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

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Defining "Transhumanism"

Like most secular progressives I believe that human beings can and should collaborate to solve their shared problems and improve their shared lot, peer to peer.*

According to a new entry in the Oxford English Dictionary a "transhumanist," apparently, is a person who holds “a belief that the human race can evolve beyond its current limitations, esp. by the use of science and technology.”

This definition perplexes me quite as much as efforts to define trasnhumanism I have heard from less authoritative sources hitherto always have done. To help explain why, let me make three inter-related points that arise from a juxtaposition of the two assertions of belief with which I began this post, the first the progressive commonplace that people should work together to solve problems and the second the presumably definitive "transhumanist" belief that humans can "evolve" beyond their limitations.

First, if the phrase "evolve beyond its current limitations" in the transhumanist definition is intended to express roughly the same idea as my own phrase "collaborate to solve our shared problems," then why exactly would anybody think a new word is needed to describe this very widespread secular progressive attitude, let alone a new word that seems to want to be taken to name an "-ism," a unique and organized worldview with adherents, unique and shared beliefs, and so on?

Second, if "evolve beyond its current limitations" is intended to express something different enough from "collaborate to solve our shared problems" to actually justify the sense that it names some novel "-ism," then just how coherent will it manage to be in this novelty? To elaborate a bit: By "limits" here, then, are we to imagine that all "transhumanists" agree about these limits they would "evolve beyond" and further would we expect that this shared desire to overcome these limits in particular would distinguish them from others in some salient way? When the definition refers to the current limits of "the human race," it seems to imply that these limits are understood as monolithic and uniform (hence, perhaps, the choice of the pronoun "its" rather than "our"), despite the fact that human beings testify to an ongoing and ineradicable diversity of problems, interests, ends, and stakes in history. Or is it the very notion of "limits" as such that are to be "evolved beyond"? Would the latter notion even make sense conceptually? Is "evolution" the right word to describe what takes place when particular limits are overcome, by whatever means, "especially by the use of science and technology"? What is subsumed under the category "technology" in this definition, all artifice, all technique, all culture, or do transhumanists focus on particular aspects of technique to more specific purposes (with who knows what justifications)?

Third, if "evolving beyond current limitations" really does convey simply the desire to overcome shared problems, then how can we account for the conspicuous prevalence in actually existing transhumanist-identified discourses of questions of personally overcoming ageing, death, embodiment, material history (as stakeholder contestation), conventional cognitive and morphological traits and capacities, or on imagined but presumably proximate technoconstituted entities who are assumed to exhibit such overcomings, even though the overabundant majority of people who simply believe we can and should collaborate to solve problems don't seem to share these preoccupations in the least? Does this make the definition worse than vacuous, but actually actively misleading?

It is well known that I personally view transhumanism as a form of both superlative and sub(cult)ural technocentrism.

By describing their technocentrism as superlative, I mean to indicate that the apparently technical discourse of the transhumanists is freighted with frankly theological significance, offering up, in schema, objects of faith stealthed as "predictions"; namely, that human beings will technodevelopmentally arrive (the word "evolve" tends to be misused here) at a super-predicated state reproducing variations on the conventional omnipredicates of the God of Christian theology (alas, with many of the same conceptual incoherencies).

How all this concretely plays out in most transhumanist discourse is in regular expressions of fervent belief in (or discussions predicated on faith in) the imminent arrival of a postbiological superintelligent Robot God that will end human history, or in the imminent arrival of precisely controlled self-replicating nanoscale robots that will deliver a superabundance that will end human stakeholder politics, or in the imminent arrival of genetic and prosthetic medical techniques or brain scanning and modeling techniques that will transform at least some lucky humans (guess who?) into imperishable robots or informational beings in cyberspace and, hence, end human mortality. Unfortunately, superlative aspirations to Singularitarian superintelligence fail to grasp the inter-implication of mind and embodiment, superlative aspirations to Nanosantalogical superabundance fail to grasp the inter-implication of plurality and politics, superlative aspirations to Technological Immortalist superlongevity fail to grasp the inter-implication of life and vulnerability (all of these are arguments I have elaborated at great depth here and here).

By describing their technocentrism as sub(cult)ural, I mean to indicate that transhumanists tend to identify with very particular projected developmental outcomes that they designate "the future" and whose spokespersons they then designate themselves to be, a viewpoint that lends itself to alienation, elitism, determinism, triumphalism, and facile oversimplications of the actual vicissitudes of technodevelopmental social struggle among the ineradicable diversity of peers who share the world in history. Like most ideologues they substitute for the open futurity that is democratic freedom an impoverished vision of "the future" for which they mean to fight with their whole hearts against all who oppose them or through the identification with which they indulge in the pathetic satisfactions of self-congratulatory self-marginalization.

