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

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Richard Jones on "The Uses and Abuses of Speculative Futurism"

Over at his blog Soft Machines, Richard Jones has expanded and clarified his own discussion of "Superlativity" and "Speculative Futurism" in response to some criticisms he has received (and some he has observed me receiving lately).

He expresses a perplexity that I have to admit feels very much like my own when he declares: "I think transhumanists genuinely don’t realise quite how few informed people outside their own circles think that the full, superlative version of the molecular manufacturing vision is plausible."

Later in the comments section he makes a comparable claim about the faith in an Artificial General Intelligence that organizes the Singularitarian sub(cult)ure: "[D]iscussions of likely futures… go well beyond making lists of plausible technologies to consider the socio-economic realities that determine whether technologies will actually be adopted. One also needs to recognise that some advances are going to need conceptual breakthroughs whose nature or timing simply cannot be predicted, not just technology development (I believe AGI to be in this category)."

Needless to say, I think that the claims of so-called "Technological Immortalists" that the personal lives of people now living might plausibly be immortalized by recourse to emerging genetic therapies, "uploading" selves into informational forms, or cryonic suspension also belong to this category.

Taken together, these three basic technodevelopmental derangements constitute what I have described elsewhere as the key super-predicated idealized "outcomes" that drive much contemporary Superlative Technology Discourse: Superintelligence, Superlongevity, Superabundance. Thus schematized, it isn't difficult to grasp that Superlative Technology Discourse will depend for much of its intuitive force on its citation and translation of the terms of the omni-predicated terms omniscience, omnipotence, omnibenevolence that have long "characterized" godhood for those who aspire to "know" it, but now updated into hyperbolic pseudo-scientific "predictions" for those who would prosthetically aspire to "achieve" it in their own persons.

It is interesting to note that these idealizations also organize the Sub(cult)ural Futurist formations to which I also direct much of my own Critique: In place of open futures arising out of the unpredictable contestation and collective effort of a diversity of stakeholders with whom we share and are building the world in the present that becomes future presents, Sub(cult)ural Futurists substitute idealized outcomes with which they have identified and which they seek to implement unilaterally in the world. This identificatory gesture in Sub(cult)ural Futurists tends to be founded on an active dis-identification with the present (and with futurity as future presents open in the way the political present is open) and identification with idealized futures in which they make their imaginative home, as well as on an active correlated dis-identification with that portion of the diversity of stakeholders with whom they share the world in fact and any actual futures available to that world who they take to oppose their implementation of that idealized future.

And so, Richard Jones writes: "The only explanation I can think of for the attachment of many transhumanists to the molecular manufacturing vision is that it is indeed a symptom of the coupling of group-think and wishful thinking." And it isn't surprising that one can reel off with utter documentary ease a host of curious marginal sub(cult)ural self-identifications affirmed by most of the prominent participants in Superlative Technology Discourse -- Extropians, Transhumanists, Singularitarians, Immortalists (it seems to me there are further connections to Randian Objectivism, and illuminating resonances one discerns in comparing them to Scientology, Raelians, and even Mormonism) -- nor surprising to stumble on conjurations of tribal "outsiders" against which Sub(cult)ural Futurists imagine themselves arrayed -- "Luddites," "Deathists," "Postmodernists," and so on.

To those who charge that his critique (and by extension, my own) amounts to a straightjacketing of speculative imagination, Jones offers up this nice response with which I have quite a lot of sympathy:
[M]y problem is not that I think that transhumanists have let their imaginations run wild. Precisely the opposite, in fact; I worry that transhumanists have just one fixed vision of the future, which is now beginning to show its age somewhat, and are demonstrating a failure of imagination in their inability to conceive of the many different futures that have the potential to unfold.

And as I have pointed out elsewhere myself, these Superlative and especially Sub(cult)ural Futurisms tend to have
a highly particular vision of what the future will look like, and [are] driven by an evangelical zeal to implement just that future. It is a future with a highly specific set of characteristics, involving particular construals of robotics, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, and technological immortality (involving first genetic therapies but culminating in a techno-spiritualized "transcendence" of the body through digitality). These characteristics, furthermore, are described as likely to arrive within the lifetimes of lucky people now living and are described as inter-implicated or even converging outcomes, crystallizing in a singular momentous Event, the Singularity, an Event in which people can believe, about which they can claim superior knowledge as believers, which they go on to invest with conspicuously transcendental significance, and which they declare to be unimaginable in key details but at once perfectly understood in its essentials. [The] highly specific vision in Stiegler's story ["The Gentle Seduction"] is one and the same with the vision humorously documented in Ed Regis's rather ethnographic Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition, published… in 1990, and in Damien Broderick's The Spike, published twelve years later, and, although the stresses shift here and there… sometimes emphasizing robotics and consciousness uploading (as in Hans Moravek's Mind Children…), sometimes emphasizing Drexlerian nanotechnology (as in Chris Peterson's Unbounding the Future), or longevity (as in Brian Alexander's Rapture), it is fairly astonishing to realize just how unchanging this vision is in its specificity, in its ethos, in its cocksure predictions, even in its cast of characters. Surely a vision of looming incomprehensible transformation should manage to be a bit less… static than transhumanism seems to be?

Jones goes on to remind us, crucially, just how much "futurism is not, in fact, about the future at all -- it’s about the present and the hopes and fears that people have about the direction society seems to be taking now." This is why it can be so illuminating to treat futurological discourse generally as symptomatic rather than predictive and also it explains, when we make the mistake of taking it at "face value" as a straightforwardly predictive exercise, "precisely why futurism ages so badly, giving us the opportunity for all those cheap laughs about the non-arrival of flying cars and silvery jump-suits." When tech talk turns Superlative, I fear, we are relieved of the necessity to wait: the cheap laughs and groaners are abundantly available already in the present.

1 comment:

jimf said...

Dale wrote (quoting Richard Jones):

> [That] futurological discourse [is] generally. . .
> symptomatic rather than predictive. . . explains,
> when we make the mistake of taking it at "face value"
> as a straightforwardly predictive exercise,
> "precisely why futurism ages so badly, giving us the
> opportunity for all those cheap laughs about the non-arrival
> of flying cars and silvery jump-suits."

After the Singularity, everybody will look good in Spandex.

Ex-Extropian "Mark Plus" has an entertaining writing
style and a collection of articles around the subject of
"failed futures" on his "Yet Another Transhumanist Blog".

Here's one with an accompanying video:

(I could almost swear that the actress in that clip is
none other than Marj Dusay, from everybody's favorite original
_Star Trek_ episode, "Spock's Brain". And the narrator
is Alexander Scourby.)

Luma: Do not take them, Kara. Do not take them to the Controller!

Kara: They will be prevented.