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

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Slow Future! Or, Robot God Save the Machine

On Friday, over at io9, Annalee Newitz posted what apparently seems to some of its readers a quite provocative editorial under the blunt titular assertion, The Future Is Not Accelerating. On Saturday, on the first day of this year's Robo-Easter, the annual Transhumanist Conference held in San Francisco (no, not in a space hotel, no, not in a Holodeck, because, contra transhumanoids past, those don't actually exist in this stunning "The Future" of 2012), Newitz reprised the themes of that editorial in a talk entitled "Slow Futures." Newitz says many sensible things in these pieces, and she also says a few things I would quibble with, but which I doubt she would take issue with me quibbling with particularly. I'm going to say a bit in both of those veins in this post, but first I want to propose that the fact that Newitz gave this talk on Saturday at a Robot Cult event tells us something important about the stakes of the editorial she published the day before at io9 in my reading of it.

In the editorial, Newitz says baldly, and to my mind very sensibly, "We will not become immortal cyborgs with superintelligent computer friends in the next twenty years." She offers reasons for saying this at several points later in the essay. "You will not live to be 200 years old," she tells an audience of transhumanoid techno-immortalists. (I tell Robot Cultists You Are Going To Die all the time. It is quite flabbergasting how shattering this obvious point can be to them.) Newitz explains: "Life extension like that is not going to happen in our lifetimes because quite simply it takes time to analyze our genomes, then it takes more time to test them, then it takes more time to develop therapies to keep us young, and then there is a lot of government red tape and cultural backlash to deal with too." (And of course a key part of the reason "government red tape" and "cultural backlash" have the force they do, is because government enablement and cultural worldmaking are indispensable to the achievement of incremental gains in scientific, including medical, progress, so the default libertopian and sociopathic responses many Robot Cultists no doubt deployed to sooth the panic occasioned by Newitz's objection here are really no responses at all.) She makes much the same point in another domain as well.
[M]ost things on the planet -- including many subjects of that supposedly accelerating scientific research -- are operating on a geological timescale. Evolution, climate change, and the construction of the physical universe down to its atoms are processes that we measure in millions or billions of years. To understand the future properly, it's crucial that we listen to geologists as often as we do computer scientists… Because of this observational challenge, it is hard to speed up the process of geological discoveries, whether they relate to climate change, or to materials science that could one day give us fine control over molecules. Unlike computers, which we invented, the Earth's processes are something we can only understand through observation. And we need time to do it.
The point Newitz is making here is quite straightforward, and I doubt that many people who are champions of consensus science as one (among other) vectors of emancipation and progress would bat an eyelash at hearing such home truths. But, as I said, Newitz is delivering these statements to an audience of transhumanoid, singularitarian, techno-immortalist, nano-cornucopiast, geo-engineering, digi-utopian Robot Cultists, and for such an audience rehearsing these truisms stages something of a major intervention.

Again, few would deny that there are interesting discoveries being made and techniques being developed in, say, medicine and materials science. But to extrapolate and hyperbolize from these often exciting but always qualified results to the superlative outcomes that preoccupy the attention of transhumanoid futurists -- imaginary outcomes that promise techno-transcendence of the definitive limits of the human condition, like the transcendence of mortality or the transcendence of scarcity/ stakeholder struggle -- is, at a mininum, to radically misconstrue how much we actually know, how science actually works, how technoscientific change actually translates through social, cultural, and political struggle into real progress, and so on.

It has regularly been noted that there is something uneasy in the relation of superlative technophiles and materiality -- witness, the prevalence (none of these are universalities, all are definitively prevailing tendencies) of their death denialism, their disdain of the vulnerable and aging human body, their discomfort with the humiliation and error-proneness of interpersonal communication and historical struggle, their dreams of the supplanting of the real by virtual worlds, their eagerness to circumvent political and historical quandaries with digital flows of information, their reframing and subsumption of ever more domains of understanding under the norms of computer coding, and so on. In emphasizing the implausible dispensability of incremental historical processes of technoscientific knowledge production, assimilation, development (these are material processes, mind you!) in their conjuration of techno-transcendent outcomes, Newitz is making the point -- and I agree it is a crucial one -- that this futurological immaterialism goes deep and plays out at many levels beyond the more obvious and conventional ones critics of digital-utopianism already tend to invoke.

Newitz is actually making two complementary points in her piece, and I have only drawn your attention to one side of the two-sided coin of her thesis so far. This is the way she puts the point at the beginning of her editorial: "First, the bad news. The future is not coming at us any faster than it ever has. We will not become immortal cyborgs with superintelligent computer friends in the next twenty years. The good news is that means we have a lot more time to get our shit together, and possibly to save the world. Welcome to the slow future." This is actually a strange formulation, in a way, strange precisely because its intended audience is also strange. The formulation seems to assume that "The Future" is when or where "we… become immortal cyborgs with superintelligent computer friends." And, of course, many people expect or desire or fear "The Future" to be quite different from such a when or where. Those differences seem to matter more, or at least as much, as whether we are arriving at that particular version of "The Future" comparatively quickly or slowly. The explanation for this perplexity, again, is that Newitz is addressing her argument first of all to an audience of folks whose hoped for "The Future" is indeed defined precisely by its expectations of a techno-transcendence of mortality, scarcity, history, and error, but also an audience whose members frame our own historical moment as one of "accelerating change" or even of "accelerating acceleration," with a kind of momentum irresistibly driving us into that parochially preferred "The Future" of theirs.