It seems to me one is put in a better position to understand the actually reiterated themes, problems, preoccupations, and formulations of actually transhumanist-identified people, writings, organizations, and so on if one concentrates on the Superlativity of their vantage on technoscientific change in history and on the Sub(cult)ural focus of their organizing than simply flinging vacuities around about "overcoming limits" (in unspecified ways) through "technology" (in unspecified terms).

One would have thought that it would be the proper business of a definition to help us pick out salient instances of a unique phenomenon against a background of greater differences. Instead, the Oxford English definition seems to suggest that transhumanists are some (somehow new? somehow unique?) group who think people use tools to solve problems.

It's easy for me to understand why transhumanists themselves -- seeking mainstream respectability and the influence and funding that goes with it for their marginal membership organizations -- would be well pleased to convince newcomers to their discourse that they are merely technoscientifically literate and optimistic problem-solvers, since their interests in freezing their brains cryogenically the better to eventually upload their souls into cyberspace thus achieving a techno-immortality to be lived out in clouds of virtuality or nanobotic "utility fog" catering to their every infantile wish, all the while in thrall to (or having themselves assumed the guise of) superintelligent robot overlord quasi-deities through cyborgic AI "enhancement" are probably less likely to win them much in the way of serious support any time soon.

By the way, it's equally easy to see why social conservatives who seek to ban the consensual recourse to reproductive techniques and other emerging genetic therapies for fear that these will loosen their hold on the patriarchal pieties with which they parochially identify here and now would also be well pleased to convince newcomers to technodevelopmental debates that commonsense secular democratic approval of scientific development in the service of shared problem solving and consensual improvement of our shared lot somehow connect up to the obviously wacky and delegitimizing agendas of the transhumanist Robot Cult.

It's less easy for me to see how an authoritative mainstream informational resource would fall for servicing the inter-dependent self-promotional interests of these two extreme and marginal organizational perspectives, however, especially with the result of generating a definition so vacuous that it is hard to see what new or unique phenomenon it even means to delineate in the first place.

___
*Like most democratically minded secular progressives, I believe that the best way to accomplish these ends is to democratize society more and more, that is to say, to ensure that ever more people have ever more of a say in the public decisions that affect them, as well as to support a robust human rights culture and a substantial scene of informed, nonduressed consent (best achieved in my own view through the provision of lifelong education, subsidization of consensus science and reliable access-to-knowledge, the provision of universal basic healthcare and the provision of a universal non-means-tested basic income).

26 comments:

Mildred said...

The sad part, Dale, is that the yearning for some imagined robotic future distracts otherwise intelligent people from the gains that might be made in the present if they worked for them. There are so many poor people in Africa, and Haiti, and South America, who might, with just a relatively little expenditure be helped to live longer and happier lives. But for some reason, wealthy white people living in the developed world feel like it's more important that they personally achieve immortality, whether through anti-aging genetic engineering, neuro-preservation at Alcor, or uploading.

Some of them will attempt to fob off criticism by claiming that eventually the imaginary technologies they envision will "trickle down" to the poor--but these ideas are clearly an afterthought.

jimf said...

> First, if the phrase "evolve beyond its current limitations"
> in the transhumanist definition is intended to express roughly
> the same idea as my own phrase "collaborate to solve our
> shared problems," then why exactly would anybody think a
> new word is needed to describe this very widespread secular
> progressive attitude, let alone a new word that seems to
> want to be taken to name an "-ism," a unique and organized
> worldview with adherents, unique and shared beliefs, and so on?

Well, I think there's a long and venerable SF tradition
that's being hat-tipped here -- including J. D. Beresford's
_The Hampdenshire Wonder_, extending through Olaf Stapledon's
_Odd John_ and _Sirius_, and including A. E. Van Vogt's
_Slan_ and George Turner's _Brain Child_.

The maguffin here is that the "next step" in human
evolution will entail a sharp break with the current
model. It's a perfectly understandable basis for a good
story -- there's conflict and terror and bathos
built into the situation.

See, e.g., the 1963 _The Outer Limits_ TV episode "The
Sixth Finger" for a representative example of the
genre:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L1Cunxy68uo

I suspect modern "transhumanists" are largely folks
who, like us, grew up with this hoary SF trope and
who, furthermore, not only think this is a plausible scenario
in fact, but actually think it'd be **really kewl**
if it happened.

