Dale Carrico, one of the more prominent critics of transhumanism, frequently refers to “superlongevity, superintelligence, and superabundance” as transhumanist goals, of course in a disparaging way. Yet, I openly embrace these goals. Superlongevity, superintelligence, and superabundance are a perfect summary of what we want and need. How can we achieve them?
Strictly speaking, I don't think superlative aspirations are "achievable" at all. I am not saying that because, as the Robot Cultists would have it, I lack their own "can do" attitude, or their boundless imaginations, or their sooper-science skill-sets, but because I do not think superlative aspirations are really the sorts of things that are meant to be "achieved" in the first place. I don't think Anissimov is right, really, even to call them "goals."
Let's live for thousands of years through "medical advancement" or through "transferring our selves" into invulnerable Robot Bodies isn't exactly the sort of "goal" that has any specifiable impact on conduct in the real world, beyond signaling membership in certain sub(cult)ures of futurological faith. I would maintain in fact that such sub(cult)ural signaling is indeed the actual substance of these assertions of superlative belief, such as it is, and that the work of these assertions is not to mobilize instrumental rationality at all but to mobilize moral rationality. That is to say, I think these faithful utterances aren't really about achieving goals so much as enabling the pleasures of subcultural identification, belonging, support for folks who happen to have found their way to a curious marginal futurological sub(cult)ure.
Let's have everything we want at no cost, let's arrive at always being right about everything, let's create something that solves all our problems for us… These utterances may have the superficial form of goals, of projects, of efforts but they don't so much orient pragmatic conduct in the world as protest against the pragmatic conditions under which we orient and conduct ourselves in the world in fact. As such, they are far more like the utterances of the more conventionally faithful: let's redeem our sinful natures or pasts, let's pray for guidance, let's be worthy of Paradise
Anissimov writes sometimes as though the super-predicated aspirations of superlative futurology (Robot Cultism) are just slightly more "ambitious" or "optimistic" versions of already ongoing technoscientific practice. The "goal" of superlongevity is just kinda sorta a more ambitious optimistic kind of everyday healthcare practices, the "goal" of superintelligence is just kinda sorta a more ambitious optimistic kind of everyday software coding practices, the "goal" of superabundance is just kinda sorta a more ambitious optimistic kind of everyday manufacturing practices.
This rhetoric might seem initially to lend a cozy coloration of plausibility to what upon closer scrutiny reveals itself to be batshit crazy articles of faith in a version of "The Future" in which immortal post-humans have somehow "uploaded" their "minds" into cyberspace or robot bodies to "live" in virtual or nano-slavebotic Treasure Caves under the watchful gaze of a history-shattering Robot God. But quite apart from the odd articles of faith it would countenance (which aren't after all really any odder than the articles of faith that fuel most essentially religious outlooks), Anissimov's claims are bedeviled by profound conceptual double-binds.
Either his viewpoint amounts to an affirmation of the idea of healthcare provision, software improvement, and advances in production at such a level of generality that one would be hard pressed to find anybody anywhere who disapproves in the first place (thus eliminating the need for affirming them at all, let alone affirming them in the form of joining a conspicuously self-marginalizing Robot Cult) or his viewpoint amounts to a commandeering of the idea of healthcare provision, software improvement, and advances in production in the service of some project at odds with these already-affirmed practices as they are already playing out in the world (thus eliminating the pretense that these assertions have anything to do with actual science at all, but nicely explaining why they would be affirmed especially by folks who have joined a conspicuously self-marginalizing Robot Cult).
No technoscientifically-literate person has any doubt that properly funded, regulated, accountable technoscience research and development directed to the solution of shared human problems can be enormously useful, nor that ongoing and proximately upcoming genetic, cognitive, and prosthetic medical research is yielding unprecedented impacts and enormously interesting results, nor that problems of software usability and network security are enormously thorny and increasingly important in globally mediated and surveilled societies, nor that advances in automation, distributed production, and materials science enabled by discoveries at the nanoscale and otherwise are enormously exciting and provocative. There are millions of people around the world who are involved in the ramifying inter-implications of these truisms, identifying problems and forming actual goals in respect to these problems everywhere all the time. But not one of these problems, not one of these goals is the least bit clarified by reading it through the lens of superlative aspiration.
