In something of a surprise move, Singularitarian Transhumanist Robot Cultist Michael Anissimov has declared victory. Apparently, the superlative futurologists have "won." The Robot Cult, it would seem, has prevailed over the ends of the earth.
Usually, when palpable losers declare victory in this manner, the declaration is followed by an exit, either graceful or grumbling, from the stage. But I suspect we will not be so lucky when it comes to Anissimov and his fellow victorious would-be techno-transcendentalizers.
Neither can we expect them "to take their toys and go home," as is usual in such scenes. After all, none of their toys -- none of their shiny robot bodies, none of their sentient devices, none of their immortality pills, none of their immersive holodecks, none of their desktop nanofactories, none of their utility fogs, none of their comic book body or brain enhancement packages, none of their kindly or vengeful superintelligent postbiological Robot Gods -- none of them exist now for them to go home with any more than they ever did, they exist only as they always have done, as wish-fulfillment fancies in their own minds.
Nevertheless, writes Mr. Anissimov:
It’s 2010, and transhumanism has already won. Billions of people around the world would love to upgrade their bodies, extend their youth, and amplify their powers of perception, thought, and action with the assistance of safe and tested technologies. The urge to be something more, to go beyond, is the norm rather than the exception.
I've got news for Mr. Anissimov, but nobody needed a klatch of white guys who can't distinguish science from science fiction and think that this confusion somehow constitutes a coherent "worldview" of all things to come along to call our attention to the fact that most people, as a general matter, ceteris paribus, prefer, you know, being healthy to being unhealthy, being young and vigorous to being stiff and short of breath, being perceptive to being dull, and so on.
Even before Mr. Anissimov's preferred sect of the Robot Cult existed most people daydreamed here and there about how nice it would be to live longer, be younger longer, be comparatively conventionally attractive, and so on. Some folks even spoiled parts of their lives pining after these things, like so many Robot Cultists seem to do, despite their final impossibility and despite the fact that plenty of folks can manage a real measure of meaning, pleasure, satisfaction in life even once youth and easy vigor are gone, after all, if they are sensible and lucky.
So, too, the idea that it is desirable to make recourse to actually safe and actually tested techniques to overcome disease and infirmity is hardly something silly Robot Cultists can take credit for.
The word, Mr. Anissimov, is medicine. Medicine.
Nobody ever joined a Robot Cult to grasp the commonplace notion that medical science is a fine idea. And nobody in their right mind would ever turn to members of Robot Cults if they wanted actual medical advice or sought mainstream organizations educating and agitating for, say, universal access to healthcare, access to treatments for neglected diseases in overexploited regions of the world, patients rights to more reliable information about costs, risks, and benefits of treatments so that their decisions are more informed, and so on.
As for "the urge to be something more, to go beyond," one wonders what it is like to be really so deluded that you might think even for an instant that a few thousand white guys pining for nanobotic genies-in-a-bottle and a Robot God to solve all their problems for them invented or consummated human striving? Can Anissimov and his fellow futurological numbskulls really think there is any sense at all in which they are somehow the first folks to hit upon the notion of excellence or nonconformism? Google "Athens," dood, and get back to me in a decade. This kind of flabbergasting ignorance is what comes of a neglected basic humanistic education, I fear.
At their base, the world’s major two largest religions -- Christianity and Islam -- are transhumanistic. After all, they promise transcension from death and the concerns of the flesh, and being upgraded to that archetypical transhuman -- the Angel. The angel will probably be our preliminary model as we seek to expand our capacities and enjoyment of the world using technological self-modification. Then, even angels will get bored of being angels, and expand outwards in a million new directions, resulting in an explosion of species never before seen -- exceeding in magnitude and variation even the Cambrian Explosion of 530 million years ago.
I daresay the Pope and the Ayatollah might have a thing or two to say about Anissimov's honorary induction of their eminences into the Robot Cult. But far be it from me to deny the force of Anissimov's point here. It is, after all, a point I endlessly flog myself in discussing superlative futurology. I have long insisted that the various sects of the Robot Cult -- the transhumanists, the extropians, the singularitarians, the techno-immortalists, the cybernetic-totalists, the nano-cornucopiasts -- are all essentially faith-based initiatives, organized indulgences in wish-fulfillment fantasizing. Giulio Prisco, for example, is a comparatively influential Robot Cultist with whom I have regularly and delightfully sparred on Amor Mundi (for example, here and here and here and here and here), but he has long been far more honest than is usual for a Robot Cultist about the techno-transcendentalizing impulse of the various superlative futurological sects as straightforwardly religious, as witness, for example, his beloved, Order of Cosmic Engineers.
