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

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Why Pay Attention to Marginal Techno Discourses?

Over on his blog "Question Technology" Kevin Arthur posted two quotations without much comment (and I'm providing even less, but sometimes little comment is necessary), and their juxtaposition struck me as rather evocative given my latest heated exchanges with transhumanists and singularitarians and such. The title of the post is Techno-Globalization Hype -- from the 1920s.

The author of the first quotation is that social progressive paragon Henry Ford (irony impaired technobooster ignoramuses lurking hereabouts, please insert smiley with emphatically gasping mouth here), from his memoir My Philosophy of Industry, published in 1929:
"Machinery is accomplishing in the world what man has failed to do by preaching, propaganda, or the written word. The aeroplane and wireless know no boundary. They pass over the dotted lines on the map without heed or hindrance. They are binding the world together in a way no other system can. The motion picture with its universal language, the aeroplane with its speed, and the wireless with its coming international programme -- these will soon bring the world to a complete understanding. Thus may we vision a United States of the World. Ultimately it will surely come!"

Notice here, Superlative Technoboosters, first the evocation of the figure of the preacher now secularized through technoscience, second the conjuration of the transcension of all limits, third the facile misconstrual of the parochial with the universal, fourth the easy transition from an overassured predictive judgment of "soon" to the messianic cadences of "Ultimately it will surely come!" These dance steps are by now as dusty and dull and routinized as a stiff minuet, but it pays to be reminded that they have been dull an awfully long time by now -- ever heard of Jacques de Vaucanson, you triumphalist Singularitarians and scientistic reductionists? Hence, in reaction to such tired rhetoric George Orwell is quoted from a 1944 column:
"Reading recently a batch of rather shallowly optimistic 'progressive' books, I was struck by the automatic way people go on repeating certain phrases which were fashionable before 1914. Two great favourites are the 'abolition of distance' and the 'disappearance of frontiers'. I do not know how often I have met with statements that 'the aeroplane and the radio have abolished distance' and 'all parts of the world are now interdependent'.

This is an especially enjoyable quote to unearth since I recently had a set of exchanges with would-be Singularitarian guru Eliezer Yudkowsky in which he rather hilariously seemed to imagine himself a latter-day avatar of Orwell (except, you know, as an authoritarian High Priest awaiting the arrival of the Robot God). This leads me, by way of conclusion, to a reminder of why I devote so much attention to the marginal and curious sub(cult)ural futurisms of transhumanism, singularitarianism, extropianism, techno-immortalism, and so on in the first place.

For one thing, these sub(cult)ures offer up discourses that -- despite their abiding marginality and extremity in the strict sense -- combine attitudes and formulations favoring technocratic elitism over democratic deliberation, technofixes over engagement with structural social problems (like unsustainable industry and hyper-consumerism, like anti-social hyper-individualism, like the interminable cycles of violence maintained by militarism, like the corrupt and antidemocratizing manufacture of consent via broadcast mediation), foreground reductionist explanatory vocabularies that valorize instrumental rationality over moral, aesthetic, ethical, and political rationalities (thereby deranging them all -- including instrumental rationality itself), insist on an impoverishment and naturalization of the "developmental" imaginary to terms expressive of corporate-military competitiveness -- all in ways that are too readily appropriated (sometimes in slightly diluted forms) by incumbent elite interests I oppose as a champion of democracy, sustainability, and social justice.

Just as bad, as I have repeatedly tried to show, they cite and mobilize transcendental vocabularies that activate irrational passions at precisely the moment when planetary technodevelopmental social struggles demand clear deliberation, evoking the inevitabilities of providential discourse, the rapturous totalities of apocalyptic and transcension discourses, the acquiescence to authority of Priestly discourses, and so on, all of which I abhor as barriers to nonviolent deliberation and contestation of the terms of ongoing technoscientific change I demand as a champion of democracy.

For another thing -- apart from this practical point of their sometimes disproportionate influence on public discourse as an especially nice fit with incumbent politics (even if many incumbents would publicly disassociate themselves from the letter of Superlative formations) -- it is also true that one can sometimes understand the dynamics and categories and relations in more prevailing discourses by locating especially pure variations of these discourses at their extremes or at their vital cores.

It is immensely clarifying to one's understanding of the market fundamentalism of neoliberal globalization (the most influential political ideology of the last thirty years, amounting to the incumbent conventional wisdom governing the mostly dreadful domestic and international policies of my entire adult lifetime) to study the especially clear-eyed anarcho-capitalist formulations of David Friedman (son of neoliberal luminary Milton) and the especially unabashed narratives of Ayn Rand (best-selling reactionary crap-novelist), even if the mainstream wonks, pundits, legislators, and functionaries who actually implement the neoliberal vision on the ground are little likely to invoke these uncompromising figures at the vital core of their discourse, or necessarily even to have read them.

