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p. 1005. Technotopian or human-centred futures?free

  • Jennifer M. Gidley


A vital question with regard to the future is how we deal with human futures. While high-tech futures are of interest to some futurists, many futures scholars are focused on the potential social, cultural, and environmental impacts of rapid unprecedented change, including exponential technological developments. ‘Technotopian or human-centred futures?’ describes two contrasting approaches to human futures and their inherent values and ethics: ‘human-centred futures’, which is humanitarian, philosophical, and ecological; and ‘technotopian futures’, which is dehumanizing, scientistic, and atomistic. It also considers the history of the struggle between these two approaches, which has been waged since at least the European Enlightenment, and still challenges us today.

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Contrasting futures for humanity

A vital question with regard to the future is how we deal with human futures. While high-tech futures are of interest to some futurists, many futures scholars are focused on the potential social, cultural, and environmental impacts of rapid unprecedented change, including exponential technological developments.

We are at a critical point today in research into human futures. Two divergent streams show up in the human futures conversations. Which direction we choose will also decide the fate of earth futures—at least in the sense of earth’s dual role as home for humans, and habitat for life in general. As a psychologist and educator, I am well aware that the domain of human futures is extremely complex and that creating binaries is an oversimplification. However, I choose to deliberately oversimplify here to make a point that I believe is vital.

My approach is informed by Oliver Markley and Willis Harman’s work Changing Images of Man (1982) in which they draw attention to two contrasting future images of human development: ‘evolutionary transformational’ and ‘technological extrapolationist’. I realize that the two types of utopian human futures distinguished by Polak in The Image of the Future (1955) provide historical p. 101lineages for these streams, as does C. P. Snow’s ‘Two Cultures’ (the humanities and the sciences). Sociologist Menno Boldt explores values and goals that might define a person who wants to create better earthly conditions for humanity. In A Quest for Humanity (2011) Boldt prioritizes respect for the dignity of every human being and identifies qualities to be found in what he calls a ‘transcendent humanity’. The qualities he includes are empathy, generosity, fairness, and forgiveness, as well as a commitment to working for peace and opposing the use of violence and destruction.

I am interested in how these different values are likely to play out in human futures, especially with respect to long-term consequences. Building on Markley and Harman’s images, and Boldt’s set of qualities for the transcendent human, I offer two contrasting approaches to human futures and their inherent values and ethics. Any approach to human futures is invariably informed by our image of the human being.

What I call ‘human-centred futures’ is humanitarian, philosophical, and ecological. It is based on a view of humans as kind, fair, consciously evolving, peaceful agents of change with a responsibility to maintain the ecological balance between humans, earth, and cosmos. Human-centred futures involve ongoing psychological, socio-cultural, aesthetic, and spiritual development, and a commitment to the betterment of earthly conditions for all humanity through education, cultural diversity, greater economic and resource parity, and respect for future generations.

By contrast, what I call ‘technotopian futures’ is dehumanizing, scientistic, and atomistic. It is based on a mechanistic, behaviourist model of the human being, with a thin cybernetic view of intelligence. The transhumanist ambition to create future techno-humans is anti-human and anti-evolutionary. It involves technological, biological, and genetic enhancement of humans and artificial machine intelligence. Some technotopians have p. 102transcendental dreams of abandoning earth to build a fantasized techno-heaven on Mars or in satellite cities in outer space.

This contest for the control of human futures is not new. It has been waged intermittently since at least the European Enlightenment. Because of the extreme existential risks facing humanity, it is necessary to detour backwards to appreciate how this struggle between techno-centred and human-centred futures began.

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The Enlightenment contest for human futures

Our hopes, as to the future condition of the human species, may be reduced to three points: the destruction of inequality between different nations; the progress of equality in one and the same nation, and lastly, the real improvement of man.

