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

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

First Feedback from the Re-Public Article

Upgraded and adapted from the Moot, "Mark" responds to my Re-Public article:
I support your criticism of Transhumanism but I still support a Transhumanist organisation with a mandate to support and influence the achievement of the following goals: Freedom: of scientific research on human enhancement. (Due to conservative resistance to such goals); Development: of targeted feasible and practical research programs that have maximum impact on improving societal and individual conditions. (Due to misplaced focus of limited resources); Access: of all global stakeholders to the process of technological development and its outcomes (Due to the existing inequalities both within and between countries).

Of course, commitment to safe, accountable technoscientific research, to public investment in useful sustainable development, and to equitable distribution of developmental costs and benefits (Mark's three "goals," fleshed out a bit) are all completely mainstream progressive attitudes. You don't have to join a Robot Cult to support these attitudes, and the fact is that nobody actually does join a Robot Cult out of commitment to these attitudes, no matter how often they get trotted out in glossy futurological brochures to whomp up support for the Robot Cult in the general public.

The overabundant majority of people committed to these mainstream progressive notions are not "transhumanists" nor will they ever be, meanwhile the overabundant majority of people who actually identify as "transhumanists" have in common instead (one) faith-based wish-fulfillment fantasies about personal "transcendence" through "technology," (two) parochial (at best, eugenicist at worst) ideas about what constitutes "enhancement" treated as self-evident truths to guide public policy, and (three) highly idiosyncratic views concerning the urgency and proximity of superintelligent Robot Gods, prosthetic or genetic superlongevity techniques, or automatic superabundance on the cheap.

Add to all this the actual lingering influence within transhumanist sub(cult)ures of a number of market-fundamentalist ideologues who disdain the very values in whose name Mark claims to endorse transhumanism. Add to all this the structural tendencies to anti-democracy inhering in any technocratic elitism, and also in any fetishization of megascale engineering and geoengineering that preferentially benefits incumbent corporate-militarist formations, and also in the glib depoliticized deployment of the contested term "enhancement" as though it were merely technical or neutral, and so many of the other anti-democratizing tendencies I highlighted in the very critique he otherwise supported, and so, I must say, I cannot quite understand where Mark is coming from here.


Anonymous said...

"(two) parochial (at best, eugenicist at worst) ideas about what constitutes "enhancement" treated as self-evident truths to guide public policy..."

I've been reading your blog for quite some time, and every time you mentioned this I've always wanted to pipe up and say that I have never actually read about any transhumanists wanting to enhance humanity. Instead, I hear them talking about "enhancing" themselves (whatever that entails--it seems entirely reasonable that they want only to modify themselves to whatever manner they deem to be improvement). And, to me, there's absolutely nothing with this. If someone wants to do something to her own body, let her.

I just don't see (two) as being a fair criticism, since, as far as I know, there isn't anybody advocating for widespread "improvement" of the human race. Though, I could very well be wrong--I tend not to follow quacks too much :-p

Dale Carrico said...

Transhumanists have a distressing tendency to describe as "suboptimal" morphologies and lifeways that are actually viable and wanted (deafness, neuro-atypicalities, among others) but which fail to accord with their own parochial values. Much desolating talk of efficiency, competitiveness, performance tends to get megaphoned where "enhancement" cheerleading is afoot, you can be sure, just as you'd expect from a movement that seems to think Vegas + self-esteem workshops + informercials = "civilization." Especially charming are the discussions of the ways in which "atypicalities" and "sub-optimalities" impose social costs that should not be borne by the more typical and more optimal, as well as the discussions which seem to pine for bodies transformed into interminable arms races of ever more enhanced competitiveness -- now doesn't that sound like a marvelous way to live? Even those who don't go so far as to advocate coercive implementation of their stainless-steel vision of post-human sooper-models, still collaborate in the denigration of perfectly legible actually wanted lifeways of present-peers while peddling facile visions of "better-humans" who I daresay would still know hardship and humiliation contrary to the glossy brochures. It wouldn't be fair to say that every transhumanist-identified person is an explicit braying coercive eugenicist, certainly, and I do not make that claim -- but I do think "enhancement" discourse is saturated with implicit eugenicist assumptions (often under-interrogated by well-meaning advocates) and unwarrantedly intolerant consequences. Those transhumanists who are not explicit eugenicists or who abhor eugenicism (of whom there are many I'm sure) would do well to spend less time in defensive denial about this problem, and more time addressing its causes and symptoms among so many of the fellow-members of their sub(cult)ural "movement" with whom they are nonetheless so eager to affiliate despite this disagreement and abhorrence.

RadicalCoolDude said...

Anonymous: I've been reading your blog for quite some time, and every time you mentioned this I've always wanted to pipe up and say that I have never actually read about any transhumanists wanting to enhance humanity.

