I want to seriously examine… how the failure of techno-utopian hype has sometimes produced an anti-scientific backlash. I want to take seriously the idea that “superlative technocentricity” performs an anti-democratic ideological function, that promising techno-fixes for social problems can be used to distract from immediate social needs and injustices. More darkly yet, I want to discuss how the techno-utopians’ association with eugenics and totalitarianism set back both democratic and scientific progress in the 20th century.
These are all good things to take seriously. That's why I write about these very topics so often on Amor Mundi.
But let me say three things about the fact that James Hughes is saying these things now and in this way:
First, nobody has to join a Robot Cult to assume a more critical perspective on technoscience issues or upon the historical vicissitudes of technodevelopmental struggles (and please remember that criticism isn't just "code" for uncritical Luddism, negativity, pessimism, or cynicism). Nobody has to join a Robot Cult to become a scientist or an engineer or a doctor or a science scholar or a technodevelopmental policy wonk. Indeed, if you want to have a progressive impact on the distribution of technodevelopmental risks, costs, and benefits and support a more secular, equitable, diverse, technnoscientifically literate culture and public policy I daresay one of the first things you would want to do is get as far away as possible from the Robot Cult Caucus of futurology. You would do far better to just get training in the relevant field that interests you (by the way, if you are a coder that doesn't make you a scientists, especially not any kind of biologist, and if you are a gamer that doesn't make you a coder let alone a scientist), and to the extent that you want a theoretical or organizational analysis to contextualize technodevelopmental issues and your place among them I propose that you would do well to engage in and with works arising out of STS (the acronym stands either for Science and Technology Studies or sometimes describes the imbrication of Science-Technology-Society), or become acquainted with Environmental Justice analysis or Permaculture practices. Although one has to take care to avoid corporatist hype and digital-utopianism here and there, New Media theories and a2k and p2p analyses can also be good places to explore to a point. Bioethics is even more of a minefield, saturated with hyperbolic bioconservative and transhumanist tropes and too often beholden to neoliberal imperatives, and I am hesitant to recommend it as a particularly useful location in any general kind of way for critical intervention or purchase (I regret that, and blame transhumanists as one of many causes of this problem).
Second, if a very few Robot Cultists say comparatively more reasonable things on technocultural and technodevelopmental topics than most of their fellows do, isn't there a point at which these objections and qualifications begin to function more as public relations efforts to make what is unreasonable seem more palatably reasonable to "outsiders" than efforts to make what is unreasonable more reasonable among "insiders"? James Hughes in particular has devoted enormous energies to peddling his "transhumanist" sub(cult)ure as a socially democratic movement despite its explicitly reactionary origins in the irrationally exuberant anti-governmentality and techno-utopianism of the Extropians and incredibly persistent market libertarian and right-authoritarian (eugenics, technocracy, technofix apologetics for incumbent interests) viewpoints suffuse its organizational and rhetorical culture to an extraordinary extent to this day. Hughes might protest this (just as market libertarians protest the proper identification of their politics as right wing rather than buying their preposterous line that they are "beyond left and right"), but he is clearly aware enough of the problem to try to paper it over with misleading surveys in which a whole constellation of weird right-wing ideologies that like to pretend they are not right-wing (Postrelian Dynamists, upwingers, libertopians and the like) dis-aggregate the transhumanist right cohort as against a monolithically construed left to create a false impression of a left-leaning culture more generally. His recent efforts to thread a needle between claims that his sub(cult)ure uniquely champions Reason and "The Enlightenment Project" against irrationalists like those effete elite aesthetes in Literature Departments (historians of enlightenment discourses will be intrigued to be taught by the Robot Cultists that there is just one Enlightenment Project in the first place, let alone that a handful of boys-with-their-toys calling themselves "transhumanists" are The One True Enlightenment's anointed Priests) while at once trying to soft-peddle this hard line by offering up conciliatory gestures here and there to communities of faith that accept the separation of Church and State and to those critics