and exercise, but in practice I only like unhealthy food, I find jogging more boring than a funeral, and my favorite form of exercise is with a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other. I guess I am one of those who are more attracted by “other forms of transcendence” provided by my interpretation of transhumanist, though probably not the same Nikki is referring to.

  • 4chaos

    Thinking clearly is better facilitated by psychedelics than by good health. Expanding our minds is important to shaping our future not movements. There is no conflict. Transhumanists are diverse and party like the best of them.

  • Natasha Vita-More

    Thumbs up! Live each day with wonder, ask questions, accept criticism, make love, get high, work in the garden, kiss your dog, smile at strangers … Give Zen to life and love it because it is precious.

  • Nikki Olson

    Hi Natasha

    Thank you for providing this angle on the history and suggesting sources that counter Sirius’ view. As someone at the forefront of early Transhumanist culture, would you say that men and women were equally devoted to health at the time? Generally speaking, women have to work harder to meet fitness goals and so I am thinking that health would have (by default) been a greater focus for women than for men. Although, as someone who was part of rave culture, I know that the drugs popular for raves, not to mention the all night dancing, made at least certain kinds of fitness easier to obtain.

    Thanks again for your thoughts on this!

  • Nathan Wosnack

    Thanks for your input, Natasha, and for your fantastic article, Nikki!

    I’ve followed and participated in the rave scene as well; and I agree drugs were very popular then as they are now. I can say first-hand that this culture - which all intermingled in ways with cyberpunk was about transcending in ways (besides fitness).

    One does not need to look further than a USENET, mailing list archieves, or old Mondo 2000 issues to see that transhumanists along with cyberpunks, hackers, ravers were into mind-expanding and transcendence; and part of attaining transcendence involved the occassional (to regular use) of drugs, including so-called “smart drugs” which can have harmful negative effects on the mind and have opposite effects to the cognitive and physical enhancement a lot of transhumanists regularly promote and personally strive for.

    Cognitive enhancement for Transhumanists is important, as is the individual right to it. Wrye Sententia, a transhumanist activist for example started the Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics. She is working to “establish, promote, and protect the right of each individual to use the full spectrum of his or her mind, to engage in multiple modes of thought, and to experience alternative states of consciousness.”. The right to experience alternative states of consciousness could include the use of DMT, mescaline, LSD, etc.

  • R.U. Sirius

    Actually, if you read the interview, I say (in so many words) that the Extropy crowd were the real self identified transhumanists and that the Mondo scene was a whole different mix in which transhumanism played a role. So I’m not wrong and neither is Natasha.

    And this is a really enjoyable and interesting piece.

    R.U. Sirius

  • Dan Vasii

    Hey, Nikky! Nice article, I enjoyed it!
    I have some doubts about, quote,:”The future is now predicted with great detail and certainty”. As you yourself quoted Kyle Munkittrick, that great detail and certainty are missing a bit(or a lot?). As for “more concrete and reliable predictions for the Singularity”, these are missing too, or otherwise, what reason would Munkittrick have to be disappointed? I’m afraid that those reliable graphs predicting the progress of technology aren’t so reliable after all. And I think that this thing it will not prevent us from enjoying the future, inventing it.

  • Socrates

    As an editor I pondered the exact same passage while posting the article Dan!

    I gave Nikki the benefit of the doubt in the following way:

    1. It is not Nikki who has predicted the future with “great detail and certainty.” Visionaries such as Ray Kurzweil and Vernor Vinge and others have though.

    2. Our daring to ‘scientifically’ “predict the future with great detail and certainly” may not be quite accurate, even though Ray does have a good record. Yet even when wrong it is always useful to consider the future effects of our actions and current trajectory in a way which can give both more meaning and direction to our present. This, I believe, is true both on the personal as well as the cosmic level. Thus, the graphs may or may not be reliable but the exercise of thinking forward and trying to make the best graphs we can is always enriching.

    Imagination is more important not only than knowledge, but also reason and logic!

    After all, machines already know more than we do and are better in logic…

  • Nikki Olson

    Hi Dan,

    Glad to hear you enjoyed the article.

