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

Friday, October 26, 2007

Sanewashing Superlativity (For a More Gentle Seduction)

In his latest deft response to my "so-called [?] Superlative Technology Critique," Michael Anissimov reassures his readers that "[Richard] Jones and Carrico are both wrong [to say] that transhumanists have a 'strong, pre-existing attachment to a particular desired outcome.' A minority of transhumanists maybe, but not a majority." Since Michael isn't a muzzy literary type like me (Is this critique postmodernism or something? wonders one of Michael's readers anxiously in his Comments section, No, no: It's Marxism another reader grimly corrects her), we can be sure that when Michael insists that "a majority" of "transhumanists" have no strong attachments to particular desired outcomes, well, no doubt he has crunched all the relevant numbers before saying so. Who am I to doubt him?

"What transhumanists want is for humanity to enjoy healthier, longer lives and higher standards of living provided by safe, cheap, personalized products," Anissimov patiently explains. Since there are hundreds of millions of people who would surely cheerfully affirm such vacuities (among them, me) and yet after over twenty years of organizational effort the archipelago of technophilic cult organizations that trumpet their "transhumanism" -- so-called! -- has never managed yet to corral together more than a few thousand mostly North Atlantic white middle-class male enthusiasts from among these teeming millions to their Cause, one suspects that there may be some more problematic transhumanistical content that is holding them back. Contrary to the rants about a dire default "Deathism" and "Luddism" in the general populace one hears from some transhumanists exasperated that their awesome faith, er, "movement," has not yet swept the world, I will venture to suggest that it isn't actually a rampaging general desire for short unhealthy unsafe unfree lives of poverty or feudalism that keeps all these people from joining their fabulous Robot Cult.

Back in 1989 Marc Stiegler wrote a short story entitled "The Gentle Seduction" that has assumed a special place in the transhumanist sub(cult)ural imaginary. In the opening passage one of the main characters, Jack, asks the other main character -- who never gets a name, interestingly enough, and is referred to merely pronomially as "her" and "she" -- the following portentious question: "Have you ever heard of Singularity?" "She" hasn't, of course, and Jack explains the notion with relish:
"Singularity is a time in the future as envisioned by Vernor Vinge. It'll occur when the rate of change of technology is very great -- so great that the effort to keep up with the change will overwhelm us. People will face a whole new set of problems that we can't even imagine." A look of great tranquility smoothed the ridges around his eyes.

It is very curious that after the conjuration of such a looming unimaginably transformative and overwhelming change Jack would become tranquil rather than concerned like any sensible person would, however optimistic, at such a prospect, but of course the reason for this is that he is lying. Already we have been told that when he speaks "of the future… [it was as if] he could see it all very clearly. He spoke as if he were describing something as real and obvious as the veins of a leaf..." Of course, in Superlative discourses, especially in the Singularitarian variations that would trump history through a technodevelopmental secularization of the Rapture, the use of the term "unimaginable" is deployed rather selectively: to invest pronouncements with an appropriately prophetic cadence or promissory transcendentalizing significance, or to finesse the annoying fact that while Godlike outcomes are presumably certain the ways through all those pesky intermediary technical steps and political impasses that stand between the way we live now and all those marvelous Godlike eventualities remain conspicuously uncertain.

The future that Jack "sees" so clearly, as it happens, is not one he characterizes in Anissimov's reassuringly mainstream terms; that is to say, as a future in which people "enjoy healthier, longer lives and higher standards of living provided by safe, cheap, personalized products." No, Jack insists, in his future "you'll be immortal." But, wait, there's more. "You'll have a headband… It'll allow you to talk right to your computer." He continues on: "[W]ith nanotechnology they'll build these tiny little machines -- machines the size of a molecule… They'll put a billion of them in a spaceship the size of a Coke can, and shoot it off to an asteroid. The Coke can will rebuild the asteroid into mansions and palaces. You'll have an asteroid all to yourself, if you want one." Gosh, immortality alone on an asteroid stuffed with mansions and jewels and a smart AI to keep you company. How seductive (see story title)! Even better is this rather gnomic addendum, a favorite of would-be gurus everywhere: "'I won't tell you all the things I expect to happen,' he smiled mischievously, 'I'm afraid I'd really scare you!" Father Knows Best, eh? And it's hard not to like the boyish oracularity of that "mischievous smile." As the story unfolds, we discover that Jack likely refers here to the fact that "she" will eventually download her consciousness into a series of increasingly exotic, and eventually networked, robot "bodies" and then utterly disembodied informational forms.

