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

Monday, March 31, 2008

Happy Birthday Air America

Four years old today. Thanks for the moments of sanity, thanks for the moments of hilarity, thanks for helping monkeywrench the Right Wing Noise Machine, thanks for helping make Rachel Maddow a rising star, but screw you anyway for firing Maron, a genius too galdang good for you.

Miles Davis and John Coltrane Help Make Amor Mundi More Positive


Cesar Chavez Day

[via Democracy Now!]
Cesar Estrada Chavez, legendary labor activist, civil rights leader, and founder of the first successful farm workers union would have been 81 years old today. Events are planned across the country to honor his life and legacy. Thousands marched in his memory over the weekend and nine states recognize March 31st as an official holiday.

The man who led the nation-wide non-violent struggle for the rights and dignity of farm workers was born in Yuma, Arizona in 1927 and his family became migrant farm laborers after the Great Depression. He began his life as a community organizer in 1952 with the Community Service Organization, a Latino civil rights group. Ten years later Chavez founded the National Farm Workers Association, which would later become the United Farm Workers of America. He led the union for the next three decades and the strikes and boycotts he organized helped realize several victories, including the 1975 California Agricultural Labor Relations Act to protect farm workers.

This year also marks the 40th anniversary of Chavez’s 25-day water-only fast in Delano, California at the height of the five-year grape strike and boycott. It ended in March 1968, just a few weeks before the assassination of one of his heroes, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Chavez was fasting to recommit the farm-workers movement to non-violence.

For audio clips of Chavez, and for a discussion of his legacy as well as a discussion of struggles to organize laborers and combat anti-immigrant hysteria in contemporary America with National Farm Workers Association co-founder Dolores Huerta, follow the link to today's Democracy Now!

Cackles from the Balcony

Yesterday, Eric proposed a definition that cracked me up:
Window, the ultimate idiot box.

At the risk of spoiling it, the comment happened in the context of watching another one of those design shows on homogayteevee over lunch that seem to draw our attention like freeway accidents draw rubberneckers, and observing the curious panic which seems to seize so many designers when confronted with television sets.

Get that damn thing into a cabinet! Hide it in a drawer or possibly an antique suitcase! Cram it behind a shoji screen! Banish it to a corner angled away from the couch! Conceal it behind a some crappy scrolling faux-impressionist painting above a faux fireplace (classy)!

I have observed this very sensibility in actual interior designers (yes, I've dated my share), so it's not just the would-be designer spokesmodels of teevee design-shows who exhibit this odd panic before the tube -- but you have to admit that making an endlessly reiterated spectacle of this sort of thing on a television network seems especially symptomatic and weird.

Well, this leads us to another peeve Eric and I complain about in these shows. Often at the end of the shows, in the "reveal," where the homeowner finally surveys the devastation, as everybody is casting about to capture le mot juste for the wholly wholesome transformations that have taken place in their homes over the course of the episode, they often find themselves quacking about how the designer's furniture choices are about "texture," or the arrangement is about "space," or the window treatment is about "light," and so on, as though the room lacked somehow, in its earlier incarnation, texture, space, or light, as if it was some sort of holodeck projection or something, or perhaps an opaque gelatinous cube they were force to wriggle awkwardly into before the designer liberated the room with a Roman shade and a couple of new throw pillows.

(Speaking of HGTV pet peeves, can somebody explain to me what in the hell gave Americans such curious ideas about what "Tuscany" looks like?)

Be all that as it may, it was the juxtaposition of homeowners going into transports about a light filled window while trying not to exhibit their discomfort at finding the television -- which is probably the only reason they ever go into that room in the first place -- curiously, gone (it had been banished to the back yard under a mulch mound or some such thing), that prompted Eric's observation and new definition. Maybe you had to be there.

I can only assume that the drear consumerist bildungsroman of progressive enlightenment reduced to the conspicuous indication of upward class mobility through one's decorating choices, which is a deeply troubled discourse in faux-meritocratic America in any case, sits especially badly with the presence of the television set, our comfort, our company, our secret shame as these things are reckoned given the ongoing force of reactionary high-low culture distinctions for our inner-bourgeois voice of conscience (and conscientiousness). Our homes, no doubt, are little more than stage-sets in which we joylessly perform the scripted, disavowed class warfare playing out interminably within our own souls, a fact that is ferociously italicized whenever Martha Stewart pulls on her pastel-hued garden gloves or David Bromstad's "Color Splash" crew arrives in one's drive, certainly, but which is there nonetheless even when the cameras are not rolling, as they never will, not even for fifteen minutes, for the rest of us.

