The Next Digital Divide

How biopolitics could reshape our understanding of left and right

Didn't think it was possible for the left to be anymore splintered? Welcome to the world of biopolitics, a fledgling political movement that promises to make mortal enemies out of one-time allies -- such as back-to-nature environmentalists and technophile lefties -- and close friends of traditional foes, such as anti-GMO activists and evangelicals.

Biopolitics, a term coined by Trinity College professor James Hughes, places pro-technology transhumanists on one pole and people who are suspicious of technology on the other. According to Hughes, transhumanists are members of 'an emergent philosophical movement which says that humans can and should become more than human through technological enhancements.' The term transhuman is shorthand for transitional human -- people who are in the process of becoming 'posthuman' or 'cyborgs.'

It may sound like a movement founded by people who argue over Star Trek minutia on the Internet, but transhumanists are far more complex and organized than one might imagine. They got their start in the early 1980s as a small band of libertarian technophiles who advocated for any advancement that could extend human life indefinitely or eliminate disease and disability. Their members were some of the first to sign up to be cryogenically frozen, for example.

As biotech and bioethics issues such as cloning and stem cell research gained importance on the international agenda, the transhumanist philosophy grew in popularity and became more diverse. For instance, several neo-nazi groups who saw technological advancement as the way to achieve eugenics embraced the transhumanist label. Transhumanism pierced the popular culture when the Coalition of Artists and Life Forms (CALF) formed in the 1990s. This small band of artists and writers has a shared excitement for technology and a distrust of the corporations that mishandle it.

In 1997, a group of American and European leftist-transhumanists (including Dr. Hughes) formed the World Transhumanist Association to advocate for technology not only as a means to improve the human race and increase longevity, but as a tool for social justice. Unlike their libertarian forebearers, these 'democratic transhumanists' advocate for moderate safeguards on new technology, such as drug trials. In an exhaustive article about various factions under the transhuman label, Hughes identifies 11 subgroups, including 'disability transhumanists' who argue for their right to technology and 'gay transhumanists' who want children conceived outside of the opposite-sex paradigm (i.e., cloning).

By definition, social conservatives oppose the transhumanists, but the new movement also has many enemies on the new age, environmental, anti-GMO, and anti-biotech left. These progressive opponents have even aligned with right wing factions in opposition to transhumanist goals. In 2002, Jeremy Rifkin and other environmentalists joined with anti-abortion groups to float an anti-cloning petition. Abortion opponents again found themselves working with the left when a group of feminists and civil libertarians began pressuring the Indian government to restrict women's access to ultrasounds and abortions for fear of female infanticide. The transhumanists, in turn, call these anti-technology liberals 'left luddites,' 'bioconservatives,' and 'technophobes' -- a not-so-subtle linguistic clue that the new biopolitical axis has the potential to completely reconfigure traditional politics.

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