amor mundi

Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Friday, October 24, 2014


The expectation of privacy is not a refusal of scrutiny but a refusal to be reduced to any authority's profile of us. The expectation of publicity is that we are made more capacious in our responsiveness to scrutiny than we can know from our present profile of ourselves.

Tech "Disruption" Is Monopoly Money

Remember back in the fifties when intellectuals (like Herbert Marcuse) were handwaving that lowered costs and increasing efficiencies from the automation of manufacturing would afford a nearly universal leisure society in a single generation? In what should have been a surprise move to no one, the destruction of organized labor by outsourcing first to the feudal remnants of the Confederacy and then to the global South made it possibly instead for plutocrats to capture all the wealth generated by the stunning gains in efficiency made possible by automation and hence this development contributed to the present crisis of anti-democratic wealth concentration.

Remember back in the naughties when intellectuals (like Yochai Benkler) were handwaving that lowered costs from the digitization of publication and distribution infrastructure would afford rapid democratizing global development on the cheap? In what should be a surprise move to no one, it has instead afforded still greater wealth concentration through the duplication and replacement of existing enterprises and then the facilitation of monopolies among the ruins.

From RJ Escow's latest piece in Salon
Our society runs on a digital myth, which says that the technology-based economy is different... not subject to the principles of mathematics and human nature that govern the rest of our lives.  This myth tells us... we use services like Google and Facebook for “free.” ... Amazon is following a decades-long model for the tech industry. It begins with the rollout of cheap or “free” services -- typically based on the efforts of others -- offered at minimal cost in order to capture a monopoly share of the market. Once that monopoly is obtained, the tech vendor uses it to extract usurious and typically unanticipated costs...
That’s the story of Microsoft’s operating system... Bill Gates... acknowledges, he and his associates built MS/DOS by “taking Digital’s manual and writing my operating system.” IBM offered other operating systems with its new PCs... to mollify the Justice Department’s antitrust division... But the Gates/IBM product was offered for only $40, while users who wanted CP/M were required to pay $240. The die was cast. In his 1999 ruling against Microsoft, Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson [found that] ... Microsoft possesses monopoly power in the market for... operating systems... protect[s] its operating system monopoly, utilizing a full array of exclusionary practices... harmful to innovation and to consumers... How do you quantify the jobs, consumer savings or new revenues... lost because of innovations that never took place? ... Then there’s the human cost of product inefficiency... protected from competitors who might design a better product...
The monopoly strategy is the tech industry’s deep, dark secret... Despite its self-promoted reputation for “disruption” and invention, Microsoft’s monopoly approach is Silicon Valley’s real business model... Although it was never distinguished by smart design or ease of use, Facebook moved aggressively to capture a monopolistic share of the social media market. Then came the ads, the interference, the invasions of privacy... YouTube, like Facebook, never generated its own content. It built its monopoly position by offering free access to the creative work of others. Once firmly established on its monopolistic throne, it began forcing viewers to watch advertisements before viewing videos.
That’s the model: First lure them in and establish your monopoly, then monetize. YouTube is now owned by Google, which also commands a monopoly share of its market... [L]ike its peers, it has relied heavily on government-funded technology (the Internet, computers, smartphones) and government-funded research to capture its monopoly share. It has used its monopoly to redirect users’ attention, and to exert frightening levels of control over users’ experience of the world... “Uber,” which recently distinguished itself by earning an “F” rating from the Better Business Bureau... is following the path laid down by its forebears: First, identify a core market. Second, establish a monopoly position. Then capitalize on that position... Amazon isn’t a monopoly or monopsony in anything except books -- yet. But it has demonstrated through its actions that it intends to become one in every market it serves.  It has used its enormous cash flow -- cash flow based on government-provided tax breaks -- in order to act proactively and ruthlessly to eliminate future competitors. While it’s far from a monopoly in diapers, for example, it used its revenue base to engage in brutal price competition with (which it then acquired).
This strategy could be described as “serial monopoly” and “serial monopsony.” It enters a market, leverages an economic advantage (sales tax exemptions, revenues from other product lines) and then preys on competitors until it reaches something like a monopoly position... In one way the serial monopolists are a new creature, spawned from technology that allows them to enter new markets without initially manufacturing or warehousing the merchandise themselves. In another sense theirs is an old tactic, one that would have been familiar to the railroad tycoons who were setting the price of grain in 19th century America... Silicon Valley represents a set of values that is amoral by commonly held standards. It’s rapidly taking control of the distribution systems for music, literature and arts. And it’s increasingly manipulating our access to information, even as it absorbs an ever-increasing share of our economy. Scoff at the word “monopoly” if you like. But if these developments don’t concern you, you’re not paying attention.

