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

Friday, January 16, 2009

WingnutTrons Demand Their Place in the Futurological Sun

A reader alerts me to a new group of conservative-identified transhumanists who seem to think that organized techno-utopian "movement transhumanism" is in grave danger these days of growing insufficiently right-wingnutty in its advocacy of Robot Cultism, and have decided to do something about it, by gosh. In this, they're rather like the Yes!Trons I recently lampooned for bemoaning instead that organized techno-utopian "transhumanism" is getting too "moderate" in its advocacy of Robot Cultism these days. As I said at the time, when it comes to trying to imagine what would pass for a "too moderate" form of declaring your aspiration for techno-immortalization via brain uploading into a cyberspatial treasure cave amid Robot Gods, well, your guess is as good as mine.

Be all that as it may, though, it is clearly time to add a new specimen to the Robot Cult bestiary in honor of our freshly frustrated future-forward reactionaries (look, Ma, they're sooper-oxymoronic!). To the familiar techno-utopian sects of the triumphal reductionists, corporate-militarist technocrats, eugenicists, transhumanists, extropians, singularitarians, cryonicists, uploaders, upwingers, nano-cornucopiasts (I'll leave the Mormons, Freemasons, Scientologists, Raelians, and Randroids to the side for the time being) and so on we have added a new PR-inspired refurbishment of the membership of the World Transhumanist Association and its stealth arm the IEET into "Humanity +" (don't laugh! that probably just means you're "Humanity -"), selling their brand of "the future" like it's Tupperwear with a burping lid, yielding the HumanityPlusTron sect of the Robot Cult. We have the Order of Cosmic Engineers and comparable kooks who say "oh my YES!" to full-throated Rapture of the Nerds superlativity and who are having no truck at all with the moderation and political correctness of the HumanityPlusTronic sect, yielding the freshly-minted Yes!Tron sect of the Robot Cult. And so now, too, apparently, we have a cohort of unapologetic retro-futurists and libertopians in full on movement-conservative Obama-epoch panic, yielding a bright new reactionary WingnutTron sect of the Robot Cult as well. The futurological funhouse has never seemed more disordered or more wacky!

Another reader has pointed out that "[w]hat's interesting about this new development is that if 'Conservatism Plus' and the conservative wing of the transhumanist movement takes off it will be harder for anyone to claim that said movement has 'matured' by becoming overwhelmingly 'progressive.'" This is true as far as it goes, but I must say it's hard to imagine what this "taking off" would look like exactly. Four white guys slurping large chocolate shakes at a Wendy's in Sunnyvale praising The Bell Curve and imagining themselves to be Heinleinian archetypes?

Quite apart from that I wonder just how sustainably convincing anybody ever found this whole "transhumanism is maturing into progressivism" line anyway...

It's true enough that during the catastrophic consummation of the Killer Clown administration these last few years transhumanist public discourse nudged leftward a smidge from the irrational exuberance of its Extropian dot.com daze (no death OR taxes, man!). But given the flabbergasting ferocity of the libertopian market-fundy climate-change denialist racist gun-nut fringiloquence of so much of that era of transhumanism there was frankly nowhere for superlativity to go but left. What is shocking is that the Ayn Raelian wing of the Robot Cult commands to this day more attention and respect among these more "mature" more "mainstream" so-called "democratic transhumanists" than they remotely manage among any other self-described progressives I've ever heard of.

I mean, it's bad enough so many actually mainstream democratic-minded people are still cozy with so-called "moderate" neoliberal corporatists like Rubin and DiFi, but I can't think of any self-described progressives -- who don't also buy into some version of Robot Cult futurological nonsense -- who would still treat full-on Machinery of Friedman anarchocapitalist market fundamentalist extremists and reactionary reductionist Bell-Curve apologists as "serious" intellectuals and tea party interlocutors.

And, anyway, whatever one's declared sympathies in the matter of political self-description, if your arguments ultimately conduce to the benefit of corporate-militarism or other right-wing political formations then who cares if you call yourself progressive or not?

Take a Hard Look:

I.

