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

Saturday, April 25, 2009

No, You're the Cultist!

Upgraded and adapted from the Moot: "Extropia" declares me to be no different from a fulminating Creationist in my assessment that the curious claims of the Robot Cultists are faith-based in their essence. He declares the very confidence of my belief to reveal me to be the True Cultist. From inside the charmed circle of True Belief, glimpses of the outside world seem to get a bit... skewed sometimes, don't they, though?

As it happens, I don't claim to be completely correct in any aspect of my life, I'm not that sort of person at all. I'm a pragmatist by conviction and temperament both, and have no truck with certainties. I do hold strong opinions and delight in testifying to them and am well pleased to own up to the consequences. That is the substance of freedom in my view.

Among these opinions of mine, I am quite confident in declaring Robot Cultism to be a constellation of faith-based initiatives connected in only the most superficial way to the secular democracy of sensible educated enlightened people. The various branches of superlative futurology and their organizational life in the various Robot Cults are marginal both to consensus science and to prevailing progressivity.

Do I need to recite those views of the Robot Cultists again for the peanut gallery, by the way? The preoccupation with "migrating" organismic intelligence into cyberspace? Thereby to "immortalize" or super-longevize it? And so to "live" on in a virtual or nanobotic-slave Heaven? All under the beneficent eye of a history-shattering superintelligent Robot God?

Deny the obvious marginality of these beliefs all you want, you simply expose yourself instantly thereby as a loon (though the beliefs themselves have gone a long way in preparing us for that possibility already). No "arguments" are necessary on this score and, indeed, to indulge them at this level is actually to concede you ground you could not earn on your own crazy terms.

Once we are clear that it is you who are making the extraordinary claims (and, to be fair, I'll cheerfully concede and celebrate that extraordinary claims have often contributed their measure to human progress and delight, especially as aesthetic matters) then we should be agreed that yours are not the terms that define these debates, it is the skeptics you need to convince on terms intelligible to us, with evidences that pass muster on the terms of consensus science, with patient elaborations rather than impatient declarations of your self-evident superiority and certainty despite your utter marginality.

Unfortunately, I suspect you will find that once you engage in a good-faith effort to translate your project into such terms all that will be left that compels any kind of attention will consist of fairly mainstream secular progressive support of well-funded well-regulated equitably-distributed open technoscience in the service of solving shared problems.

Nobody needs to join a Robot Cult to work on actual software security, or actual healthcare, or actual materials science. The deeper psychological and social needs that are truly the ones the Robot Cult answers to -- for the overabundant majority of its True Believers -- are just as well met by a good therapist, a big bottle, a fine book of poems, some modest non-moralizing faith-practice, a good sound occasional fuck, or what have you. As they are for the rest of us.

Hell, Robot Cultists can still indulge for aesthetic and subcultural kicks in sf fandoms and futurological daydreams for all I care (I'm a big sf geek myself after all, I get the sensawunda thing) -- they just shouldn't keep pretending and trying to sell that what they're doing is science or policy or progressive politics in any sense of the word.

Once all that is well and truly cleared up Robot Cultists are just silly people following their idiosyncratic bliss and doing nobody any harm but possibly themselves. Who cares? Let your freak flags fly, as I will mine, for all the world to see.

It is the superlative futurological derangement of public technodevelopmental deliberation, it is the anti-democratizing politics of superlative futurology, it is the deeper more prevailing anti-democratic corporate-militarist futurology the Robot Cultists symptomize in their extremity that are the real dangers and problems that interest me.

Sure, little the Robot Cultists say makes sense on its own terms, either, but that's true of lots of other people and viewpoints that I don't devote my energy to critiquing.


jimf said...

> It is not so much a hard party-line that is policed by the
> Robot Cult, but a circumscription of debate onto an idiosyncratic
> set of marginal problems and marginal "technical" vocabularies. . .

There are a few hard party lines, though.