This quote by Flechtheim is the more remarkable when we realize that it was said over 220 years ago. Flechtheim is quoting French philosopher the Marquis de Condorcet (1743–94), who, when facing death in 1793–4 in the wake of the French Revolution, wrote Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind. A key contributor to the French Enlightenment, and holding similar views to many of the German idealist and romantic philosophers, de Condorcet envisioned humans as progressing towards a perfectly utopian society. Given the exchange of ideas among French and German philosophers at the time, it is highly likely that de Condorcet was influenced by German romantic philosopher Johann Gottfried (von) Herder’s This Too a Philosophy of History for the Formation of Humanity published just twenty years earlier. In his treatise on the evolution of human consciousness, Herder claimed, ‘there exist radical mental differences between historical periods, that people’s concepts, beliefs, sensations, etc. differ in important ways from one period to another’. Along with German idealist and romantic philosophers, de Condorcet was a forerunner of humanistic futures thinking.

p. 103The German romantic philosopher who stood out as a pioneer of futures thinking in the High Romantic period is Georg Philipp Friedrich von Hardenberg (1772–1801). His pen name was Novalis meaning ‘that which is of the future’. One of his many projects, although it remained incomplete at the end of his short life of less than thirty years, was his Enzyklopädistik. As noted by Novalis scholar Chad Wellmon: ‘Operating at the boundaries of the possible, the ideal, and the real, Novalis’s Enzyklopädistik both reflects on the conditions of possibility of an encyclopedia and actually attempts to make one.’ Novalis’s mode of working ‘at the boundaries of the possible, the ideal and the real’ was an uncanny forerunner of current notions of possible, preferred, and probable futures. In Wellmon’s view, Novalis’s encyclopedia was about creating ‘an anticipatory project, possible, unfinished and a future to come … an encyclopedic way of knowing’. Novalis was anticipating the emergence of both futures studies and the integral worldview in the 20th to 21st centuries. As part of his theory of cultural evolution, Novalis envisaged three ages in the social development of humanity. The kings and priests led the first. Politicians and economists led the second age, whilst the third (the emergent one) is to be led by interdependent individuals with the gift of ‘inspired artistic imagination’. The third age in social development would have the characteristics of liberty, equality, and fraternity, the ideals of the French Revolution, which so inspired Novalis.

Herder, de Condorcet, and Novalis would most likely have read two other important works of their era. The first, L’Homme machine (1748) (Man as Machine) published by Julien Offray de La Mettrie (1709–51), radically overturned previous views of the human being. Although not considered scientific at the time, the mechanistic view of human nature put forward by La Mettrie cast a long shadow into the future. It influenced B. F. Skinner’s 20th-century psychology school of radical behaviourism, the cybernetic view of human consciousness, and contemporary p. 104branches of transhumanism. The second was A Philosophical Review of the Successive Advances of the Human Mind by French economist Anne Robert Jacques Turgot (1727–81). Published just two years later, Turgot’s holistic view of humanity, incorporating various social and cultural dimensions, was in sharp contrast to La Mettrie’s mechanistic theory of human nature.

The striking similarity between the titles of the works by de Condorcet and Turgot cannot be mere coincidence. These French and German philosophers (Turgot, de Condorcet, Herder, and Novalis) shared a belief in human development as a humanistic ideal, interwoven with culture, society, education, and the arts. They diverged, however, in ways that reflected an important differentiation between the French and German Enlightenment. This is relevant to the two streams we see today.

Over that fifty-year time span in the second half of the 18th century, we can see the beginnings of the power struggle for human futures, between human-centred values and the dehumanization that was taking hold with the Industrial Revolution.

The German philosophical stream included the idealists and romantics, such as Herder, Novalis, Goethe, Hegel, and Schelling. They took their lineage from Leibniz and his 17th-century integral, spiritually based evolutionary work. These German philosophers seeded a spiritual-evolutionary humanism that laid down important foundations for the human-centred futures approach presented here.