I believe that the transhumanist deployment of a presumably "neutral" discourse of "enhancement" nudges them into a eugenic right-wing policing of lifeway diversity in accordance with their own parochial values insufficiently sensitive to questions of informed nonduressed consent in matters of emerging non-normalizing healthcare.

II.

I think the so-called "big-tent" defended in the name of pragmatism by self-described "democratic transhumanists" in particular actually functionally evacuates that "left" of most of its critical force. This is very much in the spirit of the a-politicism (which is usually a functional endorsement of the status quo and hence a de facto conservatism) and even anti-politicism (which is usually a functional denigration of democracy and hence a de facto conservatism again) that prevails in technocentric discourses more generally. This in turn connects to and abets the usual facile technological determinist conceptions of technoscientific change in society that render the material history of technodevelopmental social struggle nearly invisible, usually to the benefit of incumbent interests who are always all too eager to describe their parochial interests as "natural" or "technical" rather than political (hence open to contestation) at all.

III.

I think their growing emphasis on risk and even existential risk discourse replays the anti-democratizing rhetoric of the so-called war on terror in a futurological form.

IV.

I think their sympathies with massive geoengineering technofixes to environmental catastrophe (over appropriate and appropriable p2p-permaculture practices) function to keep hope alive for the extractive-industrial climate culprits even after their crimes are exposed as such.

V.

I think their dissemination of the "acceleration of accelerating change" frame functions to justify elite circumventions of democratic deliberation about technoscience questions (it also happens, in my opinion, to mistake as "acceleration" what looks to non-privileged people simply like destabilization and precarization produced by anti-democratic neoliberal policies of global financialization of the economy).

Do you want me to go on? Do I need to?

The fact is, I think that first few paragraphs of this post in which I just made fun of all this silliness and called Robot Cultists silly names was really likely more apt, more forceful, and more enjoyable than this latter delineation of structural tendencies to conservatism inhering in superlative technocentricity whatever its declared affiliation.

We'll see what (if anything) draws the eye and ire of the Moot.

16 comments:

Anonymous said...

(I'll leave the Mormons, Freemasons, Scientologists, Raelians, and Randroids to the side for the time being)

There are self-declared and organized transhumanist Mormons, Raelians and Randroids but I don't think the Church of Scientology endorses transhumanism (even if there might be a sect of Scientologists who do). Even if you were just being facetious, why do you often bring up Freemasons? I have never heard of any transhumanist Freemasons or freemason Transhumanists and I seriously doubt that you have except perhaps in wingnut conspiracy theories. So you should permanently leave Freemasons to the side since most of them are just good men who use aprons and handshakes to romanticize their old boy network and philantrophic activities with the mystique of a Victorian secret society...

I think their sympathies with massive geoengineering technofixes to environmental catastrophe (over appropriate and appropriable p2p-permaculture practices) function to keep hope alive for the extractive-industrial climate culprits even after their crimes are exposed as such.

Do you think the good folks at WorldChanging.com (whom you have often praised) have such sympathies?

giulio said...

Of course I do not agree with the second part of this post, but the first is great. I have been laughing for the last 10 minutes. Correction: in the first paragraph I think you mean Yes!Trons instead of Plus!Trons.

You will not believe it but I really love your writing style (apart from the content, that is). How much would you charge to write a weekly column for us Robot Cultists (under a nym of course). Email me if you want to talk business.

Dale Carrico said...

Do you think the good folks at WorldChanging.com (whom you have often praised) have such sympathies?

Not really. Tho' I'm sure either of us could nibble around the edges of that answer a bit.

Dale Carrico said...

You will not believe it but I really love your writing style (apart from the content, that is).

I have no trouble believing that at all (apart from the content, that is).

Thanks for the editorial catch.

Dale Carrico said...

There are self-declared and organized transhumanist Mormons, Raelians and Randroids... there might be a sect of [transhumanist] Scientologists... Even if you were just being facetious, why do you often bring up Freemasons?

Superlativity in my understanding of it subsumes transhumanism as a mode of discourse. Transhumanism is just one exemplary, symptomatic, contemporary discourse of superlative technocentrism according to the terms of the critique.

