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

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Problematical Posthumanistical

I want to re-iterate again my insistence that in its primary current technocentric usage the term "posthuman(ist)" looks to me to be at best conceptually confused and at worst actively pernicious. This is especially so to the extent that it is meant to express some kind of idealized superlative technodevelopment state (either utopian or dystopian) at which some elite few or even "all" humans are presumably aiming, converging, accelerating, or what have you, rather than simply a term denoting a critical or skeptical attitude in the present concerning the limitations of humanist discourses and institutions.

When I say that some "posthumanist" discourses -- again, especially in their technocentric variations -- are conceptually confused I refer to the simple fact that either humans "are" posthuman in this sense right now already, or we never will be. That is to say, humanity was "essentially" prostheticized when members of the species stumbled their way into urban/cultural/linguistic lifeways, and humanity has variously interminably re-articulated and re-incarnated its being through techniques and technologies ever since.

When I say that some "posthumanist" discourses are perniciously anti-democratizing, I refer to avowed "Posthumanists" who like to use that term to express their identification here and now with projected differently technologized beings (prostheticized or genetically therapized supermen, sentient spacecraft, hive minded robot armies, superintelligent digital networks, and so on -- and, yes, dear readers, these people really do indeed exist), and my point is that this gesture of identification is making a move the essential political content of which is its disidentification with human beings as they currently exist.

This move tends to be fairly straightforwardly sociopathic, when all is said and done, and in any case anti-democratizing in its effects. It is no accident that some of the most conspicuous, usually avowedly sub(cult)ural, expressions of "Posthumanism" -- especially online -- are such strange attractors for the political Right (consider, at a glance, the market fundamentalist "Extropian" or "libertopian" variations of posthumanism, the priestly-authoritarian religiosity of the "Singularitarian" variations of posthumanism, and then the "apoliticism," "anti-politicism," and status quo apologetics of the reductionist technocrats, the more mainstream Bayesians, "Brights," and cybernetic totalists which I tend to denote as the "statisticians and bomb builders" variations of posthumanism), and again and again and again one finds in them an eager or "reluctant" embrace of (or relative indifference to) anti-democratic policy facilitated by a prior disidentification with contemporary humanity.

It is worth noting that, inasmuch as humanity "in general" is already quite as prostheticized as it ever will be -- even though, one can be sure, human beings will come to be radically differently prostheticized in years to come, as has happened over and over and over again in humanity's pasts and presents -- this means that the sub(cult)ural "Posthumanists" one finds online, full of enthusiasts handwaving about the pet futures with which they identify and which, hence, they insist must prevail, are lodging their own parochialism at the site of the very open-ended, unpredictable, prosthetic experimentalism which actually fatally undermines all such parochial pretensions. Posthumanist futurists tend to substitute for the richness of open futurity the poverty of "the future" that stars their own eyes.

Rather, it seems to me one could simply chart the historical vicissitudes of human prostheticization (culture is another perfectly good word for this) and marvel at the spectacle for its beauty or its complexity, or, sometimes perhaps more critically and opportunistically assess the costs/risks associated with its variations as one sees them or confronts them and seeks to chart a progressive course. This is not so much, I fear, the attitude inculcated by the default "posthumanist" and "transhumanist" discourses one stumbles upon online and elsewhere, which -- as I have noted many times in the past -- seem too often to amount to essentially religious attitudes toward technodevelopmental quandaries, and seem preoccupied for the most part with producing and then shoring up the viability of various marginal sub(cult)ures and their correlated membership organizations.

18 comments:

Michael Anissimov said...

I am one of the most prominent Singularitarians, a liberal registered Democrat who lives in San Francisco. I don't see any conflict between singularitarianism and democratic politics. In fact, SIAI's planned goal system for Friendly AI is fundamentally based on democratic principles.

SIAI's executive director, Tyler Emerson, is very strongly pro-democratic and is also a practicing Buddhist. Michael Roy Ames, head of SIAI-Canada, is another thoroughly leftist singularitarian. There are many others. Out of a couple hundred singularitarians, there are only three I know of that are libertarians: Eliezer Yudkowsky, Brian Atkins, and Peter Thiel. Many, many are Democrats.

