Study: ‘Surplus Improvement’: A Qualitative Exploration of Student Attitudes Toward Transhumanism, Transhuman Technologies and Related Issues

By on June 12, 2015

Hey guys, so this week I’m trying something different (other than the double-colon title…). Below is the study I produced on the perceived ethics of transhuman technologies. This is a qualitative study that used focus groups to try and ascertain what the reaction of the general population would be to transhumanism. I then used qualitative analysis in order to identify recurring themes and concerns during the discussion. This was my dissertation for the psychology degree I completed around 6 years ago.

I love that I got to write ‘metaevolution’ in my dissertation…!

Of course it’s also pretty looong at 9,231 words! So if you would rather read it in a more palatable PDF format, you can do so here. This version also contains some extras – such as a transcript from one of the focus groups, the materials I handed out and more. Either way, I highly recommend skimming!

In a subsequent post, I’ll be discussing my own personal views on Transhumanism and technology in general. In this particular piece, my objective was of course to remain as objective as possible…

Note: In the dissertation I talk a fair amount about how participants used pop-culture references to make sense of the technologies and to predict their potential impact. I wonder how the more recent influx of superhero films and games like Deus Ex might have affected some of these opinions?

Fun fact: I once tried to charge for this study!

Anyway, without further ado… enjoy!

ABSTRACT

Transhumanism is a school of thought that promotes the use of new technologies to enhance the human condition mentally and physically. While many papers have been written outlining precisely the arguments for and against transhuman ideals, nothing has been done to establish what the layman’s perception of them might be. This study then used focus group interviews of students to explore their views on such a potentially life-altering concept. Students were chosen as the sample due to their eligibility for transhuman procedures and for practical reasons. The focus groups were transcribed and analysed using thematic analysis revealing five major themes relating to prior knowledge, emotional reactions, individual concerns, socioeconomic concerns and moral concerns. Generally participants were found to be against the movement, though some saw it as permissible to certain degrees and under certain circumstances. It is suggested that further work needs to be done to raise awareness of the issue, discover exactly under what circumstances it would be considered permissible and to clarify some of the more cloudy definitions within the subject.

 

INTRODUCTION

 

‘Transhumanism’ is characterised as a movement that promotes the use of technological means to improve the human condition – extending life spans, or increasing strength, speed and IQ among other modifications (Naam, 2005). It is a school of thought that has grown out of humanism and the enlightenment which states that humanity can and should begin to redesign itself; that a state of ‘posthumanism’ (where we can be considered to be superior to the ‘natural human’ in at least one capacity (Böstrom, 2006)), is both possible and desirable. At the same time they place great emphasis on examining the major challenges and dangers of such metaevolution.

 

Public perception of transhuman technologies seems to be limited and few are aware that many of the technologies necessary for such enhancements are already close to realisation. It is speculated that gene doping techniques, a procedure that can permanently alter an individual’s DNA, could be used to enhance performance as early as the 2012 Olympics (Andersen et al, 2000). Indeed genetic modifications have already been successful in studies using mice and other animals that have led to greatly and permanently increased musculature, tolerance to diseases, longer lifespans and even transparent skin (Naam, 2005). If such modifications are proven viable for humans and it seems likely that this will be the case, then they will have massive implications for athletes, bodybuilders, the military and the general public. Other technologies in development involve the use of implants, human-computer interfaces, drugs, nanotechnology and bionic attachments for similar ends. On an individual level it is hard to deny the appeal of running faster, living for longer, or thinking things through to a higher level and proponents hope that it could also bring about positive changes for society as a whole.

 

At the same time however there are many moral and psychological issues surrounding the topic. There are many schools of thought that directly oppose transhumanists, a stance often labelled ‘bioconservativism’, which campaigns for a ban on such technologies to prevent an ‘inhuman’ or ‘godless’ future society. Fukuyama (2002, 2004) is one such vocal bioconservative who argues against transhumanism on the grounds that it threatens the basis for moral equality among humans and that our complex nature makes ‘improvement’ in one area impossible without causing harm to another. Such is Fukuyama’s opposition to transhumanism that he once described it as ‘the world’s most dangerous idea’ (2004). Similarly McKibben (2003) argues that transhuman technologies would be disproportionately available thereby creating a ‘genetic divide’ and Buchanan (2000) argues the possibility of a widened class divide. Other authors criticise specific technologies or aims as opposed to the movement as a whole; for example, in one paper Bergsma (2000) argues that a neurotechnological procedure to enhance ‘happiness’ would devaluate the emotion and sever an important tie between an individual’s internal and external worlds leading to a sense of detachment and indifference. This recalls a paper by Van Deurzen (2009) that describes quest for ‘happiness’ as misplaced, as it is founded in our challenges and difficulties.

 

Many of these positions have been addressed in subsequent papers by transhumanists who continue to debate in favour of the technologies. Wilson (2007) for example, answers Fukuyama’s concern about moral equality by attempting to outline exactly the criteria for ‘equality’ and demonstrate that transhumanism does not negate its core values. He does however acknowledge that facilitating justice and perceived equality between human and transhuman could present ‘non-trivial’ difficulties. Meanwhile, Boström (2004) argues against the use of ‘speculative’ criticisms in which opponents of transhumanism selectively illustrate negative outcomes where other positive ones are equally as likely. He claims that the potential benefits outweigh the potential costs, but that the latter receive more attention.

