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

Sunday, February 15, 2009

James Hughes Flogs for the Robot Cult

My friend Michel Bauwens of the Peer to Peer Foundation recently asked "democratic transhumanist" (a term I regard as oxymoronic as well as moronic) James Hughes this question: "Do you have any references to recent more political, and specifically ‘progressive’, interpretations of transhumanism, especially also around abundance?" I suspect that a sense of fair play was one of the things that inspired the question, given that Bauwens had recently republished a critical piece of mine on the topic of transhumanism, so-called, in which I described its almost irresistible structural affinities with authoritarian politics, whatever the best-intentions or best-PR soundbites of its individual advocates might be. If you are interested in these sorts of questions I recommend you read Hughes' entire piece for yourself. Here is the more critical piece of mine Bauwens excerpted a bit earlier.

I do have a few comments about what James Hughes has to say in his defense of a democratic "movement transhumanism," that is to say a presumably more progressive Robot Cult. First, let me juxtapose two interesting sections of Hughes' apologia. This first statement occurs quite early in Hughes' account:
[I]n my little corner of ideaspace we have recently begun referring to the left-of-center varieties of techno-optimism and transhumanism as “technoprogressivism,” and many of us technoprogressives are enthusiastic supporters of end-of-work and basic income guarantee policies, which have roots back to Condorcet, Tom Paine and utopian socialist, anarchist and Marxist thought: automation can liberate us from labor, but we need collective action to get there and ensure it liberates instead of impoverishes. On the other hand there are plenty of “bourgeois” futurists who argue that technology will end scarcity without any need for public policy or collective provision, or only through free market minarchy.

This second statement occurs much later in his account:
Another dynamic in the 2000s has been a growing focus by transhumanists on the apocalyptic possibilities of emerging technologies. One manifestation of this has been the growth of the millennialist Singularitarian subculture which anticipates the day when machine intelligence surpasses human, and which ranges from naïve technoutopianism to apocalyptic fatalism about the outcome of the “Singularity” and our ability to effect it. Outside of this subculture however many transhumanists have begun to seriously engage with the regulatory and security policies that would reduce threats from technologies of mass destruction, while promoting the use of emerging technologies to making civilization more resilient to catastrophic risks. Engagement with these questions have contributed to the declining influence of the anti-statist right within transhumanism.

I sympathize with Hughes' personal position on both of these issues. I, too, am an advocate of guaranteed basic income to subsidize peer-to-peer formations of citizen life, criticism, creativity, commerce and as a necessary redistributionist intervention in the ongoing process of wealth-capture and wealth-concentration by the already wealthy by means of automation, outsourcing, crowdsourcing, creative/genomic commons-enclosure and so on. I have sometimes called this position "pay-to-peer," and I defended a version of it on a panel at the Fourth Congress of the US Basic Income Guarantee Network in 2005 with James Hughes right next to me at the conference table. Also, as anybody who has read any of the cantankerous texts I have assembled in my Superlative Summary will attest, I certainly disapprove as he seems to do the hyperbolizing disasterbatory accelerationalizing techno-utopian and techno-dystopian nonsense of the singularitarian nerd-rapturists.

Despite all this I cannot sympathize at all with Hughes' insinuation that he is defending "transhumanism" when he attributes to it a content (advocacy of basic income guarantees) that is in fact advocated by a vanishingly small minority of actually-existing transhumanist-identified people, and little likely represents even a mild topical preoccupation with more than a handful of these, and indeed is quite likely to be ferociously attacked by a larger number of transhumanist-identified people as "evil socialism" given the prevalence of market libertarian dead-enders and neoliberals among movement-transhumanists. That he makes this move at one and the same time as he disavows the apocalyptic "subculture" of the singularitarians among movement-transhumanism is especially problematic. "Singularity" means different things to different people, for some naming a rather muzzy notion that technoscientific development is accelerating irresistibly into some unknowable imminent transformation of everything into which they can stuff all their present existential anxieties or wish-fulfillment fantasies, while for others naming variously more specific and "technical" (but usually still quite controversial and to my mind usually still hyperbolic) claims about networked and artificial intelligence "surpassing" conventional personal and social formations of problem-solving and organizational-intelligence with various projected impacts on questions of public security, deliberation, privacy issues, and so on. But whatever else one can say about these notions, it looks to me like an overwhelming majority of transhumanist-identified people affirm some version of them as true, as urgently important, and as abiding preoccupations.

