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

Friday, November 30, 2012

Teaching Day

It's pouring rain outside, and I'm on my way into the soup. Workshopping thesis drafts with my MA cohort in the City today. So blogging is low to no till I get back. But there's more Georgic dimwittery to report when I do, so there's that to look forward to...

Thursday, November 29, 2012

There Is No Escape Hatch

"Well, you know, of course, humans need to migrate and disperse off-world if we really want to ensure our survival as a species…"

Since it is often proposed in the cadences of a throwaway line, it is difficult to tell just how glib technophiles are being when they offer up occasional asides to this effect, especially in the midst of discussions of catastrophic climate change, resource descent, overpopulation, and so on, but also commenting on other human dilemmas, abiding war-likeness in a world of WMD proliferation, stubbornly lingering ethnic hatreds, and the like.

But it is a sentiment that comes up surprisingly often, I find, whether in jest, in earnest, off-handedly, or as a provocation. The theme permeates science fiction, of course. It comes up fairly regularly in courses I teach on environmental problems and politics with undergraduates as well. And plenty of comparatively high-profile presumably serious-minded folks like Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking have been known to advance the notion formally.

I will cheerfully grant that I am a space exploration enthusiast myself, a real NASA fanboy, a booster for moonbases and research stations on Mars from way back. But I also consider it the height of pernicious frivolity to propose space diaspora as anything remotely like a solution to climate change catastrophe and other apparently intractable human problems. I see utterances to the contrary more or less as symptoms of capitulation and despair, disavowals of these problems rather than efforts at solutions, leaps into wish-fulfillment that resign us to defeat.

Does anybody seriously need reminding there is no planet within the actual reach of our grasp that is even a fraction as friendly to human flourishing as our companion the earth is, this planet we evolved to flourish in, even in its current state of debasement at our hands? We can't get to Mars let alone terraform it, we cannot exceed the speed of light, there are no traversable wormholes, there are no warp drives, there are no viable multi-generational generational starship plans, and no suggestion to the contrary that is meant as anything mroe than a conceit to hang a yarn on is the least bit serious to anybody who is the least bit serious.

Does anybody seriously doubt that the scientific knowledge base, public investment, and infrastructural plant required to migrate any non-negligible population off-world would demand incomparably more of a material investment than actually cleaning up the mess we have made of earth would do, or that the very enterprise of any such migration itself would materially exacerbate the ruin of the planet more than any of the catastrophic business we are already undertaking on that score, or that even "ideally" the operation would save a fractional minority of humans while requiring the highest payment from all earthlings?

But the definitive consideration for me is that even if we set aside all the insurmountable instrumental and political hurdles that beset such a notion of a human escape from the human catastrophe of fouling our nest beyond healing, even if we concede the abstract possibility of leaving that nest behind as we cannot concede any of it concretely, it remains devastatingly true that the human beings who left earth would still be the human beings that committed these crimes, bringing our unresolved problems with us wherever we went next. We would bring the short sighted parochialism and greed that made our civilization unsustainable to our stewardship of the next planet, we would bring our warlikeness and the legacies of its violations with us into space.

Far from believing the universe a kind of safety valve relieving the pressure imposed by our stupidity in the confinement of a small world, I say the universe isn't safe from humans until first we overcome our stupidity through the work of civilization and solve the problems we would now disavow through such irresponsible fantasies of escape.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Dumb Daily Dvorsky: Musky for Mars Edition

Dumb Dvorsky:
Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of the private spaceflight company SpaceX, has announced an ambitious plan to colonize Mars by shuttling 80,000 pioneers to the Red Planet at a cost of $500,000 a trip. The first phase of the program, which is contingent on the development of reusable rocket that can take off and land vertically, would start off modestly with only a handful of explorers leaving Earth at a time. But in short order, the self-sustaining population could grow into something far greater.
Oh, my, how the Robot Cultists do love them some Elon Musk! Of course, I have called him, together with Peter Thiel, the Koch Brothers of Reactionary Futurology.

A handful of rapid fire quibbles will dispense with this installment eleventy-million of Dumb Dvorsky stinking up the place at io9:

First, futurological libertopians of the Ayn Raelian kind love to crow about their "private" "for-profit" space programs putting love hotels in orbit and Vegas in the asteroid belt any minute now, but one really should take care not to pretend, as I put the point here, that "becoming a government contractor engaging in a taxpayer funded exploitation of already existing mostly decades-old technology which itself already existed only because of the splendid efforts once upon a time of a For Real government space program which still made possible the launch to a state-consortium funded and maintained International Space Station represents 'Going Galt' in space."

Second, it is interesting to describe explorers enthusiastically trundling off to the Red Planet as the "first phase" of a plan, when you describe in that very same sentence the requirement of a prior step involving something nobody can actually do. Maybe we should call that the "zero phase" not only because it is the one that happens before the first phase, but also because it's the phase that futurologists want to spend zero time talking about so they can get on with the techno-masturbation, and also because it's the phase that gives this whole non-plan "plan" about zero chance of success of amounting to more than everything else Robot Cultists talk about.

Third, I just want to point out that I actually followed the link provided in the article for more details about this "ambitious plan" and discovered that the $500,000 ticket Musk is quoting here does not follow from an objective examination of the actual costs -- to the extent that such things could even be calculated for a vast project that we don't know how to accomplish in endlessly many of its actually existing demands -- but, and this is actually a quote,
Musk’s $500,000 ticket price for a Mars trip was derived from what he thinks is affordable. "The ticket price needs to be low enough that most people in advanced countries, in their mid-forties or something like that, could put together enough money to make the trip," he said, comparing the purchase to buying a house in California.
Quite apart from whether we agree that half a million dollars is "affordable" in any non rich asshole based universe, quite apart from whether it is right to use the verb "derived" to describe a feeling Elon Musk pulls out of his ass, quite apart from whether one should describe as "advanced" a country that encourages this kind of insanity, I just want to point out that this bombastic content-free ass-backwards "it will cost what I think it will need to cost" bloviating is what Dvorsky is reporting as a serious proposal and an ambitious private plan for Mars colonization.

Oh, George!

"Smug Atheists" Should Read More SF Counsels io9

God, what with the Dumb Daily Dvorsky peddling his futurological hogwash incessantly and Charlie Jane Anders complaining yesterday about "smug atheists," the often smart and splendid fandom of io9 lately seems at real risk of jumping the shark.

I have no quibble with Anders' welcome point that a sense of wonder (whether the Aristotelian prompt of proper philosophy or the sfnal sensawunda) often, even usually, involves a sense of humility. But I find it appalling that faith-traditions are identified in this formulation with humility (endless fundamentalist fulminations to the contrary notwithstanding) while atheism is tarred with a lack of humility. Anders complains at the outset of her piece:
You can't be on Twitter these days without being bombarded with atheistic smugness. You know what I mean. People who can't just profess that they don't believe in God -- they have to taunt religious people for believing in "fairy tales." Or the Tooth Fairy. Most of the time, these are geeks who have immense respect for science... and yet, they won't recognize a situation where they simply have no data, one way or the other.
As it happens, I am on twitter and have never once experienced this bombardment. Perhaps Anders needs to prune her twitter feed? As an atheist queer and secular democratic socialist-feminist I must say that I find more frustrating the bombardment by anti-gay bigots and anti-abortion patriarchal pricks and greedhead climate change denialists waving their Bibles in my face.