One of them, probably the pre-eminent one at the moment (at least in terms of
"'technical' vocabularies" and putting aside the default sociocultural
background of libertarianism, Ayn Rand, the Divine Right of the
Mathematical Genius, self-styled big-brained heroes as saviors
of the world, and so on -- attitudes which have certainly straddled
both the world of wound-tight SF fans like Claude Degler in the 1940s
**and** the "real world" of scientific research -- see, e.g., the recent
_Broken Genius: The Rise and Fall of William Shockley, Creator
of the Electronic Age_ by Joel Shurkin )
is the non-negotiable status of the **digital computer** as
the key to the transcendence of the human condition.

Although the classics of SF about transcendent supermen focused on superintelligent
mutants with psychic powers (J. D. Beresford _The Hampdenshire Wonder_,
Olaf Stapledon's _Odd John_, A. E. Van Vogt's _Slan_, Poul Anderson's
_Brain Wave_, Arthur C. Clarke's _Childhood's End_, George Turner's
_Brain Child_), these days it's computers or bust.

It'll be interesting to see how long that lasts, and if it switches back
after a few years of Moore's Law flameout with no replacement in sight
(not that I'm looking forward to that era -- 3D optical computers?
molecular computers? bring 'em on!)

Dale Carrico said...

It'll be interesting to see how long that lasts [sfnal/futurological fetishizaton of networked digital computers], and if it [chief enabling conceit for sf-sensawunda] switches back
[to, say, psychics] after a few years of Moore's Law flameout with no replacement in sight.
Yes, as a sf-geek with investments in literary-criticism I'll admit I'm watching that very thing pretty closely as well. The late great Octavia Butler interestingly shifted from her own early Zelanzy psychic sooper-humans to bioengeneered ones and mutant monsters rather than hopping on Moore's bandwagon -- no doubt there will be much more where that came from, much of it peddled to teens as vampire-analogue fiction.

jimf said...

The subject of Mormonism has popped up on this blog from time to time -- most
recently in Dale's complaint against out-of-state Mormons financing the
campaign in favor of Proposition 8 in California
and in earlier debates between Dale and Lincoln Cannon of the
Mormon Transhumanist Association, e.g.,

I find it curious, given how little I knew about Mormonism when
I read them, that it has turned out that several stories and novels I've
remembered all my life turned out to have been authored by Mormons.

The very first paperback book my parents ever bought me was
a 1962 Dell softcover called _A Decade of Fantasy
and Science Fiction_, edited by Robert P. Mills.
It contains the unusual story "Jordan", which I found haunting
and memorable enough at the time, though it rather frustratingly felt
as though there was a lot more going on in that "world" than what was in
just that one story -- the story felt like a chapter that had been
excerpted from a book. Sure enough, years later, I ran into paperback
by the same author entitled _Pilgrimage: The Book of the People_,
(and some time after that _The People: No Different Flesh_),
and found out that the same author been writing these interconnected
stories for years.

They're definitely science fiction (the "People" are human-looking
aliens with various supernormal powers, stranded on Earth),
but the stories also have a "religious" flavor -- nothing very explicit
or doctrinal, I would've been repelled by that, just a prominent theme
of being about a very close-knit, disciplined but caring community
with a highly-developed sense of social responsibility. (Some people,
including me, might find a steady diet of them a **touch** saccharine
after a while.)

I only found out in the Web era that the author, Zenna Henderson was a Mormon,
at least during her early life (people who've lived in Utah could've have
guessed her origins from the name "Zenna" ;-> ).
(Wes Clark's "Utah Baby Namer" )

She wrote stories about the People between 1952 and 1975
and there was even a 1972 made-for-TV movie (with none other
than William Shatner), called simply "The People", based
on one of these stories.

Orson Scott Card came rather later -- he became famous
with the 1985 publication of _Ender's Game_, but
the first book I read by him, called _Songmaster_,
was a little unusual for its time in that it explores (in a
sentimental but still very frank way) the theme of the sexual and
romantic attraction of several grown-up male characters for
a beautiful young boy.

It's the farthest thing imaginable from pornography; there's
precious little sex, but a great deal of romantic longing.
In fact, when I read it, it **seemed** like an apology for
man-boy love. Imagine my surprise when I discovered, again
not until the Web era, that its author is 1) a Mormon and
2) not at **all** supportive of gay rights.

