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

Friday, June 15, 2012

Sanewashing Lamewashing Blamewashing

I've noticed that transhumanists and singularitarians and techno-immortalists will sometimes attempt in public to engage in what I call "sanewashing" -- they will declare in all innocence, "but transhumanism is really just the idea that evolution isn't the last word," or that "people can become better when they're smarter," or that sort of thing. Of course, we already have the perfectly good and widely understood and broadly affirmed (and also, I should add, rather problematic) words "culture" and "education" to name these ideas, and nobody was crying out for a group of Robot Cultists to re-invent those wheels and then claim to be their spokespeople, especially since these Robot Cultists also happen more distinctively to desire and believe, you know, that many will be able, and much sooner than non-Robot Cultists think, to live in genetically and prosthetically tweaked sooper-bodies with comic-book sooper-powers in free nanobotic-cornucopia-filled treasure caves, attended by very sexy sexbots, very possibly in outer space, until they decide to upload their "informational-selves" forever into a cyber-heaven that will be even more awesome still, as it will be under the ministrations of a sooper-intelligent post-parental history-ending Robot God of infinite loving grace.

Now, it is also true that medical research and development is indeed chugging along and producing some marvelous new genetic, prosthetic, and therapeutic advances: improved pacemakers and prosthetic limbs, better treatments for cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer's and so on. It's also true that there are a constellation of ARTs (assistive reproductive technologies) on offer. I don't include same-sex procreation or reproductive cloning among these because it seems to me the splashy pop-journalism utterances on these topics [this post began its life as the response to a comment at the World Future Society by self-identified "bioconservative" John Howard accusing me of "celebrating same-sex procreation" -- which upsets him terribly despite the fact that it doesn't exist -- because of my defense of sane adults making informed nonduressed consensual recourse to EXISTING wanted medicine, whether normalizing or not, if it is safe, accessible and accountably regulated] are about equally vague and sensational now as they were when I heard variations on them a decade or more ago. Like so many other results that find their way to the spotlight occasionally for pop-tech fandoms to hyperventilate over in ecstatic or panic-stricken ways, I simply don't think it makes much sense to get exercised over them, to grapple with "policy" toward them, when it isn't clear how costly or effective or safe or actually wanted as compared to other techniques they will be until they are considerably more proximate. Indeed, it is actually rather obfuscating to declare the objects of such speculation a "they" or "it" in the first place, when nobody really knows of what this object would actually consist. Although such results can add to our general knowledge, I think that popular speculations on these questions tend to function instead as allegorical lenses through which people are expressing anxieties and concerns about contemporary issues, intergenerational tensions, fraught raced and gendered relations, alienation, anomie, lost trust in institutions, and so on. I tend to think these questions are better addressed in more direct ways that name more clearly the actual stakes and stakeholders involved. I daresay such attitudes are among the reasons why I was invited to publish among futurologists as a more contrarian voice in the first place.

The "sanewashing" I mentioned superlative futurologists indulging in doesn't end in their occasional efforts to pretend they are really just champions of scientific research or education or convivial cultural (when their literal preoccupations are so clearly more idiosyncratic and questionable), I would go on to say that there tends to be a kernel of legitimate technoscientific substance at the heart of most of the sects of the Robot Cult deranged into nonsense by them so that this kernel becomes a black box into which they plug their techno-transcendentalizing wish-fulfillment fantasies: There really are endlessly many issues of research priorities, regulation, access to techniques, access-to-information, exploitation, neglect, and duress in contemporary medicine that get hyperbolized by transhumanists into sooper-power fantasies of an "optimally enhanced" post-biological Being, a so-called homo superior by their idiosyncratic but would-be universalized standards. There really are network security issues, issues of user-friendly automation, issues of better expert systems that get hyperbolized by Singularitarians into sooper-intelligence fantasies of a post-biological history-ending Robot God. There really are enormously interesting scientific discoveries and technical applications in molecular biology and biochemistry and nanoscale science that get hyperbolized by Nano-Cornucopiasts into sooper-abundance fantasies of treasure too cheap to meter (exactly as anxieties about nuclear holocaust long generated compensatory fantasies of sooper-abundant nuclear energy too cheap to meter) and hence a post-historical overcoming of the impasse of stakeholder politics. As I said, there really have been therapeutic advances toward the treatment of heart disease and memory loss that can yield increased healthy longevity when coupled with a more nutritious diet and exercise (in terms of increased longevity on a planetary scale what Mike Davis said a decade ago remains true: access to clean water remains the greatest miracle drug in the whole world) that get hyperbolized by Techno-Immortalists as Vegas supplemental scams and tee vee anti-aging cream scams and LA plastic surgery scams and SENS-repairman scams and cryonic hambergerization scams and wooly metaphorical talk of "soul migration" from organismic brains into the cyberspatial sprawl. In each case a loose grasp of technoscientific substance squeezed through selective reading of pop-tech journalism, hyperbolic press releases, and science fiction transubstantiates that substance into an insubstantial occasion for transcendental wish-fulfillment fantasizing. When I point out that nobody needs to join a Robot Cult to grasp the importance of the techno-scientific kernel transhumanists have glommed onto in each of these cases, that indeed Robot Cultists have little interest in that kernel apart from the way it seems to provide an alibi for their indulgence in techno-transcendental True Belief, and that certainly few if any folks actually contributing to the substance of that science are in the Robot Cult, I might be said to be engaging rhetorically in something like the reverse discourse of their own "sanewashing" self-rationalization: let's call it "lamewashing" Robot Cultism.