That is to say, Hughes defense of "transhumanism" seems to me to be one that affirms as part of it something that is in fact incidental to it, while disavowing as marginal something that is in fact nearly ubiquitous and hence likely essential to it. I leave it as an exercise for the reader to determine if this curious strategy is a matter more of deception, self-deception, or, er, creative "framing" and PR spin for the membership-organizations of which movement-transhumanism materially consists and in which Hughes is of course a high profile figure.

I must say I am also quite interested in the larger narrative Hughes offers up in his effort to shore up the credibility of his marginal Robot Cult. It is possibly fortunate for him that Condorcet and Diderot, being long dead, cannot comment on Hughes' enlistment of them in the cause of movement transhumanism.
“The story of transhumanist politics is part of the broader story of the three hundred year-old fight for the Enlightenment. Transhumanism has pre-Enlightenment roots of course, since our earliest ancestors sought to transcend the limitations of the human body, to delay death, and to achieve wisdom. But those aspirations became transhumanism when people began to use science and technology to achieve them instead of magic and spirituality. From the earliest writings of the Enlightenment philosophes, such as Diderot and Condorcet, there were suggestions that eventually we could achieve radical longevity, machine intelligence, freedom from drudgery, and the radical evolution of the human form.

The Enlightenment narrative of progress, the belief that we can continually improve our condition through rational scientific human agency, has also had a political dimension. The Enlightenment argued for democracy and individual rights. The French version of these ideas also pressed for egalitarianism and a strong democratic state, while the Anglo and American versions were less egalitarian and advocated market freedom. The tensions between these two versions of Enlightenment thought are an ongoing dynamic with the contemporary transhumanist movement.

The resistance to Enlightenment ideas that began three hundred years ago still shapes resistance to transhumanist meliorism today.

I think it evokes a rather skewed sense of Enlightenment discourse to propose it can be encapsulated into "the Enlightenment narrative of progress" in the first place, being in fact a quite contentious conversation rather than a straightforward "program." I find myself wondering how much Condorcet and Diderot Hughes can actually have read, let alone how he might weave Scottish and German Enlightenment threads into his rather facile programmatic simplifications, how he would cope with the different anti-authoritarianisms of Enlightenment freethinking and often still quite faithful anti-clericalisms, and so on. But quite beyond all that, to emphasize as he does in his own account the suggestive utterances of a few Enlightenment figures on questions of "radical longevity, machine intelligence… and the radical evolution of the human form" seems to me to risk a near evacuation of the actual content of Enlightenment discourse in the name of delineating it.

The sorts of politics that eventuate from strident championing of kooky oversimplifications of Enlightenment by marginal extremists declaiming the irremediable irrationality of their foes tend, I fear, to be ugly and reactionary in the main (see, for example, the army of Reason defenders convened by those sad lost souls who think Ayn Rand's earthshatteringly awful Atlas Shrugged is some sort of Bible), as I have argued at length here among other places, and I venture to suggest that few of the heroes of European Enlightenment would much approve the uses to which their discourse is being put in such cases. I daresay some might reasonably maintain that my own ongoing critique of superlative technology discourses and techno-utopian political "movements" is itself legible as a defense of enlightenment attitudes, contrary to Hughes' frankly flabbergasting insinuation that resistance to "transhumanism" is of a piece with resistance to Enlightenment. I will go so far as to suggest that at least some of the Enlightenment figures Hughes himself is fond of quoting might have some sympathy for my own suggestion that the "movement transhumanism" he defends is a scarcely concealed form of organized religiosity itself, investing hyperbolic technodevelopmental projections with transcendental significances with the usual yield of irrational, uncritical, and authoritarian consequences.

It is actually a difficult thing to grasp just what movement transhumanism is coherently imagined to consist of when Hughes himself goes on to celebrate a "big tent" in which liberals, conservatives, anarchists, minarchists, anarcho-capitalists, greens, technocrats, and so on all presumably contribute their measure to the "unique transhumanist vision." To the extent that transhumanism, whatever else it is supposed to be, is surely something to do with "technology" and the historical play of "technoscientific" change, it seems to me to matter enormously that the sorts of things that are going to be called "technology" in the first place, the sorts of uses to which these "technologies" are properly to be put, the ways in which one will seek to facilitate the emergence and articulate the circulation of "technoscientific" realities in the actual world will differ quite radically in their actual substance according to whether one is speaking from a liberal, conservative, anarchist, minarchist, anarcho-capitalist, green, or technocratic vantage. I have often reiterated that the word "technology" functions to conceal more than it reveals, that there is really no such thing as "technology in general" especially if one means to attribute to this "technology" certain monolithic or inevitable developmental outcomes, aspirations, tendencies. What passes for technology, what constitutes its substance, what articulates its developmental play in the world are all definitively determined by political, social, cultural, discursive factors. To propose that one can "advocate" a technology politics indifferent to the definitive differences actual political differences imbue into the constitution of technologies as such is worse than completely misunderstanding the very phenomenon under discussion (although that is a pretty fatal problem for those who are presumably defined foremost by that very phenomenon they are so disastrously misconstruing), it is actually to participate in a disavowed politics of technoscientific development that tends to conduce especially to the benefit of very familiar authoritarian right-wing political values and strategies. This is the point of the piece of mine that Bauwens posted in the first place, to which I already linked above.