Won't Somebody Please Think of the Children?

What if yer kids get the eekbola from the candy bowl when they go tricker treatin'? Makes you unthink.

Inside the Republican Mind

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Are You Experienced?

The inexperienced often know everything. The experienced know better.

More Faulty Ivory Towers here.

Seeing Things

Science fiction may be occasionally, if only incidentally, predictive -- as can efforts in any other literary genre. But at its heart, science fiction stands in a creative and critical relation to the present. At its extreme, the misconstrual of science fiction as essentially predictive yields the pseudo-scientific pseudo-policy of the futurological scenario. The stodgy sterility of too much "hard sf" derives from its inept aspiration to be more futurological than literary. That futurological scenarios are then retroactively revealed to be mired in parochial and past prejudices, and predictively accurate in roughly the same proportion that could be accomplished by puppies rolling over keyboards, tends to go unnoticed amidst the next batch of predictions.

Pep Pap

The problem with pleas for more "positive" "utopian" sf is that they are essentially efforts to replace literature with advertising.

More Futurological Brickbats here.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Today's Random Wilde

Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Sunday, October 19, 2014

R.U. Sirius on Transhumanism

A recent episode of Klint Finley and Chris Dancy's "Mindful Cyborgs" podcast featured an ongoing conversation with dashing cyberkardashian R.U. Sirius. Although his futurological antics annoy me as much as they do when others indulge them, I have always wanted to like R.U. Sirius and often have succeeded, not least because futurology is deadly in earnest but in his irony sometimes manages to assume instead the force of critique. Athena Andreadis likes to call the transhumanists "transhumorists," because their pseudo-scientific facts and their pseudo-progressive values are a bad joke at best. R.U. Sirius is not a less silly name than, say, Max More, but it is funnier and manages to be self-conscious rather than symptomatic about it, and so I give him the benefit of the doubt (not to mention noticing that he benefits from doubt, unlike Max More). In such moments, R.U. Sirius manages to be something of a stand-up transhumorist, a camp futurist, rather than just a bad futurological joke on us.

I'll say a few more comparatively generous things by way of conclusion at the end, but first I am a critic and I criticize. I must say, I was interested to notice how interested R.U. Sirius seemed to be in having folks not notice the extent of his connection to the transhumanist sect of techno-transcendentalist robocultism. After ending his stint as editor of h+ magazine (h+ stands for humanity-plus, which in turn is the PR repackaging of the transhumanist term itself -- and if you didn't know that already or question any of that, many transhumanoids would no doubt deem you humanity-minus), R.U. insinuates that he has somewhat lost touch with the many fleeting and competing sub(cult)ural strands of "the transhumanist movement." He also takes great care to express dissatisfaction with what he regards as the reactionary politics and Randroidal stylings of Zoltan Istvan, who he seems to consider a rather looming recent mouthpiece for transhumanism more generally and perhaps the symptom of a worrying turn.

I sympathize with the judgment that it is no easy thing to keep up with all the wacky twists and turns of robocultism and even harder to justify the effort given the marginality and imbecility of so much of it. And needless to say I quite agree that all these transhumanists, singularitarians, techno-immortalists, digi-utopians, nano-cornucopiasts, geo-engineers, and so on are indulging and elaborating an essentially reactionary ideology, and some of them are well-funded and organized enough to do real damage in the world. None of this is the least bit new, however, and R.U. Sirius, while he may never have endorsed any of this always infantile and usually reactionary nonsense in an explicit or unqualified form, has been up to his neck in this stuff for as long as anybody else.

