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

Friday, October 12, 2007

Democracy at the Transhumapalooza

An article has appeared online from The New Scientist discussing the recent conference of the World Transhumanist Association, held not long ago in Chicago.

I am, of course, a longstanding and sometimes rather acerbic critic of the transhumanist movement (see here and here and here, for example), despite the fact that I count a few self-identified transhumanists -- like the democratic socialist feminist Buddhist green James Hughes -- among my friends and colleagues.

To the extent that transhumanism is simply a kind of literary salon culture of enthusiasts for science fiction and futurological blue-skying, I suppose many of these are relatively harmless and amiable folks with considerable geek-to-geek allure for the likes of me. But there are also, I fear, a significant number of transhumanist-identified persons who fall very squarely into the teeth of the critiques of Superlative Technology Discourses and Sub(cult)ural Futurisms I've been hammering at for the last few weeks here at Amor Mundi.

There is no need to rehearse the whole critique again (I've Immaculately Collected many of the relevant documents in a Superlative Summary, for those who are interested), but I will say that it is rather intriguing to observe how readily the facile Superlative frames boil to the surface in a popular piece like this.

Among the charges of my critique that receive the most pouting and stamping from Superlative Technocentrics are these:
[1] That there is a tendency to separatism and alienation in their marginal sub(cult)ural identification with particular projected technodevelopmental outcomes;

[2] That their exhibition of self-appointed technocratic elitism on questions of technodevelopmental decision-making tends to devalue democratic deliberation;

[3] That their regularly reiterated fantasy that "progress" is simply a matter of a socially indifferent and autonomous accumulation of technical capacities tends to yield linear, unilateral, elite-imposed models of technoscientific change;

[4] That their further belief that such accumulation can deliver (and even, in some versions, will inevitably deliver) quite on its own, emancipatory powers and abundances so profound as to permit us to circumvent the impasse of stakeholder-politics altogether, tends to feed and to feed on anti-political and anti-popular attitudes more generally.

I argue that, taken together, these tendencies render Superlative Technocentricities and Sub(cult)ural Futurisms absolutely anti-democratizing in their assumptions, their ends, and their overall thrust -- so much so as to subvert the democratizing ends of even those Superlative Technocentrics who consciously espouse more progressive ideals -- and also provide powerful rhetorical rationales congenial to neoliberal/neoconservative outlooks and the incumbent corporate-militarist interests.

Needless to say, the nicest and most well-meaning folks among the Transhumanist-types and Singularitarians and Technological Immortalists (poor things) take extreme umbrage at these charges when I make them. How ferociously they deny the very idea that their politics might be reactionary (what I sometimes describe as "retro-futurist").

Why, I voted for John Kerry! one incensed young Singularitarian once took pains to reassure me. Why, proposing such structural correlations between these broader attitudes toward technoscientific change and one's effective political orientation is nothing but sloppy armchair psychoanalyzing, another fulminated. This is nothing but name calling, nothing but ad hominem attack, nothing but character assassination, chimes an interminable chorus of Superlative Technocentrics to my every political and cultural intervention into their discourse. You'll be hearing from my lawyer! threatened another (true story).

Let's see how some of them speak for themselves, then, shall we? (Skip my parenthetic commentary if you just want the voice of the journalist and the various Transhumanists quoted in the piece. And do follow the link to the whole piece, since I'm only excerpting it here.)
[T]ranshumanists have been attacked for jeopardizing the future of humanity. What if they ended up creating a race of elite superhumans bent on enslaving the unmodified masses, or unwittingly programmed an army of self-replicating nanobots that would turn us all into grey goo?

(For me the former problem seems far likelier than the latter, indeed, something like the former looks to me like a straightforward programmatic entailment of the typical transhumanist advocacy of "enhancement" (treated as prosthetic perfectionism in a direction that everybody already agrees on in advance, though certainly we don't, or should agree on -- in a way that squares with the parochial transhumanist takes on these matters -- so it doesn't matter much that we don't), rather than a more technoprogressive advocacy of universal (informed, nonduressed) consensual non-normative healthcare provision. But, more to the point, if you think these typically hyperbolic journalistic question are just so much provocation and noise (I dismissed them as such at first myself), it is rather astonishing to observe the eagerness with which some transhumanists seem to want to encourage such worries. For more of what I mean, simply read along.)
In 2004, political scientist Francis Fukuyama singled out transhumanism as the world's "most dangerous idea."

(As we all know, of course, Francis Fukuyama has a certain experience with marginal sub(cult)ures bent on imposing their extreme and anti-democratic worldview upon an unwilling and unready world, having carried water for years for the Neoconservative Death-Eaters, a klatch of mostly white assholes utterly convinced they were the smartest people in the room as they engineered world-scale disaster after world-scale disaster in plain sight of an appalled world.)
Now this small-scale movement aims to go mainstream. WTA membership has risen from 2000 to almost 5000 in the past seven years, and transhumanist student groups have sprung up at university campuses from California to Nairobi.

(Think carefully about those numbers. At best, transhumanism, so-called, remains an utterly marginal sub(cult)ure, especially given the scale of its presence in the media landscape, not to mention the authority some of its rhetorical framings of technodevelopmental issues have come to assume in that landscape.)
It has attracted a series of wealthy backers, including Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal, who recently donated $4 million to the cause, and music producer Charlie Kam, who paid for the Chicago conference.

(Needless to say this development is the furthest thing from evidence of the development with which this paragraph began, "this small-scale movement aims to go mainstream." If it is true, as I think it is, that the technocratic elitism so prevalent in the transhumanist movement is especially congenial to incumbent interests with a stake in assuring the powerful that ordinary people are too ill-informed to be entrusted with a say in the developmental decisions that affect them, and if the techno-centric emphasis in transhumanist attitudes toward social problem-solving is especially congenial to incumbent interests with a stake in assuring a continued flow of money always in the direction of corporate-military research (welfare for the already-rich stealthed, of course, as "national defense" and "economic development"), then we can expect quite a bit of money to find its way eventually into transhumanist and quasi-transhumanist organizations. It remains to be seen how the more democratically-minded transhumanists will cope with this development. My expectations are shaped by the sense that money, attention, and success provide plenty of material for rationalization, and hence I think that the democratic transhumanists will, over the long term, prove to have provided respectability, credibility, and cover for the more reactionary elements in their movement, while corporatist support assures that these reactionary elements direct the movement. It may interest people to know that Peter Thiel serves on the Board of the Hoover Institution and is co-author of a book, The Diversity Myth: 'Multiculturalism' and the Politics of Intolerance at Stanford.)
Other well-known speakers are also on the roster, including… Ray
Kurzweil, the group's unofficial prophet.

(Not all groups have "prophets," official or non-official. Just saying.)
They don't look very threatening, though perhaps not very diverse
either. Most WTA members are white, middle-aged men…

(Mm-hm.)
AI theorist Eliezer Yudkowsky also believes the movement is driven by an ethical imperative. He sees creating a superhuman AI as humanity's best chance of solving its problems: "Saying AI will save the world or cure cancer sounds better than saying 'I don't know what's going to happen'." Yudkowsky thinks it is crucial to create a "friendly" super-intelligence before someone creates a malevolent one, purposefully or otherwise. "Sooner or later someone is going to create these technologies,"

(So, by God, let it be MEEEEE. Hard to believe this paragraph began with the claim that "the movement is driven by an ethical imperative." What kind of ethical imperative, one wonders, drives you into a Robot Overlord arms race with unspecified antagonists for control of the world, exactly?)
The theme of saving humanity continues with presentations on... raising baby AIs in the virtual world of Second Life, as well as surveillance tactics for weeding out techno-terrorists and a suggested solution for the population explosion: uploading 10 million people onto a 50-cent computer chip.

(All Very Serious, indeed.)
More immediate issues facing humanity, such as poverty, pollution and the devastation of war, tend to get ignored.

(Hm. Fancy that.)
I discover the less egalitarian side to the transhumanist community

(You mean, even less egalitarian?)
when I meet Marvin Minsky, the 80-year-old originator of artificial neural networks and co-founder of the AI lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Ordinary citizens wouldn't know what to do with eternal life," says Minsky. "The masses don't have any clear-cut goals or purpose." Only scientists, who work on problems that might take decades to solve appreciate the need for extended lifespans, he argues.

(Lovely.)
He is also staunchly against regulating the development of new technologies.

(Shall I pretend to be shocked?)
"Scientists shouldn't have ethical responsibility for their inventions, they should be able to do what they want," he says. "You shouldn't ask them to have the same values as other people."

(Marvin Minsky, ladies and gentlemen.)
The transhumanist movement has been struggling in recent years with bitter arguments between democrats like [James] Hughes and libertarians like Minsky. Can [unofficial "prophet," Ray] Kurzweil's keynote speech unite the opposing factions?

(Let me reiterate, in my view these factions are easily reconciled: the democrats need only be tolerated so long as they provide respectable cover for the reactionaries among them, meanwhile both sides foreground their shared technological enthusiasm to the exclusion of their real substantive political differences -- so divisive! so negative! -- with the consequence that the incumbent corporatist interests that overwhelmingly shape technological discourse always actually benefit without having to fight for this outcome, the reactionaries get something for nothing and the democrats get nothing in exchange for everything. Hey, what's not to like?)
On the final day of the meeting… Kurzweil offers a few possible solutions to today's global dilemmas, such as nano-engineered solar panels to free the world from its addiction to fossil fuels.

