R. U. Sirius (Ken Goffman) is a writer, editor and well-known digital iconoclast. He was co-publisher of the first popular digital culture magazine, MONDO 2000, from 1989-1993 and co-editor of the popular book, MONDO 2000: A User's Guide to the New Edge. He has written about technology and culture for Wired, The Village Voice, Salon, BoingBoing, Time, S.F. Chronicle, Rolling Stone, and Esquire, among other publications. Sirius/Goffman also lectures widely having appeared as part of the Reality Hacking series at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, at the TedX conference in Brussels, and at San Francisco's popular Dorkbot event. Visit him at StealThisSingularity.com.
Photo by Bart Nagel
An Interview With R.U. Sirius
1. How would you describe transhumanism in a few words?
Transhumanism is a movement that is broadly in favor of humans altering themselves using technology and technique.
2. Your book is sometimes sarcastic yet you seem to be in favor of transhumanism. Are you, in fact, in favor of it?
Any ism makes me sarcastic. I view most human behavior as absurd and group behavior is particularly absurd. I’m generally in favor of humans altering themselves. We’ve been doing it since we started wearing glasses or taking birth control pills. I become excited about the possibilities of becoming a different kind of being through biotechnology and neural upgrades and so on and then a giant wave wipes out the Philippines. So my optimism about transhumanity is more contingent than most “true believers.”
3. Why make an “encyclopedia”?
That A - Z approach goes all the way back to Voltaire’s The Philosophical Dictionary. It’s a good way of disciplining the organization of information and also encourages a sort of concision. You’ll see that I acknowledge how many of the topics tend to bleed into one another with the “See Also” notifications.
4. What aspect of the transhuman world of technology makes you most optimistic?
For 27 years, since I first read the book Engines of Creation by K. Eric Drexler, I’ve believed that molecular machines that can make almost anything conceivable out of dirt and sunlight (including more dirt) and keep our insides running in tip top shape was the greatest hope for a future where we don’t struggle with scarcity and disease... if we can only get it to work!
5. Is there a leader of the transhumanist movement that you admire?
There are some good folks like Ben Goertzel and I appreciate the ubiquitous Ray Kurzweil. He’s a nice fellow, but I wouldn’t call myself a follower of anybody. I was influenced by Timothy Leary and the cult writer Robert Anton Wilson. They were both transhumanists and their influence remains with me.
6. What do you think about people who reject technology in favor of nature?
Everything is natural or it couldn’t exist. Still, as I get older, I understand the longing for life in the slow lane. I think most people think of the natural life as bucolic, but most farm labor is so harsh that people actually move to urbanized areas and work in sweatshops. Some of that may be the effects of food colonialism, but living off the land is really tough, as lots of hippies discovered in the 1970s. The ideal is for technology to get good enough where we can live the bucolic life “all watched over by machines of loving grace” as a famous Richard Brautigan poem put it.
7. What’s The Singularity and do you believe in it?
The idea of a technological singularity was first presented by the science fiction writer Vernor Vinge. His idea is that artificial intelligence will supersede human intelligence and that whatever happens after that is way beyond our comprehension. Since then, “singularitarians” have come along to tell us what will happen. There has been talk since of different singularities — a social singularity, a psychedelic singularity. I don’t believe in it and I also don’t believe that it will not happen. I remain agnostic regarding many things and I hope my readers will come away from this book with a healthy regard for uncertainty.
8. What should people do if they want to live longer?
We don’t know yet, other than the usual stuff about getting exercise and watching your eating habits. There’s a company selling nutrients based around Resveratrol (the stuff in red wine that’s good for you) that they sort of claim (only sort of because of government regulations) that taking this substance might get you passed the generally acknowledged limit of around 120 years. Of course, you also have to have a lot of luck. The problem with this is that we have to wait for a bunch of people who may now be in their 30s or 40s to turn 130. By that time, hopefully something better will have come along.
9. You have your own website titled “Steal This Singularity.” What’s that about?
Unlike some technotopians, I think the present will play a big role in defining the future. And right now, there is a rise in plutocratic class domination and authoritarian mega-surveillance governance. I think we need to fight that off now so that the corporate/finance oligarchy doesn’t install their pre-programmed exo-neocortexes in our sad little meat brains as the price for immortality (or even survival)?
10. What does the R.U. in R.U. Sirius stand for?
Reginald Ubermensch Sirius.