Yet **another** SF author, who I only found out was a Mormon
quite recently, is Raymond F. Jones, author of _This Island Earth_ (1955),
which I've never read, and a story that I read in 6th grade and
liked very much called "Tools of the Trade" (1950).

"Tools of the Trade", in fact, imagines starships being built
with a complete absence of nuts and bolts and welds and rivets,
via a technology of streamed matter called in the story
"molecular spray", which sounds very much like what a contemporary
SF author would call "molecular nanotechnology".

So, apropos of all this, and of the connection between Mormonism
and not only science fiction, but transhumanism as well, I
found the following passage recently on the Web:
Other Worlds, Suffused With Religion
By Kimberly Winston -- Publishers Weekly

. . .

The Mormon Link

Science fiction writers are more often Mormon than any other
religious denomination. That's according to,
a Web site that tracks religious affiliation and has compiled
a list of 175 published SF/fantasy writers who are either current
or former members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The LDS church counts five million Mormons in the U.S. and just
under 11 million worldwide. Compare that to Catholicism, which
has 26 million baptized followers in the U.S. alone, but can claim
only 30 writers of speculative fiction on the same list.

"Mormon theology does dovetail with science fiction quite nicely,"
Preston Hunter, a computer programmer and avid science fiction fan
who created the site, told PW. "Mormons have an outlook on God and
the universe similar to science fiction writers that other Christian
churches do not."

And that outlook sells books, whether published by Mormon or commercial
houses. Some of the Mormon names on Hunter's list are among the biggest
SF/fantasy writers around -- Orson Scott Card, Dave Wolverton, Anne Perry,
Zenna Henderson, Tracy Hickman and Russell Asplund. Many keep Mormon thought
completely out of their work, while others write openly about their
faith, albeit transferred to another world.

Is there something special about Mormonism that fosters this kind of
literature? Card, winner of the coveted Hugo and Nebula Awards for science
fiction, says the answer is yes. "Mormons are theologically not so far
removed from science fiction. We literally believe that God has created
sentient beings on other worlds, that there really is faster-than-light travel
and that God can go hither and yon. In many cases, we are writing about a
universe we have already thought about from childhood on."

Portions of Card's The Tales of Alvin Maker series include scenes from the
life of Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism. The five volumes of his
Homecoming series, about a race of earthlings guided to a promised land
by the Oversoul, is a retelling of the Mormon trek to Utah. One reason Card
sees a Mormon affinity for science fiction is that their idea of God as a
highly developed man -- and not an ethereal, supernatural being -- is the
kind of highly evolved hero much of science fiction is founded on.

"We believe in a physical, corporeal being who moves through time and who
was once like us," Card explains. "We believe he is accessible, but also
bound by natural law, just like us. So the God we believe in is already
50% of the way toward being the God science fiction can accept, so it is
a lot easier for us to move the last 50% without compromising any of our
other beliefs."

But perhaps the chief reason Mormon writers have an affinity for
science fiction is because much of their history has painted them as
"aliens" to the American mainstream. Because of their different ideas of God,
Christ and the universe and their early belief in plural marriage, the
first Mormons were hounded out of Ohio, Missouri and Illinois to finally
form, in 1846, a mass exodus west to Utah. This sense of being somehow
different is so embedded in Mormon culture that Pepperdine University's
Michael Collings, an authority on the science fiction of Orson Scott Card
and author of Storyteller: The Official Orson Scott Card Bibliography
and Guide, sees it as the one chord sounded throughout speculative fiction
by LDS authors. "Whether spoken or not, there is that core of experience
that Card so aptly describes as being an alien in one's own homeland,"
Collings says. "Some use science fiction as a way of bridging that difference
or of modulating it."

Marion K. Smith, professor of science fiction writing and literature at
Brigham Young University, told PW the link between Mormonism and
speculative fiction is well-rooted in Mormon cosmology and theology.
In addition to seeing God as a flesh-and-blood man, Mormons also believe
they are literally his children and that he made many other worlds
populated with his offspring as well. Mormons suppose a premortal
existence as "spirit children," and believe that by "eternal progression"
they can evolve, becoming at some point like God. They also believe in
continuing revelation -- that their leader, whom they refer to as a prophet,
receives ongoing divine communication. "So the concept of lost civilizations,
of alien races and other cultures, is not foreign to us," Smith notes.
And that, he adds, "is a backbone of science fiction, that there are people
who have unusual knowledge and act upon it."

jimf said...