The story is a truly odd and symptomatic little number -- definitely an enjoyable and enlightening read for all that -- juxtaposing emancipatory rhetoric in a curious way to the sort of reactionary details one has come to expect from especially American technophilic discourse. (For some of the reasons, Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron's The Californian Ideology always repays re-reading, as does Jedediah Purdy's The God of the Digirati, and Paulina Borsook's excellent book Cyberselfish, which entertainingly provides a wealth of supplementary detail.) The very first sentence mobilizes archetypes so bruisingly old-fashioned (but, you know, it's the future!) to make you blush even if you never even heard of eco-feminism: "He worked with computers; she worked with trees." By sentence two we are squirming with discomfort: "She was surprised that he was interested in her. He was so smart; she was so… normal." ("Normal" people aren't "smart"? "Normal" people should feel privileged when our smart betters deign to notice us?) Later in the story, progress and emancipation and even revolution are drained of social struggle and political content altogether and reduced to a matter of shopping for ever more powerful gizmos offered for sale in catalogues -- elaborate robots, rejuvenation pills, genius pills, brain-computer interfaces, robot bodies, the promised asteroid mansions, and so on. Politics as consumption, how enormously visionary. One also detects in the story a discomforting insinuation of body-loathing, rather like the hostility to the "meat body" one encounters in some Cyberpunk fiction, from the initial curious fact that Jack and the unnamed protagonist sleep together but never have sex (an odd detail in a story that so clearly means to invoke the conventions of romantic love), and that the emancipatory sequence of technological empowerments undergone by the protagonist are always phrased as a series of relinquishments, of her morphology, of her body, of embodiment altogether, of narrative selfhood by the end, and each relinquishment signaled by the repeated refrain, "it just didn't seem to matter," where it is a loss of matter that fails to matter.

Be all that as it may, the specific point I would want to stress here is that "The Gentle Seduction" has a highly particular vision of what the future will look like, and is driven by an evangelical zeal to implement just that future. It is a future with a highly specific set of characteristics, involving particular construals of robotics, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, and technological immortality (involving first genetic therapies but culminating in a techno-spiritualized "transcendence" of the body through digitality). These characteristics, furthermore, are described as likely to arrive within the lifetimes of lucky people now living and are described as inter-implicated or even converging outcomes, crystallizing in a singular momentous Event, the Singularity, an Event in which people can believe, about which they can claim superior knowledge as believers, which they go on to invest with conspicuously transcendental significance, and which they declare to be unimaginable in key details but at once perfectly understood in its essentials. This highly specific vision in Stiegler's story is one and the same with the vision humorously documented in Ed Regis's rather ethnographic Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition, published the following year, in 1990, and in Damien Broderick's The Spike, published twelve years later, and, although the stresses shift here and there, sometimes emphasizing connections between cybernetics and psychedelia (as in early Douglas Rushkoff), sometimes emphasizing robotics and consciousness uploading (as in Hans Moravek's Mind Children -- whose work is critiqued exquisitely in N. Katherine Hayle's How We Became Posthuman), sometimes emphasizing Drexlerian nanotechnology (as in Chris Peterson's Unbounding the Future), or longevity (as in Brian Alexander's Rapture), it is fairly astonishing to realize just how unchanging this vision is in its specificity, in its ethos, in its cocksure predictions, even in its cast of characters. Surely a vision of looming incomprehensible transformation should manage to be a bit less… static than transhumanism seems to be?