(He means, surely, that we must all struggle to fund and regulate and educate and promote such technodevelopmental outcomes in the public interest? That we must all learn from our many historical mistakes that we have to attend to the actual diversity of stakeholders to technodevelopmental change? That the distribution of costs, risks, and benefits of technoscience must better reflect that diversity, else "development" become a short-sighted parochial environmentally unsustainable socially destabilizing project of planetary precarization, exploitation, confiscation, and violence? Right? Right?)
But he is opposed to taxpayer-funded programmes such as universal healthcare as well as any regulation of new technology, and believes that even outright bans will be powerless to control or delay the end of humanity as we know it.

(Wow, I guess he did provide a way to unite the democratic and reactionary transhumanists, after all! What a relief!)
"People sometimes say, 'Are we going to allow transhumanism and artificial intelligence to occur?'" he tells the audience. "Well, I don't recall when we voted that there would be an internet."

(Ray Kurzweil, ladies and gentlemen. Unofficial "prophet" of the transhumanist movement. It should go without saying, by the way, that those of us fighting for Net Neutrality, p2p, a2k, FlOSS, and so on are engaged in precisely the kind of democratic social struggle that is being denigrated in the glib dismissal of the very idea that "we voted that there would be an internet.")

Remember the hyperbolic questions with which the piece began? "What if they ended up creating a race of elite superhumans bent on enslaving the unmodified masses, or unwittingly programmed an army of self-replicating nanobots that would turn us all into grey goo?" Look no further for the source of worries such as these. They arise from the self-congratulatory and anti-social pronouncements of transhumanists themselves.

22 comments:

Michael Anissimov said...

Actually, the worries arise because they are in fact plausible.... it's hardly "self-congratulating" to conceive of the possibility of humanity's extinction. In fact, it's quite gloomy, but necessary. Numerous sci-fi movies have done so, but focusing on dramatic tension and fictional flourish, they fail to be realistic and distract people from the actual threats.

Minsky goes too far. He is being extremely crabby and elitist. I challenge anyone to find another transhumanist with that view, "Ordinary citizens wouldn't know what to do with eternal life". This is anathema to the goals of the organization I co-founded in 2002, the Immortality Institute, which seeks to make radical life extension therapies available to everyone and respects the common man. ImmInst has hundreds of paying members and represents the vast bulk of immortalists.

Did we vote for there to be an Internet? No. This fact does not denigrate the causes of p2p, Net Neutrality, etc. It merely states that the Big Picture (Internet) was inevitable and unstoppable, whereas the specifics (p2p, etc.) are negotiable, and dependent on activists to make progress.

In a similar way, I consider Drexlerian manufacturing to be extremely likely, but the specifics of how it unfolds will have to be wrestled with using *both* top-down (international law) and bottom-up (p2p) solutions. Throwing away either piece of the puzzle is a mistake.

Back to extinction risks again. We know that there exist technologies that threaten large numbers of human beings -- nukes for instance. If the reality of this threat is "congenial to the military-industrial complex", then do you propose we go into denial and ignore it? Those concerned with extinction risks care about the them in spite of their sociopolitical implications, not because of them!

I do hope that more money keeps coming in to transhumanist and quasi-transhumanist organizations... but not from incumbent interests. Indeed, transhumanist organizations tend to get their funding from many small donations (the people), rather than a few large donations or grants from incumbent interests.

You contradict yourself in this post. Near the beginning, you say that the emergence of elite superhumans is "far likelier than [grey goo]". But at the end, you pooh pooh the idea. Make up your mind!

The rhetorical implications of a technological threat are not the criteria by which the probability of that threat should be judged. This should be obvious. I can imagine you at the first atomic bomb test, saying "this bomb can't possibly work, because it would provide powerful rhetorical rationales congenial to neoliberal/neoconservative outlooks!" Then the bomb explodes anyway, because it obeys the laws of physics, not the laws of rhetoric.

I've come to terms that all of what you talk about is ad hominem. There's a reason why ad hominem is listed as among the logical flaws in an argument -- it obscures the underlying issues. But since I've come to terms with it, it's what I expect.

As for transhumanism or Singularity activism being a cult, see Rapture of the Nerds, Not.

Have a pleasant Friday! It sure is rainy today.

Anonymous said...

Hans Moravec is also OK with human extinction at the hands of our 'Mind Children' (with a period of prosperous retirement before we are devoured by transcendent uploads from space!)

Yudkowsky was planning on throwing humanity under the bus when he was focused on objective morality.

Robin Hanson endorses the repugnant conclusion, converting the universe into impoverished upload copies.

Kurzweil and Rothblatt may want to become transcendent uploads and eat the rest of us themselves to have more atoms for redundancy in maintaining very long lives.

Hugo de Garis...fish in a barrel, although I will admit he's not a fair representative of transhumanists.

Pete Voss...if he were (ridiculously) within 5-10 years of AI, we would be screwed.

Josh Hall...Panglossian evolutionary dynamics will cause AIs to let us exist rather than reconfiguring us into computronium, hurrah! OPEC is also an instance of cooperation between near-equals based on game theoretic considerations.

Scary stuff.

Michael Anissimov said...

Hans Moravec thinks it is inevitable that we will be replaced or "evolve", and his acceptance of the scenario is based on that premise. Given the choice of preserving humanity, he'd definitely choose "yes".

Yudkowsky has been calling altruism "the meaning of life" for over a decade.

Where does Robin Hanson say this?

Kurzweil published a book on how to help baby boomers live forever, because he cares about other people. He didn't just write the book for money, because he knew he wouldn't make much money off it.

Rothblatt is offering a free service to log details about our personality and history to assist in uploading. She considers "diversity" among her fundamental values (look at the Terasem site).

Hugo de Garis... he's a bit nutty, you got me.

Peter Voss... why would we be screwed? He is another person focused on life extension for the benefit of all.

I disagree with Josh Hall's ideas, but again, what he thinks is likely to happen is distinct from what he wants to happen.

AnneC said...

Dale: To some extent, I have to wonder if some of what you're seeing as "elitism" is really an issue of communication styles and shared interests. A lot of present-day folks calling themselves "transhumanists" probably grew up not having all that many people they felt able to relate to. Not because they/we were "elitist" or thought ourselves better than others, but because other kids just didn't care about sci-fi or lasers or robots or physics or any of the other cool, interesting subjects we wanted to read about and discuss.

I might be perpetuating a stereotype here, and I invite any transhumanists reading this who were Prom King/Queen or Football Captain, or who won "Most Popular" in the yearbook to correct me on this, but the fact of the matter is, the Internet has made Nerd Cliques possible and transhumanism is basically a kind of Nerd Clique. (And I say this as a card-carrying Nerd Clique member. I'm not ashamed or afraid to admit that it's nice to be accepted for who I am, with all my weird interests, for basically the first time in my life.)

While I do understand and take many of your critiques of superlativity seriously, I do sometimes have a hard time gaging the degree to which you really think so-and-so is a "transcendentalizing guru wannabe". I suspect, sometimes, that some of your language is purposefully hyperbolic -- after all, if you wrote boringly short sentences along the lines of, "Bob is nice", or "Mary is silly", you'd be less likely to get your critiques read and considered by the people they are aimed at. In short, I think you are trying to make people think. And there's nothing wrong with that, but sometimes I do think maybe you are seeing "elitism" and purposeful alienation in what is simply the continuation of a pattern that has followed a person since childhood.

That said, I've appreciated your pointing out how, when you remove the subcultural jargon from concepts like "superlongevity", you end up with basic concepts like health care. This is my view anyway -- that what is commonly thought of as "life extension" is just "health care for old people that actually works the way it should". But seeing as I've not had much luck communicating with non-nerds throughout my life so far, sometimes it's difficult to recognize when the things I'm talking about actually overlap considerably with things that "everyone" is talking about.

Just a few thoughts...

AnneC said...

A few clarifications, as well: when I referred to, the continuation of a pattern that has followed a person since childhood. I meant, "The pattern in which a person wants to talk about something, and finds it interesting and possibly important, but most people in their immediate vicinity don't seem to care. Or in which the person's communication style doesn't seem to easily mesh with that of most around him/her".

The result of this is that some people grow up thinking that his or her interests are highly rare or unusual, and that they need to come up with a whole new vocabulary to describe the stuff they're interested in as a result. This, not a desire to be "special" is probably where a lot of subcultural vocabulary/jargon comes from. At least, that's one interpretation.

jfehlinger said...

Anne Corwin wrote:

> I do sometimes have a hard time gauging the degree to which
> you really think so-and-so is a "transcendentalizing guru wannabe".
> I suspect, sometimes, that some of your language is purposefully
> hyperbolic. . .

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. We're not getting through.

Yes, he means it. Yes, **we** mean it. In the ugliest
and most literal sense of the words. In the sense meant
by the authors of a journal article such as "Why Tyrants Go
Too Far: Malignant Narcissism and Absolute Power"
(_Political Psychology_, March 2002).

Do you think all the quotes I've provided from, say,
Anthony Storr (_Feet of Clay_) or Kramer & Alstad
(_The Guru Papers_) are simply out of left field, unconnected
with what's being discussed here? Do you think L. Ron Hubbard
and Ayn Rand (let alone Mao Zedong or Slobodan Milosevic,
or for that matter Jeffrey Skilling [Enron's CEO] or Martha
Stewart, or Paris Hilton) are "just folks?"

Again, it's dangerous to point fingers too explicitly at
particular people -- Martha Stewart sued a tabloid newspaper
for suggesting that she displays the symptoms of
Borderline Personality Disorder. But it's important for
people to be alert to patterns of thought and behavior
that suggest that people are "off" in these important
ways.

More quotes (from Barbara Oakley's _Evil Genes: Why Rome
Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My
Mother's Boyfriend_ [and check out her Web site
http://www2.oakland.edu/users/oakley/ ]):

From Chapter 11, "Shades of Gray":

NAIVETE

Credility involving deceptive, deeply pathological behavior
crops up everywhere. Indeed, it's difficult for many
people to understand how emergenically different the
successfully sinister can be -- we just can't believe these
people can be that different from us. Historian Robert Waite
describes the wonderful impression Hitler made on others:
"To the sophisticated French ambassador, he appeared as
'a well-balanced man, filled with experience and wisdom.'
An intellectual found him 'charming,' a person with 'common
sense' in the English sense. The British historian
Arnold Toynbee came away from an interview thoroughly
'convinced of his sincerity in desiring peace.' The elegant
and precise Anthony Eden was impressed by Hitler's 'smart,
almost elegant appearance' and found his command of
diplomatic detail 'masterful.'"

Sadly, we have plenty of current examples as well.
George W. Bush initially thought subtly devious Russian
president Vladimir Putin was "straightforward and trustworthy."
Media mogul Ted Turner agreed, dropping in to spend an
hour with his "old friend" Putin during a visit that was
heavily covered on CNN. (CNN **didn't** cover the nearly
simultaneous armed raid on Putin's nemesis -- news source
Media Most Group -- by masked men armed with automatic
weapons claiming to be "tax inspectors." The many
recently liquidated critics of Putin's regime would also
testify to Putin's chameleon-like nature.)

President Jimmy Carter, arguably a decent man, befriended
and feted Nicolae Ceausescu, handing a propaganda coup
to one of the world's nastiest dictators. Carter has also
made a post-presidential habit of being conned: befriending
career terrorist Yasir Arafat, singing the praises of
brutal North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung, and certifying
as fair and aboveboard a questionable third world election.

President Clinton was just as gullible regarding Saddam
Hussein: "I think that if he were sitting here on the couch
I would further the change in his behavior. You know if
he spent half the time . . . worrying about the welfare
of his people that he spends worrying about where to place
his SAM missiles . . . I think he'd be a stronger leader
and be in a lot better shape over the long run." Dan Rather
was similarly mushy with Hussein, allowing him the
commercial airtime to speak, without rebuttal, about how
much he loves peace and humanity.

_60 Minutes_ stalwart Mike Wallace was charmed by Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad, the deeply fanatical president of Iran, effusively
describing him as "very smart, savvy, self-assured, good
looking in a strange way . . . infinitely more rational
than I had expected him to be." Wallace had been similarly
obsequious with Syrian tyrant Hafez Assad as well as the
deeply Machiavellian Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat,
prompting journalist David Bar-Ilan to note: "Had
[Wallace] treated American . . . politicians this way,
he would have been drummed out of the profession."

Naivete about people's motives, especially from well-known
figures, allows Machiavellians a public stage to work their
confusing, deceptive wiles. But sometimes, Machiavellians
achieve this publicity by covertly appealing to their
interlocutor's narcissism rather than naivete. When
mediators and interviewers interact with a well-known
sinister character and bring out the seeming best in him,
it provides an opportunity to flaunt their own character:
"See. He may seem evil, but he's really not so bad.
At least not to intelligent, nice, right-thinking
people like me. The guy's just a pussycat when **I**
talk to him."

. . .

HEALTHY CYNICISM

Over the years, I've found that nice people (that is, the
majority of people) generally fall into two categories --
those who **have** dealt with and have been wounded by
the successfully sinister, and those who **haven't**.
Those who haven't -- which naturally includes many younger
people -- often simply don't believe that the successfully
sinister exist. After all, since elementary school they've
been told that virtually anyone can somehow be reasoned
with. Even if a problem does arise, the naif thinks, surely
the seemingly sinister person can be taught how to act
more reasonably, perhaps through the proper modelling of
patience, understanding, and compassion. Explaining the
true nature surrounding the cognitive dysfunction and
emotional imbalance of the successfully sinister to a naif
is a little like trying to explain color to a blind person --
it is no wonder that such naivete continues even when
someone is warned point blank to be wary. People simply
aren't generally raised and educated to understand that
small percentages of the population -- some of whom are
outwardly very successful -- are quite capable of masking
deeply disturbed personalities. Sometimes, sadly, the
devasating reality of these "unfixable" personalities
becomes clear only after marriage and children. (As
relationship expert Russell Friedman once quipped: "You
can't love someone into mental health.")

On the other hand, those who **have** dealt with the
successfully sinister usually know instantly what I'm talking
about. When I describe the concept behind this book,
within seconds and without a further word from me, people
I barely know will unwrap and describe psychic wounds that
they've carried privately for years -- the ex-wife who left
the kids and a trail of credit card debt; the supervisor
who made life a living hell; the friend who wormed close,
mimicking hair, dress, even a way of talking -- and
stole a boyfriend; the uncle who took his grandmother's
life savings and left her to die unattended in a filthy
nursing home. "I can't believe there might be some kind
of scientific explanation for this," the **have-dealt-withs**
tell me time after time, "I never even talk about it
because no one would believe me." Without knowledge of
recent studies, people have little way of figuring out that
their seemingly isolated experiences are far more common
than they'd realized -- and that extraordinarily enlightening
explanations are becoming available.

In an ironic twist of justice, it appears that the worst of
all human crimes -- genocide -- often occurs simply because
people can't believe that heretofore noncriminal humans
can perpetrate horrendous acts such as mass murder or
gratuitous torture. "I don't believe you," said Supreme
Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, when told by an eyewitness
of the "naked corpses in the Warsaw ghetto, yellow stars,
starving children, Jew hunts, and the smell of burning
flesh." Frankfurter interrupted to add: "I do not mean
you are lying. I simply said I cannot believe you."


From Chapter 12, "The Sun Also Shines on the Wicked":

[H]ighly successful Machiavellians appear to lurk in every
human population. With their extraordinary ability to
stack any deck in their favor, their relentless need for
control, and their self-serving ruthlesness, those with
at least a modicum of talent, looks, and assertiveness
are more likely to be found in positions of power.
This means the closer you climb toward the nexus of power
in any given social structure, the more likely you'll
be able to find a person with Machiavellian tendencies.
It really doesn't matter what the underlying political
system is -- democratic, fascist, communist, or religious --
or whether the social structure involves a company,
university, schoolboard, religious group, city council,
state government, federal government, or UN-style
supragovernment; the larger the social structure and the
bigger the payoff, the more Machiavellians eventually
seem to find a way to creep to the top in numbers all
out of proportion to their underlying percentage in
society. . .

Machiavellians can have an incalculably restrictive, demoralizing,
and corrupt effect on those in their sphere of influence.
But what is worse is that Machiavellian behavior in a
family, company, religious institution, school, union,
or governmental unit -- in fact, in virtually any
social group -- often seems to reach awe-inspiring
proportions before anyone feels compelled to take solid
action. Many people simply prefer to go about their
everyday lives rather than take up a righteous cause;
it is often much easier to simply ignore, evade, justify,
or silence the speech of anyone who does speak out than
to constructively act against unsavory activities.
Ordinary people's emote control also means that sinister
behavior can be seen as less important or -- because of
calcified beliefs about an ideology, institution, or
person -- even justifiable. Moreover, the utter ruthlessness
or some Machiavellians can mean that even the most
sincere and altruistic keep quiet because of realistic
concerns for themselves and their loved ones. Taking
action against a Machiavellian is often a dangerous
proposition, and no one takes on such a task lightly.
(Friends in the know are often just being reasonable
when they recommend cautious silence.) All of these factors
serve to keep a stable sinister system intact,
despite the fact that such a system is often less effective
than other, more open systems that make effective
use of the "wisdom of crowds." . . .

When kindhearted people are unaware that a few leading
individuals in "their group" are likely to be sinister,
they are ripe for victimization. Their own kindness,
in fact, is turned against them and others. Hitler's
greatest strength, for example, was his ability to appeal
not only to the worst characteristic -- hatred -- but
also to people's best qualities -- faith, hope, love,
and sacrifice. As with most Machiavellians, he was
a master at turning people's best traits against them.
"He confided the secret of his approach to an intimate:
'When I appeal . . . for sacrifice, the first spark
is struck. The humbler the people are, the greater the
craving to identify themselves with a cause bigger
than themselves.'"

jfehlinger said...

Dale wrote:

> To the extent that transhumanism is simply a kind of
> literary salon culture of enthusiasts for science fiction
> and futurological blue-skying, I suppose many of these
> are relatively harmless and amiable folks with considerable
> geek-to-geek allure for the likes of me.

Isn't it interesting, though, how the top-tier SF authors --
even those who make free use of >Hish and transcendental
tropes: folks like Bruce Sterling, William Gibson,
Greg Egan, David Brin, and even Vernor Vinge -- manage to
keep an air of bemused skepticism toward some of
their more, shall we say, overheated fans?

I say "even Vernor Vinge" because, for all that he's credited
with "inventing" the Singularity, he's capable of turning
a somewhat jaundiced eye on the hoopla in something like
his recent _Rainbows End_ (absence of apostrophe in the
first word of the title deliberate and meaningful).

The fiction is all the better for the authors' detachment --
more supple and entertaining.

SF self-consciously targeted as a "Valentine" to the
transhumanists would be (has been) awfully dull and formulaic.

Dale Carrico said...

Hi, Anne! I know just what you mean when you direct my attention to "nerd cliques" and communication styles. In a way, my response to Saletin's review of IEET's HETHR Conference a year and a half ago was a comparable defense of nerds against what I perceived as the repressive social conservatism at the heart of a bioconservative response to that conference.

In this post, the important stuff happens early, even if the amusing more memorable snark happens later. One of the early things one is apt to forget is that I cheerfully admit: "To the extent that transhumanism is simply a kind of literary salon culture of enthusiasts for science fiction and futurological blue-skying, I suppose many of these are relatively harmless and amiable folks with considerable geek-to-geek allure for the likes of me." Part of the reason I included this statement in my rather critical review is to remind everybody that I'm certainly nerdish too. Indeed it is because I see the world nerdly that I can see some of the things that trouble me in Superlativity in the first place.

Unfortunately, the elitism I am talking about doesn't amount to a kind of glib slam against insular geeks caught up in a lexical gravity-well of idiosyncratic jargon. I sketch the outlines here -- and have gone to great lengths to delineate it in endless posts elsewhere -- of what I am worrying about under the heading of elitism: I mean, very specifically,

[ONE] An immensely widespread attitude that would substitute technocratic decision-making from self-appointed experts over democratic deliberation on technodevelopmental decisions that affect diverse stakeholders;

[TWO] A rhetoric/analytic that preferentially benefits incumbent elite interests, mostly corporate-militarist formations, sometimes because technocentrics identify with these elite interests but often -- and this is terribly important -- despite the fact that they do not so identify;

[THREE] A separate critique of the hierarchical/fundamentalist social formations that arise out of the identity politics of sub(cult)ural futurisms like transhumanism, and which become especially pronounced at the edges of sub(cult)ural technocentricity, in places where identity politics gives way to something much more explicitly cult-like.

And, yes, to answer your question, I do mean quite literally that some transhumanist types are caught up in a cult, that there are charismatic figures invested with and driven by the dangerous need for guru status, that in these formations the powerful drive for emancipation becomes a project of transcendance which, unmoored from the proper aesthetic location of such projects of personal/private perfection go on to motor profoundly anti-political politics.

To really put my cards on the table, I think Singularitarianism is the mode of Superlative Technocentrism that is most freighted with the trappings of cultism, authoritarianism, True Belief, and the rest. There are pockets of Technological Immortalism that are just as bad. The discourses and organizations in which these two technocentrisms connect up are especially troubling politically.

This is not to deny that there are surely bright, sensible, progressive people drawn for a time to these discourses and formations, nor to deny that interesting work emerges from these cultural locations (provocative work always arises out of such extremes of experience, esoteric mysticisms, lives devoted to poetry, sexual promiscuity, drug culture, and so on, after all). But that does not touch the critique I am making nor the worries that drive that critique.

"I suspect, sometimes, that some of your language is purposefully hyperbolic -- after all, if you wrote boringly short sentences along the lines of, "Bob is nice", or "Mary is silly", you'd be less likely to get your critiques read and considered by the people they are aimed at. In short, I think you are trying to make people think."

I feel very sure that the overabundant majority of people are reading me in spite of my writing style rather than because of it. This impression is confirmed in the incessant complaints I receive about my density, verbosity, obfuscation, and so on!

I am trying to make people think, and you are right to think that I am not above a bit of provocative hyperbole here or there there to break the crust of convention where it seems especially thick.

But the honest truth is my writing (heaven help me) reflects very directly the way I think. I write very quickly, often without revising, and so my writing reflects my formulations of issues as I am putting them together. I think issues through in arguing about them online. The struggle of readers to make sense of my point often bespeaks the effort I am making to make sense of my object.

Also, I truly love language. I love the way words sound, I love accidents, typos and misspellings that seem to nudge you down different paths than you intended, I love the rhythm of words, and plays on words, and to play with words.

Even when I am struggling very seriously to make sense of an issue or to convince people to think differently about some question, I am also always caught up in the pleasure of writing. I'll definitely eschew easy clarity when the price is a felicitous turn of phrase.

My writing often makes me laugh out loud, I really enjoy it personally. I love my writing because I love the process of thinking and my writing reflects the texture of my thinking very directly, but also because I just love playing around with words.

But love my writing as I do, I have to admit that I never would have imagined that other people would love it like I do. That some people do has been another profound pleasure for me.

But, anyway, I honestly don't think my rather convoluted style has made me particularly popular, nor can I think of a moment when I made a writing choice with an eye to finding my way to such popularity. The rules that govern such things are as much a mystery to me now as they were when I was a kid, and I have long sense given up trying to understand or much care about or master that kind of stuff!

By the way, I am very pleased that you appreciate the point that draining the superlativity from Technological Immortalism one finds oneself simply promoting healthcare. I think exactly the same sorts of insights arise from draining the Superlativity out of other modes of technocentricity. A separate point, though, that I will presume to say makes the two of us even closer kin on this issue is that when one re-invests healthcare with technoprogressivity one's focus becomes the shift from standard healthcare provision to informed, nonduressed consensual non-normativizing healthcare, the shift from optimality to consent being profoundly important in our own technodevelopmental moment. Assuming technoprogressive stances (of which there are a competing variety on hand, no doubt) on these de-superlativized technocentricities one finds that there are plenty of urgently important provocative things to say about a technodevelopmental process that should be emancipatory even if it will never be transcendental.

As always, best to you, d

Dale Carrico said...

Jim wrote: Do you think L. Ron Hubbard and Ayn Rand (let alone Mao Zedong or Slobodan Milosevic, or for that matter Jeffrey Skilling [Enron's CEO] or Martha Stewart, or Paris Hilton) are "just folks?"

I must agree with you. I think it was the incomparable novelist/essayist Gary Indiana who finally really convinced me of the point you are making. While "just folks" may trip their way into mass mediation, the far more usual course is that of a rampaging sociopath clawing their way up a pyramid of skulls into the spotlight. And I venture to say that anybody who attracts such mediation and then manages to sustain it is all the more likely to be such a monster (including "monster" in the sense of sign/icon, from the Latin *monstrare* "to show," from which science gets its "de*monstrate*"), more sociopathically monstrous directly proportional to the duration of their tenure in the spotlight, in command, at the center of accumulated experience. I do think it is likely that the rules of "celebrity" might be changing somewhat in the face of the shift from mass-mediation to p2p-mediation, by the way, which exacts different costs, and offers different rewards for its attentions. And I do realize, Jim, that you are talking as much about the personality type that directs a would-be guru to the head of a small-time congregation as much as a ruthless would-be star to a world-wide spotlight.

Dale Carrico said...

Jim wrote: Isn't it interesting, though, how the top-tier SF authors -- even those who make free use of >Hish and transcendental tropes: folks like Bruce Sterling, William Gibson, Greg Egan, David Brin, and even Vernor Vinge -- manage to
keep an air of bemused skepticism toward some of their more, shall we say, overheated fans? ...

SF self-consciously targeted as a "Valentine" to the transhumanists would be (has been) awfully dull and formulaic.


Oh, yes, I quite agree with you here. And it is crucial to include here not only SF valentines, but also the presumably non-fictional "pop futurological" valentines. In your list of key figures who take up themes transhumanist-types would falsely and foolishly imagine to be theirs alone I would include Kim Stanley Robinson and Donna Haraway, both of whom also have a firm and healthy skepticism of what happens when these themes take Superlative and Sub(cult)ural turns.

Dale Carrico said...

Michael wrote: Minsky goes too far. He is being extremely crabby and elitist. I challenge anyone to find another transhumanist with that view,

Oh dear oh dear oh dear oh dear oh dear.

Did we vote for there to be an Internet? No. This fact does not denigrate the causes of p2p, Net Neutrality, etc.

Maybe you're right, but are you seeing the point I'm making there at all? I am citing the fact the Minsky's phrase "I don't remember voting for x" is regularly used as a way of expressing disdain for democratic processes, it's an incredibly popular conservative/libertopian trope. I read Minsky as making that sort of point (sensibly enough, I would have thought, since elsewhere he disdains popular government of science explicitly after all), and then against the grain of that point I was calling attention to all the political and social work that goes into creating and maintaining the Internet, such as it is. I was affirming politics where he seemed to be denigrating them.

As often happens in my writing, I wasn't pointing to a relation of logical entailment between propositions, but alerting readers to the conventional associations of the citations of a frame, a figure, a topic. Calling attention to these sorts of associations does not provide the assured conclusions of logical analysis, but they are still often very illuminating indeed. Again, maybe you're right that Minsky is not meaning to make the anti-politicizing point he seems to me to be making. I think he is and I have offered up the evidence and provided a track through the analysis that says why. That's all one can do.

By the way, even at the literal concrete level of "who voted for what" that you seem to want to hold me to, it seems to me you are probably wrong, inasmuch as we did vote for the people who made the appointments and dispersed the research dollars that did in fact bring the Internet into existence, maintained it, and so on.

Against my own reading you propose instead that: It merely states that the Big Picture (Internet) was inevitable and unstoppable,

"Merely," indeed! Let me put this plainly: The Internet was the furthest imaginable thing from "inevitable," and remains in my view very significantly still "stoppable."

whereas the specifics (p2p, etc.) are negotiable, and dependent on activists to make progress.

We have reached a crux, my friend. Have a glimpse into my world. For me what you are calling The Big Picture doesn't exist at all -- except perhaps as some retroactive construction deployed cynically by corporate-militarist PR machines -- and what you call "the specifics" is all there is. For me, it's specifics all the way down, and as you say, as such, "are negotiable, and dependent on activists [which I would use in the broadest possible construal of that term] to make progress."

We know that there exist technologies that threaten large numbers of human beings -- nukes for instance. If the reality of this threat is "congenial to the military-industrial complex", then do you propose we go into denial and ignore it?

Do you honestly think I am proposing such a thing? Read my Technology and Terror if you're curious. I do indeed think that Cold-War hysteria, as well as contemporary Global War on Terror hysteria are discourses that benefit corporate-military incumbent interests and that we should be wary of these discourses and the skewing of budgetary priorities and security policy they inspire. To understand this is not to go into denial but to see more clearly. You speak of "the reality of this threat," and once again fail to address the question from the same perspective assumed by my piece -- the piece you are presumably criticizing.

It is not the reality of threat, but the discursive framing of what comes to be taken as "the threat" that concerns me. Superlative discourses do not transparently reflect but frame technodevelopmental concerns. It is their framing that seems to me congenial to incumbent interests, and it is their framing that I object to as a person of the democratic left. Do you see the difference now?

By the way, nukes exist and Robot Gods don't. And if you are moved to the inevitable genuflection at this point to Kitty Hawk or the Manhattan Project let me say that in my estimation the science of air-flight and nuclear weapons were incomparably more solid prior the inkling of their arrival on the scene than is the "science" of entitative post-biological superintelligence given the developmental timescales that exercise the imaginations of Singularitarians. Obviously, YMMV.

Those concerned with extinction risks care about the them in spite of their sociopolitical implications, not because of them!

If you are more concerned about an asteroid impact than climate change, or more concerned with the arrival of an Unfriendly Robot Overlord than wmd proliferation you honestly need to have your head examined, and if you manage to convince enough others to skew media accounts and budgetary dollars to reflect your priorities you are doing untold damage to the prospects for human flourishing. Uh, again, YMMV.

Indeed, transhumanist organizations tend to get their funding from many small donations (the people), rather than a few large donations or grants from incumbent interests.

This point is well taken. My complaint for now is the undue influence transhumanist, and other superlative technocentric discourses, have on the framing of technodevelopmental quandaries. You will be pleased to know -- as I very definitely am NOT -- that I fully expect the corporate-militarist gravy train to discover Superlativity in a big way quite soon.

You contradict yourself in this post. Near the beginning, you say that the emergence of elite superhumans is "far likelier than [grey goo]". But at the end, you pooh pooh the idea. Make up your mind!

Are you sure about that? I have re-read the passages and am unclear what looks contradictory to you. I think "enhancement" discourse may undermine diversity in the name of optimality to the cost of freedom, and I do think it is largely the anti-social comments of transhumanists and other techno-enthusiasts themselves that alert people to these worries -- worries which go on to invigorate pernicious bioconservative movements and so on. Are you calling attention to something else? It's not a big deal, I'm just not completely clear what you are directing my attention to.

The rhetorical implications of a technological threat are not the criteria by which the probability of that threat should be judged. This should be obvious.

This is a really tired old song from you guys at this point. Don't you know any other? My point is that your sense of the probabilities in play is far more responsive to what you are thinking of as "rhetorical" elements than you realize. You just think you are trotting off facts and figures transparently given in the facts of reality themselves. You're not.

I can imagine you at the first atomic bomb test, saying "this bomb can't possibly work, because it would provide powerful rhetorical rationales congenial to neoliberal/neoconservative outlooks!" Then the bomb explodes anyway, because it obeys the laws of physics, not the laws of rhetoric.

Sigh. Now I suppose you think you're Einstein. To the extent that the detonation of the bomb occurred in the aftermath of a process of discovery, testing, publication, funding, regulation, propaganda, interdisciplinary and international rivalries and so on, as it happens, it was very much an event with a rhetorical context (usefully susceptible to rhetorical analyses) as well as a Physical context. The meaning and significance of that explosion in its aftermath was conspicuously articulated by rhetorical factors. So, on your own terms you are simply embarrassingly wrong. But quite apart from all that, as I said, you are probably not Einstein, and the Robot Overlord scenario is certainly not the Bomb. Talk about false analogies and rhetorical mechanisms!

I've come to terms that all of what you talk about is ad hominem.

Nothing could be more obvious than that my critique is not properly reducible to ad hominem although there is a certain sad inevitability about this charge from you people. It's really too bad.

There's a reason why ad hominem is listed as among the logical flaws in an argument

Quite so, guy. Which is why I teach it to undergraduates in the fallacies lectures in my critical thinking and logical argumentation courses. You crack me up sometimes, Michael, you really do.

But since I've come to terms with it, it's what I expect.

I think, to the contrary, that you have "come to expect" what you need to expect to insulate your Singularitarian True Belief from threatening criticism. As usual, YMMV.

AnneC said...

Mostly to Jim F:

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. We're not getting through.

Actually, I think you are getting through -- at least to the extent that I have, so far, been able to parse the language in your Mrs. Who-esque quotefests.

It's just that I tend to take many things literally by default (being on the autistic spectrum -- not metaphorically, but literally), and hence, there have been many occasions on which I've been accused of "excessive literalism".

This is why I find it useful to (especially in cases where someone is making strong or serious claims) ask if the literal interpretation is, in fact, what they intend people to take away from their writing.

My wondering about the possibility of (mild?) purposeful hyperbole in some of what has been written here (by both you and Dale) is not, I believe, due to simple naivete' on my part.

As an advocate of autistic (and general "disability" rights), I've become acutely familiar with some of the insidious social trends and mindsets that masquerade as "compassion" at times, and with some of the terrible abuses suffered by persons that have been relegated basically to the status of "non-persons".

Additionally, I'm pretty sure I know a thing or two about the "successfully sinister". I had a relative (with whom I had sporadic contact with as a child) who was a genuine sociopath -- and I do not use that term easily or lightly.

He was able to "charm" a lot of people, and as far as I know never went to prison, despite having committed numerous criminal and unethical acts (ranging from child abuse to forgery to burglary to credit fraud to stalking). He would work one job after another, claiming whenever he left (got fired from?) one that he had simply been "too smart" for that company, etc.

I (and my immediate family) knew full well what this person was capable of, but seemingly few other people did, and would just see him as a "good person". He was able to talk his way out of any situation once the police showed up (which they did on several occasions).

For instance, once he came over and demanded to be let into the house -- when we refused to let him in and locked the doors, he picked up a snow shovel and started trying to bash in the back door. Frightened, we called the police. But when they arrived, my relative was simply standing out by the sidewalk with the shovel, commenting on how it was important for people to keep the sidewalk free of snow.

The police officer ended up basically laughing and joking with the relative, who claimed that he'd simply come over to "see if we were okay". Of course, the police officer believed him -- since my relative hadn't managed to actually break the door down before they arrived, his story about the whole thing being "a misunderstanding" was more attractive and easy for the police to accept. And we (my family) continued to be intermittently threatened and harassed by this person -- who never got into any real trouble -- practically up until the point where we moved 3,000 miles away.

Another "successfully sinister" person I knew was a co-worker at my previous job. For some reason (my body language? the fact that I looked young for my age?) he singled me out as someone he needed to "mentor". He initially presented as a friendly person, but one who would dominate conversations and always eventually turn the discussion toward his perceived prowess in some area or another.

At one point he ended up trapping me in a room (via a lie -- he told me he wanted to talk about an electronic project we were working on; we were both software engineers) and trying to indoctrinate me into his bizarro "NLP" self-improvement cult.

He had me trapped for about 2 hours -- I would have just bolted out the door, but I didn't know what he was capable of, and whenever I went to leave he would say things like, "Fine, if you don't care about your future", etc.

What he basically did while he had me trapped was to sit there and tell me that I needed to accept him as a "master". He insisted that the ONLY way I was going to become a better programmer was to "get rid of my defenses" and "learn to see myself as I really was" (which, in his estimation, was a person of low skill and difficulty accepting "correction" from people who knew better).

He told me that what he did to me (psychologically) might "feel like torture" but that it was necessary. He basically tried to set it up as if I was "in trouble" of basically failing life unless I accepted his "offer" of mentoring -- and he made my "acceptance" of his mentoring offer a condition of leaving the room.

Eventually, I tentatively (and under great duress) "accepted" his condition of mentor-hood, because, well, I realized that he wasn't going to let me go until I did. I returned back to my work station shaking and in tears.

I didn't really even know what had just happened -- but I told another co-worker about it and she immediately identified it as "psychological abuse".

I have no doubt that the organizations to which this co-worker belonged to (which were of the sort that held large "empowerment seminars" in which people learned specialized vocabularies, redefinitions of standard words, and persuasion techniques) were genuine cults, and that he saw himself as a "guru". He near as well admitted it -- at least to me.

The 2 hours of psychological hell he put me through obviously affected me for months -- it felt like my brains had been scrambled, and any confidence I'd developed up until that point was completely undermined.

And yet -- very few people at the company could grok what had happened. One co-worker did, though, and she was the one who helped me see what had happened and understand not to take Mr. Wannabe Guru seriously (e.g., not to listen to his proclamations that I was no better than a "sassy intern" who needed more discipline and instruction from none but the likes of him).

The incident was framed primarily (at least initially) by the company as "a misunderstanding" and I had to fight, with support, to get the CEO to tell the other guy to leave me alone.

Add to that the fact that I grew up being bullied frequently (to the point of physical attacks involving rocks and sticks) simply for existing in the presence of certain others who didn't see someone like me as a real person.

Those who bullied me were often considered the "nice, normal kids" with good social skills. And very little was done to address the bullying, which was generally ignored by teachers, framed as "normal teasing", or used as a basis for saying that I was "too sensitive" and that I needed to "develop a sense of fun and humor".

So...in having dealt with those individuals, I think I pretty much lost any "naivete" I might have otherwise had. I fully agree with you that there are people and trends and "enabling" forces within society that make it possible for bullies and sociopaths to thrive, and that it is good to be able to recognize these patterns.

But -- I remain somewhat uncomfortable with the "armchair psychology" approach so popular on the Internet these days. I'll try to explain why below.

You said:

Again, it's dangerous to point fingers too explicitly at particular people -- Martha Stewart sued a tabloid newspaper for suggesting that she displays the symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder. But it's important for people to be alert to patterns of thought and behavior that suggest that people are "off" in these important ways.

In addition to worries about being sued for libel, anyone who partakes in the overt, public amateur psychoanalysis of specific individuals must be wary of assuming that people are "off" in the particular ways that they might initially seem to be.

I'm not saying that no standard patterns exist (I've met genuine examples of sociopathy and narcissism, and there are distinctive patterns and factors indicating those tendencies), but rather, that there are also cases where the resemblance is only superficial (or when a person is indeed "merely ignorant" and not necessarily malicious).

It's just that there are also cases where some people are very, very good at picking and choosing particular pieces of data that seem to support their pathological conclusions about someone else, in order to effectively discredit them -- I'm not suggesting you are doing this about anyone, but rather, that I have seen it done to the detriment of some folks. So I feel as if I have to be just as stringent in my analysis of claims being made about other people's supposed pathologies as I am of claims made by people that might be trying to gain power, take advantage, or otherwise commit abuses.

Some background on this: since learning that I am myself autistic (technically diagnosed with Asperger's -- but please don't use that to assume I "lack empathy" or anything like that -- read this before making any such statements, and PLEASE don't make comparisons between autism and some kind of Ayn Randian economic or interpersonal system. I'm not a metaphor and neither is any other autistic person, thanks.), I have for a while now been interested in promoting basic human rights for all autistic/neuro-atypical people.

This particular civil-rights movement is sometimes referred to as "neurodiversity". Neurodiversity is, in my mind, a recognition of the fact that there are multiple, yet equally valid, modes of cognition and perception within the population, and that much of the apparent strife experienced by autistic and other atypical persons is the direct or indirect result of bigotry and status-quo bias (rather than of intrinsic personal deficits).

However, there are some who try to claim that "neurodiversity" is instead a "cult that celebrates brain damage". These folks, ignoring even the most heavily medicalized "official" descriptions of autism (which point to communication delays, difficulties, and differences, not a complete and permanent absence of communicative ability), try to make the claim that if a person can communicate at all (whether through speech or typing or other alternative means), they can't possibly be autistic.

Therefore, by their logic, any autistic person who insists on respectful treatment is just an "attention-seeker" or even a "person who hates children and wants them to suffer".

Basically, the people making the "neurodiversity is a brain-damage cult" accusations are very fond of taking autistic self-advocates' statements WAY out of context, of resorting to strawman attacks (e.g., "Neurodiversity advocates think autistic children should be able to run wild and do whatever they want without any parenting whatsoever!"), and of accusing self-advocates of really being "schizophrenic", delusional, liars, histrionic, borderline...you name it.

This is the main source of my uneasiness with slapping psychological labels on people...I've seen that technique used far too often to discredit people who are ethical and sincere, and I've seen the damage it can do.

For example, I've come across several instances of autistic adults being accused of "acting" or "pretending" to be autistic, ostensibly so they can "live off social security" or "get access to advantages other people don't".

The fact that there are some people who try to "work the system" doesn't mean that everyone who receives benefits from it is doing so, and it is not okay, in my mind, to assume that anyone is doing such a thing without good evidence (as in, above and beyond "apparent behavior patterns") to back up that assumption. It is not okay to penalize the innocent, particularly to the extent of denying them needed services and assistance, on the grounds that some (other) people are indeed dishonest.

So, while I do think it's important to suss out people's motivations when there is reason to suspect them, merely accusing someone of sinister motivations doesn't mean that your critical work is "done", and that questioning this assessment is evidence of naivete or youthful idealism.

That said, I have no qualms about accurately labeling those who have directly harmed me (or people I care about), because I know firsthand what they are capable of, and I don't think any of the "good" things they might have to say make them safe people to be around or associate with. So I'm willing to take the "risk" of calling it as I see it when it comes to those folks.

I also have enough knowledge of how bullies get away with things to be able to read articles like this one about the Judge Rotenberg Center and know that there is no exaggeration going on -- and that the very presence of such a "school" (in which disabled children are treated in ways that would be considered too "cruel and unusual" for serial killers or child molesters in prison) in a nation that likes to describe itself as civilized is symptomatic of tremendous problems a frightening number of people seem to be completely oblivious to (or worse, which a frightening number of people tacitly approve of).

Therefore, if you're suggesting that maybe some "superlative" types are helping to perpetuate attitudes that promote genocide, bigotry, human rights abuses, etc., I'm not going to just dismiss that out of hand. Just as don't dismiss concepts like "existential risk" out of hand -- anytime anyone makes strong claims, I feel that my responsibility is to look at the sources of the data myself rather than just take other people's word for whatever-it-is they are claiming.

I don't have any particular loyalties I'm trying to maintain, aside from loyalty to what I hope is a reasonable code of ethics. I just think you might want to avoid over-reliance on the DSM-IV in analyzing those you perceive as villainous.

jfehlinger said...

Anne Corwin wrote:

> I'm pretty sure I know a thing or two about
> the "successfully sinister". I had a relative (with whom I had
> sporadic contact with as a child) who was a genuine
> sociopath -- and I do not use that term easily or lightly.

Good, then you're not Pollyanna.

> Another "successfully sinister" person I knew was a co-worker
> at my previous job. . . At one point he ended up trapping me
> in a room. . . and trying to indoctrinate me into his bizarro
> "NLP" self-improvement cult.

Ah, "neuro-linguistic programming". There's a connection between
that and "NEXIVM" (formerly "ESP" -- Executive Success Programs),
Keith Raniere's so-called cult. Sidekick Nancy Salzman started
out as an NLP practitioner.
http://www.rickross.com/reference/esp/esp20.html
http://www.rickross.com/groups/esp.html

> In addition to worries about being sued for libel, anyone
> who partakes in the overt, public amateur psychoanalysis of
> specific individuals must be wary of assuming that people are
> "off" in the particular ways that they might initially seem to be.

Oh, quite. For example, it's a job for an expert to perform
what's called a "differential diagnosis" among, say,
Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Bipolar Disorder in the
'manic' or 'hypomanic' phase, and Asperger's.
http://personalitydisorders.suite101.com/article.cfm/narcissisticpersonality

For a non-expert, it's more important to just recognize "off"
than to be able to provide a specific label or a DSM code.

> It's just that there are also cases where some people are
> very, very good at picking and choosing particular pieces of
> data that seem to support their pathological conclusions about
> someone else, in order to effectively discredit them -- I'm not
> suggesting you are doing this about anyone, but rather, that I
> have seen it done to the detriment of some folks.

Oh, I might be! However, my **claim** is that I'm simply suggesting that
people draw their own conclusions from the evidence. But I
wanna make sure they're aware of the evidence.

> Therefore, if you're suggesting that maybe some "superlative" types
> are helping to perpetuate attitudes that promote genocide, bigotry,
> human rights abuses, etc. . .

That's not exactly what I'm claiming. My claims (in my
role as armchair psychiatrist as opposed to AI commentator ;-> --
and by the way I have, of course, no formal training as a psychiatrist,
nor would I be conforming to the ethical standards of my profession
if I were willing to make long-distance diagnoses of public figures
even if I **were** a psychiatrist. Nor do I play one on TV. ;-> )
are that:

1. Vinge's "McGuffin" of the Singularity has been latched onto,
as an excuse, by some folks suffering from obvious (**obvious**,
if you do your homework) signs of Narcissistic Personality Disorder
(whether by itself or "comorbid" with other conditions such as
Asperger's I have no way of knowing and no particular interest
in finding out) to whip up some True-Believing
Followers (via the Web -- all you need is a computer in your
bedroom, these days) into what looks at least like a proto-cult
(if not yet a full-fledged cult).

2. The narcissism of the guru(s) and the True Belief of the followers
makes any kind of rational discussion of AI, etc., within their
closed circle absolutely **impossible** (despite the smug protestations
of some of these folks to be consummate practitioners of rationality).

3. The whole transhumanist/Extropian movement is a concentrator
of folks with narcissistic personality styles (if not outright NPD),
as has been commented on more than a decade ago by Mike Darwin
(Mike Federowicz) on Cryonet and by Paulina Borsook in her
book _Cyberselfish_. As were Dianetics/Scientology and
Ayn Rand's "Objectivism" before them.

This is not good. The world doesn't need yet another SF-derived
"church".

And these people, if they get rich, can get pretty nasty.
Who knows -- I might find a process-server outside my door
one of these fine evenings. Or meet a worse fate.

One Singularitarian said to me a few years ago, in e-mail,
that there are people in the world who first learned about the
Singularity from him who would be happy to throw
themselves in front of a truck for his sake. I replied,
jokingly, something along the lines of "or come
to New Jersey to eliminate a pest? How convenient that
I live near the swamps where the Mafia gets rid of the
bodies." But it occurred to me later that, if you take
some folks' assessment of the Singularity and their roles in it
absolutely at face value, the distraction I might be causing
them could well have cost thousands of
human personalities who will die before they can be
uploaded by an SI. If you stick to that logic,
it might be a service to mankind for somebody to come
to NJ and assassinate me, if there were any possibility
**either** that I would continue to be a distraction, **or**
that I might cause the Singularitarians public embarrassment.
On the other hand any sort of thorough
police investigation would no doubt uncover links that
would more than negate the advantages of eliminating
me in the first place, so I suspect I'm safe ;-> .

My interlocutor in this case was disturbingly "tone deaf"
to the implications of his (no doubt casual) remark.

Anyway, Dale is interested in how all this plays into the
hands of conservative, incumbent, political and economic
interests. I'm interested (and appalled) by the spectacle
of the birth of a new cult.

It's the stench of **narcissism** that I find most salient
these days among >Hists and singularitarians.

> I feel that my responsibility is to look at the sources of the
> data myself rather than just take other people's word for whatever-it-is
> they are claiming.

Please do.

And for a "Mrs. Who" quote-fest on the topic of narcissism,
I invite you to read:
http://www.orkut.com/CommMsgs.aspx?cmm=38810&tid=11

jfehlinger said...

Anne wrote:

> I had a relative. . . who was a genuine sociopath. . .
> He would work one job after another, claiming whenever he left
> (got fired from?) one that he had simply been "too smart"
> for that company, etc.

**That**'s narcissism.

Not only is an excess of it considered a personality disorder
in its own right (Narcissistic Personality Disorder, or NPD)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Narcissistic_personality_disorder
but pathological, or "malignant" narcissism is often an
accompaniment of other personality disorders (Borderline,
Paranoid, Antisocial) and of psychopathy or sociopathy,
or "Machiavellian" personality types (which may or may not
be exactly what a different group of psychologists
calls "psychopaths", according to Barbara Oakley).

There's a sea-change afoot in the value of "self-esteem" --
**low** self-esteem was once (counter-intuitively) blamed
for all sorts of individual misbehavior, blame for which
is now being shifted to (unwarrantedly) **high** self-esteem.
http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?sec=health&res=9F00E5DA123AF930A35751C0A9649C8B63&fta=y

(_Six Pillars of Self-Esteem_ by Nathaniel Branden -- Ayn Rand's
erstwhile "intellectual heir" -- has long been on the Extropians'
reading list.)

Little Boy Blue, come blow your horn.
The sheep's in the meadow, the cow's in the corn.
Where is the boy that looks after the sheep?
"He's under the haycock, fast asleep."
Will you wake him? "No, not I;
For if I do, he'll be sure to cry."

jfehlinger said...

Anne Corwin wrote:

> I have for a while now been interested in promoting basic
> human rights for all autistic/neuro-atypical people.
>
> This particular civil-rights movement is sometimes referred to
> as "neurodiversity". Neurodiversity is, in my mind, a recognition
> of the fact that there are multiple, yet equally valid,
> modes of cognition and perception within the population, and
> that much of the apparent strife experienced by autistic and
> other atypical persons is the direct or indirect result of bigotry
> and status-quo bias (rather than of intrinsic personal deficits).

BTW, something that sounds awfully like Narcissistic Personality
Disorder has also been "politicized" by some rather extreme
"gifted child advocates".

Have you heard of the concept of the "Indigo Child"?

From my e-mail archive:

Subject: It's not enough just to be a regular person

http://selectsmart.com/twyman.html
----------------
INDIGO: THE COLOR OF MONEY
by Lorie Anderson

. . .

The Indigo Child concept may appeal especially
to parents of children with mental health challenges,
e.g. ADD, ADHD, autism, bi-polar disorder,
conduct disorder, or a difficult temperament. . .

[C]hildren are led to believe by trusted
adults that they were born members of a new
breed of the human race, the next step in
human evolution, that their genes were somehow
altered -- perhaps as a result of divine or
extraterrestrial intervention, or spontaneous
genetic mutation accomplished by none other
than the children themselves. Some children
come to believe they are endowed with
extraordinary powers such as clairvoyance,
clairaudience, clairsentience, healing powers,
pre-birth and previous life
recall, etc. . .

As the New Age movement grows from marginal
to mainstream, we need programs for New Age
consumer protection. We must caution educators
and parents about, and object to, programs with
paranormal underpinnings, like the Indigo Child and
Brain Respiration, which are fervently marketed
to private and public schools. We need age-appropriate
critical-thinking skills programs in education,
starting in the early grades. We must educate
ourselves and our children on the scientific
method of inquiry, how to evaluate studies and
spot pseudo-science and pseudo-scientists.
We must help our children to develop radar
to detect and avoid deceptive New Age profiteers -
no matter how noble their stated cause.
----------------


http://www.cinemind.com/atwater/Blue.html
---------------------
Children who look different, like "aliens,"
enlarged prefrontal lobes:

. . . Tales are told of children with
alterations in brain structure, the nervous and
digestive systems, unusually sensitive skin, ears,
and eyes. . . Other researchers are coming to
the same conclusion, among them Joseph Chilton Pearce.
In his book, The Biology of Transcendence: A Blueprint
of the Human Spirit, and specifically on page 251,
are photographs of toddlers with a protruding prefrontal
cortex (lobe). This protrusion curves outward from
the top base of the nose to the hairline creating a
large and amply curved forehead. I have a granddaughter
like this, and I have seen hundreds more. Pearce
showed me some of his other pictures, of little ones
who looked as if they were wearing "helmets" or had
"football heads" (startling extensions of the prefrontal
cortex as well as out through the back of the head). . .
He found that these children were so advanced and
so intelligent, they appeared to be "otherworldly."
---------------------

My God, it's Stewie Griffin!
http://polyscience.org/2005/09/15/

Indigo Stewie to mom:
You dull-witted termagant!
http://www.ebaumsworld.com/stewie-familyguy.html


http://mysticbourgeoisie.blogspot.com/2006/01/mood-indigo.html
---------------------
Mystic Bourgeoisie
Numinous Lunacy & the Sanctimonious Narcissism
of the NewAge

Friday, January 13
MOOD INDIGO

"You ain't been blue till you've had that mood indigo..."
~ sinatra

. . .

By laying these harebrained expectations on kids,
the New Agers are building a whole generation of
narcissists. I don't mean stuck-up egotists. We're
talking about Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD),
in which the child never develops a genuine sense
of self because he or she is too busy attempting to
live out the fantasies of a delusional and
psychologically abusive parent. This requirement
to embody by proxy the parent's own grandiose
"spiritual" dreams of power and glory almost
invariably results in lasting damage to the
child -- and often to the people that child
will come into contact with as an adult.
---------------------


http://www.beliefnet.com/story/122/story_12252_1.html#cont
---------------------
The Sick Soul
John D. Spalding

Brood Indigo

. . .

One expert on the Indigo phenomenon says perhaps
the best example of an Indigo child comes from the
1999 horror movie "The Sixth Sense."

In Haley Joel Osment's character, says Doreen Virtue,
director M. Night Shamalyan gave us a boy who
sees the world as it really is -- teeming with spirits
and import that adults, jaded and trapped by the
mundane mechanics of daily life, can’t see.
---------------------


http://lizditz.typepad.com/i_speak_of_dreams/2006/01/color_coded_bra.html
---------------------
I Speak of Dreams

Sunday, January 15, 2006
Delusional Parenting: Indigo

. . .

I think the indigo phenomenon has a host of roots

-- The modern worship of celebrity: it's not enough
just to be a regular person. You have to be special
in some way.

-- The cult of anti-authority -- don't just question
it, defy it!

-- The worship of the child, which began with the
"youthquake" of the 1960s. "Indigo child" traits
are very much those of an active 3-year old -- these
children aren't refusing to grow, their opposition
is sacred!
---------------------


http://autismsedges.blogspot.com/2006/01/indigo-films-black-phones.html
---------------------
Autism's Edges

Friday, January 13, 2006
Indigo Films, Black Phones

. . .

Of course I can't deny the appeal of the indigo-child
thesis. It is certainly very seductive to imagine
that Sweet M. is not disabled, but that she is
actually special -— not as in needing special
education, or special services -— but as in being
gifted. How lovely it is to imagine that she is
just as valuable -— maybe even more valuable -—
than a neurotypical child. The aching appeal to
one's parental narcissism is obvious.

The danger of the indigo-child thesis, as MOM-NOS
points out, or of the certain anti-psychiatric elements
of the left, as Toby Miller and Marie Claire Leger
point out, is that these versions of reality can cast
parents like ourselves as evil drug pushers, rather
than as parents who are doing abolutely everything
we can to help make a home for our children in this
world.
---------------------


http://www.metagifted.org/topics/metagifted/indigo/indigoChildCharacteristics.html
---------------------
Characteristics of Indigo Children
[by Wendy H. Chapman]

-- Have strong self esteem, connection to source
-- Know they belong here until they are told otherwise
-- Have an obvious sense of self
-- Have difficulty with discipline and authority
-- Refuse to follow orders or directions
-- Find it torture to waiting in lines, lack patience
-- Get frustrated by ritual-oriented systems that require
little creativity
-- Often see better ways of doing thing at home and at school
-- Are mostly nonconformists
-- Do not respond to guilt trips, want good reasons
-- Get bored rather easily with assigned tasks
-- Are rather creative
-- Are easily distractible, can do many things at once
-- Display strong intuition
-- Have strong empathy for others or NO empathy
-- Develop abstract thinking very young
-- Are gifted and/or talented, highly intelligent
-- Are often identified or suspected of having ADD
or ADHD, but can focus when they want to
-- Are talented daydreamers and visionaries
-- Have very old, deep, wise looking eyes
-- Have spiritual intelligence and/or psychic skills
-- Often express anger outwardly rather than inwardly
and may have trouble with rage
-- Need our support to discover themselves
-- Are here to change the world - to help us live in
greater harmony and peace with one another and to raise
the vibration of the planet
---------------------


http://www.islandone.org/MMSG/BillJoyWhyCrit.htm
-------------------
In _The Road Less Traveled_, Scott Peck defined evil as:
"The attempted control of another person (through direct
or indirect means) in order to prevent one's own
spiritual growth." In _People of the Lie_, he later
refined this definition to: "A malignant narcissism
that has an inordinate fear of imperfection that causes
it to violently reject any criticism and/or reinterpret
it in a way to preserve one's internal status quo."
More specifically, he describes a "narcissistic personality
disorder" that can be distinguished by:

1. An abrogation of responsibility

2. Consistent, destructive, scapegoating behavior
(sometimes quite subtle)

3. Excessive, though usually covert, intolerance to criticism

4. Excessive concern with a public and self image of respectability

5. Intellectual deviousness

6. Extraordinary willfulness

7. Denial of hateful feelings or vengeful motives.

Peck also points to a few characteristics of evil:

1. Pride overcomes intelligence

2. Has no understanding of love
(thinks that love is a "trick")

3. The notion of sacrifice is totally foreign

4. Finds incomprehensible the concept of objective truths
such as science (other than means to an end)

5. Is deceptive and self-deceptive

6. Is shallow and ugly

7. Confuses all those encountering it

8. Is powerful.
-------------------

AnneC said...

Jim: The "Indigo Child" stuff is utter poppycock. I've heard of it before.

jfehlinger said...

Anne Corwin wrote:

> The "Indigo Child" stuff is utter poppycock. I've heard of it before.

Yes, of course it is.

But the points here are that:

1. Even "serious" gifted-child advocates, such as
Linda Kreger Silverman, have been influenced by this sort
of thing (believing that kids she has decided are "gifted"
are "angels incarnate" or some such thing). Read the article
about the suicide of Brandenn Bremmer from the Jan. 16, 2006
issue of the _New Yorker_.
http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2006/01/16/060116fa_fact_konigsberg

2. Criticizing this sort of thing is, among people who self-identify
as "parents of gifted kids", is as much a political minefield as
it probably is to discuss the autistic spectrum with you (no
offense! ;-> ).

3. It's all about narcissism, narcissism, narcissism.

http://www.lacunae.com/

Eric Konigsberg's article "Prairie Fire" in this week's
New Yorker freaked me right straight out--it's about a
super-gifted Nebraska teenager who committed suicide last
spring. When I was 13, Northwestern University's Midwest
Talent Search program, as it was then known,
pretty much saved my sanity and maybe my life--I was
one totally alienated, depressed kid and couldn't relate
to almost anyone my age, and getting to spend time
with other, um, "academically precocious youth," as
they were calling them in those days, was one of the
only things that made me think the future would be
bearable. And then I spent the next few years living for
those weeks in the summer when I could go back to the
MTS program (or its big sister CTY). I wasn't in anything
like Brandenn Bremmer's league of oh-my-God-you-did-what-at-eleven?,
but I read his story and kept recognizing points of congruence.
And I'm really glad I didn't have access to any guns when I
was his age.

While I'm at it: the whole "indigo children" thing
annoys me so much I can barely think straight about it,
especially when it gets shoehorned into discussions
of people like Bremmer. Everyone wants to think they
(or their kids) are the X-Men, but here's a secret:
nobody's the X-Men. And the very last thing gifted
kids need is any kind of association in anyone's
mind with "an entity called Kryon."

Marc_Geddes said...

>Dale: To some extent, I have to >wonder if some of what you're >seeing as "elitism" is really an >issue of communication styles and >shared interests.

No, Anne, it's clearly elitism of the meanest, nastiest kind.

When I first posted to the SL4 list (informal gathering place for Singularitarians) I meant no harm to any-one and was only trying to help out by brain-storming wild ideas. I was greeted with the completely unprovoked welcome message: 'there's the famous crack-pot Marc Geddes' (Wilson) and all I ever got from Yudkowsky was a string of abusive, vitrolic messages questiuning my sanity and painting me as a nut. I continued pointing out where the Sing Inst approach to artificial intelligence was going wrong, but was totally ignored, insulted or talked down to.

When I finally got sick of this treatment, lost by temper and started answering them abck in the same abusive way, Yudkopwsky then got me banned from transhumanist lists. This is from a person claiming to understand ethics and program a 'Friendly' AI.

Yudkowsky has already indicated his total contempt for any-one with an IQ less than 150, and has no interest in any-one or anything not related solely to his projects and ego. I don't think such a person should be lecturing to the rest of us. In fact Yudkowsky has been placed on my permanent 'Ignore' list , as have most other self-processed 'Singularitarians' (the sole exceptions are Bruce Klein and Ben Goertzel, who seem to be decent blokes and are the only Singularitarians I have any respect for).

Marc_Geddes said...

M.Anissimov said:

>Yudkowsky has been calling altruism "the meaning of life" for over a decade.

A shame Yudkowsky could never show any altruism to anyone.

Still, not a bad 'first approximation' from Eli for a possible 'meaning of life'. Wrong of course though.

The creation of beauty is the meaning of life (altruism is a secondary consequence of this). Check out the essay at the link below. It's the most 'kick-arse' essay about Art you will ever read.

Link:
http://www.paulgraham.com/taste.html

AnneC said...

Marc: I don't know you (have seen a few comments from you here and there, but that's about it), but as someone who doesn't know you, I have to say that your comments seem sort of contradictory.

You complain about other people not being open-minded enough, but then you go on to say that you actually do know "the meaning of life".

Do you mean to sound that certain, or am I misreading your language patterns? Do you actually think you know the meaning of life, and that there is only one such meaning?

Marc_Geddes said...

AnneC,

Well I'm still far from certain, but, yes I think I know the meaning of life in very general terms at least.

The story is that I spent around 5 years thinking about it and (almost) had to drive myself to the point of madness to finally 'bust through' to a coherent framework which seems to hang together.

A rough sketch of my framework in terms of UML (Unified Modelling Language) is here:

http://groups.google.com/group/everything-list/web/mcrt-domain-model-eternity

(The pertinant classes that represent 'the meaning of life' are the three boxes to top/center in my diagram: the 'Platonic' classes )

My framework builds on on some ideas of the American philosopher Charles Peirce:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Peirce



---

I think it's all about communication. It's the inability of each other to properly communicate what we really mean that is at the root of all strive. You've talked about communication in a number of the posts of yours that I've read. Very perceptive. Kinda obvious in retropsect and I'm really kicking myself for not understanding this long long ago.

Once you fully realize this, the implication follows that aesthetics is what ultimately grounds values, since aesthetics is all about effectively *communicating* teleological (social) meaning.

---

There are many more quite profound related implications . For example I was able to realize, for instance, that consciousness (reflection) is 'the communication system of the mind', which translates between different forms of knowledge representation (KR).

---



Another example: the whole of the AI problem seems to reduce to ontology (that is to say, all other AI problems are really just sub-problems of ontology).

Ontology is about knowledge representation, and knowledge representation is about *communication*. So it all seems to trace back to communication.

---

Am I certain of this? No, but I'm very very happy since some of my own ideas finally got to make some sense.

Go read the wonderful essay on Art by Paul Graham 'Taste For Makers' at the link below:

http://www.paulgraham.com/taste.html

Highly recommended. It's all about the creation of beauty. It's all about communication. I just know it.

And one day, Yudkowsky and all my old opponents will truly know it too ;)

As I quoted on the everything-list recently:

Signs and symbols control the world, not phrases and laws.
~ Confucius (b 551 BCE), Chinese thinker, social philosopher

Dale Carrico said...

It seems to me that anybody who precedes the phrase "meaning of life" with the definite article "the" isn't quite there yet. Do let's keep our eyes on the ball, dear readers: when threads go off topic people stop reading them and all those carefully framed formulations get ignored in any case. Defeats the purpose, surely? Best to you all!