So, too, one arrives at an especially clear understanding of the curious aspirations, distractions, emphases, aporias, and tics that drive privileged technocentric and technocratic public discourses (from the apologias for various devastating extractive industries to the technophilic neoliberalism of Tom Friedman or the technophilic neoconservatism of Glenn Reynolds), by focusing on the workings of the Superlative Technology Discourses that express undiluted, if possibly more deluded, forms of these aspirations, distractions, emphases, aporias, and tics.

As I have said before, the technophilic libertopian cult of Extropianism was incomparably more interesting and influential as a symptom, or even condensed essence, of the irrational exuberance of the "Long Boom" digirati of the 1990s of which they were also a part, than they ever were on their own terms, and it was as a symptom, as a signifier of those more dense, more qualified prevailing tendencies that Extropianism attracted the critical attention it did from technocultural scholars and others. The same remains true of my own interest in Superlativity in our own historical moment.

Both of the quotations above may be found David Edgerton's book The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900, by the way, which Arthur recommends in his blog-post (I haven't read it myself, but it looks quite interesting).


jfehlinger said...

Dale wrote:

> [E]ver heard of Jacques de Vaucanson, you triumphalist
> Singularitarians and scientistic reductionists?

If it poops like a duck. . .

jfehlinger said...

"It is clear that there is but one substance in this world,
and that man is its ultimate expression. Compared to monkeys
and the cleverest of animals he is just as Huygen's planet
clock is to a watch of King Julien. If more wheels and springs
are needed to show the motion of the planets than are
required for showing and repeating the hours; and if
Vaucanson needed more artistry in producing a flautist
than a duck, his art would have been even harder put to
produce a 'talker', and such a machine, especially in
the hands of this new kind of Prometheus, must no longer
be thought of as impossible."

-- Julien Offray de la Mettrie

(quoted as chapter epigraph in Gerald M. Edelman,
_Bright Air, Brilliant Fire: On the Matter of the Mind_,
Chapter 19, "Is It Possible To Construct A Conscious
Artifact?", p. 188)

jfehlinger said...

30 Responses to “Singularity Debate”

James D. Miller Says:
October 29th, 2007 at 5:24 pm

Don’t take this guy seriously. He is basically saying that it
is foolish to work on friendly AGI because instead you should
be devoting your efforts to left-wing causes such as weakening
the U.S. military.

He also suggested that you read Foucault. Michael, this means
he is on the far left even for a college professor. His views
do not represent the views of many people outside of the social
science and humanity departments of colleges.

Brian Wang Says:
October 29th, 2007 at 5:55 pm

He is a verbal bully and a troll. He will keep baiting you or
anyone else into debates where only he gets to say what is or is
not a valid fact or assumption.

He also can dish it out and cannot take it. see the exchange which
I have linked to and taken the last comment of below. When I used
even a partial amount of his method of “communication” and discourse
he banned me from posting to his site. So I find it very funny
and hypocritical of him to use his method of ridicule and baiting.
The reality is that when someone actually shows that his approach
and beliefs are completely wrong using undeniable facts (history and
actual military strategy) he mentally and emotionally runs. However,
for the impact of potential technology because he can always use
the tactic of denying and ridiculing any logically based argument.
He has no such outs for discussions based on existing facts.


Golly, Dale. If you had any brains, you'd be. . . Ann Coulter.

Dale Carrico said...

With what stunning perfect behavioral accuracy these boys exhibit so many of the connections I worry about in my critique (which, I am witheringly reassured from the smoother customers among them, is nothing but armchair psychologizing and effete elite incomprehension of stolid solid he-man science on my part), all the facile reductionism, the dot-eyed certainty, the messianic handwaving, the tribal piling-on, the projection, even the dumbass Fox-News paranoid style Amurrican right wingnut paraphernalia... all so robotically predictable I find myself wondering if they may be right after all about the relevance of this artificial intelligence business... It would explain a lot.

jfehlinger said...

> I find myself wondering if they may be right after all about
> the relevance of this artificial intelligence business...
> It would explain a lot.

Snrk fnd n a blg:

> I’m guessing that because he’s a Libertarian/Randroid, he has
> a vastly overrated sense of his intellectual abilities and
> considers himself to be in that top 1%, and as such thinks it’s
> a good idea. Poor Libertarians, they get so excited about the
> idea of some humans being superior to others, only to be
> disappointed to find out it’s not them.

Linked from:

"The narcissist is our first encounter with carbon-based
artificial intelligence. Many wish it were the last."

jfehlinger said...
Brian Wang asks:
October 31st, 2007 at 9:32 am

. . .

Should I seek out and talk to Triumph the insult comic dog
and try to learn from his observations about me ?

Actually, that sounds like an excellent idea!

Ooooh, what's theees? A geek from another dimension!

I keed, I keed.

Giulio Prisco Says:
November 1st, 2007 at 8:25 am

I also gave up posting to Dale’s blog.