> [T]here was even a 1972 made-for-TV movie (with none other
> than William Shatner [& Kim Darby, & Diane Varsi]),
> called simply "The People", based on one of these stories.

A few scenes from this are on YouTube:

Extropia DaSilva said...

'"Extropia" declares me to be no different from a fulminating Creationist in my assessment that the curious claims of the Robot Cultists are faith-based in their essence.'

Actually, I suggested that your demands for 'extraordinary proof' could be used to dismiss any evidence anyone might bring to prove the case for H+, just as creationists declare the evidence for evolution 'not persuasive enough'.

Of course, it is true that no evidence I could cite at time of writing is persuasive enough. I do not have proof that the brain can be fully understood nor that aquiring such knowledge would allow us to unlock the secrets of consciousness or upload minds into computers. I do not have proof that for all the underlying causes of aging there is a remedy that we will find if only we continue to look for it. But nor do I have proof that the brain CANNOT be understood, or that aging CANNOT be prevented.

Would you agree, though, that IF the brain CAN be reverse-engineered and understood well enough to recreate its powers in technology, the payoffs for that in military, medical and commercial terms would be massive?

'Do I need to recite those views of the Robot Cultists again for the peanut gallery, by the way?'

I have already agreed with it, so no there was no need to repeat it. Are you prepared to agree that there is a middle-ground between beliefs like that, and the belief that the future will be pretty much like today?

'Deny the obvious marginality of these beliefs all you want'.

I do not deny them. I do deny that I have to accept everything claimed by transhumanists or Singularitarians. That is like saying if you believe the theory of Relativity has merit, you must believe in time travel, wormholes to parallel universes and all the other extremes of theoretical physics. Of course, that is not true. One can be persuaded by some aspects of a theory, while also being skeptical of other aspects.

'Nobody needs to join a Robot Cult to work on actual software security, or actual healthcare, or actual materials science.'

Consider the following fields: Material sciences, mechanical engineering, physics, life sciences, chemistry, biology, electrical engineering, computer science and IT. Some are clearly related to others, some have no relationship, right? Wrong. They ALL related to the field of nanotechnology. And because all these fields converge on nanotech, research in any one of these areas could result in breakthroughs for molecular nanotechnology. Such a solution might take the form of an emergent pattern of a billion research topics, comments and insights, spread across all the disciplines in a complex web of cause-and-effect. Possibly, no single document or comment has anything to do with Drexlerian nanotechnology per se, it is just that a solution to some intractible problem becomes obvious to deeply-networked research groups who are aided by software tools that find possible solutions emerging from other, perhaps seemingly unrelated, areas of science and which then translate the specialised language used by one group into that used by another.

Much the same could be said for AI and robotics. As IMB computer scientist Dharmendra S. Modha said, 'there is a new synthesis of four fields, including mathematics, neuroscience, computer science and physchology'. He is talking about 'cognitive computing', research which is distinguished from earlier generations of AI work by the wealth of biological data science has since gathered on how the brain functions.

So yes, a materials scientist or any other individual in any other field of science or technology does not need to concern him or herself with the wider picture of how the narrow problem she or he is determined to resolve might connect with the work being done by the all other scientists out there to produce something incredible. I however, choose to do precisely that.

'Such a person is not likely to want to read anything by
Susan Haack.'

Judging by the title, the theme of the book sounds rather similar to Micheal Shermer's 'Why People Believe Weird Things', Eric and Jonathon Dregni's 'Follies of Science: 20th century visions of our fantastic future', Bob Seidensticker's 'Futurehype: the myths of technology change' and Alison George's 'Invented knowledge: False history, fake science and psuedo-religions', all of which I have read (apart from the last one, which I have ordered but not received at time of posting).

It sounds like a very good book. Thanks for mentioning it:)

jimf said...

