Can Anthropology Look to the Future?

Transhumanists want to transcend humanity. Where does that leave anthropology?
States of Mind: Those Who Go

Anthropology has trouble with the future. So it is curious that, all of a sudden, there is a burst of anthropological monographs on one of the most future-facing social movements there is. At roughly the same moment (here measured by the inexact and rather broad standards of academic publishing), two books have come out about transhumanism and transhumanists.1

Even if the term “transhumanism” is unfamiliar to you, you still probably know of this phenomenon. This is because, thanks to Silicon Valley and science fiction, transhumanists are becoming ubiquitous. Transhumanists are those either working on or advocating for technologies that potentially would so radically alter our lives that we would essentially transcend our humanity. This is stuff like cryonics: the freezing of the dead—though most cryonicists would not use the term “dead,” preferring to think of them more as patients in an extremely precarious condition—so that, in a future moment, they can be resuscitated and cured. Also, think of research on what is called general artificial intelligence, a term for a real thinking, learning machine, theoretically capable of designing machines even smarter than itself; once a general artificial intelligence is created that is smarter than humans, it could, in turn, create a machine that surpasses human intelligence by an even greater degree, creating a feedback loop that would cause machine intelligence to spiral off into unmeasurable heights. Then there are those dreams of genetic engineering, of medical technology wildly decelerating or even stopping aging, of people uploading their consciousnesses onto computers, of nanotechnology that basically works like magic.

These are all heady ideas, held by people working on projects that edge anthropology close to its limits: future-facing, radical change that would leave Homo sapiens sapiens behind. And yet, these new anthropological monographs on transhumanism find traction because even the future has a history. Or rather, the future has histories, because the two transhumanisms discussed in this pair of books, while obviously similar, are not the same. They are “located” in different regions, both in geographic and conceptual space. (Though, to be fair, any discussion of the physical position of a social movement that is as internet-mediated as transhumanism is problematic.) Still, they can be situated to some degree.

Abou Farman’s transhumanist subjects are American, often in the loose penumbra of Silicon Valley (though, as Farman is careful to point out, what he has written is not an ethnography of Silicon Valley). Anya Bernstein casts her eye outside the United States’ borders, focusing on innovators and intellectuals whose transhumanism is deeply influenced by their Russian heritage. Still, despite the manifest differences between the two case studies, both touch on topics that anthropology has been thinking about from the discipline’s earliest moments: religion and death.

What Farman and Bernstein do not handle, and cannot handle—at least at this point—is what anthropology might look like should anthropos no longer be its subject. This is not to fault either author; the posthuman does not presently exist, and there is no guarantee that it ever will. But whatever methodological challenge there will be, Farman’s concerns with what is in essence transhumanist eschatology and Bernstein’s attention to how visions of technical innovation offer new vistas of what counts as time, as new definitions of humanity, give some sense for what might—potentially—come to pass.

To understand what these books achieve, it helps to also understand why the future is such a problem for anthropology.

One issue is that it is hard to study the future using participant-observer techniques; one can only be with the people one is studying at a then-present moment. (Some anthropologists have even gone as far as to suggest that the participant-observation method inherently has a “presentist” bias.)⁠2 But even putting this difficulty aside, the notion of a predictive anthropology is (again, exceptions granted) just that: a notion. Anthropology’s focus on qualitative differences, nuance, cultural specificity, and shades of gray interferes with any straightforward attempt to project future conditions from current states of play. It’s not so much that the future is open in anthropology as it is that the future is unthought.3

As an example of this disciplinary blind spot, take, for instance, the concept of the “new.” While there are obvious exceptions in anthropological studies of issues such as religious conversion, anthropology traditionally tends to lean into social and cultural continuity over sharp breaks. While not thinking of its subjects as ahistorical or somehow outside temporality, anthropology tends to imagine that people, informed by their past, will muddle along and continue their established social and cultural ways in new circumstances, even as their specific situations and resources change over time.⁠4 Again, some caveats apply. There are anthropologists who study new and emerging technologies, for instance. But even here, the question is how people are adapting to and using this technology right now, in the present moment.

Finally, there is a particularly hard limit, perhaps the ultimate horizon that anthropology cannot easily see past: as a discipline, anthropology is pretty much tied down to having anthropos, that is, humanity, as its object of study. Yes, biological anthropology sometimes tarries with ancestors or cousins to our species, but this “stepping out” on the human is in the furtherance of understanding our species more clearly. And it is also true there are those sociocultural anthropologists who are pushing the limits and engaging in what they call “posthuman” or “multispecies” anthropology.5 But even here, what they really mean is “humans and something else,” rather than just something inhuman or posthuman all on its own.

Given all this, what, then, can anthropology discern of Farman’s and Bernstein’s transhumanists?