Although Anissimov wants to reassure the world that transhumanists have no peculiar commitments to particular superlative outcomes one need only read any of them for any amount of time to see the truth of the matter. Far more amusing than his denials and efforts at organizational sanewashing go, however, is his concluding admonishment of those -- oh, so few! -- transhumanists or Singularitarians who might be vulnerable to accusations of Superlativity: "If any transhumanists do have specific attachments to particular desired outcome," Anissimov warns, "I suggest they drop them — now." Well, then, that should do it. "The transhumanist identity," he continues, "should not be defined by a yearning for such outcomes. It is defined by a desire to use technology to open up a much wider space of morphological diversity than experienced today." It is very difficult to see how a transhumanist "identity" would long survive being evacuated of its actual content apart from a commitment to something that looks rather like mainstream secular multicultural pro-choice attitudes that seem to thrive quite well, thank you very much, without demanding people join Robot Cults. The truth is, of course, that this is all public relations spin on the part of a Director of the Singularity Insitutute for Artificial Intelligence (Robot Cult Ground Zero) and co-founder of The Immortality Institute (a Technological Immortalist outfit), and all around muckety muck and bottle washer in the World Transhumanist Association (Sub(cult)ural Superlativity Grand Central Station), and so on. Although one can be sure that none of the sub(cult)ural futurists among his readership will really take Michael up on his suggestion to icksnay on the azycray obotray ultcay stuff in public places, at least he has posted something to which he can regularly refer whenever sensible people gently suggest he and his friends are sounding a little bit nuts on this or that burning issue concerning Robot Gods Among Us, the Pleasures of Spending Eternity Uploaded into a Computer, or coping with the Urgent Risks of a World Turned into Nano-Goo, from time to time.

I will remind my own readers that Extropians, Dynamists, Raelians, Singularitarians, Transhumanists, Technological Immortalists and so on have formed a number of curious subcultures and advocacy organizations which I regularly castigate for their deranging impact on technodevelopmental policy discourse and for the cult-like attributes they seem to me to exhibit. Since these organizations and identity movement are really quite marginal as far as their actual memberships go, it is important to stress that apart from some practical concerns I have about the damaging and rather disproportionate voice these Superlative Sub(cult)ural formulations have in popular technology discourse and on public technoscientific deliberation it is really the way these extreme sub(cult)ures represent and symptomize especially clearly what are more prevailing general attitudes toward and broader tendencies exhibited in technodevelopmental change that makes them interesting to me and worthy of this kind of attention.


jfehlinger said...

> By sentence two we are squirming with discomfort:
> "She was surprised that he was interested in her.
> He was so smart; she was so… normal." ("Normal" people
> aren't "smart"? "Normal" people should feel privileged
> when our smart betters deign to notice us?)

"For a woman qua woman, the essence of femininity is
hero-worship - the desire to look up to a man."

-- _The Ayn Rand Lexicon_


"Some day," he told me, "when you are totally feminine, you
will be able to climax just by watching me motion you toward me
with the flexing of my index finger."

. . .

What was so hard to understand was **how** it happened,
**why** it happened, that so many people gave so much
allegiance for so many years to one man such as him. Was its
root in Objectivism? Was there something in between the lines of
the philosophy that both taught independent thinking and proper
reasoning, and dictated a result resembling the cults of religious
leaders? Or was it something in the black and white print that
went undetected by so many intelligent readers? Perhaps it was
not in the philosophy, at all. Perhaps it was a coincidence, a
fluke, that Dr. Leonard and all of his loyal patients were students
of Objectivism. Was it, then, a charisma about the man that led
to such blind worship of him? Was there some special skill that
he had that made so many people either twist or ignore all
that they professed to have learned from their philosophy?

. . .

But I received innumerable phone calls, from men and
women alike, who **condemned** me for terminating
my own therapy and for the reason they had learned was behind
my doing so. In one call, I was accused of "destroying the
closest thing Man has ever had to a god." In another, I was
threatened with retaliation for causing the closing of Dr. Leonard's
practice. . . I was being blamed for the downfall of a hero.

-- _Therapist_, by Ellen Plasil (1985)

How's this gonna work when **everybody's** a god? Or is
there going to be a hierarchy, like the transcendental
numbers, where the folks to get to the big S first maintain
(or even increase) their lead over the "mundanes"? ;->

Michael Anissimov said...

Bottle washer reporting for duty, sir!

Just FYI, I'm not a Director for SIAI. My current primary organizational affiliation is the Lifeboat Foundation. Yes, I am active in the WTA. :)

Dale Carrico said...

Ah, sorry -- perhaps I am misremembering a more official position related to Advocacy for SIAI? or making more of your official affiliation qua SIAI blogger than is warranted? Don't take umbrage at the "bottle-washer" comment, tho -- I often refer to myself as chief bottle washer vis-a-vis organizations or events I am involved in. Now, the fact that the particular organizations under discussion here are SIAI, Lifeboat, and WTA is, for me, as you know, another matter.

Utilitarian said...

"Extropians, Dynamists, Raelians, Singularitarians, Transhumanists, Technological Immortalists"
One of these things is not like the others. Raelians? That's just over the top.

