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

Sunday, July 19, 2009

My Many Lies About the Robot Cultists

Giulio Prisco is unhappy that I have decided from here on out to delete his comments to the Moot unread (and said so publicly). In response, he declares (find it yourselves, I won't link to him), fairly predictably, that I do this because I am a "liar," and also because I am incapable of, or perhaps simply scared to, face his luminous futurological facts, and so on and so forth, blah blah blah.

It's hard, I must say, to resist reminding us all once again, as a preliminary to what follows, that Giulio Prisco, like so many of his Robot Cult friends, believes that his organismic brain might be "digitized" and thereupon "migrated" (these already questionable metaphors he treats altogether more questionably as scientific hypotheses, of all things) into cyberspace or into a robot body, and thereby quasi-immortalized (he would say, "indefinitely longevized," I suppose, imagining this terminological hanky-panky gets him off the hook of looking like the embarrassing immortality snake-oil salesman he, like all would-be priests, is), thereupon to live in a paradisical virtual wonderland or perhaps a nanoslavebotic treasure cave, all under the watchful care of a superintelligent post-biological Robot God who will solve all our problems for us (or eat us all for computronium feedstock, but we won't know the diff so, you know, no biggie) when the singularity arrives, as you betcha it will, and sooner than you think.

That is to say, the "facts" I won't "face" that render me insufficiently sooper-sciency to grasp the awesomeness of the Robot Cult (that I teach fashionably nonsensical menacingly relativistic "theory" of the elite effete aesthete kind in humanities departments in the Bay Area is typically trotted out as a damning data-point hereabouts), these "facts" of theirs are, of course, not to put too fine a point on it, the most arrant infantile incoherent batshit crazy nonsense imaginable.

Be that as it may, the specific matter under discussion here is my attribution of a tendency, sometimes stealthy, to eugenicism in futurological discourse. Just to be clear, I also usually like to note -- although this hasn't provoked Prisco's hysteria on this particular occasion -- a structural tendency in futurology, especially at the clarifying extremities of futurology where Prisco makes his home with the other Robot Cultists, toward hyperbolism, toward reductionism, toward elitism, toward moralism, toward incumbency, and hence toward anti-democracy.

As I have argued many times (if you are curious this isn't a bad place to look, neither is this, nor this, nor this, nor this for elaborations and clarifications of my positions on the matter of futurological tendencies to eugenicism): To speak of a generalized "enhancement" which one is either imagined to champion or refuse, usually in the name of a comparably theologized embrace either of a parochial variation on the theme of "The Future" or a parochial variation on the theme of "Nature/God's Will," is to displace the actual politics of biomedical and technoscientific change onto a level of abstraction that treats all the actually contested questions at hand as settled (or as mere illustrations and expressions of "underlying" clashes of value between "pro-tech" enlighteners and "anti-tech" luddites), a settlement that conduces primarily to the benefit of the institutions, values, formulations, and resource/authority distributions of incumbency. This is so, I maintain, whatever the honest or professed convictions of adherents of futurological discourses in matters of political orientation, and however ironic it may appear to discover that, once again, futurism plays out, on the ground, as retro-futurism. (I happen to maintain that the substance of any so-called politics of "the future" will be to denigrate the open futurity inhering in the plurality of the present, peer to peer, and that every futurological discourse substitutes for the political promise of that openness an amplification of the instrumental terms of the parochial past misconstrued precisely as an embrace of the freedom of futurity -- hence every futurism is a de facto retro-futurism.)

When I speak of the "actual politics" that are so displaced by pro-technology/anti-technology, pro-"enhancement"/"anti"-enhancement framings of the terrain, I mean the actual politics of negotiating conflicting demands, costs, risks, benefits, aspirations of a diversity of stakeholders to technoscientific/multicultural change, peer to peer. It is easy to see, I should think, that any generalized discourse of "enhancement" as such, in disavowing that non-normalizing medical (or, more generally, prosthetic, or for that matter cultural) interventions will always actually be enhancing or not of what among others, to whom among others, relatively enabling what ends among others, at the cost of relatively disabling what ends among others, threatens to evacuate into "already settled" assumptions about "optimal health," "competitive advantages," "social costs of atypicality," and the like what is and will remain the deeply contested political substance of technodevelopmental social struggle as it is playing out in the world, peer to peer. (Because I think it is always anti-democratizing to generalize at the site of parochially preferred outcomes, I recommend a contrary democratizing generalization at the site of the scene of informed, nonduressed consent rendered actually legible and equitable through the provision of reliable information (a2k) and guaranteed income (BIG), a case I make elsewhere at greater length, but which I wanted to note I do indeed offer up as an alternative to the views I criticize.)

