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

Sunday, February 17, 2008

From Enlightenment to Eliminationism in a Single Bound

In light of yesterday's argument about marginal membership organizations that take up the absurdly self-aggrandizing self-image that they constitute key Defenders of "Reason" and "The Enlightenment" squaring off against demonic forces of "Irrationality" and "Endarkenment" -- and all of this in fairly hilariously overgeneralized and overwrought terms that fail to be equal either to historical or emerging dynamics of social struggle as they actually play out among richly diverse stakeholders…

It is interesting to note that, quite true to form, one of the chief "transhumanist" techno-utopian advocates of this new Master Defenders of the Enlightenment schtick is indulging these days in frankly eliminationist rhetoric, all in the name of "secularism" of all things, proposing fantasies in which Baptist churches are closed down and their leaders jailed.

As an atheistical faggot who devoted a decade of life and activism to mitigating homophobia, sexism, and racism in the American South I quite appreciate the dangers of fundamentalist Christians who pine for theocracy. But I am well aware, nonetheless, that the key innovation of political secularism is actually the Separation of Church and State to facilitate the peaceful coexistence of the variously faithful (and not) with one another, which is the furthest imaginable thing from the essentially authoritarian or genocidal fantasy of an obliteration of all faiths or lifeways other than one's own, however consensual they may be. I am interested neither in the American Talibanism of the authoritarian Christianists nor in the imposition of a stainless steel technocratic atheism of authoritarian stuffed shirts just as idiotically convinced that they are the smartest guys in the room as the fundies are convinced they are God's own righteous death squad.

Given the predilection of even the most mainstream and moderate "transhumanists" to endorse a troublingly compulsory program of medical "enhancement" that disdains -- sometimes as a form of child abuse! -- the apparently outrageous notion that some so-called "disabled" people might have a dignity and value worthy of affirmation and support on their own terms, I can't say that this latest expression of eliminationism is particularly encouraging. Given the problematic whiff of eugenicism in the bioethical recommendations of "enhancement" and "optimality" discourse, one has to wonder whether that tendency coupled to a self-image as "The Enlightenment's" Chosen traffic cops might cash out in worrisome recommendations when talk turns to neuroethics, the "enhancement" and comparable "optimization" of mood, memory, and rationality itself.

In the past I have devoted quite a lot of my critique of techno-utopian discourses to the frank absurdity of their Superlativity, their exacerbation of irrational passions originating in the fear of vulnerability and death, hostility to the contingency of one's fate and place in a dynamic world, stress due to the precarity of human existence especially in a time of radical technodevelopmenal transformation and endless war, irrational passions that play out as hysterical faith in the imminence of technological immortality and cyborg superpowers, superintelligent Robot Gods ending human history in a consummate paradise or apocalypse, automation or nanotechnology delivering abundance beyond the dreams of avarice, and so on. Despite the fact that emerging developments in genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive medicine do indeed offer unprecedented transformations of limits that have hitherto defined the human condition, despite the fact that networked information, computation, and communication systems do indeed offer unprecedented transformations of the terrains of publication and political participation, education, agitation, organization, collaboration, security, and privacy that have hitherto defined public life, despite the fact that ubiquitous automation, materials science, chemical engineering and biotechnology offer unprecedented transformations of global capacities for modes of production equal to the demands of a planetary population but with incomparably lower social and environmental costs, it remains true that none of these fraught and complex transformations of customary capacities assumptions justifies the hyperbolic and essentially theological discourse of the Superlative Imaginary. Nor do any of these transformations alter the basic fact that technodevelopmental changes are progressive and emancipatory only when technodevelopmental social struggle among the stakeholders to those changes succeed in making them so. There is nothing inherently emancipatory in any strictly technical accomplishment on its own.

I mention this because it seems to me the worries I am testifying to in this post differ somewhat from the concerns I have registered in my many critiques of the facile follies of techno-utopian Superlativity. In mobilizing eliminationist formulations in the name of Optimal Health and Enlightenment Rationality it seems to me that at least some of the silly Robot Cultists of the "transhumanist movement," so-called, are beginning to hone their message in a way that is somewhat more ready for Prime Time, more likely to attract corporate-militarist monies and Establishment credibility. To the extent that this is true, it is clearly an ominous development that demands close scrutiny.