 

While the debate rages on between these two camps however, it seems that awareness of the topic is limited among the general public who perhaps will be most affected by these developments and no previous research has been done to establish what members of the public might make of this debate if it was introduced to them. Despite this lack of literature on public perceptions of transhuman technologies however, there have been several studies investigating public perceptions regarding similar (and thus comparable) technologies such as cloning, IVF and ‘saviour siblings’. While the application here is different, in many cases the actual technology and some of the moral issues surrounding it are analogous. For this reason we may be able to estimate reactions to transhumanism by reviewing this literature.

 

In one paper dealing with public opinions regarding human cloning (Shepherd et al., 2007), opinions were measured using a series of qualitative and quantative methods. One objection was that human cloning involved ‘interfering with nature’; its acceptability was also sometimes related to participants’ views about the ‘status of the embryo’, although there was a lower-than-anticipated appeal to religion. It was also found that there was a correspondence between media coverage of the topic and the opinions expressed by participants, demonstrating the important role the media may have in shaping public opinions (or perhaps vice versa). One telephone poll conducted by Bates et al (2005), found that genetic research was considered permissible under certain circumstances, but that relevant key concerns were that it was interfering with nature/playing God and that the associated costs could cause divisions.

 

Another study (Burton et al, 2006) found that participants did not generally object to genetic screening for deafness and that any reluctance was based on a concern for the technique’s effectiveness. Celnan et al (2005) similarly gathered data on public reactions to new health-care technologies using a survey and it was again found that there was not an opposition to such technologies in general. However, this perceived permissibility was strongly linked to the capacity of the technologies to control serious disease, which may be a key difference when assessing transhuman technologies (which deal with perfectly healthy candidates). Here a study by Kalfoglou et al (2008) is relevant as it looks at public attitudes towards ‘preconception sex selection’. In this instance participants were found to support the technology where it is used to avoid x-related genetic disorders, but felt that non-medical use was ‘selfish and inconsistent with parental love’. However they did not consider it dangerous enough to warrant governmental intrusion were the procedure to become widely marketed in the US.

 

How relevant these findings are to transhuman technologies remains to be seen and it is surprising that similar studies have not already been conducted on the subject. With transhuman technologies potentially close to realisation, these issues are likely to become relevant to the general public and it is therefore a cause for concern that no research has been done to establish what the public’s reaction might be. It is important that public views on the topic are fully understood in advance of these technologies’ dissemination. This study hopes to give a voice to members of a particular segment of the general public, that is, students. The reasoning behind using students for such a study was that their generation would be the most likely to be forced to make choices regarding transhuman technologies. Practical limitations meant that a larger and more diverse sample could not be obtained (by selecting the qualitative method of focus groups the target is quality and depth of data rather than quantity and breadth). However, it is probable that members of this group will grow into the general public that will be dealing with the issues surrounding transhumanism.

 

In light of the above, this study aims to establish how (groups of) students respond to transhumanism and transhuman technologies in cognitive, emotional and intended behavioural terms; how they negotiate the (non) permissibility of these technologies; and how they make sense of the psychosocial and ethical issues associated with them. The study will be informed (but not driven) by theories of attitudes and social representations, where relevant.

 

METHOD

 

Design:

This study involved the qualitative analysis of interview data on transhumanism and relevant technologies generated by four focus groups (Millward, 2006) which aimed to get an idea for any prior awareness and to provoke an initial reaction to transhuman ideas and technologies. A qualitative approach was selected to give depth and insight to the data, so that as well as a binary ‘yes/no’ response the data could reveal the reasoning behind the acceptance or rejection, whether it applied to transhumanism as a whole or just elements and whether this response might change under various condition. Focus group discussions were chosen as the method of data generation in order to discern how students might respond to and interpersonally negotiate the acceptability of transhumanism and relevant technologies: individual interviews would not have permitted the researchers so readily to see how ideas were challenged and developed on an interpersonal basis. Additionally, if transhuman issues become relevant it is likely that decisions regarding them will be made interpersonally. Focus groups also enabled more participants to be interviewed in a shorter space of time.

 

Participants:

In total there were 19 participants (8 female, 11 male) spread across three groups of five and one group of four. The mean age was 21.5 with a range of 9 and a standard deviation of 1.9.

Participants were selected on the grounds that they were students currently in full time education. Lengths were taken to try and achieve as varied a sample as possible. This meant that the study invited students at any stage of their studies (first years to PHD students) and from a range of ethnic backgrounds (including British, Chinese, European, Kiwi and Sri Lankan). Social networks and clubs were used in obtaining the sample and chocolate was provided as extra incentive as was cash when necessary. Effort was made to ensure each group was varied and that no group consisted entirely of participants familiar with each other.

The participants had no particular investment or interest in the topic of transhumanism. Students were chosen in part for their age which makes them likely candidates for transhuman technologies in the future. As discussed earlier, a truly representative sample would have been hard to obtain for practical reasons. However, it is probable that members of this group will graduate to become members of the general public who will likely be forced to deal with the issues surrounding transhumanism. Students are also accustomed to critically evaluating a topic which may add more insight to the data. Ultimately however these results will only truly be applicable to (British) students and so further research will be required. Participants’ names have been changed for anonymity.

 

Procedure:

Upon agreeing to participate in the study each participant was sent an information sheet via e-mail detailing what the study would entail (see appendix 1) and were also presented with another once they had arrived for the focus group (see appendix 2). This was necessary both for ethical reasons and to prepare them for the study. Participants were then asked to read and sign a consent form (appendix 3) and to fill out a demographics questionnaire (appendix 4) in order to provide a detailed picture of the sample.