When Prisco, and other Robot Cultists like him who disapprove my critique of their discourse, declares me a "liar" when I say such things, it pays to pause and consider just what the nature of the objection is supposed to be in such moments. Does Prisco really believe I am trying to be deceptive in making this critique? That is to say, does he think I am lying about how I think futurological discourse actually plays out in the world? Does he think I actually believe futurology to be innocuous or wholesome or democratizing but that I perversely take up the contrary position in text after text after text for kicks? I mean, I can and do certainly insist that I am saying these things because I do indeed believe them to provide useful theoretical purchase on the workings and implications of futurological discourse. I actually think this critique is an important one for democratically-minded progressives to make in an epoch suffused with anti-democratizing futurological tropes and frames. Presumably, such protestations from me won't cut it with Prisco and his tribe, though, since if I would lie this many times in delineating my critique itself they would hardly put it past me to lie about the lie.

Otherwise, Prisco may mean to declare me a "liar" because he hears me attributing to him and to others of his sub(cult)ure an intentional embrace of all the explicit terms of my critique, and hence that my critique is offered up in the spirit of the unmasking of some secret eugenicist conspiracy among the Robot Cultists and perhaps among a Star-Chamber of corporate-militarist big-wigs sympathetic to their dastardly desires. I can assure Prisco (and most of his futurological kin), that I certainly doubt he or they personally possess the intelligence to grasp let alone endorse in an explicit or elaborated fashion what I take to be the pernicious implications of his discourse and which provide the basis for my critique. As it happens, I do think there is a real and important place for an institutional critique of Robot Cultism, a need to pay attention to the cast of characters who consistently preside over their membership organizations and conference presentations and "serious" "policy" think-tanks (not always easy to do, since they seem so eager to change their names and terms all the time the better to elude ridicule and "repackage" their notions for a fresh slate of rubes), especially when venerable academic institutions like Oxford and Stanford Universities and corporate entities like PayPal and Google cheerfully affiliate themselves with such flabbergasting and pernicious craziness. But, the fact remains that the critique Prisco keeps objecting to isn't institutional at all: it's rhetorical (after all, my trade), it's a critique about the form and effects of futurological discourses both in general and at their superlative extremities.

As a basic matter of fact, I have to assume Prisco has simply ignored or failed to grasp the import of my repeated insistence that these tendencies to eugenicism, hyperbolism, reductionism, elitism, moralism, incumbency in futurological discourses (crystallizing with especial clarity in the superlative futurology of Robot Cultists like Prisco himself) are structural, are tendential, and can play out as much against the grain of professed democratic convictions as they will provide a comfortable home for anti-democratic aspirations. This means, among other things, that there can indeed be truly or relatively progressive-minded or democratically-minded individuals who are likewise caught up in what I deem anti-democratizing futurological discourses (even among the most extreme superlative futurologists certainly James Hughes provides an example of such a person, and I daresay Mike Treder is another such, a good guy, reliably progressive, but deeply invested in superlative futurological frames and formulations, and among those who cite and deploy more prevailing developmental futurisms there are no doubt any number of convinced liberals and progressives). What draws the democratically-minded down the anti-democratizing drain of futurological irrationality are no doubt inducements as manifold as the frailties with which we are all of us already well-familiar (me not least of all, I don't doubt), be it the fear of death disavowed through investment in superlative wish-fulfillment fantasies, be it anxiety in the midst of disruptive change yielding compensatory True Belief in idealized technodevelopmental outcomes, be it straightforward greed whomped up by corporatist hype, be it overzealous confusion of the pleasures of speculative science fiction with the rigors of actual scientific research or science policymaking, be it shabby enjoyment of the phony prestige of coming off as an "expert" due to widespread technoscientific ignorance and irrationality, there are many likely explanations afoot.

My view is that futurological assumptions and formulations and aspirations are deeply subversive to democratizing assumptions and formulations and aspirations. In saying this I am not denying but assuming that many professions of democratic conviction among the futurologists are earnest ones. This is not to deny the fact that there sure seem to be an unusually high number of explicit right-wing ideologues among the Robot Cultists (especially given the eagerness of so many of them to peddle themselves as progressives these days) and that there sure seems to be an unusual amount of expressed solidarity from declared democratically-minded Robot Cultists with such right-wing ideologues, all of which would sure seem to me properly to provoke more self-examination from so-called "technoprogressive" futurologists than usually seems to be the case... But that is another issue (as is the fact that the world is and is likely long to remain one in which privileged white males are a minority while the overwhelmingly overabundant majority of Robot Cultists who imagine themselves to speak for "the future" are privileged white males).

