PART ONE: In a recent comment in the Moot, longtime reader "JimF" connects some dots between the marginal sub(cult)ure of Randroid enthusiasts of the Objectivist "philosophy"of the late Ayn Rand and the marginal sub(cult)ure of techno-utopian transhumanism. Although he isn't suggesting a one to one correspondence here -- there are plenty of people who have fallen for the more recent Robot Cult moonshine of cybernetic totalism, techno-immortalism, Nanosanta, Singularitarian Geek Rapture, and so on, but who haven't fallen for the more dated but still stubbornly lingering moonshine of La Rand -- he does point out that even prominent transhumanoid figures rarely "repudiate Ms. Rand and her acolytes in the course of their >H cheerleading" despite the fact that conspicuously Randroidal formulations keep cropping up among some of them.
This symbol he uses to denote "transhumanism" -- ">H" -- is, by the way, a popular shorthand among the transhumanoids themselves, a near-universal convention in their sub(cult)ure and one rather straightforwardly signaling their shared sense that they are "greater than" or "better than" mere humans -- who are sometimes described derisively in turn as "mehums," now isn't that special? The transhumanists will no doubt protest that the ">H" refers to prosthetically "enhanced" future humans -- but of course the whole point of their "movement" -- taken as a political and cultural movement as they insist we do -- is that they identify here and now with the project to become such "enhanced" humans, or "post-humans," a shared identity imagined against the background of the overabundant majority of humans who are not "enhanced" and with whom they actually share the world.
Why many non-Objectivist transhumanists would hesitate to express their disdain for the marginal and widely-disdained pseudo-philosophizing of Ayn Rand is initially perplexing, especially given the urgency so many of these same transhumanoids exhibit around the project of spinning their way to greater mainstream respectability for their views, usually quite quick (these days) to pounce on the worst racist expressions of enthusiasm for The Bell Curve and similar brutalisms that crop up with eerie regularity in transhumanoid fora, as well as to disdain loudly the obvious connections of their viewpoint to some of the key attitudes expressed by the Raelian cult, and so on. Ayn Rand's "philosophical movement" is surely no less marginalizing, combining something like an Amway enthusiasm for American "free market" ideology in its most facile characterization together with an embrace of a naïve correspondence theory of truth and folk psychology which was expressed most forcefully in a series of popular mid-century romance novels combining sometimes flabbergastingly bad writing with long earnest philosophizing soliloquies to produce some of the high camp masterpieces of the twentieth century (and, as it happens, only "Grey Gardens" and "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane" come close to the filmic adaptation of Rand's novel "The Fountainhead" as cinema's high camp apotheosis).
"JimF" suggests that the answer may be the usual one that occurs to anybody who follows the money: "not wanting to alienate potential sources of funding, like Peter Thiel or Jimmy Wales."
He goes on, in a way that contains both insights and snark aplenty and so, I suspect, the exercise will prove rather taxing for some of the more blunt-witted members of the futurological brain trust who are intended targets of the comment:
Perhaps it's savvy politics, not wanting to run the risk of "fragmenting" the >Hist movement over a silly political detail, a bagatelle that will, bien sur, be swallowed up in the apocalyptic events surrounding the Coming of AI and the End of History.As I said, I think Jim's comment connects a few dots that are worthy of attention (that is to say, for those who think transhumanism itself is worthy of attention in the first place).
Perhaps [they] would claim that Rand and Objectivism are totally orthogonal to transhumanism, that the association is a coincidence, a mere historically-contingent juxtaposition that has nothing to do with the philosophical underpinnings of >Hism, like the historically-contingent fact that most >Hist Web site are written in English.
[They] would be wrong, in that case.
Rand's crude "philosophy of mind" -- never taken seriously by mainstream intellectuals -- permeates what passes for thinking about both the underpinnings of human intelligence and the prospects for artificial intelligence in the >Hist community
PART TWO: Posted within hours of the preceding came the following addendum:
In my post "The Ayn Raelians" Wednesday -- which noted the frankly obvious family resemblances discernible between "transhumanism" as a "political and cultural movement," so-called, and marginal movements like those of supporters of "free-market" ideologue Ayn Rand or UFO-cultist Rael -- I mentioned in a side note "racist expressions of enthusiasm for The Bell Curve and similar brutalisms… crop up with eerie regularity in transhumanist fora."