Anonymous said...

Mildred: I am decidedly not a transhumanist, but I can certainly see where they're coming from on the issue of life extension.

While it does seem to me to be of extreme importance to improve the lives of people living in less-than-optimal locations/conditions, giving those people better food, water and health care is only half of the equation. Ultimately, even if every one of those people were brought up to the standards of the first world, they would still only live, on average, for approximately 75 years. Doesn't this seem to be somewhat wrong, that 75 years is the longest they could reasonably expect to live? Wouldn't it be far better for people to live an arbitrarily long life? I definitely think so. This is why I support such technologies, because as of right now, with our current amount of technology, no one (not a single person!) can possibly live longer than 120 years. Tell me, doesn't that seem to be, at the absolute least, a moderately pressing issue as well? Once again, I think so.

Dale Carrico said...

Some of them will attempt to fob off criticism by claiming that eventually the imaginary technologies they envision will "trickle down" to the poor -- but these ideas are clearly an afterthought.

You said it, Mildred. Incumbent and moneyed elites have been pissing in our faces quite long enough by now that we are quite conscious of the substance of the "trickle down" thesis.

Dale Carrico said...

Wouldn't it be far better for people to live an arbitrarily long life?

This is an utterly frivolous question.

It isn't serious, it isn't courageous, it isn't daring, it isn't imaginative, it isn't thinking outside the box, it is actually, given the actually existing problems facing so many human beings in the world here and now, something of an obscenity in my view, and utterly childish.

We have the resources to end poverty right now, we know enough to defend equity and consent before the law right now, and the fact that we do not do so bodes very ill for the likely never to arrive age of superabundance you tell yourself you dream of, an age in which you can be sure that rich reactionary fucks (to put the point indelicately) will find better occupations for their fabulous supermachines than permitting the emergence of an equitable and diverse consensual order to the cost of their privileges just as they do now.

Meanwhile, even delayed senescence would scarcely protect human beings from death by war, or violence, or neglected disease, or starvation, or exploitation. Until you take war, violence, neglected disease, starvation, and exploitation seriously right now, As things stand, you'll forgive me if I find earnest protestations to progressive sentiment from "futurological" handwavers very hard to swallow.

No, be very clear about your priorities, brave "Anonymous," and own them for what they are. It is not for the emancipation of humanity that you pine for a prosthetic prolongation of lifespan but for the prolongation of your own pampered existence in a world that cannot bear the weight of it without exacting costs on potential peers who share this world with you that would make you speechless with shame were you to give a moment's contemplation to them.

Anonymous said...

First off, even though I did not voice my support outright for the ending of war, violence, neglected disease, starvation, and exploitation, my support for the ending of the above was fully implied by my belonging to the human race (how many horrendous people do you really think are out there, where you would jump to the conclusion that I don't give a damn about such issues?).

Second, you're absolutely right that I have a selfish interest in these technologies (I have more to say about this later). But I also want to see these technologies made available to the formerly (hopefully formerly, anyway) under-privileged. I find it truly disastrous that so many people die deaths that are so easily preventable, but I also know that there are approximately twice as many deaths caused by age-related diseases. It seems that both problems should be addressed. And honestly, this world has 6.5 billion people on it, and countless millions of scientists; isn't it reasonable to assume that we have sufficient resources to work on both problems simultaneously? Or do you think we should work only on one pressing need at a time?

On to my other point:
Why is it such a horrendously awful thing to be opposed to one's own death? Why is it wrong to want to live longer than a paltry 80 years when this is an itty bitty, oh-so-small portion of time compared to the age of the universe? You know what? I am completely unashamed in saying that I don't want to die anytime soon. Does this preclude my wanting other people to have the same privilege? Of course not!

Dale Carrico said...

though I did not voice my support outright for the ending of war, violence, neglected disease, starvation, and exploitation, my support for the ending of the above was fully implied by my belonging to the human race

This is not only untrue, but laughably untrue. Who do you think is prosecuting and justifying wars and violences and misallocations of resources that lead to neglected treatable diseases and starvation? Robots? Demons? Extra-terrestrials? Bland boring people of good will enabling evil people to get away with the worst are responsible, that's who.

I have a selfish interest in these technologies

Actually, no, you don't. If you're a sensible person, what you have an interest in is avoiding being swindled and bamboozled by futurological con artists who prey on your fear of death and your infantile greed for an endless cost-free prolongation of your pampered existence and so distract you from the world with a toypile mirage.

