AMONG UTOPIAN SCENARIOS realistic or imaginary, how does one rank Bostrom’s call for transhumanism as the resolution of existential risk? Is transhumanism’s possible “astronomical” value the most promising vision of utopia conceivable? What alternatives arise in response to this case for an astronomical-scale utopia?
We conclude with a closer examination of Bostrom’s utopian imagination, in particular his curious “Letter from Utopia” (2008). As we have seen, Bostrom’s definitions and methodology of grappling with dystopian existential threats is inextricable from his utopian transhumanism. Every claim, indeed every sentence, in Bostrom’s oeuvre is involved in this utopian outlook. Bostrom presents the true solution to existential risks in transhumanism, understood as the culmination of the Enlightenment drive for emancipation and knowledge. This vision also borrows selectively from the fantasy space of Marx and Freud, positing transhumanism as wish-fulfillment, the ego sublime relishing endless surplus leisure.
To develop foresight and anticipate existential risks as well as to build a better world, we certainly need to be mobilizing and expanding our imaginative capabilities. Bostrom has been quite detailed and specific at certain moments about imagining what transhumanist life would be like. Yet these details also betray some deeply problematic and hostile attitudes toward present life and the role of speculative futures. Bostrom habitually relies on different kinds of rhetorical lures, some cast as positive and some negative, to entice readers to not just analyze existential risks, but to want to realize posthuman glories. The title of his essay “Why I Want to Be Posthuman When I Grow Up” divulges how he thinks being a human is immature and childish compared to posthumans.
Bostrom is quick to criticize those who are wary of technological enhancements on the ground of wanting to prioritize human relations and ecological care as “bioconservative,” but he often also resorts to naturalist metaphors and analogies to describe posthuman progress. The passage from child to adult is a natural progression (and yet cultural in every way too): “Yet we do not think it is bad for a child to grow up. . . . Why then should it be bad for a person to continue to develop so that one day she matures into a being with posthuman capacities?”1 Human maturation is biologically necessary and logically undeniable—though definitions of child and grown up vary widely across cultures—while posthumanism (if truly possible) is an option. Yet Bostrom conflates nonoptional maturation with the transition to posthumanism that he keeps maintaining would be optional (the essay title suggests posthumanity is a “want,” not compulsory). Here the rhetorical lure of the analogy child-adult/human-posthuman is both positive and negative: posthuman maturity is good, so don’t be such a (human) child.
What, then, will these posthuman adults be doing? As the argument shifts in this essay from the first-person “I” to using the direct address of the second-person “you,” Bostrom is quite specific in who he thinks “you” will become:
As you yourself are changing [in the early steps of the posthuman process] you may also begin to change the way you spend your time. Instead of spending four hours each day watching television, you may now prefer to play the saxophone in a jazz band and to have fun working on your first novel. Instead of spending weekends hanging out in the pub with your old buddies talking about football, you acquire new friends with whom you can discuss things that now seem to you to be of greater significance than sport. Together with some of these new friends, you set up a local chapter of an international nonprofit to help draw attention to the plight of political prisoners (5).
Beer vs. political rallies, screen time vs. jazz. The class snobbery here is tremendous. People who watch tv or like sports are viewed as childish, lacking upwardly mobile intelligence and upwardly mobile existence. Those who are too physically and mentally exhausted after work to do little more than consume media are to be shunned. So much for loyalty to friends—posthumans don’t hang out with “old buddies” in the pub, as socializing for the fun of it seems to be beneath the posthuman condition.
Instead, the posthuman will be pursuing experiences that are seen as directly useful for self-improvement and morally congratulatory. For Bostrom, these apparent upgrades in lifestyle seem to require elaborate enhancement technology, when all they require right now is some creative effort and dedication. Maybe a major in the humanities would help. But Bostrom treats the humanities in general as a lure for posthumanity, not as something enjoyable or enhancing to do right now for its own sake. We will supposedly have more time in posthuman life tomorrow to do the humanistic things we all wanted to do but do not have time for presently. But one can learn saxophone or support Amnesty International right now, no supertechnology needed. Go ahead and write that novel today. Yet there is a heavy whiff of dystopianism in the cold shoulder given to those “old buddies” while “new friends” beckon.
Bostrom’s utopian platform requires a pathway to reconcile the real and the ideal; an irresolvable gap between the two would constitute yet another existential threat to realizing utopia’s “astronomical” value. For him, utopia cannot remain a thought experiment or mere spur for the imagination but must be technologically attainable as long as there is nothing inherent in technology itself that would limit its realization or precipitate more existential risks. We can use the semiotic square to chart out the variations in the mapping of utopia that can be discerned in the difference between a utopian demand that forces its realization (as in Jonas’s compulsory “automatic utopia”) and a utopian speculative imagination that is a perpetual promise but can never fully be realized.