Conjuring Anthropology’s Future

By Simon During

Let’s look first at Farman. He was one of the first anthropologists to take transhumanism seriously, spending time with transhumanists well before they became the darlings of Silicon Valley. How Silicon Valley took a shine to transhumanism is a part of Farman’s tale, but the chief focus here is not Silicon Valley. Rather, it is how, through a strange irony, transhumanism’s materialism, its faith in science, and its suspicion of religion ended up transfusing transhumanism with a kind of quasi-religious spirituality. This spirituality takes the form of the desire to escape death through whatever technical means necessary. But it is more than that.

Transhumanism makes science into spirituality; but, counterintuitively, it does so by seeing everything through the lens of informatics. Informatics is the idea that everything, including the mind, is at its core just data. This idea is why, in the transhumanist imagination, the damaged brains of the cryonically preserved can theoretically be made whole, providing that the “information” that constitutes them is still there in the tangle of frozen neurons. (It is also why, as long as the neurological information is still preserved in the liquid nitrogen–bathed brain, the cryonically preserved are not considered by many transhumanists to be dead, but merely “deanimated.”) Likewise, the idea of informatics is why transhumanists anticipate that humans will also be preserved through being uploaded onto computers: if everyone is fundamentally just information, then having the information on a computer of some sort, rather than in the vulnerable “wetware” of the brain, means that the person lives on, no matter what happened to the original body that housed it.

This preservation of information potentially opens up new vistas of time. It dis-embeds the transhumanist imagination from the dwindling time that comes with the medical sense of human finitude, which replaced earlier religious senses of time. But death is not just an existential fact or a phenomenological horizon, Farman notes. Even though death is the final arbitrator of medical time, it is also surprisingly difficult to medically define. Therefore, Farman reasons, death ends up being as much a function of state-derived rights and laws as it is a purely biological reckoning; this makes this materialist time a somewhat arbitrary-feeling secular-legal time as well. This medical-legal-secular time is all the more painful for contemporary (small l) liberals, because this flavor of time is set against another kind of temporality: the expansive, though coldly inhuman, time given to us by science, where we think of species or geological formations in terms of millions of years, and of cosmology in terms of billions.

But Farman notes that the cosmos that many transhumanists imagine themselves interacting with is not just the dead, ancient cosmos of conventional science. Transhumanism brings something more. Since, as we just noted, many transhumanists believe that everything is ultimately framable as information or “informatics,” they reason that information, in the form of intelligence, is the eventual fate—the ultimate telos—of the universe. This intelligence is not just human, or posthuman, intelligence. Transhumanists theorize about making the cosmos itself intelligent, through processes such as creating superintelligent general AI, or even converting swaths of the universe—whole planets and star systems—into computing “smart matter.” And transhumanists, who hope to create and participate in this technology, anticipate having a role in this cosmic destiny.

This mixture of (informatics-informed) spirituality and cosmic purpose may sound like religion, but Farman stresses that it is not. It is more along the lines of a return of existential concerns that were originally handled by religion in earlier ages. Only, in Farman’s telling, secularism and materialism put religion in a bottle, leaving the universe purposeless. Thus, this technical-scientific transhumanist concern with ultimate issues is not so much religion’s return, but rather secular-materialist thought finding a way to take over religion’s former grounds through a form of what could be likened to the legal doctrine of adverse possession: occupy a stretch of empty land long enough and it becomes yours.

Transhumanism makes science into spirituality; but, counterintuitively, it does so by seeing everything through the lens of informatics.

As might be inferred from the discussion above, Farman makes the contours of transhumanism graspable by contrasting it with an “other” that it at once has an intimate relationship with and is also escaping from. That other, moreover, is the same secular materialism that transhumanism paradoxically presumes and participates in. Much like Farman’s attempt to think through transhumanism in terms of something close and yet alien, Bernstein’s book concerns subjects with an intimate yet defining other, too. And while some of her book focuses on the uneasy resonances and tensions that Russian transhumanism has with Russian Orthodoxy (the Orthodox clergy really does not approve of cryonics, for instance), the other for Bernstein’s interlocutors seems to be American transhumanism. This is never openly stated, of course. This is in part because, unlike Farman, who writes with an almost architectonic theoretical concern, Bernstein writes more like a historian, with an eye toward characters and scenes. But reading the book, we can’t help but realize that when we speak of “transhumanism” in the generic, we are not discussing its pure, unsullied form, but actually speaking about a parochial, American transhumanism. Different nationalities dream different futures.

Bernstein produces this contrast with American transhumanism by making a compelling argument that transhumanism is no transplant to Russian soil. Rather, she makes clear, Russian transhumanism is autochthonous. Transhumanism, and other allied Russian future-facing movements, do not just have roots in Soviet-era scientific ambitions, and particularly ambitions regarding space flight and exploration, though those ties do exist. The origins of Russian transhumanism actually go back to the mid-19th century. At that time, an ascetic librarian and rogue intellectual named Nikolai Fedorov blended Orthodox spirituality with a scientific aspiration to achieve immortality at some undesignated point in the future. Fedorov also aspired for humanity to (scientifically) resurrect all the generations of humans that have previously passed away, a project that he called the “common task.” As others picked up and experimented with Fedorov’s vision over time, an intellectual school called Russian Cosmism eventually coalesced. And despite communist attempts to suppress it, Cosmism made it to 21st-century Russia.