I am an atheist myself, of cheerfully long and resolute standing, and can't say that this sort of enterprise holds much appeal to me. However, I am a pervert and an aesthete and am quite ready to celebrate the paths of private perfection of those who have a more spiritual or mystical bent than my own for the same reasons I dare to hope they can celebrate my own path of private perfection.
Needless to say, I only disapprove of religiosity when its doctrines demand to be treated as proper competitors to warranted scientific descriptions or when its practices take on the coloration of authoritarian moralizing misconstrued as proper politics. Exactly the same goes for the utterances of Robot Cultists.
I have never begrudged the Robot Cultists their geek enthusiasms (I am a big ol' queergeek myself, after all, although, as a rule, I prefer far more playful and plural sf fandoms than the ones Robot Cultists have on offer) or even their techno-transcendentalizing wish-fulfillment fantasies as such (my own aspirations differ, but let a bazillion flowers bloom, I always say). What I disapprove is their pretense that theirs is a scientific enterprise in any relevant sense of the word, that their organizations connect in more than an incidental fashion to serious scientific research or developmental policy-making, that their faith-based initiatives represent identity-based political movements in some serious sense.
All such claims seem to me to be palpably ridiculous and always have done.
Michael Anissimov, in inching toward a recognition of the essentially faith-based substance of his discourse as a superlative futurologist scarcely realizes, I'm sure, the difficulties that beset his effort to pretend to scientific or political seriousness or mainstream legibility once this step is taken. Far be it from me to stop him, however.
Humanity, as it stands today, is a seed, a bridge. We will plant flowers and trees across the universe. All we have to do is survive our embryonic stage, stay in control of our own destiny, and expand outwards in every direction at the speed of light. Ray Kurzweil makes this point in The Singularity is Near, a book that was #1 in the Science & Technology section on Amazon and on the NYT bestsellers list for a reason.
I daresay Kurzweil's pop-futurology sells for the same reason pop-psychology literature sells or pop-investment literature sells: It tells people stuff they desperately want to hear, it oversimplifies complex and demanding subjects, it sells slick prophesies and loose handwaving, it reassures pampered privileged narcissists that they are on a roller coaster to consumer heaven rather than on the road to nowhere.
I quite agree with Anissimov that humanity needs to educate, agitate, and organize to collectively address our shared problems in this moment of unprecedented human-caused distress in the midst of arms proliferation, mass-mediated awareness of injustice, climate catastrophe, and resource descent.
But I humbly propose that there is not a single thing that has ever been said by a futurologist that provides any actual usefulness in any of the efforts of actually serious people struggling to address these problems, or in democratizing the processes through which these problems are addressed. I mean, I don't believe any futurologist ever said anything useful as a futurologist, that is to say, uniquely as a result of being a futurologist, since I daresay even futurologists are able to make sense or repeat sensible things others have said or done as a matter incidental to the futurology they fancy is their real contribution to the world.
As I have said many times, I believe mainstream futurological discourses are essentially marketing and promotional discourses, that they provide the quintessential expression of neoliberal ideological discourse, while I believe that the more extreme superlative futurological discourses that I lampoon in the Robot Cultists reveal in their extremity the essentially faith-based and immaterialist character lodged at the heart of this neoliberal ideology.
The mainstream has embraced transhumanism.
How many people identify as "transhumanists"? Yeah, I thought so.
A movie about using a brain-computer interface to become what is essentially a transhuman being, Avatar, is the highest-grossing box office hit of all time, pulling in $2.7 billion. This movie was made with hard-core science fiction enthusiasts in mind. About them, James Cameron said, “If I can just get ‘em in the damn theater, the film will act on them in the way it’s supposed to, in terms of taking them on an amazing journey and giving them this rich emotional experience.” A solid SL2 film, becoming the world’s #1 film of all time? It would be hard for the world to give transhumanism a firmer endorsement than that.