I find it truly disastrous that so many people die deaths that are so easily preventable, but I also know that there are approximately twice as many deaths caused by age-related diseases.

I don't distinguish these issues and neither should you. Age related diseases are diseases. If you are surprised to find me so skeptical about your motives it can only be because you have forgotten that this conversation is happening in the context of a post about transhumanists, who are a community defined by their facile hyperbolizations of technology in the service of fantasies of superintelligence, superlongevity, superpotency, and the supercession of political contestation. You need to indicate very clearly that you haven't fallen for that snake oil if you want me to treat you like a sensible person.

Needless to say, if you want to support universal access to safe consensual health care and to support radically increased funding for medical research (which would certainly include research into the treatment of age related diseases, from which, as you rightly say, countless millions suffer in ways that seem susceptible of therapeutic address) you can be sure that I am right there with you with my full support.

One doesn't have to join an idiotic Robot Cult, or bemoan material instantiation, or the fact of mortality to see preferability of health to disease, or the good sense of universal healthcare, or the desirability of medical research, surely? How tedious transhumanists make even the simplest topics, it's really hard to believe.

It seems that both problems should be addressed.

I refuse to segregate diseases and diseases of aging into "separate problems." There is only healthcare, there isn't healthcare as against magic immortalization- just- over- the- horizon therapies. That's just something some futurological charlatan sold you because he wanted your money or (more pathetic) your reassurance and thought you were an easy mark. (Was he right? You don't have to be, you know.)

Why is it such a horrendously awful thing to be opposed to one's own death?

Look, you are going to die. You are. That's not me having less of a "can-do" attitude than you, that's not me "knowing less" about cryonics or nanotechnology than you. Medical advances may enable you to have a longer healthspan than your parents, but you are not living in the science fiction novel you think you are. There is nothing you can do about the fact of your mortality and likely lifespan. If you think you can overcome death or even live long enough that you can pretend to have overcome death for now, you are a completely foolish person. Until you come to grips with this, you are no use to anybody, especially yourself.

Why is it wrong to want to live longer than a paltry 80 years

How right you are, the bravery of your stance is monumental. You think it would be nice to be healthy longer than not. What a flabbergasting insight. How could this earthshattering perspective never have occurred to me before?

I am completely unashamed in saying that I don't want to die anytime soon.

Nobody wants to die. So this is your great crusade? Honestly, the endless crass stupidity of this sort of perspective never fails to stun me. Go ahead, devote yourself to the longest possible prolongation of your youth, just don't expect me or anybody else to think this makes you an interesting or remotely admirable person. It's boring, it fails to pass muster as even an initial inkling of moral or political insight. It's just a infantile screaming for the bottle, a mammalian howling after a hole. Who cares?

Does this preclude my wanting other people to have the same privilege?

On the contrary, I'm sure that it makes you fucking Mother Theresa.

So do, do please tell me more about the fantastical therapies that may one day enable privileged people to live even longer than they do at present if only we throw more money at them that would otherwise be devoted to who knows what pointless ends. Sure, they'll all still be assholes and they'll all still die anyway, but what else could possibly matter, really?

No doubt it is indeed logically possible to immortalize all the rich whites and still shower the overexploited with wondrous gifts -- sure, it won't work out that way any more than it ever has, but what a truly wonderful person you must be really deep down to even have such a completely imbecilic thought!

Anonymous said...

If you don't mind, would you be able to explain how you KNOW that life extension technologies won't make humans completely immortal (barring the extremely far off heat death of the universe). I still don't get it. Death (be it by aging, violence, starvation, malaria, or whatever) is a finitely complicated problem--it involves, at all times, completely physical laws, and, almost certainly, the processes involved are reversible--and thus has a finitely complicated solution. This does not say how complicated that solution is; all it says is that it DOES, IN FACT, EXIST. Because of this, it is perfectly reasonable to want that solution to be found (though of course not at the expense of other, equally awful problems). I would just like to know from what realm of logic you got the impression that it is necessary for every single one of us to die. In the past, it was necessary for people to die because they did not have the technology to end death; this may or may not be true for us--give science a chance to find the answer. Don't discount it as non-existent outright. Give it a chance. Certainly there is some part of you that acknowledges that this might be feasible, even if it is so ridiculously unlikely so as to be completely ignored. Isn't it at least possible? If so, isn't it worth the effort to find the solution?

Anonymous said...

And also, it would also be completely possible for this to benefit people other than the rich whites. If a solution for death can be found, then surely one for inequality could be found as well!