Once this was complete the technician would begin recording and the discussion would commence, with additional reading materials used to facilitate participants’ understandings at various points throughout. Typically the groups lasted around 40 minutes, after which time participants were debriefed, thanked and given the opportunity to ask questions before leaving.

 

Development of the Interview Schedule:

The lack of prior awareness for the topic meant that it was necessary to present participants with a ‘Transhumanism Information Sheet’ (see appendix 5) during the course of the interviews. Additionally, as the idea was anticipated to be so alien for participants it was decided that the study would utilise vignettes (see appendix 6) to further facilitate this understanding and force the group to imagine real-life scenarios in which transhuman technologies might be used. These interventions created a time element within the transcripts where understanding was facilitated at certain points throughout the discussion. Questions throughout remained flexible and varied from group to group to allow the interviewer(s) to respond to participants’ comments and to create the feeling of an informal ‘relaxed conversation’.

 

Analytic Process and Strategy:

The focus groups were then transcribed (see appendix 7 for an example), content coded

and subjected to thematic analysis (Taylor & Bogdan, 1984), a method used to identify themes and sub themes existing in a data set which aim to organise and describe the points raised in the discussions. The process involved first familiarisation with the data, then note-taking which would begin to facilitate the emergence of recurring themes within the material, with these ‘themes’ constituting broad areas of discussion that hopefully capture some of the scope and detail of the data in a more succinct form. Smaller themes were narrowed down and grouped together under broader headings constituting the ‘main themes’ containing the more specific ‘sub themes’. Thematic analysis has rarely been clearly defined or standardised however, possibly due to its highly flexible nature.

Thematic analysis was chosen for this aforementioned flexibility, as it is not bound by specific theories or epistemologies unlike other methods of qualitative analysis such as IPA or grounded theory (Braun & Clarke, 2006) and for its relative accessibility and simplicity. As thematic analysis is neither explicitly essentialist nor constructionist, this meant the data could be interpreted without being driven by theory although it should be noted that this study was partially informed by theories of by theories of attitudes and social representations to allow slightly more scope for interpretation within the analysis. In this sense it can be considered a contextualist analysis; acknowledging the possible origins behind the data while remaining focussed on the material, which hopefully results in a reflection of the data with interpretive elements. Analysis was also inductive as far as possible, that is selecting themes using a ‘bottom up’ approach (Patton, 1990).  At the same time however it was intended that analysis examine themes existing at a latent level, to provide insight into the underlying concepts beneath the surface of the transcripts.

However, as the researcher should theoretically have a good understanding of the research questions and the issues surrounding the topic of discussion (transhumanism), this need not necessarily be viewed as an entirely negative scenario. Indeed there are benefits to be had from the researcher bringing their own experiences of a topic to the table (Coyle, 1996). What we should be left with is a dynamic interaction between the data reflecting participants’ meaning-making and the researcher’s interpretive framework.

 

ANALYSIS

Table 1: Themes and subthemes generated through data analysis

 

Themes Constituent Subthemes
Uncertainty about what constitutes ‘transhumanism’ and related issues:working towards definitions •       Initial lack of awareness of’transhumanism’•       Representations of transhumantechnologies: ‘science fiction’, ‘farfetched’ and analogous current technologies (including laws/public

attitudes relating to these)

•       Querying borders and definitions within and surrounding transhumanism

Consideration of potential individual implications of transhumanism at an individual level: weighing potential risks and benefits •       Initial emotional responses from the ‘coolness’ factor to reservation and fear•       Interest or lack of interest based on subjective perceived usefulness/practicality of suggestedenhancements•       Consideration of psychological implications: identity, dependency and motivation
Concern for (more) global potential socioeconomic impact of transhumanism •       Issues surrounding cost/allocation and the threat of greater social divisions•       Anticipated problems in supporting a larger population both in terms of resources and physical space•       The implications of understanding transhumanism in relation to’nature’ and ‘balance’

•       Representation of progress and change as positive and/or inevitable

Mistrust concerning regulation and distribution by governing bodies as well as society, technology and humanity in general  •       Potential for transhumanism to be used by government, military and others as a weapon or as a method of control•       Wariness and mistrust of/dislike for technology: a desire to return to’simpler’ times
Moral concerns about transhumanism:
  •  Representation of performance enhancing technologies as cheating. ‘Fairness and equality’.
  • Potential perceived implications of transhuman technologies for social equality: a ‘level playing field’?
  • Transhumanism as an inappropriate priority in a world where there are more ‘pressing’ concerns

 

Over the subsequent pages, these themes have been analysed and described in detail. Due to restrictions in space however two themes have been explained in less detail. Reasons have been given for the reasoning behind selecting certain themes over others under the respective headings.

 

Uncertainty about what constitutes ‘transhumanism’ and related issues: working towards definitions

Before participants could engage in an informed discussion regarding the feasibility and acceptability of transhuman technologies, they first had to understand the term and conceptualise what precisely constituted ‘transhumanism’.

 

Initial lack of awareness of ‘transhumanism’

Initially participants demonstrated a general lack of awareness of the nature and potential content of the category of ‘transhumanism’. Only one participant reported any prior experience of the word and its meaning, with this being derived from science fiction, although some others had heard of the idea under different names. Most however were unaware that these technologies were being developed and/or had not considered what their repercussions may be. All subsequent opinions then were based on the information sheets and the discussions themselves.  

