At the second edition of the Technoprog conference, organised by the French Transhumanist Movement: Technoprog !, I had the occasion to meet and discuss with one of the most famous figure of transhumanisme worlwide : Natasha Vita-More.
She was president of the Extropy Institute from 2002 to its end, and she defends a personnal vision of transhumanist art. In the present days, Natasha Vita-More is president of H+ (formerly know as WTA) the biggest transhumanist association. She also does counseling for organisation close to the movement, such as the Singularity Institute and the Alcor Life Fondation.
For Natasha Vita-More, designing a new human body and new living forms is the epicenter of a “transhumanist art”. When facing life extension in biological form or life expansion in cyberspace, what would a transhumanist art stand for ? The answer : to design the futur of what it is to be human, body and mind. It’s as simple as that.
Imagine the future, let’s say in about forty years, what do you see ?
That’s a very important, timely and provocative question. What do I envision for the futur in about forty years from now keep on revolving around the idea of artists and designers becoming pro-active and actually working heartendly and creatively with enormous inspiration and innovation in solving some of the world astounding unsolved problems. Why not use our most interesting and active creativity to develop strategies to actually make changing the world an art project within itself ?
How do you see the people in the futur, what do they look like ?
It’s interesting because my work is based on life extension and life expansion. So, as far as extension is concerned (NDLR: prolounging life as a biological entity), people will certainly look more youthful in their hundreds. Not necessarily looking like teenagers or being wrinkleless, but just having the vitality, the joie de vivre of life ! But what’s interesting is that I think that we will diversify enormously rather than being homogenized, it seems to me anyway that we will become extremely diverse and coexist in multiple platforms, multiple substrate. For example, we exist right now in biological system, we partially exist in the internet, in computationnal systems, and in virtuality, in Second Life and the metaverse but I see it becoming more seamless, more inclusive, and we can really build our lives in this alternative platforms and substrates so what people look like will be interesting in all sorts of levels : we will also have telepresence, you could also be sitting here like i’m sitting with you but it looks like you but you’re not really here, it could be a virtual simulation but you’re off running around the track or at the gym, or out on a date or traveling to Japon or wathever. I think we will see virtual simulation of people in different areas and it won’t be so musch as «Is this personne real or not ?». It won’t matter so much if you’re material real or a synthetic !
Yesterday, I was asking a guy in a french bistrot : how do you imagine the futur in forty years, he answered his only future was paying the rent. Why should the everyday guy think about the future ?
That’s a a good question, thank you for asking it ! In my view, the reason why the average personn might consider thinking about the future is because we seem to, as a species, innately want to stay alive, we would do whatever we can to survive and protect our loved ones, our parents, our children, our lovers, our family, our friend, so that we sustain, so it’s not sustaining for the day, but sustaining for at least a years and what we assume is our lifespan. So the reason why anyone might consider more heartendly about the future is because things happens and suddendly, tweenty years passed, and you wonder : what did I do ? Disease happens, death happens, so we want to do everything we can to prolong it. Going out to this guy you talked about in the bistrot, if he’s trying to figure out how to just pay his rent well he ought to be thinking about the future because the rent is not going to be due just this month, he’ll be dued the next month, and the next, and the next. This is common sense to think about the future. But above all that, for god sake’s, thinking about the future is fun, it’s exciting : what might happen, what could it be, when we start think about all the possibilities that are available, it gets very exciting ! Not just for science-fiction author, it’s for everyone ! And it doesn’t have to be distopic, scary science-fiction, it can be enlightning possibilities for the future ! And we are all participants : the future is not an exclusive club, it’s for everyone ! It’s fun and… it’s free !
In the nineteenth century, the future was bright, the future was fun, but today, the future is often depicted as scary : crisis, apocalypse and mayhem.
We can thank the press and the media for that. It’s splash-page sensationnalism, scare the hell out of the people, make them worry, this will make them not want to grow in advance. Is something going on here ? I don’t think so, I’m not a conspiracy theorist. It’s an easy way to do journalism. It’s a lot of memetic engineering there to stop this dystopic thinking. And here come’s the artist and designers again, this is their job ! Even if transhumanist art must have an element of critical thinking, objectivity and strategic thinking in developping the art because it is based on a premice of life extension.
What message could you send to make the everyday guy think that the future is bright, and something you need to think about ? In transhumanism, is thinking about the future a way of life ?
It seems like their needs to bemore programming and more narratives just in filmaking and gaming and music in all the diffrent methods and mediums. they need to present another message ? I don’t know and don’t have a strategy. It’s like play-it-forward : if you talk about this guy in the bistrot, worried about his rent, and you could say, yeah there is a number of job opening and then he may meet a person at a grocery store looking at a damaged piece of fruit and showing him a good piece of fruit. So, the only strategy is giving positives thoughts. It’s self-responsibility. For exemple, in the movie industry.