Bostrom’s transhumanist position leaves no gap between utopia and utopianism, requiring an actualized utopia to satisfy the utopianist demand. This position continually subsumes the speculative imagination into the technological process of actualization, as we will see with Bostrom’s “Letter from Utopia,” where supposedly all schemas of the imagination can become “lived experience.” Fascism, by contrast, posits a fixed imagination (there is one ideal race and one way to achieve its political power) that demands to be realized in an actual utopian state that is premised on nonutopian values. Capitalist realism, the present condition of neoliberalism, maintains the premise that all actually existing utopias as well as all utopian imaginations always collapse into dystopian regimes.2 Since there is no alternative to capitalism in this scheme, the utopian imagination is better commodified or ridiculed.
Non-utopian utopianism (pace Fredric Jameson) is the space of art, the idealizing imagination, and the shaping of political and psychological desires in fantasy and wish-fulfillment. Art posits utopian values that need not be realized or realizable for these to remain essential guides for living in common. While transhuman utopianism insists that redeemed life be directly representable, graspable, and masterable, art flourishes in the gap or delay between representation and reality, a gap that compels both desire and disinterestedness. The utopianism of art’s form lies in its very resistance to mastery and ownership, and in the demand for the artwork to be accessed and reinterpreted indefinitely but without any guarantees of meaningfulness. Hence the utopia of art’s form is found in the gap itself, the difference between ideality and reality that perpetuates non-utopian utopianism. The existential structure of the artwork refuses fixed totalitizations while positioning experience in the realm of “promise” or fantasy, which is not sequestered from sociality but seeps into reality and effectuates everyday changes, as the work’s form carries within an incommensurable desire for singular enjoyment and collective reconciliation.
Utopia Writes Back
Bostrom’s “Letter from Utopia,” perhaps his most fully realized transhumanist scheme, is a fictional letter written from the first-person perspective of a highly enhanced posthuman from the future who is trying to convince humans of today to pursue biological and cognitive augmentations. The letter is written as if postmarked from Utopia itself. It is addressed to “you,” the reader. It is signed, “Yours sincerely, Your Possible Future Self,”3 suggesting that “you,” in fact, are the writer of the letter. The letter’s explicit purpose is “to tell you about my life—how good it is—that you may choose it for yourself” (LU, 1).
There are many paradoxes at work in this genre of letter. The writing of this letter in the present is what will create this future writer—the future writer does not exist unless the letter is written and finds its proper reader in the present. The “Possible Future Self” is a ghost from the future who, if effective, would haunt himself into becoming an actual future self. The present address thus proleptically causes the future writer to exist, but the future is also retro-causally acting in the present. Bostrom, who stands in for the “we” of present humanity, is both author and reader, “I” and “you.” Bostrom’s letter writer is both the addresser and addressee, sender and receiver, present and future, haunter and haunted by the transhumanist call, writing toward the future and imagining the future writing back. By collapsing these distinctions, he intends his letter to close the gap between fantasy and reality.
The letter is an “invitation” (LU, 1) to “your actual future” (LU, 1). What will this future entail? Everything is bursting with “bliss” (LU, 2). We are asked to remember our best moments and feelings, and then told “what you had in your best moment is not close to what I have now—a beckoning scintilla at most” (LU, 3). Our correspondent expresses both encouragement and frustration in trying to communicate how great it is to feel and think as a utopian: “What I feel is as far beyond human feeling as my thoughts are beyond human thought. I wish I could show you what I have in mind” (LU, 4). To give us a taste of what a transhuman utopian feels and thinks, Bostrom offers a plethora of metaphors. These metaphors generally divide into carrots and sticks. Metaphors of negative reinforcement are replete with references to pain, punishment, and guilt in characterizing the human condition as akin to poverty, a padlock, prison, a death trap, a “self-combusting paper hut” (LU, 5), a “loathsome corral” (LU, 6), an assassin, and a “gruesome knot” of suffering (LU, 7). Metaphors of positive reinforcement speak of untold pleasure and knowledge: tears of gratitude, sailing “the high seas of cultures” (LU, 3), finding a secure home, cultivating “nutritious crops of well-being” (LU, 7), “a bubbling celebration of life” (LU, 6). Utopians appeal to us here primarily with passionate hedonism and the magical spice of literary metaphor, rather than rationalistic or scientific argumentation. Yet why are people in Utopia so bipolar? One might hypothesize that transhumans are so equanimous that they would have no need, perhaps even no memory, of these kinds of rhetorical mood swings. Readers have to wonder to what degree this letter is a friendly appeal or manipulative threat, genuinely encouraging or cynically judgmental. Oscillating between lure and condescension will get you “erewhon.”
