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

Saturday, November 13, 2010

This Week's White Guys of "The Future" Report

It's time once more to visit the Very Serious techno-"progressive" futurologists at the stealth Robot Cult outfit IEET, the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.

There are no surprises yet again this Saturday, I'm sorry to say. Of all the faces of featured authors to be seen on IEET's website this week there are only two that are not the faces of a white guy. And yet, only a minority of people in the world are white guys. Only a minority of people with whom tomorrow will be made and shared are white guys. Only a minority of people in the world impacted by technodevelopmental changes are white guys. Only a minority of people in the world who are well informed and have important things to say about matters of technoscience are white guys.

The relentless non-representativeness I have been documenting week after week after week for months now over at IEET, supposedly the most "academic," "moderate," "respectable" of the membership organizations in the futurological Robot Cult archipelago, has long seemed to me to represent just one of the more obvious symptoms of the profound marginality of what I call superlative sub(cult)ural futurology.

For more of my critique of the glaring conceptual and political problems with these White Guys of "The Future" I recommend interested readers begin with my Condensed Critique of Transhumanism.


jimf said...

Interesting article in this month's _The Atlantic_:

The Danger of Cosmic Genius
By Kenneth Brower
(_The Atlantic_, Dec. 2010)

Freeman Dyson is one of those force-of-nature intellects whose
brilliance can be fully grasped by only a tiny subset of
humanity, that handful of thinkers capable of following his
equations. His principal contribution has been to the theory
of quantum electrodynamics, but he has done stellar work,
too, in pure mathematics, particle physics, statistical
mechanics, and matter in the solid state. He writes with
a grace and clarity that is rare, even freakish, in a scientist. . .

In 1943, as a teenager, he had been a mathematician with the
Royal Air Force. . . but his precociousness, I knew, had
manifested itself much earlier than that. By the age of 6,
his great interests had been mathematics and astronomy.
He had been a little wizard, a wunderkind.

“It is said that the mental processes of a mathematical prodigy
differ in no essential respect from those of ordinary folks
who can handle more modest problems,” . . .
Sir George Dyson, Freeman’s father, a composer and
the director of the Royal College of Music [wrote].
“The prodigy’s gift is the power of incessant concentration
on more and more complicated mental calculations, until
his brain can instantly recall the end products of the
thousands of factors with which his mind has been busy.”. . .

I asked him whether as a boy he had speculated much about
his gift. Had he asked himself why he had this special power?
Why he was so bright? . . .

“That’s not how the question phrases itself,” he said.
“The question is: why is everyone else so stupid?”

Among intelligent nonexperts who have weighed in on
climate change, Freeman Dyson has become, now that
Michael Crichton is dead, perhaps our most prominent
global-warming skeptic. . . Dyson. . . remained very
skeptical about the dangers of global warming.
He did not believe the pronouncements of the experts. He
did not claim to be an expert himself, so he would not
argue the details with anybody; he had not given much
time to the issue and did not pretend to know the real
answers, but what he knew for sure was that the
global-warming experts did not know the answers, either. . .

The question that phrases itself now, in the minds of many,
is: how could someone as smart as Freeman Dyson be so dumb? . . .

I have a number of theories. . .

Einstein could not make change, according to the lore; the
bus drivers of Princeton had to pick out his nickels and
quarters for him. . . Having myself grown up in Berkeley,
where Nobel laureates are a dime a dozen, I certainly know
the syndrome: the mismatched socks, the spectacles repaired
with duct tape, the forgotten anniversaries and
missed appointments, the valise left absentmindedly on
the park bench. Yet hometown experience did not prepare me
completely for Dyson. . .

[Once] in La Jolla, with the physicist as my guide, I tried
to drive us to a restaurant that Dyson knew from his
spaceship days. We overshot it by a mile going east, because
Dyson got lost in some long chain of cogitation, and
then we overshot it going west, and then overshot it going
east again. Each time, Dyson would apologize, but remorse did
not save him from falling again, just a few yards down the
road, into some black pothole of cerebration. Our course
to the restaurant, which we finally reached, half-starved,
was the sort of oscillation you might chart by affixing a
pencil to the tip of a pendulum as it loses momentum. . .

jimf said...

If this seems to support a nutty-professor explanation for
Dyson, then the testimony of his colleagues tends to argue
the other way. Among his former co-workers, Dyson is famous
for a kind of elevated common sense. . . "When I realized
Freeman really is a fine engineer, I was astounded. He knows
electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, structural.
That’s unnerving, in a theoretical physicist with the
eminence that he enjoys. His contributions to quantum electrodynamics
are classics. They are beautiful pieces of work—poetry in physics,
if you will. To see the same man do an analysis of [the
workings of a nuclear-powered spaceship] and getting it all
right—that’s unnerving.” . . .

Collision of Faiths

Dyson goes on to lament that “the worldwide community of
environmentalists—most of whom are not scientists”—have
“adopted as an article of faith the belief that global warming
is the greatest threat to the ecology of our planet.”
This is a tragic mistake, he says, for it distracts from
the much more serious problems that confront us.

Environmentalism does indeed make a very satisfactory kind
of religion. It is the faith in which I myself was brought up.
In my family, we had no other. . .

Freeman Dyson does not have the religion. He has another religion.