Curiously enough, within just five hours of that posting, long-time Transhumanist and Singularitarian cheerleader and muckety-much in various organizations islets of the Robot Cult archipelago like WTA, SIAI, ImmInst, IEET, Lifeboat, and so on, Michael Anissimov, posted on his widely read (as these things go) futurological blog a "brave" defense of Linda Gottfredson, who he describes as "controversial" because she "presents evidence for differences in average IQ among races [no scare-quotes around "races" to indicate awareness of ongoing debates concerning this historically fraught notion], supports The Bell Curve, [is] critical about the way gifted students [no scare-quotes around "gifted" to indicate awareness of ongoing debates concerning this historically fraught notion either] are treated in public schools, [and is] accused of academic racism." Michael assures us that we can read more about the "suppression" of her research in The Wall Street Journal.
Just for fun -- speaking of right-wing dead-ender discourses from Transhumanists who like to pout when I express doubts about the actual reliability of their protestations to political progressivity -- here is an amusing (nay, amazing) paragraph from a post of Michael's a year ago, January 30, 2007, under the title "Assorted Transhumanism and Technology" (you can't make this stuff up):
Our [gotta love that pronoun--d] missile defense shield is now working! This is excellent news. [no, this is not a jokey ironic post, he means it--d] People speak very negatively about the billions of dollars being spent on the military (and indeed, it’s probably too much [ya think?--d]), but sometimes these projects pay off. [?--d] A missile defense system is a tremendous technological achievement that will be used to protect lives rather than take them. [Freedom's on the march!--d]
You know, quite apart from the awful ugliness and just plain stupid wrongness of this sort of reactionary politics, one has to wonder about the much-vaunted foresight of our futurological brain trust to be flinging out tired discredited right wingnut chestnuts about the Star Wars boondoggle and the "bravery" of racist Bell Curve apologists in a moment when even right-wing rats themselves are bailing from their Movement as it sinks to general howls of disdain and disgust. Way to think through those "trends," soopergeniuses. And now you want us to believe you when you predict (again) Strong AI, Immortality Medicine, and NanoSanta on the horizon? Give me a break. PART THREE: From a post written a year later, further elaboration of the "Ayn Raelian" connection:
Brad Reed has some good fun with the latest -- Remember Sealand? Remember Residensea? -- klatch of deluded market fundamentalists who are now threatening to pack up their toys (whatever those might be) and deprive us of their talents (whatever those might be) and found separatist libertopian enclaves on concrete platforms or cruise ships or under domes on the seafloor or comparable corporate futurological nonsense. Perhaps they could build a lovely casino and vacation home complex Dubai style on that oceanic landfill of discarded plastic blobbing upon our wide blue still under-polluted oceans.PART FOUR: Regular reader "Martin" added still more to the ongoing elaboration of the "Ayn Raelian" connection, especially as it concerns Peter Thiel, in a post fully two years later, from April, 2010:
Although these fantasies of self-appointed sooperman sequestration are a recurring libertopian wet-dream, it is apparently an especially alluring notion now that these would-be titans and grifters fear they might actually be taxed and regulated a little in an Obama Administration (if only) thus slowing by a smidge their relentless ongoing (or at any rate pined for) looting and raping of the planet and of the overabundant majority of the people and other beings who share it with them.
You can tell these boys are serious because, among other things, they've founded an Institute. And they've published an online manifesto and FAQ. Always with the "Institutes" and "manifestos" with these boys, ain't it though?
Anyway, Patri Friedman (from neolib Milton to anarcho-capitalist David to anarcho-separatist Patri, from bloody-cuffed shirtsleeves to straightjackets in three generations) is a high muckety-muck in this endeavor. And it's interesting (I can't say it's surprising) to find Peter Thiel right at the heart of this laughable sociopathic libertopian endeavor as well, in addition to his involvement in the laughable sociopathic Singularitarian endeavor.