The problem is that transhumanists often say contradictory things without realizing it! For example, despite vigorously defending “morphological freedom” and “technological self-determination”, James Hughes wrote a statement in his essay Democratic Transhumanism 2.0. that can is interpreted by many as favoring normative eugenics:

“One of the most important progressive demands will be to ensure universal access to genetic choice technologies which permit parents to guarantee their children biological capacities equal to those of other children.”

Dale Carrico said...

Of course, what is troublesome here is mostly the suggestion here that difference translates inevitably to inequity, that difference is dis-ease, that ideally a commitment to justice demands arriving at homogeneity via medical intervention peddled as the arrival at an "optimality" that inevitably reflects very parochial prejudices concerning what human beings should look like and be like and what we are for. There are certainly far more flabbergasting quotes available in a eugenicish flavor from transhumanists, Hughes included -- suggestions that deaf parents screening for a wanted deaf children is equivalent to deafening one's hearing child, that parents with differently-enabled children inevitably find themselves in an especially tragic circumstance (as if a child with mild Down's cannot be a flourishing cherished person, familiar, peer, and as if the parent of a "normal" child, however construed, won't be beset by heartbreak, distress, tragedy as well), that we have a moral duty to "uplift" nonhuman animals into human consciousness if we can, and so on.

Anonymous said...

From Mark:
Hi Dale,
Let me elaborate further on my position.
My support for a Transhumanist organisation is based on the outlook of the World Transhumanist Association and its founders, and the objectives outlined by Riccardo Campa in his recent article.
I am not aware of any existing international organisation that has the goals of Freedom, Development and Access (FDA) in relation to technology as its raison d'être. Why bother with such a body and these goals? Whether the general public is aware, informed or involved in the developments in nanotechnology, biotechnology, and autonomous digital systems, the fact is that advances are being in these areas which, based on the existing class structure of society, can only strengthen incumbent interests and reinforce, if not expand, existing inequalities.
From my viewpoint, a Transhumanist organisation, with the goals of FDA, would serve as a useful, if not the best, vehicle to democratize technoscientific developments and ensure stakeholder involvement. Actually, the best way to go about democratizing technology would be through a political organisation with larger goals of societal change. However, the level of consciousness of the general public is not at a level that would enable the building of a political organisation that would be able to achieve the required societal changes to ensure democratized technological development in a time frame to offset the pace at which incumbent interests are strengthening beyond challenge. Hence, the need for the poor substitute of a single focus organisation on technology, which could canvass broad base support, rather than a larger political organisation for which the public is not ready. Of course, this does not obviate the need for politics, separate and apart from the agenda of Transhumanism.
This segues into your criticisms. Transhumanism remains marginal because of the hyperbole for which the public is also not ready. Nanotechnology is seen as the path to abundance, biotechnology the path to longevity, and autonomous systems the path to super-intelligence. A focus on FDA as the Transhumanism mandate could actually lead to hyperbole no longer being so.
Freedom of scientific research in human enhancement through nanotechnology, biotechnology and digital systems could lead to the Development of transformative technologies that solve problems of scarcity and disease that today seem insurmountable, and this process would be guided by the democratic Access of global stakeholders to produce consensual outcomes.
Even the name Transhumanism seems like hyperbole, but this indicates the organisation’s transformative aspirations. Physiologically and socially, homo sapiens have been in a process of accidental evolution since emerging about 200,000 years ago. We now have the ability for conscious self-directed evolution at both the physiological and societal level utilizing accumulated knowledge and the tools that we have created. This is the ultimate goal of civilization.
Yes, transformative visions parallel religious aspirations. Religious aspirations reflected a certain stage in the evolution of intelligence as embodied in our species which could only be expressed through cultural forms limited by the level of historical development. Transformative aspirations now manifest itself in visions of technology which reflect this continuing process of evolution.

Dale Carrico said...

So, the idea here is that all that stuff about friendly superintelligent Robot Gods, nanofactories providing dirt-cheap superabundance, mind uploading, techno-immortalization, and sooperhumanization -- you know, for kids! -- and so on is actually incidental to transhumanism, even though it is the only actually-discernible thing unique to transhumanists as a so-called "-ism" and "cultural movement" soliciting your (apparently ongoing) identification. Meanwhile, the ideal of sober public-minded wonks pondering equitable democratic technoscience policy that is already legibly mainstream progressive is what you want to champion in the name of "transhumanism" even though the truth is nobody has to join a Robot Cult to advocate this sort of perspective and vanishingly small numbers of people already familiar with such a perspective ever would join a Robot Cult. I consider this argument either flabbergastingly deluded or terribly cynical. Once you realize that your Robot Cult is crazy isn't it more honest to leave crazy town rather than try to peddle falsehoods about what your Robot Cult always has been and actually remains? Obviously, ymmv.