Bostrom consistently rejects arguments from nature or naturalism, yet his letter employs numerous naturalist metaphors and similes. Humanity becoming transhumanity will be “like the full moon that follows a waxing crescent, or like the flower that follows a seed” (LU, 1). We are told that “fun” is “the birth right of every creature” (LU, 6). Also, “All emotions have a natural function” (LU, 7). But how realistic or reliable are these natural cases in the postnatural posthuman condition? Is it necessary to distinguish “given” nature and composed algorithms that can supposedly simulate or enhance any aspect of nature? And what is left of enjoyment of nature as the nonmanufactured or noninstrumentalized environs? Our letter writer basks in countless “astronomical” joys, but strolling among gardens or beaches does not bear mentioning, save perhaps one particularly impenetrable sentence: “I’ve seen the shoals of colored biography fishes, each one a life story, scintillate under heaving ocean waters” (LU, 3). Here everything in nature is turned up to the sublime just as the metaphorical richness of the sentences are drenched in hyperbole. The sublime itself is collapsed with the pleasure principle: “Every second is so good that it would blow our minds had their amperage not been previously increased” (LU, 9).
A lot of the letter’s sentences are evocative of Blade Runner Roy Batty–style escaped android statements. As Batty faces death, he tells the bounty hunter Deckard, “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-Beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. . . .”4 Much of the letter carries on in this melancholic lure of “if you could only see what I see.” This synthesis of all knowledge and experience in the individual subject is close to what Thierry Bardini describes as Homo nexus, a response to infowhelm based on the “nexialist” who can read at the speed of data in A. E. Vogt’s novel The Voyage of the Space Beagle (1950).5 Utopian posthumans, however, have pretty much seen everything. Posthumanists not only have time to read everything, they can realize what they read, as if the truth of reading were to become identical with what you read, collapsing reading and being. “I have read all your authors—and much more. I have experienced life in many forms and from many angles: jungle and desert, gutter and palace, heath and suburban creek and city back alley. I have sailed the high seas of cultures, and swum, and dived” (LU, 3). Transhumans are drama queens, sailing the seas of high culture or kitsch, as the case may be. Here art is reduced to enjoyment and self-satisfaction, following what Marcuse called “the affirmative character of culture” and what Leo Bersani describes as the “culture of redemption”6 that placates the ego above all while eschewing anything disturbing or dissonant. Once the negative, dissenting, critical function of art is dismissed—half the ontology of the artwork—the high seas of kitsch begin to swell. This is a fantasy of not needing fantasy anymore because there is supposedly no longer a gap between fantasy and reality.
But the “space of the aesthetic,” just like the space of existences and reasons, is larger because it includes finitudes, negations, nonsystemizations, and precarities. Bostrom’s letter promises that only technological enhancement offers this experience of reading as self-realization, but the sentences he offers here are legible on their own because we already have access to aesthetic transformation (not the same as actualized transhumanism) by way of the transfiguring powers of poetics devices such as personification, metaphor, and prolepsis. Forms and genres of the humanities are predicated on such powers inherent in the poetics of language, and these poetic powers do not require special enhancements or technologies. But every document of culture also bears testimony that the materiality of texts, codes of legibility, cultural forms, and transmission practices are themselves uncertain and finite. Texts cannot escape the existentiality of finitude—nothing guarantees that a text will be read or remain legible. Nothing guarantees that a text will be read as its author wants, or that a letter will reach its destination.
Finally, we can raise the question of how irony and deception could play an intractable role in the genre of a letter from a transhuman utopia. How would such a superintelligence address us? How would we know if this address is genuine or a screen behind which lie any number of possible worlds? How would we know if a dystopian calamity or some kind of “desert of the real” stood behind this utopian address? With these questions in mind, the lack of irony and self-critique in this letter is troubling. The letter wants to convince us that posthuman experience is truly wallowing in pleasure, not a simulated experience of pleasure—or rather there is no gap between simulation and reality. But this self-consistency in the form of realized simulation hides a more troubling absence: the self as divided, contradictory, or self-deceptive, possibilities that constitute having a self in the first place. This kind of utopian letter could be written by an artificial intelligence, malicious or not, that is trying to convince humans to commit to the technological path that would end up bringing this artificial intelligence into existence. The letter could be from a dystopian source that is simulating utopia. This letter could just be a machine telling us how great its algorithms are—a scenario that may indeed constitute a utopia to Bostrom. The ultimate irony of this letter is that everything in his utopian imagination is already here and available to us, however brief our lives, but it is unevenly distributed and unevenly shared.