As for the tired claim of the "middle-way" agnostic that atheism is a kind of faith, let me just point out that the word atheist means, simply a-theist, "without-god." I personally do without god (and have done, cheerfully, for nearly thirty years now) and see no reason to do otherwise -- and from that vantage, Anders' observation about the lack of data strongly conduces to the benefit of my comfortable disbelief over contrary claims made without cause by the variously faithful for theirs. It is simply wrong to equate "Young Earth Creationism" and atheism as ascriptions of faith as Anders does, and then distinguish them only by saying the first has been disproved and the second not, yet: Atheism isn't a positive assertion, so much as a clearing away of such assertions made in the absence of reasons to open the way for positive assertions made for good reason.

When Anders says "Contemplating space and time in all of their massive strangeness is much like gazing into the naked face of God" this seems to me little different from a little child telling me that God is an old man with a grey beard in a big stone chair. Concretizing metaphorizations of the incomprehensible always only miscomprehend it -- isn't that what faith is supposed to be about? To the extent that god is a presumably omni-predicated originary being, we cannot actually attribute what we mean by "being" to god, since no known being is omni-predicated or originary. In Kantian parlance, one has to deny knowledge to make room for faith.

Proposing that all subjective experience is equally valid is, of course, either a vacuity or outright nonsense and Anders surely doesn't even mean what she is saying for a moment: A purely subjective experience that one keeps to oneself is at once "valid" but also immaterial in a way that almost inevitably provokes it into public testimony. And once I submit a claim as a candidate for warranted belief -- say, in the service of prediction and control -- it is subject to public scrutiny on the terms such claims are warranted as such. William James defined the true as the good in the way of belief, and added -- as people who quote James often fail to remember -- good for assignable reasons. The reasons are what matter here: It is the reasons that make experience reasonable. Although the criteria change, there are always such criteria -- whether the belief is a matter of moral, political, or aesthetic distinction.

Now, I quite sympathize with those who disdain the reduction of truth or value to only one of the many domains in which truths can be made and values affirmed -- scientific, legal, moral, aesthetic, political, and so on -- but I have never yet heard a good argument in which reasonable pluralism or anti-reductionism supports positive claims made by believers in divinities or other supernatural phenomenon. When Anders starts quibbling about hallucinations it is only because she grasps the adjudicable distinction between hallucination and perception that she tries to make hay by muddying them. (She is in venerable company playing such games, look at the mischief Descartes made with his demon.)

As an atheist and a freethinker and a champion of consensus science who does not believe science has all the answers, I personally take exception to the suggestion that people who profess a belief in some god or other have more of a sense of wonder about existence than I do. As a lifelong reader of science fiction authors, I protest in the name of the endlessly many of them who were atheists, freethinkers, and skeptics like me that science fiction would be commandeered in the service of a defense of the superior sensibilities of people of religious faith.

If saying so reeks of "smugness" to apologists for organized religions at a time when organized religion is demonstrably one of the most pernicious forces in the world, I don't know if there is anything I can do to assuage their discomfort. May I recommend a good stiff drink, some nineteenth century poetry, or perhaps an appointment with a therapist (or hairdresser)? I can also recommend some good science fiction, as it happens. You see, I try to be helpful.

Insecurity Theater: How Futurological Existential-Risk Discourse Deranges Serious Technodevelopmental Deliberation

Also published at the World Future Society.

The Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER) will study dangers posed by biotechnology, artificial life, nanotechnology and climate change. The scientists said that to dismiss concerns of a potential robot uprising would be "dangerous". Fears that machines may take over have been central to the plot of some of the most popular science fiction films.
Robocalypse! Really? Few things apart from reportage about Robot Cultists could bring you from the pretense of sobriety of climate change talk by futurologists so Very Serious that their think-tank reminds you of its abbreviation (why, they must like UNESCO or CERN!) but then manage to degenerate into observations about scary b-movie science fiction plots by the third sentence. I breathlessly await the BBC report that fears about dragons destroying the castle have been central to the plot of some of the most popular fantasy films, and existential risk assessment by Very Serious Futurologists are forthcoming from their tech-celebrity-CEO vanity-funded think tanks at Stanford and Oxford any minute now. Not to spend time worrying about the odds of Dragon Conflagration would be irresponsible and dangerous!

Here we have a perfect illustration of the disasterbatory flip side of techno-transcendental hyperbole.

Of course, I have pointed out many times the way superlative futurists will devote a sentence to, say, observing some promising research effort in organ cryopreservation to facilitate transplantation operations only to provide the pretext for indulging instead in page after page of handwaving about "info-soul" preservation in hambergerized brains ready for "uploading" in Holodeck Heaven. They will leap in a paragraph from real world advances in biochemistry all the way into dreamy daydreams about reliably self-replicating programmable swarms of nanobots that can make next to anything for next to nothing any day now. They bound ecstatically from making reasonable noises one moment about qualified medical research results and healthcare advocacy all the way to cheerleading for genetically-enhanced comic-book super-bodies with "indefinite lifespans" and "techno-immortalization" the next moment.

In each case, superlative futurologists pretend the comparatively modest, qualified, sensible substance of consensus science and real research authorizes techno-transcendent wish-fulfillment fantasizing. Rather than think through the diverse impacts of technoscientific change in terms of their actual costs, risks, benefits, demands, significance to their real stakeholders in the real world, they amplify technodevelopmental realities in the present into Signs for the Robo-faithful to read, burning bushes announcing that immortality, superpowers, and wealth beyond the dreams of avarice are on the horizon in The Future.

When superlative futurists sit down to talk about what they call "Existential Risk" they offer up the other side of the counterfeit coin of expertise provided by their hyperbolic promotional/ self-promotional pseudo-discipline.

There is no question that it is reasonable, even urgent, that we study the toxicity of synthetic materials that make recourse to biochemical techniques making changes discernible at the nanoscale. What if a process that makes a synthetic fabric stronger and lighter also makes it abrade neurotoxins into surfaces with which it is in contact, for example? There is no question that it is reasonable, even urgent, that we monitor closely the pathogenesis and track the transmission pathways of dangerous viruses in a planet inter-connected by rapid transportation and communication networks. What if a virus mutates into an incomparably lethal form in a population center that is no doubt also a global transportation hub, for example?

But what exactly are futurologists supposed to bring to the table to such discussions? While the radically underfunded, already beleaguered Food and Drug Administration and comparable agencies worldwide are busy examining synthetic materials for toxicity, are we supposed to pretend that there is something helpful about Robot Cultists grabbing headlines with a splashy PowerPoint sonorously intoning about the "existential threat" of "gray goo" -- the so-called grave danger of an incompetent or evil programmer sending swarms of self-replicating nanobots to eat the planet? While the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control are tracking viral outbreaks and issuing global health warnings on a daily basis, are we supposed to pretend that there is something useful about Robot Cultists handwaving in a viral YouTube video about the danger of white-racist mad scientists bioengineering trait-specific pandemics in the name of racial purity?

Actually existing techniques making changes at the nanoscale are making useful materials and introduce real worries -- but they are not opening doors leading either into Edenic superabundance or apocalypse. Actually emerging medical techniques are changing lives and introducing new risks and costs into our understanding of healthcare provision -- but they are not creating super designer babies, clone armies, comic book superheroes, or millennial lifespans. Superlative futurological frames activating transcendental hopes and apocalyptic fears contribute nothing of any use to our deliberation about actually-existing and actually-emerging technoscientific changes and the diversity of their costs, risks, and benefits in the immediate and longer term to their stakeholders in the world.

