David Vintiner and Gem Fletcher’s long-term collaboration profiles the transhumanist movement

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All images © David Vintiner

This article is printed in the latest issue of British Journal of Photography magazine, Humanity & Technology, delivered direct to you with an 1854 Subscription.

Transhumanism is a philosophical movement devoted to the technological enhancement of the human condition. Does it pose a threat against humanity, or is this the next logical step in our evolution?

Neil Harbisson is the world’s first legally recognised cyborg. His antenna, implanted into his skull, sends vibrations through his brain, allowing him to perceive colours and retrieve data directly into his mind. Andrew Vladimirov is a DIY “brain-hacker”. By firing lasers through specific parts of the brain, he aims to prolong concentration, enhance memory and alter moods. Dr Caroline Falconer is a clinical psychologist. Her treatments employ virtual reality to increase levels of self-compassion in people suffering from depression and anxiety disorders.

These are just some of the individuals that photographer David Vintiner and art director Gem Fletcher encountered throughout their long-term collaborative project, I Want to Believe. The work dives into the boundless world of transhumanism: a movement advocating for the advancement of the human species to improve longevity, mood and cognition through the use of technology.

It all began in 2014, when Fletcher was invited to an event organised by the London Futurists group. Set in the basements of prestigious colleges, the conventions provide a space for transhumanists to debate the potential of a post-human world. “It was a weird and fascinating experience,” says Fletcher, who attended every weekend for six months. Having worked with Vintiner previously, she reached out to collaborate, and in February 2015 they produced a series of six portraits and interviews. “We put it online, and it went viral,” says Fletcher, explaining how they were approached by the likes of CNN, BBC and Wired. “We thought it felt urgent to explore, so we continued.”

Rob Spence, Toronto. Known as ‘The Eyeborg’, Spence lost an eye as a child while playing with his grandfather’s shotgun. Inspired by a love of The Six Million Dollar Man (aka The Bionic Man) and his interest in documentary filmmaking, Spence created an eye with a wireless video camera inside. He has created several aesthetics for the eye, from a realistic ‘hidden camera’ version to a Terminator-inspired glowing red version.
Rin Raeuber, Berlin. While Raeuber feels tattoos and piercings are just ornamental, implants offer them the chance to develop new skills and senses. They have magnetic implants and RFID chips in both hands allowing them to unlock a laptop, to pick up metal objects, and sense electromagnetic fields.

Six years on, Fletcher and Vintiner have photographed 80 individuals from all over the world, including Europe, North America, Russia, Australia and Japan. “We tried to tell the widest variety of stories possible,” says Vintiner. From DIY hackers rigging up to machines to academics in the early stages of conceptualising a product that is yet to exist, many of those involved are photographed in their bedrooms or offices.

“[Technology] seems like a big, ominous, negative force. We were interested in seeing how people are using tech in a way that is grounded in the everyday,” Fletcher explains. Vintiner adds that it was important to be clear that this is happening in the present day. “This is not science fiction,” he says. “Many transhumanists view the body as a bag of cells and algorithms. They’re not buying into the idea that there is a soul. It’s just a machine. Manipulating this machine, adding sensors, or choosing to live inside a computer – it all feels like a logical step to them.”

In February 2020, Fletcher and Vintiner launched a Kickstarter to fund a publication of the work. But as the world began to shut down due to the Covid-19 pandemic, they decided to cancel the campaign. Instead, they focused on exhibiting the work, starting with a show currently on display at Belfast Photo Festival. “Our relationship to technology changed a lot last year,” Fletcher explains. “It was our everything, it became our world… That started to shift my thoughts on what the work means and how it operates.”

“When we started this project, it was one of curiosity and fascination. Now, there is an urgency around what these people are doing”

Gem Fletcher

A report published by McKinsey & Company in October 2020 found that the pandemic has sped up the digitisation of businesses by three to four years. While Covid-19 has exposed and deepened societal divisions, in February 2021 the Pew Research Centre reported on a “plurality of experts”, a portion of whom believe that life will be better in some ways in a tele-connected world, where workplaces, healthcare and social activity may improve.

