The Next Digital Divide

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.

Related Links:

Comments? Story tips?
Write a letter to the editor

Like this? Want more?Subscribe to Utne
magazine

UTNE
UTNE
In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.