While I am the last to discount the perils of anthropogenic catastrophic climate change and resource descent created by a generation of extractive-industrial-petrochemical profiteering, I cannot think of a single contribution futurologists can uniquely introduce into environmentalist theory, practice, education, agitation, organization, resistance, or reform that could be of any use to anybody who takes these issues the least bit seriously. At best, by treating climate change as a risk alongside absolutely ridiculous non-risks like out of control nanobots and Robot uprisings, these futurologists are trivializing a real crisis -- at worst, these futurologists will use real environmental crises as an opportunity to peddle quintessentially futurological non-solutions like unilateral "geo-engineering" interventions with unknowable consequences but great potential for profitability for the very same corporate-military interests that created and still exacerbate the very crisis itself.

Any second an actually accountable health and safety administrator is distracted from actually existing problems by futurological hyperbole is a second stolen from the public good and the public health. Any public awareness of shared concerns or public understanding of preparedness for actually existing risks and mutual aid skewed and deranged by futurological fancies is a lost chance of survival and help for real people in the real world. In a world where indispensable public services are forced to function on shoestring budgets after a generation of market fundamentalist downsizing and looting and neglect, it seems to me that there are no extra seconds or extra dollars to waste on the fancies of Very Serious Futurologists in suits playing at being policy wonks.

I would concede the usefulness of specifically futurological scenario-spinning for pitch-meetings in LA for science fiction miniseries, but the fact is that these are already hoary sfnal clichés and it is no doubt from science fiction that the futurologists have cribbed them. That is to say, these futurologists are of no real use to anyone, except to the extent that they manage to attract attention, funding, and reputations for seriousness they have not earned, which is useful only to themselves at the expense of everybody else. When the matrix of actual risks to which public service administrators feel bound and accountable is skewed by the fictions of Robot Cultists, in part because the sensational stories they tell attract the attention of inexpert media figures craving dramatic narratives and because these stories in turn activate the usual irrational passions of loose technological talk (eg, dreams of omnipotence, nightmares of impotence) in the public at large to which government is convulsively responsive, the resulting mismanagement of limited time and resources, the misplacement of the priorities, the misunderstanding of the stakes at hand creates new problems, imposes new costs, proliferates new risks.

Not to put too fine a point on it, these lost seconds of attention and effort, these confused priorities and concerns, can and probably have already and most certainly will contribute very directly to lost lives.

Generations of futurological fantasists who fail even remotely to grasp the nature of the organismically-incarnated historically-situated phenomenon of intelligence have been promising and failing to deliver artificial intelligence every year on the year for years and years and years and years. Now that some of them are re-framing that claim as a concern with the "existential threat" of an intelligent robot uprising we should take care to understand this is an old tired song they are singing. The risk of an automated bulldozer losing control and trampling a laborer on the warehouse floor is real and reasonably well-understood and provided for by actual experts. The risk of a robot uprising is zero, and even if the person is wearing a suit when he tells you otherwise he is no expert but a futurological flim-flam artist.

Let me be the one to say plainly that the single greatest "existential risk" that futurological existential-risk experts will never admit is the existential risk posed by existential-risk analysis to the public address of real problems in the real world.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Teaching Day

CS Lewis and Slavoj Zizek in the City this morning, so blogging low to no till later in the day. Transhumanoid feather-bedding via policy derangement on the way.

Monday, November 26, 2012

More Robot Cultists Jump on the Digital Diploma Mill Scam via it’s Think Tank -- the Center for Transhumanity -- is offering four (4) 10-week online Certificate Programs to the general public at an affordable cost -- $125. That’s only 1/200th the price of a certificate from Singularity University ($25,000)
How exciting that the Robot Cultists have formed yet another "Think Tank" where their "Thought Leaders" can get on with the Thinking that makes The Future really realler! And, look, it's a bargain at one two hundredth the price of that more famous other Robot Cult outfit that is also a discredited joke! Who could resist such a sales pitch?

Of course, every Robot Cultist worth his salt already knows that not only am I a Deathist Negativist Luddite Meanie Foe of The Very Serious Futurological Future, but also an elite effete aesthete of the kind who does things like getting a PhD at Berkeley and teaching in actually accredited universities. Of the Academy I have been known to say outrageous backward-looking entropic things like, "Real education never makes profits, only differences"; and "Universities tell you something and think tanks sell you something." So, of course, you already know to discount any skepticism I might be feeling at reading this announcement. No doubt I feel threatened by the inexorable transhumanoid Wave Of The Future.

Still, when I read that "rigorous, rewarding and interdisciplinary" coursework offered by the Center for Transhumanity will provide lucky, plucky robo-aspirants with a "Certificate in Transhumanist Studies (TS)" -- kinda sorta like "Raelian studies (RS)," "Scientology Studies (SS)"! -- or a "Certificate in Radical Life Extension (RLE)" -- actual extension of actual life not included! -- or a "Certificate in Transhumanism in Popular Culture (TPC)" -- let's pretend that fanwanking sf is the same thing as the serious study of literature and culture! -- or a "Certificate in Transhumanist Activism (TA)" -- let's pretend that fanwanking sf is the same thing as doing actual science or engineering or policy-making or influencing legislation! Who knew "radical life extension" is abbreviated "RLE"? Why, you're learning already! Even before blowing a hundred twenty five bucks to surf an "online course" for a Certificate! Perhaps, for consistency's sake, it's even a digital avatar of a Certificate you can't even hold in your hand (soon to be a digi-sooper-hand anyway)!

All that and a five dollar bill will buy you a coffee at Starbucks.

Associated Press Worried That Antigay Bigotry Is Not Irrational Enough To Be Called Homophobia?

Joe. My. God. is reporting that the Associated Press is officially discouraging the use of the word "homophobia" in the next update to their style guide for reporters, citing the concern that "phobia" incorrectly suggests an irrational fear. The guide does not propose a replacement term. If the default term to describe heterosexist politics, bullying, harassment, and defamation in journalism becomes "antigay bigotry" then I don't think this is necessarily a bad development, although I find it hard to believe that timorous journos who seek "balance" between those who declare the world round and flat will be comfortable calling a bigot a bigot when they should. I worry the default replacement for "homophobic" will end up becoming something like "pro-family" instead.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

You Are Not A Picture of You

Brain emulation cheerleaders and uploading enthusiasts, please make a note of it.

More Futurological Brickbats here.

Not The Same

Is Not This:

And there is nothing audacious, insightful, inspiring, useful, emancipatory, or transcendental about the embarrassing error or pseudo-scientific fraud or immoral pretense of saying otherwise.