Anonymous said...

Is anyone planning to contact the Oxford English Dictionary to ask them to correct their definition of transhumanism?

Dale Carrico said...

explain how you KNOW that life extension technologies won't make humans completely immortal

It is the extraordinary claim that is required to account for itself.

Death... is a finitely complicated problem--it involves, at all times, completely physical laws, and, almost certainly, the processes involved are reversible--and thus has a finitely complicated solution

Well, then, there ya go! Finite Problem + Omnipotence + Omniscience = Problem Solved! I daresay you imagine this embarrassing vacuity represents some sort of optimistic out-of-the-box thinking or something?

I would just like to know from what realm of logic you got the impression that it is necessary for every single one of us to die.

Uh, dude, I don't know if you've, er, noticed this, but, uh...

In the past, it was necessary for people to die because they did not have the technology to end death

I like that "in the past" (as opposed to?) ... "they" (and what planet do you hail from, non human?) ... "did not" (past tense) ... "have teh awesome death-ending tech" (hate to break it to you...)

Don't discount it as non-existent outright.

Or else what? You'll cry because you have to face the fact that you will die one day? For heaven's sake grow up.

Immortalization handwaving does indeed seem to me, completely logically impossible, and even superlongevity confronts deep conceptual quandaries given that intelligible narrative selfhood may be incompatible with prolongation beyond a certain point even if the brute boring life-process might be so prolongable, whereas, if you must know, I do grant the logical possibility for any number of life-extending therapies, and even champion the bioethical position called the longevity dividend (though I disapprove of the opportunistic efforts of transhumanists to use this position as a crypto-immortalist platform). Come what may, I do not confuse logical possibilities with practical ones (which involve both technical and political questions that superlative and sub(cult)ural technocentrics aren't really very good at coping with in general).

Give it a chance.

I disapprove of every second's intelligent thought and every available dollar wasted to this infantile wish-fulfillment fantasy, especially inasmuch as this money and intelligence could be devoted to the work of increasing access to actually available therapies and actually underfunded research into medical conditions (including diseases of ageing) that would actually add years of healthy life to actually existing human beings here on planet earth.

Isn't it at least possible? If so, isn't it worth the effort

Logical possibility so remote from practical realization is a fairly desperate straw to cling to when the option remains available to you of simply coming to terms with your mortality and vulnerability as a living human among your mortal and vulnerable peers, that is to say growing up, assuming some responsibility, and resolving to work to solve actually proximate actually urgent shared problems susceptible of collective intelligent address in the world.

Dale Carrico said...

it would also be completely possible for this to benefit people other than the rich whites. If a solution for death can be found, then surely one for inequality could be found as well!

Are you fighting for universal planet-wide single payer healthcare right now? Are you fighting for universal planet-wide basic income guarantees (to ensure that people who "consent" to procedures never do so under duress)? Are you engaged in a2k (access-to-knowledge) politics to end corporate-militarist secrecy via intellectual propertization regimes, to criminalize fraudulent and misleading advertising claims and to treat all utterances by public officials under seal of public office to be treated as under oath as prosecutable for perjury, to demand transparency for authoritative institutions, to subsidize reliable consensus science, to provide lifelong planet-wide education and re-training (to ensure that people who "consent" to procedures never do so under conditions of misinformation or fraud)?

If you are not engaged in these or comparable projects to ensure the scene of consent on which equitable self-determination depends in the midst of technodevelopmental social struggle to distribute the risks, costs, and benefits of technoscientific change fairly to all the stakeholders to that change on their terms, you'll forgive me if I call bullshit on any pious declarations you make about the benefits of fantastical research programs that divert money and attention from proximate problems.

Rubber? Meet the Road.

Dale Carrico said...

Is anyone planning to contact the Oxford English Dictionary to ask them to correct their definition of transhumanism?

I would be interested to hear the feedback you receive upon attempting such a thing. By all means, keep us posted!

Anonymous said...

Transhumanism seems to me to be more properly described as a belief that humans can and should work on extending their capabilities, esp. by way of science and technology. But, this belief doesn't seem to require a brand-new term by itself. Rather, I think the OED editors recognize that an 'ism' exists where a some number of like-minded folks elevate one value over all others and work on getting others to do the same.

Transhumanists elevate the value I described and have organizations which go about trying to get others to elevate it as well. It's no different than any other human 'ism' in that respect.

One by-product of elevating this value over all others is that they piss off a lot of people who think other values are more important.