Again, I argue that futurology as a discourse tends to a hyperbolism, reductionism, moralism, elitism, eugenicism that is anti-democratizing, whatever the professed convictions of its adherents on questions in the abstract of the relative merits of democracy. For such a person to declare me a "liar" for spotlighting this conflict is altogether beside the point. They might think me mistaken, they might think my critique a matter of concern but my priorities misplaced in highlighting it, they might agree with my diagnosis but believe alternatives possible that outweigh the risks, they might even declare my concerns an indispensable corrective enabling an actually progressive futurism to contribute to the democratization of technoscientific change. I would disagree with every single one of these positions, but reasonable people of good will -- I do not include Giulio Prisco among them -- can, in principle, certainly productively disagree on these questions.

To reduce all this to an assertion that my criticism amounts either to deception or defamation seems a rather epic-scaled exercise in missing the point. But perhaps, with the likes of Giulio Prisco, that is the point.


jimf said...

> Giulio Prisco. . . believes that his organismic brain might be
> "digitized" and thereupon "migrated". . . into cyberspace or
> into a robot body, and thereby quasi-immortalized (he would say,
> "indefinitely longevized. . ." imagining this terminological hanky-panky
> gets him off the hook of looking like the embarrassing
> immortality snake-oil salesman he, like all would-be priests,
> is), thereupon to live in a paradisical virtual wonderland
> or perhaps a nanoslavebotic treasure cave, all under the
> watchful care of a superintelligent post-biological Robot God
> who will solve all our problems for us (or eat us all for
> computronium feedstock, but we won't know the diff so,
> you know, no biggie) when the singularity arrives,
> as you betcha it will, and sooner than you think.

In case you missed it:

"Singularity 1.0 was completed in 2007. A Singularity Research
Development Kit (RDK) has been released under a Shared Source
license that permits academic non-commercial use and is available
from CodePlex. Version 1.1 was released in March 2007 and
version 2.0 was released in November 14, 2008; the system is
currently undergoing ongoing incremental development."


Jason said...

I have been aware of transhumanism and singularitarianism and various other futurological -isms for the past 2+ years. Although I do not myself subscribe to any of these ideas in particular, I find it extremely highly likely that some, if not all, of their various predictions will come to fruition within the next 50 years. Now, I fully recognize that I may rather be, as you call it, a rube on this matter (I am quite young and attracted to visions of the future at 21 years of age), but I do not think that I am entirely wrong in thinking that we will see radical extensions of lifespans (>100 years), space colonization, and artificial general intelligence come about in the next half-century, and I'm firmly under the impression that we should attempt to start considering and preparing for the ramifications that might result from these disruptive developments.

I do agree with you in thinking that many of the people who self-identify with their own branch of futurism are hand-wavy and are not, so to speak, objected to a bit of hyperbole. That being said, their foundational ideas should not be discounted outright in a similar fashion to the way they themselves should be discounted, and I get the impression sometimes that you do this when writing about futurists on this blog.

However, again, I do know that I may be a mark, and that I may have become needlessly sympathetic to those people who share, to some extent, my own viewpoints on technological and societal developments that we might see in the coming years, so I can still fully understand your denouncement of transhumanists and singularitarians from an intellectual standpoint. But when it comes to outright denial that we will see a "robot-god" created in the relatively near future, I find your comments to be both unrealistic and dangerous.

It is naive to think that humans have the greatest problem-solving and environment-altering capabilities that are physically possible. Nor is there any reason to assume that it would be horrendously complicated to figure out how to create something that will be more apt in these faculties once we have fully-detailed pictures of the human brain that will likely come about as scanning techniques improve (after all, our own brand of intelligence came about as a result of a rather crude evolutionary history--I'm sure that something that actually explicitely tries to improve performance in the areas above would be able to succeed in a time frame that is considerably shorter, possibly on the order of a human lifetime, I would say). Because of this, there seems, to me, to be a very good chance that something "smarter" than humans will be created by us in the near future, and that we must start preparing for such an event as soon as possible so as to avoid a situation in which everybody is killed by a malevolent or indifferent "superintelligence."

At the very least, transhumanists and singularitarians, in all of their superlativity, manage to put such issues at the forefront of their ideologues, and attempt to spread ideas pertaining to destructive technologies into the mainstream. I do not think that this is a bad thing at all, and it could move the populace in a direction that would result in greater wariness towards AI or other forms of superintelligence. As of right now, there doesn't seem to be anyone else openly advocating for such ideas, and thus it feels wrong to me to denounce the people behind them for their hyperbole and similarity to religious folk who believe in something akin to the rapture. But, again, although I am firmly aware that I am quite bright, I also know that I am susceptible wish-fulfillment fantasies that are deeply rooted in any futurlogical discourse.