Notice that James Cameron didn't endorse something called "transhumanism" in this quotation. So it is in fact quite easy to say that this has nothing to do with providing "transhumanism" with an endorsement at all. Quite apart from the fact that here we have a transhumanist, Michael Anissimov, straightforwardly demonstrating that he can't distinguish science from science-fiction, precisely as I say of Robot Cultists all the time, to which accusation they inevitably sputter and pout and stamp in outrage despite endlessly doing it over and over and over again -- but here, for some reason, Anissimov seems to think "transhumanism" is one and the same thing as "science fiction."
Does Anissimov fancy that his small circle of mostly white mostly North Atlantic fanboys invented science fiction? Does he fancy that science fiction would wither without the invigorating breath of life infused in it by Singularitarian Robot Cultists?
I actually find Cameron's narrative too leaden and predictable to provide a "rich emotional experience," however I do find it an enjoyable enough romp to be worth the price of the ticket and the likely eventual purchase of the Director's Cut DVD -- and I appreciate that Cameron has lodged his narrative via a rather flat-footed analogy into some broadly appealing environmentalist and anti-colonialist politics. I could say almost exactly the same sorts of things about the leaden and predictable "emotional experience" of Cameron's Titanic, and about my mild appreciation of the broad-brushstrokes class politics it exhibited. Does Anissimov regard Titanic's prior unprecedented success as a comparable endorsement of his little Robot Cult?
Anissimov says it again:
Mainstream culture around the world has already embraced transhumanism and transhumanist ideals. The question is not whether humanity will move towards a transhumanist future (it will), but how that power is channeled. It’s not hard to convince people to become stronger and healthier if it truly is within their grasp. What we need to worry about is massive power in the hands of individuals with selfish or truly alien and abstract morals.
One is confronted again and again with this curious claim among transhumanist-types. Nothing that Anissimov adduces in support of the claim of an "embrace of transhumanism" is ever an embrace of anything originating in or unique to or in any sense definitive of "transhumanism."
Meanwhile, there actually palpably are discernible describable topics and preoccupations and conventional figures and arguments that are indeed quite characteristic of superlative futurology and Robot Cultists on offer -- among them, in my considered view, reductionism about intelligence, scientism mistaken for science more generally, often a disdain of aspects of physical embodiment, denials or disavowals of the guises under which we confront human finitude, indulgences in hyperbole, wish-fulfillment fantasies about personal transcendence, personal invulnerability or superintelligence, treatments of science fictional tropes and comic book scenarios as predictions rather than fictions, disdain of democratic politics expressed in the form of declarations of faith in spontaneous orders or technocratic-elite decision making all presumably impaired by democratic meddling.
While it is true that many (and I hope voting majorities) of folks in relatively secular multicultural democratic orders do embrace regulated consensus science and its application to our shared problems, it is hard to see this embrace as anything like the endorsement of the marginal and confused ideas that actually characterize superlative futurological discourses and the organizational archipelago of folks devoted to these superlative futurological discourses.
It is true, of course, that "[i]t’s not hard to convince people to become stronger and healthier if it truly is within their grasp." But it is also true that there is nothing a transhumanist has ever said or done that has ever put greater strength or health into the grasp of anybody on earth, or ever will do so, at least not anything they could provide whether or not they ever heard of "transhumanism" of all things.
I do think that superlative futurological discourses have deranged the terms of serious technodevelopmental deliberation, lodging the vicissitudes of technoscientific change into hyperbolic wish-fulfillment fantasies of omnipotence and apocalypse, into terms of optimalities and enhancements and extrapolations and reductions accepted altogether uncritically whatever their problems and disputed stakes, and that in so doing these media-ready incumbent-friendly narratives and frames have managed in the real world to actively diminish access to more equitable distributions of technodevelopmental costs, risks, and benefits to the diversity of its actual stakeholders.
By commandeering commonsense and common cause, superlative futurology has made people less sensible, less secure, less strong, less healthy than they would have been had commonsense and common cause better prevailed instead.
One need only observe the ongoing dissemination of perniciously vapid futurological discourses of "geoengineering" among otherwise serious environmentalists to see how futurological marketing and hyperbole deranges deliberation to the cost of sense and equitable outcomes and at the too-probable cost of planetary catastrophe, or recall the impact on foreign policy in Southeast Asia and Central and South America of futurologists unthinkingly "thinking the unthinkable" in postwar corporate-militarist think-tanks to see how reductionism and rationalization trumped democratic deliberation at the certain cost of generational atrocity.
