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

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Topsy-Superlativity

If the enthusiastic advocates of Superlative Technology Discourses were to admit (and not just when critics like me force them momentarily against the wall, but in a way that played out in their discourse generally) that their curiously transcendentalizing refigurations of the palpable quandaries of the actually-emerging and proximately-upcoming technodevelopmental terrain were really idealizations soliciting and expressing cultural and political identification rather than engineering blueprints soliciting scientific testing, if they were to grasp that nanosanta, techno-immortality, and robot gods really function as figurative short-hand for sub(cult)ural ideals, collective expressions of dread and of wish-fulfilment here and now, and so on then I certainly would be far less exercised about them than I am, especially considering their relative marginality.

But let me go out on a limb here. Actually talking to many Superlative and Sub(cult)ural Technocentrics, listening to many of their responses to and dismissals of my worries and perplexities with them, I have to admit that what I think many of them really think is that their Superlative projections and preoccupations are actually the emblem of their superior scientificity. I think that many of them think they are trotting out predictive calculations like an engineer contemplating a gorge to be spanned when they scribble away at their Superlative Technological sketches. I think that many of them think that the social, cultural, and political factors I'm spotlighting in my critiques are really some kind of quasi-poetic or quasi-mystical empty-talk that won't make any kind of contact with the hard realities they and their friends talk about. I think that many of them think that all this stuff about "discourse" is what people talk about who just aren't smart enough to number crunch the Robot God-Odds with the likes of them.

This isn't exactly a stunning new development, of course. It's just highly predictable scientism, reductionism, and technocratic elitist self-congratulation of a kind we've all seen a million times before by now. It's the usual crashing bore, all too familiar in its smug complacency, its anti-intellectual parochialism, and in the joyless "I know you are but what am I" spectacle its clever boys inevitably make of themselves in the face of the exposure of their pretensions.

But one would be wrong to imagine that one captures the full topsy-turvicality of Superlative Technocentricity in just grasping its familiar facile scientism.

Perhaps this is a good time to remind ourselves that what is meant by "hard realities" and "solid stolid science" by Superlative Technocentrics in this context involves for them things like nanoscale robot swarms delivering post-political abundance, techno-immortalism via digital personality uploads or super-advanced medical treatments available within our lifetimes, and the likelihood of superintelligent postbiological robot ruler gods taking over the planet.

And what is being accused of muddled relativist emotionalist twaddle by Superlative Technocentrics in this context involves things like me recommending more caveated claims, paying attention to more than just the logical propositions in public discussions of technoscientific change but also their customary figures and frames, and recognizing that technoscientific change is articulated not only by compatibility with the laws of physics but by the social, cultural, and political factors that shape funding, regulation, marketing, and distribution, and so on.

Time and time again I am treated to the demand that I point out just where (fist pounds table) this or that Superlative Discourse fails the test of realism, just what my technical objections to this or that proposal about friendly or unfriendly superintelligent AI, about Nanoabundant circumventions of stakeholder-politics, about Techno-Immortality via genetic medicine or digital uploading consists of, and on and on and on.

But, of course, the better question from my perspective is what on earth is happening in the heads of people to make them think that technodevelopmental quandaries of emerging networked malware, non-normative healthcare, or novel interventions into the nanoscale are clarified by forcing these quandaries into the Superlative lens of Robot Gods, Medical Immortality or Nanosanta in the first place.

It should go without saying that to the monks in the monastery the scholarly practices in which the number of angels that can perch atop pinheads are debated can assume the texture and force of a technical discourse, with more and less smart participants, more and less interesting procedures, occasions for real creativity and insight, political factions and all the rest.

So, too, with Singularitarians interminably calculating the Robot God Odds.

One doesn't really have to join the robot cult to offer up the critique that tells you all you need to know about the proper status and standing of the discourse. Sure, one would probably have to drink the Kool-Aid to fully appreciate the real ingenuity and even brilliance some of the partisans of that discourse likely do exhibit. But that in itself should be a warning sign, given the extent to which Superlative discourses are pitched for the most part at a popular level while never achieving actual popularity, rather attracting the devotion of marginal sub(cult)ures of True Believers.