20 comments:

giulio said...

mmmm - "Defenders of "Reason" and "The Enlightenment" squaring off against demonic forces of "Irrationality" and "Endarkenment" - I like this formulation more than others that you have previously proposed.

What I find less pleasant is this rant about "eliminationism". I have searched recent posts on transhumanist lists for references to "Baptist churches are closed down and their leaders jailed", and the only one I have found was so clearly meant as a joke that I am really wondering whether you have any sense of humour left.

Dale Carrico said...

I did describe it as a "fantasy," after all -- but it seemed to me too unfunny to describe it as a "joke."

Were you joking, too, I wonder, Giulio, when you wrote, as director of the World Transhumanist Association, that transhumanists should try to be more like the Raelian UFO-cultists?

But you're right. I have no sense of humor. That's Numberwang!

giulio said...

I was not joking at all - I was acknowledging that Raelian UFO-cultists are _much_ better than transhumanists at outreach and fundraising, and wondering whether we should learn something from them.

Concluding that acknowledging this _fact_ makes one a Raelian UFO-cultist is very weak logic to say the least. Recoglizing that the other team plays a specific tactic better does not make one a supporter of the other team.

AnneC said...

...Raelian UFO-cultists are _much_ better than transhumanists at outreach and fundraising

In the context of something like Raelianism, "outreach and fundraising" pretty much translates to "marketing and emotional manipulation". Why someone would want to get better at emotionally manipulating others for the sake of selling them falsehoods I haven't the faintest clue.

I certainly can't speak for anyone else, but I'm much more interested in substance than in marketing. The skill folks like the Raelians have seems to be that of packaging emptiness in bright, friendly wrapping for the consumption of the credulous (or, sometimes, the "I want to believe" folks).

As far as I'm concerned, that supposed "skill" is actually quite dangerous inasmuch as it stands to (a) attract those who truly don't care whether something is actually true or not (e.g., they're just looking for an emotional anchor or a wellspring of believable-but-fake certainty to deal with their existential angst), and (b) drain whatever substance may actually exist in an idea simply because it is no longer needed. Marketing is insidious in its ability to become an "end unto itself" -- it's the classic "Emperor's New Clothes" scenario, in which money and respect are given in exchange for illusion and the socially-affirming feelings associated with that illusion.

Culty marketing techniques might be effective at garnering people's attention and support, but they come with a price: that of discouraging those who use those techniques from certain kinds and degrees of internal and self-criticism, and of encouraging a "by any means necessary" mindset.

Now, I understand that even if someone actually does have something of substance to offer, then it can still sometimes be quite a challenge to come up with an effective means of conveying this to others. But there's a big difference between wanting to develop your communicative skills (so as to better transmit your message) and wanting to develop the ability to attract people regardless of whether there's any substance there or not. Culty marketing techniques very clearly (at least in my mind) fall into the dangerous category of "tools that might 'work', but not without encouraging self-deception, tribalistic irrationality, and a willful letting-go of critical thinking skills and ethics in those who use them".

AnneC said...

Dale said: Given the predilection of even the most mainstream and moderate "transhumanists" to endorse a troublingly compulsory program of medical "enhancement" that disdains -- sometimes as a form of child abuse! -- the apparently outrageous notion that some so-called "disabled" people might have a dignity and value worthy of affirmation and support on their own terms, I can't say that this latest expression of eliminationism is particularly encouraging. Given the problematic whiff of eugenicism in the bioethical recommendations of "enhancement" and "optimality" discourse, one has to wonder whether that tendency coupled to a self-image as "The Enlightenment's" Chosen traffic cops might cash out in worrisome recommendations when talk turns to neuroethics, the "enhancement" and comparable "optimization" of mood, memory, and rationality itself.

Hear, hear. The way "The Enlightenment" has been invoked lately in some contexts seems very much along the lines of what my friend Amanda has referred to as "mental widget".