That James Hughes is an advocate for many genuinely progressive technodevelopmental political positions is definitely true, and to my mind a delightful thing, but that in his celebration of a "technology politics" that is indifferent to definitive differences of politics as well as his insensitivity to the actual politics of would-be "apolitically neutral" or "anti-political" positions on developmental questions James Hughes is participating in and actively abetting quite authoritarian and anti-democratizing technodevelopmental political positions is also true, I fear, and the farthest thing from delightful. That as a well-meaning decent person of the democratic left he would no doubt recoil from the probable eventual impacts of his participation in the actually anti-democratizing politics of his Robot Cult were they ever to come to anything is really neither here nor there as far as I am concerned. A heartfelt cry of "what have I done?" is little consolation to those of us who are clear-eyed enough to ask here and now "what are you doing?"

Be all that as it may, transhumanism, so-called, is probably best known for what Hughes tantalizingly describes as its "bioutopianism" (that is to say, what critics might describe instead as its eugenicism) early on in his piece. I certainly disapprove the glib way in which Hughes identifies in some environmentalist politics what he calls "technophobia" or "luddism" when it would be better to discern a critical embrace of appropriate technology (a very different thing from any blanket technophobia even where one might disagree with particular claims it might inspire in some) or describes as "extremist" the presumably outrageous desire of differently enabled people to affirm as dignified and desirable atypical lifeways that Hughes himself might have parochially determined to be "suboptimal" by his lights. Such comments arising out of his "bioutopianism" are sprinkled throughout his piece, as indeed they saturate transhumanist discourses more generally, but I think the key passage occurs in this rather creative interlude of congenial storytelling:
The years 2002 to 2004 saw the first debates about the transhumanist project in elite policy circles. Francis Fukuyama published the bioconservative best-seller Our Posthuman Future, and was he then appointed to the Bush administration’s President’s Council on Bioethics (PBC) by fellow bioconservative Leon Kass. Under the leadership of Kass and Fukuyama the PBC published Beyond Therapy, which suggested the need for strong regulation of cognitive enhancement, life extension and other biotechnologies. At the same time the American Christian Right and the Vatican were evolving beyond opposition to abortion to a broader critique of reproductive technologies and human enhancement. Left-wing and environmentalist critics of biotechnology such as Jeremy Rifkin, Bill McKibben, the Center for Genetics and Society and radical disability rights groups also began to oppose nanomedicine, genetic engineering and human enhancement in the early 2000s. Gradually a network of Left and Right-wing bioconservatives has grown linking these groups on both sides of the Atlantic.

The Bush administration, the religious Right and the emergence of this Left-Right bioconservative axis had a polarizing effect on biopolitical intellectuals, driving many to associate with the growing transhumanist movement and to clearly advocate for the right to human enhancement. Bioethicists John Harris and Julian Savulescu in the UK joined with American bioethicists Arthur Caplan, Henry Greely, and Gregory Pence in defense of reproductive cloning, germinal choice and cognitive enhancement. Although these intellectuals explicitly reject the label of transhumanist, they represent the natural working out of Enlightenment ethics in biopolicy of which transhumanism is a product.

It is an interesting question what it means to "oppose" as against "defending" things like "nanomedicine" and "genetic engineering" and "human enhancement" when so much that gets talked about under these designations (superlongevity therapies, nanorobot respirocytes, designer babies, clone armies, labgrown centaurs, and so on) does not even remotely exist, and when so many actually urgent questions about safety and access and reliable information concerning emerging ARTs (alternative or artificial reproductive technologies), contraceptive and fertility techniques, therapeutic problematizations of the beginning and ending of viable life, non-normalizing prosthetic interventions into the diversity of human capacities, morphologies, and lifeways are utterly deranged by their association with these futurological figures. I have argued here and here, that such futural figurations actually tend to function as proxies for irrationally disavowed or stealthily deceptive debates on contemporary political questions.