So as we can see, your associating singularitarianism with right-wing politics is obviously wrong. I would like to ask you to please stop doing it.

Dale Carrico said...

Fat chance.

jfehlinger said...

Dale,

You wrote:
Dale,

You wrote:

> When I say that some "posthumanist" discourses are perniciously
> anti-democratizing, I refer to avowed "Posthumanists" who like
> to use that term to express their identification here and now
> with projected differently technologized beings (prostheticized
> or genetically therapized supermen, sentient spacecraft,
> hive minded robot armies, superintelligent digital networks,
> and so on -- and, yes, dear readers, these people really do
> indeed exist), and my point is that this gesture of identification
> is making a move the essential political content of which
> is its disidentification with human beings as they currently exist.
>
> This move tends to be fairly straightforwardly sociopathic,
> when all is said and done, and in any case anti-democratizing
> in its effects.

-----------------------------------------------------------
THE DEVIL: There is something unnatural about these fellows.
Do not listen to their gospel, senor Commander: it is dangerous.
Beware of the pursuit of the Superhuman: it leads to an
indiscriminate contempt for the Human. To a man, horses and
dogs and cats are mere species, outside the moral world.
Well, to the Superman, men and women are a mere species too,
also outside the moral world. . .

THE STATUE: And who the deuce is the Superman?

THE DEVIL: Oh, the latest fashion among the Life Force fanatics.
Did you not meet in Heaven, among the new arrivals, that
German Polish madman? what was his name? Nietzsche?

THE STATUE: Never heard of him.

THE DEVIL: Well, he came here first, before he recovered his wits.
I had some hopes of him; but he was a confirmed Life Force worshipper.
It was he who raked up the Superman, who is as old as Prometheus;
and the 20th century will run after this newest of the old crazes
when it gets tired of the world, the flesh, and your humble servant.

THE STATUE: Superman is a good cry; and a good cry is half the
battle. I should like to see this Nietzsche.

THE DEVIL: Unfortunately he met Wagner here, and had a quarrel with him.

THE STATUE: Quite right, too. Mozart for me!

THE DEVIL: Oh, it was not about music. Wagner once drifted into
Life Force worship, and invented a Superman called Siegfried.
But he came to his senses afterwards. So when they met here,
Nietzsche denounced him as a renegade; and Wagner wrote a pamphlet
to prove that Nietzsche was a Jew; and it ended in Nietzsche's
going to heaven in a huff. And a good riddance too.

-- G. B. Shaw, "Don Juan in Hell", from
_Man and Superman_

Michael Anissimov said...

Dale,

Why are you being so antagonistic? I don't understand what your goal is. Apolitical does not mean supporting the status quo. Why can't people focus on technological solutions while under-emphasizing political wars where emotions run high?

It seems like you're not interested in constructive dialogue, but are just constantly on "attack mode" towards anyone who is not a radical leftist activist. With your attack stance, you even rail against those whom you praise - Anne Corwin, for instance, who takes the prospect of superintelligence, existential risk, and AGI seriously.

I made it clear in my comment that Singularity advocates are not right-wing at all. You waved me away, making it seem like you're interested in perpetual fighting than reconciliation.

This is not the liberalism I was taught. My mother is a Berkeley graduate who taught me that liberalism is about having an open mind, engaging in dialogue with one's "enemies", giving people the benefit of the doubt, and attempting to come to a genuine understanding of the other side rather than resorting to caricatures. Why are you dismissing a challenging, but obviously thoughtful comment with a pithy retort?

You used to pay attention to what I said and at least take me somewhat seriously. Is that all gone now, have I become "the enemy"? You are not my enemy. I subscribe to this blog and read everything you say with an open mind. I just wish you would do the same for me.

- Michael

Dale Carrico said...