Robot Cultists Still in the Woods Without A Compass

The New Yorker's Gary Marcus skips effortlessly through most of the steps in the utterly damning critique of the peddlers of Artificial Imbecillence (follow the link for the still pithy, unexpurgated version), but I amplify certain points -- in italics -- as I read along:
I.B.M. has just announced the world’s grandest simulation of a brain, all running on a collection of ninety-six of the world’s fastest computers. The project is code-named Compass, and its initial goal is to simulate the brain of the macaque monkey (commonly used in laboratory studies of neuroscience). In sheer scale, it’s far more ambitious than anything previously attempted, and it actually has almost ten times as many neurons as a human brain…
Although they are not actually neurons at all. This matters enormously. Literally.
The premise behind [the] approach is that... the best way to build smart machines is to build computers that work more like brains. Of course, brains aren’t better than machines at every type of thinking (no rational person would build a calculator by emulating the brain, for instance, when ordinary silicon is far more accurate), but we are still better than machines at many important tasks, including common sense, understanding natural language, and interpreting complex images. Whereas traditional computers largely work in serial (one step after another), neuromorphic systems work in parallel, and draw their inspiration as much as possible from the human brain…
Mind you, this is only according to our current, probably decisively inadequate, understanding of the human brain, and only so long as we are pretending things that aren't really alike really are (electrochemical dispositions in organismic brains, say, and wiring in electronic devices).
Ray Kurzweil, for instance… has, quite literally, bet on the neuromorphic engineers, wagering twenty thousand dollars that machines could pass the Turing Test by 2029 by using simulations built on detailed brain data (that he anticipates will be collected by nanobots)….
A multi-millionaire pop-tech circus barker hawking his latest futurological door-stop bets twenty thousand bucks he might find under a sofa cushion that imaginary computer super-intelligence vouchsafed by his prior assumption of the disanalogy of brains as computers (disanalogous because brains aren't computers) and depending further on the arrival of imaginary nanobots likely vouchsafed by the usual futurological assumption of the disanalogy of reliably programmable self-replicating nanobots and biological cells (disanalogous because cells can't do anything like what nano-cornucopiasts want nanobots to do)...? Forgive me if I refrain from applauding the audacity of the gesture.
[W]e still know too little about how individual neurons work to know how to put them together into viable networks.
Although we do know enough to notice that these aren't actually neurons.
For more than twenty-five years, scientists have known the exact wiring diagram of the three hundred and two neurons in the C. Elegans roundworm, but in at least half a dozen attempts nobody has yet succeeded in building a computer simulation that can accurately capture the complexities of the simple worm’s nervous system…
Quite so, but notice that we are now describing the worm's nervous system as "wiring." Notice, too, that we are speaking in terms of intelligence "capture" through "simulation." Actually think what is implied by this metaphor: does a mirror capture the visage it reflects, does a photograph capture the soul of the one it depicts? Such rhetorical capitulation to the figurative reframing of organismic intelligence in non-biological terms and re-smuggling of dualism back into a presumably materialist story of consciousness through a figurative "migration" of intelligence via simulation actually fuels the discourse of artificial intelligence even as the resulting program serially fails (as again here), setting the inevitable response to the failure as a matter of amplifying the terms already orchestrated by these metaphors for the next failure.

Not only is our scientific understanding of intelligence more modest than the peddlers of artificial intelligence insist (rendering them artificially imbecillent), but our supple, rich, multidimensional everyday understanding of intelligence in actual human and historical life is brutalized through our concession of the applicability of the term to the awkward impoverished puppets the peddlers of artificial intelligence produce (rendering us all artificially imbecillent).
Until we have a deeper understanding of the brain, giant arrays of idealized neurons will tell us less than we might have hoped. Simply simulating individual neurons without knowing more about how the brain works at the circuit level is like throwing Legos in a pile and hoping that they create a castle; what we really need are directions for creating the castle, but this can only come from psychologists and neuroscientists working together closely to try to understanding the kinds of circuits out of which minds are made…
Again, as far as it goes, quite so. And so again, why declare the brain has a "circuit level" at all, why declare the mind is "made" (by whom?) "of circuits"? Why encourage these people?
Moore’s Law [is] the idea that computers are rapidly increasing in power, doubling every eighteen to twenty-four months. I.B.M.’s latest success is a testament to that law; even ten years ago, a machine of Compass’s scope was almost inconceivable. But what’s not doubling every eighteen to twenty-four months is our understanding of how the brain actually works, of the computations and circuits [grrr!] that are [sic] underlie neural function. In debates about when artificial intelligence will come, many writers emphasize how cheap computation has become. But what I.B.M. shows is that you can have all the processing power in the world, but until you know how to put it all together, you still won’t have anything nearly as smart as the human brain.
Whenever I hear Moore's Law mentioned I feel it is my duty to supplement it with Lanier's less well-known because less-consoling corollary to Moore's Law: "As processors become faster and memory becomes cheaper, software becomes correspondingly slower and more bloated, using up all available resources."

I mostly approve Marcus's elegant critique of Compass, but I must conclude with complaints. Setting aside the recourse once more to metaphors (circuits, computation, capture) that invigorate the ignorant projects he otherwise sensibly disdains, I want to say that conceding his point that we may yet fundamentally misunderstand the phenomenon of intelligence -- even granting intelligence is material and not somehow supernatural, as definitely I do assume -- the proper debate to be having may well be not when but if "artificial intelligence" will come. Also, conceding his many points about its limits and failures, the proper thing to say about Compass is not that is isn't nearly as smart as a human brain but that "smart" is not a word that properly applies to such a device at all, else we risk losing the sense of what is to be nourished and cherished in the unique indispensable smartness of humans and other animals who share and make the sensible world together with us here and now.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

More Dumb Dvorsky: The Amazing Global Brain Edition

The Emerging Science of ‘Collective Intelligence’ -- And the Rise of the Global Brain aka: how techno-triumphalists are re-branding basic insights from sociology and the humanities they otherwise disdain into a pseudo-science for cash and attention by saying the word "computer!" over and over again really loudly.

In a very exciting surprise move, Dvorsky is very excited about this very exciting development, "We may be on an evolutionary trajectory, [Thomas W. Malone] argues, one that could someday give rise to the global brain. And amazingly, he's developing an entirely new scientific discipline to back his case." Yes, it really is amazing: Everything old is new again, if only everybody is ignorant enough. Also, too: We! Could! Someday! Be! Gods! I'm not sure why any of this is supposed to have something to do with "evolution," but I do especially like the reference not to "a global brain" but to "the global brain." Like it's an old, personal friend of Dvorsky's, "The Global Brain." "As a young boy, I dreamed of being a baseball, but tonight I say, we must move forward, not backward, upward not forward, and always twirling, twirling, twirling towards freedom." The Science Culture types at Edge who think they whooped the Humanities Culture types by declaring scientific reductionism plus PR handwaving (misconstrued as humanities hobbyism) a "Third Culture" really are terminally oblivious.

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 clichés 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.

To A Critic

Pretensions to unpretentiousness are still pretentious.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Nothing To See Here, Folks

Existence Disproof

George Dvorsky's article recommending 10 Supplements You Can Take Today To Enhance Your Intelligence was written by someone who takes at least some of them himself.


"The Future" of Those Who Would "Enhance" Humans

Self-described "futurist" David Wood has published, well, more than a defense, let us say, an excited exhortation of liberal eugenicism using the language of transhumanoid "enhancement" in a piece published at the World Future Society (it also appeared in other places, like the stealth Robot Cult outfit IEET). I posted a response in the comments section of the version of the piece appearing at WFS, entitled "The Future of Human Enhancement." This is what I wrote:

I think that few of the technologies under consideration or discussion here are even remotely proximate enough for legislators, policy makers, or even gonzo investor types to enter into serious deliberation about them on their own terms, and frankly I think that few of the phenomena (consciousness, intelligence, flourishing, wisdom) into which these techniques are presumably supposed to be intervening are even remotely well understood enough to provide the basis for confident assessments.