The French philosophical influence included La Mettrie’s mechanistic man and René Descartes’s early 17th-century split between mind and body, forming the basis of French (or Cartesian) Rationalism. These French philosophers (La Mettrie, Descartes, Turgot, and de Condorcet) were secular humanists. Secular humanism is one lineage of technotopian futures. Scientific positivism is another.

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p. 105Origins of a humanistic transhumanism

In 1950, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881–1955) published the essay From the Pre-Human to the Ultra-Human: The Phases of a Living Planet, in which he speaks of ‘some sort of Trans-Human at the ultimate heart of things’. Teilhard de Chardin’s Ultra-Human and Trans-Human were evolutionary concepts linked with spiritual/human futures. These concepts inspired his friend Julian Huxley to write about transhumanism, which he did in 1957 as follows (Huxley’s italics):

The human species can, if it wishes, transcend itself—not just sporadically, an individual here in one way, an individual there in another way—but in its entirety, as humanity. We need a name for this new belief. Perhaps transhumanism will serve: man remaining man, but transcending himself, by realizing new possibilities of and for his human nature.

This quote of Julian Huxley, while frequently used to attribute to him the coining of the term transhumanism, has sparked some controversy. Some contemporary transhumanists have incorrectly cited the quote as being associated with a 1927 Huxley publication, others have ignored Huxley’s contribution to the discourse altogether. Peter Harrison and Joseph Wolniak claim in their History of Transhumanism (2015) that the term was actually coined in 1940 by a Canadian historian, W. D. Lighthall, who draws from Dante’s Divine Comedy and biblical references to make a case for the apostle ‘Paul’s Transhumanism’.

Regardless of who first coined the term, the high-tech transhumanism that developed in the late 20th century has taken off in another direction entirely. It bears little resemblance to Huxley’s transhumanism, which is deeply imbued with humanistic values. Nor does it relate to Lighthall’s transhumanism, which seems to be more closely linked with religious concepts such as p. 106the Christian glorification of the body. Putting these ideas aside I want to explore the contrast between Huxley’s human-centred transhumanism and contemporary, technotopian transhumanism.

Huxley, a biologist and humanitarian, was the first Director-General of UNESCO in 1946, and the first President of the British Humanist Association. Huxley’s transhumanism was more humanistic and spiritual than technological, inspired by Teilhard de Chardin’s spiritually evolved human. Notably, Huxley wrote the introduction to Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man (1959).

Cambridge historian Alison Bashford points to two ways in which Huxley’s transhumanism differed from contemporary transhumanism. First, Huxley was committed to the evolutionary imperative for all humans, not just particular individuals or populations, and secondly, his transhumanism was based on social not technological improvements through increased opportunities for all in education and health services. She notes: ‘His humanism and even his transhumanism once he started using that term, was always based on what he called evolutionary humanism.’ Huxley put forward notions of planetary evolution, along the lines of Teilhard de Chardin’s notion of the planetization of mankind. He also promoted the idea of conscious evolution, which originated with the German romantic philosopher Schelling, but did not become a popular idea until the late 20th century.

An interesting wild card possibility is that humanists will reclaim the concept of the transhuman to reflect its origins in the evolutionary humanism of Teilhard de Chardin and Huxley. Echoing Menno Boldt’s ‘transcendent humanity’, French social theorist and presidential adviser Jacques Attali attempts to reclaim transhumanism in such a way in his book A Brief History of the Future:

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Transhumans will be altruistic, a citizen of the planet, at once nomadic and sedentary, his neighbor’s equal in rights and obligations, hospitable and respectful of the world. Together, transhumans will give birth to planetary institutions and change the course of industrial enterprises.

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Evolving superhuman beings

The evolutionary ideas that were in discussion the century before Darwin were focused on consciousness and theories of human progress as a cultural, aesthetic, and spiritual ideal. These late 18th-century German philosophers foreshadowed the 20th-century human potential and positive psychology movements. To support their evolutionary ideals for society they created a universal education system, the aim of which was to develop the whole person (Bildung in German).

