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

Monday, August 25, 2014

Richard Jones Critiques Transhumanism

Richard Jones has been a sympathetic critic of superlative futurology for years, and his training and research makes him the rare scientist who can engage transhumanists in the "technical debates" they cherish. Most who are qualified to indulge in these debates either don't take the transhumanists seriously enough to give them the time of day and almost all the rest are already True Believers whose science was acquired and is selectively filtered in the service of their futurological faith. Richard Jones (like Athena Andreadis and a handful of others) can marshal devastating scientific critiques of techno-transcendental pretensions, but crucially remain intrigued enough by the social and cultural dimensions of futurological discourses and subcultures to remain engaged with them. Jones has recently offered the beginnings (he promises that there is more to come, and that seems to me promising indeed) of such criticism in a piece contextualizing pseudo-scientific futurological extrapolations in an apocalyptic religiosity lending itself to technological determinism over at Soft Machines:
Transhumanists are surely futurists... And yet, their ideas, their motivations, do not come from nowhere. They have deep roots, perhaps surprising roots, and following those intellectual trails... we’re led back, not to rationalism, but to a particular strand of religious apocalyptic thinking that’s been a persistent feature of Western thought... Transhumanism is an ideology, a movement, or a belief system... The idea of transhumanism is associated with three predicted technological advances. The first is a vision of a radical nanotechnology as sketched by K. Eric Drexler, in which matter is effectively digitised... the route to the end of scarcity, and complete control over the material world. The second is a conviction -- most vocally expounded by Aubrey de Grey -- that it will shortly be possible to radically extend human lifespans, in effect eliminating ageing and death. The third is the belief that the exponential growth in computer power implied by Moore’s law, to be continued and accelerated through the arrival of advanced nanotechnology, makes the arrival of super-human level artificial intelligence both inevitable and imminent. I am sceptical about all three claims on technical grounds... But here I want to focus, not on technology, but on cultural history. What is the origin of these ideas... The connection between singularitarian ideas and religious eschatology is brilliantly captured in the phrase... “Rapture of the Nerds” ... A thoughtful transhumanist might well ask, what is the problem if an idea has origins in religious thought? ... The problem is that mixed up with those good ideas were some very bad and pernicious ones, and people who are ignorant of the history of ideas are ill-equipped to distinguish good from bad. One particular vice of some religious patterns of thought that has slipped into transhumanism, for example, is wishful thinking... If you think that a technology for resurrecting dead people is within sight, we need to see the evidence. But we need to judge actually existing technologies rather than dubious extrapolations... This leads me to what I think is the most pernicious consequence of the apocalyptic and millennial origins of transhumanism, which is its association with technological determinism. The idea that history is destiny has proved to be an extremely bad one, and I don’t think the idea that technology is destiny will necessarily work out that well either. I do believe in progress... But I don’t think... [it] is inevitable. I don’t think... progress... is irreversible, either, given the problems, like climate change and resource shortages... I think people who believe that further technological progress is inevitable actually make it less likely.
I do not doubt that many singularitarians and transhumanists will declare Jones' concluding verdict false, insist that they think positive futures are far from inevitable, and explain that the whole point of their membership organizations is to facilitate better outcomes. This is why they devote so much of their energy to existential risk discourse and coding friendly AI and so on. Quite apart from the curious fact that so much of this "organized activity" amounts to titillating collective rituals in soft-porn techno-terror and techno-paradise navel-gazing, I daresay Jones would point out that the "concrete concerns" of superlative futurology with mind-uploads, desktop drexler boxes, superintelligent code, robot and clone armies, various runaway goos provide the figurative furniture (in what sense are any of these concerns really "concrete" at all?) rendering more real, more necessary, more intuitive, more natural the deeper assumptions and aspirations and conceits fueling their futurological faith. Ultimately, what futurologists deem and need to preserve as "inevitable" is the gesture of a repudiation of the open futurity inhering in the diversity of stakeholders to the present through the projection of and identification with parochial incumbencies denominated The Future. The specificities of the techno-transcendental catechism, whatever they may be from futurist to futurist, proceed from there.


Richard Jones said...

Thanks for mentioning my Soft Machines piece! As you predicted, a couple of people have commented, to object to the association of transhumanism and technological determinism. I'm not convinced. I've come to believe that the main purpose of pontificating about putative positive and negative societal impacts of speculative technologies is as a rhetorical tool to create a sense of inevitability about the arrival of the speculative technology in question, as you yourself strongly argue. (Alfred Nordmann's paper, "If and Then: a critique of speculative nano ethics" was another statement of a similar position that I also found very convincing).

Dale Carrico said...