That is to say, I am presumably one of those poor benighted souls who are "woefully unaware about realistic technology possibilities" like "smart drugs, genetic selection and engineering, and the use of external devices that affect the brain or the learning process." Although my ignorance is attributed by Mr. Wood to a scientific illiteracy shaped by watching too much science fiction, it occurs to me that, quite to the contrary, hyperbolic claims about total rapid transformations of the human condition through the intervention of fantastically efficacious techniques and devices are in fact to be found more in science fiction than actual science practice or science policy (and let me say that when I refer to science fiction here, I am including an enormous amount of advertising imagery and the promotional discourse one finds Very Serious Futurologists indulging in with PowerPoint presentations in think-tank infused/ enthused conference settings). In this regard, it isn't exactly confidence inspiring to hear a breathless reference to record breaking RSVP's for a talk proffered as a sign of… well, who knows what exactly? Even if Very Serious "transhumanists" like Nick Bostrom manage to get a million facebook "likes" for their pitch this is not, you will forgive me, a reason to think "means to stimulate seemingly paranormal abilities and transcendental experiences" are indeed, as Mr. Wood suggests, "apparent." I must say I do not agree with the article's conclusion that there is any proper connection between indulging in wish fulfillment fantasizing and being "better informed."

Nevertheless, I still think it is important to take articles like this one seriously because they have impacts in altogether different domains than the ones they say they mean to shape. It is crucial to recognize that whenever one speaks about "enhancement," that term is freighted with unstated questions -- enhancement for precisely whom? according to what values? in the service of what end? at the cost of what end?

There simply is no such thing as a neutral "enhancement" that benefits everybody equally without costs, let alone unintended consequences. What is interesting about this sort of discussion is that it pretends all of the stakes are aligned, all the relevant facts are known, all the values are already shared, when of course none of that is the least bit true. "Enhancement" discourse evacuates inextricably political debates of their political substance, inevitably in the service of the implementation of a particular ideology, a particular agenda, a particular constellation of norms (always uninterrogated, often even unconscious). Again, while few of the techniques under discussion here are actually either real or emerging, they function as symptoms of the underlying politics they disavow, but they also function as frames that would refigure and rewrite humanity (in the present, not in "The Future" at all, mind you) in terms more congenial to those underlying politics. That is to say, the apparently technical, apparently neutral, apparently universal, apparently apolitical language of "enhancement" seeks to do political work in the most efficacious imaginable mode, the mode of not doing politics at all.

To get a better sense of what I mean here, notice the exchange of views highlighted in the piece between a critic of this techno-utopian moral-engineering eugenicism, Anne Kerr, and the author. In Mr. Wood's summary of her views Professor Kerr pointed out that "enhancements provided by technology… would likely only benefit a minority of individuals, potentially making existing social inequalities even worse than at present." The upshot of this observation is that it is inapt to use the word "enhancement" in the first place to describe these sorts of little futurological allegories. She presumably went on to illustrate her point with a few imaginary examples: "Imagine what might happen if various clever people could take some pill to make themselves even cleverer? It’s well known that clever people often make poor decisions. Their cleverness allows them to construct beguiling sophistry to justify the actions they already want to take… Or imagine if rapacious bankers could take drugs to boost their workplace stamina and self-serving brainpower -- how much more effective they would become at siphoning off public money to their own pockets!"

Hearing Kerr's concerns, Mr. Wood declares he felt "bound" to respond:
would you be in favour of the following examples of human enhancement, assuming they worked? An enhancement that made bankers more socially attuned, with more empathy, and more likely to use their personal wealth in support of philanthropic projects? An enhancement that made policy makers less parochial, less politically driven, and more able to consider longer-term implications in an objective manner? And an enhancement that made clever people less likely to be blind to their own personal cognitive biases, and more likely to genuinely consider counters to their views? In short, would you support enhancements that would make people wiser as well as smarter, and kinder as well as stronger?
Of course, to assume in advance that such "enhancements" worked is precisely the issue under discussion so it seems a rather flabbergasting concession to demand in advance, but for me the greater difficulty is the way such a discussion has already been framed by Mr. Wood's response as one in which what we mean when we say a device is "working" is the relevant vocabulary to deploy when what we are discussing is moral development or political reconciliation or human flourishing. In pointing out that clever people often behave foolishly, part of what Kerr is calling into question is whether or not we are quite right to value clever people as clever or right to pretend we mean the same things when we speak of cleverness at all. Mr. Wood seems in his cleverness to have missed that point, predictably enough. Why should readers concede, as his response to Kerr demands we do, that we all know and share a sense of what he means when he speaks of a banker being enhanced into "social attunement"? How does one square enhancement with attunement even in principle? Attunement to what, when, how long, how often, exactly? Would it be right to describe as "philanthropic" a person re-engineered to reflect some person's idiosyncratic image of what a philanthropist acts like? Was Kerr even bemoaning a lack of philanthropy when she expressed worries about the recklessness and fraudulence of too many bankers? Who is to say in advance what the relevant "cognitive biases" are that frustrate good outcomes? Aren't both the biases and goods in question here at least partially a matter of personal perspective, a matter of personal preference? Why is it assumed that parochialism always favors the shorter term over the longer-term? When Keynes reminded us that "in the long run we are all dead" he was not recommending short term thinking in general, but pointing out that sometimes avoidable massive suffering in the short term demands risks (stimulative public deficit spending) that long-term prudence would otherwise disdain.

Wisdom is a tricky business -- if I may condense several thousand years of literature into a chestnut -- and it scarcely seems sensible to fling questions around like "would you support enhancements that would make people wiser as well as smarter, and kinder, as well as stronger?" when there are so many vital questions at the heart of what we mean when we speak of wisdom, smartness, kindness, strength in the first place. Not to put too fine a point on it, it seems to me that whatever the answers to the questions Mr. Wood is posing here, everybody engaging in this conversation on these terms looks to me to be made rather more dumb than I think we need be. Is that what Mr. Wood means by "working"?

Unsurprisingly, Professor Kerr apparently responded to Mr. Wood's challenge by rejecting it, and proposing instead that we focus on processes of education and political democratization. Wood countered by complaining, "These other methods don’t seem to be working well enough." He writes that he wishes he had elaborated the example of the failure of our political processes to be equal to environmental problems as an example of what he means -- I suspect Mr. Woods would also be a booster for "geo-engineering" then, angels and ministers of grace defend us! Of course, I wonder what it might mean to say democracy isn't "working," exactly? Does that mean the outcomes Mr. Wood would prefer have not yet prevailed? Does it mean he thinks desirable outcomes in failing now, must then always fail? If he wants to circumvent these failed processes with "technology," does he discount the political processes through which "technology" ends up being funded, regulated, implemented, maintained, its effects distributed and understood, and so on?

When Mr. Wood glowingly quotes Julian Savulescu and Ingmar Persson about how we are "unfit" for "The Future," and how "there are few cogent philosophical or moral objections to… moral bioenhancement. In fact, the risks we face are so serious that it is imperative we explore every possibility… We simply can’t afford to miss opportunities…" I find myself wondering just who this "we" he and they are talking about consists of. Who is included in, and excluded from, this "we"? Who is deciding what a "cogent objection" to this line of what looks to me like incoherent hyperbolic bs consists of? Who is deciding what "opportunities" can't be missed by whom? Whose pet vision of "The Future" exactly are you talking about here? Given that the democratic "we" has already been bagged for disposal in this chirpy little number, I think the answers to these questions take on a certain urgency.

'Tis the Season...

...for all the white patriotic consumers to celebrate the birth of the brown pacifist communist they would kill.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Love the Fetus, Hate the Child

GOP lawmakers in Michigan have proposed a tax credit for unborn fetuses, less than a year after they eliminated a tax credit for children.
Is our Republicans learning?

"Thousands of Robots Talking To Each Other Who We Can Advertise To"

The Onion says it like it is about the scammers and skimmers who celebrate and profit from the "New Social Media Economy."