After Darwin, philosophers began to explore the impact of Darwinian evolution on human futures, in other ways than Spencer’s social Darwinism. Friedrich Nietzsche wrote about the Übermensch, in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883). His concept has been translated from the German with several meanings: ‘Overman, Overhuman, Above-Human, Superman, Super-human, Ultrahuman, Higher-Person, Higher-Being.’ His ideas about the higher person were informed by Darwin’s biological evolution and the idealist writings on evolution of consciousness. His Übermensch was also deeply connected to his ideas on freedom.

French philosopher Henri Bergson’s contribution to the superhuman discourse first appeared in Creative Evolution (1907). Although Bergson did not directly cite Nietzsche’s work, his work had its roots in Nietzsche’s Übermensch. Like Nietzsche, Bergson saw the superman arising out of the human being, in much the same way that humans have arisen from animals. Rudolf Steiner, in his own research on evolution of consciousness, discussed the p. 108superman theories of both Nietzsche and Bergson. Nietzsche’s notion of the superman was paraphrased by Steiner as ‘The animal bore man in itself; must not man bear within himself a higher being, the superman?’

In parallel with the efforts of Nietzsche and Bergson, Steiner articulated his own ideas on evolving human-centred futures, with concepts such as spirit self and spirit man (between 1904 and 1925). During the same period, Aurobindo Ghose, an Indian political activist, was writing in India about the Overman as a type of consciously evolving future human being. Sri Aurobindo’s integral evolutionary work drew from both the ancient Hindu texts and German idealist philosophy. Both Steiner and Aurobindo founded education systems after the Bildung style of holistic human development.

Analogous with the two streams of transhumanism—the techno- and the spiritual-humanistic—Teilhard de Chardin wrote about a spiritual forerunner, and humanistic counterpoint, to the technological concept of the singularity. Teilhard de Chardin’s Omega Point reflects a belief that the universe is evolving toward a higher level of material complexity and spiritual consciousness. The Omega Point–Singularity tension is a touchstone for further research into human futures.

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Reinventing human-centred time

The 2,500-year-old concept of linear time has itself undergone evolutionary change since Ancient Greece. What began as the more formal measurement of already recognized cosmological and natural cycles became gradually stripped of its natural and cosmological dimension. After the Industrial Revolution linear time further contracted into factory time. As time became entrapped in the industrial machine, humans came under the spell of mechanical notions of time.

p. 109However, this predictable, mechanical, conception of time began to unravel with the elaboration of Einstein’s theory of special relativity and the discovery of quantum mechanics in the early 1900s. Time was no longer an object, upon which the movement or change of things can be measured in discrete, identical fragments. The new scientific discoveries had huge philosophical implications, gradually displacing fixed concepts of linear time with radically new concepts.

German phenomenologist Edmund Husserl developed the idea of ‘subjective time’—the time of the soul—in contrast to external or objective time. Following Husserl’s phenomenological explorations of time, Martin Heidegger spoke of the notion of ‘existential time’. British philosopher Whitehead applied his process view of thinking to time and Bergson described the paradoxical notion of time as durée (the conscious flow of life). Bergson’s views of time as having a radical multiplicity sit well with the notion of multiple futures. Husserl, with his concept of subjective time, was the first to take into account the personal, or psychological, aspect of time. Even within futures studies this psychological aspect is under-developed and needs to be further researched. Like quantum mechanics and chaos theory, these new concepts will take time to trickle into mainstream thinking.

Other societal developments have contributed to our changing sense of time throughout the last century. Accelerating technology has extended the old divisions of seconds, minutes, and hours into nanoseconds at one extreme and radioactive half-life at the other. Industrial era time is dominated by politics and economics and these metaphors dominate everyday conversations, with such phrases as ‘time is money’, or ‘buying time’. The speed addiction of the present age can be seen in fast food outlets, instant communications, and the culture of over-consumption. The speeding up of time means that the future now rushes towards us in a hurry!

p. 110Yet life today is not simple and one-dimensional. In contrast to the accelerating anxiety and time panic of the 21st century, counter-trends are emerging, such as the slow movement and the retro travel movement. The old concept of cyclical time is being reclaimed from both non-Western and feminist perspectives. These emerging issues suggest a gradual move to re-examine our relationship with time and rediscover time’s multifaceted relationship with nature and cosmos that has been hidden in plain sight while time was tied to the industrial era worldview.