Quoting her: "That it’s really only their ideology (not the whole ethical world) that’s likely to fall down under its own weight doesn’t seem to occur to people, and they do this damage control of their mental widgets so they can keep them all neat and lined up and orderly and safe while other people suffer and die as a result."

She also says: Basically, I just can’t get all interested in whether this-ism clashes with that-ism or whether under the-other-ism it’s possible to believe such-and-such or whether you need to meld the-other-ism with yet-another-ism to come up with a belief system that can encompass whatever situation is being discussed.

And frankly, a lot of what I see going on in many discussions concerning matters like physical/cognitive configuration, consent, and the "obligations" surrounding these things looks very much like a case of people totally disregarding (or maybe just failing to notice) the realities of people's actual lives for the sake of ideological tidiness. I personally don't give a flying frell whether the ethical principles I uphold fit or don't fit with someone's notion of what "Enlightenment values" are, so arguments that attempt to scare me away from certain principles by calling those principles "disability extremism" or whatever will never work on me.

And besides, saying something is limited to a certain context is not the same as destroying that thing. Yes, some good things came out of "The Enlightenment", but that doesn't mean that anyone's particular notion of what "Enlightenment values" suggest is sacred. One thing I'm particularly suspicious of in all this Enlightenment cheerleading is the notion that history doesn't matter, and that it is not really useful to look at the various social and institutional forces that resulted in things like slavery and the consideration of gayness as "a disease". That kind of historical analysis is damn important, and I doubt I need to explain why here.

This is why there are certain arguments I simply won't even step into anymore. I might see them and write about some of the points brought up in them on my blog, but I am no longer willing to waste my time in endless back-and-forth debates in which nothing I say is given any weight unless it fits tidily into someone's favorite "ism" or widget. While philosophical and ethical "systems" can indeed be useful and interesting at times, and while they probably do each account for some situations fairly handily, no such system can possibly encompass all of messy, complex, contextually-diverse Real Life. And disregarding that messiness might be fine and appropriate if one is writing a paper for a class or engaging in a debating contest, but I think some people go way too far in thinking that because you can eliminate certain variables "on paper", you can also ignore them in real life.

I'm not arguing for an anti-intellectual approach to ethics here, of course -- I'm just saying that by failing to recognize the contextual, limited nature of all formal philosophical systems and "widgets", people can very easily end up advocating things that are actually really nasty and awful.

Dale Carrico said...

Anne wrote:

I am no longer willing to waste my time in endless back-and-forth debates in which nothing I say is given any weight unless it fits tidily into someone's favorite "ism" or widget. While philosophical and ethical "systems" can indeed be useful and interesting at times, and while they probably do each account for some situations fairly handily, no such system can possibly encompass all of messy, complex, contextually-diverse Real Life. And disregarding that messiness might be fine and appropriate if one is writing a paper for a class or engaging in a debating contest, but I think some people go way too far in thinking that because you can eliminate certain variables "on paper", you can also ignore them in real life.

I'm not arguing for an anti-intellectual approach to ethics here, of course -- I'm just saying that by failing to recognize the contextual, limited nature of all formal philosophical systems and "widgets", people can very easily end up advocating things that are actually really nasty and awful.


What is extraordinary to me is that things get so topsy turvy when one is arguing with would-be "professional ethicians" (let's leave to the side for the moment the very questionable status of the credentials of many of these so-called professionals) that one can actually come to worry that expressing an actually critical, actually engaged, actually sensitive attitude toward values like yours will be criticized as "anti-intellectual."

Formulaic undercritical rationalizing approaches to these issues look to me far more anti-intellectual than your approach -- with which I sympathize personally, I should say, in the interests of full disclosure. Indeed, in comparison, the pieties of professional ethicians scarcely seem to me like thinking at all in too many instances.

And let me add, I think there is something a little worrisome in the very idea of a "professionalization" of ethics in the first place in a world where every person capable of consent is likewise capable of critical thinking.