Robot Cultist Condemns Scientific Illiteracy On Which Robot Cultism Depends

Over at the stealth Robot Cult outfit IEET, the Institute for Ethics (where the ethics are rarely really discussed) and Emerging Technologies (where the technologies are rarely really emerging), Robot Cultist Travis James Leland bemoans the rise of stubborn scientific illiteracy, especially in American culture, though elsewhere too.

He mentions the widely discussed recent comment of Paul Broun of Georgia -- who happens to be the Chairman of the US House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space and Technology, who declared theories "about evolution and embryology and the Big Bang Theory" to be "all lies straight from the pit of Hell." He mentions the curious theory of "legitimate rape" by the now infamous Todd Akin, that women have a special ability to "shut that whole thing down" so that pregnancy won't occur under conditions of actual duress. Of course, Todd Akin was trounced in an election Republicans expected to win for his comments. And Leland's false equivalency in declaring that "both candidates [were] asked to openly explain their policies regarding science. Both refused to answer," is nonsense, given Obama's celebration of science fairs and scientific discovery and endless references to the need for investments in math and science education to ensure continued American accomplishments in medicine and renewable energy in the years to come.

Indeed, though Leland notes that both Broun and Akin are Republicans he fails to notice that one political party is systematically interfering with policy outcomes informed by consensus science while the other is conspicuously committed to quite the opposite. Leland does not mention that Republicans have been devoted to the denial of knowledge for well over a generation, refusing to heed the studies that predicted and now document the failures of abstinence only education -- the preposterous security theater of draconian Drug War laws, racial profiling, California's catastrophic Three Strikes -- the magical thinking of supply side economics and repudiation of Keynes-Hicks macroeconomics -- and so on. Although his outrage at the assignment of Representative Broun as Chair of the Science Committee is fitting and seems genuine, Leland seems to attribute it to a generalized dumbing down of American culture, as not long after he bemoans the popularity of the "Kardashians, Snooki and Honey Boo Boo," as compared to "Thomas Edison, Marie Curie, Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein" the heroes of an earlier age in his estimation. Of course, this is nonsense. The popular entertainers of the vaudeville and radio age and "golden age" -- that is to say, white White WHITE! -- of television Leland is lionizing were easily as idiotic as today's Kardashians, and even today the Kardashians are targets of ridicule rather more than praise as far as I can see, a symbol of vulgarity and vapidity inspiring snark and directing people to more interesting content available peer-to-peer.

The generalized dismissiveness in which Leland is indulging here is no match for a more considered critique in which we grasp that Republicans place know-nothings in science committees simply in order to ensure those committees no longer devote their energies to documenting abuses and recommending legislation that would impose costs on extractive-petrochemical interests or interfere with crappy private education boondoggles that pay handsomely to keep Republicans flush in the cash they need to run campaign ads and GOTV efforts in their districts every election. I must say I noticed with great interest that among the extraordinary scientific achievements of the year Leland is outraged received so little adoration from America's scientifically-illiterate ingrates was that "a privately-owned spacecraft docked with the International Space Station. This means that space is now within reach for everyone, not just the government." It is of course arrant foolishness to imply that everyday folks are even incrementally more likely to find their way to space as a result of this development (about which I complain at length elsewhere, for example here and here), and in indulging his little bit of libertopian economic and political illiteracy here it seems to me Leland failed to notice that his "anti-gu'ment" spacecraft used technologies created by public research at public universities for a project funded by government contracts that docked at a space station created and maintained by a consortium of governments at public expense.

But I have saved the best for last. Quite apart from the whiff of elitist cultural conservatism that seems to drive his observations about the illiterate masses and the selective blindness to the structural conservatism that makes Republican politics incomparably more culpable in the anti-science policies he bemoans and his indulgence in the framing of reactionary anti-governmentality that feeds the very forces of scientific illiteracy he imagines he is targeting, I think my favorite thing about Leland's article is that the whole thing is meant to provide the answer for the question he asks in his piece's opening paragraph:
Why doesn’t everyone get excited about transhumanism? Why aren’t all people fascinated by augmented and virtual reality, radical life-extension, brain-uploading, and The Singularity? “The Casual Transhuman” examines H+ topics from the layman’s perspective and give [sic] suggestions on how transhumanists can spread their ideas without looking like crackpots to the world-at-large.
Words of Isaac Asimov immediately follow, "There is a cult of ignorance in the United States," thus setting the stage for the argument about scientific illiteracy which I have already examined. Can one "ignore" what doesn't exist? It is enormously important to remind you all in this moment that the litany of exciting prospects to which Leland refers describes the beliefs that decapitated heads frozen, vitrified, or otherwise hambergerized and thrust in a dewar are awaiting swarms of programmable nanobots that, guided by the ministrations of a superintelligent history-ending Robot God, will resurrect the "info-soul" presumably interred in such heads by "scanning" them and then either scooping them into model-sexy comic book super-hero robot bodies or migrating them as angelic avatars into a bug-free cyberspatial treasure-cave orgy-pit virtual heaven where they will cavort ecstatically forever.

Permit me two modest propositions by way of conclusion here. First, I propose that transhumanoid Robot Cultists, like all other people in the world, can best avoid "looking like crackpots to the world-at-large" by refraining from believing palpably crackpot notions and proselytizing about them in public places. Second, I propose that Robot Cultists of the transhumanoid, singularitarian, techno-immortalist, nano-cornucopiast, and digital-utopian varieties absolutely depend on the scientific illiteracy of ill-educated citizens, pop-tech journalism fandoms, and credulous rubes who are scared of aging and death or who are terrified by the insecurity of neoliberal exploitation and extractive-industrial climate change and who are eager to be told there are technofixes to these problems that require little more from them than ritual declarations of excited belief in what the Very Serious White Guys of The Future tell them from their organizational perches in various islets along the Robot Cult archipelago. A world in which more citizens were educated and encouraged to do real medical and scientific research to solve urgently shared problems, a world of citizens devoted to the accountability and equitable distribution of the costs, risks, and benefits of technoscientific change to all its stakeholders, a world of citizens actually informed enough to hold their representatives accountable for sensible policy outcomes would be a world with very little room for the pseudo-scientists and guru-wannabes of the Robot Cult.

"A Thanksgiving Prayer" by William Burroughs

A longstanding Amor Mundi tradition. The paranoid reference to "Laboratory AIDS" along the long ugly delineation of Americana to which Burroughs offers his poisoned thanks almost spoils the piece for me, but with Burroughs you tend to get a septic souffle in which the awesome and the awful commingle indispensably. And there is in any case in that moment of cussed counterfactual conspiricizing, I submit, a succumbing in Burroughs himself to some of the worst in America he otherwise scalpels so mercilessly in the piece itself, on this day of days that demands the thankless scrutiny of critics and self-critics if ever there was a day for it.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

More on Chemtrail Conspiracists

Upgraded and adapted from the Moot in response to yesterday's throwaway post, "It's hard to decide whether the futurological fantasists or the chemtrail conspiracists represent the most depressing derangement of environmentalism enabled by 'geo-engineering' discourse," long-time Friend of Blog "jollyspaniard" congenially commented:
The chemtrail folks are pretty garden variety conspiracy theorists for the most part. I've bumped into a number of them and they don't even seem that bothered about it. They're both forms of climate change denial.
My elaboration:

Of course, some high-profile "geo-engineering" schemes have involved batty notions of fleets of aircraft replicating volcano eruptions to promote cooling (what could possibly go wrong?) or aerosols to turn cloudbanks into mirrors reflecting the away sunlight (what could possibly go wrong?) and so on, and, of course, there might be a DARPA white paper here and there blueskying (no pun intended) along these line as there is a DARPA white paper blueskying about almost every damn fool thing imaginable, and of course no doubt you can find a photogenic cranky midwestern zillionaire willing to blow a million bucks using cropdusters to realize his fever-dream of spreading uplifting nootropic substances over America's malls to save the white race or some such. America has, after all, crazily skewed distributions of wealth as well as of sense and such things happen here.