No doubt he would prefer that his Ayn Raelians "Go Galt" instead in nanobotic treasure caves secreted away in the asteroid belt, but he'll have to settle for now for a li'l patch of libertarian heaven and dysentery and piracy on some crappy abandoned oil rig. Without Big Brother's prying eyes on them every minute of the day, you can be sure that the legion of soopergeniuses in the Robot Cult will be able to code that superintelligent Robot God at last, and the hott sexy slavebots, and the immortalizing shiny robot replacement bodies, and the programmable nanobotic treasure-swarms and all the rest.
Then we'll be sorry for making fun of them! Then we'll be sorry for doubting them! Then we'll be sorry for treading on them! Then we'll be sorry for our regulatory shackling of their genius and our confiscatory taxation of their bounty! Yeah, give it, er, let's see, twenty years, yeah, twenty years from now, and Libertopia will spontaneously order into Robotopia and then they'll transcend into post-humans and, and, and, oh boy, won't we be sorry then!
The blogosphere is abuzz with the revelation that the James O'Keefe "documentary" is a fraud. This documentary purportedly shows ACORN employees advising O'Keefe and another woman (who supposedly dressed and presented themselves as a pimp and a prostitute) on how to start a child prostitution ring. As a direct result of this "documentary," Congress voted to cut federal funding for ACORN, and, although that action was later overturned, ACORN almost went into bankruptcy. After heavy investigations and allegations of criminal activity (violations of the Invasion of Privacy Act), O'Keefe turned over the full, unedited tapes to avoid prosecution. These tapes show that the "documentary" was heavily edited and that none of the employees advised him on establishing a child prostitution ring. Rather, one employee attempted to gather information on O'Keefe and later contacted law enforcement about the incident. Another employee, supposedly advising O'Keefe's associate on the child prostitution ring, was actually advising her on getting a home loan. More here.
It's definitely scandalous, but it's even more interesting to me, because there is an aspect of this story that involves the transhumanist movement. What you may not know is that Peter Thiel, founder of PayPal and an early investor in Facebook, directly or indirectly funded O'Keefe. Thiel has admitted to giving O'Keefe $10,000, but denied knowing anything about the documentary. He claimed it was for another project.
Whether Thiel donated money directly to the production of the documentary or to another O'Keefe project, this is arguing over a technicality. Shrewd investors are good at complicating the paper trail. It is abundantly clear that the spirit of Thiel's intentions was to undermine an organization that does a lot of good for poor people who are underrepresented in the democratic process. You see, poor people vote against Thiel's privileged interests, just like women do, which is why he appears to hold them and democracy itself in contempt: "Since 1920, the vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension of the [voting] franchise to women — two constituencies that are notoriously tough for libertarians — have rendered the notion of 'capitalist democracy' into an oxymoron." His solution is to escape the very system that made him rich: "The critical question then becomes one of means, of how to escape not via politics but beyond it. Because there are no truly free places left in our world, I suspect that the mode for escape must involve some sort of new and hitherto untried process that leads us to some undiscovered country..."
This sheds some light on why he's an investor in the Seasteading Institute, and transhumanism-affiliated organizations like The Singularity Institute and The Methuselah Foundation. The main point here is that Peter Thiel is a quintessential example of the privileged selfish interests that guide certain currents of transhumanist thought. He is literally the rich, white guy who hates democracy that Dale Carrico so often writes about, when he excoriates the transhumanist community. Thiel wants to build artificial islands to escape Western civilization, John Galt style, and establish an anarcho-capitalist dreamland. Democracy is tyranny on the rich and must be abandoned.
PART FIVE: From an earlier post in 2007, an excerpt of a discussion of a major (such as it is) public "transhumanist" convention:
I have regularly proposed of so-called "futurology" and of self-identified professional "mainstream" and, especially, "Superlative" futurologists of the transhumanist, singularitarian, techno-immortalist, cybernetic-totalist, nano-cornucopiast, geo-engineering varieties; namely:
 That there is a tendency to separatism and alienation in their marginal sub(cult)ural identification with particular projected technodevelopmental outcomes;
 That their exhibition of self-appointed technocratic elitism on questions of technodevelopmental decision-making tends to devalue democratic deliberation;
 That their regularly reiterated fantasy that "progress" is simply a matter of a socially indifferent and autonomous accumulation of technical capacities tends to yield linear, unilateral, elite-imposed models of technoscientific change;
 That their further belief that such accumulation can deliver (and even, in some versions, will inevitably deliver) quite on its own, emancipatory powers and abundances so profound as to permit us to circumvent the impasse of stakeholder-politics altogether, tends to feed and to feed on anti-political and anti-popular attitudes more generally.
