Why I no longer identify as transhumanist

Someone asked me how come I used to have a strong identity as a singularitarian / transhumanist but don’t have it anymore. Here’s what I answered them:


So I think the short version is something like: transhumanism/singularitarianism used to give me hope about things I felt strongly about. Molecular nanotechnology would bring material abundance, radical life extension would cure aging, AI would solve the rest of our problems. Over time, it started feeling like 1) not much was actually happening with regard to those things, and 2) to the extent that it was, I couldn’t contribute much to them and 3) trying to work on those directly was bad for me, and also 4) I ended up caring less about some of those issues for other reasons and 5) I had other big problems in my life.

So an identity as a transhumanist/singularitarian stopped being a useful emotional strategy for me and then I lost interest in it.

With regard to 4), a big motivator for me used to be some kind of fear of death. But then I thought about philosophy of personal identity until I shifted to the view that there’s probably no persisting identity over time anyway and in some sense I probably die and get reborn all the time in any case.

Here’s something that I wrote back in 2009 that was talking about 1):

The [first phase of the Excitement-Disillusionment-Reorientation cycle of online transhumanism] is when you first stumble across concepts such as transhumanism, radical life extension, and superintelligent AI. This is when you subscribe to transhumanist mailing lists, join your local WTA/H+ chapter, and start trying to spread the word to everybody you know. You’ll probably spend hundreds of hours reading different kinds of transhumanist materials. This phase typically lasts for several years.

In the disillusionment phase, you start to realize that while you still agree with the fundamental transhumanist philosophy, most of what you are doing is rather pointless. You can have all the discussions you want, but by themselves, those discussions aren’t going to bring all those amazing technologies here. You learn to ignore the “but an upload of you is just a copy” debate when it shows up the twentieth time, with the same names rehearsing the same arguments and thought experiments for the fifteenth time. Having gotten over your initial future shock, you may start to wonder why having a specific name like transhumanism is necessary in the first place – people have been taking advantage of new technologies for several thousands of years. After all, you don’t have a specific “cellphonist” label for people using cell phones, either. You’ll slowly start losing interest in activities that are specifically termed as transhumanist.

In the reorientation cycle you have two alternatives. Some people renounce transhumanism entirely, finding the label pointless and mostly a magnet for people with a tendency towards future hype and techno-optimism. Others (like me) simply realize that bringing forth the movement’s goals requires a very different kind of effort than debating other transhumanists on closed mailing lists. An effort like engaging with the large audience in a more effective manner, or getting an education in a technology-related field and becoming involved in the actual research yourself. In either case, you’re likely to unsubscribe the mailing lists or at least start paying them much less attention than before. If you still identify as a transhumanist, your interest in the online communities wanes because you’re too busy actually working for the cause. (Alternatively, you’ve realized how much work this would be and have stopped even trying.)

This shouldn’t be taken to mean that I’m saying the online h+ community is unnecessary, and that people ought to just skip to the last phase. The first step of the cycle is a very useful ingredient for giving one a strong motivation to keep working for the cause in one’s later life, even when they’re no longer following the lists.

So that’s describing a shift from “I’m a transhumanist” to “just saying I’m a transhumanist is pointless, I need to actually contribute to the development of these technologies”. So then I tried to do that and eventually spent several years trying to do AI strategy research, but that had the problem that I didn’t enjoy it much and didn’t feel very good at it. It was generally a poor fit for me due to a combination of various factors, some including “thinking all day about how AI might very well destroy everything that I value and care about is depressing”. So then I made the explicit decision to stop working on this stuff until I’d feel better, and that by itself made me feel better.

There were also various things in my personal psychology and history that were making me feel anxious and depressed, that actually had nothing to do with transhumanism and singularitarianism. I think that I had earlier been able to stave off some of that anxiety and depression by focusing on the thought of how AI is going to solve all our problems, including my personal ones. But then it turned out that focusing on therapy-type things as well as focusing on my concrete current circumstances were more effective for changing my anxiety than depression than pinning my hopes on AI. And pinning my hopes on AI wouldn’t work very well anymore anyway, since AI now seems more likely to me to lead to dystopian outcomes than utopian ones.

One comment

  1. BeForeverYoung

    I’m trying to attract supporters of radical life extension to raise funds for projects dedicated to this problem. It’s quite difficult. Try to do this, perhaps here you will feel your contribution to the ideas of the approaching era of immortality, and get a feeling of satisfaction. With this money we will understand what rejuvenation tools are already available. Maybe everything we need is open. Let’s understand what is missing and what specific steps need to be taken to discover the missing technologies. (from russione? [email protected])


  1. On the fear of death – Writing Pointlessly - […] Sotala recently wrote about how he shifted his views on his fear of […]

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.