I don't deny that philosophers who have devoted their lives to thinking through complex normative quandaries might often have useful advice that deserves a hearing for those who would make informed decisions, and I don't deny that meta-ethical frameworks organized by Kantian (autonomy) or Benthamite (utility) or Tolstoyan (reconciliation) or Leopoldian (ecological) intuitions, or their many subsequent variations, can help clarify such quandaries -- as they are also surely known to distort them too sometimes when relied upon to robotically.

But I don't think professional ethicians on the whole seem to me a more reliable groups of folks as guides for my own normative thinking in moments of normative perplexity than are common or garden variety thoughtful, practical, or kind people of my acquaintance who would never dream of calling themselves "professional ethicians."

Indeed, if I had to throw generalizations around I'd likely have to admit the reverse is true, and it is rarely the professionals who seem to have the most useful insights to help guide me in the midst of moral and ethical distress.

I suspect that with ethicians as with so-called professional intellectuals more generally what will matter most is whether or not one devotes ones intellectual energies as a professional to speaking truths to powers that be, or to provide rationalizations for incumbent interests.

Let me stress: This question of accommodation as against resistance to constituted authorities comes to the fore for me only wherever intellectual engagement manages to become professional. I don't think this circumscribes all intellectual life in the same way. There is far more to thinking as such than just accommodation of and resistence to incumbency and authority.

But where professional bioethical and technocratic discourses in conversation with public policymaking and corporate investment strategies are concerned, it seems to me worth noticing that incumbency has an enormous lot to gain from the promulgation of a ubiquitous normalizing regulatory medical apparatus promising optimality and providing predictability, docility, and conformism.

This alone should recommend caution, even if one didn't know about the eugenic and puritanical and authoritarian histories of priestly, courtly, and official ethicians of so many past social orders. Perhaps there is something to be said for a p2p de-professionalization of the ethical and technodevelopmental deliberation to which constituted authorities feel themselves most beholden?

De Thezier said...
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De Thezier said...

Giulio said:

I was not joking at all - I was acknowledging that Raelian UFO-cultists are _much_ better than transhumanists at outreach and fundraising, and wondering whether we should learn something from them. Concluding that acknowledging this _fact_ makes one a Raelian UFO-cultist is very weak logic to say the least. Recoglizing that the other team plays a specific tactic better does not make one a supporter of the other team.

This is relatively consistent with what Giulio has said on his Transhumanar blog not too long ago:

Ah yes, the Raelians. Smith & friends attacked me for saying that “the Raelian message is very similar to the transhumanist one”. Actually after my original post I received many hate letters not only from outraged ultra-rationalist atheists, but also from outraged Raelians, so perhaps it was not so Rael-friendly. But, the Raelian message _is_ very similar to the transhumanist one. I subscribe to the technology news list rael-science. The signature on list message includes: ““Ethics" is simply a last-gasp attempt by deist conservatives and orthodox dogmatics to keep humanity in ignorance and obscurantism, through the well tried fermentation of fear, the fear of science and new technologies. There is nothing glorious about what our ancestors call history, it is simply a succession of mistakes, intolerances and violations. On the contrary, let us embrace Science and the new technologies unfettered, for it is these which will liberate mankind from the myth of god, and free us from our age old fears, from disease, death and the sweat of labour”. This _is_ transhumanism, even if uncaveated and worded in a form too triumphantly propagandistic for my taste. Of course the “UFO layer” of Raelianism has nothing to do with transhumanism, and actually not much to do with the rest of the Raelian message either, so I have always wondered why it is there and suspect it is some kind of clever marketing technique.

What Giulio seems to not know is that the reason why the Raelian message is very similar to the transhumanist message is because Real, like the vast majority of cult gurus, co-opted the transhumanist message along with out popular lunatic fringe messages floating around at the time. So much so that I felt compelled to write about this on the Cyborg Democracy blog a few years ago: http://www.transhumanism.org/index.php/WTA/more/983/

Dale Carrico said...