 

Representations of transhuman technologies: ‘science fiction’, ‘far-fetched’ and analogous current technologies (including laws/public attitudes relating to these)

Some participants, even when given detailed information on recent breakthroughs, still rejected the concept of transhumanism on the grounds that it seemed too ‘far-fetched’. This was often also the case with individual technologies, particularly the idea of an integrated ‘brain chip’. For example:

 

I think it’s so far-fetched I can’t imagine it ever happening.’ (Bethan, Group 1)

 

In order to conceptualise transhumanism and envision the potential implications of the technology, participants often seemed to draw on relatable ideas and themes. In particular their sources for comparison were analogous current technologies such as In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF) or cosmetic surgery and science fiction films, books and series. For example:

 

[When asked if they agreed with the concept of enhancing humans] ‘No. Because I watch Heroes [a television series about super heroes, with the latest series dealing with the ability to ‘give’ powers to people] and it’s not good.’ (Geoff, Group 3)

 

‘But, I’m not sure (.) I think I probably would have said a similar thing about IVF: these kids come out and they could be (.) err it might not have worked one hundred percent but they might have this benefit but they might have this drawback as well.’ (Heather, Group 1)

 

This helped them to imagine the technologies and to consider their implications. The processes that may be operating here could be those identified by social representations theory. Moscovici (1963) described people as using two main methods for rendering the unfamiliar more unfamiliar: anchoring and objectification. ‘Anchoring’ involves the process of integrating the new object or concept into existing frameworks – in this case science fiction or analogous current technologies – in order to take away the fear of the unknown and to provide real examples and comparisons to draw upon when evaluating the new concept. This meant that participants would often discuss the pros and cons of current procedures such as IVF in order to consider whether techniques such as gene doping would have similar consequences. This resulted in mixed opinions and debate regarding the technologies. Often, however, even these views of current technology were themselves heavily influenced by the media and perceived popular opinion. For example:

 

‘In America poor people will live less time because they don’t have access to hospitals (.)

but there’s not massive uproar about it.’ (Michael, Group 3)

 

‘But is this [gene doping to improve musculature] a bit like kind of (.) the guy’s version of breast implants because basically it kind of seems to be similar to that and that is kind of allowed. As in it’s legal to have it I’m not sure if it’s right or not, um…’ (Heather, Group 1)

 

Here it seems that social influence is playing a part in participants’ decision making, i.e. if they cannot decide if something is acceptable, they will look to the law or what they perceive to be considered ‘acceptable’ (possibly as understood from the media). This social influence is demonstrated in the above quotations where a lack of ‘uproar’ about inequalities in health care makes it seem more acceptable, as does the legality of cosmetic surgery – that others have decided to accept these ideas may be reason enough to do the same. How that social influence affects their opinions is likely to have a knock-on effect on their perception of the related future transhuman technologies, as is suggested by the following quotation:

 

‘It would definitely be majority influence I think. Um (.) if everyone else in the world is doing it it would then be acceptable because everyone else is and I wouldn’t see anything wrong with it.’ (Bethan, Group 1)

 

Where science fiction was used as an anchor however, its speculative nature meant that participants seemingly chose an unknown quantity to understand an unknown quantity. Such anchoring therefore fails to eliminate the ‘fear of the unknown’ and may have been partly responsible for some of the fear that was exhibited throughout the focus groups. For example:

 

‘I remember seeing a TV show about this brain chip thing where they all had chips on their heads and it was all controlled by a massive computer, sort of keeping everyone alive.’ (Daniel, Group 2)

 

This general sense of ‘foreboding’ is discussed more fully under the fourth major theme.

 

Querying borders and definitions within and surrounding transhumanism

Even when participants had grasped the concept of transhumanism and begun a discussion on its implications, they had difficulties in defining the issue. They found there was a ‘fuzzy line’ between transhumanism and other ideas such as training or using technology to help recovery from adverse health conditions/situations. For example:

 

‘I think that’s a bit different though because that depends on how much work you put into it. This transhumanism [gene doping] is just an injection then you get it. You don’t have to try but the Nintendo DS [a hand-held games console with a popular ‘brain training’ game], the brain training or whatever, it depends on how much you try; it’s like anything else it depends on how much you work.’ (Anthony, Group 1)

 

This is an issue that is found in some of the literature on transhumanism (Miah, 2003; McNamee & Edwards, 2005) and so it is not surprising that the participants would find this to be a problem. This uncertainty seems to stem from cloudy definitions that already exist in day-to-day lexicon; transhumanism is the act of enhancing a human but what defines ‘humanity’? What defines ‘enhancing’? For example:

 

‘[After reading the transhumanism information sheet] What do you mean by the ‘classical sense’ of a human being? […] But then what is ‘classically human’? I mean, what’s your definition?’ (Aaron, Group 2)

 

‘It’s like beauty is in the eye of the beholder (.) everyone has a different idea of what is attractive, what is perfect, I think someone’s idea of perfect could be completely different to mine.’ (Harriette, Group 3)

 

Throughout the course of the discussions, participants came to a rough understanding and vague agreement as to what constituted transhumanism. With this being such a broad topic however they tended to respond more to individual technologies as opposed to transhumanism itself, i.e. while many would be for or against certain procedures, these views were not usually generalised to transhumanism as an idea. For example:

 

‘I think an increase um in intelligence would be quite handy at times. I don’t know about being really muscley or super human but just thinking things through to a better level could be handy sometimes. It’s the only one [of the transhuman technologies discussed] I’d personally consider.’ (Helen, Group 4)

