August 10, 2007

TransVision 2007, Some Belated Notes


Having been to all Transvision conferences save one, I think that I can say with some expertise that Transvision 2007 was the most well-organized conference so far. The location – the Field Museum – was particularly apt: evolution and cultural history under the same roof.

The entrepreneur, the doctor and the sociologistThere was a strong contingent of entrepreneurs, ranging from Michael Weiner (biotech patents), Martine Rothblatt, Ed Lantz (virtual reality domes), Philip Rosedale (Second Life), Philippe van der Nedervelde (security VR) and Peter Diamandis (space). It is clear that there are ways of doing the transhumanist thing for money. I thought it would have been worthwhile to examine medical entrepreneurship in more detail. It is of vital interest for transhumanism, could bring in money and also enable interesting research and change of current medical practices.

Another contingent was the New Agers. While there are always some people with wooey beliefs around the conference, they seemed more noticeable this year. Transhumanism and New Age are memetic neighbours. It is an uneasy relationship with plenty of disagreement on the role of rationality and critical thinking, but there are also a great deal of overlap: both want to enable people to take charge over their own evolution, independently of classical authorities, and explore new realms of experience.

Steel ElkMy problem about the high level of acceptance of everything in New Age (and too high levels outside too) is that it may slow actual development of enhancements. If customers only have anecdotes and arguments from authority to go on (New Age accepts authorities as long as they say positive things, a tendency I fear we transhumanists also suffer from), they will be subject to strong placebo effects and cognitive dissonance (if it was expensive, it must work better). Cognition enhancers clearly suffer from this, as their subtle effects are magnified and embellished by placebo, and most ”consciousness” devices are far worse. But if people only select enhancements based on subjective efficacy money will not be directed at the enhancements that actually work better. Development will aim at marketing and coolness rather than efficacy. Here we need better consumer information and hardnosed ways of finding what actually works.

Let me check my notes...Another and perhaps strategically important theme was the environment. Ed Begley Jr. did a spiel on it, Michael Ekstract (Verdant magazine) did a very good explanation of the “new green” that is pro-tech and largely (if not completely) at home with transhumanism. I think green transhumanism has a huge potential, but there will be some painful conflicts within the green movement in the future between the anti-progress wing and the pro-environment wing. And transhumanism is unlikely to be the kind of friend who can help much. However, we could definitely do with more innovative environmental thinking or starting to tackle the issues of trans-environments: what makes a good “enhanced” environment? What is the ethics of hybrid technobiospheres? This is where transhumanism might contribute good and unusual ideas.

DeathAnybody who thinks transhumanists to be starry-eyed utopians that think everything is going to be great in the future would have had those visions shattered at the conference. Several talks went deeply into threats to human survival and ways of evading them and many questions revolved around misuse of the technologies. Lifeboat Foundation had a strong presence and Philippe van der Nedervelde held a good fire-and-brimstone (or should it be asteroids-and-greygoo?) lecture. I think they are doing some very promising work, but some of their potential approaches need to be evaluated more carefully. For example, pre-emptive screening for dangerous people is unlikely to work effectively and would be an ethical can of worms. The “people’s panopticon” ought to be a major debate in society already, but here technology is creeping up on us and might cause a Dolly affair when suddenly some government (and citizenry) finds itself under informal surveillance.

At the end of the paradigm shiftsAnd yes, given the final keynote speakers everybody were either making Star Trek references or talking law of accelerating returns.

Overall, Transvision has gone far, far beyond a bunch of people in a cellar in Weesp, just outside of Amsterdam. The sheer weight and credibility of the speakers was amazing. But the problem is to decide what the conference is for: is it a meeting place for transhumanists? A way of bringing it to the public? To investors and policymakers? To media? An academic conference? Or a mixture of all of the above? I think we have reached the point where we simply cannot try the last possibility, we have to specialise the conference more and more. This means losing some people, but it might improve it even further. Chicago 2007 was a great step upward, now we need to make further steps outward. Maybe the next Transvision will be a set of different conferences?

Posted by Anders3 at August 10, 2007 12:52 AM