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Conscious human-centred futures

From a human-centred perspective on consciously evolving human futures there have been several important 20th-century developments. Increasingly in the last fifty years, evolutionary change can be found in most of the major academic disciplines. I have coined the term ‘megatrends of the mind’ for these developments. They are indications of the evolution of consciousness, which Ervin László claims ‘has become a pre-condition of our collective survival’.

An environmental scan of the major fields of knowledge shows new ways of thinking have emerged within science, philosophy, psychology, and education. In science we can observe the early 20th-century scientific turn from classical physics to quantum physics, followed by the shift from the closed system of classical physics to the open systems of postclassical biology, chaos, and complexity sciences. A similar transition can be found in Western philosophical thought from modernism to postmodernism and poststructuralism. The singular notion of philosophy, implying British analytic philosophy, has expanded into a philosophical pluralism that acknowledges comparative, process, and integral philosophies. Over the last fifty years psychology has extended beyond the clinical, empiricist, and behaviourist models to new approaches that include humanistic, transpersonal, p. 111developmental, and postformal psychology theories. Evolutionary waves of change can even be observed in the stalwart discipline of education. The factory model of formal schooling designed for the 19th century is being challenged by innovative, postformal pedagogies better suited to the 21st century.

The movement to counterbalance the excesses of fragmentation associated with disciplinary specialization is well established via inter-, multi-, and transdisciplinary approaches. It is part of more integrated futures of knowledge creation.

Three major bodies of research offer counterpoints to the techno-transhumanist claim that superhuman powers can only be reached through technological, biological, or genetic enhancement. They show that humans may have far greater capacities across several domains than we realize. In brief these themes are the future of the body, cultural futures, and futures of thinking.

Contemporary research points to the superhuman potential already available within us. Michael Murphy’s book The Future of the Body documents ‘superhuman powers’ unrelated to technological or biological enhancement. For forty years Murphy, founder of Esalen Institute, has been researching what he calls a Natural History of Supernormal Attributes. He has developed an archive of 10,000 studies of individual humans, throughout history, who have demonstrated supernormal experiences. Expanding considerably on Bostrom’s three categories of ‘healthspan … cognition … emotion’, Murphy’s classification includes twelve groups of attributes:

Perceptual abilities, kinesthetic awareness and self-regulation, communication abilities, vitality, movement abilities, abilities to alter the environment, capacities for pain and pleasure, cognition, volition, sense of self, love, and bodily structures and processes.

p. 112In almost 800 pages Murphy documents the supernormal capacities of humans as diverse as Catholic mystics, Sufi ecstatics, Hindi-Buddhist siddhis, martial arts practitioners, and elite athletes. Murphy concludes that these extreme examples are the ‘developing limbs and organs of our evolving human nature’. We also know from the examples of savants, extreme sport and adventure, and narratives of mystics and saints from a variety of religions, that we humans are always extending ourselves.

Is it possible that the obsession with techno-enhancement is preventing us from consciously evolving our inherent super-human potential? It is certainly the case that many young people are showing signs of addiction to their mobile phones and computers. Evidence of this includes the appearance of digital detox clinics and the emerging issue of Internet addiction disorder.