Given this transformation of our homely once-restorative shelters into broadcast advertisements for the grow-or-die swelling of our consumer-capitalist egos into the lebensraum that is their right destiny come what may it is enormously intriguing that a successful room makeover will now be couched in awful commercial terms: the homeowner will gasp in joy that their bedroom has become indistinguishable from a hotel suite, the living room a plush lobby, the kitchen a professional restaurant-quality constellation of stainless steel surfaces...

Eric and I live in a rented 1922 bungalow in Rockridge, run down but very comfortable. Our television, which is, frankly, the most enormous we could afford, is quite frequently tuned to Reality TV programming or DVDs in which spaceships explode like popcorn chrysanthemums with some regularity. We are not ashamed, that's for sure, nor do we feel particularly diminished intellectually by the joy we take in the spectacle of our tube. It rests atop a credenza and dominates the living room the way a drive-in screen dominates its parking lot. Our living room windows are always curtained, letting in the glow of afternoon light but revealing none of the details beyond the glass (our house is separated from our very nice lesbian neighbor Karen's by a narrow sidewalk, and an open curtain would reveal a bank of windows featuring a row of hooks on which an unchanging array of coats are hanging on one side and Karen herself, hard at work at her computer with a coffee mug in her fist on the other side). We love our neighbor, and find joy in feeding her cats when she is away, but we cheerfully prefer the view on the screen, even when there's nothing on but HGTV and CSI or Voyager re-runs are still hours away.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Dispatches from Libertopia: Market Ideology As Unnatural Disaster

[via ThinkProgress]
Krugman: It would be a little different if the administration... hadn’t said there’s no bubble. It’s a national disaster in effect. It’s like Katrina. To say, oh, let people suffer, saying let those people who made the mistake of staying in New Orleans suffer.

Pluralist Reasons Against Authoritarian Reason

I'm not a "post-modernist." Anybody who knows the history of serial quarelles des anciens et modernes since the 17C -- let alone much earlier variations in the Roman imagination of the Greeks, or in the Greek imagination of the "East" -- understands that the "high modern" "late modern" "a-modern" "post-modern" "post-post modern" skirmishes to and fro are a very old, and essentially modern, if I may say so, story.

But, that said, I definitely do play the post-modernist online from time to time. I find myself in this curious position not only because of my elite effete aesthete penchant for paradoxical wordplay but because I know that whatever positions I actually make a case for, the most vitriolic opponents of "post-modernism" (whatever, finally, that is supposed to mean to them in the long dark night of the soul train) definitely seem to have people like me in mind as their targets, so it makes a certain sense to defend myself on the terrain where the actual battle keeps unfolding for now.

What is especially interesting to me is that in defending the pragmatist, pluralist, post-structuralist, polycultural, post-humanist humanities theses that often get me pilloried for post-modernism I find myself at odds with many people who under other circumstances I would assume to be clear allies, defenders of practical science, "reality-based" progressive activists, freethinkers, and so on. I also find it interesting just how many pieces I have written on Amor Mundi over the years really do seem to be variations on this topic of my skepticism toward "priestly" or too authoritative understandings of truth, knowledge, science, selfhood, reality, the good, the future, and so on. Although these are far from the pieces of mine that have drawn the most eyeballs to this site or the most comments to the Moot (I guess my brand of cheerful comparatively nonjudgmental atheism in such posts does occasionally draw some notice at least), many of these happen to be the pieces I am proudest of, the pieces that seem to me to go to the real heart of my personal preoccupations, and the pieces that reflect my own best sense of what Amor Mundi is about most of all (or wanted to be, in its early days).