Well, I expected their objection but I can't say I expected their objection to be convincing. Whatever their protests, it is hard to square the unqualified/underqualified triumphalist certitudes that freight so much transhumanist/ techno-immortalist/ singularitarian/ nano-cornucopiast extrapolation and advocacy with a serious or consistent doctrinal repudiation of technological determinism. The reductionism about "intelligence" "selfhood" "history" "abundance" characteristic of GOFAI discourse at the heart of so many transhumanist positions also lends itself to such determinism. And definitely in their incessant deployment of "technology-in-general" (about which they are "pro" against those who are "con," and which they regard as generally "emancipatory" or "enhancing" and so on) they refuse specificities without which which "technology" tends to become an autonomous protagonist, such autonomism again lending itself to determinist framings of technoscience vicissitiudes.

Richard Jones said...

Indeed, technology is not a monolithic thing in itself, and we should think of possible technological futures as a garden of forking paths rather than the highway to the single future that transhumanists think we are accelerating down, as indeed, they think, we ought to be. But I'll write more about that in my next post but one, which will discuss your Existenz article in more detail. My next post, since people seem to enjoy the technical so much, will be about the physics and biology of brain uploading. All plans assuming I don't get waylaid by more mundane, but pressing, issues of parochial British science policy...

Dale Carrico said...

Even if you didn't agree with me on some of the substantial questions at hand, Richard, anybody who cites Borges on this blog is all right with me.

jimf said...

I see some of the heavy-hitters (or at least the
eager-beaver Web-wide movement spin controllers)
have weighed in on Jones' post.

Giulio Prisco sez "What's the matter with wishful
thinking?" and Luke Parrish sez "Honestly, I think
you're reading too much into this [i.e., the connection
between contemporary transhumanism and age-old
religious aspirations]."

(I already stink up this blog enough; I'll let Jones speak
for himself on his own blog. ;-> )

Dale Carrico said...

Part of what intrigues me in those comments is the extent to which the concede points they used to charge were nothing but ad hominem on my part.

Prisco assertively avows the indispensability of faith and New Age mysticism in transhumanist/ singlaritarian/ techno-immortalist futurologies. Parrish avows (as if this is the most natural thing in the world) that transhumanist "thought-leaders" are just slapping together anything that sells more books and also simply assumes that fear of death drives quite a lot of techno-transcendental belief and energy.

For years I have pointed to the religiosity, PR-hype, and death-denialism lodged in the assumptions, aspirations, norms and forms of so much futurological discourse. As you know, these charges tend to have been greeted with outrage, righteous denial, denunciation, charges that I am indulging in name-calling rather than criticism, blah blah blah blah.

Although I am an atheist myself, I have no particular interest in denouncing the aesthetic idiosyncrasies of the variously faithful. It is when religious faith tries to trump the verdicts of science or pretend it is simply an alternative kind of science or policy framework that I expose its falsities and dangers, it is when religious moral practice tries to trump the reconciliations of politics or pretend it is simply an alternative kind of politics (let alone a democratizing politics) that I expose its falsities and dangers.

If the transhumanists are just an idiosyncratic and marginal faith-based community I might giggle at a South Park parody of their beliefs and I might worry about abuses if they assume authoritarian tonalities in their defensiveness, but apart from that I could scarcely care less how their members pursue their private perfections. If the transhumanists are just another fandom for futurological pop texts -- that least creative and least original and least demanding of the sf genres -- I might use them as a sad symptom of acquiescence to corporate-militarist gizmo-fetishizing consumer pseudo-culture, but apart from that I could scarcely care less about what people want to be excited about to get them through the night (if I can celebrate Janeway-7of9 shippers, I can give a thumbs up to those who want to navel gaze over fictional traversible wormholes, Holodeck Heavens or magic nano lamps).

And so, I critique regular efforts of Robot Cultists to peddle their shenanigans as a warranted science practice or legitimate policy discourse or real identity politics rather than as a loose constellations of faith-based sects and consumer fandoms.

To the extent that some of these membership organizations have attracted serious corporate funding or legitimate institutional suuport, I think it is important to be vigilant about the Robot Cultists, inasmuch as the lesson of the Neocons is that palpably silly ideas with money and plutocratic networking behind them can still do flabbergasting damage in the world if you don't pay attention to them and connect the dots in ways that expose the players and limit their impacts in real time.

And most of all, I also think superlative futurological discourses are clarifyingly illustrative extremities of more prevailing justificatory corporate-military discourses playing out across the public field of deceptive, hyperbolic marketing forms to neoliberal/neoconservative think-tank rationalizations. I do think these mainstream reactionary, reductionist, fetishistic, triumphalist, immaterialist, industrialist, eugenic, technocratic ideologies do incredible harm both to real people's lives and to our efforts to make sense of what is really happening in the world. Exposing ridiculous robocultism to ridicule can help expose what is ridiculous and pernicious in these mainstream discourses which often seem unassailable and even invisible so prevalent, so hegemonic, so commonsensical have they become.