The two instances that strike me as most relevant to my point are responses R.U. Sirius published in answer to earlier critiques of the reactionary politics of transhumanism, Annalee Newitz' Extropian Trash from 2004, and Charlie Stross' Deconstructing Our Future from 2012.

First, in response to the Newitz piece, R.U. Sirius (and quite serious he seems to be), said the following (I found this transcript in an old Cyborg Democracy archive, and would be pleased if anybody has a better or more substantial reference):
NEOFILES: I was a little surprised by your take on transhumanism. Sure, the sensibilities that seem to accompany a lot of this is sort of Heinleinian “Amazing Stories” ubergeek; not particularly sly or post-punk. But I would expect you to be more aligned with James Hughes and his lefty-oriented “Democratic Transhumanism” (he links to you) than to just sort of nay-say longevity, bio-enhancement, and all these areas of intrigue, given your previous radical pro-tech “biopunk” writings. It seems to me that once you say “yeah”! to biopunk -- decentralized, independent noodling with life forms … biology (presumably including our own) … you’re about 99.9% of the way to a transhumanist perspective (and in some ways, beyond it). I mean, we’re talking TRANS here, right? TRANShumanity, TRANSexuality (that’s all about self enhancement too. So why is this one’s challenge to biological destiny hip and trendy and the other one gauche?) Recontextualizations, reconfigurations, moving into zones of uncertainty where positive mutation might occur: this is all in the spirit of the “Cyborg Manifesto,” no?
This paragraph red-lights the whole control board for me, and so let me just make a few almost random critical interventions at a run, starting at the end and working my way to the beginning. First, I think it is a profound misreading of Haraway's "Manifesto for Cyborgs," to describe its "spirit" as the least bit allied to faith-based futurology and hyper-consumerist gizmo-fetishism. In a later interview published as the final chapter of The Haraway Reader (Routledge, 2004) she says all you need to know about the loose ascription R.U. Sirius is proposing here:
There were some who regarded it [The Cyborg Manifesto] as… promoting a kind of blissed-out, techno-sublime euphoria. Those readers completely failed to see the critique. They would read things that for me are highly ironic and angry… they would read these things… as if I was embracing and affirming what I am describing with barely restrained fury… I have had people, like Wired Magazine readers, interviewing and writing about the Cyborg Manifesto from what I see as a very blissed-out, techno-sublime position.
I have similar objections to his free associational leap from "biopunk" to what he calls a "radical pro-tech" position. Quite apart from the fact that there are too many differences that make a difference among the capacities and applications of the events and artifacts that get called "tech" for it to make any kind of sense to be monolithically either "pro" or "con" that whole mess and then go on to describe such an utterly confused state of mind as in any sense a "radical" one, the fact is that "biopunk" as a discourse, a literary genre, and a cultural site is enormously critical and skeptical and nuanced in ways all his glib talk here disavows utterly. I taught a course at Berkeley years ago about bioethical discourse and biopunk literature (the syllabus is still available here, the bioethical articles and op-eds we read are not included, unfortunately, since they were always assigned one week in advance because I tried to make them as topical as possible and they often were published just days or weeks before we read them in the course itself), and it seems to me that the vitality of biopunk is indeed allied to the spirit of Haraway's manifesto, in ways that R.U. Sirius is utterly missing here and encouraging others to miss at the same time. I do not regard this as innocent in one both so knowledgeable and aware. Further, I regard his cheerleading of the essentially eugenicist project of transhumanist "enhancement" as terribly wrongheaded and his effort to repackage it as appealingly "pro-choice" through a glib slippage of transhuman optimally-profitable people-engineering into a celebration of transsexual queerness very familiar and very pernicious indeed.

For the purposes of the argument at hand, though, all I need to point out is that R.U. Sirius was pushing back in 2004 against a critique of the very kind R.U. Sirius in 2014 now implies is second nature to him, and also that he has been affiliating with transhumanism more insistently (and with a clearly fine-grained awareness of strands and positions and figures in that discourse and movement, and this already years and years ago) than his cavalier dismissals now would imply.

