Technological Bi-Partisanship

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There has been a lot of debate and media coverage lately about the potential use of drones to surveil – perhaps even to kill – American citizens located on U.S. territory. The highlight of this was Sen. Rand Paul’s 13 hour filibuster on March 6. Ostensibly, Rand’s speech was to oppose the nomination of John Brennan as the new head of the CIA. He started his “filiblizzard” by stating “that no American should be killed by a drone on American soil without first being charged with a crime, without first being found to be guilty by a court.”

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Rand Paul, looking a little peaked after 12 hours on the House floor

But Rand’s “dumb publicity stunt” (as labeled by a scholar at the Brookings Institution) received some interesting coverage not just for what the senator said but also for the reaction it prompted from both the left-wing and right-wing. As one New York Times headline described it, the current debate over drones “scrambles politics both left and right.” The images Sen. Paul put forth of drones hovering over American backyards and city streets armed and legally permitted to either spy or kill touched nerves across the political spectrum. (However, the legality as well as potential blowback for drone killings in general were not explored nearly enough) “How soon are we going to have drones overhead with tasers on them,” asked the Florida-based owner of the right-wing Whether one is a civil libertarian or a Tea Partier, images of this possible future stirred fears of governmental overreach and the menace of an unrestrained government. Over on the right, the Times reported, “defenders of the Constitution” welcomed Paul to their “less-is-better government club” while members of Code Pink sent Rand a liberal helping of flowers and chocolate.

This rare and probably short-lived confluence of political agreement made me wonder about other examples of particular technologies eliciting some political agreement from both sides of aisle…

Short for “transitional human,” the word transhuman was suggested decades earlier by Julian Huxley, a British evolutionary biologist and brother of Brave New World’s author, to reflect what would happen when humanity as a whole decided to “transcend itself” through the “zestful but scientific exploration of possibilities.”1 An essential idea among transhumanists is that new technologies might enable individuals to augment their physical and mental powers and thereby transcend inherent biological limitations. As one early advocate told a journalist in the early 1990s, “I enjoy being human but I am not content.”2

Over the next several decades, the valence of the term shifted. A key difference was that a Bernal or a Huxley imagined transformations occurring throughout society or even the entire human species. In contrast, the new transhumanism favored improving the individual via mind and body enhancement (and maintaining a legal right to do so). By the late 1990s, some transhumanists began to embrace a radical unifying concept called the “Singularity.” Its proponents gathered together a wide range of technological ideas – space exploration, nanotechnologies, life extension, artificial intelligence, biological enhancement – into a broader vision for the technological future.

Liberal as well as conservative critics of transhumanism have spoken out against it. Jonathan Moreno examines this in his recent book The Body Politic. Moreno quotes three scholars from the left who argue that the new posthumans will view the old models – that’s us – as “inferior, even savages, and fit for slavery or slaughter.” As a result, transhumanism will open the door to a “genocide that makes species-altering experiments” serve as “potential weapons of mass destruction.”3

Over on the right, as I described in The Visioneers, political philosopher Francis Fukuyama claimed that human enhancement technologies posed a grave threat to democracy – he called it, in one forum, “the world’s most dangerous idea” – while conservative bioethicist Leon Kass warned that “human nature itself lies on the operating table.”4 In response to Fukuyama as well as leftist critics, libertarian writer Ronald Bailey responded by saying “bring on those genetic bulldozers and psychotropic shopping malls to help people live healthier, smarter, and happier lives.”

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Transhumanism as depicted by Time, 2011

I guess the happy news is that much of the technologies central to transhumanism don’t exist yet. This stands in stark contrast to drone technology. However, what’s interesting in both cases is the centrality of democracy and equality. Opponents of transhumanism claim that it will eliminate equality or, as Fukuyama says, “what rights will these enhanced creatures claim and what rights will they possess when compared to those left behind?” The use of the term “left behind” is curious and I couldn’t help but wonder if this might be a reference to the “Left Behind” novels by Tim LeHaye and Jerry Jenkins that are so popular with evangelical Christians. Of course, one can always rebut Fukuyama by asking about the state and distribution of equality in today’s pre-posthumanist world. Hmmm…not looking so good. By the same token, we certainly haven’t needed transhumanism as an excuse or a goad to annihilate tens of millions of our fellow unaltered humans (who presumably were seen as inferior too) in the past century alone. But, as with these left/right critiques of transhumanism, debates about drones revolve around questions of legality, equality, and democracy as well as the potential they have reaping death.

The bipartisan coalescence of support against drones also reminded me of the ways in which the political left and right came together c. 1980 around a different technological issue. Instead of standing together in opposition, however, a small coalition of lefties, libertarians, and conservatives stood together to support an enhanced program of human space exploration coupled later on with calls for the militarization of space.

Stirred by Gerard O’Neill’s ideas for the humanization of space” and his depictions of space colonies free-floating in the inky blackness of space, devotees of O’Neill started the L5 Society in 1975. The name came from O’Neill’s proposal to put a space colony at one of Lagrangian points where gravitational forces are balanced so that objects there remain in relatively stable positions. L5’s membership was relatively small, never more than 10,000 people or so. But it was a vocal – at times argumentative and prone to internal disagreements – group with a strong California-based membership bolstered by local chapters in the Bay Area, San Diego, and Los Angeles. “L5 in ‘95” was an unofficial slogan the group adopted to express its determination to settle space and end their group with a mass disbanding in orbit.