 

It seems then that transhumanism is perhaps easier to evaluate when divided into sub-categories based on both the physical procedures themselves and their effects for the individual in question:

 

‘Maybe if it for some reason that sort of thing was classified as transhumanism then maybe a line should be drawn to say in some cases it’s okay because you want to train for it and that would give you sort of the deciding factor of it and something you don’t train for that wouldn’t be acceptable (.) such as tea (.) or caffeine tablets (.) I don’t know as you say it’s very hard to draw the line.’ (Anthony, Group 1)

 

‘This one [a brain chip] seems different because it’s improving himself like his psychological capabilities, his physical capabilities but it’s not actually biologically changing him (.) it’s in a way more acceptable because he’s not got like a biological advancement in way (.) you know?’ (Bethan, Group 1)

 

It seems that by breaking down the umbrella term of transhumanism into smaller sub-categories it becomes more manageable. These hypothetical differentia or sub categories exist both within and across what is generally meant by the genus of transhumanism. Generally the sub categories that involve the smallest amount of change from the ‘norm’, the largest amount of work on the part of the person benefiting from the technology and the least invasive procedures were the ones that were considered more favourably. The bases for the acceptance or rejection of these are discussed in subsequent themes.

 

 

Consideration of potential individual implications of transhumanism at an individual level:

weighing potential risks and benefits

This theme will not be analysed in detail due to restrictions regarding space. This theme was selected to be shortened due to its being relatively simple to summarise compared so some of the others. Essentially, after participants had grasped the concept of transhumanism they would have an initial, seemingly emotional reaction as they imagined using them themselves. This ranged from a ‘coolness’ response (often with reference to superheroes), a feeling that it was wrong or unnatural. This then developed into a weighing up of the individual pros and cons, with some seeing it as useful and others seeing it as uninteresting. Further discussion lead to considerations for the psychological implications of the technologies, in particular it was felt transhumanism could threaten individuality and motivation. It was this line of thought that progressed into the next major theme, the consideration of the larger socio-economic implications. See appendix 8.

 

Concern for (more) global potential socio-economic impact of transhumanism

As participants covered the potential negative implications of transhumanism on an individual basis it then became apparent among the groups that this would also create broader socioeconomic issues if the technologies were made widely available. Once these issues were addressed they normally resulted in stronger opposition for transhumanism as a movement. For example:

 

[When asked if they should stop developing transhuman technologies] ‘I think if it’s available to everyone (.) then no (.) but this is going to be something that’s only available to really really rich people isn’t it? To being with? […] And then it’s going to create a massive great big divide between all the people who have money and can live longer and people who don’t have money. And then all the people who don’t have money they’re going to die out because they can’t live longer. […] It’ll be massive there’ll be riots there’ll be wars there’ll be all sorts of stuff going on. People nicking formulas (.) oh everything’s going on! […] Having said that (.) hadn’t even thought about that, literally just came into my head. No it shouldn’t be allowed.’ (Harriette, Group 3)

 

Issues surrounding cost/allocation and the threat of greater social divisions

One potential difficulty that was raised a lot was the distribution of these technologies. Participants realised that it would be impossible to provide the entire population with identical enhancements simultaneously and that they would probably be fairly expensive initially. As demonstrated in the quotation above, participants speculated that this could mean it eventually came down to who was wealthy enough to afford the procedures, potentially creating a larger class divide. For example:

 

‘I assume there’d be a cost associated with it so then you could get a wider class division, where you’d just have a super human race and poor people? Then you’d have unfair advantages beyond the scope of what another person who can’t afford that technology could ever achieve.’ (Leona, Group 4)

 

This was one of the major arguments against transhumanism and was raised in all four groups. One participant even described the potential for different ‘strands’ of the human race, concerns that seem to echo those of Fukuyama (2002). Some participants however argued that already these divisions exist and are generally accepted and others felt it could also be unfair to deny something to everyone on the basis that some would be unable to afford it, again drawing parallels to current technological divides. For example:

 

[When considering whether it would be fair for only the rich to have access to life extension for their children] ‘If you go larger than that all of us in this room have grown up in a position of privilege, when you compare it to the rest of the world. Should you then have your kids go and live in rural Africa? Simply because it’s fairer for the kids in rural Africa? Or should you have them continue to live here? No you continue to live here. So that’s just one step further.’ (Aaron, Group 2)

 

‘Only really really rich people can go to space. Does that make it unfair?’ (Michael, Group 3)

 

Anticipated problems in supporting a larger population both in terms of resources and physical space

Another key issue raised in opposition to transhumanism was the strain that life-extension technologies could put on resources, with physical space discussed as perhaps the most pressing concern. The economy poised another problem. Participants felt that these issues existed already as a result of better health care and again that somewhere a ‘line’ has to be drawn. For example:

 

‘So pretty much the world would be too small (.) there wouldn’t be enough space for everybody. […] You’ve got more people living and living longer and (.) draining everything. Which isn’t a nice way of putting it but you know (.) You know what I mean.’ (Craig, Group 2)

 

It was also considered how societal norms would be affected by having the older generations still around when in the past the youth would be coming in to take over. It was feared that this could lead to a lack of progress and stagnating ideas. For example:

 

‘Probably we’d also end up with very difficult social environments. Where currently we’ve got it where we’ve got the natural progression of the head of the family so to speak, head of the company moving on when they get too old (.) but if we did have an elongated life that wouldn’t come about we’d get it where people come up from below who were capable of doing it but haven’t been given the opportunity because their boss hasn’t left yet.’ (Anthony, Group 1)