In his more recent response to Charles Stross' critique of reactionary transhumanism he wrote:
I have lately tried to stay away from calling myself a transhumanist largely because I’m intimate with the unpredictable and indescribable iconoclasm that often shakes my brain and therefore resist labels. But I also like to steer clear because people who don’t self-identify with the label have a lot of misconceptions about who “the transhumanists” are. And every now and then, a fairly predictable group of thinkers… some of them friends of mine… beat the straw out of their conception of transhumanism. They give it a damn good thrashing. Now, if these folks were criticizing some tendencies within some prominent self-identified transhumanist circles, they’d often be on target. But what we get from them is something akin to some people attacking atheism in the 1960s based on the prominence of Madeline O’Hair and Ayn Rand.
When he writes that some have beaten the straw out of transhumanism he links to Stross' critique directly. The phrase suggests that Stross' piece is indulging in the torching of straw men. This is hard to reconcile with his admission in the next sentence that there are in fact plenty of transhumanists, even "prominent" transhumanists, even whole transhumanist "circles" for whom the critique is in point. That's a lot of substance for straw.

What makes R.U. Sirius squeamish here is that he identifies transhumanism with an "unpredictable and indescribable iconoclasm that… resist[s] labels." But is it really true that transhumanism is so unpredictable and indescribable? For whatever it is worth, by far the most widely read piece I've ever written is The Unbearable Stasis of Accelerating Change in which I bemoan precisely the robotic predictability and painful obviousness (yeah, it's describable) of transhumanist discourse. It also just happens that it was an affirmation of this piece of mine which occasioned the Stross critique which provoked R.U. Sirius' response. That piece of mine was also mentioned and linked by the Mindful Cyborgs show and was part of the conversation I am talking about now.

It is very hard to make sense of R.U. Sirius' assertion that transhumanism in the sense that interests him "resists labels." Transhumanism is an -ism, after all, and inter-sectarian squabbles among the futurological faithful inevitably take the form of a ramification of labels with which the partisans identify with an energy hard to square with the marginal stakes of the whole business given the number of folks directly involved (but this sort of thing is of course quite familiar in cultic ideological formations and defensive fandoms), singularitarian-ISM, immortal-ISM, cosm-ISM, liberal eugenic-ISM, neoreaction-ISM, and on and on and on.

In the very paragraph in which he declares transhumanists label-averse he also refers to the labeling practices of "self-identified" transhumanists, going so far as to say that "people who don't self-identify with the label have a lot of misconceptions about who 'the transhumanists' are," which implies that the transhumanists are indeed enough of something that people can have misconceptions about them but also that the only people who might be qualified to criticize transhumanism self-identify as transhumanist and hence are little likely to do so -- now isn't THAT convenient? Look, is transhumanism a discourse or isn't it? Is it an ideology or isn't it? Is it a movement or isn't it? There are people who are calling themselves transhumanists who seem to mean something by that and who expect others to know what they mean when they do so. There are transhumanist membership organizations with actual members, actual subscribers, actual participants. To say that all the different instances subsumed under a concept exhibit differences is to state a truism, but if you choose a label the very legibility conferred by the choice also exposes you to scrutiny. One can delineate the logical, citational, and figurative associations playing out in an ideology, in a discourse, in a constellation of cultural practices without claiming that only those associations are at hand, or that they are always on exhibition, or that all of them are even intended by those who are caught up in them. If there are people who are represented by transhumanism this implies that transhumanism has a representativeness the legibility of which is available to everybody and with which everybody can come to terms as they see fit -- including those who would see all this critically.