But quite apart from all this, the fact is that I think the actual practical force, the real-world impact of the Superlative discourses is happening at exactly the level their advocates don't want to talk about, and want for the most part to ridicule: in the cultural, political, social, psychological, rhetorical dimensions I keep hammering on about.

Sub(cult)ural futurists should have at best a negligible and accidental hand in directing the technodevelopmental struggles that might eventuate in anything like the arrival of "technological" outcomes like the ones that preoccupy their imaginations. I say should, rather than will, because we are living now in the culmination of a counterexample to that should -- a world reaping the toxic, wasteful, dysfunctional, blood-soaked whirlwind of the never-popular market fundamentalist notions of a marginal sub(cult)ural movement of neoliberal and neoconservative incumbents.

Be that as it may, technodevelopmental social struggle is too complex, dynamic, contingent, unpredictable to afford the Superlative Technocentrics and/or Sub(cult)ural Futurists the linear and unilateral implementation of the particular idealized outcomes with which they happen to identify here and now for whatever reasons.

But in my view they can have a profound effect on that technodevelopmental struggle where it counts (not to them, of course, but in fact) in the technodevelopmental present of ongoing and proximately upcoming technoscientific change. Here we come at last to the reason I devote so much of my attention to critique of Superlative Technocentricities and Sub(cult)ural Futurisms.

The ritually reiterated images and metaphors, the customary formulations, the inculcated frames, the naturalized assumptions of Superlative Technology discourse can have a profound effect on the technodevelopmental terrain as it exists here and now in a way that is incomparably more influential than any likely impact on the futures which Superlativity imagines itself to be concerned with.

And that influence, I say again, is almost always terrible: substituting oversimplifications and linearities for actual complexities, activating irrational passions that derange critical deliberation, indulging in hype to mobilize the idiotic energies of unsustainable and joyless consumption as well as terrorizing risk discourse to mobilize the authoritarian and acquiescent energies of militarism, endorsing elitist attitudes about people's ability to have a say in the public decisions that affect them, all too often offering up explicit hymns to un(der)interrogated and naturalized notions of progress, innovation, market order as an insult added to the already abundant injury of all these "implicit" props to corporate-militarist neoliberal incumbency.

This, of course, is where I work to lodge my primary critique of Superlativity. And this is the very site it becomes most difficult to address when Superlative Technocentrics demand we engage with them always only in "technical" debates (in a sense of "technical" that never really connects to much in the way of reality, whatever the protests to the contrary about Superlativity's superior scientificity).

The force of these re-directions into "technicality" is always to keep our focus squarely fixated on the abstract far-futures they populate with their engineering mirages, and never on the present. (These remain far-futures even when Superlativity tries to argue that acceleration -- or, even acceleration-of-acceleration -- renders the "far-futural" into a pseudo-proximity substituting for the terms in which the diversity of stakeholders here and now struggle to articulate their aspirations in the actually emerging, actually proximate technodevelopmental terrain).

But make no mistake: It is in the technodevelopmental terrain of the present that Superlative discourse works its real effects. And this is none too surprising, because it will be precisely in the technodevelopmental social struggle of these diverse stakeholders to ongoing and proximately emerging technoscientific change that we all do the actual work of education, agitation, organization, and analysis to provide the ongoing and growing material archive of a living, collaborative, responsible foresight, peer-to-peer.

The idealizations of Superlativity may solicit identification in their marginal adherents, but they do not constitute the "foresight" they are so pleased to congratulation themselves for. Foresight in the service of democratic, consensual, diverse, fair, sustainable, emancipatory futures looks to me instead to be more properly an open, ongoing, pragmatic peer-to-peer process.

Superlative Technocentricities and Sub(cult)ural Futurisms substitute faith for foresight, priests for peers, and the pieties of neoliberal incumbency for an open democratic futurity.

Whatever the technical idiosyncracies, whatever the fundamentalist ethnographic peculiarities, it is this last political point that is my own worry and focus here.