1. Values: Morals Versus Ethics, November 4, 2004.

2. Fundamentalist Devils, Postmodernist Angels, November 29, 2004.

3. Progress as a Natural Force Versus Progress as the Great Work, January 05, 2005.

4. Subject, Object, Abject, April 20, 2005.

5. Sovereign Or Subject?, April 21, 2005.

6. Selves Are Fictional But Not Illusory, June 10, 2005.

7. Is Science Democratic?, July 27, 2005.

8. Without God, August 19, 2005.

9. The Republican War on Science Is Premodern Not Postmodern, September 20, 2005.

10. But Then Who Will Save Us?, September 27, 2005.

11. MoPoMo, February 11, 2006.

12. Posthuman Terrains, July 10, 2006.

13. Our PreMo President, October 09, 2006.

14. Technoethical Pluralism, November 23, 2006.

15. Zerzan's Premodernist Complaint about "Postmodern" Thought, December 06, 2006.

16. Anti-Intellectual Arguments Against Anti-Intellectualism Are Always Such Fun!, December 29, 2006.

17. Faith in Technology?, February 5, 2007.

18. Mass Mediated Hand Holding: Depressive Bioconservative Cinema and Its Manic Technophiliac Twin, February 11, 2007.

19. What "Becomes" Post-Humanity?, March 10, 2007.

20. The World Needs Democracy, Not Saving (And Especially Not Self-Appointed "Saviors"), March 31, 2007

21. Close to You; Or, Truth-Talk Among the Philosophers, April 15, 2007.

22. "Relativisms," Left and Right, June 02, 2007.

23. Problematical Posthumanistical, June 02, 2007.

24. Richard Rorty, October 4, 1931 -- June 8, 2007, June 10, 2007.

25. More Rorty, June 12, 2007.

26. Priestly "Science" and Democratic Politics, July 17, 2007.

27. Pragmatic Science, Not Priestly Science, July 13, 2007.

28. Freedom and Figurative Language, August 10, 2007.

29. Confusing Moralizing for Politics, August, 2007.

30. Is Rationality Always Instrumental?, November 11, 2007.

31. But I'm Not a Relativist, December 10, 2007.

32. Many of the Faithful Are Really Just Aesthetes, December 10, 2007.

33. Scattered Speculations on Secularism, Atheism, and Anticlericalism, December 29, 2007.

34. As An Actual Person, May I Point Out That I'm Actually Speaking A "Language of the People" Already, Thank You Very Much?, February 15, 2008.

35. Transhumanists Appoint Themselves Master Defenders of "The Enlightenment", February 16, 2008.

36. From Enlightenment to Eliminationism in a Single Bound, February 17, 2008.

37. Loss, Connection, Transformation, March 03, 2008.

38. A Faith in Finitude?, March 29, 2008.

39. Moralizing Isn't Politics, April 20, 2008.

40. Science, Politics, and Administration, March 22, 2009.

41. Let A Bazillion Flowers Bloom, December 3, 2009.

42. Pluralist Reasonableness Against Fundamentalist, Reductionist, and Relativist Unreasonablenesses, May 16, 2010.

43. Raised Vulcan Eyebrows and Hopeless Human Hopes, June 6, 2010.

44. Rhetoric and Nonviolence, June 12, 2010.

45. We Already Won the Culture Wars, August 17, 2010.

46. Sold Out Truths, December 30, 2010.

47. "Smug Atheists" Should Read More SF Counsels io9, November, 2012.

48. More on Irreligiosity, October 5, 2014.

49. Why Our Militant Atheists Are Not Secular Thinkers, December 22, 2014.
50. Religious Beliefs Don't Pass Scientific Muster: But That Recognition Goes Both Ways, January 9, 2015.
51. Sunday Morning Twitter Sermon, February 8, 2015.

Better Safe Than Sorry; Or, Why Bother With the Transhumanists?

Upgraded and adapted from the Moot

Of transhumanism and singularitarianism and the other branches of techno-utopian Robot Cultism I've been critiquing here rather a lot lately, an Anonymous comment in the Moot holds up a genial and calming hand and proposes that it is, after all, "mostly goofy fun that explodes in to heated debate equivalent to the way people get emotionally attached to discussions about who should play shortstop for the Yankees."

This comment recurs fairly regularly in some form or other in the Moot -- earlier versions of responses to it can be found here and here, for example. I understand the sentiment, and I would like to agree with it in a general sort of way, especially since I actually am a nerd and enjoy geeking out with science fiction enthusiasts on science fictional topics of the kind that preoccupy many transhumanists and since many transhumanist-identified folks are plenty likeable as far as that goes however philosophically incoherent and politically pernicious the roller coaster they are riding and exhorting others to ride with them actually happens to be… But there are a couple of things that give me pause in taking up this suggestion when all is said and done.