Also, one doesn't really need to find explicit transhumanist-identified sects within other marginal variously superlative (-ish) discursive formations to discern the historical, logical, topical, and tropological connections that obtain between them (and could easily form the basis for outright inter-sect organizing in some cases should the right conditions pop up).

The resonances between transhumanism and mormonism were quite clear to me years before I ever heard of an explicit Mormon Transhumanist Association, for example. Upon hearing about it, I have to tell you I just chuckled and said -- "of course."

Even if one probably could make a scholarly case that at least some aspects of Freemasonry are legible as precursors to subcultural or organized "movement" transhumanism, as one could also say of "practical" magicks, alchemical societies, other early Enlightenment societies that tangled oddly in esoterica and so on, the truth is -- as you imply in the question itself -- I tend to bring up Freemasonry in connection with transhumanists mostly just when I'm being snarky about their cultishness and their scientism.

Anonymous said...

Even if one probably could make a scholarly case that at least some aspects of Freemasonry are legible as precursors to subcultural or organized "movement" transhumanism, as one could also say of "practical" magicks, alchemical societies, other early Enlightenment societies that tangled oddly in esoterica and so on, the truth is -- as you imply in the question itself -- I tend to bring up Freemasonry in connection with transhumanists mostly just when I'm being snarky about their cultishness and their scientism.

Hmmm... You might be on to something actually because (from what I read on the Wikipedia article before it was deleted) the name and organizational structure of the "Order of Cosmic Engineers" is modeled after esoteric/occult fraternal organizations like the Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis (AMORC) so perhaps it might be better to use "Rosicrucians" or "Rosicrucian Order" to avoid sounding like one of many paranoid anti-Masonic conspiracy theorists who is trying to connect transhumanism to Freemasonry's alleged conspiracy to establish a New World Order...

Anonymous said...

Natasha "Guys!-I'm-no-longer-a-libertarain-so-can-I-please-join-your-treeclubhouse?" Vita-More also known as the Borg Queen of Transhumanism has become a Fellow of the IEET...

http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/threenf09/

Wasn't Carrico a Fellow of this "technoprogressive think tank" before he became an "unperson"?

Dale Carrico said...

Let the late nite futurological infomercials begin!

Anonymous said...

But seriously... what's up with James Hughes?

Michael Anissimov.

Natasha Vita-More.

Who's next? Glenn Reynolds?!?

You know him better than any of us. How can a self-declared "radical democrat" so easily switch from vilifying people because they are "libertopians" or "Rapture Nerds" to embracing them as soon as they declare their transhumanist faith or seem to attract enough buzz that they could be useful?

Is it a the-ends-justify-the-means thing? If so, are we talking about "radical democratic" or "robot cultic" ends?

Between a dream-like "radically democratic humanist" future and a nightmarish "libertarian transhumanist" future, what would Hughes choose?

Nick Tarleton said...

And, anyway, whatever one's declared sympathies in the matter of political self-description, if your arguments ultimately conduce to the benefit of corporate-militarism or other right-wing political formations then who cares if you call yourself progressive or not?

Consequences aren't everything, though. It seems to me that people who honestly call themselves progressive, but fail (honestly or dishonestly) to recognize the anti-progressive effects of their specific arguments, would be more open to listening to someone like you and being convinced of the inconsistency of their actions with their explicit values than people who call themselves right-wing or the like.

I think their growing emphasis on risk and even existential risk discourse replays the anti-democratizing rhetoric of the so-called war on terror in a futurological form.

What alternative do you suggest?

Nick Tarleton said...

To clarify my question, do you think there is a place for deliberation about risks like nuclear war, pandemic disease, infrastructural collapse, etc. as a single class of entities? How would you frame it, and/or what particularly harmful features do you see in the current discourse?

(FWIW, I don't consider terrorism a remotely serious global risk (except indirectly, in encouraging militaristic authoritarian government), and as far as I can tell neither do most other people who consider themselves concerned with existential risks.)

Dale Carrico said...

It seems to me that people who honestly call themselves progressive, but fail (honestly or dishonestly) to recognize the anti-progressive effects of their specific arguments, would be more open to listening to someone like you and being convinced of the inconsistency of their actions with their explicit values than people who call themselves right-wing or the like.

