H+ is a popular abbreviation of transhumanism; and future as a noun, per Merriam-Webster’s definition, is a couple of things: 1) time that is to come, and 2) an expectation of advancement or progressive development.
Transhumanism is an international philosophical movement — spanning a very wide range of research and study fields — that has at its premise the idea that we as humans are currently at a comparatively early stage of our development and our accelerating pace of technological progress will greatly enhance our human intellect and physiology.
In short, emerging technologies at some point in future will become sophisticated enough to let us overcome fundamental human limitations, and we’ll become transhuman.
The signals of the H+ forerunning thought have existed for thousands of years as evidenced in various works of ancient literature where the concepts of the Fountain of Youth and the Elixir of Life are described, and the quest for human immortality is documented.
However it wasn’t until the 1980s when the transhumanist movement was fully formed and kicked in full gear with the first ever formal meeting at the University of California, which for years became the main center of transhumanist thought.
The 1980s was also the time when the digital revolution was happening, and a lot of it California.
Personal computers were becoming ubiquitous.
Apple closed the first day of its stock trading at $29 per share on December 12, 1980, which was the biggest capital generating IPO since 1956, when the shares of Ford Motor Company went live. A great evidence of the human belief in technology.
Commodore 64, introduced in 1982, had inexpensive modems and networking software and was used to run bulletin board systems.
Apple launched their first true modems in 1984 for Apple II and Macintosh 128K personal computers.
Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web in 1989, which was one of the most significant things happened to the development of the Information Age, the age that we live in today.
The technology was booming, and the world was becoming connected, the dawn of the Information Age — where people networked in their digital self — was apparent; all of it gave the transhumanist thought a lot of good ground to believe in the future — an expectation of advancement or progressive development.
But then something else happened. What exactly that was (and still is) is best recounted by Jaron Lanier — a computer scientist and a computer philosophy writer, often described as a visionary, and who worked in California starting in the 1980s and experienced the digital revolution first-hand — in his 2018 TED speech.
And here’s what happened. Early digital culture and indeed digital culture to this day had a sense of, I would say, a lefty social mission about it, that, unlike other things that had been done, like the invention of books, everything on the Internet must be purely public, must be available for free because if even one person cannot afford it then this would create this terrible inequity.
Now, of course, there’s other ways to deal with that — if books cost money, you can have public libraries and so forth, but we were thinking — no, no, no — this is an exception, this must be pure public comments, that’s what we want. And so that spirit lives one, and you can experience it in designs like Wikipedia and many others.
But at the same time we also believed with equal fervor in this other thing that was completely incompatible, which is we loved our tech entrepreneurs, we loved Steve Jobs, we loved this Nietzsche and myth of the techie who could dent the universe. And that mythical power has a hold on us as well.
So you have these two different passions for making everything free and for almost the supernatural power of the tech entrepreneur — how do you celebrate entrepreneurship when everything’s free?
Well, there was only one solution back then which was the advertising model.
And so, therefore, Google was born — free, with ads; Facebook was born — free, with ads. Now, in the beginning, it was cute. Like with the very earliest Google the ads were really kind of ads — they would be like, you know, your local dentist or something, but there’s this thing called Moore’s law that makes the computers more and more efficient and cheaper, their algorithms get better — we actually have universities where people study them, and they get better and better, and the customers and other entities who use these systems just got more and more experienced and got cleverer and cleverer. And what started out as advertising really can’t be called advertising anymore — it turned into behavior modification. I can’t call these things social networks anymore; I call them behavior modification empires.
Jaron does not vilify companies like Google and Facebook, though, he says what happened was a tragic mistake. The ad business in social networks is very different from your regular TV commercials or street billboards in that the social networks analyze the user behavior — there’s a constant feedback loop between you, the user, and the ad publisher, to algorithmically extract as much attention from you as possible and make the ads more efficient and the business more profitable. The social networks collect your data, adjust the algorithms to you, and this in turn changes your behavior. Hence the name given by Jaron Lanier — behavior modification empires.
This behavior modification mechanism was certainly not something that transhumanists envisioned for the future, an integral part of which was all of us being connected.
The recent trust decline in social networks and the public outcry that’s snowballing against them is good evidence that the ad and personal data collection model are becoming outdated and there must be a new way for us to connect and work together. Not through Facebook or Google and the like in the current implementation.
The rise in blockchain as infrastructure and decentralized social network startups gives good promise that we — as people — are moving in the right direction. At least this future — that is almost now — has the traits of the Merriam-Webster’s definition: an expectation of advancement or progressive development.
We have yet to see how the new communication models — decentralized in particular — play out in the coming decades, but until then — today — you can be a part of the new nascent movement and way of doing things.