I argue that, taken together, these tendencies render Superlative and Sub(cult)ural "Futurisms" absolutely anti-democratizing in their assumptions, their ends, and their overall thrust -- so much so as to subvert the democratizing ends of even those few Superlative Futurologists who consciously espouse more progressive ideals -- and also provide powerful rhetorical rationales congenial to neoliberal/neoconservative outlooks and the incumbent corporate-militarist interests….
"Why, I voted for John Kerry!" one incensed young Singularitarian True Believer once took pains to reassure me upon hearing such charges. "Why, proposing such structural correlations between these broader attitudes toward technoscientific change and one's effective political orientation is nothing but sloppy armchair psychoanalyzing," another fulminated. "This is nothing but name calling!" "Nothing but ad hominem attack!" "Nothing but character assassination!" chimes an interminable chorus…. "You'll be hearing from my lawyer!" threatened another (true story)….
"In 2004, political scientist Francis Fukuyama singled out transhumanism as the world's 'most dangerous idea.'" [The quotes refer to an article you can read following the link, the parenthetic comments were my own --d]
(As we all know, of course, Francis Fukuyama has a certain experience with marginal sub(cult)ures bent on imposing their extreme and anti-democratic worldview upon an unwilling and unready world, having carried water for years for the Neoconservative Death-Eaters, a klatch of mostly white assholes utterly convinced they were the smartest people in the room as they engineered world-scale disaster after world-scale disaster in plain sight of an appalled world.)
"It has attracted a series of wealthy backers, including Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal, who recently donated $4 million to the cause…."
(Needless to say this development is the furthest thing from evidence of the development with which this paragraph began, "this small-scale movement aims to go mainstream." [T]he technocratic elitism so prevalent in the transhumanist movement is especially congenial to incumbent interests with a stake in assuring the powerful that ordinary people are too ill-informed to be entrusted with a say in the developmental decisions that affect them, and… the techno-centric emphasis in transhumanist attitudes toward social problem-solving is especially congenial to incumbent interests with a stake in assuring a continued flow of money always in the direction of corporate-military research (welfare for the already-rich stealthed, of course, as "national defense" and "economic development"), [so] we can expect quite a bit of money to find its way eventually into transhumanist and quasi-transhumanist organizations. It remains to be seen how the more democratically-minded transhumanists will cope with this development. My expectations are shaped by the sense that money, attention, and success provide plenty of material for rationalization, and hence I think that the democratic transhumanists will, over the long term, prove to have provided respectability, credibility, and cover for the more reactionary elements in their movement, while corporatist support assures that these reactionary elements direct the movement. It may interest people to know that Peter Thiel serves on the Board of the Hoover Institution and is co-author of a book, The Diversity Myth: 'Multiculturalism' and the Politics of Intolerance at Stanford.)
"Other well-known speakers are also on the roster, including… Ray Kurzweil, the group's unofficial prophet."
(Not all groups have "prophets," official or non-official. Just saying.)
"They don't look very threatening, though perhaps not very diverse either. Most WTA members are white, middle-aged men…"
"AI theorist Eliezer Yudkowsky also believes the movement is driven by an ethical imperative. He sees creating a superhuman AI as humanity's best chance of solving its problems: 'Saying AI will save the world or cure cancer sounds better than saying 'I don't know what's going to happen'.' Yudkowsky thinks it is crucial to create a 'friendly' super-intelligence before someone creates a malevolent one, purposefully or otherwise. 'Sooner or later someone is going to create these technologies,'
(So, by God, let it be MEEEEE. Hard to believe this paragraph began with the claim that "the movement is driven by an ethical imperative." What kind of ethical imperative, one wonders, drives you into a Robot Overlord arms race with unspecified antagonists for control of the world, exactly?)