 

‘It could sort of stand in the way of things because of the traditional view of the older generation being opposed to change. So if you’ve got some old guy and then you’ve got the younger people with some new revolutionary ideas then the older people would go ‘No we’ve always done it this way. We shouldn’t change it if it’s working.’ (Daniel, Group 2)

 

The implications of understanding transhumanism in relation to ‘nature’ and ‘balance’ It was also considered that such progress, especially that which extended life-spans, would be tampering with nature ’and ‘balance and would be ‘put right’. For example:

 

‘You’d probably end up with mass destruction because it’s got to reach a balance at some point. If history teaches us anything it’s that we’ve got to reach a balance between err (.) that everyone is able to survive at. So if you’ve got overpopulation you’ll end up either with some genetic or some disease coming through, that would wipe most of the population out, or you would end up with self destruction.’ (Aaron, Group 2)

 

Here there is a belief that ‘nature’ and ‘balance’ can rectify problems so that humans shouldn’t interfere. Interestingly, while some participants expressed an expectation for religion to present an issue for some, it was not actually used as a basis for objection by anyone within the focus groups themselves. Both these findings agree with the results by Shepherd et al (2007) when studying public attitudes towards human cloning, where participants appealed to ‘nature’ rather than religion. There were no objections to ‘playing God’ as opposed to the findings of Bates et al (2005) and others. For example:

 

‘Yeah I couldn’t see a problem with it personally. Because even though people say it’s against God well then wearing clothes is against God and having extra-marital sex is against God and everyone does that so I guess, I don’t know what do you think guys?’ (Harriette, Group 3)

 

Representation of progress and change as positive and/or inevitable

Not all socio-economic implications were considered to be negative however and in some cases participants seemed to view it as the ‘next step’. While this was not necessarily positive, it was certainly considered inevitable and it was presumed we would adapt in a way similar to that seen during the introduction of new technologies in the past. Here it was acknowledged that some of the concerns currently held might seem irrational once the technologies were in place. For example:

 

‘It seems almost inevitable really. Just natural progression really as technology becomes more advanced so I don’t see how you could stop it.’ (Leona, Group 4)

 

‘I think in 20 years we’ll all think brain chips are a great idea. We’ll have this conversation again but in 20 different countries.’ (Charles, Group 4)

 

This sense of inevitability came from a feeling that ‘progress’ cannot be halted, as well as an awareness that once the technology exists it will be fairly easy to develop even if not legally. For example:

 

‘To a certain extent all this discussion and our opinion is superfluous, because although the UK and the states may regulate it’s not going to stop countries like China and India where allot of the research takes place now. Errm. And anyone who wants it could probably go there and get it. If it’s undetectable…’ (Aaron, Group 2)

 

It was even argued that the potential for the technologies to be driven underground could be reason enough to legalise them, thus ensuring they are at least monitored and controlled.

 

 

Mistrust concerning regulation and distribution by governing bodies as well as society,technology and humanity in general

The concern for socio-economic implications seemed to expose a general pessimism or sense of mistrust for the government, technology and mankind. It was widely feared that transhumanism could be used as either a weapon or as a means of control and many dystopian futures were imagined that again bore resemblance to works of science fiction such as 1984, The Machine Stops and Brave New World. Again this seems to be a result of participants anchoring their understanding in science fiction, but also seems to stem from a general dissatisfaction with current systems and governments.

 

Potential for transhumanism to be used by government, military and others as a weapon or as a method of control

Many participants saw transhumanism as a weapon that would be used by the military and generally saw this as a negative outcome, predicting an arms race, bloodier wars and abuse of power on the part of the governments.

 

‘Yeah because if this technology is already in existence whether or not it become available for mainstream use it will be used secretly by military operations especially in more powerful countries I imagine. […] I think it’s equivalent to say like the cold war with the nuclear arms race I think you just get the most powerful nations whoever they are now or in the future to see who can get the most powerful army fast enough and um you just get that point where it’s total annihilation.’ (Leona, Group 4)

 

‘You’d end up with more violent wars. Just be more nasty basically because people would be beat up at…’ (Alan, Group 4)

 

It was seen as an even bigger problem where ‘undesirables’ might get hold of the technologies.

For example:

 

‘Then you’ve got idiots in charge of compa (.) err countries who have absolutely no connection with reality and err you expect it to work in their country? In Zimbabwe you’d end up with Mugabe having a 30% longer life you’d have the same issue going on for another 40 odd years (.) 20 odd years…’ (Aaron, Group 2)

 

‘Um (.) it’s like people that, it’s a bit of an exaggeration, but people like terrorists if they got suddenly got hold of this and then could run ridiculously fast ad then be able to get in places blow places up and I dunno (.) but yeah if it did get into the wrong hands it could like make an unstoppable people that you can’t fight against.’ (Norris, Group 1)

 

This above quotation demonstrates these feelings could be the result of current Western fears about terrorism etc. As well as imagining transhumanism as a weapon, participants also saw its potential as a tool for governments to control their own people. For example it was thought that a ‘brain chip’ for communication purposes could hypothetically be reverse engineered to be used for mind control or mind reading and so to control soldiers, prisoners or even civilians. Whether this might ever become feasible is unknown but it still presented a concern for the participants who felt this was a real threat. This seems to demonstrate a general mistrust in government and perhaps figures of authority in general. A general sense of conspiracy was unearthed. For example:

 

[Referring to possibility of the above mentioned ‘mind control’] ‘It is, I mean imagine how easy would would be to have a err (.) a nationalistic government in power who controls your every move (.) it would be ultimate for them.’ (Aaron, Group 2)

 

This general mistrust of government is also partly the reason for the concerns regarding distribution of these technologies, with participants feeling that the government would be unable to regulate its use properly within or between countries.

