Interview: David Wood On Transhumanism
When we think about the cryonics community, we tend to consider only those who are signed up for cryopreservation. But in reality, the cryonics community involves many more individuals. It is formed by people who believe in the future of humanity, who are interested and excited about what tomorrow will bring us. David Wood, Chair of London Futurists, is a good example of a pioneer who is actively working on building a greater future. After his inspiring speech at the Biostasis2021 Conference, we had the pleasure of interviewing him about Transhumanism — and cryonics aka biostasis.
David Wood — Active Transhumanist
Transhumanism is usually defined as a philosophical and social movement that promotes the research and development of human-enhancing technologies. Pursuing a future life that goes beyond current human possibilities. However, this definition is rather reductive. As philosophies often do, transhumanism branches out in many different areas. David Wood, as Chair of London Futurists, Executive Director of Transpolitica, futurist consultant and pioneer of the smartphone industry, has been discussing and researching these areas.
We had the great opportunity to ask him some questions. His answers gave us a brief glimpse into the world of future possibilities of transhumanism.
- How did you come across transhumanism theories for the first time? And cryonics?
Around 20 years ago, I read books by Eric Drexler, Engines of Creation, Ray Kurzweil, The Age of Spiritual Machines, and James Hughes, Citizen Cyborg. These books helped me to appreciate that technology was poised to transform more and more aspects of the human condition. I was already open to that idea, on account of my professional experience in the mobile computing and smartphone industry. There, I saw how much of an impact these devices were already having on how people lived their lives. The three books provided a bigger picture for my own observations.
To the observation that technology can change humanity in radical ways, transhumanism adds the recommendation that humans should actively anticipate these changes. This means foreseeing possibilities more clearly. And revising priorities to increase the likelihood that these changes will be profoundly good rather than deeply detrimental.
The book by James Hughes contained references to the World Transhumanist Association (WTA). I noticed that the WTA website mentioned that an affiliated group called Extrobritannia met once a month in central London in the Penderel’s Oak pub in Holborn. I made contact and have never looked back. One of the topics discussed by Extrobritannia regulars was cryonics.
- How does being an active transhumanist influence your everyday life?
When speaking about transhumanism, I often include the adjective “active”. This is to emphasise the role of human agency in determining the outcome of technological change. It’s not enough to cheer from the sidelines, enthusiastically applauding each new technological invention. Instead, what’s needed is to harness the acceleration of technology, steering it in specific ways. Sometimes applying brakes, and sometimes adding extra fuel to the fire.
If I look ahead to the year 2050, I see around a 60% chance that humanity will be living in a much better state by then. A state I call “sustainable superabundance”. But there’s also around a 30% chance that humanity will have plummeted by then into a new Dark Age. Or even worse.
Accordingly, we need to set aside distractions. We need to form constructive alliances, deepen our understanding, and be sure to “keep first things first”. Raise public awareness of the existential threats and the existential opportunities that we may encounter in the years ahead. And finally hasten the development of appropriate solutions. Solutions that involve a mix of technology, politics, culture, education, and philosophy.
In everyday life, I try to keep myself sufficiently healthy in both body and mind that I can make a significant contribution to the above tasks. I aim to keep myself well informed about new developments relevant to transhumanism. And I seek to maintain good relations with communities that can play key roles in the transhumanist mission.
- What would you recommend to someone who is coming across transhumanist theories for the first time?
Some transhumanist theories may strike people as shocking — even as absurd. That’s because they include ideas that are far removed from our previous experiences. Our intuitions can be poor guides in these instances. Futurists talk about the need to “overcome future shock”. Visceral three-letter reactions such as “Wow” or “Yuk” can be dangerously misleading. It’s important to assess radical future scenarios from an objective, calm point of view. With an open mind.
At the same time, there is a “transhumanist shadow” surrounding the field of transhumanism, which can distort possibilities. For example, one unhelpful shadow tendency is when enthusiasts over-hype particular technological solutions. Another problem is when people speak with too much confidence about precise timescales for future developments. Yet another issue is when a desire for fast technological innovation leads people to denigrate the role of regulations and standards.
