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

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Condensed Critique of Transhumanism

UPDATE/Preface: The journal Existenz has published and made freely available online my essay Futurological Discourse and Posthuman Terrains, which now seems to me the best, most concise and yet elaborated introduction to my critique of transhumanism, and so I would preface the recommendations that follow with the suggestion that the Existenz article might also be a better starting point for some readers. The Existenz essay is rather densely philosophical in places, however, while many of the pieces that follow are more humorous or more readily digestable, and so I don't think that essay is a perfect substitute for the following by any means.

I have chosen the following handful of pieces as providing a condensed critique of "movement transhumanism," which is the aspect of my general anti-futurological critique which seems most interesting to most folks (for better or worse). Hundreds of posts, arranged by topic explored and by individual futurologist getting skewered are also to be found in my Superlative Summary for the real gluttons for punishment among you. While transhumanism is, strictly speaking, just one of the sects in the superlative futurological Robot Cult archipelago (others include the Extropians, Singularitarians, techno-immortalists, cybernetic totalists, nano-cornucopiasts, and so on) it does overlap considerably with most of the others and exhibits a certain rhetorical and subcultural representativeness.

As someone who respects real science and advocates real public commitments to science and critical thinking education and real public investments in research and sustainable infrastructure, I am annoyed of course with the deranging futurological frames and narratives of techno-transcendentalists (immortal cyberangels! nano-magick utility-fog!) and disasterbators (Robocalypse! grey goo!) who cater to the fears and fantasies of the uninformed and skew policy priorities (for instance, the futurological enablement of reactionary talk about raising the retirement age), not to mention the straightforward pseudo-scientific blathering of uploading circle-squarers (you are not a picture of you) and cryonics cranks, cheerleading over drextechian genies-in-a-bottle, GOFAI-deadenders (Moore's Law isn't going to spit out a sooper-intelligent Robot God Mommy to kiss your boo boos away, sorry), geo-engineering apologists for corporate-military eco-criminals, facile evo-devo reactionaries, not to mention all manner of digital utopian hucksters and TED-squawkers.

But to step back from the obvious, I also regard mainstream futurology as the quintessential discourse of neoliberal global developmentalism, market-mediation, and fraudulent financialization. There is a certain strain of delusive utopianism that drives neoliberalism's callous immaterialism (eg, its focus on branding over labor conditions, its focus on fraudulent financialization over sustainable production) and hyperbolic salesmanship through and through, but what I describe as superlative futurological discourses represent a kind of clarifying -- and also rather bonkers -- extremity of this pseudo-utopianism. While there is obviously plenty that is deranging and dangerous about such techno-transcendental or superlative futurological discourses and the rather odd organizations and public figures devoted to them, what seems to me most useful about paying attention to these extreme and marginal formations is the way they illuminate underlying pathologies of the more prevailing mainstream futurological discourses we have come to take for granted in so much public policy discussion concerning science, technology, and global development.

Among these parallel pathologies, it seems to me, are shared appeals to irrational passions -- fears of impotence and fantasies of omnipotence -- shared tendencies to genetic reductionism, technological determinism, and a certain triumphalism about techno-scientific progress. I also discern in both mainstream and superlative futurology a paradoxical "retro-futurist" kind of reassurance being offered to incumbent and elite interests that "progress" or "accelerating change" will ultimately amount to a dreary amplification of the familiar furniture of the present world or of parochially preferred present values. Also, far too often, one finds in both mainstream and superlative futurology disturbing exhibitions of indifference or even hostility to the real material bodies and real material struggles in which lives, intelligences, lifeways, and human histories are actually incarnated in their actual flourishing diversity.

An easy way to think of the relation I am proposing between these two modes of futurology is to say that mainstream futurology suffuses our prevailing deceptive hyperbolic corporate-military PR/advertising discourse, while superlative futurology amplifies this advertising and promotional hyperbole into an outright delusive promise of personal transcendence (superintelligence, superlongevity, superabundance) of human finitude and this fraudulent speculation and public relations into outright organized sub(cult)ural religiosity.

