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

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Why Waste Your Time on Robot Cultists, Anyway?

Updated and adapted from the Moot, the usual answer to the usual question.

The actually actively self-identified "transhumanists" and "singularitarians" and "Extropians" and "techno-immortalists" who most clearly represent the political and "philosophical" ambitions I summarize and criticize (not to mention ridicule) as Superlativity or "Robot Cultism" have remained an extremely marginal sub(cult)ure numbering never more than a few thousand folks throughout the whole of their decades-long organized global existence -- albeit, one must admit, they are an unusually attention-grabbing band for all their marginality.

They seem to me to be likely to remain just as marginal from here on out since theirs is a membership with a relentlessly high turnover... some wise up to the scam when they actually study the relevant science, some grow impatient with a "geek rapture" that never shows much sign of actually arriving, some of the True Believers drift off to attach no less uncritically elsewhere soon enough... And the folks who stay on seem to be the ones with the most intransigently marginal views, the ones who expect the Robot God to "wake up" any day now from the scattered informational churn of the intrawebs, the ones who can't say with confidence that we aren't already living on the Holodeck nor why it can possibly matter then if we are, the ones who mean to wrap their brains in foil to freeze for the nanobots to resurrect one day, the ones who expect to "upload" their "minds" into imperishable computers, and so on.



Given this abiding marginality it does seem reasonable to ask why the Robot Cultists deserve our attention, rather than simply our sympathies. I will say that if the last twenty years have taught us anything at all it is how a small self-deluded coterie of extremists who think they're the smartest boys in the room can do flabbergasting amounts of damage if they play their cards right (I have the Neocons in mind, but many examples are available). And so it probably pays to pay at least some attention to the transhumanists and the singularitarians if only because they provide rationales for certain modes of corporate-militarism (technocratic elitism, duressed genetic interventionism, centralized and industrialized responses to designated existential risks, and so on) that make them -- however ridiculous they are in so many ways otherwise -- sufficiently attractive to at least some incumbent interests to make them far more dangerous than could possibly make immediate sense to the sensible.

But quite apart from all that, I have always said that the transhumanists deserve scrutiny less for the pleasurable fascinations of their curious cultiness and kookiness (a worthy enough payoff on its own terms when one is in the mood for a bit of well-earned snark), but because they represent in their very extremity a particularly illuminating expression, almost a reductio, of techno-utopian elitist reductionist and eugenicist tendencies that are playing out more diffusely but disastrously across the whole neoliberal and neoconservative "developmental" policy imaginary in our present historical moment. In exposing what is ridiculous in Superlative discourses like the Robot Cultisms of the transhumanists and their zany kin one often chisels through to a deeper understanding of what is wrong with the steamroller of "neoliberal" "developmental" "technocratic" discourses more generally.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

Well people are worried abour robot cultists because, well, they represent evil. Or so they claim. It's weird, hence it must be bad. Or loonie, of course, as all small fringe cults with odd or implausible or autlandish ideas are loonies. Or evil. Or geek. Or socialist. Or jews.

[quoted]

Luciferianism constitutes the nucleus of the ruling class religion. While there are definitely political and economic rationales for elite criminality, Luciferianism can account for the longevity of many of the oligarchs' projects. Many of the longest and most brutal human endeavors have been underpinned by some form of religious zealotry. The Crusades testify to this historical fact. Likewise, the power elite's ongoing campaign to establish a socialist totalitarian global government has Luciferianism to thank for both its longevity and frequently violent character. In the mind of the modern oligarch, Luciferianism provides religious legitimacy for otherwise morally questionable plans.

[....]

During the Enlightenment, Luciferianism was disseminated on the popular level as secular humanism. All of the governing precepts of Luciferianism are encompassed by secular humanism. This is made evident by the philosophy's rejection of theistic morality and enthronement of man as his own absolute moral authority. While Luciferianism has no sacred texts, Humanist Manifesto I and II succinctly delineate its central tenets. Whittaker Chambers, former member of the communist underground in America, eloquently summarizes this truth:

"Humanism is not new. It is, in fact, man's second oldest faith. Its promise was whispered in the first days of Creation under the Tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil: 'Ye shall be as gods.'" (Qutd. in Baker 206)

Transhumanism offers an updated, hi-tech variety of Luciferianism. The appellation "Transhumanism" was coined by evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley ("Transhumanism," Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, no pagination). Huxley defined the transhuman condition as "man remaining man, but transcending himself, by realizing new possibilities of and for his human nature" (no pagination). However, by 1990, Dr. Max More would radically redefine Transhumanism as follows:

Transhumanism is a class of philosophies that seek to guide us towards a posthuman condition. Transhumanism shares many elements of humanism, including a respect for reason and science, a commitment to progress, and a valuing of human (or transhuman) existence in this life… Transhumanism differs from humanism in recognizing and anticipating the radical alterations in the nature and possibilities of our lives resulting from various sciences and technologies… (No pagination)

