Engineering Better Citizens
Human enhancement doesn't guarantee better democracy, but better democracy may require human enhancement
By James Hughes
9/1/2004 2:51 PM
For the past couple of months, leading up to the Olympics, our friend Andy Miah has been appearing all over the place arguing for the legalization of genetically enhanced athletics. In his new book, Genetically Modified Athletes,
he points out the absurd lengths to which sporting officials have been
forced to go to distinguish acceptable foods, supplements and high-tech
apparel from illegal "performance enhancers." As we saw in August as
Olympians were eliminated for failed drug tests, even when the
likelihood of detection is high the lure of performance enhancement is
impossible to resist. If we legalize "gene doping," at least for some
competitions, then we can better monitor athletes' use of dangerous
mods, and athletes will have access to genetic enhancements that
protect them from injury and improve their health.
aside from the issue of doping, I am congenitally incapable of
mustering a flicker of interest in athletics of any kind—even Olympic
beach volleyball—as those circuits in my brain have always been
monopolized by politics. I can see why other people are more excited by
sports than politics. In politics the teams are unevenly matched and
don't even have the same number of players on each side. When there are
rules, judges are often unable to enforce them. Political outcomes are
far more complicated than winning or losing tournaments.
politics actually has an impact on our, and other peoples', lives.
Surely the world would be a better place if people's heads were crammed
with at least as many statistics about the performance of Central Asian
politicians or the history of toxic waste regulations as they are with
batting averages and touchdowns.
this problem, as with so many others, can be fixed by human
enhancement. Even if self-governance is never as engaging as sports, my
expectation is that the enhanced humans we're becoming will find
self-education, political opinion formation and citizen engagement
increasingly effortless. Even if human enhancement doesn't guarantee
better democracy, better democracy may require human enhancement.
At the recent TransVision conference, Swedish polymath Anders Sandberg
observed that his most desired enhancement would be to have access to
Google from inside his brain. (We were surprised this was not already
the case.) For me, it would be to have news.google.com on neural tap, constantly queuing up relevant news clippings from the world's media and blogosphere.
course, news is not the same thing as information, much less education.
One of the concerns about the decline of the newspaper as a source of
news and the rise of narrowcasted cable television and partisan
Websites has been that citizens will be less exposed to in-depth
analysis and contrasting points of view. But that underestimates the
shallowness and partisanship that has always characterized most
newspapers, and underestimates the curiosity that the 21st century Web
surfer has about diverse points of view. Most citizens of democracies up to the present have been woefully ill-informed,
acting at the direction of their religious and political elites. The
real problem isn't with the narrowing of the modern e-citizen's
worldview, it is that e-citizens will drown in the growing flood of
information, in-depth and shallow, unable to parse it into opinions.
forebear FM-2030 wrote that transhumans want "instant universal
participation that will do away with the very institution of
government." Once a community is larger than 2,500 people or so,
however, the issues become so complex that we have had to delegate to
elites. Staying on top of even a fraction of the issues of modern
governance requires superhuman capacities and energies. Even a clearly
posthuman intellect such as Noam Chomsky doesn't write much outside of
foreign policy and linguistics.
is why we will need intelligent political agents—political shopping
bots—to surf all the information for us and make increasingly accurate
choices about which issues we should be interested in, which data
sources provide the best information and which organizations are
actually accomplishing something. Already, by answering a couple dozen
questions in an online survey at The Political Compass
you can determine with high accuracy your affinity for political
ideologies of which you may never have heard. Then there's a program
by computer scientist Jason Tester that monitors users' Web surfing,
asks them about their apparent interests and values, tracks issues and
the positions of candidates and advises users on voting. Constituty can
then also track how well candidates fulfill campaign promises and
reward them with additional support on users' behalf.
software to pull together the facts and make coherent sense out of our
political choices would finally allow many people to begin making
choices in their own interests. For instance, a recent American Prospect article by Larry Bartels (discussed by Louis Menand in The New Yorker)
points out that most Americans instinctively approve the repeal of
inheritance taxes even though they only apply to the top 1% to 2% of
estates. Even a majority of those Americans who think "the income gap
between the richest and the poorest Americans has increased in recent
decades" and that "the rich pay too little in taxes" want to repeal
inheritance taxes. Bartels calls this "unenlightened self-interest,"
and political decision-support software would likely point us in a more
of course, the software is designed by Microsoft to automatically
discourage taxes and redistribution. As we've seen with growing concern about partisan skullduggery hidden in voting software, these systems will immediately fall under suspicion of having partisan biases and they will have to be open source.
even if our political agents are completely transparent, what would it
mean for democracy if all the heavy lifting in forming opinions and
being politically active was done without any conscious effort on our
part? Participatory e-agent democracy would still be an advance over
the passivity of representative democracy, which offers at best a
couple binary decisions every couple of years.
we really want, however, is to run this software as a conscious
subroutine, as part of the civic engagement module for our genetically,
pharmaceutically and nanoneurally enhanced brains.