The last thing we need to be distracted with in an emerging era of non-normalizing genetic, prosthetic, cognitive therapeutic interventions are the suave eugenicists of the transhumanist sect of the Robot Cult calculating the "optimalities" for us and convincing us that this despicable nonsense is what serious health policy looks like. The last thing we need to be distracted with in an emerging era of networked-infowarfare are the dead-enders for GOFAI in the singularitarian sect of the Robot Cult calculating the "Robot God odds" for us and convincing us that this facile nonsense is what serious security policy looks like. The techno-immortalists want to "migrate" their meat brains into cyberspatial immortalization, and they don't even seem to grasp that the word "migrate" in this sentence is a metaphor rather than a policy program or scientific mechanism. The nano-cornucopiasts want to talk about whether robust programmable desktop nanofactories will eliminate scarcity and inaugurate a post-political paradise or reduce the planet in the blink of an eye to goo, all this despite the fact that nobody seriously thinks that is what our actually enormously significant nanoscale interventions are about in the real world. Honestly, to take these discourses seriously on their own terms is to debauch the notion of seriousness, it is to not take seriously the very domains of endeavor, the very scientific vocabularies, the very public initiatives with which these futurological discourse fancy themselves to be preoccupied -- and, even more hilariously, fancy themselves to be some sort of pinnacle of enlightenment.
Anissimov ends his missive on a blandly sensible note, declaring his worry that the technodevelopmental aspirations of "the soldiers, fighters, gangsters, and porn stars lead the way."
I would insist again as I always have done that it is only through the democratization of technodevelopmental deliberation, that is to say the democratization of the procedures through which the costs, risks, and benefits of technoscientific changes are assessed, regulated, funded, researched, published, tested, grasped, distributed and so on that we can do our best to accomplish the more equitable, diverse, consensual, democratic outcomes we rightly prefer.
I believe that this requires more funding of education, not just science education but literacy and critical thinking skills and basic civics. I believe that we must spread awareness of the diversity of flourishing human lifeways in the world and in our history and in the cultural imagination. I believe we must strive for a political order in which everybody can organize and vote and run for elected office in the service of their aspirations. I believe we must ensure that people are nonduressed in their contracts and in their cultural/prosthetic decision-making, and that the creation and maintenance of such a scene of consent requires considerably greater security in health, nourishment, income, and shelter than are presently available to most people as well as far more reliable access to knowledge to protect most people from misinformation and fraud.
I believe that the efforts to achieve the outcomes Anissimov claims to care about are taking place almost entirely within the field of completely conventional democratic and progressive politics across the world.
Again, I fail to see how Robot Cultists have contributed the least measure to any of these efforts in the world, certainly there is nothing originating in, unique to, or definitive of any superlative futurological discourse that is making or has ever made any contribution to these efforts in my view.
Given this, I continue to fail to see how vapid protests to the contrary are remotely serious on the part of Robot Cultists. You can claim to "care a lot" about goodness and hope and light, but so long as you demonstrably spend your time mostly talking about the proximate arrival of sooper-parental Robot Gods, or sooper-enhanced hardbodies, or sooper-paradise nano-genies and virtual brothels, and sooper-hardon apocalypse missiles, and all the rest it, is quite clear what you are really all about.
Anyone who claims to care about inequitable or exploitative technodevopmental outcomes (especially anyone pretending to be Green) should drop the bullshit about geo-engineering and nano-bots and thousand-year lifespans and super-AI and direct their attention to the many resources and formulations available through environmental justice discourse (EJ), and anyone who claims to care about the history and sociology of technoscientific change should drop the bullshit about protecting Science from the relativist menace of the humanities departments and direct their attention to the many resources and formulations available through science and technology studies (STS).
Nobody ever joined a Robot Cult because they were serious about the world's problems and that is never going to change.
I am here to say that neither will I ever stop pointing out that fact.
I take technodevelopmental problems far too seriously to concede the least bit of the field to superlative futurological derangement, wish-fulfillment fantasizing, and self-promotional and marketing bull-shit artistry.