> > . . .Susan Haack [_Defending Science -- Within Reason_]. . .
> Judging by the title, the theme of the book sounds rather similar
> to Michael Shermer's 'Why People Believe Weird Things',
> Eric and Jonathon Dregni's 'Follies of Science: 20th century visions
> of our fantastic future', Bob Seidensticker's 'Futurehype: the myths
> of technology change' and Alison George's 'Invented knowledge:
> False history, fake science and psuedo-religions'

It's more about technical epistemology than the titles you mention,
but by all means read it, if you're so inclined.

jimf said...

> But nor do I have proof that the brain CANNOT be understood,
> or that aging CANNOT be prevented.

Nor will you ever find proof that ESP doesn't exist, or that we're
not being visited by aliens in flying saucers, or that palm
readers, crystal ball gazers, and Dionne Warwick's "psychic
friends" can't see the future. Or that the world wasn't really
created in 4004 BC and that the Devil didn't bury fake dinosaur
fossils to lead us into temptation.

Look, I shouldn't have to tell you this, if you've read the
books you've mentioned.

> So yes. . . any. . . individual in any. . . field of science
> or technology does not need to concern him or herself with the
> wider picture of how the narrow problem she or he is determined
> to resolve might connect with the work being done by the all
> other scientists out there to produce something incredible.
> I however, choose to do precisely that.

Geez, and Michael Anissimov dismisses bottom-up AI as believing
in the "emergence fairy"!

Well, if that's the way your mind works, you can, of course,
"choose to do precisely that", and ain't nobody gonna convince
you otherwise.

If you enjoy connecting the dots in this way, maybe you should
read Laura Knight-Jadczyk's "Signs of the Times" Web site.

Dale Carrico said...

"Extropia" insists that Robot Cultists are concerned with the "wider picture" as against the "narrow concerns" of people who are doing real science or who are engaging in real progressive activism. I doubt most of their fellow Robot Cultists will so readily concede that theirs is not a scientific enterprise, indeed their more conventional line is that they represent champions of "pure science" against post-modern relativism and all that jazz, and constitute a kind of high priestly scientific avant-garde soldiering away in their secret labs (presently in their parents' basements but soon enough, you can be sure, in the asteroid belt or deep beneath the sea) building "The Future" one online manifesto at a time, and so on.

But credit where credit is due, I quite agree with "Extropia" that superlative futurology is not best understood as a practice of science, policy, or progressive activism (to the contrary of most of its public advocates), but a sub(cult)ural discourse and its associated fandoms instead, devoted to creating a narrative to make disruptive technoscientific change meaningful to those who invest in it, to solicit their identification in marginal communities of shared True Belief, and to answer to the irrational passions (and we all have them, just not the same ones) of the faithful.

Of course, I don't agree with "Extropia" that superlative futurology is concerned with "the wider picture" but just with one of many on offer, and a rather implausible, alienating, anti-democratizing one at that.

Superlative futurology in my view is invested in a constellation of imaginary idealized outcomes, sometimes denominated "The Future," which its practitioners identify as occasions for their personal transcendence and the shared investment in which provides the palpable compensation in the present of the pleasures and urgencies of personal identification in a self-marginalizing defensive moralizing sub(cult)ure.

That shared superlative futurological identification tends to come at the cost in the present of an ambivalent dis-identification with their worldly peers -- hence all the glib talk of "post"-humanity -- but this cost typically seems to them negligible if not actively desirable given that the Robot Cultist's desire for transcendence via superlative imaginary technodevelopments expresses the ambivalence, or even loathing hostility, here and now, of the Robot Cultists with the frustrations of an error-prone passionate thoroughly social embodied intelligence, with the frustrations of a disease-prone demanding vulnerable socially legible embodied mortal life, with the frustrations of the stakeholder politics of reconciling the ineradicable diversity of aspirations of peers with whom we share the world and the fragility of the freedom bodied forth through that interminable reconciliation.