No one working to solve a particular healthcare problem is helped in their valiant efforts by the insistence of some Robot Cultist that one day medicine will deliver "superlongevity" (although you can be sure that loose talk about "playing god" has done more than its fair share to ensure that medical research that might solve actual problems and save actual lives didn't get proper funding). No one working to make software more user friendly or address a particular network security problem is helped in their painstaking efforts by the insistence of some Robot Cultist that one day we will code a superintelligent Robot God who will solve all our problems for us (although you can be sure that loose talk about "artificial intelligence" has, as Jeron Lanier has endlessly documented, inspired no end of bad software that frustrates its users by simulating "thinking" for them and "making decisions" for them in ways they strongly disapprove). No one working to make particular materials or products safer, cheaper, less toxic, more useful, or more sustainable is helped in their diligent efforts by the insistence of some Robot Cultist that one day immersive virtualities, or ubiquitous robots, or cheap as chips programmable multi-purpose room temperature desktop nanofactories will one day deliver a superabundance that will circumvent the impasse of stakeholder politics in a finite world that is home to infinite and incompatible aspirations (although you can be sure that loose talk about Drexlerian "nanotechnology" has made it next to impossible to talk sense about regulating or funding or forming reasonable expectations about the problems and possibilities of nanoscale technoscience in actual reality).
Achieving superlongevity, superintelligence, and superabundance will be incredibly challenging, but seemingly inevitable as long as civilization continues to progress and we don’t blow ourselves up or have a global fundamentalist dictatorship on our hands. There is no guarantee that we will achieve these goals in our lifetime — but why not try? Achieving any of these milestones would radically improve quality of life for everyone on Earth. The first step to making technological advancements available to everyone is to make them available for someone.
As I said, Anissimov sometimes talks as though superlative futurological aspirations are "challenges" and "goals" that can be "achieved" if we simply "try" hard enough. Of course, the first step to making technological advancements available is actually to engage in actual technoscientific practices of research, funding, regulation, publication, education, application in the real world. While Anissimov rallies the faithful with a Mouseketeer Cheer of "Let's Try!" it is notable that the immediate consequence of taking up superlative discourse is to disengage from the actual technoscientific practices in which one actually tries, works, participates in the efforts through which actual technoscience connects to the actual world, achieves actual results, solves actual problems.
It is especially intriguing that Anissimov raises the specter of "fundamentalism" as one that would be warded off by the can-do declarations of the futurologically faithful, because it is of course fundamentalist formations, with their authoritarian circuits of True Believers and would-be guru-priests, that the Robot Cults themselves most conspicuously resemble, and never so much as when they declare their most marginal beliefs as the ones that are freightest most with "certainty" and "inevitability" -- as Anissimov has freighted his futurological faith with "inevitability" at the beginning of the very sentence that concludes by disavowing fundamentalism.
It is no surprise that Anissimov turns the spotlight onto the archipelago of marginal Robot Cult organizations like the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence and the SENS Foundation when he wants to make plain who he considers to be the "leaders" in the "fields" devoted to the "work" of superlative futurology. For nobody who isn't already a Robot Cultist would it ever occur to describe Aubrey de Grey, or Eric Drexler, or Eliezer Yudkowsky as "leaders" in any kind of actually-existing technoscientific field. These are not serious organizations. These are not people cited in serious peer reviewed publications. These are not projects with serious grant money at their disposal.
I mean no offense, really, since compared especially to the brainless nutcases who accumulate in orbit around them Aubrey de Grey, Eric Drexler, and, say, Nick Bostrom (neither Kurzweil nor Yudkowsky even passes muster as peers of oddball outliers like Drexler or de Grey, Bostrom is the closest you really get to a non-utter-nutjob Singularitarian) are all fairly genial intellectuals who have interesting things to say as often as not. In England there is a fairly robust and attractive tradition that encourages oddball intellectuals and even expects intellectuals to be oddballs. Nick Bostrom certainly isn't as off-the-wall as Wittgenstein was (nor as much a genius either, probably, but who's to say, really, when all is said and done?), and Aubrey de Grey actually even looks quite a bit like Lytton Strachey. All of this is quite par for the course in England.