First, however goofy and marginal Superlative Technocentrics may seem (and, crucially, mostly are, so far) in their cul-de-sac sub(cult)ures, it is also true that they crystallize tendencies to techno-utopian hyperbole, technocratic elitism, scientistic reductionism, glib "enlightened" eugenicism, and odes to wild-eyed military spending that also characterize actually prevailing corporate-militarist developmental assumptions and rhetoric. But with the explicitly transhumanist versions of the rhetoric there is the benefit that the bloody-minded bat-shit craziness of this constellation of assumptions and aspirations is plainer to see for most people in its stark extremity, and hence exposing the one provides a good and underexploited way of trying to drive home the more general critique of corporate-militarist technodevelopmental rhetoric, policy, and outcomes as well.

Second, it is also true that the transhumanists and singularitarians and other Superlatives make good copy for corporate media outlets precisely for their goofiness and extremity and, frankly, from the perspective of lots of corporate-militarist incumbent interests, many of their views make good plain sense, too -- "in moderation," of course! -- and so transhumanists and techno-utopians generally have managed to make a good deal more noise and hence a good deal more mischief deranging sensible and progressive public discourse on technodevelopmental issues in my view than their persistently small numbers would otherwise justify.

It is indeed true that there can sometimes seem something rather silly and sad about all these privileged boys with their toys who think they're the smartest guys in the room indulging their fantasies, calculating the Robot God odds and contemplating imperishable robot bodies and nanobotic genie-in-a-bottle treasure caves and stainless-steel soopergenius labs in the asteroid belt, or whatever it is that is going on their heads…

Wouldn't it be better to be kind to the poor dears, after all?

But then I think how silly the Neocons once must have seemed in their forlorn whiteboy clubhouses, plotting and planning for the future in the University of Chicago or what have you, reading Milton Friedman and Atlas Shrugged and starting to craft their Noble Lies, their racist Southern Strategy, their Contract Hit on America, and their Project for a New American Century...

Then I find myself thinking it's a good thing indeed for at least a few of the folks who know enough to know better here and now to try to nip this thing in the bud via exposure, analysis, ridicule, and the proposal of more progressive alternatives.

Francis Fukuyama once declared transhumanism the most dangerous idea in the world. Of course, when he said that he was studiously avoiding the more obvious candidate for that title to which he himself had been so long devoted, Neoconservatism itself.

But there are good reasons for those of us who would gladly observe the ongoing eclipse of the Neoconservative movement in the ruins wrought by its false and facile fantasies to pay close attention to transhumanism as an aborning potential successor movement (think of Glenn Reynolds if you want to understand with what ease such a transition can be made), a retro-futurist successor to Neoconservatism just now stitching together its organizations, its donors, its think-tanks, its public intellectuals.

Born in the irrational exuberance of digital techno-utopianism, in the freewheeling anarcho-capitalist crypto-anarchist cryonicist gun-nut techno-utopianism of the California Extropians movement, devoted to market fundamentalism and limit-denialism (a hostility to biological life and death, a hostility to sensible regulations of corporate greed, a hostility to environmental concerns), now transhumanism is trying to be a wee bit more suave and more savvy in its surface representation -- even though the market fundamentalists, the social Darwinists, the scientistic reductionists, the technocratic elitists, the liberal eugenists are all still there, even among the so-called "democratic transhumanists," making their "serious" cases to their respectful colleagues, thronging their organizational advisory Boards, providing more and more of the donor dollars on which they depend to do their futurological "work."

I hope the transhumanists are as harmless as they deserve to be. I would like to enjoy blue-skying with them as geeks who like some good science fiction if they would just drop the pretensions to being a "movement" holding the Keys to History, the self-appointed assumption of a Priestly "protectorate" of Science and Enlightenment on their parochial construal of it, and all the fundamentalist paraphernalia of their Superlative Technocentricity.

But just in case, I think there is something to be said for paying attention to them, naming names, following the money, mapping the organizations, their staffs, advisors, donors, and inter-relations, and otherwise connecting the dots. Better safe than sorry.

Mavis Staples Helps Make Amor Mundi More Positive

Okay, one of my all time favorite songs.

Well now, everybody runnin round talking bout saving souls, when they know good and plenty well they got enough trouble trying to save their own.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

A Faith in Finitude?

Lincoln Cannon is an insightful occasional commenter in the Moot, and I was intrigued to discover that he has written an extended intervention into my critique of Superlative Technocentric Discourse over on the site of an organization called the Mormon Transhumanist Association (which I must say makes a certain sense as a transhumanist affiliation once you get past the initial surprise).