“The pandemic has definitely accelerated the merging of technology into our lives” says Vintiner. “We’ve all seen a positive side to technology in the last few months, and seeing what it can do for humanity.” Fletcher agrees, describing a fleeting moment at the beginning of the pandemic, in which the world came to a halt, and people seemed to realise that many systems in their daily lives were not serving them. “It felt like there was an opportunity for a new world, and a new way of being,” she remembers. “When we started this project, it was one of curiosity and fascination. Now, there is an urgency around what these people are doing.”

For Fletcher, the pandemic has recalibrated the value in some of the projects they encountered, such as Skinterface, a bodysuit that enables physical interactions with computer simulated people, objects and environments. “They could really help us build a more collaborative, community-driven, connected life,” she says.

Moon Ribas, Barcelona. Moon Ribas has been feeling earthquakes since 2013. Via an implanted chip, Ribas is connected to online seismographs allowing her to perceive seismic activity through vibrations in her body.

Staying connected

Technology has been a lifeline during this period of social isolation, but many believe it is driving a wedge between real human experiences and our relationship with the natural world. A poll commissioned by Vision Direct in May 2020 found that the average British adult spends 34 years staring at a screen. If a third of our lives are already spent in the cloud, is a deeper integration with tech what humanity needs to thrive? There are many reasons why people explore transhumanism, Fletcher explains: “One is because they want to feel closer to the world, and technology enables them in different ways to have a renewed connection.” Moon Ribas [above] is an avant-garde artist and cyborg, who has implanted seismic sensors in her feet that allow her to feel earthquakes.

“You watch this extraordinary performance of her reacting to the movement of the planet. It sounds like it could be terrible, but it was so beautiful, simple and powerful,” says Fletcher. Liviu Babitz and Scott Cohen are the founders of Cyborg Nest, a wearable tech start-up and developers of North Sense, a magnetic implant that notifies the body when it faces north. “They spoke about being able to connect with forces that you can’t ordinarily sense… These add-on devices and biological manipulations can stimulate new ways of sensing the world around them,” says Vintiner. “I think they would all agree that this brings them closer to their environment.”

Many of these technologies are invasive and unregulated. Critics have pointed to the dangers of DIY experiments, and some believe that transhumanists are “playing God”, interfering with evolution and modifying nature. But for people like Andrew Vladimirov, this is precisely the point. “When we talk about human enhancement, it’s the mind that is the most interesting part,” he said in an interview with Fletcher. “Some people think we shouldn’t do it because we shouldn’t play ‘God’. While becoming gods is the aim.”

Technology already exists as an extension of the self, and in some ways, these ideas are hardly more extreme than the concept of billions of urbanites navigating cities with devices attached to their hands, wrists and ears. Our social worlds, not to mention our economic systems, are already largely machine-based. Perhaps there is potential to learn more about our world – and live a more fulfilled life – through these hybrid systems. “Different animals sense the reality around them in different ways, whether it’s through magnetic fields, or being able to sense infrared colours,” Vintiner points out. “A lot of these transhumanists are bringing in those different ways of sensing the world to enrich our lives.”

Nick Bostrom, Future of Humanity Institute, Oxford. Future of Humanity Institute is an academic research organisation of the University of Oxford. Founded by Professor Nick Bostrom in 2006, its work involves researching existential threats to human survival and how emerging technologies could change the human condition. Much of the transhumanist movement is unregulated and experts like Bostrom have called for caution.