[He] never seems to recognize the extent to which his own
arguments proceed from faith. Environmentalism worships the wisdom
of Nature. Dysonism worships the indomitable ingenuity of Man.
Dyson often suggests that science is on his side, but lately
little of his popular exposition on planetary matters has
anything to do with science. His futurism is solidly in the
tradition of Jules Verne, as it has been since he was 8 and
wrote “Sir Phillip Roberts’s Erolunar Collision.” On the question
of global warming, the world’s climatologists and scientific
institutions are almost unanimously arrayed against him. On his
predictions for the future of ecosystems, ecologists beg to
differ. Dysonian proclamations like “Now, after three billion
years, the Darwinian interlude is over” are not science.
(His argument here, which is that cultural evolution has
replaced the Darwinian kind, is at best premature and at
worst the craziest kind of hubris.) . . .

Freeman, for his part, seems to have settled more deeply into
his own secular religion, becoming a prominent evangelist of
the faith. He is in such a scientific minority on climate
change that his views are easy to dismiss. In the worldview
underlying those opinions, however—in the articles of his
secular faith—he makes a kind of good vicar for a much
more widely accepted set of beliefs, the set that presently
drives our civilization. The tenets go something like this:
things are not really so bad on this planet. Man is
capable of remaking the biosphere in a coherent and
satisfactory way. Technology will save us.

In “Our Biotech Future,” a 2007 essay in The New York Review
of Books, Dyson writes, "Domesticated biotechnology, once it
gets into the hands of housewives and children, will give
us an explosion of diversity of new living creatures. . ."

One always searches Dyson’s prognostications for hints of irony. . .
But nowhere in this essay will you find a single sly wink.
Dyson is serious.

How is it possible to misapprehend so profoundly so much about
how the real world works? . . .

In this same essay, Dyson writes, "We are moving rapidly
into the post-Darwinian era, when species other than our
own will no longer exist. . ."

Has anyone suggested how such a future (without pollinators,
nitrogen-fixers, decomposers, without microbes in the soil
and bacteria in the gut) would be possible? For the unifying
impulse of the physicist, the idea might be satisfying—
just one species—but for the diversifying impulse of the
biologist, there could be nothing more chilling. . .

jimf said...

“Environmentalism has replaced socialism as the leading
secular religion,” Dyson complains in his 2008 New York
Review of Books essay on global warming. . . In response
to climate change, we have seen a proliferation of proposals
for geo-engineering solutions that are Dysonesque in scale
and improbability: a plan to sow the oceans with iron to
trigger plankton blooms, which would absorb carbon dioxide,
die, and settle to the sea floor. A plan to send a
trillion mirrors into orbit to deflect incoming sunlight.
A plan to launch a fleet of robotic ships to whip up
sea spray and whiten the clouds. A plan to mimic the
planet-cooling sulfur-dioxide miasmas of explosive volcanoes,
either by an artillery barrage of sulfur-dioxide aerosol
rounds fired into the stratosphere or by high-altitude blimps
hauling up 18-mile hoses.

None of these projects will happen, fortunately. They promise
side effects, backfirings, and unintended consequences on a
scale unknown in history, and we lack the financial and
political wherewithal, and the international comity, to
accomplish them anyway. What is disquieting is not their
likelihood, but what they reveal about the persistence of
belief in the technological fix. The notion that science will
save us is the chimera that allows the present generation to
consume all the resources it wants, as if no generations
will follow. It is the sedative that allows civilization to
march so steadfastly toward environmental catastrophe. It
forestalls the real solution, which will be in the hard,
nontechnical work of changing human behavior. . .

What the secular faith of Dysonism offers is, first, a
hypertrophied version of the technological fix, and second,
the fantasy that, should the fix fail, we have someplace
else to go. . .

[Dyson's] career demonstrates how a Nobel-caliber mind,
in avoiding the typical laureate’s dogged obsession with
a single problem, can fertilize many fields, in his case
particle physics and astrophysics, biology and exobiology,
mathematics, metaphysics, the history of science,
religion, disarmament theory, literature, and even medicine,
as Dyson was a co-inventor of the TRIGA reactor,
which produces medical isotopes. . .

Dyson was an amusing and never-boring companion. Never have
I had a relationship of such asymmetrical understanding.
Dyson always got the drift of my ideas and sentences before
I was three or four words into them, but the converse was
not true. When the physicist spoke of his own pet subjects—
quantum electrodynamics, say, or certain characteristics of
the event horizon in the vicinity of black holes—I had no
idea what he was talking about. Dyson is a discoverer of,
and fluent in, the mathematics by which the fundamental laws
of the universe operate, and in that language I am illiterate. . .

“Freeman’s gift?” said [the chief of Project Orion].
“It’s cosmic. He is able to see more interconnections
between more things than almost anybody. He sees the
interrelationships, whether it’s in some microscopic
physical process or in a big complicated machine like
Orion. He has been, from the time he was in his teens,
capable of understanding essentially anything that he’s
interested in. He’s the most intelligent person I know.”

This is how Dyson strikes me too. But the operative word
for me is cosmic. . . For whatever reason, he is emotionally
incapable of seeing the true colors of the rampant ingenuity
of our species and calculating where our cleverness,
as opposed to our wisdom, is taking us.

Dale Carrico said...

I never expected Freeman Dyson, many of whose writings I have found inspiring, to regress late in life into a figure as lame as his pseudo-intellectual "third culture" darling futurological kids always have been.