There is at least one prominent transhumanist actually teaching at Oxford. I wonder if there is any connection. (Does the OED have anything to with Oxford these days?)

Dale Carrico said...

Transhumanism seems to me to be more properly described as a belief that humans can and should work on extending their capabilities, esp. by way of science and technology. But, this belief doesn't seem to require a brand-new term by itself.

But doesn't this sidestep content yet again in a way that calls into question the utility of the definition?

That is to say, what is the specification of "extending their capabilities"? All of them? Isn't this (at least) contradictory? What will count as "extension"? Won't any substance of the -ism arise from the answers to these questions, and shouldn't then any proper definition at least gesture at those answers?

Part of my befuddlement is that I personally find it hard to distinguish the notion of "extending their capabilities" as a general matter from, well, the idea of culture.

While it is easy to see the PR benefit to Robot Cultists with demonstrably atypical views of making it hard to distinguish those views from the genial idea of culture as such, it is hard to see why an informational would abet that sort of thing.

I don't, as it happens, think anything conspiratorial is afoot -- I think it is a matter of scholars not really knowing what to make of a term that seems to have acquired a sufficiently wide and longstanding usage to justify an entry.

jimf said...

> Age-related diseases are diseases. If you are surprised to
> find me so skeptical about your motives it can only be because
> you have forgotten that this conversation is happening in the
> context of a post about transhumanists, who are a community
> defined by their facile hyperbolizations of technology in
> the service of fantasies of superintelligence, superlongevity,
> superpotency, and the supercession of political contestation.
> You need to indicate very clearly that you haven't fallen
> for that snake oil if you want me to treat you like a
> sensible person. . .
>
> Look, you are going to die. You are.

And even worse than that, you're **probably** going to
get old first, with all the fun **that** entails.

They say Ayn Rand didn't wear her mortality well.
After a lifetime spent rationalizing her silly habit of
cigarette smoking as the enactment of a ritual of
spreading the light of Man's rationality, or some such
nonsensical bulls*it (and expecting her "friends" to
do the same), she found she wasn't able to
bluff or intimidate away the lung cancer that overtook
her in old age. And she wasn't happy that the morphine
she was given for the pain could swamp her "premises"
about the Objective World to the extent that she
hallucinated an IV stand into a tree. She blamed
**that** on her (few) remaining friends trying to
"undermine her rationality", and drove them away,
too.

> That's not me having less of a "can-do" attitude than you,
> that's not me "knowing less" about cryonics or nanotechnology
> than you. Medical advances may enable you to have a longer
> healthspan than your parents, but you are not living in
> the science fiction novel you think you are. There is nothing
> you can do about the fact of your mortality and likely
> lifespan. If you think you can overcome death or even live
> long enough that you can pretend to have overcome death
> for now, you are a completely foolish person. Until you
> come to grips with this, you are no use to anybody, especially
> yourself. . .
>
> Go ahead, devote yourself to the longest possible prolongation
> of your youth, just don't expect me or anybody else to think
> this makes you an interesting or remotely admirable person.
> It's boring, it fails to pass muster as even an initial
> inkling of moral or political insight. It's just a infantile
> screaming for the bottle, a mammalian howling after a hole.
> Who cares?

You know, when I first discovered one on-line concentration of
transhumanism, back in 1997, there wasn't, in that particular text, any
hint of a connection with cryonics, life-prolongation, etc.
There **was** a Stapledonian perspective on the human race likely
being superseded, sooner or later, by something "better" according
to some cosmic perspective. I found this a noble aspiration,
in the same way I find Olaf Stapledon's books noble, if a bit
chilly. The fact that this particular writer put his expectations
on Vingean machine intelligence rather than Stapledonian biological
evolution (engineered or otherwise) did nothing to detract from
my appreciation. (I like the movie _Colossus: The Forbin Project_
just fine, though I don't find the details very plausible these days.)

However, within three or four years this strain of "singularitarianism"
had been subsumed, for all practical purposes, by the Extropians
and the cryonicists, with "saving the world" being equated with
"preventing the six billion people currently alive from dying".

Suddenly what had been a noble, if still science-fictional, discourse
had turned itself into something that seemed to want to take itself
seriously into an R&D outfit for the Hollywood crowd. Shades
of _Sunset Boulevard_! That baleful California influence.
Narcissism ascendant!