If transhumanists can identify as such and describe canons of texts and stand in organizational relations to one another then non-transhumanists can identify others as such and analyze these texts and delineate these relations in ways the transhumanists can like or not like. If transhumanists want to dismiss criticism as hate speech (something I am accused of quite a bit, and I think R.U. Sirius is leveling a mild form of the same accusation at Stross) then transhumanism cannot be a space of argumentation or publicity or change but is simply a sterile separatist subculture. That's fine, as far as it goes -- I am the last one to deny anybody their private perfections so long as they aren't harming anybody else -- but transhumanism and its cousin futurological sects are endlessly offering themselves up to public scrutiny, pretending to be engaging in scientific practice and serious policy deliberation. They cannot have it both ways. And, I'm afraid that goes for R.U. Sirius as well.

Again, as I said, I have always wanted to like R.U. Sirius. He makes me laugh, and not at him but with him as often as not. It isn't easy trying to be a counter-culture documentarian, especially one who, like Barthes, "claims to live to the full the contradiction of my times, which may well make sarcasm the condition of truth." The Academy's authorities don't easily attach their credentials or their life-sustaining funding to this kind of work. Taste and tastelessness collide in it in ways that make academics nervous for their job titles. V. Vale is someone who has done indispensable work in this area, which is not to deny the occupational hazard of the occasional catastrophic critical misfire in that body of work. R.U. Sirius is a lot like that, too: vacuuming up all that gorgeous lifeway variation and marginal creative expressivity in that free associational way of his can yield deeply problematic undercriticalities and vacuities amid the buried treasure chests. Since R.U. Sirius is not just an archivist but also a kind of impresario of "cybercultures" -- given to pranks and performances -- there is a real seat-of-the-pants improvisational hustling going on in many of his enterprises. Like the head of an itinerate theater troupe in the nineteenth century bringing beauty and laughs to the yokels always on the brink of starvation or riot, R.U. Sirius doesn't always have the time or patience for what passes for legitimacy in official public culture. That critical intervention with a beat you can dance to, Mondo Vanilli, a joyous javelin straight to the heart and hardon of bad-faith authenticity performance in the entertainment industry, is a marvelous case in point. In this, he has my sympathies even when I cannot help but criticize his efforts here and there. I'm a fat fifty year old faggot socialist-feminist adjunct teaching critical theory and technoscience studies at a San Francisco art school, I know all about intellectual hustling.

The special danger of R.U. Sirius' position is that he is hustling in a sea of hustlers. There is an ominously tight connection of futurology with fraud. Even in its blandest and most prevalent forms, futurological imagery suffuses the marketing and promotional promises of consumer advertising (full of models in lab coats and sci-fi CGI peddling boner pills and anti-aging kremes) seducing us into unsustainable conformist individualism and official neoliberal think-tanks offering up "globalizing" "developmental" rationalizations for elite-incumbent corporate-militarist exploitation and violence. And at its gaudy extremes in the various robocultic sects of techno-transcendentalist futurological movements, the indulgence in outright pseudo-science and death-denialism and existential fear-mongering takes the con-artistry and fraud to evangelical heights (about these movements, you can read what everybody reads of mine if they read anything, the Superlative Futurology pieces in The Condensed Critique of Transhumanism).

The Future of futurology was born in the cradle of market futures, and there is a kinship between think-tank scenario spinners for the Pentagon and writers of best-sellers promising to provide the magic formula for Wall Street success. But true success in such spaces always finally depends on the fraud and corruption of insider knowledge and always comes at the expense of majorities of outsiders. Plutocracy and militarism are built into The Future at the ground level. The Future is always ultimately about the amplification of the status quo re-packaged for the masses as progress, disruption, and accelerating change. In this, The Future is crucially to be distinguished from the open futurity inhering in the present emerging into the next-present in consequence of the ineradicable diversity of its stakeholders (I make this argument most clearly in the Existenz piece, Futurological Discourses and Posthuman Terrains).

