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

Saturday, November 15, 2008

A Transhumanist Files a Complaint in the Hurt Feelings Department

Upgraded and adapted from the Moot. My "Anonymous" HumanityPlusTronic interlocutor soldiers on (I suspect she or he is approaching critical mass now, soon to set this sillyness aside for good or, to the contrary, to leap for a time into full-on saucer-eyed True Belief):
You’re right that the word “transhumanism” does have some very odd, and very frequently negative connotations. However, I have only truly realized this fact over the past 2 months or so, when I started to meet other transhumanists (and see how much they and I truly differ). But after about two years of calling yourself something, it can be somewhat difficult to stop thinking of yourself in that way. So I guess that I call myself a transhumanist simply as a relic of my own stubbornness

Despite all of the above, even though I am a not a tremendous fan of the title “transhumanist,” it can still, however, be somewhat useful to call oneself something that has values somewhat similar to your own. For me, I have found it helpful to compartmentalize my beliefs, so using a word like transhumanist to describe myself is appealing. For instance, I would really hate to call myself a “space exploration enthusiast/powered exoskeleton junkie/life-extension hopeful/etc…” That’s just far too long for my tastes. It really is much easier to sum up all of that into one connotation-filled, four syllable word, even if it doesn’t quite fit the bill.

Getting back to what it actually means to be a transhumanist, I still think that it is a gross over-simplification to say that all, or nearly all, transhumanists are somehow robot-cult members. If I had to guess, the vast majority of them are somewhat like me, in that their views are quite non-extremist, and they’re just interested in the possible paths that technology will lead the human race down in both the near and distant future. I am, of course, excluding some people like Michael Anissimov (whose blog I still can’t seem to stop reading, even though many of his views are in stark contrast to mine) and Ray Kurzweil, whose views are quite decidedly extremist at best, and, put bluntly, scary at worst. I know that this is a cliché, but it is easy to make generalizations about an entire group of people based solely on its most vocal members, even though this will result in a skewed view of what the group actually believes. If it were up to me, I would shut up the vast majority of those people, since they have the ability to make people like me seem like disgusting eugenics-lovin’ people just because they might like to compartmentalize their views in a similar fashion to myself.


Look, I'm not going to delve too deep into your personal life, it's not really my business.

You say "it is a gross over-simplification to say that all, or nearly all, transhumanists are somehow robot-cult members." I honestly think you are missing the force of my point altogether. Nobody who does describably foolish or damaging things is exhaustively describable as a fool or a danger as a result. As witness, the dictator who is kind to puppies or the neglectful parent who is a fine teacher blah blah blah. I daresay we can all accept as a given that people are multifaceted beings, their identifications are always at once multiple and partial and (as a result) dynamic. And so on.

There is certainly nothing wrong with being a space enthusiast, some of my best friends are space enthusiasts, some of my best fucks were with space enthusiasts, it's cool, everything's gonna be all right. Now, I am an "enthusiast," I suppose, for ranked or instant runoff voting reform, but I do worry that narrating my selfhood through too deep an identification with colleagues in a club devoted to an educational and organizational campaign on the subject would serve no useful purpose while at once possibly signalling that my life had gone awry in a "get a life" way that wanted tending to.

When you call yourself a "transhumanist," though, you are in some mighty odd company, my friend, to put the point kindly, and it probably isn't a bad idea for you to understand that there are many other people who publicly so identify who see that declaration as an indication of participation in a "movement," a "subculture," a world-historical force, of membership or affiliation in organizations with published "principles" and programmatic manifestos that explain the world and offer their Believers the Keys to History and so on.

Most of these principles and formulations are the most arrant nonsense imaginable (I have earned that glib assertion through too many words of close analysis, most of which you can read, if you care to do, by clicking the topic anthologies that cap my blogroll), and since these "transhumanists" (and so on) are actually making arguments, well, I read them as such and expose what seem to me to be their mistaken assumptions, their problematic historical contexts, and their anti-democratizing implications wherever I see them.

Taking these readings personally doesn't make a lot of sense to me, but I don't doubt it is rather an inevitable result when people become less critical about certain beliefs of theirs as the price for organizing a defensive marginal identity out of them. Many of the champions of these ideas say truly ridiculous things over the course of championing them and I am not ashamed to admit that I do not hesitate to expose the ridiculous to ridicule where pretending it serious gives it a power it doesn't deserve and with which it can do real damage in the world.