Quite apart from the "technical" implausibility of the imagined outcomes and developmental timelines proposed by superlative futurologists -- hence their utter marginality from scientific consensus in the actual fields they superficially, selectively, and opportunistically graze for "signs" that their wishes might come true for them -- the Robot Cultists divest the concepts of intelligence, life, progress, and freedom of their social/embodied substance and then invest them in a compensatory amplification of blind, brute instrumental force, first rendering them meaningless and then adding insult to injury and confusing this with "emancipation."

jimf said...

> Nor will you ever find proof. . .

Her mother is, Rose of the World
being an intentional community of sorts, back up in the red-dirt
country of Maui.

Cayce has never been there but Cynthia has sent pictures.
A sprawling, oddly prosaic sixties rancher set back against
a red hillside in long sparse grass, that red showing through
like some kind of scalp disease. Up there they scrutinize
miles of audiotape, some of it fresh from its factory wrap,
unused, listening for voices of the dead: EVP freaks, of which
Cayce's mother is one from way back. Used to put Win's Uher
reel-to-reel in their very first microwave. She said that
blocked out broadcast interference.

Cayce has long managed to have as little to do with her mother's
penchant for Electronic Voice Phenomena as she possibly can, and
this had been her father's strategy as well. Apophenia, Win
had declared it, after due consideration and in his careful
way: spontaneous perception of connections and meaningfulness
in unrelated things. And had never, as far as Cayce knows,
said another word about it.

-- William Gibson, _Pattern Recognition_, p. 115
A new belief system is being born at at a site
called It's a present-day phenomenon.
Retired members of the Defense Intelligence Agency
are incrementally releasing details of the most
secret program ever run by the U.S. Government --
a 10-year visit by 12 highly trained U.S. military
and scientific personnel to a planet in the Zeta Reticuli
star system. . . The website has been constructed
by literate people who know when not to use an apostrophe
in conjunction with the word 'it,' . . . and who
have already acquired a radio and internet audience
via persuasive performances on Art Bell's Coast-to-Coast
radio show. . .

We've been known to listen to Art Bell. It's entertaining stuff.
We learned there of the possibility of the death by
laboratory-induced supernova of the entire universe . . .
and the existence of a hole in the ground in the southwest
where the screams of the damned in hell could be recorded
on a cellphone.

Who cares, right? Crazy people like crazy stories, especially
when they involve crazy conspiracies that paper over any
perceived absence of the meaning of life. . . There was once a
site called Zetatalk, which purported to explain everything that
had ever happened, including Atlantis and Christ, in terms of
the arrival of a tenth planet which would destroy physical life
on earth while catalyzing the transition to a fourth-dimensional
state of being for those who were in "service to others" as
opposed to "service to self." The site was amusing because
it offered matter-of-fact explanations for EVERYTHING, including
the lowdown on the Lincoln and Kennedy assassinations,
the fate of Noah's Ark, the truth of the Shroud of Turin,
and the final judgment about the relative greatness of the
1929 Philadelphia Athletics versus the 1927 New York Yankees. . .
The most interesting fact was that Jesus Christ was an alien
from Zeta Reticuli who ultimately agreed to be put into a
state of suspended animation from which he would answer
the prayers of all earthlings in perpetuity.

It turns out that Zetatalk convinced lots of people to leave
their homes and relatives forever in order to be ready for
the arrival of Planet X, home of the aliens who were going
to destroy earth and life as we know it. . . Many of them
lost homes, careers, and all their money because of Nancy Lieder's
monomania, which still hasn't ended, because Zetatalk is still
on the web.

While Nancy Lieder was leading her sheep to ruin, another
star was rising. Laura Knight-Jadczyk discovered much the
same alien threat, including the impending "fourth dimensional"
transformation, by way of a Ouija Board that alerted her
to the impending end of our existence and the beginning
of her romantic relationship with a Polish physicist named
Arkadiusz. Unfortunately, the more Laura learned about human
history from the Ouija Board, the more she discovered
that multiple alien races in command of time travel technology
had destroyed the meaning of human history and existence. . .

It's all too stupid to believe. . . But there are people
out there who do believe it. People a lot like you, who
loved Star Trek and the X-Files and the DaVinci Code
and the war-for-oil conspiracies elaborated at . .