Certainly, I strongly disagree with Hughes' insinuation that any disapproval of the socially conservative anti-Choice healthcare politics he describes as "bioconservative" amount to an affirmation of "transhumanist" politics, whether those who register this disapproval (among whom I myself am certainly one, as witness the pieces collected here) are sensible enough to disdain his Robot Cult label and its facile framing or not. Not to put too fine a point on it, I have long considered "bioconservatives" and "transhumanist" formulations on bioethical questions to represent inter-dependent extremisms.

The transhumanists, so-called, would engineer an optimal idealized postulated homo superior with which they presently identify at the cost of a dis-identification with the free and diverse homo sapiens with whom they actually share the world and, hence, are advocating a de facto eugenicist politics. The bioconservatives, so-called would ban safe, wanted, but non-normalizing therapies in an effort to "preserve" a static idealized postulated homo naturalis with which they too presently identify at the cost of a dis-identification with the free and dynamic homo sapiens with whom they actually share the world and, hence, are likewise advocating a de facto eugenicist politics. What is wanted is to advocate research into safe effective medicine, however unprecedented or non-normalizing it might be, to solve health problems in ways that people consent to on their terms in truly informed, nonduressed ways.

Just as one hardly needs to join a Robot Cult to defend "Enlightenment" values of critical thinking, consensual self-determination, and anti-authoritarian politics (indeed, quite the contrary!), so too -- and really this should go without saying -- one hardly needs to join a Robot Cult to advocate for funding, regulation, and fair distribution of medical research nor to defend the politics of Choice, not only in matters of reproductive health, but on questions of, say, consensual recreational drug use or how to improve the lives of the differently enabled by their own lights, whether in normalizing ways or not.

24 comments:

jimf said...

Dale wrote (quoting James Hughes):

> "Another dynamic in the 2000s has been a growing focus by transhumanists
> on the apocalyptic possibilities of emerging technologies. One manifestation
> of this has been the growth of the millennialist Singularitarian
> subculture which anticipates the day when machine intelligence
> surpasses human, and which ranges from naïve technoutopianism to
> apocalyptic fatalism about the outcome of the “Singularity” and our
> ability to effect it. Outside of this subculture however many transhumanists
> have begun to seriously engage with the regulatory and security policies
> that would reduce threats from technologies of mass destruction, while
> promoting the use of emerging technologies to making civilization more
> resilient to catastrophic risks. Engagement with these questions have
> contributed to the declining influence of the anti-statist right within
> transhumanism."

Dale then goes on to say:

> I certainly disapprove as [Hughes] seems to do the hyperbolizing
> disasterbatory accelerationalizing techno-utopian and techno-dystopian
> nonsense of the singularitarian nerd-rapturists. . .
>>
> That [Hughes] makes this move [advocacy of basic income guarantees] at
> one and the same time as he disavows the apocalyptic "subculture" of
> the singularitarians among movement-transhumanism is especially problematic.

Your impression that James Hughes "disavows" the apocalyptic (particularly the
"disasterbatory") preoccupations of folks like Nick Bostrom and the
"Friendly AI" crowd is one that I do not share.

Indeed, from what I can tell, Hughes is just itching to urge the powers that be
to form the nucleus of what William Gibson fictionally characterized as
the "Turing Police".

I saw a talk at some recent conference or other on YouTube in which
Hughes, at the podium, and with a slide of "Colossus, the Forbin Project"
on the screen behind him, says something like "I don't know too much about
the science behind it, but I've known in my bones since about the age of ten that
Artificial Intelligence is something that's gonna happen Real Soon." (or
words to that effect).

He's ready to regulate, boys and girls, in spite of the fact that nobody
really has a clue as to whether AI is even possible in a form that
has anything much to do with the products of the Intel Corporation and/or
Microsoft (or IBM, for that matter) in the form in which we currently know
and love them.

This I see as a sort of nascent left-wing authoritarianism, and it
gives me the willies as much as the free-market fundamentalism of the
>Hist right-wingers.

Dale Carrico said...

Isn't this evidence of the way transhumanism deranges sensible discussion? I mean, it is reasonable and not authoritarian for legitimate accountable authorities to regulate in the face of actually inequitable distributions of developmental cost, risk, and benefit. If software development introduces or exacerbates such inequities, then its regulation is perfectly right and proper.

Introducing the Turing Police and entitative AI daydreams/nightmares into the discussion just activates irrational passions without clarifying anything, if you ask me.

By the way, I find I'm not sure I even accept the notion of a "nascent left-wing authoritarianism," properly so-called. To the extent that the essence of left-wing politics is democratization and consensualization a left-wing authoritarianism looks to me like a contradiction in terms.

