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Zoltan Istvan Headshot

Baggage Culture and Why Embracing Transhumanism Doesn't Come Easy

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Twenty years ago, while in college and wondering why everyone else in the world wasn't hell-bent on trying to live indefinitely via the promising fields of transhumanist science, I began working on the idea of what mass culture is and if it was holding back people from wanting to maximize their lifespans and human potential. I came up with the concept baggage culture, which is explored in detail in my novel The Transhumanist Wager and its philosophy Teleological Egocentric Functionalism (TEF).

Upon the request of my friends at Movement for Indefinite Life Extension (MILE), I recently condensed my thoughts on baggage culture in my speech at the Brighter Brains Future of Emotional Health and Intelligence Conference at University of California, Berkeley. Here's a summary of that recent talk:

For many thousands of years now, the human race has been indoctrinated to submit to orthodoxy and to cower before authority, and to swallow endless nonsense from both. We have been brainwashed to sacrifice our innermost desires, our most obvious needs, our most natural outlook on reality, just to live as a hostage in a cage of carefully regulated and fabricated cognitive existence. Virtually everyone and everything--our countries, customs, faiths, leaders, relatives, friends, lifestyles, even our own memories--have been manipulating and pressuring us to shun fresh, unconventional thoughts. Especially transhuman-oriented thoughts. There has been a pervasive worldwide moratorium on thinking about what the human being is capable of and its possible evolutionary advancement in terms that make a substantial difference in reality.

Why has this happened? To transhumanists, the reason is obvious: We--the people of the world--have allowed it to happen. Each of us is guilty for not heeding a higher calling: a more logical, more ambitious, more sublime direction for our life, and a journey to our best self. Our great flaw is the mistaken way in which we choose to interpret existence; our subscription and obedience to the cultural constructs that government, organized religion, ethnic heritage, mega-corporations, and mass media have built around, and within, nearly every thought and action we make. Their web of indoctrination has wholly swamped our lives. Sadly, most of us don't even know this has happened. Most of us are living on this planet in utter delusion, conforming to a largely manufactured and forced reality.

Throughout our lives and modern history, civilization has erroneously subscribed to the vision that the human being is a marvelous, ingeniously assembled specimen of life: a work of divine creation and sweeping beauty, whose culture and intellect is profound like the cosmos itself. What a joke. The cruel truth is we are a frail, hacked-together organism living within a global culture of irrationality, pettiness, and deception. The specific reason our existing human culture is so malformed is that, throughout history, past cultural constructs of more primitive societies were not discarded as they became irrelevant or outdated. To survive, it was not evolutionarily required to rid ourselves of unnecessary idiosyncrasies and practiced customs--such as nonsensical superstitions, masochistic religiosity, and shackling morality--even though they were foolish to uphold. As a result, damaging, wasteful, and useless behavioral patterns were passed on both socially and individually from generation to generation.

So now, modern humans are a weighed-down species, burdened by cumbersome past rubbish that's mostly crudely stacked, obsolete cultural constructs through which our minds perceive reality. I call this baggage culture. And it's caused nearly all human life to be degenerate and apathetic compared to what it could be. Our species' mindset and powers of perception are currently too lumbering and unfit for what a sophisticated, nimble entity really needs of itself. Our lives are cursed because of the polluted cultural prism our thoughts must exist within and communicate through. In Sisyphean tragedy, we are doomed to grovel, to falter, to repeat our same pathetic mistakes, day after day, year after year, century after century. We need to transition from our defective culture into a new one that directly confronts these issues and sets our minds and transhuman possibilities free.

The twisted history of our baggage culture extends back many millennia. It started long ago with the inception of civilization, when charismatic leaders and ruling clans began forming permanent communities. Over time, these rulers learned they could preserve their platforms of power by controlling their communities' thinking and behavioral patterns. Their agendas were simple: dominate with fear through violence; stifle revolutionary and freethinking ambitions; teach adherence to leadership and community before self; implement forms of thought and behavioral control that encourage social cooperation and production, such as communal customs, prayers, taboos, and rites. Variations abounded, but these were the early convoluted versions of human culture and its main intent: to control. Henceforth, culture's core function became a means of forcing conformity, to transform the individual into a tool of submission and production for the ruling elite.