Cannon writes:
While I've found many areas of agreement with Dale, such as recognition that our experience lends itself to complex and dynamic interpretations that correspond to superlatives only abstractly if at all, I don't share his faith in human finitude -- for precisely the same reason that I do share with him the rejection of concrete and absolute manifestations of superlatives in our experience.

I think Cannon may be misunderstanding me when he claims that I reject "concrete… manifestations of superlatives in our experience," since I certainly agree that there are actual, real phenomenal human encounters with the novel, the ineffable, and the sublime. I do think Cannon means to name something like our personal experiences of the "sublime" here when he speaks of "superlatives in our experience." And I am far from denying such experiences. I even agree that these experiences are often among the most significant ones to us, and that they often seem to demand in the force of their impact on us that we struggle to testify to them even if we must always make recourse to figurative language and poetic practice in our efforts to do so.

I have gone so far as to propose that there are five registers of warrant that human beings make reasonable recourse to and incarnate in our lifeways, five registers that correspond roughly to traditional branches of philosophical inquiry: the efficacious, the moral, the aesthetic, the ethical, and the political.

For me, to be reasonable means not only that one can make the case that one's beliefs are warrantedly assertible, but that one can make the case for which mode of warrant is the right one for one's beliefs at hand. A familiar example of this sort of demand is that one must be careful to distinguish values from facts, that oughts are not determined by ises, that main significances are not always written on the face of accurate descriptions. As it happens, it seems to me that Cannon's argument with me rests on a difference with me about precisely this sort of question.

When Cannon claims that he doesn't share my "faith in finitude," I must say that I cannot be sure what he can mean by this phrase. If I may be permitted a moment of pedantry, it seems important to note that there are several meanings of that word, "faith," in common parlance that we will want to keep separate if we want to understand the distinctions that are at issue in our misunderstanding here. Faith can mean fidelity or loyalty between persons and I think we can set that meaning aside for now. Faith can also denote the constellation of dogmas that solicit the shared sub(cult)ural identification of the Faithful of some sect which may actually come into our disagreement at some level, but I think for clarity's sake we can set that meaning aside for the time being as well. Faith can also describe the level of confidence in which we assert our beliefs, which is a sense that applies to all five registers of warranted belief and so I think is relevant to our discussion but probably not the ground for our contention here. No, the meaning of faith that seems to me to be the crucial one at hand is that sense in which faith is a word to describe those beliefs in particular that do not rest on either material evidence or logical proof.

Now, bear with my pedantry just a moment more. Finitude is also a term for which I think we need to be clear about our meaning here, if we would be clearer about our disagreement. Finitude is, in my understanding, quite simply the quality of being finite, where finite means being bounded or limited. In some definitions this is, interestingly enough, treated as synonymous with existing as such.

To the extent that the perception of events (among them, things) in our environment is always a matter of the discrimination of object-events against a differentiated background by means of articulated energy-absorption by sense-receptors, it seems to me that there is a primacy of finitude built right in to the empirical apprehension of the world at a very basic level. To perceive is to discriminate finite objects-events from the get-go. This finitude comes to assume foundational significance in the efficacious (or pragmatic, or instrumental, or scientific) register of warranted belief-ascription especially, since the privacy of perception is put via the test and the publication into the publicity of consensus precisely by way of the evidenciary replicability of this graspably finite event.

And so, when Cannon goes on to claim, "I do not expect to experience (nor do I consider it practically beneficial to pursue experience of) a concrete and absolute manifestation of finitude," this gives me extreme pause. It seems to me that one has endless, ubiquitous, interminable experiences of finitude, experiences that are roughly coextensive with what we mean by experience in the sense of perception and then in the sense of our confident solicitation of consensus about instrumentally efficacious descriptions of the world. When Cannon disapproves what he calls my "faith in finitude," I am flummoxed in precisely the same way. In what seems to me the sense of faith at hand, the sense that describes faith as beliefs that do not rest on evidence or proof, it seems to me that the recognition of finitude grounds the distinction of faithful from warranted belief in the first place, that without something like a "faith in finitude" we cannot make sense of the very idea of faithfulness in the first place.