Where incumbent interests accrue unaccountable authority or circumvent either consensual self-determination or democratic deliberation it seems to me it matters less whether they chose conventionally left-wing or right-wing authors as the basis for their rationalizations of authoritarianism, than the fact of their would-be authoritarianism itself.

I don't personally lose much sleep over Hughes' nightmares about evil AI overlords, of course (the Robot God is total bunkum, so who cares?), I can judge his interventions authoritarian or not without devoting too much attention to the particular paranoid fantasy leads him to compromise his democratic principles and embrace undue or unaccountable authority.

I daresay Hughes' seeming overconfidence in his parochial assessment of human "optimality" and willingness to impose it in the name of "healthcare" whether it is wanted or not by informed, competent, free peers is the more pressing real world worry for those of us who prefer (his) more democratic developmental formulations to authoritarian ones.

Mike Treder said...

Dammit, Dale, must you write this way?

To propose that one can "advocate" a technology politics indifferent to the definitive differences actual political differences imbue into the constitution of technologies as such is worse than completely misunderstanding the very phenomenon under discussion...

I think I know what you're saying, although it literally took me about 10 readings to make heads or tails out of that sentence.

As I've tried to tell you before, I suspect you'd find a lot more agreement with your positions if people could understand the point without having a PhD in Phraseology.

Assuming you write the way you think, I'd suggest you view that as a liability and not a virtue. To get greater traction with your ideas and your criticisms, you might want to take the Lincoln/Obama approach and go with fewer syllables instead of more.

Dale Carrico said...

Mike! So good to hear from you! You know, you're asking more of me than I think you can possibly realize. I truly honestly can't for the life of me imagine what it is like to find that italicized passage a difficult sentence to read. And I have discovered after years of trying to adapt my style to these sorts of perfectly well-meaning demands for clarity that I tend to make things incomparably worse when I try to do what you are asking of me.

It's endlessly anticipating imagined objections that gets me into trouble in the first place, well, that and a perverse love of word-play that I couldn't give up without becoming a different person than I am (and am pleased to be).

You know, I'm always already responding to the protesting voices in my own head with ramifying qualifications and elaborations and illustrations, once I start worrying about too diverse a congeries of imaginary interlocutors I'm lost.

Maybe I'm one of those people who talk best to folks with a PhD in Phraseaology as you say (thank god actually there is no such monstrous thing), and my more general usefulness comes from others who manage to glean enough from my opacities to translate them into terms that are more readily intelligible to others. I think that this is something I am able to do myself in public settings off the cuff when teaching dense difficult theory to earnest undergraduates.

But when it comes to my own writing, I guess I'm stumped. I don't disbelieve you at all when you testify to your perplexity at my density, but I hope you won't disbelieve me when I say that some of what I am told is illegibly muddy and thick seems to me honestly clear as glass as clearest glass, every single word saying exactly and precisely the thing it needs to say to say what I mean.

I really do appreciate your comment tho' and I am very pleased to think this means you still read me every now and then despite the frustrations that this must cause you.

On a final note, I will say that I could never be Obama nor could I write speeches for him, which may be part of the reason I so venerate him as I do. His manifold rhetorical gifts are definitely not my own.

jimf said...

> As I've tried to tell you before, I suspect you'd find a lot
> more agreement with your positions if people could understand
> the point without having a PhD in Phraseology.

If Mr. Treder means there would be "a lot more agreement"
(with Dale) among people who self-identify as transhumanists
(if only he would write "more clearly"), then -- not a chance.

Reaganama said...

Dale,

James Hughes comes across as a rather reasonable fellow in his comments. And he seems like a true leftist. I can't for the life of me see what you find objectionable about him. I mean, personally, I disagree with almost everything he says, but I also disagree with almost everything you say, too. (I'm so right-wing it would make you puke -- and yes, I do eat babies).

But I can't really sense much appreciable difference in your views. One of you likes transhumanism and the other detests it, but - forgive me - so what? He's surely an ally when you consider the world is full of a goodly number of baby-eating right-wingers like me.

Just curious.

Dale Carrico said...

Ha! Jim's definitely right on that score -- but I don't think that Mike holds out any more hope for a rapprochement between me and the Robot Cultists at this point, surely, than me or you!

I think Mike means to say that progressive minded secular democrats who are technoscientifically literate and also concerned with technodevelopmental politics in a way that might make them pay attention to superlative technocentrics like transhumanists and singularitarians as I do myself, even while recognizing what is rather surreally silly in what they say, might still better benefit from the thinking I've done on these questions if I managed to talk about them in a way that is more congenial to a particular kind of Anglo-American analytic, even positivist mindset. Alas, there is too much Bloomsbury, too much Beat, and too much of the specifically Jamesian strain of pragmatism in me to manage that feat at this point.