Michael,

As far as I'm concerned, you are pointlessly personalizing a set of strong critiques of mine from an essentially tribalist perspective. I can see, of course, why you would find what I say unpleasant. After all, who wants to confront the fact that there are people with whom we not only disagree on matters of strong conviction, but that there are people who think our convictions are dangerously mistaken enough to dispense with niceties as I have done?

But I'm not writing here to be a diplomat, I'm not writing here to be a mediator, I'm not writing here to make friends, I'm not writing here to be a cruise director. I can do these things if circumstances dictate it, and especially when I'm getting paid for the prvilege, but that's not what I am doing here for the most part. I am writing here to be as clear as I can about what I take to be urgent and neglected problems of technodevelopment and, crucially, of the discourses through which technodevelopment is articulated (funded, regulated, taught, distributed, etc.). That's how it is. Love me or leave me.

All this handwringing about my sad closed mindedness and all the rest is arrant nonsense. I've been arguing against transhumanist and singularitarian idiocies in this mode for well over a decade and am quite content with the general contours of the stand I've found my way to by now. I'm not here to help transcendentalizing technophiliacs with crazily skewed priorities and libertopian friends feel good about themselves. And I am quite content at the colleagues and friends I have at hand in any case among these circles.

I suppose I'm glad you vote for Democrats (I can scarcely imagine anybody with any kind of brain or conscience would not do so at this point, historically, frankly, but, you know, cheers), and I'm glad that you don't eat babies for breakfast or whatever it is you think I must think because I say mean things about your robot cult friends. And I have no doubt that you are a very bright and well-meaning person, blah blah blah blah.

But when I am talking about posthumanist, singularitarian, corporate futurist, technocratic discourses (all of which I find, for the most part, facile, ridiculous, and actively politically damaging -- and interimplicated in ways that demand understanding and response), I am offering general critiques, delineating structural entailments, reading rhetorical frames. Taking such things personally is self-indulgent and I don't have the patience to feel too badly about it, I'm afraid.

It is true, though, I am also offering up polemics against what I take to be anti-democratic technodevelopmental formulations. These, now, some of my targets will no doubt take personally. It goes with the territory and I never imagined it would be otherwise. I have zero interest in sugar coating the fact that it is my honest and deep conviction, arrived at after years of serious study and analysis, that the technocentric discourses I savage and parody and denigrate are dangerously wrongheaded in ways we don't have much time to shilly shally around with... and my rhetoric reflects this.

If I were to say things you personally found as outright dangerous as some of the things I am talking about here I wouldn't take it the least bit amiss that you would say so directly and clearly, and waste no time for fear of ruffling my feathers. Actually, it's what I expect. You'll forgive me, perhaps this is a temperamental difference, but the less time I have to spend worrying about such stuff the happier I am.

You ask what my goal is? Nobody who actually reads my writing on these topics could really have much doubt on that score. My goal is to contribute to technoprogressive ends by analyzing and framing concrete technoscientific problems and campaigns and making policy recommendations that I hope will facilitate the democratization of technodevelopmental social struggle.

The rhetorical viewpoints, sub(cult)ural movements, policy recommendations corralled together in the pieces at which you've taken so much umbrage seem to me mistaken, damaging, and often a bit crazy. That's really how I see things. You can tell I do by the way I talk about them -- and as far as I'm concerned that's exactly how it should be.

Michael Anissimov said...

I wasn't taking anything personally until you confronted my comment with a pithy, dismissive statement. I don't care if you have a problem with right-wing transhumanists - there certainly are many. My point is just that Singularity advocacy is unrelated to political orientations. You're lumping the two together for your own convenience, or because James came to get this idea because Eliezer founded the movement and he is an extropian. Again, if you want to rail against libertarians, I really don't care - but in my comment I asserted there was no correlation between Singularitarianism and political orientation and you ignored it.

Not all things you don't like deserve to be lumped into the same category. I may dislike prunes and vegetables, but that doesn't mean a prune is a vegetable. You may dislike discussions of superintelligence and right-wing politics, but all advocates of superintelligence are not right-wing. I take this personally because whenever you associate singularitarianism with libertarianism, you are calling me a libertarian when I'm not.