Needless to say, I do not mean by belaboring this point simply to suggest that Cannon is confused in his terminology, but to say why I think we initially are talking somewhat past one another. When Cannon speaks of my "faith in finitude" it seems to me that he must not be talking about the factual question whether or not object-events in our environment universally exhibit limitedness in being discriminable as such in the first place (the denial of which point seems to me an absurdity), but talking about questions of significance and value instead. The fact that he couches a discourse of value in terms of experience is initially perplexing but it is easy to understand why he does so when you think about it.

For too long many of the loudest and clearest voices championing the force of factual description and the emancipatory power of consensus scientific practices have also happened to be voices that have denigrated as "emotivist," as facile, as "merely" subjective, as irrational, as insubstantiual, as hopelessly retrograde, and so on, many efforts to testify to the significance, the force, the indispensability of beliefs in moral, aesthetic, ethical, and political modes, and the actual substantial reality of the experiences that solicit these modes of warranted belief and the reasonable lifeways they incarnate. While it is undeniably wrongheaded and irrational to dismiss or repudiate the efficacious mode of warranted belief (or the social formations of publication and consensus scientific experimentalist practice that are its quintessential expression), it is exactly as wrongheaded and irrational to respond with a defense of the efficacious mode that takes the form of an imperialist championing that either denigrates every other mode of belief or, just as bad, a reductionist effort to rewrite every other mode in the terms of the efficacious.

Near the conclusion of his piece Cannon makes this declaration:
[M]y faith is in an eternal God that recurrently becomes God, an immortal God that dies and resurrects, and an omniscient and omnipotent God that progresses in knowledge and power. Without beginning, this God reorganizes worlds without end, through beginnings and endings. This is a God of life, in all its dynamic concrete complexity and its static abstract simplicity. This is a God of love, working endlessly for full reconciliation of our wills, desires and laws. I have worshiped as a slave, now as a child, and yet would be a friend in grace and works, without pity or pride. I would become one with the eternal God, even if it requires eternity.

I will admit that I am not a religious person and this is not the sort of statement in which I personally find much in the way of literal-minded usefulness or personal provocation. But I can still perfectly easily connect this sort of language to discourses which I have found significant, inspiring, provocative, liberating from Hannah Arendt speaking of politics in terms of "public happiness," William Burroughs speaking about taking drugs, Wendell Berry speaking about working the land, Gary Indiana or Jean Genet speaking about sex, Nico singing about disappointment, and so on.

When I refuse to accept the expression "faith in finitude" on the grounds that the notion of factuality on which our sense of the faithful depends is founded on the prior recognition of finitude, I do not mean to give comfort to those who in making similar claims will then tend to go on to deny the significance, the reasonableness and the actual indispensability of non-efficacious modes of warranted belief like the ones registered in -- to me -- aesthetic and moral encounters with the sublime and beautiful that give rise to so many vital testimonies to personal faith. I think it is easily possible to demarcate our pursuits of private perfection in the world directed to the attention of our fellows from our pursuits of efficacious descriptions of the world soliciting the warranted consensus of our fellows. I think it is, in fact, as easy as (or as hard as, apparently, these days) the separation of Church and State.

Cannon concludes with the assertion: "I desire superlative life, in quantity and quality, rather than superlative death." I must say that I find the notion of "superlative death" not at all meaningful. Death seems to me a fairly pedestrian matter when all is said and done. And while I agree that life is the only game in town, I cannot say that I think it benefits much from Superlativity either, unless one wants to mean by that phrase only that one seeks ever after the best beliefs, according to their mode, as open to what is emancipatory in the sublime as to what is emancipatory in the ordinary and well-ordered. I don't think anybody benefits much, though, from confusing facts with values, or the different work of science from the work of poetry (whether one finds one's poetry in art, meditation, orgasm, activism, crowds, god, gardening, or pharma).

Yet Another Post-Transhumanist

My pal n8o is the latest of many sensible folks to wash his hands of the Superlative silliness. Click the link for his whole piece (you should be reading his blog Promoting the Progress anyway), but here are my personal favorite bits:
"Smart drugs"? not really. What's the point of being smarter? What does being "smarter" mean, exactly, anyway? I already am happier just with the drugs I already have some access to. But even as sluggish and primitive as they are, I'm pretty satisfied with them…

More and more, I'm starting to see "enhancements" or "augmentations" as only things that I would really "need" in order to compete in the workplace. This is not something I consider legitimate. I object to that. More than anything, I just want out of the rat race. It simply appears, to me, that dropping out has been and will be more effective than trying to "win" it…

Given the demonstrable risks of modern IT security, which do not seem to be easily solvable, will uploading or brain computer interfaces ever really be safe? Will human intellectual limits be the only things that insure relative safety…?