Dale Carrico said...

I'm sure James Hughes will be well pleased to hear that you find his own leftism more congenial than my own, baby eating right-winger or no. It seems to me that he has devoted no small amount of his energies to achieving just that result, after all.

jimf said...

"Reaganama" wrote:

> [T]he world is full of a goodly number of baby-eating
> right-wingers like me.

Tell me something, then, because **I'm** curious.

Just a few days ago, I came across the Web site of
a 60-year-old American expatriate gay man named
Scott Bidstrup. (It was linked to from the site of
another gay man -- a soc.motss old-timer named
Jess Anderson.)

On Mr. Bidstrup's bio page, beginning with the section
headed "Adventures In Free Speech"
http://www.bidstrup.com/bio.htm
there is a remarkable, not to say flabbergasting, tale about
how he came to leave the U.S. and take refuge in Costa Rica,
and certain events he believes to have taken place
there (the most recent of which only occurred
a few weeks ago).

So tell me, Reaganama, since Straussian neo-cons
are apparently your kind of people, is this
Bidstrup guy crazy? Paranoid? Does he have an overactive
imagination? Is he an outright liar? Is he grandstanding,
or at best exaggerating, in order to add force to his expressed
political opinions?

Or is it really that easy to get on the CIA's
(s)hit list?

Reaganama said...

JJMF,

Well, you're changing the subject, but since you ask: The main problem with Bidstrup, as you suggest, is that he's gay. I've never known a gay man who wasn't also paranoid. They grow up paranoid. When you're in the closet your whole life, worried that your dad might find out you've been having one off the wrist with mommy's Playgirls (and even more worried that he'll find the notion arousing) you learn to look over your shoulder.

Are you also gay? Because only a fellow gay man would take it that seriously. The rest of us with vaginas on our mind -- and maybe we're just lucky to be that way -- don't pay much heed to Bidstrups.

No desire to offend anyone, but it was a dumb question.

Dale Carrico said...

I've never known a gay man who wasn't also paranoid. They grow up paranoid.

Good heavens, have I been deposited via time machine back to the fifties or something? I'd comment further, but I'm off just now to join the Mattachine.

Anonymous said...

But quite beyond all that, to emphasize as [James Hughes] does in his own account the suggestive utterances of a few Enlightenment figures on questions of "radical longevity, machine intelligence… and the radical evolution of the human form" seems to me to risk a near evacuation of the actual content of Enlightenment discourse in the name of delineating it.

How can any transhumanist seriously argue that their ideology is rooted in the Enlightenment or any other phase in Western philosophy and cultural life simply because one illustrious figure of the time engaged in futurist wishful thinking?

Doesn't it simply prove that, throughout history, smart people have believed and said weird things? Or that being an educated and respected crank is not unique to the late 20th and early 21st century?

jimf said...

"Reaganama" wrote:

> [Y]ou're changing the subject, but since you ask. . .

Thanks for your indulgence in bothering to reply.
Your insight is. . . interesting.

> The main problem with Bidstrup, as you suggest,
> is that he's gay.

I certainly mentioned that he is. I didn't intend to suggest
it was his "problem", but perhaps you were giving me undue
credit for something you find so obvious.

> I've never known a gay man who wasn't also paranoid. They
> grow up paranoid.

Ah, so. Hadn't heard that particular diagnosis before. A
similar general diagnosis I once heard, from somebody I didn't
much care for, was "I am aware that you don't like me. I chalked
it up to envy. I've never known a gay man who wasn't envious of me
as a straight man." I was suitably nonplussed at the time.

> When you're in the closet your whole life, worried that
> your dad might find out you've been having one off the
> wrist with mommy's Playgirls. . .

I'm too old for my mommy to have had _Playgirl_s, and Bidstrup
is a few years older than I am. I had to make do with the Sears catalog,
and a couple of old issues of daddy's _Strength & Health_.

And it was my mommy I had to worry about catching me "having one
off the wrist", with anything.

> Are you also gay?

Yes, as a matter of fact.

> Because only a fellow gay man would take it that seriously.

Ah. I don't know what our esteemed Blog Owner makes of all
this. (He's also, you know, **that** way.)

> The rest of us with vaginas on our mind -- and maybe we're
> just lucky to be that way. . .

I hadn't heretofore made any assumptions about your gender.
Of course. . . well, nah.