Democracy of supermen
we can expand our conscious capacities for knowledge, attention,
deliberation and communication, then even a small proportion of our
energies may be enough to read opinion journals, monitor C-SPAN, participate in online debates and vote on the UN referenda,
while the rest of our brain gets on with the more important things in
our lives. More capable and intelligent citizens will inevitably begin
to demand more participatory forms of democracy, delegating fewer tasks
to imperfectly representative elites, as John Stuart Mill suggested 200
From this increase of intelligence, several
effects may be confidently anticipated...they will become even less
willing than at present to be led and governed, and directed into the
way they should go, by the mere authority and prestige of
superiors...The theory of dependence and protection will be more and
more intolerable to them, and they will require that their conduct and
condition shall be essentially self-governed.
tweaks for intelligence, nano-neurotechnology, and political
intelligent agents will not only make us more empowered for
self-governance but also more immune to the psychological manipulation
being perfected by pollsters, ad agencies and spin doctors. Voters'
decisions are swayed by irrelevancies such as a politician's height or
attractiveness, the color of the party's logo, clever catchphrases and
negative ads, and meaningless proxies for ideological commitment such
as a politician's religion or military record.
Researchers at the University Arizona in Tucson found that support for charismatic leaders increases dramatically the more that people are manipulated to think about death.
"Reminders of death increase the need for psychological security and
therefore the appeal of leaders who emphasize the greatness of the
nation and a heroic victory over evil." This could certainly explain
the opposition of some politicians to life extension and their
enthusiasm for alarming states of emergency. The fine-tuned
manipulation of these unconscious responses is being explored in the
burgeoning field of political neuromarketing using PET scans and MRIs. Hopefully, as transhumans, we will also have increasing awareness of and control over these unconscious responses. The cure for demagoguery will be a spam filter on our cerebellum.
just as the literate, well-fed citizens of the 1960s insisted on forms
of democracy undreamt of by 18th century sharecroppers or Paleolithic
hunter-gatherers, the increasing health, intelligence, longevity,
education and leisure of the ordinary citizen will make them more
capable of recognizing the ways that an unequal society does not serve
their interests, and more able to understand the methods they need to
pursue to achieve empowerment.
As George Bernard Shaw said in the Revolutionist's Handbook
"Democracy cannot rise above the level of the human material of which
its voters are made...(Democracies will continue to be swayed by
demagogues) unless we can have a Democracy of Supermen; and the
production of such a Democracy is the only change that is now hopeful
enough to nerve us to the effort that Revolution demands."
At TransVision 2004, economist Robin Hanson
proposed that many people persist in untenable beliefs because of
ignorance and self-deception. As a consequence, in a posthuman future,
as we get smarter and have increasing access to and control over our
minds, we will have more information and be less able to sustain
self-deception. Deliberations between completely rational posthumans,
according to Hanson, will much more quickly arrive at consensus.
may be partly right. If people are happier, smarter, more prosperous
and less manipulable, I think there will be fewer intractable
conflicts. We will be less likely to pick fights to satisfy our need
for sadism, self-aggrandizement and revenge. Insofar as disagreements
have possible win-win solutions we will be more likely to find them.
Hanson has a stereotypical economist's faith that all conflict can be
solved through utility-maximizing exchange, and a blindness to the
differences in worldviews and material interests that also lead to
conflicts, and thus the need for democratic deliberation and
governance. In a labor market the worker and the boss may quickly
arrive at a wage rate. Then the workers may organize, go on strike and
elect a pro-labor government to raise that wage. And their bosses may
buy off the politicians and hire union thugs to beat up the strikers.
The result is not determined by deliberation but the contest of citizen
organization versus money. No matter how smart we get there will still
be zero-sum conflicts whose outcomes will be determined by the
unpredictable clashes of power and wealth.
the future, the advantage will go to those with access to the latest
nano-neurotechnology and political intelligent agents. We can already
see the contours of the debates over more equal access to citizenship
enhancements today in arguments about campaign financing, media
democracy, voter registration and the digital divide. In order to
ensure that human enhancement technologies facilitate a more radical
participatory democracy and not a widening of the gaps between the
haves and have-nots, we need to ensure universal access to those
technologies. We may not be able to oblige all citizens to exercise
their equal powers of self-government, but we can assure that they all
have access to them.
people aren't interested in politics we say they aren't "political
animals." The hope, however, is that in the near future we may all be
able to stop being political animals, unreflectively pushing
levers on the basis of Pavlovian conditioning and then panting
expectantly in hopes of a dog biscuit from the elites who put us
through our paces. Instead, we may finally become cyborg citizens,
smart and clearheaded enough to build a democracy worthy of human
beings, and whatever else we might become and create.