Oh, dear, I hope this doesn't degenerate into a fanboy competition in which various overheated Robot Cultists (or freshly deprogrammed ex-Cultists) squabble about whether Freemasonry, Mormonism, Objectivism, Scientology, Raelianism, Transhumanism, Extropianism, Singularitarianism, or Soopernanoroboawesomism Co-opted the Way the most from whomever else first and so on.

It's all silly horseshit techno-transcendentalism corralled into the service of membership and fundraising drives for marginal membership organizations anyhow. Who cares who came first, the Thetan or the Egghead?

You don't need to join a Robot Cult to have a sensible progressive perspective on questions of emerging and ongoing technodevelopmental social struggle.

De Thezier said...

Dale said:

Oh, dear, I hope this doesn't degenerate into a fanboy competition in which various overheated Robot Cultists (or freshly deprogrammed ex-Cultists) squabble about whether Freemasonry, Mormonism, Objectivism, Scientology, Raelianism, Transhumanism, Extropianism, Singularitarianism, or Soopernanoroboawesomism Co-opted the Way the most from whomever else first and so on.

uh, although I hope I am not the one you are referring to as a “freshly deprogrammed ex-Cultist”, it should have been obvious to everyone that starting such a competition wasn't the goal of my intervention.

It's all silly horseshit techno-transcendentalism corralled into the service of membership and fundraising drives for marginal membership organizations anyhow. Who cares who came first, the Thetan or the Egghead?

Of course it's all non-sense. I don't care anymore since I am no longer a transhumanist and I have never been and will never be a Raelian. I simply thought people would find it fun to know why transhumanism and Raelianism have a similar message: A con man doing his homework.

You don't need to join a Robot Cult to have a sensible progressive perspective on questions of emerging and ongoing technodevelopmental social struggle.

Well, there's no need to tell me that. I learned this truth the hard way. :/

giulio said...

Like Anne I am much more interested in substance than in marketing, but I do not consider them as two mutually exclusive things.

Since I think the substance of the transhumanist message is good, I wish to spread it as wide as possible and recognize that we need much better marketing.

Marketing as emotional manipulation? Perhaps. Churches do that. Political parties do that. Everyone who is successful at selling something do that. But like for everything else, the fact that a philosophical or political message is successful does not mean that it is no good.

giulio said...

Re: "transhumanism and Raelianism have a similar message: A con man doing his homework"

Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion. But if this is yours, then I wonder why you are continuing your high volume posting to the transhumanist lists. I don't waste my time with those I consider con men you know.

giulio said...

Re my last comment: Sorry, I see that I had misunderstood your point. Please ignore my last comment.

Dale Carrico said...

Giulio: Since I think the substance of the transhumanist message is good, I wish to spread it as wide as possible and recognize that we need much better marketing.

The main "message" of transhumanism is "be pro-tech" (a vacuous recommendation) and biotechnology or digital uploading will make you immortal, deliver you awesome superpowers; a superintelligent Robot God will arrive to end History in paradise or apocalypse and it is good to be on the Right Side; and nanobots will arrive like a genie in a bottle to deliver the faithful wealth beyond the dreams of avarice.

There is almost no conceptual or analytic content in transhumanism at all, just the enthusiasm of science fiction (but perverted into an engine to solicit True Believers and their organizational commitments), and a parasitic infestation of a hodge podge of technocentric tendencies that are already prevalent:

Among these are a sensible tendency to defend science against fundamentalisms; an anti-political tendency to seek to substitute engineering over stakeholder politics and an anti-intellectual refusal to attend to the political underpinnings of that engineering and often an outright reactionary hostility to any who do attend to these things; a pernicious tendency to scientism and reductionism; a tendency to parochialisms like eugenicism and market naturalism underwritten by the above.

It is a deeply conservative attitude, in my view, claiming to have its eyes on a distant future, but functioning primarily to endorse incumbent corporate-military interests, investments, and developmental priorities. It is a deeply anti-democratic attitude, substituting for stakeholder politics the politics of promoting a marginal viewpoint -- "the transhumanist message" -- in the hope that membership organizations with which it identifies will prevail over others and achieve hegemony.