> [I]t was a dumb question.

One's intellectual limitations are always a burden one
struggles beneath, for those of us so. . . limited;
and no doubt a source of great annoyance for those not
so weighed down.

I beg forgiveness.

Nato Welch said...

I gotta say, I'm not sure how Hughes can look at all the overwhelmingly anti-government sentiment Marshall Brain's talk about structural unemployment at the recent Singularity Summit has stirred up, and then say, with a straight face, that singularitarians and transhumanists are mostly progressives. Where was the pushback in the blogosphere (Other than me)?

Mike Treder said...

The Singularity Summit is an echo chamber for exactly the type of blue sky libertopian techno-rapturists that Dale is always griping about.

Dale Carrico said...

The Singularity Summit is an echo chamber for exactly the type of blue sky libertopian techno-rapturists that Dale is always griping about.

That's for sure -- and their Singularity U, too -- except maybe we should think of them as stormy sky libertopian techno-rapturists...

Michael Anissimov said...

Hi friends...

It's interesting how consumed everyone is with mentioning/rebutting Singularitarianism nowadays. Has this sect really grown so fast and exerted so much influence over anything to merit such attention? I am doubtful, but you guys keep going on about it, which at least provides interesting reading material. (It's not like I'm going to use my free time to watch TV or anything ridiculous like that.)

"wealth-capture" -- oh no! You make it sound like making money is inherently bad. I'm not a libertarian, and I laugh at Ayn Rand, but neo-socialist terms like this are pretty funny. If you were in charge of Obama's campaign strategy, he would have gotten completely owned in the election. Obama's triumph is a triumph for the *centrist* (center-left, really) politics that I adhere to.

"cantankerous texts" -- heh. :)

"techno-utopian and techno-dystopian nonsense" -- actually, technically -- I would call our beliefs cogno-utopian and cogno-dystopian. The source of the change is the greater intelligence. The technology the greater intelligence produces would technically just be a second-order effect. Human civilization was not caused by technology, it was caused by cognitive improvement. Cognitive improvement will once again transform the planet, this time from human civilization to transhuman civilization. And what an amazing civilization it could be.

About helping the poor. Even dismissing all "superlative" discourse, the best way I can think of to help the world's poor is still through technology. Windmills that can be built with common materials (I made a detailed proposal along these lines for the Google 10^100 contest), for instance, or, more usefully, a self-replicating factory like RepRap. Using these methods to help others seems more effective than being a stereotypical far-left Berkeley professor advocating extreme wealth redistribution with less-than-zero political viability, even if it were the greatest idea in the world.

How do you propose to deal with the entitlement crisis we have ahead of us?

"claims about networked and artificial intelligence "surpassing" conventional personal and social formations of problem-solving and organizational-intelligence"

Yes! Thank you for referencing this concept directly. What we are claiming is so different than what Kurzweil argues.

"with various projected impacts on questions of public security, deliberation, privacy issues, and so on"

This phrasing trivializes the potential hugeness of the rapid evolution of self-improving AI in the human-equivalent and human-surpassing realm of general intelligence. As if Neanderthals would debate the potential technological creation of Homo sapiens by saying it raises "privacy issues"! It actually raises "completely transforming the way the world works" issues.

"But whatever else one can say about these notions, it looks to me like an overwhelming majority of transhumanist-identified people affirm some version of them as true, as urgently important, and as abiding preoccupations."

I'm not so sure... I'd say that less than half of transhumanists are really concerned about the Singularity.

"Hughes offers up in his effort to shore up the credibility of his marginal Robot Cult."

But he insults our sub(cult)ure in this very passage! You seem to think that Kurzweil has swallowed Transhumanism whole, when this never happened.

I totally agree with your whole paragraph about technology.

"would engineer an optimal idealized postulated homo superior"

Negative, we just want to make that option available. One of the very reasons I and others might want to become "Homo superior" (I prefer the term Homo novus) would be to protect unenhanced humans from others of that enhanced group.

What are the "incumbent interests" that Robot God cultism is helping out, btw?

jimf said...

> One of the very reasons I and others might want to become
> "Homo superior" (I prefer the term Homo novus). . .

Or in Italianate Latin, "Homo nomo".

citrakayah said...

And what of the transhumanists, such as myself, who do not invision a 'perfected human' but the use of transhumanist technologies to allow for a more diverse human population?

Dale Carrico said...