"Out on some borderline
Some mark of inbetween
I lay down golden in time
And woke up vanishing

Sweet bird you are
Briefer than a falling star
All these vain promises on beauty jars
Somewhere with your wings on time
You must be laughing

Behind our eyes
Calendars of our lives
Circled with compromise
Sweet bird of time and change
You must be laughing
Up on your feathers laughing. . ."

--Joni Mitchell, "Sweet Bird"
from _The Hissing of Summer Lawns_

http://www.tsrocks.com/j/joni_mitchell_texts/sweet_bird.html

jimf said...

The anony-mouse wrote:

> [E]ven though I did not voice my support outright for
> the ending of war, violence, neglected disease, starvation,
> and exploitation, my support for the ending of the above
> was fully implied by my belonging to the human race
> (how many horrendous people do you really think are out
> there, where you would jump to the conclusion that I
> don't give a damn about such issues?).

At least a percent or so of the whole population, many
of whom are quite smart and successful, and in positions
of power.

See, for example,

Martha Stout, _The Sociopath Next Door_
http://www.amazon.com/Sociopath-Next-Door-Martha-Stout/dp/076791581X

Barbara Oakley, _Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed,
and My Sister Stole My Mother's Boyfriend_
http://www.amazon.com/Evil-Genes-Hitler-Mothers-Boyfriend/dp/1591026652

Roy F. Baumeister and Aaron Beck, _Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty_
http://www.amazon.com/Evil-Inside-Human-Violence-Cruelty/dp/0805071652

Robert D. Hare, _Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us_
http://www.amazon.com/Without-Conscience-Disturbing-World-Psychopaths/dp/1572304510


Of course, many >Hists would simply reply -- well, those are
**psychology** books (or worse, **pop** psychology books), and
everybody knows that psychology isn't a "real" science.

Furthermore, Freud was a fraud.

So we can dismiss all that slander and go back to beating off
to Second Life.

Anonymous said...

On a side note to the craziness going on above:
I don't think that life extension technologies are going to be around any time soon, but I would not be half surprised if they were to show up before any of the actually urgent problems are addressed. This is because I see this equation:
human ingenuity + tremendous market pressures + copious amounts of selfishness = life extension techniques.
There are definitely more imminent concerns, but I fear that they will be put by the wayside while aging rich folk spend their money on something that likely won't even satisfy their selfish interests. Oh well...

Anonymous said...

Excuse me. I also meant to put something else into that equation:
... + a very, very long period of time + ...

Dale Carrico said...

+ a very, very long period of time

Just admit, then, that you're blueskying in an sfnal, possibly hard sfnal mode, but hardly engaging in serious political analysis or policy discourse. I'm a geek, I totally dig sf, but I strongly disapprove confusions of the futurological (especially in its superlative guises) with the proximate political, whether in the service of parochially profitable hype or quasi-religious wish-fulfillment fantasies that undermine sensible problem solving.

ddjango said...

Thank you, Dale.

I confess to a deep queasiness when I read transhumanist tracts. Vinge's claim that he forsees "the end of humanity as we know it" sparks despair.

As an atheist, I believe that the absence of a god as ruler and continuous creator of the universe does not mean that humans can fill the job description.

Evolution is a natural process. Much transhumanism has a eugenic flavor and agenda. They speak of "human enhancement", so they're talking about building some sort of pure, man/robot super race.

Within limits, human enhancement can be a good thing. I'm bi-polar, for example, and without my medications I would be very sick.

But I'm suspicious of what science might include as enhancement. I have seen talk of a human brain, without a natural body, controlling a sophisticated robot. If this is the price of immortality, I opt out, thank you.

Your most salient point is that we must "democratize" this. I agree, but have no expectation that democratization will occur. The rise of techno-fascism makes the question of "who chooses for whom" moot.

Be at peace.

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

Happy New Year to you ddjango. I consider "humanity" an historical construction as articulated by semiotic factors (like culture) as by material factors (like evolution) and so there is a sense in which every moment of real freedom is a moment that constitutes an end of humanity as we know it, or better a collaborative re-making of what is possible and important when we make recourse to that idea, "humantiy." I understand of course why one would feel despair -- or rage, or disgust -- in grasping the profoundly unimaginative, disrespectful, exploitative, violent hopes and fears and desires that get registered by so many of the people who like to talk most about things like changing humanity as we know it. But always remember that democracy's open futurity has a way of wreaking havoc with the sad, slick the futures pined after by those who put other ends ahead of democratization.

On a different note, I personally think the word "enhancement" profoundly confuses the problems, stakes, and contests playing out in the emerging terrain of non-normativing healthcare practices.