Dale Carrico said...

Don't be so sure: one time executive director of the WTA, writing about tranhumanist movement at IEET, Giulio Prisco on what transhumanists can learn from Raelians:

As Bart Simpson might say, I didn't do it.

I think there are Scientology, Objectivism, and Mormon connections available as well. My point isn't to posit identities between these, but I think the connections are there and are illuminating -- in their measure -- for those who are paying attention.

Marc_Geddes said...

ha ha ha Good one Dale - had me laughing out loud.

"sub(CULT)ures" - nice

"Singularity Insitutute for Artificial Intelligence (Robot Cult Ground Zero)" - 'fraid so

"I will venture to suggest that it isn't actually a rampaging general desire for short unhealthy unsafe unfree lives of poverty or feudalism that keeps all these people from joining their fabulous Robot Cult."

-Your're right. It's because they act like elitest arseholes not interested in anything but themselves and an 'in-circle' of 'smart people' (ie white, rich, male Americans with high-IQ's living in Silicon Valley).

Of course, the SIAI vision is about the most UN-friendly thing there is - the throwing out and overturning of all current legal systems without regard to culture or the need for democratic continuity - I've come to the conclusion that all 'revolutions' are intrinsically bad (although I understand the sentiments - we all feel like that sometimes).

The way human socities work is mostly by 'Social Contract' - they have a complex network of formal and informal agreements that have been carefully hammered out democratically over an extended period of time and they're definitely not interested in having that completely disrupted by strange Robot cults operating outside the democratic process.

If there really ever is an SAI ('Robot God'), the only truly 'Friendly' thing for it to do would be to disappear into 'SAI-Space' and remain relatively unobstrusive until new social contracts could be hammered out.

The only ethical responsibility a 'God-like being' would really have is to inform us it exists, respect our rights and offer us the chance to sign new social contracts whilst remaining relatively unobtrusive.

As for Robot cultists claiming they know what's best for the rest of us (ie the 'CEV' of SIAI) : Run like hell.

Michael Anissimov said...

No umbrage taken. Yes, you're thinking of my old position, and indeed, I am a guest blogger for SIAI and still maintain contact with them. Overall I am involved with or have founded five "superlative" organizations; SIAI, Immortality Inst., Lifeboat Foundation, WTA, and CRN, in descending order of superlativity.

jfehlinger said...

Dale Carrico quoted ("Jack", in Marc Stiegler's story):

> "You'll have a headband… It'll allow you to talk right to your computer."

Another aesthetic preference of mine (with a bitter edge).
Plus ├ža changerai.

"His mother would be back from Boston by now, had to be, or
else she'd miss one of her favorite soaps. New hole in her head.
She was crazy anyway, nothing wrong with the socket she'd had
since before he was born, but she'd been whining for years
about static and resolution and sensory bleedover, so she'd
finally swung the credit to go to Boston for some cheapass
replacement. Kind of place where you don't even get an
appointment for an operation. Walk in and they just slap it in
your head. . . . He knew her, yeah, how she'd come through
the door with a wrapped bottle under her arm, not even take
her coat off, just go straight over and jack into the Hitachi,
soap her brains out good for six solid hours. Her eyes would
unfocus, and sometimes, if it was a really good episode,
she'd drool a little."

-- William Gibson, _Count Zero_

JM Inc. said...

"It is very difficult to see how a transhumanist 'identity' would long survive being evacuated of its actual content apart from a commitment to something that looks rather like mainstream secular multicultural pro-choice attitudes that seem to thrive quite well, thank you very much, without demanding people join Robot Cults."

Oh, what piercing insight! If transhumanism stopped being a cult, it wouldn't be a cult anymore! Bravo!

I must say, I like a lot of what you have to say, Dale, but that bit just about sounded like a tautological Singularity of Self-Assuredness to me (no offence).

Dale Carrico said...

No offense taken. Needless to say, I would have thought, my point was to emphasize that what little was not hyperbolic and cultlike about superlative and sub(cult)ural technocentrisms looks to me to be instead quite mainstream or at any rate mainstream legible. This suggests to me that the proper response of transhumanists and the like to the Superlativity critique (if they find it compelling) is not so much to have their organizational PR flunkies "hone the message" and so on, but simply to jettison the foolishness altogether and rejoin the world and the work of democratic and progressive technodevelopmental social struggle.