Dale Carrico said...

Now, the first thing to say is that the desire to live forever in a nanoslavebotic treasure cave under the watchful care of a post-biological superintelligent Robot God is not an "issue" that needs to be brought to the attention of anybody at all, except, possibly, to be blunt, a clinical psychotherapist.

This is not to deny that there are actually existing technical and policy issues (questions of cost, risk, access, oversight, education, consent) arising out of non-normalizing genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive medicine, as well as actually existing software and network security and functionality issues arising out of the brittleness and bloat of legacy-coding, infrastructural limits, not to mention the malice of criminals, materials science issues arising out of the nanoscale and otherwise, out of biochemistry, and so on.

But the hyperbolic framings of superlative futurological discourse have never once contributed the least bit of sense to serious deliberation about these sorts of issues, "transhumanism," "singularitarianism," and "techno-immortalism" contribute nothing of substance to the discussion of a single one of the actual problems of technique, funding, regulation, access, education, risk connecting with actually-existing technodevelopmental change in the actual world.

Futurology is not a scientific discourse. It is a cultural discourse -- and at its superlative extremity, it is often an explicitly sub(cult)ural discourse -- responding broadly to the distress of actual and imagined disruptive technoscientific change.

It is not that I think there is not disruptive technoscientific change afoot in the world, it is that I think superlative futurologists don't know what the hell they are talking about in the most fundamental imaginable ways, with the consequence that when they are the ones who manage to frame the quandaries and aspirations provoked by such change they manage to make everybody less capable of talking sense and contributing to democratization at the worst possible time.

For example, I think "Jason" would do well to think more deeply about just what he means by intelligence and its actual social manifestation and biological incarnation in the world before he starts deploying reductive notions of "smartness" that are indifferent to these realities and then leaps off into calculating the Robot God odds and drawing out all the usual "inevitable" consequences that presumably follow from these calculations. He might think more deeply about the derangements of deliberation about user-friendly software and network security by the pretense that there is something apart from computer security called "artificial intelligence" that demands special serious consideration, as he might think more deeply about the derangements introduced into healthcare deliberation by the pretense that there is something apart from healthcare called "anti-aging" that demands special separate serious consideration, or as he might think more deeply about the derangements introduced into deliberation about biochemistry by the pretense that there is something apart from biochemistry called "nanofactories" that demands special separate serious consideration. In every case, superlative futurologists are deranging the terms of actually serious technodevelopmental discourse to no good purpose, apart from the desire to attract serious attention to themselves that they would not otherwise manage as well as the desire to indulge in irrational projects of self-congratulation and self-reassurance in the face of the anxieties of disruptive technoscientific change.

Dale Carrico said...

Of course, there is a real sense in which the vanishingly small and ridiculous minority of Robot Cultists are not so deranging technodevelopmental deliberation themselves as symptomizing this derangement in more prevailing developmental and technocratic discourses in a rather extreme form. But it is also true that there are a surprising number of well-heeled and well-established figures who are connected to the most flabbergasting extremities of Robot Cultism given the deep structural continuities between incumbent interests and superlative discourses, and also that mass-media outlets eager for attention-grabbing hyperbole and ignorant of actual science are always happy to give a wider hearing to hysterical narratives like those of the Robot Cultists than they are to sensible scientific ones.

When I was 21 years old I believed and said any number of the most foolish things imaginable, and so I find it easy to forgive Jason these youthful misplaced zealotries. When he declares that he does not think himself, nor does he wish to be, a "rube" of some Robot Cult, I quite believe him. My recommendation to Jason and others like him is that he read more deeply into the scientific fields that are indispensable to technodevelopmental outcomes that preoccupy his attention. This will require that he read beyond the blogs and popular magazines and papers of the charmed circle of futurological True Belief. He will confront soon enough the complexities, perplexities, qualifications, and research/policy dynamisms that instantly displace the facile formulations of the Robot Cultists. Few who study biology or chemistry or policy (or even philosophy) with any diligence or success are likely to remain superlative for long. I recommend that wider reading, deeper study, and a more diverse acquaintance will insulate Jason from becoming or at any rate long remaining a rube of the Robot Cultists. There are plenty of shared problems in the world that demand the attention and effort of serious, reasonable, well-meaning, responsible people, peer to peer, and it is always unfortunate to lose, for however long, a partner in that collaboration to the pathologies of True Belief, whether religious, scientistic, moralizing, or otherwise reactionary.