The first four pieces below subsume transhumanism within the terms of my critique of superlative futurology, the next one focuses on the structural (and sometimes assertive) eugenicism of transhumanist "enhancement" discourse, and the final piece tries to provide a sense of the more positive perspective out of which my critique is coming:
A Superlative Schema

The Superlative Imagination

Understanding Superlative Futurology

Transhumanism Without Superlativity Is Nothing

Eugenics and the Denigration of Consent

Amor Mundi and Technoprogressive Advocacy
More recent pieces, Ten Reasons to Take Seriously the Transhumanists, Singularitarians, Techno-Immortalists, Nano-Cornucopiasts and Other Assorted Robot Cultists and White Guys of "The Future" and Ten Things You Must Fail to Understand to Remain A Transhumanist for Long may provide more accessible, certainly more pithy and snarky, summaries of many facets of the critique. Of course, if pithy is what is really wanted, my mostly aphoristic Futurological Brickbats anthology is possibly worth a look.

For those who are interested in the always controversial but not really very deep issue of the "cultishness" or not of the various superlative futurological sub(cult)ures, and just how facetious I am being when I refer to these futurological formations as "Robot Cults," I recommend this fairly representative post dealing with those questions (which do pop up fairly regularly). Perhaps more serious, at least potentially, there is this rather disorganized and muckraking archive documenting and exploring key figures and institutional nodes in the Robot Cult archipelago, exposing some of their more patent ties to reactionary causes and politics.


Anonymous said...

This is crap! What stupid insulting comments about transhumanism, clearly by a person who knows nothing about the topic but is using it to make himself appear somewhat knowledgeable.

Dale Carrico said...

I would be very surprised if you, my dear brave "Anonymous," had read let alone understood even a tenth of the futurological materials I have been studying for over twenty years. By all means offer up your criticisms, but do try not to make a complete ass of yourself.

robert desorum said...

While I won't stoop down to the level of name-calling, I will point out that you've made a sweeping generalization about Tranhumanism. CISHumanism makes the assumption that we are a lot full of "Cyber-Cultists". Tranhumanism calls for human excellence. I grow weary of having to share this planet with a race who has refused to move on to the next evolutionary step.
We are still busy murdering/robbing/raping one another in the name of ______ (insert idiotic religious/nationalistic/"racially" empowering movement in the blank spot. It's all an excuse to amass the evolved chimps under one "flag").

Dale Carrico said...

I make quite a few distinctions among variations of futurological discourse as well as directing criticisms at specific arguments and authors -- as any good faith interlocutor who actually reads the actual critique you claim to be responding to would know.

Historical struggle is an ongoing reconciliation of stakeholder diversity and hence interminable, it can be progressive only to the extent that ends (which are always in dispute) are specified, and it is never appropriately framed as evolutionary or teleological. There is no fore-ordained "Next Step." You reveal yourself an ignoramus in the very performance of what you take to be your superiority.

That word "ignoramus" actually has a legible reference in the world, there can be no adequate description without some measure of name calling, I'm afraid. But it is good to know that while you pine for the extermination, or at any rate for the eclipse, of an "inferior" humanity you do draw the line at name calling. And, hon, Robot Cultists of all people really should take some care about ridiculing the curious religiosity of others.

Renegade666 said...

Fantastic post!! Well done!! These parallel my own observations on these transhumanist blogs...This blog raises serious questions the robo-cultists refuse to confront or deal with..namely the CURRENT Machine Intelligence running the planet, i.e., the MATRIX CONTROL GRID...I love your new terms for the techno-utopians,and will use them frequently! Well done, mate!

Dale Carrico said...

I don't know what the MATRIX CONTROL GRID is exactly, although I daresay it sounds rather ominous, especially in all caps. I do appreciate the support, come what may, best of luck to you.

archangelmatrix said...

The Matrix Control Grid, refers, in part, to the CIA/MKULTRA-on-celluloid movie "The Matrix", where reality is manipulated,everything is a simulation program running. Which is what we have today; our entire society, and those operating within it, is the product of SOCIAL engineering and programming....See Google algorithms knowing what you will type BEFORE you type it!
It may also be called a Global Corporate Control Grid...and encompasses all dimensions and sectors of society; Science, Religion, Media, Academia, Military, Medical, Entertainment, Finance. Somewhat analogous to what was portrayed in the movie "Rollerball". Incidentally, Holly wood was the type of wood from a tree that the Celtic Druids used to make their magic wands! Thus Hollywood is an entire industry devoted to creating ILLUSION and PREDICTIVE PROGRAMMING.
Hello, NSA!

Dale Carrico said...

I'll have what she's having.

Patrick Farley said...

Crucial and invaluable work. Thank you!

Dale Carrico said...

Thanks! If you are a real glutton for punishment do check out the Superlative Summary, which contains hundreds of posts and essays of anti-futurological critique both by author and by subject.