"Enhancement" is not at all a neutral term, even though it seems well-pleased all too often to masquerade as one, since "enhancement" is always enhancement -- for whom? for what? at the cost of what? Non-normativing healthcare demands a shift in the standards that would govern the equitable administration of health from, on the one hand, the universality of "normal-function" or "optimal-function" -- arising out of the scientific ethos of consensus, a sign of which is the shared recourse to evidence, as much in instances of falsification of some prevailing consensus as in substantiating ones -- to, on the other hand, the legibility of actually-informed actually-nonduressed consent in the service of therapeutic self-determination -- arising out of the ethical ethos of consent, a sign of which is dissensus -- although even after this shift, healcare will always remain in an interesting constitutive dialectic with the still universalizing "do no harm".

I talk about the politics of prosthetic self-determination elsewhere, and I talk about what it is that makes transhumanist and bioconservative discourses both so eugenic in their thrust, despite their interesting differences, elsewhere too. Check it out and tell me what you think.

Anonymous said...

Happy new year to you, Dale.

I have found our discussion on this topic to be quite illuminating, and I will give everything you said fair consideration, since you did make some excellent points.

However, there is one item that I still don't really understand from your perspective: that death by aging and death by some other cause should be treated equally. While yes, death by any cause has the same result (i.e. the person being dead), there is still a quantifiable difference. This difference is the fact that diseases of aging result in an absolute limit to how long a given person could theoretically live. Without aging, there would be no theoretical limit (again, disregarding the heat death of the universe). Of course there would still be death by other means, and there would still of course be fewer people living to ridiculously advanced ages than more "usual" ages. My point is that I find it to be a tremendous wrongness that there HAS to be an absolute limit to how long any given person could live for (about 124 years right now), and that this wrongness should be rectified with a comparable amount of haste as the other causes of death.

Dale Carrico said...

Curing and treating diseases, including diseases of ageing, is, ceteris paribus, a desirable thing. Pining after immortality is in every case a fool's errand leading to derangement, error, and mischief.

Dale Carrico said...

If you think universal healthcare has the same chance of accomplishment as uploading your brain into a computer to achieve immortality, you need to take a deep breath and figure out just when and how you went so badly wrong in your thinking process.

You may be quite right that my own pet political campaigns these days -- democratic world federalism, planetary basic income guarantee, global healthcare provision, certain radical a2k and copyfight campaigns, and an array of permaculture politics -- may not be exactly the ones through which human beings will collaborate our way to greater equity and democracy in the world.

But remember, democracy is not a destination at which we aim, it is a process of democratization in which we engage here and now, struggling to give ever more and more people ever more and more of a voice in the public decisions that affect them.

My pet projects will change as my sense of the democratizing forces abroad in the world change, as my sense of the most urgent problems afoot change. This is as it should be.

Even granting all this I do think there is a profoundly false equivalence to suggest that my sort of democratic idealism is the same as what is on display when superlative technocentrics pine after superintelligence, superlongevity, and the supercession of history through superabundance.

Incoherence isn't idealism, idealism isn't incoherence.

You might say that just as I temper my idealism with pragmatic opportunism, all th ewhile keeping my eyes on the prize, so too transhumanists, extropians, singularitarians and the other Robot Cultists really are just working for progress in medical technique and materials science while aiming at immortality and superpowers and so on. But, again, the falsity of any such equivalence is palpable and quite important in my view.

Take away utopian idealized outcomes that might inspire this or that democratically-minded citizen-activist and you are still left with the actual ongoing struggle of democratization in the world and in history of which democracy actually essentially consists.

Take away superlongevity and post-humanizing "enhancement" and you just aren't a transhumanist anymore, you're just a secular democrat advocating healthcare and medical r & d. Take away superintelligence and you aren't a singularitarian anymore, you're just engaging in network security discourse. Take away millennial utility fog, desktop anything machines, and goo-apocalypse and you're just doing biotechnology and environmental security. Lose superlativity and you lose your -ism, you lose your "movement," you lose your "sub(cult)ure" entirely.

Without the hyperbolic handwaving you're just dealing with complex problems everybody with a brain is already talking about, with completely recognizable left versus right (democratic versus elitist) political commitments articulating the different positions in play. You are engaging in conventional politics rather than "overcoming" them.

As I keep saying, you don't need to join a Robot Cult to talk technodevelopmental sense -- indeed the exact opposite is obviously the case. Joining the Robot Cult, indulging in superlative techno-utopian discourse is the moment you step off the edge of the world into hyperbole, derangement, and True Belief.