John Howard demonstrates a third, and related, rhetorical operation in play. Because Robot Cultists hyperbolize substantial technoscience into transcendental wish-fulfillment, self-described "bioconservatives" like John Howard can potentially attribute such techno-transcendence to almost anybody who champions substantial technoscience and struggles for progressive, that is to say equitable, diversifying, consensualizing technodevelopmental change. Let's call this, for the sake of euphony, "blamewashing" secular progressive technoscience. I daresay that whenever technodevelopmental changes threaten (or seem so to threaten) given social or morphological norms this temptation to bioconservative "blamewashing" might be especially acute. Although I think John Howard is offering up a rather terrible example here, I do think there will often be something usefully corrective and critical in such "blamewashing" skepticism -- since I think the astonishingly superficial popular grasp of consensus science and progressive science policy coupled with the intense popular focus on technoscience questions creates a great vulnerability to contrary impulses to hyperbole, derangement, wish-fulfillment, complacency, disasterbation, and scam-artistry. I don't mind "bioconservatives" and other skeptics spotlighting my own susceptibility to such confusions, as a skeptic myself I welcome the exposure of any of my own failures to be duly critical. And, after all, I am a product of an at once techno-triumphalist and yet anti-intellectual, reductionist and yet faithful society like most of the people I write about, and I am trained in the humanities and not the sciences end of the academy to boot.

I would describe myself as a technoscientifically literate and technodevelopmentally concerned secular progressive who believes there should be much greater public investment in critical thinking and science education and medical research and renewable energy research and sustainable agriculture research and sustainable infrastructure and space science and discovery more generally. I also believe that all culture is prosthetic and all prostheses are culture, and that technodevelopmental social struggle is progressive when the costs, risks, and benefits of technoscientific change are equitably distributed among the actual diversity of stakeholders to that change, and when all sane responsible informed non-duressed consenting adults can make recourse to or refrain from recourse to prosthetic/cultural affordances on their own terms, whether normalizing or not. I think the Robot Cultists distract our attention from the accomplishments and demands of actually existing and proximately emerging technodevelopmental social struggle and derange our collective capacity to deliberate in the sensible urgently necessary way we need to do given our shared planetary problems (especially environmental crises, global inequity, and ramifying implements of war). That is why I enagage in "lamewashing" critiques of what I take to be futurological derangements and deride Robot Cultsits in their propagandistic efforts at "sanewashing" their beliefs for the general public. If these efforts invite occasionally "blamewashing" invective from the less serious precincts of bioconservativsm, that seems a rather small -- though I will admit sometimes rather discomfiting -- price to pay.

1 comment:

jimf said...

> Indeed, it is actually rather obfuscating to declare the
> objects of such speculation a "they" or "it" in the first place,
> when nobody really knows of what this object would actually consist.

Here's a typical example of reifying the imaginary, and
then holding it up as if it were a concrete reality:

"Years ago when I was on a panel with Jaron Lanier, he had offered
some elaborate argument that no machine could be intelligent, because
it was just a machine and to call it 'intelligent' was therefore bad
poetry, or something along those lines. Fed up, I finally snapped:
'Do you mean to say that if I write a computer program and that computer
program rewrites itself and rewrites itself and builds its own
nanotechnology and zips off to Alpha Centauri and builds its own
Dyson Sphere, that computer program is not **intelligent**?'"

-- Eliezer Yudkowsky

(via )