Transhumanism advocates the use of nanotechnology, biotechnology, cognitive science, and information technology to propel humanity into a "posthuman" condition. Once he has arrived at this condition, man will cease to be man. He will become a machine, immune to death and all the other "weaknesses" intrinsic to his former human condition. The ultimate objective is to become a god. Transhumanism is closely aligned with the cult of artificial intelligence. In the very influential book The Age of Spiritual Machines, AI high priest Ray Kurzweil asserts that technological immortality could be achieved through magnetic resonance imaging or some technique of reading and replicating the human brain's neural structure within a computer ("Technological Immortality," no pagination). Through the merger of computers and humans, Kurzweil believes that man will "become god-like spirits inhabiting cyberspace as well as the material universe" (no pagination).

Following the Biblical revisionist tradition of the Gnostic Hypostasis myth, Transhumanists invert the roles of God and Satan. In an essay entitled "In Praise of the Devil," Transhumanist ideologue Max More depicts Lucifer as a heroic rebel against a tyrannical God:

The Devil—Lucifer—is a force for good (where I define 'good' simply as that which I value, not wanting to imply any universal validity or necessity to the orientation). 'Lucifer' means 'light-bringer' and this should begin to clue us in to his symbolic importance. The story is that God threw Lucifer out of Heaven because Lucifer had started to question God and was spreading dissension among the angels. We must remember that this story is told from the point of view of the Godists (if I may coin a term) and not from that of the Luciferians (I will use this term to distinguish us from the official Satanists with whom I have fundamental differences). The truth may just as easily be that Lucifer resigned from heaven. (No pagination)

According to More, Lucifer probably exiled himself out of moral outrage towards the oppressive Jehovah:

God, being the well-documented sadist that he is, no doubt wanted to keep Lucifer around so that he could punish him and try to get him back under his (God's) power. Probably what really happened was that Lucifer came to hate God's kingdom, his sadism, his demand for slavish conformity and obedience, his psychotic rage at any display of independent thinking and behavior. Lucifer realized that he could never fully think for himself and could certainly not act on his independent thinking so long as he was under God's control. Therefore he left Heaven, that terrible spiritual-State ruled by the cosmic sadist Jehovah, and was accompanied by some of the angels who had had enough courage to question God's authority and his value-perspective. (No pagination)

More proceeds to reiterate 33rd Degree Mason Albert Pike's depiction of Lucifer:

Lucifer is the embodiment of reason, of intelligence, of critical thought. He stands against the dogma of God and all other dogmas. He stands for the exploration of new ideas and new perspectives in the pursuit of truth. (No pagination)

Lucifer is even considered a patron saint by some Transhumanists ("Transtopian Symbolism," no pagination). Transhumanism retains the paradigmatic character of Luciferianism, albeit in a futurist context. Worse still, Transhumanism is hardly some marginalized cult. Richard Hayes, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society, elaborates:

Last June at Yale University, the World Transhumanist Association held its first national conference. The Transhumanists have chapters in more than 20 countries and advocate the breeding of "genetically enriched" forms of "post-human" beings. Other advocates of the new techno-eugenics, such as Princeton University professor Lee Silver, predict that by the end of this century, "All aspects of the economy, the media, the entertainment industry, and the knowledge industry [will be] controlled by members of the GenRich class. . .Naturals [will] work as low-paid service providers or as laborers. . ." (No pagination)

With a growing body of academic luminaries and a techno-eugenical vision for the future, Transhumanism is carrying the banner of Luciferianism into the 21st century. Through genetic engineering and biotechnological augmentation of the physical body, Transhumanists are attempting to achieve the very same objective of their patron saint.

I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north: I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High. (Isaiah 14:13-14)

This declaration reflects the aspirations of the power elite as well. Whatever form the Luciferian religion assumes throughout the years, its goal remains the same: Apotheosis.

http://www.conspiracyarchive.com/Commentary/Luciferianism.htm

Dale Carrico said...

My, you're all over the place there, aren't you!

I must say that I don't agree that everything that is weird is therefore "wrong," if that's what you're implying.

Nor do I really agree that the transhumanists are particularly good exemplars of secular humanism given that their emphasis on "optimality" over diversity and embrace of "technocracy" or "meritocracy" over democracy will function (whatever the expressed intentions of its proponents in the matter) to undermine fatally the scene of informed nonduressed consent that defines the secular tendency in my view.

Nor do I think it makes much sense to give the Robot Cultists as much credit as you seem to do when you say: "Transhumanism advocates the use of nanotechnology, biotechnology, cognitive science, and information technology to propel humanity into a 'posthuman' condition. Once he has arrived at this condition, man will cease to be man. He will become a machine, immune to death and all the other 'weaknesses' intrinsic to his former human condition."