Does it really bother me that I'm going to die? I can always prefer to live longer without being afraid of dying.

Another technoscientifically literate secular democrat for sustainability and consensual lifeway diversity. Sure, you can't fit a phrase that gawky on a bumper sticker, but it's got a good beat and you can dance to it!

Friday, March 28, 2008

Stereolab Helps Make Amor Mundi More Positive

I didn't question I didn't know, as far as I'd seen life was endless, when I realized I had to let go, we are mere mortals, as to the rest, it's not eternal, imperishable, while on the move, it's not eternal, interminable, progress is the clue, I though IBM was born with the world, the US flag would float forever, the cold opponent did pack away, the capital will have to follow, it's not eternal, imperishable, oh yes it will go, it's not eternal, imperishable, the dinosaur law, look at the symbols, they are alive, they move evolve and then they die.

The Fallen World and the World to Come; Or, Techno-Utopians Give 'Em That New-Fangled Religion

Reader FrF in the Moot directed my attention to an editorial I would not otherwise have read, from the Superlative Techno-Immortalist (and also, rather predictably, market libertarian) blog Fight Aging!

In it, the editorialist, "Reason" (of course) declares that "[w]e are all doomed unless we dig ourselves out of the hole of aging via the future of medical technology."

By "doomed" the author means to point out (for those of you not paying attention in the back row) that all human beings now living, like all human beings who have ever lived, are, indeed, mortal.

While there is of course an enormous literature spanning millennia devoted to the ways in which human beings individually and human societies collectively have struggled to work through (or not) the existential dilemmas introduced by the inescapable fact of human mortality, it does seem to me that there is something more than usually alienated happening in the conjuration of doom in this piece and in comparable pieces by Superlative Techno-Immortalists.

The proximate inspiration for this editorial was the recent spate of studies and articles like a recent New York Times piece noting "disparities in life expectancy for richer and poorer Americans, paralleling the growth of income inequality in the last two decades," as well as other recent studies pointing to the impact of diet and exercise on healthy lifespan also correlated in complicated ways to socioeconomic status, access to information, lifeway precarity and stress, and so on.

About all this, "Reason," The Techno-Immortalist wants to know: "What does it matter that some of us are a handful of percentage points more or less doomed than others…? It's still doom, and we'll all be just as rescued by technologies capable of repairing the damage that is aging."

There are a couple of things I want to direct your attention to in this extraordinary statement. First of all, in this formulation wealth disparities, differences in access to knowledge, distinctions of status, actual exhibitions of lifeway diversity are regarded as a matter of an utterly negligible "handful of percentage points more or less doomed than others."

That is to say, seen against the backdrop of the epic conflict of "Immortalism" Versus "Deathism" on which the Superlative Techno-Warrior imagines himself to be fighting, almost every difference that makes a difference in the actually existing texture of pleasure, danger, suffering, opportunity, awareness, exploitation, resistance of all the actually-existing people who have ever lived or are now living on earth is handwaved away as a near irrelevance.

Of course, I don't doubt that these textures assume their more proper importance in "Reason's" actual everyday life. I don't mean to suggest that just because he seems indifferent to and even dismissive of most of the actual differences that make a difference to the overabundant majority of human beings on earth the overabundant majority of the time they spend on earth in the context of contemplating the stakes of a particularly urgent problem, that this means he feels this way all the time or in some more fundamental way. But it still bears scrutiny to think just what it means to think this way under any circumstances, even if in strictly delimited contexts, especially if these are the contexts to which one devotes considerable public attention.

The fact is, I personally believe that there is something brutally obliterative that happens to anyone who would assume such a vantage, even if only selectively. And just so readers don't think I am merely seeking to demonize and so trivialize a perspective with which I disagree, let me say that I think there is something about the harsh worldly indifference "Reason" exhibits when he is thinking about his "doom" here that is deeply akin to the occupational hazards of theorists and philosophers to assume bloodless abstract vantages from which to survey the dynamic befuddling and too often threatening complexities of history and culture, a temperamental tendency to consoling abstraction to which I no doubt am no less deeply prone myself than other philosophically-inclined people are.