8 comments:

Jose said...

Predictions about the timeline and nature of future technological developments with respect to AI have a very bad track record. Some very smart people have been very, very wrong about what computing would be like at the turn of the century. This alone should give people pause to be skeptical and open minded about engaging in similar predictions. Interestingly enough most Science Fiction writers themselves (and I've interviewed dozens) are very skeptical of the Singularity, even though they may have a lot of fun writing about them.

There's a lot of ethical questions about technology and society that arising right now. The fact that most Singularitarians aren't interested in them is very telling.

However there are people who call themselves transhumanists (Dr. James Hughes for starters) who are concerned in the here and now and the future and seem to be interested in nitty gritty ethical questions.

I interviewed Dr Hughes for a podcast once and he put a lot of the Singularitarian exuberance down to affluent white guys in their early twenties. It's easy to think you know everything worth knowing when you're 21 but it gets trickier (but not impossible) as you turn 40.

Dale Carrico said...

However there are people who call themselves transhumanists (Dr. James Hughes for starters) who are concerned in the here and now and the future and seem to be interested in nitty gritty ethical questions.

James is a good friend of mine, and my critiques of Superlativity should not be read as criticisms of his work. I don't agree with everything he says, certainly, but James and I have talked through many of these issues together, and I'm much the better for it.

jfehlinger said...

Dale wrote:

> [The] influence [of the Superlative Tech "movement"],
> I say again, is almost always terrible: substituting
> oversimplifications and linearities for actual complexities,
> activating irrational passions that derange critical
> deliberation, indulging in hype to mobilize the idiotic
> energies of unsustainable and joyless consumption as
> well as terrorizing risk discourse to mobilize the
> authoritarian and acquiescent energies of militarism,
> endorsing elitist attitudes about people's ability to
> have a say in the public decisions that affect them,
> all too often offering up explicit hymns to un(der)interrogated
> and naturalized notions of progress, innovation, market order
> as an insult added to the already abundant injury of
> all these "implicit" props to corporate-militarist neoliberal
> incumbency.
>
> This, of course, is where I work to lodge my primary critique
> of Superlativity. . .

You know, the larger issues here for me (larger than mere "technical"
issues such as whether or in what form artifical intelligence
will ever come to pass, interesting as those are) are themselves,
ironically enough, an outgrowth of the transformation in human interaction
brought about by the Internet (and the Web). This undoubted social
revolution -- technologically facilitated by computers but little
dreamed of when Arthur C. Clarke was imagining HAL 40 years ago
(but adumbrated almost a century ago by an author who isn't
generally remembered for his science fiction:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Machine_Stops) -- has rubbed
my face in facts about the human social milieu that I might
otherwise have spent my entire life only distantly aware of.

#1 The undoubted existence and breathtaking influence of people
with what the psychiatrists' Diagnostic and Statistical Manual
calls Narcissistic Personality Disorder. See, e.g.,
http://www.halcyon.com/jmashmun/npd/index.html .

Of course such people have always been all around us, in Washington
and Hollywood particularly (in this country), but distantly compared to the
unmoderated access to the world's eyes and ears that the Web gives them.

The sheer force of personality, the self-confidence (warranted
or not), the "reality-distortion field" generated by these people is stronger
than I had previously imagined. "Innocent bystanders" need to be aware
of the symptoms and effects of this syndrome more than ever in these
days of the Web.

#2 The ease with which a group of like-minded people can be swayed
by somebody with a huge ego and the gift of gab (somebody from
behind curtain #1 above) into accreting into a "bubble universe":
a cult or proto-cult.

I never would have imagined that I could ever feel the gravitational
pull of a cult until I got sucked into the orbit of the on-line
transhumanists. Again, I knew that such things existed, but
distantly, and with content that held no interest for me --
the Scientologists, Bhagwan Rajneesh, Objectivism, Werner Erhard,
and so on. On-line transhumanism, on the other hand (which I found
one weekend while Alta Vista'ing -- this was pre-Google ;-> --
for stuff about Iain Banks' "Culture" novels)
was right up my alley, and it took me a few years (and a bit
of painful disillusionment) to perform the research and pattern-recognition
necessary for me to conclude: yes, this is a cult. The social patterns,
the dynamics are there; the content is secondary.