There is always a bit of credential-fluffing and con-artistry in counter-culture. And righteously so! since all culture is multiculture and since culture is a living thing, not a dead specimen preserved under glass, countercultural opportunisms and debaucheries are indispensably invigorating in their totality (if not always in their specificity), and also since turnabout is fair play. There is nonetheless a real danger that a focus on the countercultural forces futurism promises distracts from the reactionary forces futurology endorses, and the countercultural hustler enables the reactionary hustle of pseudo-science and uncritical True Belief and corporate-militarist policymaking. While I do not think this is R.U. Sirius' serious intention, I do think this is too often the result of his undercritical embrace of transhumanist discourses and sub(cult)ures. And whether or not he has thought this through enough for it to represent a fully-fledged intention his apologia for transhumanists and against critiques of their reactionary entailments don't look innocent to me whatever his intentions.

Republican Voter Fraud

Every time a citizen is disenfranchised by a fee, by a cumbersome voting process, or by an exclusive ID requirement the state has committed voter fraud. I do not deny that other forms of voter fraud -- like the Republicans' obsessive go-to scenario, in-person voter-impersonation -- are also real, if rare, but I do know that if a state disenfranchises thousands of citizens on the pretext of eliminating a form of fraud that involves a handful of instances then that state is not acting to eliminate voter fraud but to commit it.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Louie Gohmert Has Been Diagnosed With Asshola

Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) ... joined Glenn Beck on his radio show where he said that he does not have Ebola when Beck asked how he was. "As far as I know, I’m okay. But do any of us really know for sure?"
There's nothing like Texas reactionary "leaders" whomping up bedwetting panic to get Americans to vote for more anti-science Republicans who despise public healthcare on principle to make everything worse in every possible way.

The Reactionary Ideology Bolstered By the False Claim That Robots Inhabit Mars

Mika McKinnon asks, "Is Mars really the only planet solely inhabited by robots?" She then answers, "Yes, but no. The truth behind this meme is an excellent opportunity to investigate just how adventurous our robotic explorers are in visiting all sorts of places we squishy humans haven't."

At the risk of seeming utterly pedantic (in my defense, I'll say McKinnon opened the door by enjoyably geeking out on the proper definition of "planet"), I want to answer that robots don't inhabit any places anywhere. While the verb "inhabit" may seem to designate the neutral occupation of space by anyone or anything, it actually has more the specific connotations of "living" in a place, "residing," "dwelling," "making a home" in a place. To say that robots inhabit Mars is exactly as wrong as declaring that rock formations inhabit Mars together with the robots.

This is not a trivial or an innocent error. To talk about robots as if they are people makes it easier to treat people as if they are robots. Just as the misrecognition of cars, phones, homes, cards as "smart" when they are not undermines the recognition that human beings are smart, a recognition indispensable to our responsibility to the dignity and standing of human beings, so too the investment of the nonliving with the connotations of the living divests the living of the legible terms on which they depend for their lives.

The consequences of this catastrophic framing are actually already beginning to play out in the sentences immediately following the confused initial assertion: robots are described as "adventurous" and as "explorers" who (a devastating implication) are "visiting places." It isn't surprising that when humans finally make an actual appearance in this formulation, humans who really are adventurous, humans who really are explorers, humans who really do visit places, humans who really do inhabit and live places, we are dismissed as "squishy" as compared to superior robot beings who are presumably stronger, sturdier, more resilient.

Of course, what is worse in this rhetorical framing is that human adventurousness and inhabitation of the solar system is in fact expressed precisely in the creation of robotic devices that enable and mediate our explorations. While McKinnon claims that "the truth behind this meme" are the admirable antics of machinic agents, the meme actually foregrounds a falsehood.

The agency displaced onto the robotic figure in these formulations is an active falsification, it is human agency that conceived, funds, builds, programs, operates, narrates, analyses our robotic openings onto our wider worlds of discovery and wonder.

I don't know McKinnon's avowed views and so I would hesitate to ascribe explicit futurological aspirations to her. Near the end of her piece she attributes agency more sensibly saying, "we've done an excellent job of spreading robots throughout the solar system," but before you declare her identification through that pronoun "we" as humanist, I would direct your attention to the prelude to that identification, in which she makes a point of denigrating what she calls human beings' "puny, fleshy bodies" in what seems to me the usual futurological dis-identification. Indeed, in taking up futurological frames (robotic persons, AIs, etc.) that are all too ready-to-hand in public technodevelopmental discourse she is, possibly unwittingly and even anti-wittingly, mobilizing a techno-transcendental ideology which dis-identifies with the living intelligent beings with whom she shares the present world the better to identify instead with artificial living intelligences in "the future" -- an ideology the substance of which (since, mind you, none of these futuristic beings actually ever exist) is the retro-futural rationalization of the terms of incumbent-elite corporate-militarist prevalence over the present emerging onto the next-present.