And I have no doubt that just as ancient historians will regularly profess a fond bemused attachment to sword and sandal epics like "Quo Vadis" and "Ben Hur" as part of the initial inspiration that draws no small number of students into their fields, but would never mistake these gorgeous cinematic gargoyles as anything passing muster as the actual practice of the field of history itself, I have no doubt at all that plenty of biochemists and gerontologists will admit a fond debt to the popular handwaving issuing from Drexler and de Grey.
But anybody who thinks these figures are leaders in their fields, or even, frankly, manage to inhabit anything close to the consensus in which all the real work in these fields is getting done is demonstrating though such assertions their own complete ignorance of the actual science at hand.
As I often have occasion to say, superlative futurology is not itself science, but a constellation of faith-based initiatives that opportunistically frame themselves as scientific precisely to yield for their wish-fulfillment fantasies the reality-effect that attaches especially to scientific pronouncements in our own historical moment. The assertions of futurological faith do not function to mobilize instrumental rationality to implement goals in reality, but to substantiate the "reality" of articles of faith in idealized imaginations of "The Future" that do not exist in the present except through the mobilization of moral rationality that solicits shared identification, shared aspiration, the "real substance" of subcultural solidarity (especially the defensive solidarities of marginal sub(cult)ure).
It is at this point that I think many are apt to misunderstand the force of my critique. Although I am an atheist myself, I do not disparage people of faith for the same reasons I do not disparage people whose aesthetic practices of judgment and self-creation differ from my own: It is in my view the substance of freedom to assert moral, aesthetic, ethical, and political judgments to the hearing of the diversity of one's peers without any expectation that one's judgments will be shared or will prevail but only that they should be affirmed as legible as judgments. In offering up our judgments to our peers, and owning up to them (whether they are admired or ridiculed) in the hearing of our peers, we own ourselves, we arise as our own selves, we constitute ourselves as selves in the world. That is the work of freedom in my view, the work of meaning-making among our living peers in an otherwise mineral meaningless existence. To the extent that Robot Cultists are just indulging in a kooky poetical enterprise I have no complaints about their enterprise in the least.
Superlative futurology, as I have often taken pains to point out, shares no small amount of common ground with sf fandoms, and as a queergeek myself I have had plenty of occasion to wallow in speculative space operatic sensawunda. Who needs Yudkowsky when you can be reading A Fire Upon the Deep? Who needs Kurzweil when you can be reading the Dune cycle? I am the last person on earth to chuckle derisively at geeks who gawk at anime, or artist renderings of space elevators, or city-scaled space-freighters in cinematic flight. Let a bazillion flowers bloom, let your freak flag fly, make meaning where and as you would. I'm a silly nerd myself, for heaven's sake.
I personally disapprove of religiosity only when it pretends to scientificity, and I personally disapprove of morality only when it seeks to prevail over politics. It is not the religiosity of fundamentalist formations that makes them pernicious in my eyes so much as their authoritarian policing of facts and moralizing policing of political diversity.
It is precisely in its insistence that it is a kind of scientific practice (indeed, often that it amounts to an urgent championing of True Science against the "anti-science" of "relativists" and "pessimists" who do not share its idiosyncratic taste in "The Future"), and precisely in the curious tendency of its investment in scientificity to yield a politics couched as a "neutral" pre-politics or even an outright anti-politics (always in the service of incumbent interests figured as "natural" interests) that superlative futurology exhibits a chilling kinship with such fundamentalist formations. That the organizational archipelago of Robot Cultism is suffused with would-be gurus and True Believers is a symptom of the underlying rationality of futurology itself, it is not -- as the Robot Cultists themselves rationalize in the face of this sort of observation -- simply a matter of an unfair generalization from "extreme" but "unrepresentative" (of course!) sub(cult)ural figures and texts that keep unaccountably cropping up so conspicuously among their number.
