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

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Annotated Robot Cult Conference Announcement

Over at io9, a website that is devoted to equal parts convivial sfnal fandom and crappy futurological fandom, George Dvorsky (io9's crappiest contributor) has posted a promotional press release for that this year's Robo-Easter gathering of Robot Cultists. His words are italicized, my comments are interspersed. Enjoy.

Humanity+, an organization

What is now "Humanity +" used to be the World Transhumanist Association, but since they decided that was a bit too obviously culty they decided to rebrand themselves "Humanity +" instead. This is very sensible, since people are always criticizing distressing eugenicist tendencies in transhumanism, and it is hard to think of a better way to assuage such concerns than for a bunch of very ordinary mostly white bald guys exhibiting at most quotidian intelligence declaring themselves to be "Humans, but, you know, better" (speaking of which, Dvorsky used to be a muckety muck in a failed transhumanoid outfit that actually called itself "Betterhumans" quite explicitly). If all of this isn't plain to you, you probably aren't one of the better sort of human who is attracted to Robot Cults, heck you might even be "Humanity-minus," poor mite.
that advocates the ethical use of technology to expand human capacities,
Although there is more than one ethics in the world, this commonplace sanewashing transhumanoid formulation either pretends there is only one, or simply helps transhumanoids who would rather not get more specific about just which ethical views they happen to have in mind to sidestep such thorny issues. Similarly, there is of course no such thing as "technology in general" one can advocate the use of, whether ethically or not, whatever transhumanoids might happen to mean by that at the moment. Rather than a monolithic "technology" there is a complex, dynamic constellation of existing and emerging and posited techniques and artifacts none of which has been imagined or used in all the ways it might be, and the effects of the actual uses of which will be different depending on who you are talking to, how they are situated, what they want out of life, what their capacities are, and so on. The fact that "technology" is no more specified than "ethics" in this formulation possibly matters a bit less than it might otherwise seem to do, however, since almost inevitably the HumanityPlus sooper-folks talk about "technology" that doesn't exist, that doesn't seem likely to come to exist, practically speaking, anything like soon enough for reasonable people to devote much of their time to it, and in many cases cannot possibly exist because it depends on conceptually incoherent notions or scientifically discredited assumptions. That Robot Cultists are interested only in "expanding human capacities" is less reassuring than it might initially seem to be, when it is realized that what will seem to be an expansion of capacities will depend on initial assumptions about which ends are desirable and which ends are not, assumptions about which there are actually often quite fraught disagreements, hence there are few neutrally universalizably "expanding" capacities to be had, and also when it is realized that optimizing for the accomplishment of some desirable ends is inevitably paid for in the disabling frustration of the accomplishment of other ends that might also be desirable and probably are to some people transhumanoids simply aren't paying attention to.
is holding their annual conference next weekend from December 1-2 at the Seven Hills Conference Center at SF State in San Francisco.
It would be instructive to know how many of the speakers or attendees of the conference twenty years ago would have confidently predicted that the 2012 conference would be taking place, not in San Francisco, but in an orbital space hotel, in an undersea dome city, in a floating libertopian artificial island/ cruise ship, in a cypherpunk data haven in a world without nation-states, in a secret lab in the asteroid belt, or among info-selves uploaded in cyberspace. It would be instructive to know how many of the speakers or attendees of the conference in San Francisco this year (and many of them will be the same people, you know) would now confidently predict that the 2032 conference should be taking place in an orbital space hotel, in an undersea dome city, in a floating libertopian artificial island/ cruise ship, in a cypherpunk data haven in a world without nation-states, in a secret lab in the asteroid belt, or among info-selves uploaded in cyberspace.
The theme for this year's confab is "Writing the Future" -- and seeing as that's exactly what we do here at io9, we'll be there to represent and share our insights.
Given the extent to which Robot Cultists systematically confuse science fiction for science practice the theme this year seems quite appropriate, in fact doubly so when one goes on to recognize that the endlessly reiterated "insights" of transhumanoids, singularitarians, techno-immortalists, nano-cornucopiasts, digi-utopians, geo-engineers and so on really amount to hoary science fiction clich├ęs offered up in pseudo-scientific pop-journalism cadences simply bereft of the inventive plotting, resonant settings, provocative themes, and complex characterizations demanded of actually good science fiction writing. By the way, I disagree that io9 is "Writing The Future," since I believe it is writing hopes and anxieties of the demanding shared present through the speculative projection and even allegorization of "futures" reflecting that present through analytic critical awareness and imaginative funhouse mirrors. I have always read the io9 slogan "We Come From The Future" as a tongue-in-cheek recognition that the substance of futurity inheres in the openness in the present produced by the ineradicable diversity of the stakeholders sharing it. I am not surprised that Dvorsky imagines himself as a kind of prophetic ambassador from his parochial, personally preferred vision of The Future, since this is after all the techno-transcendental black box into which all Robot Cultists stuff their infantile fears and wish-fulfillment fantasies, and substantiate the luminous reality of together in the shared rituals of fervent affirmation among True Believers in conventions like this one.