I mean, what exactly does it mean to "advocate the use" of non-existing or never-to-exist tools? How does one use these? Why accept the handwaving fantasy that humanity can be propelled into an "immunity from death" or to "weaknesses" (setting aside for the moment what is even supposed to count as "weaknesses" in such a formulation)?

I guess I agree with you that the organizational life of transhumanist-identified folks bears at least some watching, since they do publish policy papers and give interviews on technodevelopmental topics and have some curious funding sources and institutional affiliations -- but I don't quite see the use of veering into Freemasonry or Illuminati land here.

I doubt the transhumanists will ever manage to come close as actual UFO cults go to the scale or scope of the Raelians, Scientologists, or Mormons. As I have said time and time again transhumanism is most interesting as a clarifyingly extreme and symptomatic variation of more generally prevailing technocratic "developmental" discourses in the context of global corporate-militarism. This point is better construed as structural than conspiracist.

jimf said...

Dale wrote (down below):

> But put down your hammer and nails and your toy tricorder. . .

What could be better than a toy tricorder?

Oh, I know. . .

"A computer that **no fool on Earth** would purchase requires
machinery so decadent and impractical, so awash up in the dream
that super-science will simplify our lives, that it could
only arrive in a Neiman-Marcus holiday catalog.

And so we explore the Honeywell Kitchen Computer. Made
exclusively for the housewife that has everything but
tangible proof her husband is a clueless jackass."

http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/11/27/tob_kitchen_computer/

Anonymous said...

If you don't mind, would you be able to explain why mind-uploading and Robot Gods are so absurd?

On the subject of mind-uploading, as far as I can tell, this is entirely possible. Firstly, we have to work under the assumption that humans, and all of our body parts, follow purely physical laws. With this assumption in place, everything in our brains can be described as a combination of chemical and electrical interactions that results in a definite output (i.e. thoughts, emotions, etc). Now, it seems reasonable to assume that this same output could possibly be generated a different way, namely through purely electrical interactions (this is a valid step, since the chemical reactions act only to generate electrical impulses). And finally, once the once all of the "parts" are in place (electrical transistors taking the place of neurons and wires taking the place of neural synapses), the mind has been converted from a chemical/electrical substrate to a purely electrical substrate. This is the process of mind-uploading, and hypothetically it would be accomplished by slowly changing the "bits and pieces" in our brains from biological to non-biological components. If I wrong on any of my assumptions, I would be happy to be corrected. I would just like this to be clarified.

On the subject of Robot Gods, this again seems completely possible. For this assumption to be valid, it now requires a purely physical view of intelligence. OK, can we both agree that humans are unequivocally smarter than, say, a fruitfly or a dog? This is important because we need to agree on an intuitive view of intelligence, since the word/concept is so horrifically difficult to define. From here, it seems reasonable that the "thing" that makes one creature more intelligent than another creature is the complexity/basic structure of its brain. With this in place, humans would be said to have a more robust brain that any other creature. Now, another foundational assumption has to be made: human intelligence cannot be the most profound intelligence physically possible. This is again reasonable based on two premises: throughout the entire evolutionary history of life on earth, humans are the first example of an actually "smart" species; and the first version of something is very, very rarely the best version possible.

Now, with all of these assumptions in place, isn't it possible to create an artificial brain that is more robust than a human brain? One that is fundamentally smarter than a human? This seems highly likely to me. However, I am not even going to speculate on the engineering of such a system. I am just pointing out that a Robot God is a physically possible entity. I am not saying that it is likely to arise in any kind of near or distant future. Again, if any of my assumptions are invalid, please call me out on it. I like to be challenged on my beliefs.

And no, I am not a transhumanist by any stretch of the imagination; I'm just a geek who grew up reading sci-fi.

Dale Carrico said...

These notions are usually logically possible enough to organize some wonderful science fiction around, sometimes even hard sci-fi around.

But the various superlative technocentrics I critique regularly declare themselves a unique and coherent sub(cult)ural identity and/or political movement.

Taken on those terms of theirs, the Robot Cultisms are a scam at best and at worst a delusion so zealously uncritical as to look almost like a cry for help and so dangerous in their enunciated priorities and recommendations as to look like a real threat (until you realize their utter marginality renders them more or less harmless, except as perhaps clarifyingly extreme examples or even symptoms of broader reductionist, eugenicist, and technocratic tendencies inhering in prevalent in neoliberal "development" discourse).

If you click on the Superlative Summary near the top of my blogroll you can find any number of links that explore the problems with these assumptions at various levels of generality -- practical, political, psychological, rhetorical, philosophical, and so on, with some effort at the provision of a more general case as to the relations between these problems. Rather than rehearse those I welcome your comments and criticisms and provocations there.