But when the chemtrail conspiracists whomp up their diabolical visions from this scattered breadcrumb trail they are tapping into the same reservoirs that Bircher anti-fluoridation panics do (actually, there were chemtrail panics in the early 60s predating my birth that drew not only their ideas but their partisans directly from the anti-fluoridation folks) but which also find UFOs in skies empty of anything but cute curious clouds -- that is to say, there is more to contrail dissipation than is dreamed of in their philosophy.

The hostility to the very idea of good or representative governance yields an endless and unfalsifiable harvest for such conspiracy thinking, usually to the cost of necessary scrutiny and useful criticism of actual government abuses: very much in line with 9/11 "truthers" for example, who distracted attention from the fraud of pre-emption based on the pretext of WMD, the incompetence and warcrimes of the prosecution of the war and occupation, and the authoritarian measures enabled by the paranoia in part symptomized and exacerbated by the truthers themselves. Needless to say, the "chemsters" now have their youtube documentaries with millions of hits and tweets and likes as the "Loose Change" truther crowd did before.

I do agree that this amounts to climate change denialism but I think we should be clear that what is most interesting here is not the blunt denial of a factual phenomenon and its stakes according to an enormous consensus of relevant scientists, but a denial about secular social democratic governance. The geo-engineers and chemtrail conspiracy would both circumvent education, organization, and reform alive to constituted accountable governance: the geo-engineers want to use the emergency to obtain a free pass to continued profit taking, the chemsters want to retreat into survivalist isolation.

The pattern here is actually very familiar to the student of futurology -- it replicates the ideological polarities of transhumanists and bioconservatives, each committed to a fantastic construction of "the natural" with which one dis-identifies and the other identifies, yielding under-critical technophilia in one and then under-critical technophobia in the other.

This reminds us that climate change denialism itself is not most essentially a denial of facts so much as the denial of the secular-democratic forms through which scientists arrive at consensus as to what constitutes facts (results, publications, tests, deliberation that weaves novelty into the body of knowledge and into educable forms) and of the secular-democratic forms through which citizens (scientists and non-scientists alike) hold policy-makers, representatives, and scientists accountable for their role in public decision making beholden to consensus science in a mass-mediated, p2p-mediated, at least notionally representative governmental formation.

Futurological Brickbats

It's hard to decide whether the futurological fantasists or the chemtrail conspiracists represent the most depressing derangement of environmentalism enabled by "geo-engineering" discourse.

More Futurological Brickbats here.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Is "Geo-Engineering" Just Gardening? Is Robot Cultism Just Common Sense?

Also posted at the World Future Society.

A recent article over at io9 offers a rapid-fire scroll of lovely pictures of lovely gardens from Tivoli and Versailles to Suzhou and the Mehtab Bagh. The bright-green images are from Flickr, their vapid captions read like snippets from Wikipedia, but the ideological operation of the article (which may fancy itself "Bright Green") is pure, pernicious futurological bunkum. It is easy to let a punchy little number like The World's Most Beautiful Gardens Are Miracles of Geo-Engineering buzzily breeze in one eye and out the other, but I propose we dwell on it for a moment.

I have described Superlative Futurology as an extreme form of the deceptive hyperbolic gizmo-fetishizing norms and forms that utterly and disastrously suffuse our public discourse today. Where neoliberal think-tanks peddle digitization to corporate-military organizations to facilitate the financialized skimming and scamming of global treasure and program drone strikes for war-crimes on the cheap, or consumer corporations peddle the "romance" of coffee at five dollars a pop or promise some ill-smelling goop in a jar will make a seventy year old as sexy as a teenager, Superlative Futurology amplifies techno-triumphalism into outright theological territory promising techno-transcendance of the finitude of the human condition, a super-intelligence, super-longevity, and super-abundance that suspiciously mimes the familiar omni-predicates of divinity (omniscience, omnipotence, omnibenevolence) in at once reductive and expansive pseudo-scientific drag. The mainstream futurology of marketing/promotional formulations at the heart of the media advertising and think-tank scenario spinning that utterly prevail over the neoliberal-neoconservative imaginary love to promise phony miracles to the rubes, but the superlative futurology that attracts fandom sub(cult)ures and True Believers who fancy they possess the Keys to History are promising Miracles in earnest.

At the risk of coming off as a pedant -- who, me? -- I want to propose to Vincze Miklos, the author of the piece under consideration that, stunning as they are in their beauty, sophisticated as they are in the formal knowledges deployed in their design and construction, impressive as they are in the efforts through which they are maintained, none of these gardens are actually "Miraculous" at all. Gardens are not miracles, even the good ones. When one is dealing with futurologists, saying these obvious things out loud often matters very much.

The payoff lines of the article propose that, "Humans don't always trash their ecosystems. Sometimes we reshape them into something amazing. Here are some of the most incredible examples of landscape architecture, also known humbly as gardening." Needless to say, often large gardens in inapt setting become septic swamps, and without painstaking maintenance they all referalize rapidly, and it really is unclear whether we rightly describe any of the examples in the piece as actually sustainable interventions. One should take care not to generalize from a few photogenic specimens, all already well-known to the lowest-common-denominator tourist to claims about human mastery of sustainable civilization, especially given the high energy input intensivity of most such gardens and the fact that few of them provide even rudimentary shelter or sustenance for the humans who cherish them. Indeed, perhaps the whole piece is really best described as a bland bit of misguided virtual eco-tourism. And, again, to risk pedantry, if it really is true that "geo-engineering" is just another word for gardening then it occurs to me that the word "gardening" is perfectly adequate to describe gardening. Who needs a klatch of futurological pseudo-intellectuals to coin a bit of ill-fitting multi-syllabic jargon to re-invent that wheel, exactly?

Of course, "geo-engineering" doesn't just mean gardening to those who deploy the term, geo-engineering is a reactionary pseudo-environmental futurological discourse that is presently gathering steam to who knows what eventual, probably disastrous, ends. "Geo-engineering" denotes an ill-conceived suite of imaginary mega-engineering proposals to combat catastrophic anthropogenic climate change. What these proposals tend to share is that they involve vast unilateral inputs into complex dynamic ecosystems without a clear sense of the consequences, usually argued for with some variation on the claim that "desperate times require desperate measures." Central to the conjuration of "desperate times" in "geo-engineering" proposals tends to be the insistence that conventional accountable political processes of regulation, education, incentivization, public investment and so on have all proved to be failures in the face of planetary problems like climate change and resource descent. Rarely discussed is the question how the mega-engineering projects that excite the "geo-engineering" imaginary would themselves be funded, how their safety would be ensured and corruption restrained, how their construction and maintenance would be made accountable to the stakeholders of these projects, how their costs, risks, and benefits would be reasonably distributed and so on -- and usually it seems the very political processes whose abject failure is the assumption on which desperate "geo-engineering" gambits are premised (else, why not keep pushing the laws and investment to which legible environmentalisms are already devoted?) are immediately re-validated once they are imagined to be underway to render these "geo-engineering" projects practically possible. That is to say, practically possible "in principle" -- since, you will remember, the projects are almost always highly speculative in their workings and effects, indeed that tends to be the point.