Not because of Dale’s reactions - he is a very smart person
and has a certain intellectual finesse that makes me enjoy his
writings, even when he does his best to be blunt and offensive.

But unfortunately his blog is becoming the refuge of embittered
and self-righteous bigots who, without having his rhetorical
and intellectual skills, use it as an outlet for their
anti-transhumanist hate pieces and, of course, insult those
who dissent.

So, I will continue to read Dale’s essays but stop wasting my
time discussing with his cohorts. I think the best we can do
is ignoring them.

Ah, that's **me**, presumably! ;->

Well, there you have it, folks. Transhumanism as a cult.
Just send money.

jfehlinger said...

From my e-mail archive:

Subject: The gods disdained to talk

Whip the hysteria until it's slightly stiff.

[Dale] wrote:
From: "Dale" [dalec@...]
Date: Fri Apr 14, 2006 7:05 pm
Subject: Re: Further re Smart Dust sousveillance systems,
radical reciprocal accountability

. . .

Portentous uncaveated claims about catastrophic
upcoming catastrophes followed by calls for action and disdain for
"talk" add up in my view to mass hysteria and thug rule to nobody's
benefit and for no good reason.

Posted recently to SL4, of all places:
Re: Anti-singularity spam.
From: Russell Wallace
Date: Thu Apr 13 2006 - 09:19:54 MDT

. . .

One thing that seems to be on an exponentially rising curve is the amount of hysteria
whipped up by both the more extreme Singularitarians and plain crackpots
glomming onto the Singularity and related memes. This in turn strongly
supports and encourages the luddite faction in similar hysteria of their
own. I don't know where it's going to end up, but an atmosphere composed of
a mixture of religious rapture, fear and paranoia is about the worst one you
could have for making rational decisions. Throwing a dose of cold realism
over the flames strikes me as about the most constructive thing that could
be done right now.

jfehlinger said...

Giulio Prisco Says:
November 2nd, 2007 at 3:44 am

I would add that they [i.e. Dale and his "cohorts"] enjoy using
this blatantly mocking tone, but cannot take the same tone in return.
As soon as _you_ mock _them_ they will begin to openly insulting you.

In defense of Dale, I must say that he reads transhumanist blogs
and lists, but has never said that he is a transhumanist. Quite
the contrary. What drives me mad is when some of his cohorts
claim to _be_ (!!!) transhumanists. That is really too much.

Well, I guess it's too late to trademark the name.
Presumably Prisco is referring here to his recent exchange
with Justice De Thezier when he complains that it's "really
too much" that some people claim to **be** (!!!) transhumanists.

I've certainly never referred to myself as a Transhumanist (TM).

I've always thought of myself as a kind of transhumanist
(little "t") in that I enjoy, e.g., Olaf Stapledon, but that's
a far cry from all this mishegas of mailing lists and blogs
and conferences and Institutes and 501(c)(3) tax exemptions and
endowments from "Silicon Valley wealthoids".

As far as the "blatantly mocking tone" is concerned -- Prisco
should be relieved that Bertrand Russell and H. L. Mencken
are safely dead. Well, who knows? Maybe there'll be a
_South Park_ or _Family Guy_ episode directed at Transhumanism.
Come to think, _Futurama_ has always taken a slightly
mocking tone towards the genre (celebrities' heads in jars,
that sort of thing).

But there's **so much** silliness in the world to choose from.
Why pay attention to marginal techno discotheques?

FrF said...

I wonder how rare a creature I am because I equally enjoy reading Dale -- I've grown accustomed to his ebullient writing style -- and Eliezer Yudkowsky. (Add smiley.) But yes, Dale writes eloquently about some of the things that I, from my political vantage point, find disagreeable, too, in the "superlative discourse" although I'd say it more conciliatory.

(Now reading: Robin Blackburn's A Global Pension Plan in the current issue of "New Left Review".)

jfehlinger said...

From Ex-Extropian "Mark Plus"'s [Mark Potts']
"Yet Another Transhumanist Blog":
After I emailed FM [Esfandiary]'s "Transhumans - 2000" essay to my
circle of correspondents, one of them remarked that transhumanists
have an "abysmal" record of making sense of the future, much less
of our current world. I agree. Transhumanism needs constant
reality-checking to keep it from becoming a useless cult belief.

Unfortunately the currently ascendent sect in the transhumanist
tradition, the singularitarians, have run off in weird directions
with the idea of out-of-control and potentially hostile AI's,
even though the whole AI field has bogged down and 80-year-old
Marvin Minsky must wonder now what he has spent his life doing.
I find it significant that AI and molecular biology both started
at around the same time, but the molecular biologists have left
us with an impressive and rigorous body of knowledge to show for
their efforts. AI "researchers," by contrast, keep trying to
discover the foundational principles of their field after
nearly 60 years.