I, too, by the way, am a geek who grew up reading sci-fi, and remain one today.

jimf said...

> These notions are usually logically possible enough to
> organize some wonderful science fiction around,
> sometimes even hard sci-fi around.

Hm, yeah. I was chatting with a friend over Thanksgiving,
and he said something about how humans (being mammals, and
used to being bossed around by [seemingly] all-powerful parents)
tend to invent or notice things that seem powerful, and then
worship them. The gods, or God. The Market. The Forces
of History. And I replied that lately it seems, for some
folks, to be The Computer, or technology in general. And he
replied that it didn't take too long after the publication
of Norbert Wiener's _Cybernetics_ for (L. Ron Hubbard's)
"Dianetics" to come about, which (my friend said) was
largely based on a 1948 computer geek's idea of how the
mind works (with a hat-tip toward, though largely a
reaction against, Freud: the "reactive mind" [read:
the Freudian subconscious] is what you're supposed to
**get rid of** if you're a student of Dianetics/Scientology).

So yeah, nobody's arguing against the **logical** impossibility
of a Moravec transfer, or against the **logical** impossibility
of a Blue Brain-style whole brain simulation. Or at least
I'm not inclined to.

But there's something else going on with these >Hists.
Something that makes a Star Trek-style "Red Alert" sign
blink on and off in my head, except that my sign is labelled
"Cult".

----------------------------------

"Keith Raniere says he conceptualized a practice called 'Rational Inquiry'
at the age of 12 while reading _Second Foundation_ by Isaac Asimov.

The premise of the science fiction series is that a mathematician forecasts
the end of civilization and devises a plan to shorten the period of barbarity
before a new civilization is established.

Rational Inquiry, a formula for analyzing and optimizing how the mind
handles data, as Raniere describes it, is the basis for NXIVM
(pronounced NEX-ee-um), a multimillion-dollar international company. . ."

http://www.rickross.com/reference/esp/esp32.html

----------------------------------

"Keith Raniere's devoted followers say he is one of the
smartest and most ethical people alive. They describe
him as a soft-spoken, humble genius who can diagnose
societal ills with remarkable clarity. . .

His teachings are mysterious, filled with self-serving
and impenetrable jargon about ethics and values, and defined
by a blind-ambition ethos akin to that of the driven
characters in an Ayn Rand novel. His shtick: Make your own
self-interest paramount, don't be motivated by what other
people want and avoid 'parasites' (his label for people
who need help); only by doing this can you be true to
yourself and truly 'ethical.' The flip side, of course,
is that this worldview discredits virtues like charity,
teamwork and compassion--but maybe we just don't get it."

http://www.rickross.com/reference/esp/esp31.html


I sometimes wonder if some kids shouldn't be kept away from
sci-fi altogether. The same way that some kids (if only you
could identify them) should probably never be allowed
to discover the existence of drugs, or alcohol. (I keed,
I keed! ;-> ).

jimf said...

> nobody's arguing against the **logical** impossibility
> of a Moravec transfer, or against the **logical** impossibility
> of a Blue Brain-style whole brain simulation. Or at least
> I'm not inclined to.

I meant to say **for** the logical impossibility (or against
the logical possibility), of course.

Mike said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dale Carrico said...

I write about these topics not because "they are remotely possible" or whatever thread you're hanging onto here, but mostly for the reasons I actually say I am -- namely, that HERE AND NOW these formulations have a deranging impact on present and proximate understanding of technodevelopmental social struggle (both generally and on a case by case basis) and on policy discourse. That's why you are really missing the point when you ascend into orbit and declare my advocacy of presently implausible policy initiatives like basic income guarantees "utopian" and then declare "mind-uploading as a path to techno-immortality" to be comparably utopian and so equivalent. Actually, as it happens, techno-immortalism is impossible and actually incoherent -- we actually are embodied finite beings whose embodied finite lives could not be "immortalized" and remain legible as lives -- whereas basic income guarantees are implausible in the way European Welfare States might have seemed implausible to Charlemagne which is actually a difference that makes a difference I won't let you get away with the elision of. But be all that as it may, the thing to understand is that I'm not even playing the game you think I am playing here, I am not standing over the roulette table, calculating the Robot God odds as compared to the democratic world federalism or eco-socialism odds or what have you and then assigning different values to these than you do and distributing my attention and ridicule in proportion to these assignments... My interest in Robot Cultism is not senso strictu futurological at all, but rhetorical: I am interested in its impact in the technodevelopmental imaginary here and now, taken as a symptom and even an extreme version of neoliberal and neoconservative global development discourse more generally. My concern is far more present and proximate than you may realize, even if I talk a lot about people who talk more about what they fancy as "the future" than the present. Of course, no small amount of what they are really talking about when they talk about "the future" is what they desire and despise in the present, but in the funhouse mirror of futurological projection.