I came away from this experience with a new humility (and
even fear) toward the force of True Belief -- the impenetrable
blindness and hermetically-sealed groupthink of a cozy club
of fanatics or proto-fanatics (who all the while congratulate
themselves on being more "rational" than the rest of us).
It's made me realize just how delicate and elusive genuine rationality
is.

Don't bother quoting Bertrand Russell to such people, though --
it does no good. ;->

Marc_Geddes said...

I don't think 'transhumanism' is a cult, but 'Singularitarianism' is most definitely a cult. There's only a few true cultists, but unortunately their egos dominate the transhumanist lists, and they've succeeded in bullying or driving their critics out.

Unfortunately, it's a terrible mistake to try to take on or argue with a person with border-line psychopathology/narcissim. The Narcissist does not care about anything but his/her own ego and certainly doesn't care who gets hurt or run over in their singular quest for world domination.

I live and learn. All you do with cultists is try to ignore them as much as possible, take immediate action against bullying (ie complaints with service providers, police etc) and if all else fails, remove yourself from the situation. Don't attempt to take on psychopaths yourself.

jfehlinger said...

Marc Geddes wrote:

> 'Singularitarianism' is most definitely a cult.

Yes, as the word is defined by Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad
in _The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power_
http://www.amazon.com/Guru-Papers-Masks-Authoritarian-Power/dp/1883319005
(This is the best book I've seen about cults.)

p. 83:

"We define 'cult' as a group where the leader is unchallengeable
and considered infallible. The term 'guru' is used generically
for any such leader."

jfehlinger said...

Marc Geddes wrote:

> There's only a few true cultists, but unortunately their egos dominate
> the transhumanist lists, and they've succeeded in bullying or driving
> their critics out.

You mean a few true **gurus**. There are plenty of True Believers
(defenders of the Faith), which is the other side of the coin.

Marc_Geddes said...

I wish Dale wouldn't keep encouraging unaccrediated crack-pots like M.Anissimov by continuing to give them attention they don't deserve.

No one is interested in hearing from the self-proclaimed AGI gurus of SIAI. I can't understand why SIAI and co don't just fuck off.

jfehlinger said...

> I wish Dale wouldn't keep encouraging unaccredited crack-pots
> like M.Anissimov. . .

Unaccredited, yes. Crackpot, maybe. Misguided, yes IMHO.
Unarguably talented, though. Incredibly energetic -- does
Anissimov ever sleep, considering the reams and reams he
churns out on his blog(s)?

> . . .by continuing to give them attention
> they don't deserve.

It's not clear to me that they don't "deserve" attention.
They don't deserve the uncritical adulation they get from
some fans (though Anissimov isn't the target for this adulation;
he's a cheerleader whipping it up and siphoning it off to
(an)other(s)).

This phenomenon certainly deserves critical attention and
analysis from **somebody**.

If SIAI gets big enough -- if somebody like Larry Ellison decides
to fund them into a Scientology- or Christian-Science-class
outfit -- then they'll probably end up on Rick Ross's Web site.

In the meantime, they deserve somewhat more jaundiced attention
than their fans are wont to provide, before it becomes legally
risky to give them such notice!

Anissimov, BTW, clearly does not enjoy being the target of
Dale's debunking. He's a sincere True Believer and proselytizer.
He responds to the heat so his employer(s) do(es)n't have to bother.

> No one is interested in hearing from the self-proclaimed
> AGI gurus of SIAI.

On the contrary. You were once interested enough to participate
enthusiastically on SL4. I was once interested enough to
participate enthusiastically on the Extropians'.

Other enthusiastic "converts" continue to appear to this
day (ask Nick Tarleton).

> I can't understand why SIAI and co don't just fuck off.

You might as well ask the same about the Ayn Rand Institute,
or the Church of Scientology.