L5 members weren’t shy about getting involved in the political process. During its eleven year existence, L5 members debated a range of space-related topics including lunar mining, space colonies, missions to Mars, and the Strategic Defense Initiative. The group played a role, for instance, in defeating U.S. senate support for the Moon Treaty in 1980.5

Screen Shot 2013-03-14 at 2.44.04 PMThe pro-space movement produced unusual political bedfellows. For example, Republican politician Newt Gingrich displayed considerable support for space, especially its private business opportunities, as did libertarian outlets like Reason magazine. One sign of the pro-space movement’s struggle over its agenda can be seen in a report put together in advance of Reagan’s 1981 inauguration by the “Citizens Advisory Council on National Space Policy.” This informal group, led by science-fiction writer Jerry Pournelle who served on L5’s board of directors, first met in Tarzana, just outside Los Angeles. It eventually assembled a membership that defied traditional political boundaries – Freeman Dyson (Princeton physicist), Barbara Marx Hubbard (spiritualist and futurist), and Larry Niven (science fiction writer) were on the membership list with former astronaut Walter Schiarra and Lowell Wood (physicist, Edward Teller protégé, and Star Wars advocate). The committee’s report advocated a “vigorous space program” that combined exploitation of space-based resources with entrepreneurial activities in space and space-based weaponry.6

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Article by liberal author/educator John Holt reprinted in the L5 News

Pournelle’s enthusiasm for military and corporate-backed space ventures was resisted by some left-leaning space enthusiasts and L5 members who still supported the original idea of communal space settlements and space-based solar power. Many other space buffs supported the Reagan space agenda in the hopes that military activities might jumpstart more peaceful citizen initiatives, much in the same way that 19th century military forts preceded civilian settlements.

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Image from 1979 L5 News article

These disputes presaged 1990s-era debates about Silicon Valley’s cyberculture and its libertarian leanings when left and right wing writers and political leaders united briefly in support of the electronic frontier’s new opportunities.7 Like space commercialization in the 1980s, enthusiasm for the internet and the World Wide Web a decade later was tinged with similar utopian and libertarian aspirations as well as hopes for profits. Social critics once described the internet and dot-com inspired “California Ideology” as “promiscuously combin[ing] the free-wheeling spirit of the hippies and the entrepreneurial zeal of the yuppies…a profound faith in the emancipatory potential of the new information technologies. In the digital utopia, everybody will be both hip and rich.”8 Where else but in the go-go years Clinton years would you find ex-hippies like Stewart Brand and Timothy Leary sharing bandwidth with Kevin Kelly, Esther Dyson, Newt Gingrich and George Gilder?

What’s interesting in all of these cases is that the discussion and debates didn’t break along traditional party lines. When the smoke and fog from Rand’s filibuster had dissipated, Sen. John McCain dismissed him as just one of the “wacko birds of the right and left that get the media microphone.” I’m curious to see how the drone debate continues and whether any sort of coalition forms around the issue. Perhaps this is all just a flash in the Rand…er, pan. Or maybe we’ll see more cases where a shared political nest is built by other wacko birds.

  1. Julian Huxley, Religion without Revelation. 1967 ed. (London: Harper & Brothers, 1927).195. []
  2. Ed Regis. “Meet the Extropians.Wired, October, 1994 []
  3. G. Annas, L. Andrews, and R. Isasi, “Protecting the Endangered Human: Toward an International Treaty Prohibiting Cloning and Inheritable Alterations.” American Journal of Law and Medicine 28: 2&3, 2002: 162. []
  4. Francis Fukuyama, Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution (New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2002); Leon Kass. “Preventing a Brave New World: Why We Should Ban Human Cloning Now.” The New Republic, May 21, 2001, 30-39. []
  5. The United Nation’s plan declared that “the moon and its natural resources are the common heritage of mankind” and claimed that “neither the surface nor the subsurface of the moon, nor any part thereof or natural resources in place, shall become property of any State, international intergovernmental or non- governmental organization, national organization or non-governmental entity or of any natural person.” From the “Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies.” These phrases struck some private space development enthusiasts possibly preventing opportunities for private space manufacturing and settlement. []
  6. Pournelle later claimed that this group’s activities helped catalyze Reagan’s SDI initiative; see Andrew J. Butrica, Single Stage to Orbit: Politics, Space Technology, and the Quest for Reusable Rocketry (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003). []
  7. My thanks to Peter Westwick for stimulating discussions about places in which the left and right coalesced around particular technologies. Peter also kindly shared a paper he presented at a conference on Envisioning Limits that we attended together last year in Berlin. Titled “From the Club of Rome to Star Wars: The era of limits, space colonization, and the origins of SDI,” Peter’s paper digs deep into some of the left-right space connections I glossed over here []
  8. Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron, “The California Ideology,” Science as Culture, 1996, 6, 6: 44-72. []

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