As a side comment, I've been reading this blog for the last couple years and it seems like everything on it is always negative. Why are there so few positive proposals? I see a lot of railing against libertarianism and Objectivism, but practically no policy recommendations. How can the democratic process be enhanced? What conditions must be met for the social struggle to come to an end? Please tell us, and spend less time attacking your political enemies.

jfehlinger said...

> My mother. . . taught me. . . to come to a genuine understanding of
> the other side rather than resorting to caricatures.

But only if the "other side" is visible enough to pose a significant
threat to one's political agenda (e.g., has a sufficiently well-
respected and high-profile blog).

Anybody else can be silenced by simply being ignored.

Cult true believers are never interested in "genuine understanding".
In public "dialog", they are simply interested in PR and spin control.
(E.g., the Scientologists who post on alt.religion.scientology.

> I subscribe to this blog and read everything you say with
> an open mind.

He subscribes to this blog to keep an eye on you, so he
can jump in with "damage control" when necessary.

Dale Carrico said...

My point is just that Singularity advocacy is unrelated to political orientations.

Technology is not autonomous, and singularitarianism is perniciously anti-democratizing even if some of its advocates are nice bright people in some social settings. This is especially so for "singularitarians" whose public advocacy takes on the contours of True Belief or functions as PR for marginal membership organizations with highly questionable goals.

[I]n my comment I asserted there was no correlation between Singularitarianism and political orientation and you ignored it.

Dismissal isn't ignoring.

Dale Carrico said...

Cult true believers are never interested in "genuine understanding".
In public "dialog", they are simply interested in PR and spin control.
(E.g., the Scientologists who post on alt.religion.scientology.


This is true and immensely important. It is one more reason to be troubled by the (apparently well-nigh irresistible) tendency of online technocentric discourses to take sub(cult)ural forms, to take on the special energies and obfuscatory defensiveness of identity movements.

When we're talking about singularitarians, technological immortalists, extropians, militant Brights, enhancement perfectionists, and the other recent technocentric sub(cult)ural formations it pays to remember that True Belief arises in these cases in response to the worldly catnip promises of immortality, comic book superpowers, soopergenius brains, endless delights, wealth beyond the dreams of avarice, on the one hand, as well, on the other, to the psychic and existential uncertainties of rapid, sweeping, intensive global technodevelopmental change, the specter of insanely destructive devices, the technoconstituted skewing of force in the direction of indifferent elite organizations, and so on. Technocentric discourses of transcendence are activating powerful unconscious drives and generic archetypes. Never has the nead for reasonableness been more urgent, rarely have the prompts for irrationality been more numerous or more insistent.

jfehlinger said...

> . . .the (apparently well-nigh irresistible) tendency of online technocentric
> discourses to take sub(cult)ural forms. . .

Yes, that is a dismaying
human tendency, isn't it?

Greg Egan once wrote a story entitled "Unstable Orbits in the Space
of Lies" in which he externalized the tendency of humans to
segregate into tribes of true believers as a physical mind-warping
field with attractor basins of belief into which one could
fall if one strayed too far from the neutral ridges between
the basins.

It seems, lamentably, that many many people are wired to be
either leaders (with overweening, and often quite unjustified,
certainty in their own abilities and righteousness) or followers
(who desperately need a leader to give them meaning and purpose
in life).

Remaining reasonable, attempting to exercise independent
judgment, is an extremely fragile and difficult art, and
its practitioners **infuriate** both the believers and their
gurus.

The topography becomes clearer in the modern on-line aerial
view, and many more basins of True Belief poke their maws into
everybody's living room than in the days limited to
newspapers, radio and TV. Fortunately, the Web also gives traction
to those who wish to maintain a degree of intellectual independence.

Dale Carrico said...

And True Belief in its proselytizing march of death-dealing Destiny is especially perplexing to the reasonable, since it feels as if one is forced to relinquish one's own critical moderateness to do justice to True Belief's uncritical immoderateness. How zealots and cultists smugly insist one extend to them the niceties of reasonableness as they bulldoze the niceties themselves!