 

‘Well if it wasn’t controlled by money it would then become like part of the postcode lottery probably’ (Heather, Group 1)

 

‘Yeah that’s the thing isn’t it and it could be gradual couldn’t it? People keep pushing the boundaries further and further. Oh ok, we’ll just let all babies be a little bit more muscular yeah and then all babies can run faster this year and and now it’s acceptable to let them yeah swim fast as well.’ (Anthony, Group 1)

 

This second quotation is an example of the ‘slippery slope’ argument (Schauer, 1985), that even if the technologies are introduced in a limited capacity they will still eventually grow in their use and prevalence. Further it was argued that even if able, governments might not be trustworthy enough to regulate such technology:

 

‘The problem is who will regulate it? Um cos fair enough you’ve got the heads of each country, the governments of each countries (.) but clearly throughout the world a lot of those have proven themselves to be completely incapable so um […] and who’s going to stop everyone else from having. It’s a bit of a power trip thing isn’t it like for instance. Um I’m not sure whatev-, but I know whatever regulations are in place will be abused. For instance with like the nuclear weapons you’ve got like the USA going in and saying no you’re not allowed nuclear weapons but we’re allowed them. So it doesn’t matter what regulations are in place whoever takes the position of power assumes that position will just abuse them anyway and use them for their own good.’ (Anthony, Group 1)

 

Here nuclear weapons are being used as the analogous technology and the quotation also seems to harbour some hostility towards current policies used in America. In particular it seems there is a belief that the US has been hypocritical in its attitudes toward nuclear weapons which may be linked to the war in Iraq. This is another example of current issues colouring participants’ views and perhaps leading to more cynicism than they might otherwise have had. It is possible that issues such as the economic crisis (also raised in relation to these technologies), terrorism and the war in Iraq have made people more weary of the government’s integrity and competence than they might otherwise have been.

 

Wariness and mistrust of/dislike for technology: a desire to return to ‘simpler’ times

It seemed that a fair proportion of the participants also disliked technology itself, or at least felt it was unreliable and perhaps already too pervasive in day-to-day life. Drawing comparisons to cars and computers that can break down and crash, or to current medications some of which come with a host of unpleasant side effects; participants were sceptical of the reliability of these new technologies. As these would be integrated into the individuals themselves, it was thought to be an even bigger problem should they malfunction. For example:

 

‘Thing is though like technology constantly goes wrong like the computer crashes all the time. Surely if it’s in your head then the effects are going to be massively disastrous.’ (Leona, Group 4)

 

It was also discussed that the problem would be exacerbated if we had become dependent on these transhuman technologies and then were no longer able to use them.

 

‘So if that’s what it’s like now, which I reckon is worse than it was in the 1950s but that’s just my way of looking at things, but if it goes past that then there’s if something goes wrong it’s going to cause even more problems; you know if one stock exchange crashes half the world’s brains stop working, the population of China dies.’ (Craig, Group 2)

 

For this reason, among others, some participants seemed to feel that we already are too dependent on technology and expressed a desire to return to ‘simpler’ times. They began to question whether the progress we’ve already made has necessarily been entirely positive.

 

‘Yeah well for me personally I thought it was a better way of life when you had little villages you had one butcher and one thing and one this.’ (Craig, Group 2)

 

‘It’s only because it’s there that we consider using it. I suppose in the past we’d never have had like half the things that we had now. Then it’s like surplus improvement, sometimes if we’re like using technology to make things better that don’t necessarily need to be made better and (.) if we (.) like if we didn’t know about tummy tucks we would be like you’ve had a baby that’s normal. And it should be like that. It shouldn’t be kind of get rid of that kind of thing I think it should just be normal. I think the way things are today that’s just a bit wrong.’ (Rachel, Group 1)

 

 

Moral concerns about transhumanism: ‘fairness’ and ‘equality’

Due to space limitations and because of its high degree of overlap with other themes, this final theme and its related sub themes will not be discussed in detail. In broad terms this theme dealt with the concept of ‘fairness’ and a ‘level playing field’. Participants objected to transhumanism here on the basis that it gave users an ‘advantage’ over non-users; particularly in sport where there was unanimous opposition but also in other contexts such as education and careers. It was noted however that in some cases enhancement could bring everyone up to the same level so creating a ‘level playing field’, a scenario that was seen by some to be positive and to detract from what it means to be human. However it was also established that most participants would use transhuman technologies if ‘everyone else was’ so that it was not they who were at a disadvantage. It was also felt that this would make it ‘feel’ more acceptable. See appendix 9.

 

Reflective Box 

In keeping with the recognition of the inevitable role played by the researcher in the qualitative research process, I decided to include some personal reflections on this process in the report.

Conducting the focus groups proved challenging for several reasons (other than initial nerves). One problem was the disparity between my experience of the topic and theirs and they would often raise points or arguments that were perhaps irrelevant, or to which I knew the counter-argument. I had to try to find a balance between providing them with the information they needed to fully understand the issue while at the same time being careful not to influence their decision in any way or run over what they had to say. Continually pointing out errors could also be counter-productive if it made other participants afraid to speak up.