"The theme of saving humanity continues with presentations on... raising baby AIs in the virtual world of Second Life, as well as surveillance tactics for weeding out techno-terrorists and a suggested solution for the population explosion: uploading 10 million people onto a 50-cent computer chip."
(All Very Serious, indeed.)
"More immediate issues facing humanity, such as poverty, pollution and the devastation of war, tend to get ignored."
(Hm. Fancy that.)
"I discover the less egalitarian side to the transhumanist community…"
(You mean, even less egalitarian?)
"…when I meet Marvin Minsky, the 80-year-old originator of artificial neural networks and co-founder of the AI lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 'Ordinary citizens wouldn't know what to do with eternal life,' says Minsky. 'The masses don't have any clear-cut goals or purpose.' Only scientists, who work on problems that might take decades to solve appreciate the need for extended lifespans, he argues."
"He is also staunchly against regulating the development of new technologies."
(Whatever they are and whatever they do? Shall I pretend to be shocked?)
"Scientists shouldn't have ethical responsibility for their inventions, they should be able to do what they want," he says. "You shouldn't ask them to have the same values as other people."
(Marvin Minsky, ladies and gentlemen.)
"The transhumanist movement has been struggling in recent years with bitter arguments between democrats like [James] Hughes and libertarians like Minsky. Can [unofficial "prophet," Ray] Kurzweil's keynote speech unite the opposing factions?"
(Let me reiterate, in my view these factions are easily reconciled: the democrats need only be tolerated so long as they provide respectable cover for the reactionaries among them, meanwhile both sides foreground their shared technological enthusiasm to the exclusion of their real substantive political differences -- so divisive! so negative! -- with the consequence that the incumbent corporatist interests that overwhelmingly shape technological discourse always actually benefit without having to fight for this outcome, the reactionaries get something for nothing and the democrats get nothing in exchange for everything. Hey, what's not to like?)
"On the final day of the meeting… Kurzweil offers a few possible solutions to today's global dilemmas, such as nano-engineered solar panels to free the world from its addiction to fossil fuels."
(Non-existing solutions are always fun, aren't they? Even on his own term, he means, surely, that we must all struggle to fund and regulate and educate and promote such technodevelopmental outcomes in the public interest? That we must all learn from our many historical mistakes that we have to attend to the actual diversity of stakeholders to technodevelopmental change? That the distribution of costs, risks, and benefits of technoscience must better reflect that diversity, else "development" become a short-sighted parochial environmentally unsustainable socially destabilizing project of planetary precarization, exploitation, confiscation, and violence? Right? Right? Anyone?)
"But he is opposed to taxpayer-funded programmes such as universal healthcare as well as any regulation of new technology, and believes that even outright bans will be powerless to control or delay the end of humanity as we know it."
(Another shocker. Laissez-nous faire! Laissez les bons temps roullez!)
"People sometimes say, 'Are we going to allow transhumanism and artificial intelligence to occur?'" he tells the audience. "Well, I don't recall when we voted that there would be an internet."
(Ray Kurzweil, ladies and gentlemen. Unofficial "prophet" of the transhumanist movement. It should go without saying, by the way, that we actually did vote for the representatives who funded the research and building and maintenance of the internet, and also that those of us fighting for Net Neutrality, p2p, a2k, FlOSS, and so on are engaged in precisely the kind of democratic social struggle that is being denigrated in the glib dismissal of the very idea that "we voted that there would be an internet." But, you know, whatevs.)
PART SIX: A bald assertion, Peter Thiel and Elon Musk Are The Koch Brothers of Reactionary Futurology, from August, 2011:
Anyone who knows the history of Movement Republicanism and the role of a handful of impassioned ideologues backed by a handful of super-rich donors in the creation of an institutional archipelago that disseminated a deranging anti-governmental discourse and organized a legislative program that turned the tide of New Deal to Great Society civilization into Reagan era through Bush and Teavangelical anti-civilizationism (about which I've said more here), should pay close attention to PayPal billionaires Peter Thiel and Elon Musk and their coziness with transhumanoid and singularitarian and futurological would-be gurus, from Kurzweil to Brand to Brockman, their support of the rhetoric of "spontaneous order" and hence the practice of privatization of public investment and culture (for example, of public education, security, infrastructure, the space program), their inevitable hypocritical reliance on government coupled with anti-government rhetoric, their peddling of reactionary geo-engineering and Web 2.0 superficialization schemes as though these are in some way "green" or progressive (aided and abetted by many progressive-identified folks whose fetishization of "technology" renders them, as so often happens, particularly susceptible to reactionary authoritarian politics).