There are, needless to say, a handful of more visible and sensible representatives of transhumanism who focus their attention on more legible mainstream concerns of regulation of emerging technologies for safety and fair distribution or education for science literacy and so on. But of course one has never had to join a Robot Cult to endorse any of these things, and few who believe them would ever have the slightest inclination to join a Robot Cult -- among other reasons because they would notice that the majority of people around them are cultists, disagree loudly with the relatively more sensible things the public representatives say, and in any case it is quite clear that most people are really there because they think technology will help them live forever, solve their problems for them, and make them rich. It's all pretty stupid.

De Thezier said...

Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion. But if this is yours, then I wonder why you are continuing your high volume posting to the transhumanist lists. I don't waste my time with those I consider con men you know.

Although some of them lack intellectual honesty and/or rigor, I don't consider transhumanists ideologues to be con men. I was only referring to Rael as being the con man who constructed his sales pitch by taking ideas from transhumanist sources.

As for the reason I continue my "high volume" posting on the wta-talk list, I've actually explained on the list that I will always have in interest in how movement transhumanist develops and would be extremely concerned if it this movement were to a take a direction which exacerbates rather than diminishes its flaws. Therefore, you can view my posting as the work of a gadfly. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gadfly_(social)

Re my last comment: Sorry, I see that I had misunderstood your point.

As you usually do. ;)

giulio said...

Re: "you can view my posting as the work of a gadfly. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gadfly_(social)"

From the same Wikipedia article that you mention:

"It is important to note that in modern politics, gadfly is a demeaning term that is used to refer to folks who constantly complain about the political system just to hear themselves complain."

De Thezier said...

giulio said:

From the same Wikipedia article that you mention: "It is important to note that in modern politics, gadfly is a demeaning term that is used to refer to folks who constantly complain about the political system just to hear themselves complain."

Haha. Good one!

I can't deny that I enjoy reading my own critiques of transhumanism because I find that it helps my critical thinking process but also sharpens my debating skills. However, to use the demeaning definition of the term "gadfly" to dismiss my repeated attempts "to upset the status quo [of the transhumanist community] by posing upsetting or novel questions, or attempt to stimulate innovation by proving an irritant" is a sure sign that you are the metaphorical "slow and dimwitted horse" that Plato talked about. ;)

jfehlinger said...

De Thezier wrote:

> [T]he Raelian message is very similar to the transhumanist
> message is because R[ae]l, like the vast majority of cult gurus,
> co-opted the transhumanist message along with out popular
> lunatic fringe messages floating around at the time.

Hm. . . "Out popular" -- is that Scientology-speak for
merchandise that's past its sell-by date? ;->

"If you're OUT-ethics, chances are you're also OUT-tech and
OUT-admin, as well as OUT-manners, OUT-finances, OUT-TRs, OUT-PR,
OUT-comm, OUT-KSW, and OUT-2D! And even though there are some
people who seem to think this forum is an OUT-house, that's
no excuse for being in the condition of OUT-to-lunch!

We want you winning! We know you can be UP-tone, and an UP-stat,
and if you're not UP for it, well then UP-yours!

We want your ruds IN! We want your Tone-40 TRs IN! We want you
IN-ethics, IN-session, IN the closet, and IN the proper discussion
thread!

We want you ON-lines, ON-purpose, ON-Source, ON the f'ing Bridge,
ON the bus and ON-topic!"

From a Scientology pep-talk:
http://ocmb.xenu.net/ocmb/viewtopic.php?p=110940&sid=5b2fcc3e06ab8bd58c8aece6ea0470f8

De Thezier said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
De Thezier said...

jfehlinger said:

Hm. . . "Out popular" -- is that Scientology-speak for merchandise that's past its sell-by date? ;->

LOL

j, that was just a typo! I meant to write "other" rather than "out".

Man, you're really obsessed with Scientology, aren't you? ;)

Have you seen the (hopefully career-ending) Tom Cruise Scientology video?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UFBZ_uAbxS0

It's a must-see for both hardcore Scientologists and anti-Scientologits such as yourself.