on the left who have long forcefully exposed the pretensions and authoritarian vulnerabilities of reductionist and purely positivist accounts of reason. To the extent that Hughes wants to pretend his more nuanced characterizations of rationality, such as they are, manage to be representative of transhumanist-identified people more generally he is indulging yet again in public relations spin doctoring as he has long done in rationalizing the ineradicable rightward-skew of transhumanist political discourse. I have to say Hughes is on especially thin ice in this area, inasmuch as he has had what can at best be described as, shall we say, an ambivalent attitude toward many critiques of reductionist and objectivist understandings of reason, and has been quite cheerful to jump on know-nothing bandwagons excoriating the "relativist menace" of pomo humanities scholarship, a bugbear better suited to the fulminating Culture Warriors of the right eight times out of ten (although Hughes is far from the only person of the left to make this particular error in casting about for a villain to account for a generation of ineffectual left politics in the US). Quite apart from all that, I have to circle back to an earlier point again here, namely, that nobody has to join a Robot Cult to assume a more pragmatic or constructivist vantage on enlightenment discourses, or to appreciate the value of, say, the Frankfurt School to the analysis of bureaucratic administration or mass-mediation in our technoscientific society. Indeed, the Robot Cult Caucus is close to the last place anybody in their right mind would turn for such a perspective. The question remains why Hughes' selective appreciation of political, historical, epistemological nuances few of his fellow transhumanists have the wit or concern or patience to share with him leads him to rewrite transhumanism in the image of his unrepresentative view for public consumption rather than leading him to question whether or not these deranged Robot Cultists are his proper fellows in the first place? Can the pay and media attention of being a relatively sane fish in a pond of crazies really be satisfying enough to make that calculation a sensible one?
Third, you will have noticed that the idea of "superlative technocentricity" is quoted in Hughes' formulation. What is not indicated in his piece is that I am personally the one he is quoting in that phrase. "Superlative technocentricity" is not just some general notion floating around that is generally interesting to science and technology scholars that he snatched up from the ethereal zeitgeist, it is a central term in an elaborated critique of transhumanists, extropians, digital-utopians, singularitarians, techno-immortalists, and nano-cornucopiasts involving countless thousands of words written over a half decade by yours truly and nobody else. Just as you will find transhumanists soft-peddling their membership organizations as "technoprogressive think tanks" using terms and even extended formulations skimmed directly from writings of mine, I presume they will now offer up criticisms of the "superlativity" exhibited by members of rival Robot Cult sects with which they happen at the moment to be squabbling in an effort to demonstrate their own comparative "reasonableness." The level of dishonesty exhibited in these indirect non-engaged engagements not to mention opportunistic appropriations of my writing are truly pathetic. You can be sure that I do not protest the fact that I am not being properly credited by the transhumanists when they make their selective uses of my terms, formulations, and analyses in an effort to sanewash their sub(cult)ural Program for the benefit of better educated or more mainstream progressive audiences or in their intersectarian skirmishes for dominance within the tinpot fiefdom of their marginal movement. No, I don't think it does me particular credit to be taken seriously by Robot Cultists in the first place and so it is not such "credit" I seek from them. I just think it is a symptom of the bankruptcy of their discourse that they resort to these shabby appropriations. It is especially dishonest that while transhumanists, oh, I mean "technoprogressives" scoop up congenial formulations from my writing, they never apply themselves to the questions and problems I address directly to them in the very pieces of mine they mine for their selling points.
The title of this post accuses that "Transhumanists Are Not Just Wrong, They Are Revealingly Dishonest." I have made it clear why I think at least some high profile transhumanist-identified figures are revealingly dishonest. As to why I say they are wrong, may I recommend the six short posts in my Condensed Critique of Transhumanism, or, if you are a real glutton for punishment, the sprawling archive of posts (it's now up to sixty two entries) corralled together in The Superlative Summary? (I find it is more useful, by the way, to read the pieces in the Summary from last to first, from most recent to most distant.)