    To clear up the debate surrounding the phrase “The future is now predicted with great detail and certainty”, because I have seen this phrase being debated on Facebook as well, I would say that the following:

    1. The line was not meant to be taken so literally. The future has been predicted with great detail and certainty in the sense that thinkers such as Kurzweil have put detailed predictions forth with a great amount of certainty. That is, in essence, the book, “The Singularity is Near”.

    2. Regardless of whether or not his predictions come true, many people believe that they will, and base their present behavior, and future planning, accordingly (which in this blog, I suggest, as one reason for the shift in culture in Transhumanist communities over the past 20 years).

    Even Singularitarian skeptics believe that computer intelligence will surpass human intelligence, that such an event is inevitable, and in many circumstances, imminent. According to most technology futurists, the only thing that would throw such an event off course would be a very major disaster. Now, there are a lot of other assumptions made about the nature of the Singularity that are disputed. Kevin Kelly for instance disputes Ray’s notion of ‘one Singularity’, and the that idea of that the computer that surpasses human intelligence will be like human intelligence. But nevertheless, according to most technology futurists, the computing power will be there, and with that, according to many, comes the possibility for radical life extension. (although in Kelly’s case he believes curing disease will take longer than Ray predicts)

    3. What you write is compatible with what I, and those formally publishing on the matter, believe personally; that although there are ‘technological’ predictions regarding what will happen in each coming decade, how exactly everything plays out, and what it will all mean, is very much up to us. You would note that Kurzweil, and Kevin Kelly for that matter, regard technology progress as ‘deterministic’ (they are ‘technological determinists’ to one degree or another; they believe that one stage of technology development gives out to a next in a ‘determined’ way (hence the title: “What Technology Wants”)). However, while they both believe that certain technological things will happen (i.e., we will have ‘x’ amount of computing power by 2020, for instance), they both acknowledge humanity’s role in shaping the future. Sure there is some pessimism in this community regarding the potential end result of building AI (that it is humanity’s last invention, for instance), but generally speaking, the standard view is that we can shape each stage and the outcome.

    4. With the exception of Kurzweil being incorrect about immersive VR happening by 2010, most (if not all) of his other predictions have come true (correct me if I am wrong here). His track record really isn’t up for debate as far as I see it. And given the success of IBM’s Watson, many believe the passing of the Turing Test will occur before Kurzweil’s predicted date of 2029. So I am afraid I can’t really sympathize with Kyle’s view that hardware has failed, and the predictions are unreliable. Then again, I wasn’t ‘around’ for the techno-optimism (based on science fiction or the academic equivalent) of the early 90s, and so maybe I am missing the feeling of being let down for that reason.

    5. I would also point out, which I didn’t get into in the blog (in an effort to keep it shorter and more concise) that the idea of the ‘longevity escape velocity’, as put forth by Aubrey de Grey, gives a lot of hope to futurists on the idea of radical life extension, and this idea was certainly not present in early Transhumanist circles. I am confident that his ideas have shaped present behavior and projections for the future in ways that differentiate this era of Transhumanism from earlier forms.

    I hope this clears things up regarding that line. I’ll admit that the way it was worded it sounded a little dramatic. And to be honest, I was referring more to the beliefs about the future by less critical thinkers in the Singularitarian/Transhumanist community; I am well aware that there is good reason, and many good ways, to actively challenge Kurzweil and doubt his predictions, and that this occurs on a regular basis. However, the norm, from what I have seen is for people to place a high degree of confidence in Kurzweil’s graphs, and ‘The Singularity is Near’, and to structure a lot of other thought, behavior, and planning accordingly. (While in the meantime, I argue, forgetting to live in the present)

    Thank you for raising this point. In the book that I am writing with Dr. Solez we emphasize the notion that humans are not ‘passive victims of the future’, taking an optimistic approach regarding our role in shaping the future.

  • Nikki Olson

    Thanks Sirius.

    In the future I’ll be sure to differentiate between Extropian and Mondo Transhumanists with regards to health related behavior in the early 90s. In both cases, the awareness of health has increased, and the tendency towards party behavior decreased, but it’s important to not give the impression that Extropians and Mondo Transhumanists started out the same, or that your comparison was between Extropy groups of the 90s and Transhumanists today, rather than Mondo Transhumanists and Transhumanists today. I will add a footnote to clear this up, and to more accurately represent what you were saying.

    In Natasha’s comment she didn’t refer to ‘Extropians’, so I thought she was offering a different perspective on the 90s culture more generally.