Wall-eyed Republican Racism

Republicans want a border fence to keep scary brown families out, an airport wall to keep scary brown ebola out, a voter ID wall to keep scary brown democratic votes out...


First being is degraded by consumer capitalism into having, then having is degraded by spectacular media into appearing, and now appearing is being degraded by data collection into being framed.

More Fool Me Tee Vee here.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Crap Recap

Hard to know if "Pacific Rim Number Two" is meant to characterize the original or the sequel.

Republican Uplift

Cheating through disenfranchisement and making people stupid with ebola/ISIS panic will help Republicans in the mid-terms. Oh, how very proud they must be!

Your Number's Up

The Future of the futurologists is the lottery you will never win.

More Futurological Brickbats here.

Superlativity, A True Story (Possibly Allegorical)

Asked at the Claremont Diner whether I would like soup or salad with my sandwich, and imagining I had been offered a Super Salad, I said: Oh, yes, please! Ridicule and then disappointment followed. But my lunch was tasty.

"Overcoming Our Biological Limits"

It is a techno-transcendental commonplace to pretend that medicine is confounding long definitive biological limitations in human health, capacity, lifespan, and so on. These claims are usually just completely false, but they are always overblown. The Pill provides a fine illustration of the point, since it truly did enable a fundamental and profoundly emancipatory transformation of the human condition in my view, but without rendering humanity "post-human" in the sense that interests the superlative futurologists in the least.

I see no reason to expect any radical enhancement of definitive human capacities or any increase of lifespan beyond the upper bound some lucky humans have always enjoyed in recorded history (although I would like to think medical improvements might enable many more humans to share in that bit of luck) of the sort that would render "posthuman" or "transhuman" terms more apt now than they have been since World War II to characterize human beings. But quite apart from this sort of well warranted skepticism about imminent techno-transcendental expectations -- whether originating in ill-informed credulity, promotional fraud, pseudo-science, or wish-fulfillment fantasizing -- I must say that I find techno-transcendental interpretations of such projected outcomes profoundly wrongheaded in principle even if they were not also wildly implausible or premature.

On the one hand, these futurologists seem too eager to treat biological limits as self-evident givens, when the terms of bodily legibility and the significance with which biological traits and capacities are freighted are in fact historically varied, constructed and contingent. While on the other hand, futurologists seem to dismiss the extent to which salient continuities in human life -- and especially a shared vulnerability to suffering, correction, injury, abuse, neglect, disease, mortality -- have provided a context within which humans have testified together to our hopes and our histories, a context out of which humans have elaborated our still fledgling morals, ethics, politics, aesthetics. If our technique ever truly were to confound long definitive human limits, such as they are, this would hardly be experienced as an ecstatic overcoming of all limits but as a confrontation with new, and utterly bedeviling, limits to our sense of sharable experience and shared significance.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Aphoristic Futuristic

Interesting that the two go-to cyberpunk aphorisms "the future arrives but is not evenly distributed" and "the street finds its own uses for things" point the same moral.