Despite the specific context of this comment, I'm thinking more about the barking dogs of the Bush Administration here and the way they flutter and wave their bloodstained white gloves as they call for "civility" from their appalled and incomparably reasonable critics.

I think it might be time to take down from the shelves again the many studies of authoritarian personality and authoritarian social formations that were written by devastated Europeans in the aftermath of WWII (Fromm, Maslow, Adorno, etc.).

jfehlinger said...

> True Belief. . . is especially perplexing to the reasonable,
> since it feels as if one is forced to relinquish one's own
> critical moderateness to do justice to True Belief's uncritical
> immoderateness.

Yes, there's even a technical term which applies to the
behavioral distortions a modest and reasonable person must
undergo in the face of gurus and their sock-puppets:

"The [interlocutor] is permanently enmeshed in a battle
to prove [himself]... worthwhile. To restore [a] shattered
sense of security and self-esteem, the [interlocutor] must
resort to narcissistic techniques. [This] phenomenon of
'NARCISSISTIC MIRRORING'... happens because the narcissist
succeeds in turning himself into a (preferred) frame of
reference, the axis around which all judgements revolve,
the fountain of common sense and prevailing logic, the
source of all knowledge and an authority on everything
of import..."
http://samvak.tripod.com/faq26to27.html

Michael Anissimov said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael Anissimov said...

This is absurd. You guys are treating me and my words like dirt. What the hell did I do to deserve this kind of disrespect? Dale, I thought we were on amicable terms.

I'm not subscribed to this blog to engage in "damage control". Singularitarianism is not "perniciously anti-democratizing" - the Singularity is about INTELLIGENCE ENHANCEMENT, in the easiest way possible, THAT'S IT.

My public advocacy does not take on the contours of "True Belief", I am happy to take any criticism or comments on my beliefs. Please tell me it without blindly labeling me a cultist.

Intelligence enhancement is a fundamental part of transhumanism. Eventually we will develop the technology to create supergeniuses on demand. And when we do, many of our current best ideas will be invalidated. That scares and intimidates some people, apparently you, Dale. Why are you pushing me into this confrontational mode? It feels so stupid to be communicating like this.

James Fehlinger, you don't even know me, you have no right to talk about me. Everything you're saying about me is BS. I don't care how "high-profile" someone's blog is, if they say something and I have a strong opinion about it, I'll comment on it. Why are you guys projecting all these weird motivations onto me?

Dale Carrico said...

Singularitarianism is not "perniciously
anti-democratizing"


Yes, it is. For reasons I've reiterated here regularly. Among them is the mistaken fantasy that technology is sociopolitically autonomous, as is the singularitarian willingness and even eagerness to let "technological" considerations in this fantastical apolitical miscontrual circumvent questions of democratic stakeholder politics in matters of technodevelopmental social struggle, etc.

None of those reasons, by the way, include: "Because evil singularitarians set out by design and avowed intention to destroy goodness and justice, mwahahahahahahaha!"

That is to say I think singularitarians are quite as likely to be clueless as actively malicious in ways that are anti-democratizing.

My public advocacy does not take on the contours of "True Belief"

I say it does. And I say that most reasonable people looking at what singularitarians are wont to say will agree with me. I think your views are not only mistaken and not only damaging but actually all this and also ridiculous. Given that I think your views are ridiculous, dangerous, and also utterly marginal, it just makes plain sense to ridicule you rather than trying to sweet talk you into talking sense.

you are just uncomfortable with any notion of discontinuous, traditional- politics- invalidating civilizational shift, which would inevitably be ushered in by qualitative intelligence enhancement.

In a surprise move, you propose that it must be because really, deep down, I must be skeeered to say something as awesome as your kooky robot cult is ridiculous. What else could it be?

By the way, about that "inevitable" in your singularitarian formulation above.... True Believer, much? Perish the thought! Dale, why so mean?

Intelligence enhancement is a fundamental part of transhumanism.

And we all know what a booster I am for sub(cult)ural transhumanism...?