    Glad to hear you enjoyed the article.

  • Natasha Vita-More

    Hi Nikki,
    If I recall correctly, women were more focused on health and fitness in general. In specific, men took body building more seriously. Doing drugs would not necessarily impinge on health and fitness because some drugs are beneficial for mental acuity, just as an adrenaline rush to the body for building muscle helps strengthen the muscle tissue. Also, partying is crucial for both physical and mental fitness because joy, fun, laughter, and love are emotions that help to build personality, to balance studying and learning which help to build knowledge, and overcoming odds help to build character. What is most important for the body and the brain is “recovery”. Taking time to drop out and relax.

  • Natasha Vita-More

    Hi Nikki,

    I was a transhuman activist long before I was joined Extropy Institute. I wrote the Transhuman Manifesto in 1983. I learned about Extropy, the core philosophy of transhumanism in 1990.
    I think RU is correct that the cyberculture was generally more interested in culture and transhumanists seemed to be more interested in programming. But what we need to do is to look outside generalities and address the fact that transhumanism and transhumanists are not a mindthink.
    Transhumanism, by its very nature is comprised of diversity, transdisciplinarity, cross-mix of backgrounds, carriers, genders, styles. There are transhumanists who are cognitive scientists in their labs and transhumanists who are media-savvy in their cultural and excelling in the arts, design, film, music, etc. It is a mistake to lump transhumanists in to even two groups – so I will broaden this array to include a mosaic of styles and knowledge.
    The important fact is, however, that all transhumanists are proponents of radical human enhancement and extreme life extension. The caveat here is that most transhumanists appreciate the human body and do their best to keep it healthy until there is another platform to for existence. Others do not love the body so much. But we can see evidence of this dichotomy in all aspects of society with the current trends for physical fitness on one hand and obesity on the other.

  • Dan Vasii

    I am sorry, but neither of them did not. I read the initial Vinge document from 1993 and the follow-up, couple of years later, and it can be seen that Vinge totally rephrased the term as …. sometime. This is hardly great detail and certainty. About Ray Kurzweil, I don’t know what he predicted. As inventor, he is great indeed, but as predictor, I rather

    clasify him next to H.G. Wells, a great writer of SF, but a real lousy predictor - Julers Verne was way better than him - and Verne was far less educat formally speaking.
    So that great detail and certainty is greatly missing, unless you want to be more specific about the two.

  • Dan Vasii

    Thank you, Nikki, for such a detailed reply. I still want to make two points:
    1. The predictions were relative to extentions/peripherals of computer, not the computer itself. Moore’s Law, which they are so fond of, doesn’t say nothing of what you can do with the power aquired. I took recently a look on the history of artificial intelligence, and I
    discovered what can be labelled as “the Stalingrad Syndrome” of artificial intelligence. Runs a story that was discovered a diary of a young German officer, saying: “We are at 200 km from Stalingrad. At actual speed, we shall conquer Stalingrad in two months. … We are at 100 km of Stalingrad. The victory will be ours in no more than four months. … We are at the gates of the town. In one year we shall conquer it. … We are in Stalingrad for six months now… and it seems that we have to withdraw….”
    As the hardware grows more and more performant, AI seems to get quagmired in hypothetical debates and perife, and all these “prophets of Singularity and AI’ can do is only about devices tangent to computer: image and voice recognition, computer-controlled prostethics, etc. … This is not AI. AI is about abstract thinking. And it seems that more the hardware is developing, the more AI theory is lagging behind. This is “Stalingrad Syndrome”. In fact the whole AI theory is based on an unchecked fundation: that computing is thinking. And the idiot scientists are living proofs of this being wrong.
    2. The Turing test. Is actually irrelevant, because it doesn’t specify what kind of questions/answers should be asked/given. There already are a lot of programs that can mimick a conversation. But between mimicking and having there is a lot of ground uncovered.
    The conclusion? That our knowledge of Real Intellingence, as opposed to Peripheric/Marginal Intelligence, is essentially lacking. There is no algorhythm for human intelligence, abstract thinking, notwithstanding consciounsness.

  • R.U. Sirius on Singularity 1 on 1: Question the Authority of Your Brain

    [...] How Do Transhumanists Party? [...]

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