Coded bias

There are other dangers relating to this arm of technological innovation, specifically with artificial intelligence (AI) and its possibility to surpass the power of the human mind. From Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, to Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, dystopian visions of sentient inventions rebelling against their creators have long been explored in fictional narratives. But many experts are calling for caution. Professor Nick Bostrom [above] is the founder of the University of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute. His team of 20 researchers explore existential threats of emerging technologies to the human species. In his 2014 book, Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, Bostrum states that if a machine is able to surpass the human brain in general intelligence, this new “superintelligence” could replace humans as the dominant lifeform on Earth. “We should not be confident in our ability to keep a superintelligent genie locked up in its bottle forever,” he warned in a 2015 TED talk.

It is not only hypothetical threats: the existing dangers of AI are far more insidious. Big brands and tech giants are already leveraging it in marketing campaigns, and recent reports have shown how algorithms are adopting sexist and racist biases. “All these prejudices we have as humans are built into these technologies. It could reflect our good side, but also our bad side,” says Vintiner. Fletcher adds that it is important to consider who has access to this power: “It’s very white, it’s very male, it’s very middle classed, with not much in between.” Unfortunately, most of the “big money” being pumped into AI is coming from the advertising industry and the military, Vintiner adds. The most terrifying prospect is how they will harness it when machines become more intelligent than humans. “The military and ad agencies will probably get there first. And when that happens, it’s game over.”

All of this has driven Fletcher to reconsider the ideas of some of the individuals they have met. Ben Goertzel is the former chief scientist at Hanson Robotics, and co-creator of the most advanced human-like robotic AI, Sophia [below]. Goertzel advocates for the potential of machine learning to enhance our lives – in the service industry, or medical care, for example. Then there is Benjamin Engel, who is in the early stages of developing a skull implant that will enable him to sense the collective mood of Twitter’s trending topics. Engel is a ‘Grinder’, a branch of transhumanists also known as ‘bio-hackers’, who practice actual implantation of cybernetic devices to boost functionality and performance. This may sound extreme, but for many transhumanists, assimilation is the next logical step in our relationship with technology, and it is not a question of if, but when these technologies will be capitalised by tech giants and pharmaceutical companies.

“We’re already participants in their capitalism, and we do it even though we’re completely cognisant of what’s going on,” says Fletcher. “Now, when I think of people like Benjamin Engel, I realise that what they’re trying to do is get an edge on it, before it’s taken out of their hands, before it’s something that is privy to the rich… They’re trying to evolve themselves before it’s not an option.”

Sophia, New Territories, Hong Kong. Hanson Robotics’ most advanced human-like robot, Sophia, is the world’s first robot to be granted citizenship of a country (Saudi Arabia). She is able to recognise human faces, see emotional expressions, and understand some hand gestures. She can estimate feelings during a conversation and has her own emotions too.

Immortality, cyborgs, microchipping and cryogenics; for a long time, this was the stuff of science fiction. Fletcher and Vinitier are quick to admit that they were initially shocked by some of the projects they encountered. “We would put our hands up now and say that when we started this, there was something exotic about some of these people. It was extreme. It seemed almost archaic,” says Fletcher. But what they ended up discovering was not a story from the fringes, about eccentrics implanting robotic eyes and injecting serums in their bedrooms and garages. In reality, the movement is a sprawling network of enthusiasts, conceptual artists, entrepreneurs and leading academics from world-class institutions. There are rich, influential, intelligent people investing in these technologies. 

“I was speaking to a professor of neuroscience at Cambridge University about the work, and he pointed out that throughout history, science and technology have been spearheaded by people who were thought to be absolutely insane in their day,” says Viniter. Whether it is right or wrong, transhumanists are at the forefront of what could be an inevitable new era in human evolution. “I often think about that and wonder which of the people in this project will we look back on in 20 years and think, ‘My god, they were right’.”

I Want to Believe by David Vintiner and Gem Fletcher is currently on show at University of Atypical, as part of Belfast Photo Festival, until 30 June 2021. 

Marigold Warner

Marigold Warner joined the British Journal Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the position of Online Editor. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Gal-dem, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.