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

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Futurological Displacements

A person in the Moot (for example to this post, but to others as well) keeps on posting jeremiads about some imaginary science-fictional same-sex reproductive technique involving "artificial gametes" and "artificial wombs" that he thinks it is urgently important for people to organize to ban else we put "civilization at risk."

This sort of bioconservative technophobic freakout seems to me to be the complementary and even supplementary face to transhumanoid technophilic freakouts about techno-transcendentalizing sooperintelligence, sooperabundance, and sooperpowers (including techno-immortality). I think these incredibly hyperbolic discourses exhibit the same structural features, I think they are driven by and driving the same irrational passions of agency (fears of impotence, fantasies of omnipotence, eg), I think they are exactly equally dangerous in the way they actually derange the terms of public techno-scientific deliberation and techno-developmental social struggle in the present.

Part of the problem with debates like this, as we have seen, is that so often the futurologists want to pretend that they are scientific when they are not. The recent flurry of posts here on Amor Mundi from Robot Cultists pretending cryonics flim-flam artists and uploading wish-fulfillment fantasists are supremely scientific while their skeptics are ignoramuses or luddites, is of course a testament to this problem. And because actual scientists know that the pseudo-scientists are indeed completely marginal most scientists tend to refuse to participate in these discussions because they have actual science to do. In so doing they often cede such discussions to the pseudo-scientists in ways that eventually yield cultural and political effects that impact the scientists after all, impacts that seem to come from nowhere, in the form of skewed funding priorities, misinformed anti-science crusades, or wasteful waves of pop-tech hype. Another, related, part of the problem with debates like this is the futurological displacement of present concern, present effort, present assessment onto an abstraction called "The Future" which operates symptomatically rather than falsifiably, symbolically rather than instrumentally, culturally rather than politically (by which I mean here, according to subcultural signalling rather than stakeholder reconciliation).

"John Howard," the person in the Moot who is freaking out about that scary (to him) futurological "same-sex reproduction" scenario is clearly using an imaginary projection into The Future to express symptomatically what look like pathological fears about family and sexuality and difference that beset him in the present. But rather than actually address his problems on their actual terms, with real stakes he could testify to in the company of the diversity of his peers in his community and with real fears many of which involve ignorance that contact with the diversity of his peers could assuage and console, instead he projects these fears away from present community onto the abstract arena of "The Future" the protagonists of which are no longer his peers in their diversity but sooper-powerful "technologies" threatening or promising to have their way with him and his. What makes this so troubling is that precisely this repudiation of political and practical deliberation now masquerades as a political discourse -- fantasies of a mass movement to ban an imaginary version of The Future -- as well as a practical concern -- "technological" and "scientific" problems of an actually entirely speculative version of The Future.

"JimF" in the Moot tried to be a generous and calming voice of reason addressing this person's fears (as someone who has been attacked incessantly by "John Howard" for years I now simply ridicule him and eventually delete his messages unread when they cease in their repetitious irrationality and invective to amuse me). But notice the inaugural move that Jim is compelled to make in order to try to address his interlocutor on their terms:
Putting aside for the moment that this isn't on the medical/ technological horizon...
Of course, this is the key gesture, isn't it?

The problem is that when we shift from discussion of actually existing problems and actually emerging techniques -- actually emerging in the sense of literally proximately emerging in ways that exert felt pressures on the present -- what we find ourselves doing is having profoundly dishonest, symptomatic, symbolic discussions about present fears/ fantasies under the guise of discussion about problems "of the future" that actually have no real or separate existence.

Actual stakes and consequences become impossible to delineate or deliberate about in reasonable ways. In art this sort of alienation from the present can make a potent discursive field out of which people find new ways to imagine who they might be or how people might form new affiliations and so on. But this is not the way the assessment of practical instrumental or political problems takes place.

Futurological "predictions" and "scenarios" are not like scientific hypotheses, because hypotheses solicit practices of public testing. It isn't an accident that "futurology" is connected to "futures" trading which is forever trying to find techniques through which to pretend highly speculative bets are more scientific than not.

Likewise, actual legislation is accountable to the citizens whose actual shared problems it is proposed to solve in the face of a diversity of stakeholders (well ideally so, and it tends to be better the closer this ideal is approximated in practice).

