Who Counts as a Futurist? Whose Future Counts?
This is a guest post by Matilde Marcolli, a mathematician and theoretical physicist, who also works on information theory and computational linguistics. She studied theoretical physics in Italy and mathematics at the University of Chicago. She worked at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Max Planck Institute for Mathematics, and is currently a professor at Caltech. This post in in response to Cathy’s last post.
History of Futurism
For a good part of the past century the term “futurism” conjured up the image of a revolutionary artistic and cultural movement that flourished in Russia and Italy in the first two decades of the century. In more recent times and across the Atlantic, it has acquired a different connotation, one related to speculative thought about the future of advanced technology. In this later form, it is often explicitly associated to the speculations of a group of Silicon Valley tycoons and their acolytes.
Their musings revolve around a number of themes: technological immortality in the form of digital uploading of human consciousness, space colonization, and the threat of an emergent superintelligent AI. It is easy to laugh off all these ideas as the typical preoccupations of a group of aging narcissist wealthy white males, whose greatest fear is that an artificial intelligence may one day treat them the way they have been treating everybody else all along.
However, in fact none of these themes of “futurist speculation” originates in Silicon Valley: all of them have been closely intertwined in history and date back to the original Russian Futurism, and the related Cosmist movement, where mystics like Fedorov alternated with scientists like Tsiolkovsky (the godfather of the Soviet space program) envisioning a future where science and technology would “storm the heavens and vanquish death”.
The crucial difference in these forms of futurism does not lie in the themes of speculation, but rather in the role of humanity in this envisioned future. Is this the future of a wealthy elite? Is this the future of a classless society?
Strains of Modern Futurism
Fast forward to our time again, there are still widely different versions of “futurism” and not all of them are a capitalist protectorate. Indeed, there is a whole widely developed Anarchist Futurism (usually referred to as Anarcho-Transhumanism) which is anti-capitalist but very pro-science and technology. It has its roots in many historical predecessors: the Russian Futurism and Cosmism, naturally, but also the revolutionary brand of the Cybernetic movement (Stafford Beer, etc.), cultural and artistic movements like Afrofuturism and Solarpunk, Cyberfeminism (starting with Donna Haraway’s Cyborg), and more recently Xenofeminism.
What some of the main themes of futurism look like in the anarchist lamelight is quite different from their capitalist shadow.
Fighting Prejudice with Technology
“Morphological Freedom” is one of the main themes of anarchist transhumanism: it means the freedom to modify one’s own body with science and technology, but whereas in the capitalist version of transhumanism this gets immediately associated to Hollywood-style enhanced botox therapies for those incapable of coming to terms with their natural aging process, in the anarchist version the primary model of morphological freedom is the transgender rights, the freedom to modify one’s own sexual and gender identity.
It also involves a fight against ableism, in as there is nothing especially ideal about the (young, muscular, male, white, healthy) human body.
The Vitruvian Man, which was the very symbol of Humanism, was also a symbol of the intrinsically exclusionary nature of Humanism. Posthumanism and Transhumanism are also primarily an inclusionary process that explodes the exclusionary walls of Humanism, without negating its important values (for example Humanism replaced religious thinking by a basis for ethical values grounded in human rights).
An example of Morphological Freedom against ableism is the rethinking of the notion of prosthetics. The traditional approach aimed at constructing artificial limbs that as much as possible resemble the human limbs, implicitly declaring the user of prosthetics in some way “defective”.
However, professional designers have long realized that prosthetic arms that do not imitate a human arm, but that work like an octopus tentacle can be more efficient than most traditional prosthetics. And when children are given the possibility to design and 3D print their own prosthetics, they make colorful arms that launch darts and flying saucers and that make them look like superheroes. Anarchist transhumanism defends the value and importance of neurodiversity.
Protesting with Technology
The mathematical theory of networks and of complex systems and emergent behavior can be used to make protests and social movements more efficient and successful. Sousveillance and anti-surveillance techniques can help protecting people from police brutality. Hacker and biohacker spaces help spreading scientific literacy and directly involve people in advanced science and technology: the growing community of DIY synthetic biology with biohacker spaces like CounterCulture Labs, has been one of the most successful grassroot initiatives involving advanced science. These are all important aspects and components of the anarchist transhumanist movement.
Needless to say, the community of people involved in Anarcho-Tranhumanism is a lot more diverse than the typical community of Silicon Valley futurists. Anarchism itself comes in many different forms, anarcho-communism, anarcho-syndacalism, mutualism, etc. (no, not anarcho-capitalism, that is an oxymoron not a political movement!) but at heart it is an ethical philosophy aimed at increasing people’s agency (and more generally the agency of any sentient being), based on empathy, cooperation, mutual aid.
Science and technology have enormous potential, if used inclusively and for the benefit of all and not with goals of profit and exploitation.
For people interested in finding out more about Anarcho-Tranhumanism there is an Anarcho-Transhumanist Manifesto currently being written (which is still very much in the making): the parts that are written at this point can be accessed here.
There is also a dedicated Facebook page, which posts on a range of topics including anarchist theory, philosophy, transhumanism and posthumanism and their historical roots, and various thoughts on science and technology and their transformative role.