As I have pointed out many times, "transhumanists" and "singularitarians" are, when all is said and done, a rather marginal sub(cult)ure that never seems to expand beyond a few thousand members or so and are quite self-marginaling in their discourse in a way that suggests this will remain the case for good.

It is mostly because they illustrate and symptomize in their extremity particularly clarifying expressions of characteristically reactionary tendencies to reductionism, scientism, millenialism, fetishism, elite technocratic anti-politicism, and (crypto-) eugenicism prevalent in technoscientific discourses more generally that I have devoted energy to analyzing them.

Also, it must be said, at the practical-institutional level of the Robot Cult archipelago of diffusely inter-related organizations, I believe that it pays to devote close attention to some of their corporate-militarist funders and allies and to the curiously disproportionate impact their published intellectuals have had in framing certain quandaries of disruptive technodevelopment -- for example, describing parochial biomedical preferences as neutral "enhancements," farcically modeling technoscientific change as the acceleration of the acceleration of "growth," providing a rhetorical afterlife in popular discourse and public policy to long dead facile reductionist and "cybernetic totalist" notions of intelligence, life, and public life, suggesting a social priority of terrorizing existential threats over more proximate and local ones, likewise an industrial-elite geoengineering priority over distributed-p2p alternatives for solutions to environmental problems, fostering a relentless dismissiveness about critical technoscientific perspectives arising out of the humanities, and so on and on and on. All of these themes unvaryingly unspool in ways that (whatever the professed politics of the writers themselves) have proved congenial in their overgenerality, in their technocratic elitism, in their fear-mongering and hype-notizing emotionalism, in their budgetary priorities, in their reductionism, sometimes (shockingly often given current disasters) in their explicit adherence to market libertarian formulations, and so on to neoliberal and neoconservative agendas I personally abhor, as should you if you ask me.

At the end of your comment you made what looked to me like a promising claim: "Getting back to what it actually means to be a transhumanist..." I was expecting or at any rate hoping an actual address of the questions I posed at the end of our last exchange would be forthcoming, an effort on your part to actually characterize this "transhumanism" you would adhere to despite being so appalled, it seems, by so many of its perfectly representative published figures.

You'll recall the questions, I'm sure? [One] Tell me anything at all that is clarified about a presumably desirable technodevelopmental outcome by adding to it the designation "transhumanist." [Two] Name one quality about an artifact that can only be clarified by describing that quality as "transhumanist." [Three] Name one not crackpot belief common to most self-identified "transhumanists" that is not held by far more people who do not so self-identify.

I still think you would benefit enormously in coming to terms with these questions. Instead of doing anything of the kind, though, you follow your declaration about what it means to be a "transhumanist" by pouting that I have painted a picture with broad brushstrokes that hurt your feelings. Look, the world is full of nice people, full of bright, complicated people, full of people who do as many splendid and harmless things as dangerously idiotic ones. We're not in the nursery here, you can assume that everybody participating in this conversation is well aware of such vacuities already. You're talking about an ideological system with published formulations and funded organizations with published agendas. If what is wanted is a critique of these notions and their impacts it is simply neither here nor there that their adherents were sensible enough to vote for Obama or are likable at cocktail parties or are kind to their pets. Keep your eye on the ball.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Whatever the case I am really proud to walk around with tinfold on my head, blinking lights, talking in a high shrill nerdy voice. I even played D&D! I Am Ze Transhumanist, and I sacrifice babies to the robot god and I LLLOVE IT.

Ok ok there are scarcely a thousand transhumanistarians, probably just barely over a hundred. And yes, we are in league with Ze Germans and the world bank. And yes, nobody takes us serious, especially if we wear silvery velcro with star fleet logos.

Ohhhwww just you wait dale, when the robot god comes, he'll save us and he'll forget you! Blimey!

/me giggles at angry dale, who is so right all the time he's bent backwards.

Dale Carrico said...

The bad news for you, brave Anonymous, is that all the curious reader needs to do is google the words "transhumanist," "singularity," "extropian," "immortalism," "mind uploading," "cosmic engineer," and so on, and one will find bucketloads of crazy to wade through, by earnest advocates from your ideological neck of the woods, earnestly advocating their futurological views to the world.

