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

Sunday, June 17, 2012

This! Changes! Everything! The Impoverished Transhumanoid Vision of Freedom and Change

Upgraded and adapted from an interesting ongoing exchange in the Moot to this post with "summerspeaker" (whose comments are italicized, follow the length for the full exchange):

On the conceptual level, I find the Singularitarian obsession with everything changing useful... contemplating superhuman intelligence and/or molecular manufacturing serves as way to think beyond the status quo.

It may seem paradoxical, but I am suspicious of what singularitarians are counting as a belief in Changing Everything. As I said, I think the belief that the emergence of the digital internet was a qualitative event that Changed Everything is a profound misrecognition of what was in fact a quantitative re-materialization, the latest chapter in the Long Century of the Internet (beginning with telegraphy, then telephony, incorporating subsequent iterations of publication, broadcast radio and television video and cable). One way of looking at it is to say it was this inaugural misrecognition was the enabling Hype that gave rise to the serial hype that subsequently attached to so much discourse about the internet (crypto-anarchy! virtual sex! uploading!).

On this view, faith in the singularity itself is the ultimate hype, hype deranged into religious claims for techno-transcendence. But I also think it pays to look closely into the nature of these claims, as you say, "conceptually."

I know the transhumanists like to advertize themselves as more brave in their willingness to contemplate total transformation than mehum sheeple types like me who fail to measure up to their futurological shock levels and all that assertive nerd-jock nonsense, but have you noticed how utterly reassuring the furniture of their futures tend to be?

It is one thing to claim to embrace "total change" but it is quite another to indulge in infantile wish-fulfillment fantasies of a return to the ease and plenitude of mama's breast. The Robot God takes care of you, nano-genies give you everything you want for free, "enhancement" gives you back your youth, but even makes you the better you you dreamed about staring youthfully in the mirror pining for buff Biff and your own pony, superintelligence protects you from the humiliations of being caught out in an error or ignorance or humiliated (think of the geeks whose daydreams these are!), and then, a SENS technician with his wrench or a deed freeze and leap into holodeck heaven -- and you don't even have to die!

Quite apart from the delusiveness of all this nonsense (and my ire at those who debauch science by claiming serial marginality from scientific consensus is actually a sign of transhumanoid championing of science when it is the opposite) and the distraction of all this nonsense (you know what I think we should be doing -- applying shared knowledge to our shared problems, struggling to distribute the risks, costs, and benefits of technoscientific change equitably to diversity of its actual shareholders, a permanent and fraught progressive struggle we happen to be losing), it seems to me profoundly questionable to describe this as a true openness to change at all.

Daydreams of an amplification of your current capacities and an amplification of your present satisfaction isn't really change at all, it is just me now -- but better! (and better very much in the terms me now thinks in), it is just now -- but better! (more now, more!). It looks to me very much the same as the "imagination" that drives television commercials and marketing more generally -- youth! sex! riches! more!

I describe "futurity" as that aspect of openness in the present that arises from the fact that presence-together is both shared and contended by an ineradicably diverse plurality of stakeholders with different capacities, histories, hopes. I agree with Arendt that the "stuff" of which freedom is made is the res publica, "the public thing," what the Founders called "public happiness" that emerges in this midst of this sharing/ contestation. I believe that "The Future" of the futurologists, refiguring futurity from its political substance into an imaginary unitary destination actually obliterates our grasp of freedom, rewriting the openness of freedom in the image of closure. The futurologists misconstrue freedom in instrumental terms (precisely as one would expect of techno-fetishists), thinking it as amplifying capacitation rather than as collective re-conciliation, re-opening, re-figuration.

(If nothing else, asteroids and gamma ray bursts indicate that Change Everything events occasionally do come from nowhere or at least outer space.)

You could get run over by a car tomorrow. A dirty bomb could go off in a major city. Resource descent could choke off the petrochemical bubble of "Western Civilization." Hell, you could fall in love with the wrong person and screw up your life. Sure, an asteroid could hit earth. Life is bedeviled (and inspired) by accident, we are mortal, aging, vulnerable, error-prone, clumsy communicators, heartbroken, frustrated beings. The word for it is finitude. And far from embracing it, the transhumanoids spend most of their time in profoundly unhealthy denial of it.

we've got a number of vastly wealthy and capable folks working on computing hardware and software. According to Lanier, most of them subscribe to the Singularity worldview. It's a historical trends bolstered by considerable present-day effort and a compelling (at least to adherents) ideology. I'm not confident they won't succeed at some level, as unpleasant as the results might be for the rest of us.

Well, the neocons were the latest to remind us that a small klatch of white guys who are sure they are the smartest people in the room saying flabbergastingly idiotic things everybody laughs at can manage through perseverance and saying things rich powerful want to hear to find their way to a position to do unspeakable damage to the world. So, silly as they are, I agree they can have a terrible impact -- in fact already have in terms of the media frames through which urgent technodevelopmental deliberation is happening, to the cost of sense and equity. I am assuming you are describing the wealthy celebrity tech-CEOs as "capable" with your tongue in cheek -- of course they are mostly garish impresarios who are taking personal credit and appropriating personal profit for collective accomplishments. If you are referring to the guru-wannabes with the Robot Cult, you'll forgive me but I don't think any of them exhibit more than quotidian intelligence, although some have the kind of drive that gets stuff done while destroying the lives of everybody around them, their own first of all, I'll grant you that.


Lorraine said...

Some technologies have been what they call "game changers," but not always in a good (i.e. equity-in-diversity) way. Computers, I think, have been a game-changer in a good way mainly because they have become dirt cheap, but we'll see whether data mining and Big Data techniques trickle down to the rest of us. Cars (at least in hindsight) have been a disaster. You should consider yourself lucky to live in the Bay Area. I'm stuck in the Detroit suburbs where even extravagances such as cars have become a "necessity."

Dale Carrico said...

I know what you mean, and of course there is some truth in it. But I want to defend the contrary that there has NEVER been a technical discovery or a developed technology that has been a "game changer," and that it is always the significance which humans attach and the uses to which humans put these techniques and artifacts which have been historically decisive.

Again, don't get me wrong, I know that there is truth in the perspective you defend here. But I honestly believe that there is at least as much, and I suspect probably more, truth in mine.

And I also believe that your view is a widely prevalent one while mine is a comparatively neglected one in our epoch of reductionism and triumphalism (neither of which I attribute to you in proffering the claim, by the way), and hence it deserves a compensatory spotlight!

jimf said...

> If you are referring to the guru-wannabes with the Robot Cult,
> you'll forgive me but I don't think any of them exhibit more
> than quotidian intelligence. . .

The Thinkers: