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

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Independence Day Fun With the Singularitarians

A modest, regularly reiterated thesis here at Amor Mundi is that taking the term "singularity" seriously makes your brains fall out.

Evidence adduced in support of this thesis on this particular day is a quick reading of the so-called "Declaration of Singularity" I stumbled upon earlier today.

This is yet another techie "manifesto" that treats the Declaration of Independence as a kind of Mad-Lib template into which the clever revisionist can slot his more parochial preoccupations, usually demonstrating thereby just how little the revisionist understands the stakes, argumentative moves, or extraordinary intelligence of the original.

Let's move in for a closer look, shall we?

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men"

-- our singularitarian replaces "men" here -- not in a worthy feminist intervention, say, but by the awkward gawky phrase "sentient beings of human-level or greater intelligence," as though the metrics through which one discerns greater than "human-level" intelligence are actually known or even understood (they aren't). One wonders how "singularitarians" who might affirm this "declaration" would apply this criterion of intelligence to various nonhuman animals here and now?

-- "are created equal"

(a phrase the meaning of which is now freshly troubled by coming so hard on the heels of the introduction of the phrase "greater than," but no matter, why quibble?)

"that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life"

-- to which the singularitarian adds "of indefinite duration," as if declaring life indefinite in duration makes it so in some sense (of course, it doesn't... but changing the phrasing in this way does confuse the sense of the formulation of a "right to life" in its actual, current, and to my mind rather indispensable, meaning)

-- "liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

"to secure these rights"

-- the singularitarian declaration now slashes out the word "governments" and replaces it with "technologies and economic activity." This is exactly what you would expect from libertopians or libertechians types. They never learn, they never tire of their market fundamentalist faith, and at this point one suspects they are rarely even fully aware of the extent to which they have become utterly habituated to this kind of outright incomprehension of even the most basic imaginable terms of political life.

"are instituted among men"

-- "intelligent beings" is the replacement term here again. Honestly, as if this phrase unproblematically names the actually manifold forms of intelligence already exhibited in the world. Just consider the equally manifold sorts of normative claims differently mobilized by these different forms of intelligence already!

"deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed"

-- the "governed" is replaced here, incredibly, by "participants," the loss of the distinction between which seems to me to betray a flabbergasting incomprehension of what democratic governance is and why it works (when it does, to the extent that it does). A quick primer, for the ignorant, the dull, and the short of memory: to be democratically governed is to be governed in a form defined through its connection of representation to both the taxation by means of which government funds its activities as well as to the means by which government legitimates, as much as it can ever manage to do so, its territorial monopoly on violence. People can "participate" in an orgy, in a quilting bee, in a military drill, in an all-nighter to meet some grisly corporate deadline, and so on. But to be governed in a legitimate democracy is a very particular thing. To be a democratic citizen is a very particular thing. And, by the way, please don't imagine we don't all know all too well by now the kinds of duressed scenes of unequal exchange that will still satisfy the pro forma conditions of "consent" for the many market libertarians who may throng among those who find this singularitarian document sensible.

"That whenever any form of government"

-- the conjuration of bad institutions of governance is rather provocatively replaced with the more genocidal conjuration of "civilization" as a whole as the enemy here.

"becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute a new [one], laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness..."

On which "such principles"? According to whom exactly? If we are no longer talking about democratic governance, what exactly is meant by "laying foundations" and "organizing powers" (and presumably thereafter exercising these powers)? What processes are these, through what institutions are they implemented, with what kind of oversight? Since "civilization" is sweepingly disdained here one suspects that perhaps it will fall to a Singularitarian Priesthood to let us know just what lies in store for us here? The mind reels.

"Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments"

-- again, the word "government" so offends our singularitarian that it must always be replaced, this time by "cultures." One wonders what it says about the author's view of governance that it is a notion that can be replaced sometime with "economic activity," sometime with "cultures," and so on. Frankly, I for one think this suggests we have on hand someone without a particularly keen grasp of government, commerce, or culture.

For one thing, vital cultures are always already changing in their intercourse with other existing cultures, and so it isn't exactly clear what is imagined to be involved in an "abolition" or "deselection" of a culture apparently conjured up by the amended phrasing: "cultures long established should not be changed for light and transient causes." As if this is how culture works at all (just to be sure you get my point: "cultures" don't work like that at all).

"and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind intelligent beings are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations government"

-- again, needless to say, concrete governmental institutions so offend as such, a more sweeping unweildy replacement is necessary here. Howzabout "the existing civilization," ahhhh... that's much better! Yes, a Declaration that existing civilization must be abolished is analogized to the Declaration of Independence.


-- yes, "civilization" is now said to be "pursuing" an end. Not just concrete agents of an offensive governmental or colonial regime are "pursuing" an end, but a whole "civilization" is, and an end with

"invariably the same object [that is, one which] evinces a design to reduce" -- replaced here by "constrain," but that's neither here nor there -- "them under absolute despotism"

-- replaced by, oh dear, yes, dictionary-definition "despotism" is to replaced by the sense that there is something "despotic" in the fact of "remaining in the current developmental stage."

This is to suggest that it is not just disappointing or frustrating to discover that singularitarians don't yet have the robot bodies or flying cars they came to crave in their reading of science fiction novels (and, don't get me wrong, believe me, I get it about the pining for Mars colonies thing, believe me, I get it, you're right, it would unquestionably be cool to have Mars bases or whatever instead of fundamentalists trying to get Creationism taught in schools, I'm so with you guys on that basic idea) but that it somehow constitutes an outright injustice that singularitarians don't have the flying cars they feel were promised them by now.

I guess this is how you can be a pampered privileged clueless straight white guy who has more money and crap than almost anybody else on earth and still think there is some possible intelligible sense in which you are suffering from some kind of major, like, social exploitation that urgently demands the world's redress.

"it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government"

-- replaced, as always, by "civilization," so that, once again, we are offered up a vision of "emancipation" that is nothing short of a sweeping genocidal apocalytic repudiation of civilization as such. Sociopathic, much?

"Such has been the patient sufferance of these colonies" --

replaced by "beings." Oh, how the futurists suffer the achingly slow pace of the progress, knowing all the while with the usual certainty of zealots the treasures that would fleetly arrive if only the rest of us just stopped exploiting and constraining them by stubbornly continuing to resist just letting them take over the whole show in every aspect and organize reality according to the kooky stainless-steel vision of the world they share with the other couple dozen or so like-minded cocksure sociopaths that also think of themselves as "singularitarians"!

"and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former systems of government"

-- er, "civilization."

"The history of the present King of Great Britain"

-- this helpful specificity is replaced yet again, I fear, with an absurdly monolithically construed "Post-Industrial Age," which is characterized as a relentless "history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having the direct object" not of "the establishment of an absolute tyranny" but instead the "prevention of further evolution" which, as always, is imagined by libertechians to amount to an otherwise inevitable and spontaneous order that would crystallize in a material reality equal at last -- at last! -- to their dreamiest dreams if only the big bad gu'ment and all us stupid stubborn self-regarding people (in our countless sprawling billions) would just stop putting obstacles in the way "of these beings."

"Beings" provides yet another handy replacement for the ever-offensive appearance of words like "state" in Jefferson's original document. Of course, words like "government" and "Britain" and "state" keep appearing in the original because Jefferson was writing in the midst of an actual political struggle, rather than during a masterbatory interlude between reading chapters in some Vingean space opera, say.

"To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world."

"In the face of unrelenting progress, this civilization has continued to harken back to 'natural' limitations of development which must never be challenged."

Now, I agree that there is an ideology of the "natural" that does pernicious work in the world. It seems to me, however, that the counter discourse of anti-naturalism that prevails in some radical left theory, in the best art, in many practices of personal pleasure, self-creation, and resistence (as well as many other places) are all also part of civilization.

Also, I would note that nowhere is the ideology of "the natural" more pronounced than in the discourse of market fundamentalists when they fetishize historically contingent trading protocols as though they were "natural" laws.

"It has promoted and enforced harmful and prejudicial distinctions between human and non-human intelligence."

As an advocate of some rights for some nonhuman animals, and as someone aware of the role of bestializing rhetoric in the hideous discourse and practices of racism, sexism, xenophobia, and so on, I think there may be something to this -- although I remain unsure what exactly is meant here...

"It has set artificial and arbitrary limits as to duration of lifespan."

Yes, yes, we'd all be immortal demigods frollicking in a hi-tech Hobbiton by now if only gu'ments got out of the way of the soopergeniuses.

"It has enforced meaningless distinctions between labor and leisure."

Depends on what the labor is and who is doing it -- but there are angles of view from which I'll agree that there may be something to work with on this idea.

"It has equipped despotic governments and enterprises to restrict the means of production and self-expression to a limited few."

Well, again, the actually-existing democratic social struggle to emancipate humanity from these despots is also part of civilization -- so this "it" is a bit perplexing here.

"It has promoted the creation of artificial boundaries between creative minds."

Specify, and I'll get back to you on possible agreements here.

"We, therefore, the representatives of the United States of America"

-- changed, rather breathtakingly, to "all sentient beings of human-level or greater intelligence." Whoa, feller, you don't represent me.

"in General Congress"

-- I'm curious to what institutional reality this "congress" supposedly refers.

"assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world"

-- I won't even ask who is meant by this.

"for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the name, and by the authority of the good people of these colonies"

-- "these beings," again. Forgive me, but I for one will not ratify your presumed "representation" of me, and will stick instead to the flawed but reformable institutions of the legitimate government of which I am presently a citizen, thank you very much.

"solemnly publish and declare, that these united colonies"

-- replaced here by the in fact conspicuously disunited "beings" of the world who "are, and of right ought to be a free and independent states" -- "civilization" replaces states, of course, as usual -- "that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown"

Again, "current human civilization" is breathtakingly what this singularitarian disdains here instead of the concrete institutional reality of the British Crown. So sweeping a denunciation of civilization seems to me pretty much definitive of sociopathy, so don't let's pretend it's "name calling" when I call a singularitiarian out on it.

The "Declaration" continues: "and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain"

-- replaced, utterly nonsensically, by "Post-Industrial World," as though by simlpy saying so one manages somehow no longer to be caught up exactly as much as before in one's actual historical specificity.

"ought to be totally dissolved"

-- just dwell on this "ought" for a moment.

"and that as a free and independent states civilization, they have full power to levy war, conclude peace, live, interact, create, contract alliances, establish commerce"

-- Rule, Libertopia! All hail the predator gods!

"and to do all other acts and things which independent states" -- ew, not nasty states again, "civilization" -- "may of right do. And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor."

Best of luck to you all, you zany singularitarians! What's the weather like on your planet?


Eric said...

""It has enforced meaningless distinctions between labor and leisure."

Depends on what the labor is and who is doing it -- but there are angles of view from which I'll agree that there may be something to work with on this idea."

Funny, but when I read it what I heard was "Arbeit macht frei".

And surely the Supreme Judge is the Machine God of the Adeptus Mechanicus.

Phil said...

Best of luck to you all, you zany singularitarians! What's the weather like on your planet?

You are much too kind. Needless to say, the weather is great here!

I'm flattered that you would spend so much time on my humble offering. May I compliment you on your rather ascerbic wit; I laughed out loud in a couple of places. Realizing that there is an inherent danger in repurposing a politcal treatise to make a non-politcal point, let me take a non-masturbatory interlude between reading chapters in some Vingean space opera (I've read more Greg Egan recently, truth to tell) to clarify a few things.

1. The revolution suggested here is not a political movement. I don't really imagine that there will ever be (or should be) a "Congress" of intelligent beings meeting to declare their break with the existing civilization. Nor is there anything genocidal in the thought that a new civilization may quickly replace an existing one. The transition from hunter-gatherer civilization to agricultural was quick and ovewrwhelming -- but on balance I think we would agree, a good thing?

2. I'm really quite fond of our democratic form of government; I don't believe that all government could or should be eliminated. Forms of government may be radically changed if civilization itself undergoes the kind of change referenced above -- but then again they may not.

3. Speaking as a pampered privileged clueless straight white guy who has more money and crap than almost anybody else on earth, I do believe there is some possible intelligible sense in which many (myself, not so much) are suffering from some kind of major, like, social exploitation that urgently demands the world's redress. Poverty, disease, abuse, discrimination, that kind of stuff. I know I will earn only another sneer when I say that my hope is that technology in general -- and, yes, the singularity in particular -- will play a major role in combating (perhpas not ultimately eliminating) those things.

Thanks again for the interesting discussion. I'm adding you to my blogroll.

Dale Carrico said...

Dear Phil,

Well, you certainly know how to take a joke and, even rarer, take a jokey discourse seriously, and so I am honored to be added to your blogroll. (That's not snark.) You write: "I'm really quite fond of our democratic form of government; I don't believe that all government could or should be eliminated." I'll take your word for it on this, and admit then I was wrong to think (as I did) otherwise.

Let me simply say that I have been tangling with singularitarian discourse for well over a decade (I wrote about it in my MA thesis way back in 1994, up to the present day) and it seems to me that the default culture of singularity-talk is

[1] often quite explicitly hostile to democratic politics

[2] often embraces what look to me like facile market libertarian formulations that amount to anti-democratic politics (though sometimes their adherents would not agree that this is an entailment)

[3] often are freighted with a curious transcendentalizing vocabulary that in my view encourages a kind of political complacency, social separatism (in some folks bordering on sociopathy), and a special vulnerability to the formation of priestly castes -- again, to me, profoundly anti-democratic

[4] very often partakes of the more general technocratic view that prefers engineering solutions to deliberative processes whenever possible, and often disdains the very idea of giving a voice to the "ignorant masses" even in matters of public technodevelopmental decisions that affect them.

Certainly not everybody who identifies as a "singularitarian" (how ever many people there finally are who do so identify) or who is taken up in some measure into the rhetoric of singularitarian thinking espouses -- explicitly or not -- all of these attitudes or weights them the same ways.

I am very interested in fundamentalist formations -- which I see as responses to the dislocations of disruptive technoscientific development and, further, which I think of as dangerously anti-democratizing in their aims and effects.

There are forms of singularitarianism that I think definitely fit within my general critique of fundamentalism and so I write about them, too. I'm sorry if I wrongly mistook your own views as espousing such a variant -- but I am sure as a non-fundamentalist pro-democracy singularitarian you must know as well as I do the kinds of koo-koo bananas discourse I am talking about, so I'll just assume you are even more frustrated and worried about that stuff than I am. As a self-described singularitarian I daresay the stakes are much higher for you than for me in such matters.

I will admit that the idea of a "non-fundamentalist pro-democracy singularitarian" makes little sense to me at all personally, but as a person who knows all too well my own limitations I am the last person in the world to say that personal incomprehension is inevitably a strike against you... so, you know, go on with your bad self! The world needs more anti-fundamentalist pro-democrats, even, possibly, for all I know, singularitarian ones.

I am sure that you will understand why I would have assumed your effort at, as you say, "repurposing a politcal treatise to make a non-politcal point," would seem to me to symptomize the anti-governmental hostility so commonplace in singularitarian discourse. But, again, if I misattributed to you views that you do not hold I am sorry for that. I will say that it is hard for me to see how the point of your repurposed treatise could really escape being significantly political after all, in which case the gesture itself really does somewhat symptomize the antipathy I find so worrisome -- even if this isn't something you would explicitly advocate for or whatever. But, come what may, I appreciate your comments and your good humor.

In closing, a few quick, I hope consoling, words: First, I'm a huge fan of both Vinge and Egan myself, I'll have you know. Second, as a glimpse at my pic will disclose, I too am a privileged white guy -- queer, it's true, but I fear in a really boring way that lends little street cred -- and definitely too prone to cluelessness for comfort myself. I don't hold that against you. But I do know the difference between social injustice and exploitation and not living in an L5 torus today even though an OMNI magazine reading much earlier version of myself felt quite sure I would be. Third, I too hold out quite a lot of hope for emancipatory technoscientific development. I just think that fleshing out those hopes is as much or more a job for democracy as for engineers. So, far from a sneer, my best to you, d