Transhumanism vs. the Hedonic Treadmill via Futurama (!)

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In this six-minute video from the PBS Idea Channel, Mike Rugnetta takes us on a whirlwind tour exploring a few concepts related to Transhumanism through the lens of the TV show Futurama. To make an extremely complex set of ideas overly simple, Transhumanism is the notion that technology will make human life better by eliminating suffering. It has interesting offshoots like Singularitarianism, in which humans transcend biology and become (and/or are displaced by) digital lifeforms (for a little more on that, see Ray Kurzweil's Pill Habit). And it's a very appealing notion -- it's often easy to see how technology improves our lives. But it's also easy (increasingly so, I'd argue) to understand that technology doesn't always make us happier or eliminate suffering.*

But why is that? Rugnetta's argument is the good old hedonic treadmill, the depressing-but-apparently-true notion that humans adapt to new levels of happiness-and-cool-stuff (and unhappiness-and-bad-stuff) by leveling out at a set point in the middle of the happiness spectrum. In other words (as Rugnetta mentions), this is Louis C.K.'s "Everything is amazing and nobody is happy." Rugnetta uses Futurama as a case study of a fundamentally honest view of the future, where despite wildly advanced technology, humans and transhumans are still on the hedonic treadmill.

Sample quote: "Though able to defeat aging and remedy suffering, [the world of Futurama] is far from an Eden. Futurama isn't the post-scarcity, post-war Earth of Star Trek, it's not even Thomas More's complex-but-'fair' Utopia, or Matt Fraction's Coldheart Island. It's just sort of like today, but...later."

If this isn't enough for you, just tune in for ten hours of Hypnotoad.

* = Note - I'm fully aware that technology often does eliminate suffering -- for example, technology to provide clean drinking water, cure disease, provide food, and so on. But when we think about the technology that Westerners encounter in our homes (and in our pockets) that seems like a big deal and makes it feel like the future has arrived, we have to ask: does this technology fundamentally change the human condition, or will we always struggle?

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February 12, 2013 - 11:45am
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