That is certainly one of my hopes.

More to the point, I also hope that analyses like mine might help progressive people who have not devoted much time or care to technodevelopmental politics otherwise assess more competently superlative claims that might superficially seem compelling to them because they appeal to irrational fears and fantasies customarily occasioned by disruptive technoscientific change, or because they provide comfortable oversimplifications of intimidating complexities or secularized variations of familiar theological aspirations to meaning, salvation and so on.

Dale Carrico said...

[D]o you think there is a place for deliberation about risks like nuclear war, pandemic disease, infrastructural collapse, etc. as a single class of entities?

Do I think these places for deliveration actually exist? Of course I do. As it happens, I actually don't know that I agree that there is ultimately more use than not in treating WMD proliferation exacerbated by militarist nation-state unilateralism, catastrophic climate change exacerbated by extractive-industrial production, proliferating pandemic vectors exacerbated by overurbanization, resource descent exacerbated by corporate-industrial agriculture practices, together with speculation about meteor impact and gamma ray bursters, and I certainly don't think it makes any kind of sense to treat all these concerns as essentially of a piece with pseudo-problems that preoccupy Robot Cultists, like how to cope with unfriendly Robot Gods, or planet-eating nanoblobs, or armies of gengineered sooper baby centaur clones.

The point is that one needn't join a Robot Cult to find serious discussions of actually-proximate global security issues. Indeed, very much to the contrary, Robot Cult versions of these discussions tend to contribute little but hyperbole and disastrously skewed priorities to these topics in my view -- although, no doubt, they also contribute a smidge of unearned credibility to Robot Cultists themselves who love to opportunistically glom on to complex technoscience questions and exacerbate the irrational passions they inevitably inspire, substitute a sugary confectionary dusting of hokey neologisms for relevant expertise, and then embed contentious issues in a dramatic science fictional narrative that compels attention but usually without shedding much light, all in the service of whomping up membership numbers, donor dollars, and media attention for the organizations with which they personally identify in their sub(cult)ural superlativity.

Dale Carrico said...

How can a self-declared "radical democrat" so easily switch from vilifying people because they are "libertopians" or "Rapture Nerds" to embracing them as soon as they declare their transhumanist faith or seem to attract enough buzz that they could be useful?

By making the mistake of thinking there is such a thing as a commitment to "technology in general" with a politics of its own, separable from conventional left against right politics, superseding them in fact.

Of course there is no such thing as "technology in general." Particular techniques are fully susceptible of "naturalization" or "denaturalization," "artifactualization" or "deartifactualization" almost entirely according to their relative familiarity, or according to the relative disruptiveness of their applications in the present.

There is an ongoing prosthetic elaboration of agency -- where "culture" is the widest word for prostheses in this construal -- and which is roughly co-extensive with the ongoing historical elaboration of "humanity."

But there are only techniques in the service of ends, and the ends are articulated by pretty conventional moral and aesthetic values and embedded in pretty conventional political narrative -- democratization against elitism, change against incumbency, consent against tyranny, equity for all against excellence for few, and so on.

The pretense or gesture of a technoscientific circumvention of the political seems to me to conduce usually to de facto right wing politics, since it functions to de-politicize as neutrally "technical" a host of actually moral, aesthetic, political quandaries actually under contest.

This is a mistake as easily made by dedicated well-meaning people of the left or the right, as by cynical or dishonest ones, or simply by foolish people, whatever their political sympathies. But it is always a mistake.

Anonymous said...

Your "always" triggers me Dale. Technology changes the rules of the political game.

When most people became literate, it was possible to discuss politics with a much broader group of people.

If/when people are able to upload and thereby create close to immortal entities they wont have the same priorities as people restricted to living less than a century. I believe that a majority of the elderly able to do so will do it, and they will be both a minority (of earths total population) and a very resourceful group.

If/when we are able to live comfortably on other planets, environmental issues on this planet wont be as important as they are now.

Whatever political system that will evolve within the next hundred years I dont think the above will change.

Dale Carrico said...

I keep on trying to get people to think of what they want to call "technology" instead as "technodevelopmental social struggle." This is not because I want to deny the particular gizmos and techniques available in any given historical developmental constellation, but to situate them in their material, practical specificity.