Today's Random Wilde

Art is the mathematical result of the emotional desire for beauty.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Fluffing Yud

In the Moot long-time friend of blog "JimF" cites "Meta-Med Senior Health Research and Medical Associate" Dr. Scott Siskind, a.k.a "Scott S. Alexander" (he's quoting people quoting people quoting people so I might have the attribution wrong). Meta-Med, you may recall, is a plutocratic/"personalized" eugenicist/"enhancement" medical/"kindasorta" outfit with lots of robocultic muckety mucks behind it, and I drew some attention to it and to the transhumanists/singularitarians connected to it in the post to which the Moot I'm upgrading here is appended. Anyway, it turns out that in the recent best-selling and very widely reviewed book Superintelligence by transhumanist singularitarian Robot Cultist Nick Bostrom, "Eliezer [Yudkowsky] gets cited just about every other page, and in MIRI HQ there is a two-way videoscreen link from them to Nick Bostrom’s office in Oxford because they coordinate so much." This commenter then goes on to say that, "Searching the book’s bibliography [there are many] citations of MIRI people." MIRI is an acronym for the Machine Intelligence Research Institute which used to be the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence (long associated with Yudkowsky fanboys), but changed its name as the burgeoning recent corporate-military mainstreaming of Singularity ideology via Singularity University (so-called), the Singularity Summit, and various Google projects to code a Robot God and end death have started to attract more serious attention and cash. The commenter does note an interesting traffic between MIRI folks and people being hired by Google in these projects, and so the name change may be as much or more a matter of creating confusions about uncomfortable associations than the official story of eliminating confusions about inaccurate associations. Be that as it may, MIRI in its present incarnation overlaps with Meta-Med in many of its funders and advisors, as full-on fulminating techno-transcendentalism still remains confined to a fairly cramped sub(cult)ure. Specific names that come up in the comment from the Moot about robocultic citations in Bostrom's bibliography are "Stuart Armstrong, Kaj Sotala, Paul Christiano, Wei Dai, Peter de Blanc, Nick Hay, Jeff Kaufman, Roko Mijic, Luke Muehlhauser, Carl Shulman, Michael Vassar, and nine different Eliezer publications." (Spelunk the Moot, by the way, to find half of these folks cutting their teeth the long decade through, some of them saying the most hilarious things imaginable.) To all this I added the following ruminations:
I seem to recall that Yudkowsky first claimed he didn't need to get a degree in any of the fields on which he still illiterately pontificates because the singularity was supposedly so near it would be a waste of time. Of course nowadays Robot Cultists like Bostrom who managed at least to do the work to get into the academy are so busy enabling Yudkowsky as a member of the fellow-faithful, getting him publications and citations and speaking gigs he could scarcely manage for himself with his online catalog of facile pseudo-philosophical fanfic about Harry Potter and Flowers for Algernon, that it remains a waste of time for Yudkowsky to set aside his guru-gig and actually see if his marginal convictions would long survive unqualified were he to go through the long slog of engaging with people who actually know what they're talking about. I actually do not doubt Yudkowsky is intelligent enough to benefit from an actual degree program and long-term engagement with the demands of real research. The path he is on does damage to the world -- deranging the terms of public deliberation and providing rationales for elite-incumbent interests on urgent technoscience questions -- but also to himself as far as I'm concerned. A caveat though: philosophy departments will obviously let anybody through (hell, even me!), and Yudkowsky would not be helped in the least by a degree in philosophy which he then treated as an endorsement of his skills in computer science or his knowledge of physics. It is yet another sign of the extreme and at this point multi-generational decline into crisis of Anglo-American analytic philosophy that it can no longer insulate itself from futurology being done in its name and under its auspices.

Lewis Black on Voter Suppression

Friday, October 10, 2014

Independent is the new Blue Dog

And so, maybe gridlock eases a bit as reactionary but not crazytown Republicans and corporatist Democrats get elected in Red and Purple States as Independents, but only by moving partisan politics to the right, even though majorities disapprove of and are actively harmed by this shift, largely because the House and Senate are inherently non-representative of the reality of an urban rather than rural populace, all this encouraging apathy among majorities and the usual useless separatist self-marginalizing noises from intellectuals, further consolidating plutocratic capture of governance, ensuring in turn that parochial profit taking remains the order of the day until climate catastrophe and global unrest overwhelm institutions fatally... ugh, I'm going to go lick a tootsie-pop.

Profiles in Bedwetting Panic

FDR: The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
GOP: The only thing we fear more than everything is doing anything.


When you are flying under the radar you are still flying.

It's Been A She Breaks for Rainbows Day So Far Today