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

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Fandom Menace

To clarify my last post --

There's nothing wrong with fandoms. I'm a big sf geek, Eric and I collect comics and toy spaceships, my Planet of the Apes DVD set is lodged in a near life-sized Ceasar Bust with combable hair presently wearing a Devo energy dome, so suck it.

I also have graduate degrees in both philosophy and rhetoric, and have been teaching these subjects in university settings for fifteen years. Fandoms are not philosophies: whatever they do they don't do the things that philosophies, properly so called, do.

Talking about science fiction or indulging in futurolgical blue-skying (especially since a futurist is just a science fiction writer who lacks the talent to write science fiction with characterization, plotting, integrated themes, organic social settings -- and believe me, sf isn't exactly the literary genre with the highest bar in these areas) is not philosophizing, it is not doing science, it is not policy analysis, it is not political activism.

I'm not saying it can't be edifying.

I'm not saying it's not worth doing.

I'm saying that none of the things the transhumanists say they are up to when they want to justify their faith that they are a "movement" that is sweeping the world or "serious thinkers" addressing actual problems are things they are actually doing.

Look: It is important that policy-makers address the inequitable and unsustainable distribution of costs, risks, and benefits of technoscientific change to the diversity of stakeholders to that change. It is important that scientists are educated, funded, supported, regulated to address shared problems. It is important that human beings be taught and encouraged to subject their prejudices to scrutiny, to think what they are doing, and to make sense of their circumstances by means of philosophy, poetry, therapy, religion or what have you. It is important that citizens educate, agitate, and organize to make the world more democratic, more equitable, more consensual, more diverse.

These are all too important to mistake them for things they are not.

Transhumanists have fixated on a handful of imaginary gadgets (and a few real gadgets they care about not so much because of what they are or what they do but because they see them as premonitory stepping stones bolstering their faith in the inevitable and proximate arrival of the imaginary gadgets they are actually fixated on) about which they gather together online and in conferences to handwave and to cheerlead and to enthuse.

Transhumanism is a fandom.

As a general rule, I am rather charmed by fandoms. I am not charmed by frauds, charlatans, advertising, pop psychology, pseudo-science, or know-nothings who fancy themselves avatars of Enlightenment.

On a separate note, however, and by way of conclusion, I will add that not only is transhumanism a fandom and nothing else (well, it is also a fraud because it insists it is something else, and a dangerous fraud because it sometimes succeeds in its bamboozlement to the cost and confusion of the important work of the things it actually isn't but sells itself as), but as fandoms go I have to admit that the transhumanists and singularitarians seem one of the most relentlessly humorless unoriginal tedious fandoms I know of, consisting of even more over-compensating white guys than is already usual among sf-fandoms, and so even as a fandom they kinda sorta, you know, suck.

6 comments:

jimf said...

> Transhumanists have fixated on a handful of imaginary gadgets (and
> a few real gadgets they care about not so much because of what they
> are or what they do but because they see them as premonitory
> stepping stones bolstering their faith in the inevitable and
> proximate arrival of the imaginary gadgets they are actually
> fixated on)

"A few real gadgets" -- computers, a fortiori; "[which] they care
about not. . . because of what they are or what they do but
because they see them as stepping stones. . ."

You know, I got a taste of this back in '04, at a time when I
was still corresponding with a few >Hists. I had recently
discovered the wonderful world of simulators of historical
and current computers -- in particular, Hercules (for the IBM
System/360 and its successors) and SimH (a whole
bunch of machines, especially DEC ones). I was absolutely
blown away when I installed a couple of these and discovered
that, by God, they really work -- they can run actual
operating systems for these machines (MVS in the case of a
Hercules-simulated System/360; RSX-11 in the case of a PDP-11
simulated by SimH). Anyway, I was so stoked that when I discovered an
almost-working IBM 7094 simulator (written by an Australian),
I downloaded the source code and spent six weeks tinkering
it into booting IBSYS and running IBJOB and compile-and-go
Fortran IV (that simulator has since been superseded by
a SimH one for that machine).

When I attempted to share my enthusiasm for these new-found
toys with one of my >Hist interloctors of the time, his
reply was "I have absolutely no interest in this stuff."

Well, OK, fair enough. But my reply to him (in light
of the fact that digital computers are seen by the >Hist
and Singularitarian crowd as the "ancestors" of
soon-to-be superintelligences) was "You know, I'll bet that
a lot of AIs would have the exact same attitude toward
the idea of resurrecting any human corpsicles who have
paid to be frozen in hopes of being treated with
indulgence by the superintelligences they've anticipated
being woken up by.'

He was not amused.

jimf said...

> Transhumanism is a fandom.

I notice, by the way, that on the Futurisms blog, the photo of a PowerPoint
slide from a certain Kevin Jain's presentation at the H+ Summit at Harvard
( http://futurisms.thenewatlantis.com/2010/06/ready-kevin-jain-thinks-singularity.html )
lists Transhumanism as an "emerging technology".

Luke said...

"Fandoms are not philosophies: whatever they do they don't do the things that philosophies, properly so called, do."

Ok I'll bite. What is it that philosophies do that fandoms don't?

Dale Carrico said...

Really?

Summerspeaker said...

While fandom as you describe it is one element of transhumanism, the movement contains a meaningful political ideology as well. Like Marxism, anarchism, and radical feminism, it advocates fundamental change in the world and a path to get there. It's this unabashedly revolutionary spirit that I find so thoroughly appealing.

Dale Carrico said...

the movement contains a meaningful political ideology

I actually disagree with this. To the extent that ideology is present in futurological discourse it is usually altogether familiar left-progressive or reactionary-oligarchic ideology onto which a bit of big-talk techno-whizbang has been awkwardly appended in my view. Although I daresay sometimes transhumanists also express a dose of reductionist-scientism and eugenicism, which I will admit are also fully-fledged ideologies. But, again, these are neither of them exactly new or unique to transhumanism. Just ugly and wrongheaded in well-understood ways.

advocates fundamental change in the world and a path to get there

It is a commonplace to say that technoscientific change has historically been and can be expected to remain fundamental in at least some of its aspects in times to come. One need not turn to silly Robot Cultists of all people for insights or guidance in these matters. Handwaving that "science" will soon spit out a superlative toy pile delivering superintelligence, superlongevity, and superabundance hardly looks like "advocat[ing]... a path," properly so-called, in my book. But, then, I have actual standards.

unabashedly revolutionary spirit

I realize that we have all been so regularly bombarded with advertizing claims that this or that landfill-destined gew-gaw represents a consumer revolution (now with an EZ-pour spout!) that we have allowed that term to be evacuated of all content, but as a student of revolutionary phenomena I must say that I for one fail to see how pining for capacitition via undercritical faith in technoscientific progress amounts to "unabashed revolutionism." May I recommend, at a bare minimum, that you read at least Arendt's On Revolution before falling for such PR crapola? Is every dot-eyed fundy praying to their sooper-parental Sky Daddy for eternal life among harp-strings and roseate clouds an unabashed revolutionary in your view, just because they think big even if their thinking isn't really very thought-like come to think of it?