But more than this, I think there is an endemic double danger in futurological discourse, not only (first) that it subverts scientificity by stealthing its faith-based initiatives as scientific practice and subverts sensible policy-making by declaring its sub(cult)ural solidarities as developmental deliberation, but also (second) that it subverts freedom itself, the understanding and practice of freedom that is the heart of the political.
If I disparage the notion of "The Future" it is emphatically because I champion what I describe instead as "futurity," by which I mean to evoke the open futurity inhering in the plurality of peers in the present, collaborating and contesting in their diversity the shared world in the present always in the form of presents-opening-onto-presents-to-come.
I believe that notions of "The Future," in whatever forms they take in the mouths of those who imagine themselves to see "It" more clearly than everybody else, and to speak like would-be Priests in "Its" name, are always ideological constructions, always bespeaking a parochial perspective in the present projecting onto the openness of futurity in an effort to domesticate and control that openness, to police and curtail that diversity.
The substance of the gesture of attributing "future-likeness" to ideas in the present or even to the style of artifacts in the present (this is something Daniel Harris has written about in his famous essay on "The Futuristic") is always just the repudiation of the present, often perversely so. The work of this gesture is ultimately political -- even though it typically cloaks itself in the langauge of pre-political or a-political instrumentality. It is a refusal or disavowal of the demanding substance of politics, plurality and freedom, and an infantile fantasy to substitute for these The One True Way That Ends History and an instrumental amplification of capacities through which the Elect Become Godlike by Eluding Human Finitude.
Robot Cultists cling to the insistence that the superlative outcomes they presumably are "fighting for" (a "work" that ultimately amounts to re-iterating in the presence of fellow Robot Cultists that they do indeed "believe" in "the future" and all its works) are possible in principle, even if they are not practically realizable in the present. That no actually-serious scientists or policy makers share their own preoccupations with non-existing non-proximate medicinal techniques to deliver thousand year lifespans, or upload minds into computers, or create superintelligent Robot Gods, or create cheap-as-dirt desktop Anything Machines never enters into their reckoning of their superior scientificity. They imagine themselves to be indulging in a scientific enterprise despite the fact no scientific consensus ever forms around their actual assumptions or models or goals, and so they confuse the equivalent of medieval monks debating the number of angels who can dance on pin-heads as some kind of hard-nosed sooper-scientific practice.
But quite apart from all that, the deeper pathology in play in Robot Cultism is its very specific repudiation of the political, a repudiation signaled by its preoccupation with "The Future" over futurity in the first place. Whatever they want to say about their "fearlessness" for "daring" to dream Big Dreams it seems to me that their discourse is one saturated by fear -- with "big dreams" that usually look to me more like infantile wish-fulfillment fantasies, testaments to sociopathic alienation from their peers in all their confusing and threatening diversity, damaged denials of their vulnerable error-prone bodily selves, authoritarian pretensions to certainty or the complementary desire to evade the responsibilities of uncertain existence through True Belief in charismatic gurus claiming to hold the Keys to History in the midst of the distress of disruptive change. Politics is a matter of reconciling the indefinitely many logically possible but also logically incompatible aspirations of the diversity of stakeholders in a shared world, peer to peer, and that makes politics prior to technoscience, especially to a "technoscience" evacuated of all practical substance and left with anemic assurances of "logically possible" outcomes.
And all of this is still just circling around the drain of the futurological imaginary, for the substance of the present politics of the superlative futurology of the Robot Cultists is not a matter of working (without ever really working) to bring about "The Future" in which they have invested their fervent faith, but the politics of indulging the delusion that "The Future" is already here, already now, in the eyes of the fellow-faithful, in the ritual re-iterations of Its possibility, Its palpability, Its inevitability. This is the faithful repudiation of fact by means of pseudo-scientific derangements of facticity as such, this is the moralizing identification with "The Future" by means of the anti-political dis-identification with the plurality of their peers in the open futurity of the present opening onto presents-to-come peer-to-peer.
This is the real achievement of superlative futurology.