One answer to both these challenges — the challenges of bewilderment on the one hand, and distortion on the other hand — is to make contact with other active transhumanists. Another answer is to take the time to delve into my own recent book, Vital Foresight, where I provide a comprehensive analysis of both the strengths and the weaknesses of the extended transhumanist community.
- Which challenges connected to human-enhancing innovations are we currently facing and how are we facing them?
Some innovations are proceeding well. That’s because commercially-motivated companies are willing to make big investments to research and develop the underlying technologies required. These companies foresee financial returns from these investments.
However, for other technologies, there is little prospect of short-term financial returns from investing in the matching underlying technologies. Examples where progress has been disappointing include nanoscale molecular assembly factories (as envisioned by Eric Drexler as long ago as the 1980s). And improved methods for safe cryopreservation.
Society’s usual answer in such cases is public investment, in universities and elsewhere, that is funded by governments. But this requires sufficient government understanding of the technologies. In turn, that is influenced by the level of public interest in specific possibilities.
The answer here is to increase the level of understanding of these technologies possessed by the public as a whole, and by political decision-makers in particular.
- In cryonics, as in transhumanism, we often hear people arguing that future technologies will widen the gap between wealthier and less wealthy people. What is your opinion on this?
This is an important example when the outcome is still undecided. It will come down to the actions that we humans take.
Measurements of inequality are increasingly worrying. More and more people perceive themselves to be “left behind” by societal changes. They see their economic value as declining. They feel themselves becoming irrelevant or ignored. As a result, the number of “deaths of despair” has been rising sharply in some demographics.
The solution to this involves better politics. Leading technology corporations, left to their own trajectories, will become even more powerful. More dominant, and more able to disregard any constraints that politicians attempt to impose. As in the famous saying, “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. To avoid that kind of corruption, democratic governments need to steer the market environment in which these corporations operate. Because these corporations can easily transfer their resources between different countries, governments around the world will need to cooperate.
With good politics, future technologies will be made available to all members of society. In all countries, at costs that reach lower and lower. But if bad politics prevail, existing trends towards social inequality are likely to intensify.
- In your view, will traditional religions and transhumanism find a way to coexist in the future?
Religions have a long history of adapting, eventually, to the new possibilities that technology provides. Initial resistance was overcome to medical solutions such as anesthesia (which some nineteenth century clergymen insisted should not be administered to mothers giving birth), contraception, test-tube babies, and organ transplants.
As transhumanism makes it increasingly clear that lifespans can be extended indefinitely, religious leaders will gradually accept and embrace that possibility too.
- Why do you think some people are upset by the idea of “immortality” while at the same time would love to be able to live longer?
This can be explained by the concept of Terror Management Theory, from the work of Ernst Becker in his book The Denial of Death.
For most of history, it has been rational for people to be irrational about the possibility of avoiding aging. If people raised their hopes in that regard, these hopes would be dashed. Better, therefore, not to raise any such hopes. Therefore, the best advice was as in the first stanza of the famous “Serenity prayer” popularized by Reinhold Niebuhr: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change”. To make peace with the concept of their own oncoming death, people immersed themselves in religion, poetry, literature, and nationalism. They found a kind of comfort in these initiatives.
However, let’s remember the other two stanzas of the serenity prayer: “God grant me the courage to change the things that I can, and the wisdom to know the difference”. Unfortunately, many people lack that wisdom, or that courage. Their subconscious acts in powerful ways to resist any challenge to their mental accommodation with death. That’s why they persist in irrational stances.
Incidentally, I devoted an entire chapter to this theme in my 2016 book The Abolition of Aging. That chapter is entitled “Adverse psychology”.
- If more people would embrace transhumanism and biostasis, we would probably see more public talk, more investments and therefore faster results. But how do we involve people that are too busy with their everyday issues to care about the future?
