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Saturday, January 26, 2013

On the Need for More Plainspoken Anti-Futurology

Oakland Futurist has kindly commented on some of my criticisms of the futurologists. This is a slightly edited and adapted version of my response to the piece, the original of which is available at the end of the link in its comments section.

Thanks for your attention. It's true that I like to ridicule the ridiculous, but if you read me for long you will discover soon enough that it isn't ONLY the futurologists I find ridiculous enough to ridicule.

I am an academic in the humanities and like most folks who spend time in rarefied disciplinary environments the style of our communication can seem off-putting to those who are not likewise immersed in it. Your particular charge that I must be a "postmodernist" -- which I have discovered is a term that means so many different things to so many different people it may be more trouble than it is worth -- is one I talk about specifically here, and I will let you judge whether you still think so after you think about it more. I am a champion of consensus science, public investment in science education and r&d, and I am a cheerful nonjudgemental atheist champion of secular pluralist culture in the context of democratic equity-in-diversity. Is that modernist, postmodernist, post-postmodernist, a-modernist, or what? You decide.

I do find it a bit strange that so many futurologists seem to complain so much about how very difficult my writing is -- especially since so many futurologists also seem to think themselves such paragons of sooper-intelligence, but also because one would think folks so enthusiastic about living in a world of enhanced biological and robotic sooper-intelligent beings would be able to cope a bit better with the modestly different thinking and writing styles merely human humanities academics exhibit. Be that as it may, I do think it is possible to express at least some of my anti-futurological critique in pretty straightforward ways that even people who prefer to read People Magazine can readily grapple with.

Not to put too fine a point on it, I think futurism is redundant, since I think one can be an actual scientist or policymaker if you want to contribute to technodevelopment, and one can be an sf fan (like I am myself, as it happens!) if you want to be excited about highly speculative projected technoscience. It seems to me there is already too much press release hyperbole and infomercial marketing in the pop-tech press, loose talk-tech already dominates misleading advertizing imagery and pops up in political promises and public disasterbation. Why create or prop up a whole pseudo-intellectual pseudo-scientific pseudo-professional pseudo-discipline devoted to still more of that stuff?

Subjected to sustained scrutiny futurology is, on the one hand, so general in its claims, but on the other hand so focused on indefinitely projected outcomes (such that enormous numbers of crucial intermediary steps requiring key discovery, funding, regulation, implementation steps stand between where we are and where the futurologists are fixated) it tends to function more as a kind of allegorical discourse on current problems that are better discussed in their actually existing terms and stakes, or it tends to function as a reactionary defense for current elites promising they will eventually deliver paradise whatever their current limitations if we just stay faithful to them, or it tends to indulge in pseudo-scientific wish-fulfillment fantasizing for True Believers who want to live forever in paradise but who speak in superficially technical rather than conspicuously religious terms so that the dream seems a bit more plausible in a more secular-skeptical society. It's high time to bag it for disposal.

4 comments:

jimf said...

> I do find it a bit strange that so many futurologists
> seem to complain so much about how very difficult my
> writing is -- especially since so many futurologists
> also seem to think themselves such paragons of
> sooper-intelligence. . .

And especially if it's true that, in the futurological
sanctum sanctorum,

"I've followed Less Wrong for years, intrigued, and the
religion hypothesis only recently occurred to me. The 'sequences'
are actually what largely convinced me. I'd mostly ignored them
for a long time, without considering why. Recently, I recognized
they consisted of writing that is simply terrible. A rambling mess.
Don't all religions have holy books so prolix they're painful
to read; that it takes *dedication* just to read? I can't
find a better explanation for the popularity of that prolix mess
called the sequences beside the Bible analogy. I think that
to understand the appeal of the sequences, you have to realize
that the bad writing is *part* of the appeal. How often is
that pattern encountered outside a religious context?
(The content of the sequences is mostly second-hand scholarship,
so content doesn't outweigh the manner of presentation.)"

(From the comment thread at
http://kruel.co/2012/05/13/eliezer-yudkowsky-quotes/ )

(Disclaimer: I have **not** read the "sequences".)

Black guy from the future past said...

You know what Dale, your writing is difficult, intensive, multi-faceted, and dense, and I like it that way. If I wanted more "plainspokeness", I would go talk to somebody on the bus stop or read some crap like 50 shades of grey; that's not only plain spoken, but simplistic as hell. I don't come to this website looking for content of a trivial or frivolous or simplistic character. I like my steak well done, not rare. Thank you very much.

wetwiring said...

"I think futurism is redundant, since I think one can be an actual scientist or policymaker if you want to contribute to technodevelopment, and one can be an sf fan (like I am myself, as it happens!) if you want to be excited about highly speculative projected technoscience."

I may be especially dull, but that characterization of futurism has cleared up a lot of confusion I have carried around with me. Most of the time I regard transhumanis(h)ts as 'not even wrong', but didn't quite get the reason behind your tone (there had a reason though,right?). Now I think I appreciate it better, as robocultism is basically un-self-aware (AIrony!), 4th rate SF sub-pulp. Bad art demands good critique. It's like a particularly dull stone on which we whet our mindblades...

jollyspaniard said...

I've glossed over some of your articles on ocassion when I didn't have the energy to untangle things. However it's gotten easier to the point where I can follow your arguments without mental effort. That's part of the reason why I read this blog, I want to stretch my reading comprehension.