Transhumanism in Developing Nations
As the imminent emergence of a transhuman society begins to take to shape and moves increasingly from the realm of theory to fact, transhumanists and futurists are going to have to start asking some hard questions. No longer can we focus simply on the technological challenges of creating such a future, but we must also consider what those technologies imply for society and the international community. Much has been written and said about the threat of uneven distribution of these technologies, and concerns over such inequality have made their way into everything from futurist fiction to academic critiques. Little has been done to address these concerns though, and what has been done tends to focus on inequality within the developed nations that most futurists are from. Despite this, it is of paramount importance that we focus strong attention on the technological and infrastructural gap that exists been post-industrial and developing nations. Unless we take strong, positive action to address these issues, transhumanism will not be the global revolution we hope it to be, and we will instead take the form of the techno-oligarchs that we fear.
Having spent the last year in Afghanistan, working closely with local civil and military leaders to help establish infrastructure and security, has given me a much more complete appreciation of the challenges that developing nations face in catching up. While I have travelled to numerous other developing nations prior to Afghanistan, the expanded timescale and particular focus on infrastructure and governance during this deployment has given me a level of understanding that no number of week-long holidays or business trips could offer. Afghanistan is also a particularly good nation for understanding what it will take to bring the world to technological parity. As one of the world’s least developed and poorest countries, you could easily say that if something is enough to fix Afghanistan, it ought be enough for any place else.
The thing that I have found possibly the most intriguing in developmental terms, is the average Afghan’s eagerness to embrace technology even ahead of more basic concerns. The district that I spent most of my deployment in just recently had its first cell tower erected. In a district with no running waters, electricity, or even a bazaar, everyone (including our enemies) still considers cellular service a priority. That might seem strange, but when you consider the other things that the locals clamor for – improved roads, schools, and more radios – a trend quickly becomes apparent. What they really want is a link to the outside world; they want to feel like they are a part of the times and not being left behind.
Most Afghans share a delight for technology that is only matched in industrialized nations by engineers and futurists. They’re always eager to show off the scant pieces of technology they have managed to acquire, be it a cellphone, an iPod, a handcrank radio, or even the four-channel satellite TV they have somehow setup in their mountaintop bunker. For all their eagerness though, they face countless challenges to development, such as warfare, low education, and a lack of economic opportunity. Fortunately, one of the largest hurdles they face is also one of the easiest to address: ignorance.
Quite simply, most people in developing nations are simply ignorant of what opportunities and technologies are available in the post-industrialized world. No matter how eager a subsistence farmer might be to adopt biotech crops, he won’t ever do so if he is not aware of their existence. If that same farmer never even hears about solar-powered water pumps, he won’t even know to ask his government for one. Many of the technologies that we take for granted, border on the magical to citizens of developing nations. For instance, I just recently had a half-hour conversation with one of my local interpreters about what ATMs are; what seemed so mundane to me left him on the verge of starry-eyed wonder. When you consider that this interpreter is a member of Afghanistan’s educated upper-class, it really drives home the level of technological disparity that exists between some parts of the world.
Although establishing an entire national infrastructure is well outside the means of any futurist organization, helping educate people in developing nations on the state of technological progress is something that is entirely feasible. Instead of helping construct increasing numbers of coal-fired power plants, show villagers how they can easily build and maintain simple wind turbines. Rather than providing the massive financial commitment it would take to build wells and irrigation systems, simply teach farmers improved agricultural practices and educate them on affordable technological advances. Although this is hardly enough to solve all the problems of developing nations, educating people about the scientific and technological opportunities available in the wider world has a two-fold benefit. First, it enables these people to begin helping themselves; only by being made aware of the opportunities that exist can they even begin to consider exploiting them. Secondly, it encourages them to demand and expect more of their governments.
The second point is particularly important, given that developing nations are especially prone to ineffective and corrupt governance. By educating people about what advances are available in the wider world, and what could be available to them, those people are encouraged to hold their governments accountable and demand more. History has consistently demonstrated that a sufficiently motivated government and populace can produce remarkably rapid progress in developing nations. This can be seen in the economic miracle of Southeast Asia, India’s Green Revolution, and even in the USSR’s controversial Five Year Plans. The trick then lies not so much in attempting to reform governments and forcing them to pursue rapid industrialization via World Bank incentives, but rather in convincing their populations that this is what they should be demanding of their government.
While it is important that futurists and transhumanists continue to promote an agenda of human development in those post-industrialized nations which have the means to achieve it, we must place an equal focus on bringing the benefits of such technology to less fortunate nations. Just as in the post-industrial world, this is best achieved in the developing world through a campaign of education, although with a decidedly more practical emphasis. We must ultimately remember that transhumanism is meant to be a revolution for humanity, all of it.