As generations passed, these rulers and their predecessors continually revised and enlarged their constructs of culture, force-feeding the functional and nonfunctional--rational and irrational--parts to our forbears. Naturally, it didn't take long in evolutionary terms before people everywhere existed within a universal baggage culture, full of compounded dysfunction. Of course, in modern times, control of human culture has changed hands from the ruling elite to whole governments, religious institutions, multicontinent ethnic groups, and most recently, to mega-corporations and mass media. As the complexities and population of the world ballooned, baggage culture continued to prove versatile and useful to whatever cause it engaged. Nations governed through it. Religions preached through it. Ethnic groups taught their heritages through it. Big business sold through it. And the media communicated through it.

To cement their authoritarian agendas, these supersized institutions' advancing baggage culture implemented ever more effective methods of control over society. Chief and most potent amongst them was the inversion of reason, where cultural forces obliged us to rationally accept the irrational. By corrupting the rational way we thought and interpreted life, they simultaneously corrupted the necessity and power of reason altogether. In that devious way, mysticism, ancestral divinity, the supernatural, religion, and even the institutions' all-important puffed-up selves were seen as valid outcomes of a supposedly sensible, straightforward, and successful society.

Among many others, altruism, filial piety, and consumer addiction to unnecessary materialism were other methods of control. However, to transhumanists, the most grotesque of all the methods was the perpetuation of fear in our lives; not by the threat of violence, but by implicit guilt. This powerful psychological addiction of worrying about what others think of us, and about what is socially acceptable to others, has been systematically instilled in humans for thousands of years, perpetrated by every world religion, ethnicity, and government. Its aim is to weaken people's wills and to silence their most precious independent tool: the ability to freely, guiltlessly, and publicly judge and criticize the world around them. In that way, people became afraid to pick apart others and their behaviors; afraid to deride society and its routines; afraid to upend their own world and circumstances; and, ultimately, afraid to differentiate between good and evil, utility and irrationality, strength and weakness, equal and non-equal--essentially all value itself. Such pervasive social control through the fear of others' opinions has left us meek, ashamed, and largely unwilling to openly question or challenge a thing like the omnipresent state. Or our sacred heritages. Or the rife sense of needing to be wealthier than our neighbors. Or our supposedly sinless and perfect gods. The spicy, troublesome, confrontational bigot in us is often our best and most useful part, and they have strangled it out of most of us in the guise of what they call "open-mindedness" or "politically correct social behavior."

Ultimately, implicit guilt and culture's many other devices of submission are designed to make us totally subscribe to one single concept: we should be afraid to rise to being as powerful an entity as we can; we should be afraid to try to become an omnipotent God. That is the essence and outcome of our baggage culture.

The truth is so simple to see once we understand it: Religion, ethnic heritage, state power, material addiction, and media entrapment are nothing more than pieces of an intangible psychological construct designed to keep us thinking and living a certain way. It's designed to keep us in fear of becoming as powerful as we can be; to keep us producing for others and contributing to their overall gain, and not our own.

Today, our species' baggage culture is a gargantuan mindless monster, consuming and dominating everything it can. Even its main pushers--the overarching institutions--can't control it anymore; instead, they always find it controlling and devouring them. There's no escape from the confusion and redundancy anymore, from the vestigial aspects of stacking useless cultural constructs upon each other. If you think one tailbone in the human body is pointless, imagine a hundred of them weighing you down. Figuratively, that's what baggage culture looks like. Many of our thoughts are piles of ignorance and erroneous ideas stacked upon piles of ignorance and erroneous ideas. We are unable to think freely and escape our slovenly, derelict pasts.

This, sadly, is baggage culture. And it's the primary reason we don't demand more of our lives and of our possible transhumanist future.

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