Regarding cultural evolution, throughout the 20th century, numerous scholars and writers have put forward ideas about human futures drawing on the German idealists, Teilhard de Chardin, Gebser, and others. Contemporaries include Ervin László, who links evolution of consciousness with global planetary shifts; Duane Elgin, who writes about the evolution and futures of society; Richard Tarnas, whose book The Passions of the Western Mind traces socio-cultural developments over the last 2,000 years, pointing to emergent changes; and Habermas, whose book Communication and the Evolution of Society suggests a similar developmental pattern. In the late 1990s Duane Elgin and Coleen LeDrew undertook a forty-three-nation World Values Survey, including Scandinavia, Switzerland, Britain, Canada, and the United States. They concluded, ‘a new global culture and consciousness have taken root and are beginning to grow in the world’. They called it the postmodern shift and described it as having two qualities. The first was the ecological perspective which they saw as a ‘spacious perspective, [through which] the p. 113Earth (and even the cosmos) are seen as interconnected, living systems’. The second was a self-reflexive ability to step back from the rush of life. These qualities may be behind the slow-time, retro travel, and other emerging movements, and lead us directly into postformal reasoning.

Adult developmental psychology research builds on positive psychology, and the human potential movement beginning with Abraham Maslow’s book Further Reaches of Human Nature (1971). In combination with transpersonal psychology the research is rich with extended views of human futures in cognitive, emotional, and spiritual domains. For four decades adult developmental psychology researchers such as Michael Commons, Jan Sinnott, and Lawrence Kohlberg have been researching the systematic, pluralistic, complex, and integrated thinking of mature adults. They call this mature thought ‘postformal reasoning’ and their research provides valuable insights into higher modes of reasoning that are central to the discourse on futures of thinking. Some of the features that these psychologists identify include complex paradoxical thinking, creativity and imagination, relativism and pluralism, self-reflection and ability to dialogue, and intuition. Wilber’s integral psychology research is integrated with his cultural history research to build a significantly enhanced image of the potential for consciously evolving human futures. I have applied these findings to education in Postformal Education: A Philosophy for Complex Futures.

Given the breadth and subtlety of postformal reasoning that is available for us to develop, how likely is it that machines could ever acquire such higher functioning human features as these? The technotopians discussing artificial superhuman intelligence carefully avoid the consciousness question. Bostrom explains that all the machine intelligence systems currently in use operate in a very narrow range of human cognitive capacity (weak AI). Even at its most ambitious, it is limited to trying to replicate ‘abstract p. 114reasoning and general problem-solving skills’ (strong AI). ASI proponents seem unaware of the research on evolution of consciousness, metaphysics of mind, or philosophies and psychologies of consciousness showing that human intelligence is continually evolving.

Even if techno-developers succeed in replicating general intelligence, at best it would function as Jean Piaget’s formal operations albeit with greater processing speed. We now know from the adult developmental psychologists that mature, high-functioning adults are capable of complex, postformal reasoning. It is questionable whether anyone working with AI is aware of the limits of formal reasoning let alone that there are higher stages of postformal reasoning. And what do they know of Howard Gardner’s theories of multiple (human) intelligences? There is no evidence in the literature on AI that the theories about higher-level reasoning are being addressed.

These developments in thinking and systems of knowledge represent a major shift from the industrial worldview associated with positivism, modernism, and Piaget’s formal reasoning, to the post-industrial worldviews of post-positivism, postmodernism, and postformal reasoning. If we look towards the longer-term futures of thinking we can expect to see more of the features of postformal reasoning appearing. Although this evolutionary aspect is rarely explicitly included in the futures literature, futures scholars and researchers are not immune to these influences. The mind-set shift is slowly trickling into the futures discourse. Hideg points to a new evolutionary paradigm of futures studies emerging at the end of the 20th century.

When all of this research is taken together it indicates that we humans are already becoming capable of far greater powers of mind, emotion, body, and spirit than previously imagined. If we seriously want to develop superhuman intelligence and powers in the 21st century and beyond we have two options. We can p. 115continue to invest heavily in our technotopian dreams of creating machines that can operate better than humans. Or we can invest more of our consciousness and resources on educating and consciously evolving human futures with all the wisdom that would entail.

The human futures terrain is vast and complex, and this chapter should be read as the beginning of a conversation that has barely begun.