Another problem I found was getting participants to speak (more of a problem at the start of the groups) and again here I had to try and provoke them into a reaction without heavily influencing their opinions. Again, presenting a counter-argument could stimulate debate but I had to be careful not to forcibly affect their decisions. One way to do this was to distance myself from the arguments with phrases such as ‘it has been suggested that…’

My own pre-existing knowledge and opinions of transhumanism will also have likely coloured my selection of data to include in the themes and sub-themes. Indeed it often felt unnatural going against my own beliefs and reporting arguments against transhumanism that did not make sense to me. Hopefully this is a sign of a balanced interpretation.

 

OVERVIEW

 

The first major finding of this study was that transhumanism is not a subject that the students in these focus groups are not fully aware of and nor are they aware of the technologies currently being developed. Once the concept had been fully explained, a general assessment of the themes and subthemes raised in the discussion gives the impression that participants are opposed to the movement. This opposition seems to stem from several issues.

 

In particular participants were wary of the socio-economic implications of transhuman technologies and repeated many of the concerns voiced by bioconservatives such as Fukayame (2004). The two biggest concerns here were regarding the population and a potential ‘divide’ between posthumans and ‘ordinary’ non users. This latter idea was particularly unacceptable to participants who expressed a need for equality and a ‘level playing field’. Other threats included a potential lack of motivation to improve oneself (and so society as a whole) naturally and the moral consideration of ‘fairness’, with most objections mirroring those voiced previously by bioconservative authors. Others were mindful of transhumanism being used as a weapon by governments, criminals or terrorists. Partly this might be a result of current issues colouring their perceptions. Some of these fears also seemed to stem from participants anchoring their understanding in science fiction which commonly portrays similar technologies going wrong or leading to dystopian futures.

 

Understanding also came from analogous current technologies however such as IVF and human cloning and this led to more acceptance although reluctance still came from the perception of transhuman technologies as ‘unnecessary’ and therefore unacceptable. That is to say that in cases where a patient was injured or under threat of disease (as is the case with much of the analogous technology) the very same procedures would be considered permissible. For this reason comparison was also drawn to cosmetic surgery and performance enhancing drugs which are also medical techniques that serve to enhance rather than heal. Here participants sometimes expressed the view that as these technologies are acceptable (at least legally) and have so far proven relatively harmless, then maybe similar transhuman technologies should be too. In keeping with this concept, most participants stated that they would consider using transhuman technologies if ‘everyone else was’.

 

Transhumanism was also considered acceptable under certain other conditions: where users still had to put work in to improve their abilities, or where it seemed as though a small alteration could greatly improve a user’s happiness. Some procedures/techniques were discussed favorably that could only loosely be defined as transhumanism but that were nevertheless related. These included the Nintendo DS ‘Brain Training’ game and Oscar Pistorius, the athlete who tried to compete in the Olympics using bionic legs (Wolbring, 2008). Through discussion it was discovered that transhumanism was subject to ‘fuzzy’ definitions and that plastic surgery or caffeine could be considered forms transhumanism. This seems to stem from deeper issues surrounding definitions of commonly used terms such as ‘humanness’ or ‘enhancement’, both of which are subjective to a degree. A similar observation was made by McNamee and Edwards (2005) who distinguish between ‘strong and moderate conceptions’ of transhumanism. These unclear definitions made it harder to assess the topic as a whole which suggests that dividing transhuman technologies into more manageable categories could make it easier for the general public to assess. This may also help consumers come to terms with the concept if it became mainstream and perhaps governments’ law-making.

 

This study is not without limitations however, one of the biggest being the relatively small sample and its relative homogeneity. Students were chosen for practical reasons and because their generation is currently most likely to be affected by the technologies. However it would be interesting to see whether non-students, or older or younger participants would respond in similar or different ways. Specifically students may be more accustomed to critically assessing such issues, while older participants may have more experience to draw on and may find it easier to imagine being in the position to make decisions involving children or careers.

 

Further evaluation of the study and its findings can be made in light of Elliott et al.’s guidelines for qualitative research (1999). It is important to note here how the researcher might have affected the direction of the focus groups and the selection of material for the themes (see the reflection box). Likewise, personal opinions and experience will have coloured the views of the participants and it is limiting that few explained the experiences that shaped their opinions. This effect is likely to have been minimal however as only one reported any previous knowledge of transhumanism. No attempt was made to assess the credibility of the themes and sub-themes, again due to restrictions of time and space. They make intuitive sense to this author and do appear to concur with the papers and studies mentioned in the introduction but would benefit from future review.

 

From here it seems the first step is to raise awareness of transhumanism, (particularly if it is as inevitable as was suspected within the groups), as this would allow individuals to make more informed decisions regarding the technologies and would lead to further research and preparation. One participant specifically stated a need for these technologies to be explained if they are to become accepted. Future studies could look at public opinions using a larger and more varied sample, perhaps through a survey or poll. It would also be beneficial to try and outline exactly which technologies are considered permissible and which are not and what regulations can be put in place to make sure they’re controlled in a manner that pleases the most people. This could further be facilitated by coming to an agreement on exactly what constitutes ‘transhumanism’ and whether there are distinctions to be made within this category. Such categorisation would be most useful if based on data gathered from similar qualitative research. Generally more discussion and preparation is needed if transhuman technologies are going to be successfully handled when the time comes.

 

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About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

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