PART SEVEN: Something of a summing-up, from the following month, Mapping the Futurological Complex:
This post began as a response to somebody who recommended Edge.org in the still-ongoing discussion mentioned below taking place over at Michael Anissimov's "Accelerating Future" blog, but I have edited and adapted it a bit:
I admire a few who post at Edge.org (Lanier, Sterling, Margulis) but cannot say that I am a fan of the site more generally. What seems to be meant by the "Third Culture" there is one culture (a clumsy corralling of disciplines under the heading "hard and hard wannabe sciences") ignoring the other (no less clumsily, "humanities"), sometimes barking over the other, and then declaring this ignorance to be some kind of enlightened synthesis or detente.
Also, John Brockman is a key vector through which pop futurology, reductionist scientism, and neoliberal triumphalism is disseminated in my view, in parallel with the mainstream corporate-militarism of GBN (Global Business Network) and other "Long Boom" peddlers (to know what I think of Stewart Brand et al, you might read this).
The organizational archipelago of futurology is a richly layered one, and while most readers here probably know me best for my critique of its most hyperbolic forms -- the transhumanists, the cybernetic-totalists, the singularitarians, the techno-immortalists, the nano-cornucopiasts, what I like to deride as The Robot Cultists -- to me it is crucial to grasp the ramifications of futurological assumptions, aspirations, formulations, figures, forms in more mainstream discourse and organizational life as well, from deceptive hyperbolic advertizing norms suffusing public life to the unsustainable precarizing terms of corporate-military neoliberal developmentalist policy-making.
Just as the WTA (The World Transhumanist Association, er, now monikered HumanityPlus!) connects directly to IEET (the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, whose founders and many of whose leading lights are also those of WTA) which connects directly to Oxford's Future of Humanity Institute (again, the name has changed but the faces remain the same) so too one can draw lines connecting Edge.org to GBN to Wired Magazine to futurological impresario and guru Kurzweil to the libertopian and libertechian Extropian subculture to the Singularity Summit.
One can trace comparable lines of influence and force across the libertopian to Movement Conservative archipelago (with the same kinds of plausible deniability and sectarian squabbling to render connecting the dots a complex matter), for example. And, one can draw comparable lines between PayPal's Futurological FunderTwins Elon Musk and Peter Thiel with the futurological complex as one can draw between the Koch Brothers and the libertopian complex.
There are even points of connection between these complexes (the reactionary rhetoric of "spontaneous order" binds them ideologically, among other things), although the futurological complex hasn't quite managed the mischief the Neocons have, though I regard them as fully capable of it.
Although my critique of futurology has tended to focus on discourse analysis and philosophy (in which I am trained), as well as pseudo-science, forms of true belief, and both practical and conceptual affinities with reactionary politics, I must say that there remains an opportunity for some enterprising journalists and historians to document (and expose) the institutional structure of organized futurology from its mainstream to its superlative advocacy from the WW2 era emergence of modern information and computer science through to the contemporary epoch of irrational exuberance and greenwashing. I've done some small amount of that work, but it isn't really my area of expertise, and yet it is quite important work to be done.
These connections are not a matter of conspiracy so much as subculture and political organization in an epoch of network formations. But it is crucial, nonetheless, to grasp these ideological, subcultural, political, funding connections, whatever their measure and extent if we would resist the True Belief peddled by futurology through pseudo-science, the corporate-militarist PR peddled by futurology as policy-making, the derangement of public deliberation about technoscience issues by futurology's sensationalist hyperbole and fear-mongering, the circumvention of the political address of climate catastrophe by futurological geo-engineering greenwashing and boutique green consumer spectacles, the eugenicism of futurological "enhancement" discourses, the devastating ongoing anti-intellectualism of death-denialism, techno-fetishism, consumer culture by futurology's phony revolutionary amplification of the status quo peddled as "accelerating change."