There is no such thing as special "transhumanist" technologies. There are actually-existing actually-emerging technoscientific knowledges and techniques and artifacts, and there are technodevelopmental changes with costs, risks, and benefits that can be more or less equitably distributed to the diversity of their stakeholders. All the rest is error, misinformation, deception, self-deception, and some of it is fraud. Very simple. If you really do not envision a "perfected human" you take a hard look at the company you are keeping, because you have gone seriously astray.

Brandon H said...

All most transhumanists want is the pathway open to the use of human-enhancement technologies as they come to the table. All the fluff about assaulting naive singularists and technophiles just seems unnecessary--the major advances they hope for aren't due for 40+ years anyway. Fringe-optimists.
Your saying that no "special 'transhumanist' technologies exist" just seems misleading-- we already have technologies that espouse the ideal..organ implantation, stem cell research, cochlear implants, plastic surgery, pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, etc.

Your scares about a potential mandated 'perfected human' are no more valid to my mind than the 'we shouldn't play god" argument used against genetic engineering. What would this look like in your mind? In mine it looks like eliminating major risk factors for disease and enabling people to take fuller control of their life and condition, with less of the 'roll-of-the-die' biological limitations that help some to live longer than others with a different quality of life. i don't get why you find this so easily dismissed as absolute naivete. humanity has always sought to improve itself and make things easier

i did like your criticisms on the lack of awareness of the leftist transhumanist place amongst their own. From what I can tell, libertarianism has a much bigger following than socialism in the US. so we leftists tend to stick to our echo chambers because of political realism. good post overall though, really interesting, and kind of brings us all back to the ground, in a here-and-now kind of way

Dale Carrico said...

You can't have it both ways. Nobody has to join a Robot Cult to advocate for healthcare, science education, renewable energy investment, or network security. If enhancement is just healthcare then transhumanism is a vacuity, but if enhancement is what transhumanists actually always talk about when PR flacks aren't sanewashing it, if it's comic book sooper-bodies and holodeck heaven uploads and Robot God singularities then it is crazytown and people who know it is crazytown will keep on calling them on it. Either way, vacuity or crazytown, it's something of a fraud.

Brandon H said...

After reading your 'about me' page and some other articles, I realized we don't really disagree on anything at all except the definition and implications of transhumanism. It is fair that you associate the word with the more naive, technophilic sorts, as they are the loudest and their cry is the most memorable, and they are arguably the most numerable. As you say, sensible people wouldn't feel the need for the label and ideology.

For me, I really liked the idea of a synthesis between secular humanistic views on humanity's priorities and the future relationship between us and forthcoming medical/physiological changes. Even now as I look at the word it does seem a little redundant, with the trans fluff. How do you feel about the term techno-progressive?

Do you feel that trying to combine views about technology and politics is too much for one word or context? or is just irrelevant? what do you call yourself? just leftist?

I guess the argument is that transhumanists differ so much, as you say above, in political thought that the umbrella of "technology is cool, upload my mind please" isn't at all a practically useful way of deciding on an operating environment as these changes occur. do you think that 'biopolitics' will become important and contentious as a sphere of thought (like issues of abortion, embryonic stem cells, genetic engineering, sometimes are today)? will it split along the 'traditional' left/right boundaries? or do you just not see technological change being important enough as a sole issue to warrant any self-identification on its general trends?

i guess what i've learned is transhumanism is a lovely ideology for people who find human enhancement to whatever degree makes them feel fuzzy inside, and they'd like more of it--regardless of what's realistic or possible. which i find infinitely more harmless than good ol' vanilla organized religion

Dale Carrico said...

I think people of the sustainable equitable democratic left benefit greatly from being technoscientifically-literate and technodevelopmentally-concerned since technoscience issues and changes are a primary location of social struggle in our historical moment.

Strictly speaking, I don't think one needs a special "identity" category or movement or program called "technoprogressive" to identify this need and this tendency, since it has many expressions and mostly plays out at a finer level of detail than is captured by ideological formulations and manifestos and that sort of thing.

I would be remiss if I did not point out that in the past I did indeed use that very term in the very way you might mean. I stopped using it when I realized that transhumanists used it in their PR efforts to mainstream their message.

But the larger lesson I learned from that prior mistake was the technoprogressive term, in creating a space of supposed identification/ dis-identification, was always vulnerable to such an appropriation precisely because it lends itself to a more abstract and inapt "technology politics" involving subcultural signaling (and crass self-promotion/ marketing moves in its Robot Cultic forms) rather than the concrete political questions of stakeholder cost/ risk/ benefit assessment in the moment, sustainability and democratization issues, stratification of distributional effects by class/ race/ gender/, institutional analysis, and the stuff where the rubber really hits the road.

Thanks for a useful exchange. That was more productive than I hoped for.