Not all Russian transhumanists identify as Cosmists, though there are intellectuals who still see their project as a continuation of Fedorov’s vision, and Bernstein does spend some time with them. And yet, Fedorovian leitmotifs do appear in all the transhumanist and quasi-transhumanist endeavors that Bernstein addresses here: from cryonics to scientific efforts to stop biological aging, to attempts to meld supercomputers and all human minds into a network that would put the present-day internet to shame.

There is often an unabashed spirituality to these Russian projects. But unlike the American transhumanist crypto-spirituality that Farman describes, these Russian visions seem to have a redemptive edge, restoring the past as much as transforming the future. They are also quite regularly openly collectivist (though not in a Soviet way), rejecting the libertarian-leaning individualism common to many of Farman’s American transhumanists. And in what is clearly no coincidence, there is a desire to find a specifically Russian project, an endeavor to return to the prestige that Russian science and technology enjoyed in the early days of Sputnik and Soyuz. Even as they envision transcending their humanity, they do not see that transformation as meaning that they have to stop being Russian.


Anthropologists and Novelists

By Richard Handler

Despite Bernstein’s eye toward characters and concrete details, her ultimate ambition is to ask what the ethical, political, and metaphysical effects are of the way that Russian Cosmists, and those influenced by Russian Cosmists, imagine cosmic time, unending life, and posthumanity. While Farman certainly asks these same questions, his focus is ultimately on producing a critique of the variant of transhumanism he studies; this critique focuses on the wider relation between the secular, the scientific, and the spiritual, but it also points out that when these transhumanists envision the future of the species, they often unconsciously conflate “American” with “human.” But whether they are imagining the ontological possibilities or the political entailments of transhumanism, these books suggest a way around the Scylla and Charybdis that face most other academic discussions of transhumanism, and which sometimes trouble anthropological discussions of novelty and the future as well.6

The same tendency in anthropology to see continuity instead of change can also be found in broader academic discussions that wish to reduce transhumanism to merely another iteration of religion; noting the air of spirituality and a desire to escape death, they present transhumanism as nothing more than religion in denial. By seeing transhumanism as having a relationship with religion (mediated by secularism or by Cosmism and a Soviet cultural inheritance) without itself being religion, and having an ethical investment preventing death, but also a technological approach to achieving those ends, both Farman and Bernstein escape that dismissive trap. They also avoid another temptation seen in academic discussions of transhumanism, which is to leap directly into debating the issues raised by transhumanist aspirations, without stopping to consider what kind of transhumanism is doing this aspiring, and how this genuinely future-facing imagination is still shaped by the larger social and intellectual ecology that concrete groups of transhumanists are embedded in.

The future is unwritten. And, to the degree it is future, it will not merely be a reiteration of what has already been. But that future’s past, which Farman and Bernstein so capably attend to, is our present. And, the future history that these two authors document, each in their own way, gives us not only a chance to see what might lie beyond the human but also a greater purchase on what being human means now.


This article was commissioned by Matthew Engelkeicon

  1. Actually, there are three books, which suggests that this burst of ethnographic publications may be more along the lines of a sustained effervescence. Of even more recent vintage, there is Jenny Huberman’s Transhumanism: From Ancestors to Avatars (Cambridge University Press, 2021), which takes up the challenge of transhumanism by going back to some of the foundational ideas developed during the classic anthropology of the mid-20th century. The claim here is that many of the conceptual disciplinary tools designed to understand the sort of small-scale, non-Western societies that used to be anthropology’s bread and butter are also a good fit for the “not yet actualized” (p. 6) communities that transhumanists imagine they will bring into existence.
  2. Richard D. G. Irvine, An Anthropology of Deep Time: Geological Temporality and Social Life (Cambridge University Press, 2020).
  3. Will Rollason, “Introduction: Pacific Futures, Methodological Challenges,” in Pacific Futures: Projects, Politics, and Interests, edited by Will Rollason (Berghahn, 2014); David Valentine, Valerie Olson, and Debbora Battaglia, “Encountering the Future: Anthropology and Outer Space,” Anthropology News, vol. 50, no. 9 (2009).
  4. For a critique of this pattern, see Joel Robbins, “Continuity Thinking and the Problem of Christian Culture: Belief, Time, and the Anthropology of Christianity,” Current Anthropology, vol. 48, no. 1 (2007).
  5. S. Eben Kirksey and Stefan Helmreich, “The Emergence of Multispecies Ethnography,” Cultural Anthropology, vol. 25, no. 4 (2010).
  6. On using the ontological understandings of informants as an anthropological theoretical approach, see Jon Bialecki, “Turn, Turn, Turn,” Public Books, June 20, 2017.
Featured image: Umberto Boccioni, States of Mind: Those Who Go (1912)