Technology changes the rules of the political game.

Weather changes the rules of the politial game. Pandemics change the rules of the political game. Personalities change the rules of the political game. Always? Always in the same ways, to the same extent?

When I insist that "technology" does not exist "in general" this is far from a denial that a diversity of techniques and devices exist and have an impact in the world. Quite the opposite.

There is no such thing as "technology" that subsumes or subtends all the instances to which that description attaches in a way that can be isolated as a factor with a general predictable impact on political, social, cultural, historical change.

It is the deployment of technologies and the exercise of techniques arising out of unique historical situations, playing out unpredictably in historical dynamisms, and in the service of a diversity of ends that yields technodevelopmental effects.

To ascribe an outcome to "technology" is almost always vacuous. That this sort of utterance has become such an explanatory commonplace is enormously curious and even suspicious.

When most people became literate, it was possible to discuss politics with a much broader group of people.

And "becoming literate" = "technology"?

What, everybody suddenly got bonked in the head with a book or maybe even a printing press? Just think of the complex multivalent practical, cultural, economic, institutional, legal, moral, psychological dynamisms and trajectories that materially fleshed out "becoming literate" in different historical, demographic, personal situations.

What developmental generalization are you drawing from that complex that presumably also obtains for other instances of the "technological" like inventing and disseminating the cotton gin and the internal combustion engine and the crossbow and anaesthesia and the technique of painting perspective?

If/when people are able to upload and thereby create close to immortal entities they wont have the same priorities as people restricted to living less than a century.

You are playing fast and loose with the English language in a customarily faithful manner. "If/then" statements cite causal conventions arising from and depending for their intelligibility on our experience of a world with mid-scale furniture and communicative peers and so on behaving in familiar ways.

When a religious person speaks of their expectation of personal resurrection as a soul and of its ascent into an immortal afterlife in Heaven these utterances can only be taken by sensible people as metaphorical utterances without literal reference or as public signals of subcultural membership in a moral or otherwise interpretative community, rather like a secret handshake -- or less charitably they can be taken as expressions of extreme confusion or insanity.

Precisely the same goes for statements about "uploading." When I say dismiss these utterances, you misunderstand me if you assume I am disagreeing with you on a matter of a testable hypothesis -- even when the form my dismissal takes is "never gonna happen." I am saying that what we mean by "persons," what we mean by "living" cannot coherently accommodate "uploading" or "immortality" and that people who say these things must be speaking metaphorically or subculturally (indeed, Robot Cult-urally) or be deeply confused or possibly a little crazy. Life is lived in vulnerable bodies, intelligence is performed in squishy brains and squishy socialities.

I believe that a majority of the elderly able to do so will do it,

When you use the pronoun "it" you make the mistake of imagining you know something about which you are talking. Unfortunately, you don't.

and they will be both a minority (of earths total population) and a very resourceful group.

See, you are indulging in a full froth of faithful handwaving and imagine yourself to be engaging in some sort of policy wonk discourse. This is a problem.

If/when we are able to live comfortably on other planets, environmental issues on this planet wont be as important as they are now.

No doubt the same would be true if we could live in other dimensions or perform spells with wands. That life on other planets is logically feasible in ways that interdimensionality or magicality likely are not is irrelevant given that the scientific and, more to the point, political, legal, practical problems of environmentalism are urgently proximate in ways that render remote possibilities like interplanetary diaspora and logical impossibilities like practical wand magic exactly equally irrelevant (at best) to those who would attend to actual problems. Every second wasted in the contemplation of techno-utopian "solutions" to real problems -- however earnest -- is functionally equivalent to time devoted to the active frustration of problem-solving or active denialism about the problem in the first place. Again, at best it is a matter of handwaving by the faithful confusing itself for policy discourse.

Whatever political system that will evolve within the next hundred years I don't think the above will change.

Political systems don't evolve. And I have no idea what actually substantial thing you have described in "the above" is presumably not going to change or what significance you think attaches to whatever invariance you think you have hit upon. If the world were otherwise than it is, its problems would be different than they are, too. Uh, sure. So what?