You can pretend that my characterizations are unfair, but the kookiness is available for all to see. You don't have to literally be in a tinfoil hat or a star fleet uniform to be ridiculous enough to deserve ridicule. You don't have to be in league with Nazis who claim to have saved Hitler's brain or whatever, to be funded by Ayn Randian dot.com entrepreneurs or what have you. You can pretend I'm suffused with ra-a-a-age and bent out of shape, in the hopes that at least lazy people will dismiss rather than attend to the arguments I make.

Good luck with all that, bright brittle Anonymous. My three very simple questions remain on the table: [One] Tell me anything at all that is clarified about a presumably desirable technodevelopmental outcome by adding to it the designation "transhumanist." [Two] Name one quality about an artifact that can only be clarified by describing that quality as "transhumanist." [Three] Name one not crackpot belief common to most self-identified "transhumanists" that is not held by far more people who do not so self-identify.

I welcome responses with genuine curiosity. Or, you know, you can go back to throwing random poop in the hope that something sticks.

Anonymous said...

Ok, I'm game. (and that other anonymous poster wasn't me, in case it wasn't plainly obvious to everyone else).

Before I address the questions you presented, I want to say that I in no way support the organizations that encourage transhumanism. These exist to take people's money, like many other seedy, cultish groups. It is the idea of transhumanism that I support; the creation of people whose bodies have been blended with technology to give them superhuman strength, superhuman intelligence, or radically lengthened lifespans--or the support of those people who want none of these changes made to their bodies and minds. I can guarantee you that I will never, ever give a dime to these organizations. Instead, I will offer my support to transhumanistic goals through my soon-to-be research that I will perform in mathematics and computer science. I will do this because I believe that the best way to accomplish these goals is to actually do these things yourself, with the full intention of completing whatever vision of the future you may have. If you just sit back and have money siphoned from your bank account to these organizations, they will be taking your money and will then be using that money for their own goals, which are not necessarily your own. I suppose that if you define a transhumanist as someone who mindlessly gives money to an organization that very well may not have your values, then I am not a transhumanist--I'm just a nerd with a silly title. However, if there is more to transhumanism than just the organizations (which I firmly believe), such as what I posted above, then we differ in opinions based solely on semantics, which I find to not be worthy of discussion.

Now, onto the questions.

[One] Tell me anything at all that is clarified about a presumably desirable technodevelopmental outcome by adding to it the designation "transhumanist."

Answer)
I am sure that there are some people who would seek out like-minded people who call themselves transhumanists for the express purpose of discussing their hopeful visions of the future. This could, possibly, maybe, result in the creation of some "spark" in one of those transhumanists that would result in their scientific contribution to some transhumanistic field. This does not strike me as terribly likely, since so many of these people are just dreamers. However, there may be others, like me, who happened along transhumanism via wikipedia. If, instead of the article on transhumanism, there were only separate pages on cybernetics, etc, then I very well may have just skipped over it. For me, it was the agglomeration of all of this information that got me interested in the first place about futuristic ideas. I am sure I am not the only one. By having all of these ideas in one place made it relatively easy to get an introduction, as well as a decent leaping off point for further research, which is exactly what I did, and is one of the main reasons I am now going into a technical field.

[Two] Name one quality about an artifact that can only be clarified by describing that quality as "transhumanist."

Answer)
For this, there is no one artifact, since transhumanism contains ideas from such fields as space exploration, cybernetics, etc, all of which exist separately from each other. Transhumanism, to me, is the grouping together of these somewhat disparate fields. If I had to name one thing, I would say that no term other than "transhumanism" describes succinctly the varied forms of futurism that I value. (Keep in mind that I am cherry-picking somewhat, as many transhumanistic organizations support fields such as eugenics, which I wholeheartedly do not).

[Three] Name one not crackpot belief common to most self-identified "transhumanists" that is not held by far more people who do not so self-identify.