I have noticed lately, and with great relief, that actual environmentalists have already begun to roll their eyes when the subject of "geo-engineering" comes up as they have also long done when they observe corporate greenwashing spin. Real environmentalists have amply noticed by now how readily pollution profiteers shift their rhetoric from climate change denialism to geo-engineering advocacy. Those reckless criminals eager to parochially profit from the destruction of the environment on which they and we all depend for our survival and flourishing are only too happy to confuse and undermine the deliberative processes through which our politics would struggle to be equal to the planetary problems we confront, but then as that effort begins to falter in the face of ever more conspicuous greenhouse storms they are now just as happy to divert public awareness and energy instead into elaborate cleanup boondoggles from which they are uniquely situated to profit as much as they profited from making the messes they would now clean up. What matters to the pollution profiteers is not whether or not "geo-engineering" proposals would work better than international efforts at sustainable education, regulation, and public investment in efficient renewable infrastructure, but whether they themselves will still be in the money when and if civilization turns away from petro-chemical industrialism.

Again, "geo-engineering" is a futurological discourse, and true to the marketing and promotional norms and forms it amplifies, it is an act of deception and hyperbole amounting to something like fraud, promising consumers an easy fix (Easy credit! Get rich quick! Sex appeal in a pill! Eternal youth in a cream or procedure! Confidence in any situation by attending my self-esteem seminar! An end to climate change that doesn't demand any changes from you!) for what is always in fact the parochial profit-taking of a con artist -- whether it is a huckster peddling a balding cure on a three am infomercial or an imperialist power peddling flashy industrial development loans followed by debt-restructuring forcing austerity on an over-exploited (they call it "under-developed," natch) nation.

The serious student of futurological discourse will notice the regularity with which the plausibility of futurological scam artistry depends here as elsewhere on a deft incessant switching between the quotidian and the fantastic:

* Advocates of good old fashioned serially-failed artificial intelligence as well as Singularitarian Robot Cultists who amplify AI advocacy into a techno-transcendental wish-fulfillment fantasy of coding a history-ending super-intelligent Robot God will, in the face of skepticism or criticism or momentary instrusions of sense, retreat from their ecstasies into talk familiar to anybody who works on network security issues or who strives to make software more user-friendly. Needless to say, nobody has to join a Robot Cult to work on network security issues or make software more user friendly -- which is why almost nobody in the whole world ever does -- but neither is there any reason at all to fancy that one can get from network security or user-friendly software to coding a history-shattering super-Dad who solves all our problems for us, unless one is the sort of person who already desperately wants to arrive at the latter outcome and won't take no for an answer.

* Advocates of Drexlerian nanotechnology who dream of creating self-replicating, universally programmable, nanobots that can assemble cheap ubiquitous materials into treasure, reliably and stably at room temperature, possibly via a desktop device combining a desktop computer and a microwave oven into a Star Trek replicator, or possibly via a diffuse responsive nanobotic Utility Fog combining virtual reality and an input interface, say, a wand, into Hogwarts magic (without the Five Principal Exceptions to Gamp's Law of Elemental Transfiguration to hold it back), indulging in a techno-transcendental wish-fulfillment fantasy of overcoming the impasse of stakeholder politics politics via cheap effortless superabundance -- a commonplace postwar futurological fantasy that already drove idiotic dreams of redemptive nuclear power too cheap to meter, "I have one word for you -- plastic," virtual reality in the irrational exuberance of the dot.bomb, the current 3D printing mania, and on and on -- will, in the face of skepticism or criticism or momentary intrusions of sense, retreat from their ecstasies into talk familiar to anybody who works in biochemistry or materials science or micro-sensors, or they will rhapsodize about the biological cell as an "existence proof" of the nanobot. Needless to say, nobody has to join a Robot Cult to work in biochemistry or materials science or microsensors -- which is why almost nobody in the whole world ever does -- but neither is there any reason at all to fancy that one can get from a biological cell to a self-replicating, universally programmable, reliable and stable at room temperature nanobotic swarm that can turn crap into treasure beyond the dreams of avarice, unless one is the sort of person who already desperately wants to arrive at the latter outcome and won't take no for an answer.

* Advocates of techno-immortalism who dream of transcending death via "enhancement" medicine, Strategies for Engineering Negligible Senescence (it just makes SENS!), cryonics, or the uploading of their "info-selves" into cyberspatial heaven (techno-immortalists tend to advocate more than one of these techno-transcendental wish-fulfillment fantasies at once, often in tandem with others I have already mentioned, since most Robot Cultists think nanobots are indispensable to cryonic resurrection schemes and superintelligent Robot Gods indispensable to heavenly cyberspatial uploading schemes), will, in the face of skepticism, criticism, or momentary intrusions of sense, retreat from their ecstasies and propose that "life-extension" is really just medicine since healthcare always extends life; that engineering immortality is really just like muscle car hobbyists incessantly tinkering to keep their beloved heaps indefinitely on the road; that the medium-term cryopreservation of some organs facilitating transplantation operations "implies" that frozen or vitrified hamburgerized brains will one day be nanobotically resurrected as comic book superhero bodies or "migrated" into cyber-angelic avatars; that a sufficiently advanced scan of your brain is really "you," presumably just like any representation of you already is really approximately "you" somehow (yeah, that one doesn't make sense at any level, but that's what these Robot Cultists believe), and so on. Needless to say, nobody has to join a Robot Cult to work in the medical profession or real medical research or advocate for access to healthcare, clean water, or food security -- which is why almost nobody in the whole world ever does -- and it really isn't true that real medicine is extending life expectancy, since most increases in that statistical measure arise from improvements in prenatal care and infant mortality and tinkering around the edges of advances in the treatment of cardiovascular disease, and the people who live longest now are not living any longer than those who lived longest in the past already did; and it isn't really true that hobbyists manage to keep most human-made gizmos working as long as human lives are lived, in fact most of our artifacts are wasted, disposable, obsolete before their usefulness runs out, destined for landfill, and anyway almost none of the knowledge that enables us to maintain one kind of artifact in good shape tells us much of anything about the knowledge that would enable us, if anything would, to keep any other kind of artifact in good shape; and it isn't really true that the short-term cryopreservation of some organs implies that the unknown electrochemical dispositions of brains and bodies that render us intelligibly "selved" can likewise be thusly so preserved, let alone revived, let alone eternalized; and materialism demands we grant that the material form in which information or even intelligence is actually incarnated is not negligible but essential to its form, and hence there can be no "migration" without loss of form from one materialization to another, and in any case nobody in their right mind ever believed that a picture of you was actually you in the first place, unless one is the sort of person who already desperately wants to arrive at the latter outcome and won't take no for an answer.

The examples can be multiplied endlessly. Regular readers of Amor Mundi will no doubt ruefully attest that I spend lots of my time doing just that. But suffice it to say that the dream of "geo-engineering" advocates that those elite-incumbent corporate-military interests that parochially profited from polluting our world quite to the brink of utter desolation will profit just as much from cleaning up the mess they made, that complacent consumers who acquiesced to this devastation can continue on in their consumption and acquiescence without any cost to themselves, that the very brute insensate industrial-extractive planetary war-making that unleashed destruction on the world can now magically heal it, however appealing that may be to your sense of style, to your sense of entitlement, to your sense of righteousness has nothing in the way of actual sense or science to recommend it. And, no, retreating back to a glib "existence proof" identifying "geo-engineering" with "gardening" -- however predictable that is as futurological gambits go -- does nothing to make the case a more plausible one or a less dangerous one.