Strictly speaking it makes no sense to speak of "The Future" as monolithically "fast" or "slow" or "accelerating" or "punctuatedly disequalibriating" or what have you. And Newitz's point that developmental timelines overlap, having both personal and geological layers, is only a baby step in the direction of where this refusal of any monolithic figuration of "The Future" takes us. I would go so far as to say that the actual substance of "The Future" is a matter of a kind of futurity that doggedly inheres in the present: Futurity is a measure of the openness in the present, arising out of the palpable presence of an ineradicable diversity of stakeholders sharing, making, and contending in the present -- stakeholders with different perspectives, different histories, different situations, different wants, different capacities, different stakes, and so on. What people tend to mean by "The Future" is how that open futurity would look if one parochial vantage on it prevailed over the others and was extended, amplified logically from this present into the next and the next and the next. That is to say, "The Future" is always a domestication of futurity, a fantasy of its circumscription, a fantasy of mastery (and hence already lending itself to instrumental logics, and hence already lending itself to technological frames and conceits). But, of course, people ARE different from one another, and there is less to the world we share than what we differently want from it, and so futurity always remains at least open enough to bedevil "The Future" (unless "The Future" is an extinction event). As Bruce Sterling has been reminding us for years, "the future is a process, not a destination." In speaking of the Slow Future, Newitz is specifically and forcefully intervening in the transhumanoid/ singularitarian/ techno-transcendental (what I parodically deride as "Robot Cultist") conception of the accelerating future. It seems to me that Newitz's "good news" means that she is not only chiding the immaterialism of the superlative futurist's version of scientific progress re-imagined as a kind of transcendence, but that she is chiding them the better to champion a progressive alternative version of consensus science and stakeholder deliberation over the developmental implementation and distribution of technoscientific results.

While it might seem a stretch to declare Newitz's "Slow Future" intervention equivalent in any way to the punk anti-aristocratic anti-plutocratic intervention of the Sex Pistols' "No Future!" (a full discussion would require a reading of the ways in which cyberpunk, cypherpunk, biopunk, steampunk are -- and also are not -- themselves punk aesthetics opening onto punk politics -- a reading that in my version of it at least would take us into a discussion of glam), I do happen to think that techno-transcendental futurology is an absolutely reactionary discourse and that Newitz's intervention is important as a prop to an anti-reactionary but also non-phobic technoscience discourse indispensable to most sustainable equitable and diverse futures I personally think are worth fighting for.


jimf said...

> But, as I said, Newitz is delivering these statements
> to an audience of transhumanoid, singularitarian, techno-immortalist,
> nano-cornucopiast, geo-engineering, digi-utopian Robot Cultists,
> and for such an audience rehearsing these truisms stages something
> of a major intervention.

One of the remarks in the comment thread of


The title of this post is identical to a post I made in 2009,
and I completely agree!

I suppose there must be a more sophisticated term for this
particular rhetorical strategy than just "gaslighting".

Dale Carrico said...

That would be the Michael Anissimov of the blog "Accelerating Future," would it?

Dale Carrico said...

I also dipped into the comments of the piece, and especially enjoyed the (troll, possibly? hopefully?) fellow who said that if he can't expect to live for centuries there was no reason not to be world-destroying sociopathic criminal, the fellow who said it was "rude" for Newitz to "predict" that Robot Cult techno-transcendence predictions were not going to come true, and the fellow who implied that one day Newitz's statement that now-living Robot Cultists aren't going to live for centuries would be set alongside poor Lord Kelvin's declaration that "heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible" (he conceded ballooning existed, you know, give the man some love). I must say that the fact that Robot Cultists always trot out that same handful of quotes whenever anybody expresses skepticism about their extraordinary far-outside-consensus expectations suggests that in addition to thinking playing video games and reading TechCrunch somehow makes them the Wright Brothers and Steve Jobs combined, but also maybe there aren't really so many juicy examples of actually qualified people denying the possibility of technical capacities on the verge of making their appearance on the scene as all that after all. As I never tire of pointing out, occasional congenial anecdotal quotes from Lord Kelvin to the contrary notwithstanding, for every time scientific consensus mistakes a maverick for a crackpot there are incomparably many more times that scientific consensus exposes a self-declared maverick for the crackpot they are.

Mitchell said...

Michael Anissimov did in fact write an article in 2009 called "The Future is not Accelerating".

Presumably he does not agree with Annalee that e.g. no-one alive has any chance of living to 200. Also, the comment doesn't say anything else of substance.

So my guess is that it's an instance of the sort of esoteric trolling which is done more for the amusement of the troller than for its effect on anyone else. I envision a H+ skeptic who knows Anissimov's writings well, is amused that he once made a post with precisely the same name as Annalee's, and decided to playfully write as if this indicated comprehensive agreement between Anissimov and Newitz as well.

It's not impossible that it is just the real Anissimov posting, perhaps agreeing with Annalee's other assertion that the long-term future is what matters.

Michael Anissimov said...

I mainly just agreed with 1) the title of the piece, identical to the blog post I wrote years before, 2) the assertion that the future is not coming much faster today, than, say, the 1950s, 3) we won't become superintelligences within 20 years, 4) getting our shit together w.r.t. social matters, etc., does matter, 5) the world should be viewed as a set of overlapping timelines, including long-term trends. However, I do think that a full-blown Singularity is likely this century, though not certain... I do think it would take a global catastrophe to stop it. So, while I don't agree with everything Ms. Newitz claims in the post, I do agree with a lot more than casual observers might expect. When I wrote "I agree completely" I had mostly just read the first few paragraphs and agreed with the meat of what I read there. Also, the resonance of Newitz posting a post with the exact same title as one I had posted was poignant to me.