Answer)
Once again, transhumanism describes a spectrum of beliefs, and does not have any one core ideal. However, I would say that every transhumanist says that cybernetics is possible. We are (assuming there is no spiritual world, etc) completely physical beings. This means that we can interact with other physical objects, such as tools as simple as a fork to assist in eating food, or an artificial limb, to assist in walking or picking something up. Assuming that our bodies are not perfect (which in my estimation is a fair assumption) then they can be improved. If the artificial limb is made more advanced up to the point that it surpasses normal human functions, then it seems to me that someone with this artificial limb can be said to have surpassed normal human capabilities; they have now become something that transcends humanity--a transhuman. This is my personal definition of a transhuman: someone who has abilities greater (or far greater) than "normal" humans. Again, this view may be in stark contrast to those typically associated with most transhumanists--I wouldn't know, I'm not a member. Also, because there are a lot of people who are involved in cybernetics, and most likely a fair number of them believe that this kind of biology-technology merging is possible and/or likely to happen, there has to be something that differentiates between transhumanists and cyberneticists (if that's word; I'm not in entirely sure). I would say that this difference is found in the other ideas that most transhumanists possess. One such idea is that most transhumanists believe that radical life extension is possible. Another is the prospect of space exploration/colonization. Yet another is virtual reality. There are many others, but the ones listed above are the ones that I am principally interested in.

Did those answer your questions satisfactorily? Also, if my answers showed me to be something other than a transhumanist, then I will renounce any mental affiliation I have with it right now--I have no particular attachment to the movement; it just interests me.

Dale Carrico said...

I'm sorry, but this is not even close.

I asked how concrete outcomes are clarified through the application of the designation, and you say "like-minded" folks -- the only content of this likeness seems to be, somehow, "hopefulness" -- may be more likely to be inspired in each other's company. Quite apart from the fact that this vacuity about sociality isn't exactly news, you didn't notice the key word in the question, *clarified*, has yet to be addressed at all.

I next ask how any quality of an artifact is clarified through the term, and you mention a handful of popular science and technology topics that were are and will ever be discussed by 9 out of 10 people who care about them without reference to the term at all (this is a straightforward empirical claim). You say transhumanism "groups them together" -- but on the basis of *what*? In what *new* or *unique* or *helpful* way? That would be at least making an effort at answering the question.

I ask for you to identify anything *self-identified* transhumanists agree about that is unique to them that isn't just a crackpot idea. I hate to break it to you, but discussing prosthetics isn't exactly a uniquely transhumanist discourse. At all.

As for your cybernetics claim -- I said *self-identified* transhumanists, not people in respectable fields you decided to treat as transhuman closetcases because you think they're smart. I fear you'll discover that self-described transhumanists "involved" in cybernetics -- which will tend to mean people who talk about code without actually coding anything -- veer fairly quickly into the crackpottery I warned you about: mind uploading, AI Robot Gods well on the way, and the like.

Most transhumanists believe themselves to be part of a "movement" and many to constitute an organized political force. Like you, they rarely can actually describe anything they all share in the way of beliefs that contribute anything unique or new to technodevelopment discourse.

All they seem to be sure of is that they all share something. I personally think most HumanityPlusTrons are scared of dying and enjoy the denialism enabled by handwaving about unspecified super-tech in company, while others are just greedy or gullible and fall for any line of hype if its self-congratulatory enough, while many others are just True Believer types who have randomly crashed into this cult rather than many others that would have done the same job just as well, or perhaps appeals to their additional geek streak and the L5 Society is defunct.

You didn't come close to answering my questions satisfactorily. I fear you'll think me such a critic that no answer could satisfy me, but, to be honest, did you even try? You didn't come close to saying how this term *clarifies* what is desirable in outcomes or unique in artifacts designated "transhuman." I mean, that was *the question.* The third question asked about beliefs shared by and unique to self-identified transhumanists. Hopefulness and desirability of enhancement don't even remotely cut it. You don't have to join a Robot Cult to think space tech or virtual reality or medical research is neat. Ever watch the Discovery Channel? As I asked you early on, are you sure you aren't just, you know, a geek?

I do agree that taking fairly commonplace geek topics and then randomly hyperbolzing them and describing this as "transcendance" does indeed sound pretty conventionally transhumanist. Too bad it doesn't mean anything. But I do understand it gets asses in the seats when the collection plate gets sent round.

As for all the rest -- I can't nudge you into "renouncing your mental affiliation" when it isn't clear to me that it has any content apart from the fervency of your insistence that it's there (which you then go on to exhibit considerable ambivalence around).

Anonymous said...

Alright, I have to say that after spending a fair amount of time this past week reading about transhumanism from various sources, it seems clear to me that I do not fall under that particular umbrella. However, I now seem to have a clearer understanding of transhumanism, and I feel that I can now answer at least one of your questions in earnest.