You’re thinking about films, Natasha Vita-More, what film’s has fit in that agenda lately ?
Avatar had, I think, a very positive and lovely message even though it was based on a bit of mythology, encouraging people to fell back on mythology rather than developping a stronger storyline. But it had a feel good ! Or the King Speech, that was a feelgood film about someones overcoming a disability. He developped a way to deal with his own psychologie and phobia. There’s a number of project like the Buckminster Fuller foundation. We must remove people who are so downcast, and putting us all out and put in our people who have possibilities and solutions.
Transhumanist art pretains to the philosophical world view of transhumanism so, in a nutshell, transhumanism is focused on human elevation : elevating the human condition, living longer and applying the skills of critical thinking, strategy and looking at the ethical and technological issues. To be carefuly assessing the future while building a future. We are looking at self-directed evolution. Extending the lifespan beyond a hundred an twenty three years wich is our now to date maximum (cf. Jeanne Calment) and also looking at coexisting in multiples systems and platforms. So transhumanist art would have to stem from that, it would have to employ the tennets of transhumanism as a philosophy, but take them in another area that is creativity and working with new media. In my view, it works with the current emerging and converging technologies of biotechnology, nanotechnology and information technologies, cognitive and neurosciences. So it look like a pallet. It’s the pallet with wih to paint the canvas of the future.
Why does the prospect of immortality requires art ? Why should the future man be creative as you encourage it to be when you write : «Move and be visionnary – be daring and create !» ?
Again, it’s interesting, I think the term immortality is a term that gets a lot of transhumanist in trouble, because, as far as I’m concerned, when I think about immortality, I think about Jean-Paul Sartre, No Exit, the play, where you’re stuck in this space for ever and you can’t get out. Immortality, even though human have strive for immortality, for eons and eons. Still when you think about it, it’s a point of stasis, it’s kind of like the notion of perfect, if you reach perfection, there’s no way to get any better. So I use the phrase life extension and life expansion, radical life expansion for living for living very long periods of time.
Let’s rephrase the question : What can transhumanist artist do with the idea of life extension and life expansion ?
One thing : designing new body types ! That could be a very interesting new area of product design and industrial design. Building new body prostethics. But reallly building them, not only as a conceptual pice, like I did, building new environnement in virtuality, building new personnas, artist from the metaverse. Gaming artist could imagine some very interesting game about the future, helping people to understand wich future direction to take. It’s like taking the blue pill or not, like in The Matrix. Gaming could help people understand transhumanism or the future : if you lived so long, what could it be like ? If you lived to be 120, how would you deal with bone mass degeneration, or muscular degeneration or cognitive degeneration ? What are the new medical derivatives that could help keeping your brain active, your psychology positive as possible, and your body athletic or whatnot ? New media works ! Artiste could build installation where you go in and suddendly you are 150 years old. One installation you could look 150, another you could look like you’re fifty or forty, or youthful and physically fit. This all could help us understand : who would we be in the future ? What would we become ? Artist could really have a great time and become scholarly expert and eccentric, radical ! But I think they would have to not to freak out people like science-fiction does, and a lot of the ideology of bio-arts intentionnaly is sscolding human, scolding consumers, scolding corportate fuse. We must be aware of the problems, but not to go off on a tangent with them, we need to be creative, that’s our role, our purpose and joy.
Hanna Arendt once wrote : “we might one day succeed in bringing humanity to immortality, and everything that we have thought concerning death and its depth would simplybecome laughable. One might say that it would be too high a price to pay for the suppression of death.” Can humans create without death ? Even you, your art is inspired by the prospect of avoiding death.
Yes, that’s a very important question. If you could live indefinelty, where would be the struggle that creates great art life Mozart or Van Gogh ? Any of the great artist suffered. My response is : maybe they would have done better art if they weren’t suffering so much ! Maybe if Van Gogh hadn’t put his paintbrush in his mouth and consumed all those chemicals, maybe he wouldn’t have become psychotic. I don’t think suffering necessarily makes great art, that’s the albatros around artist’s neck : we’re told we’re supposed to suffer to make great art and we’re not going to be famous before we die. I defy both those dictums and I say they are false and can be ereased ! (laugh) No, I think they are fine but that we can build off off them.
Transhumanism : playing god ?
The body takes an important place in your designs. However, with the prospect of uploading, will we need a body ?