Until actual testing and actual funding and actual regulation is happening, that is to say, until discussions are circumscribed by actually existing stakeholders bringing evidences to bear available to public scrutiny, projections are unmoored, they just testify to wishes and fears, they are scarcely adjudicable at all.

As is so often the case when we are trying to understand the dynamics of the futurological, a comparison to advertizing discourse is instructive here. Advertizing pretends to inform consumers about differences between competing products so that they can make better decisions, but in reality advertizing tries to solicit brand loyalty and associate products with "youth" "happiness" "sexiness" "romance" so that consumers will be seduced into incorporating products into their projects of narrative self-creation.

Of course, Diesel jeans won't actually make you sexy, Pepsi won't actually make you young, drinking Starbucks coffee isn't actually romantic, but these failures do not falsify and abolish the advertizing mobilized by these conceits because advertizing is not operating in an instrumental but in a cultural mode (identification/ dis-identification facilitated through sub(cult)ural signalling).

Neither will "technology" make you young, or rich, or infallible: "The Future" isn't a return to the plenitide of Mommy's breast where technology is taking you if only you buy, buy, buy and stop thinking of actual problems. Nor is it to anybody's benefit to disavow the anxieties of older people occasioned by the rising generation by simply freaking out about designer babies instead, or to disavow the anxieties of falling working class quality of life and the plutocratic war on organized labor by simply freaking out about robots instead, or to disavow anxieties about wealth concentration and falling class mobility by simply freaking out about 3Dprinters or nanotech superabundance, or to disavow anxieties about the contingency in our lives or our proneness to miscommunication, humiliation, or error by simply freaking out about artificial superintelligence instead, or to disavow anxieties about mortality and freaking out about cryonics and deathists instead.

We should actually have discussions about the problems that actually beset us in their actual terms to the actual diversity of their stakeholders. We should actually solve shared problems that beset, not distract ourselves from the problems instead nor react to them in symptomatic or symbolic forms that never connect to actually adjudicable realities.

Every instrumental expertise has a foresight dimension, because in understanding the world as it besets us from a specific problematizing/empowering disciplinary vantage we arrive at general (warranted but contingent) principles we provisionally apply to novel circumstances. But there is no expertise in "foresight" as such apart from all actual knowledge-forming disciplines. There is no "futurology" as a discipline apart from other disciplines, because there is no future with an independent existence to exert some kind of gravitational pull on the present.

Futurity names the material openness IN THE PRESENT produced by the diversity of stakeholders sharing, contesting, collaborating, experiencing, investing it, the disciplines are playing out IN THE PRESENT, directing themselves to the delineation and solution of problems and possibilities adjudicated IN THE PRESENT.

The present is always already opening onto what is next, projection into "greater" distances is always just an effort to disavow or confuse or distract from the force of futurity in the present, shaped by actual stakeholders attesting to actual conditions in ongoing struggle.


jimf said...

> The problem is that when we shift from discussion of actually
> existing problems and actually emerging techniques -- actually emerging
> in the sense of literally proximately emerging in ways that exert
> felt pressures on the present -- what we find ourselves doing is having
> profoundly dishonest, symptomatic, symbolic discussions about present
> fears/ fantasies under the guise of discussion about problems
> "of the future" that actually have no real or separate existence.

Yes, that's very true. At it's at best a distraction and at worst
potentially quite dangerous, whether it's coming from the bioconservative
("supernative") or technophiliac ("superlative") side of the
too-worked-up-by-half crowd.

This was true of Bill Joy in 2000, when he got freaked out about
robots taking over the world after chatting with Ray Kurzweil at a
hotel bar.

It's true about folks like James Hughes, who are worrying about the
rights of "uplifted" animals, or the rights of human
beings with "correctable defects", or the rights of cyborgs.

It's true of the crowd at the Institute Formerly Known as the
Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, worried about
how to guarantee the "Friendliness" of a Superintelligent
Artificial Intelligence (none of these terms are well-defined; not
"friendly", not "intelligence", and **certainly** not "superintelligent
artificial intelligence"!

It's true of folks like Nick Bostrom, who makes a living coming up
with "existential risks". "Are you a Good Goo, or a Bad Goo?"

They're all gonna get divide-by-zero errors.

Write the SF stories, sell the movie scenarios to Hollywood, keep
us all entertained, by all means. But keep it out of the
policy papers and the legislative proposals.

Dale Carrico said...

I could not agree more.