[One] Tell me anything at all that is clarified about a presumably desirable technodevelopmental outcome by adding to it the designation "transhumanist."

I would say that there is, for the most part, nothing. To me it just seems to be a banner that a certain group of social outcasts can rally around. Simple as that. (and possibly if there were enough of them, they might be able to solve some of their problems just by throwing sheer numbers at them, but that doesn't seem very likely to happen, does it?).

[Two] Name one quality about an artifact that can only be clarified by describing that quality as "transhumanist."

This is somewhat fuzzy. I tend towards thinking that transhumanism is just an umbrella term for a bunch of semi-related ideas, and is thus completely (or very nearly) vacuous. However, I believe I might be able to come up with one aspect that could be unique to transhumanism. This would be the actual augmentation of human capabilities. It seems that not many people other than transhumanists discuss the creation of ultra-intelligent humans through the use of technology. The same goes for drastically improving bodily functions by using artificial limbs, organs, etc. I know that other disciplines at least share these ideas, but, hey, I'm trying at the very least.

[Three] Name one not crackpot belief common to most self-identified "transhumanists" that is not held by far more people who do not so self-identify.

Ah. This is the question that I now feel that I can answer satisfactorily. Put simply, it is the idea that the human condition is fundamentally, but not incurably, flawed, and that the only way to fix this is through the use of ridiculously advanced technology. From what I can tell, these flaws are as follows: death, disease, aging, stupidity, disability, the inability to sometimes communicate basic ideas with one another, not using all of the resources that are at our disposal, requiring a constant source of sustenance (food), weakness, and not being able to let one's mind focus on purely mental tasks. Every transhumanist that I have ever read about has expressed those ideas. I know that many other people share those same views as to Mankind's flaws, but transhumanists (to me) are the only ones that believe that technology provides the only, or best, means to fix these perceived problems. In my estimation, this belief is not crackpot. Misguided, probably. But not crackpot.

Dale Carrico said...

I'll graciously concede your gracious concession of questions one and two and turn to your effort to answer question three:

[Three] Name one not crackpot belief common to most self-identified "transhumanists" that is not held by far more people who do not so self-identify.

Ah. This is the question that I now feel that I can answer satisfactorily. Put simply, it is the idea that the human condition is fundamentally, but not incurably, flawed, and that the only way to fix this is through the use of ridiculously advanced technology. From what I can tell, these flaws are as follows: death, disease, aging, stupidity, disability, the inability to sometimes communicate basic ideas with one another, not using all of the resources that are at our disposal, requiring a constant source of sustenance (food), weakness, and not being able to let one's mind focus on purely mental tasks. Every transhumanist that I have ever read about has expressed those ideas. I know that many other people share those same views as to Mankind's flaws, but transhumanists (to me) are the only ones that believe that technology provides the only, or best, means to fix these perceived problems. In my estimation, this belief is not crackpot. Misguided, probably. But not crackpot.


You may discover, via even a superficial survey of the record of human civilization, that exasperation with the absurdity of mortality is a commonplace. I think to describe the constitutive finitude of the human condition as "flawed" is to imply a designer, which I happen not to believe in -- indeed, I happen to find the notion of a designer far more absurd, even insipid, than the condition of absurdity and heartbreak bequeathed by the facts of our finitude -- but quite apart from all that jazz, and very much more to the point, the great works of medicine, education, artistic expression, and the helping professions are all of them already devoted to the work of ameliorating the vulnerabilities, diseases, humiliations, and ignorances human animals are prone to. You certainly don't need to join a Robot Cult to participate in any of these enterprises, and, I fear, the specific contributions of the brave boys of the futurological congress is to indulge in hysterical wish fulfillment and then pout and stamp when grownups point out that far from making them scientific geniuses out to save the planet it tends to make them silly bores endlessly wasting time and confusing the issues at hand. Techno-immortalism, nanosanta, cybernetic totalism, and pining or worrying over the coming of the Robot God are all palpable crackpottery. To the extent that this is what the Robot Cultists are on about, they are crackpots. To the extent that they are just advocates for medical research, technoscientific literacy, and a fairer more democratic distribution of the costs, risks, and benefits of global technoscientific developments they're just secular social democrats like most intelligent decent people are and they'll find they're more apt to make a real difference in a real measure in the real world if they drop the self-delusions and the stupid crap.

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