The ultimate aim of the conference will be to "encourage refined communication about the future in creative ways, and thereby promote serious attention to the opportunities and risks we are facing."
This means: Clap louder and "The Future" we dream of will happen!
Subsequently, the conference will primarily focus on how emerging sciences and technologies are communicated and how this affects the way the future unfolds.
This means: Clapping louder is more important than actually doing the work of becoming a scientist or doing scientific research (no, coding is not biology or plasma physics, sorry, most coders are scrubbing urinals not doing science), or actually grasping the stakeholder landscape shaping science education, or the funding, regulation, implementation, promotion, and distributional effects of actual scientific research and technodevelopment change, or policy outcomes informed by consensus science results.
Specific subject areas will include advances in robotics, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, human enhancement, brain-computer integration, regenerative medicine, and radical life extension
A host of modest but interesting scientific results and technical developments will be divested of their qualifications, nuances, diverse stakes and then hyberbolized into portals enabling techno-transcendental wish-fulfillment fantasies about becoming all-knowing, immortal, and rich beyond the dreams of avarice. To add insult to injury, this outrageous debauching of science will then be described by its perpetrators as the championing of science.
Humanity+ @ San Francisco conference starts next week -- and io9 will be there!
Whether they flog for the Robot Cult or ridicule it will be one more data point (hiring George Dvorsky was another one) in the narrative of io9's sad decline into reactionary pseudo-science or welcome return to progressive sfnal fandom.
These breakthroughs
None of which ("nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, human enhancement, brain-computer integration, regenerative medicine, and radical life extension") has, you know, happened.
and future visions are often conveyed by scientists, futurists, sci-fi writers, and the media. To that end, Humanity+ has assembled an impressive list of speakers, a group that includes science fiction authors Kim Stanley Robinson and David Brin, acclaimed biomedical gerontologist Aubrey de Grey, designer and theorist Natasha Vita-More, and futurists Jamais Cascio, Ramez Naam, Max More, James Hughes, and many more.
A motley assortment if I ever saw one. Oh, wait, I have seen it -- every year, year after year, an unchanging cast, an unchanging script, an unchanging spiel. Perhaps this is what is meant by accelerating change?
And of course, io9 will be there as well. Annalee will be speaking about "Slow Futures: Using History to Write about Tomorrow," and I'll be there to talk about futureshock and how I cover the future beat.
Futureshock is the way dumb boys dreaming of dumb toys congratulate themselves on their credulity in the face of what the rest of us experience as futurefatigue. "The Future Beat" amounts to a largely static cast of pseudo scientists and guru-wannabes peddling the same techno-transcendence to the rubes while people of good will and good sense struggle together against complacency, ignorance, and greed to discover a little more and reform a little more in the service of an actually better world.
We certainly hope to see you there next weekend. Tickets are still available here.
Tickets still available? You shock me.


joe said...

"Specific subject areas will include advances in robotics, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, human enhancement, brain-computer integration, regenerative medicine, and radical life extension"

This is the same shit they talk about at every conference fir the last 20+ years.....what is this Groundhog day?...just without the great Bill Murray.

Oh and goody both "More's" are gonig to be there...when is More too much?

De Grey....yay, best thing about him, he looks like a wizard.

Oh well I look forward to next years conference where the same people will talk about the same things just being a few years away.

PS Vita More is getting up there in years isn't she?....can't be too many more of these things in her future....

Dale Carrico said...

I don't wish premature deaths on any of these foolish people (I actually have found Aubrey de Grey an affable person, Nick Bostrom and a couple of others much the same, and think he might have managed to do some good in the world in different company and from better premises), nor do I really think you do either, obviously. And if she would simply start talking sense, poor thing, I would fervently wish Natasha would keep on talking it well into her nineties, being very partial to righteous crones myself.

I really only mean to expose the absurdity of pretending science fiction (including quite a lot of corporate-military PR) is either science practice or science policy so that superlative and mainstream futurologists simply stop doing that. Or, failing in this straightforward proposal, I mean to ridicule them into a comparatively harmless marginality. All this, so that the rest of us can frame questions of equitable-sustainable technodevelopment based on consensus science and democratic norms without their deranging frames forever getting in the way. It really is as simple as that for me.

Wladimir said...

I read many of your posts with interest, and I agree is it necessary to be critical of technology+market triumphalism, and corporate PR spun into some kind of miracle thinking.

But exactly what do you have against coders, mr Carrico? Most of us are solving actual, difficult problems. It's more like a byzantine combination of plumbing and train schedule planning than urinal scrubbing, really. Sometimes I wish it was more like toilet scrubbing, all that thinking is tiring :-)

Dale Carrico said...