Consciousness is one of the most interesting areas of research and exploration. Currently, as we explore the brain through technology such as MRI, we’re able to see at least some aspects of what goes on in the brain and different electronic monitoring devices of the brain. So we’re just starting to see how neurons fires in the brain and the electrical charges, understand different aspect of the brain that help our performative functionning, and our personnality, our behavioral type. As scientist are exploring that, we are also thinking about what kind of substrate will exist on and within as we live longer and longer. So what is mind ? What is consciousness ? If we upload we would have to uplaod consciousness, because there’s no point in being alive if we’re not conscious. That’s the whole point ! And through consciousness, we develop personhood. Our behaviour, our identity, our individuation ! So that is our personn, who we are. So you need consciousness and you need personhood. But can we upload consciousness ? Well, that is the big million dollar 21st century question ! Will it happen ? Probably. When ? Who know. I think it will probably happen in surges rather than a singularity shift all of a sudden, even if I think the Singularity will eventually happen in one way or another. This ties into the question here : do we need a body ? When super-intelligence will appear along the singularity, we, human, will have to compete. Even if we upload in a computationnal or synthetic environnement, we will still have a body because consciousness can not exist in thin air ! Some element still need to be material. We would still have some kind of a body, not necessarily a human-looking body, maybe with differents senses.
Your philosophy shares some aspects with Valery. Here is a quote from him I’ve painfully translated : «There’s nothing deeper in a man than his skin». With the prospect of uploading, why should we need a body ? Why should we need a skin ?
But the interesting aspect of this question is that it dealt with skin : skin is a symbol and a metaphor «Skin deep», for exemple. Skin is the larger organ of the body, the first organ to be cloned, the first organ to be made artificial. We will always need some kind of skin toi encapsulate us, to protect us no matter what system we are in, we will still need to protect our consciousness, our identity and our movements. Where we are, where we exist and how we exist. That will be the new skin ! It could be semi-biologicial, artificial, computational… Or another technology that is yet to be discovered !
Could you tell me more about the smart exoskin and the different body that you designed ?
When i designed the Smart Exoskin, I was thinking about skin that will protect that will protect the biological system, the human physiology. So I came up with idea for skin that would be partially synthetic, partially biological, and the porosity of the skin, the pores, would open up and close at different times ! The skin would adapt to nigh time and day time, for example if you’re out in the sun, the skin would automatically monitor itself so that it builds up a protection againsst the sun rays that can cause skin cancers. It also could act as clothing if you go to a cold climate, the cells would get tighten together to keep you warmer. One of the interesting elements of this particular conceptual designs was that texture and tonality could change : I’m caucasian, I wouldn’t always have white skin, I would want Melato warm bronze skin, maybe with a golden hue, maybe with a shimmering peacock color so that it would change. When we think about tatto, tattoing is very popular, but tattoes are so old world, they just sit there, and to take them off, you have to undergo some sort of surgery and have them remove. The skin that I like is when you could have tattoe design appear and disappear. And the skin could also communicate, it would be intelligent !
If i understand you well, designing the future of the body, the skin well, the whole human being, is a new form of art. Here is a quote from you : “When we think of the arts, it is necessary to stretch our imaginations to a time when humanity will steer evolution. We are at the precipice of navigating this course now”. Was God, or what we call god, an artist ? Do transhumanist artists plan to become “like gods” ?
I learned early on that they are many different interpretations of religion throughout the world. Western man of gods is not necessarily the only views. There are a lot of different traditions of the future and the past. I lived with the Navajo indians, I was in the Amazon jungle, I traveled many places and studied diffrent methods of appreciating lifes though prayer and mediations. And I put that all together ! So think about a christian, a jew or a muslim, an atheist or an agnostic doesnt really make sense to me. Because all those systems believe that they are absolutely correct ! That really freaked me out : how do they know, have they been there ? So to answer your question : the universe is a pretty magnificent body of matter. How it started, we don’t know. We think it xas a big bag, that’s the latest theory from what we know at this point of time. i don’t see any place in a religious god in that. Certainly, from a religious point of view, one would esteem that god would be a magnificent artist in designing humans and in designing all life forms. Another interpretation would be that the cosmos is a great artist in creating in the universe. I am more interested in the universe and what came out of that and life evolving. Do transhumanist plan to become like god ? I hope not because I think it’s an authoratarian view that is all right and all perfect an I don’t think being allrigh and all perfect is transhumanist. Because if you’re perfect, there is not room for improvements ! But if you look at it in the other way, it could be like playing god in extending life, building new bodies, designing life extension. But I don’t see it as being god, I see as being a species that know it has to do something or else. Meaning that if there is a Singularity and superintelligence does outperform human intelligence, we will have no choice. We will have to upgrade ourselves and become smarter. That’s the issue of extinction risk. We have to protect our specie, that’s our responsability. This is the ethic or transhumanism.
To sum it up, I would rather not play god, I would rather play !