Eventually we will develop the technology to create supergeniuses on demand. And when we do, many of our current best ideas will be invalidated.

Uh, okay. You're weird. I win.

That scares and intimidates some people, apparently you, Dale.

I'm so scared and intimidated. Michael, hold me.

Why are you pushing me into this confrontational mode?

I propose that a world of rapid complex technoscientific change is better and safer when people who talk like you are made fun of rather than taken seriously.

It feels so stupid to be communicating like this.

If I'm not much mistaken, you'll need to get used to it. I won't be the only one who makes you feel like this, especially as NBIC techs grow more and more proximate while all the while fewer and fewer superlative, reductionist, sub(cult)ural formulations of the technodevelopmental terrain will be the least bit in point.

Why are you guys projecting all these weird motivations onto me?

Because they constitute our working theories on the matter?

Dale Carrico said...

Dale, I thought we were on amicable terms.

I have friends I can talk to like this over beers all the time.

Eric said...

you are just uncomfortable with any notion of discontinuous, traditional- politics- invalidating civilizational shift, which would inevitably be ushered in by qualitative intelligence enhancement.

Replace "qualitative intelligence enhancement." with "the second coming" and you have the gist of just about every fundamentalist Christian I have ever had the misfortune to be lectured by.

This works on other "transhumanist" lines too, just sub 'god-magic' in the place of 'tech-magic', and now it is a Christian tract.

jfehlinger said...

> James Fehlinger, you don't even know me. . .

sure I do -- or your public face, anyway, which is what's
under discussion here. I don't know your girlfriend's name
(though I gather that at least you don't refer to her as
your "Consort". ;-> )

You popped up on SL4 in -- '01 was it? You were SIAI's director
of public relations. Now you're the fund-raising honcho for
the Immortality Institute. N'est-ce pas?

You've written reams of singularity-boosterism and advocacy
since then. It's hard to avoid, if one spends any time in
those precincts of the "public datasphere".

Your picture was in Psych Today a couple of months ago.

> . . .you have no right to talk about me.

OK, I'll stop talking about your taste in clothes, music,
movies, and TV shows. Satisfied? Your political advocacy,
however, public as it is, is subject to public discussion,
whether or not you consider the discussant a personal
friend.

> I'm not subscribed to this blog to engage in "damage control".

I won't call you a liar. But either you're **extremely**
disingenuous, or you don't in fact know what you're doing.
You seem too smart to make the latter plausible, somehow.

You are an ex-director of public relations, still affiliated with
the "movement" his former employer represents, with a significant
public presence via the Web -- nearly all directed at advocacy
of that "movement", who begs us to believe that he is **not**
gathering "press clippings" from sources critical of his
current enthusiasm and his erstwhile employer's "mission"
for the purpose of "damage control" and spinmeistering.

OK. I'll go back to watching the Teletubbies now.

> Why are you guys projecting all these weird motivations onto me?

Please read the following couple of paragraphs:

http://michaelprescott.typepad.com/michael_prescotts_blog/2005/07/index.html
----------------
The importance of being earnest

One of the most useful intellectual skills to
cultivate is the ability to enter into sympathetic
engagement with any idea or argument you are considering.
The only way to really understand what another person
is saying is to listen closely, and the only way to
listen closely is first to find, or at least pretend
to find, some common ground between the other person
and yourself. You need not maintain this sympathetic
engagement, this provisional or illusionary agreement,
for very long -- just long enough to absorb and
grasp the points at issue.

On the other hand, an inability or an unwillingness
to drop your guard and make room, even temporarily,
for an idea that you may find distasteful is the main
impediment to really understanding what other people
are saying and, therefore, to being able to effectively
refute what they say.
----------------

Both Dale and I **started out** in sympathetic engagement
(more than just "sympathetic", in my case) with the discourse
you now promulgate. We stumbled upon reasons to reconsider
our uncritical acceptance of that discourse.

Since we veered "off course", we have found few who
are willing to grant us the "sympathetic engagement"
Prescott describes above.

It's understandable, I guess. You are saving the universe,
after all, aren't you? No time for whiners and losers.