Urinal scrubbing is indispensable and should be much more highly compensated. I've coded around the edges myself, nothing but love. But far too many Robot Cultists claim to represent cutting edge scientific and even medical research when what many of them are doing is akin to accountancy.

jimf said...

> But exactly what do you have against coders, mr Carrico?
> Most of us are solving actual, difficult problems. . .

**Some** "coders" are like carpenters who see the whole
world (or the whole universe) as their nail.

From the early proponents of Good Old Fashioned AI
("How hard can it be?" thought Turing and Minsky back
in the day) to physicists like David Deutsch and, er,
polymaths like Stephen Wolfram, the tendency is to reach for
digital computer models and metaphors to interpret and explain --
well, everything. "The whole universe is already a simulation!"
insist some >Hists. In skillful storytelling hands, this
makes entertaining SF, as in Greg Egan's _Permutation City_
or _Diaspora_.

Long before Jaron Lanier (who coined the phrase)
began writing about "cybernetic totalism" (and for that matter
before Asperger's Syndrome burst into mainstream public consciousness
in 2001), Ted Nelson poked gentle and respectful fun at the sometimes
strange perspectives of "coders"
back in 1975. _Computer Lib_, p. 46:

"The strange language of computer people makes more sense than
laymen necessarily realize. It's a generalized analytical way of
looking at time, space and reality. Consider the following.

(Buffer: place to put something temporarily.)


(i.e., doing parts of separate jobs in the right order with
an eye on the clock)"

Nelson also remarks (on the same page -- it's a dense book):


Computer people are a mystery to others, who see them
as somewhat frightening, somewhat ridiculous. Their concerns
seem so peculiar, their hours so bizarre, their language so

Computer people may best be thought of as a new ethic group,
very much unto themselves. Now, it is very hard to characterize
ethnic groups in words, and certain to give offense, but if I
had to choose one word for them it would be **elfin**. We are
like those little people down among the mushrooms, skittering
around completely preoccupied with unfathomable concerns
and seemingly indifferent to normal humanity. In the moonlight
(i.e., pretty late, with snacks around the equipment) you may
hear our music.

Most importantly, the first rule in dealing with leprechauns applies
_ex hypothesi_ to computer people: when one promises to do you a
magical favor, **keep your eyes fixed on him until he has delivered**.
Or you will get what you deserve. Programmers' promises are
notoriously unkept.

But the dippy glories of this world, the earnestness and whimsy, are
something else. A real computer freak, if you ask him for a program
to print calendars, will write a program that gives you your choice
of Gregorian, Julian, Old Russian, and French Revolutionary, in
either small reference printouts or big ones you can write in.

jimf said...

Computer people have many ordinary traits that show up in extraordinary
ways -- loyalty, pride, temper, vengefulness and so on. They have
particular qualities, as well, of doggedness and constrained fantasy
that enable them to produce in their work. (Once at lunch I asked
a table-full of programmers what plane figures they could get out of
one cut through a cube. I got about three times as many answers
as I thought there were.)

Unfortunately, there is no room or time to go on about all these
things. . . but in this particular area of fantasy and emotion I
have observed some interesting things.

. . .

Perhaps a certain disgruntlement with the world of people fuses with
fascination for (and envy of?) machines. Anyway, many of us who have
gotten along badly with people find here a realm of abstractions
to invent and choreograph, privately and with continuing control.
A strange house for the emotions, this. Like Hegel, who became most
eloquent and ardent when he was lecturing at his most theoretical,
it is interesting to be among computer freaks boisterously explaining
the cross-tangled ramifications of some system they have seen or
would like to build.

(A syndrome to ponder. I have seen it more than once: the technical
person who, with someone he cares about, cannot stop talking about his
ideas for a project. A poignant type of Freudian displacement.)

A sad aspect of this, incidentally, is by no means obvious. This is
that the same computer folks who chatter eloquently about systems
that fascinate them tend to fall dark and silent while someone **else**
is expounding his own fascinations. You would expect that the person
with effulgent technical enthusiasms would really click with kindred
spirits. In my experience this happens briefly: hostilities and
disagreements boil out of nowhere to cut the good mood. My only conclusion
is that the same spirit that originally drives us muttering into
the clockwork feels threatened when others start monkeying with what
has been controlled and private fantasy.

This can be summed up as follows: NOBODY LIKES TO HEAR ABOUT ANOTHER
GUY'S SYSTEM. Here, as elsewhere, things fuse to block human communication:
envy, dislike of being dominated, refusal to relate emotionally, and
whatever else. Whatever computer people hear about, it seems they
immediately try to top.

Which is not to say that computer people are mere clockwork lemons or
Bettelheimian robot-children. But the tendencies are there."