People who appear to be too busy to care about the future are often just acting in that way. Their lack of attention to the future arises, not from over-commitment to other tasks, but from fear.
What’s needed, therefore, is to find a variety of different ways to communicate to the general public an attractive, credible vision of a better future. This vision will dispel fear of the future. Different methods are needed because different people are open to different kinds of communication. These methods include popular songs, poetry, short stories, videos, episodes in soap operas, memes, and so on. It’s also important that members of the public can identify with spokespeople from transhumanism and cryonics. People are generally influenced by seeing and copying “other people like us”.
The distinction here is between, on one hand, “early adopters”, who develop an interest in a new lifestyle or product on account of their own assessment of theoretical explanations. And on the other hand “the majority”, who develop an interest because people they consider to be their “peers” are already adopting that new lifestyle or product.
- Many people oppose cryonics with very pessimistic views. A common comment we receive is: “Why would I ever want to wake up in a dystopian and unwelcoming future?” How would you reply to this comment?
If the future is dystopian and unwelcoming, people in that time are unlikely to reanimate patients who are in Biostasis. Instead, if patients are reanimated, it will most likely be on account of genuine interest in these patients from the people doing the reanimation. These reanimators might be relatives, or relatives of friends or acquaintances, or simply people filled with care, compassion, and curiosity.
Reanimation will be similar in many ways to a child being born. For a while, the new baby is utterly helpless. They depend on their family and wider community for all aspects of care. It will likely be the same when patients are reanimated. Just as parents have strong instincts to look after newborn babies, the society of the future will put many things in place to take care of people who are reanimated.
This vision arises from my understanding of the sustainable superabundance which will likely be in place if patients are ever reanimated. That future world will have more than enough clean energy, healthy nutrition, material goods, educational resources, healthcare facilities, and so on, for everyone. See my book with the same title: Sustainable Superabundance.
- What is the relationship between transhumanism and cryonics in your opinion?
I see cryonics as a natural and integral part of transhumanism. It’s a concrete way to advance the transhumanist vision of overcoming the limitations of the human condition.
- If you could make people reflect about something, what would it be?
I mentioned earlier that research into better cryopreservation methods was hindered by lack of public funding. However, it is also being hindered by many people who cryocrastinate. For each individual person, there is a kind of logic to procrastinating over arranging cryonics services for themselves. Delays mean they retain flexibility in the disposal of finances. That allows them more freedom to apply their finances in many different directions.
However, each person who delays these arrangements can be viewed as free-riding on the community of people who are already making financial commitments to cryonics. These financial commitments are, in part, enabling at least some research into improvements in cryonics techniques.
Ideally, more people would instead make an earlier commitment of funds to cryonics. At least some of this additional financing would enable extra research to take place. And that extra research would benefit everyone.
How can people be persuaded not to be free-riders? This question can be compared to that of how, in society, can people be persuaded to pay a fair share of taxes. In turn, that involves a threat of legal recourse. For cryonics, a different answer is needed, since people join this community voluntarily. Perhaps membership systems can be adjusted to provide extra incentives for people to sign up as young as possible?
David Wood’s talk at Biostasis2021
At the Biostasis2021 Conference, David Wood analyzed possible future scenarios for the biostasis world that could lead it to either failure or success. These were: scandal, research breakthrough, commercial cryonics, productive partnership and philosophy breakthrough. Will the biostasis world take one of these paths or will it instead go somewhere else?
Technological research is in continuous progress and innovations will change the way we live — as computers and smartphones already did only a few decades ago. As David Wood said: “ what’s needed is to harness the acceleration of technology, steering it in specific ways”. Embrace the changes that technology will bring to our lives and drive them in a direction that will be optimal for humanity as a whole.
These technology innovations will interest the cryonics field as well. The role of cryonics companies is to push these innovations forward, guaranteeing the best possible result for all members and for society. It’s a great and exciting responsibility.
And, last but not least, cryonics companies have to find a way to talk to the “free-riders”. To make them understand that, if we want to see this field develop faster, we need to commit together.