I think that one's arrival at such perspectives risks a derangement of one's inhabitation of the world in a way that skews both perceptions and priorities more generally. But also, and more to the point for the partisans of alienated techno-utopian perspectives in particular, surely this calls into question the ability of such people to assume the role of architects for the glorious futures they presumably disdain the present world for in the first place?

To what weird and alienated preoccupations would such coming futures presumably be most or even exclusively answerable?

Who, to be blunt, really wants to live forever in a future articulated by people who seem to disdain, in their thinking of that devoutly longed-for future, everything and everybody and every way of life and every actually wanted merely mortal pleasure and meaning and struggle playing out in the world as it is?

After all, isn't there something just plain worrisome about someone who wants to say of mortality that it is not just something that, well, sucks rather and something it can be difficult to come to terms with, but actually something from which we need urgently to be "rescued," something that means we are all of us now in some "hole" we must dig our way out of?

Again, my point is not to pretend that illness, vulnerability, and death are particularly thrilling prospects for me.

But I will admit that I feel a certain responsibility to the demands of basic legibility in the world of which I am a part to speak of meaning and dignity and human value in ways that don't manage deeply to disrespect the actual gorgeous beauty and genius and courage and significance of every human life that has happened always to be mortal so far and remains always mortal here and now by insisting of these mortal lives that somehow they were and are only utterly doomed or disastrous or insignificant just for the fact of their mortality.

To lose sight of the value of lives as they are actually lived is not the courageous affirmation of life the Techno-Immortalist sometimes try to sell it as -- often in the hyperbolic tonalities of salesmen sharking around some ignorant mark -- but to affirm what amounts to a falsifying idealization of a "life" that actually denigrates those lives actually lived in the world. And while I definitely do not mean to attribute this particular attitude to the editorialist "Reason," I will say that part of what makes me nervous in reading arguments like his is that I know how often the assumption of a vantage of indifference to worldly complexities coupled with a pining for personal transcendence and an evangelical fervor to be part of a movement that "sweeps the world" is to embark on a puritanical rampage of revenge against the vulnerability and variety of life as it is lived in its diversity, a frankly infantile and finally doomed (but no less dangerous for that) existential revolt against the perceived threat of too uncontrollably delicate and too unpredictably diverse worldly human lifeways in what amounts to a hostile and hysterical authoritarian rage for control and for order.

It is no surprise at all that the editorialist -- who goes by the moniker "Reason" because, you know, that is what he has more of than you do, which is why no doubt he keeps saying all these awful curious things so incessantly presumably -- disdains the very notion of paying attention to "the general pattern of wealth, use of medical resources, good health practices, and all that other fun stuff that fits in with 'socio-economic status,'" saying all this amounts in the end to what he calls "playing the game called 'who has more.'" As is usually the case with right wing market libertarians the question "who has more" does indeed feel like a "game" to those who are or would be situated closer to what George W. Bush once admitted to be his real political "base," that is to say, "the haves and the have-mores" than it does to other people.

The editorialist is certainly not averse to playing his own games in this area, taking pains to frame these disparities as mostly a matter of "exercise habits and excess body fat... all sorts of ways in which we can choose to damage ourselves, or let damage continue at a greater rate due to circumstances we can control." (Emphases added by me.) That is to say, once we disdain the idea of taking the palpable impact of lived socioeconomic disparities into account we then are perfectly predictably encouraged to hyper-inflate the role of individual responsibility for both personal success or misfortune, absolving the privileged from attending to their actual dependency for their success on majorities who fail to benefit from their own contribution to the outcomes enjoyed by privileged minorities while adding insult to injury, endlessly harassing the vulnerable for their suffering which is largely a consequence of public decisions in which they have little real say.

But it seems to me that the socially alienated perspective that "Reason" exhibits in his indifference to social injustice and individual suffering is less interesting than the deeper alienation of his perspective on the "doom" of mortality, what is palpably for him an incomparably deeper form of injustice and suffering, one that is actually underwriting in its depth and intensity his socially alienated perspective otherwise.

Of those who are preoccupied with actually-existing worldly lifeway differences and their impacts on actually-existing suffering, opportunity, health, and so on, "Reason" admonishes that "[t]hey are the voice of the shiny trinkets of the now…." Against these voices from the Fallen World, he counterposes the voices of those who see the World to Come: "All of this is irrelevant and unimportant, however, when compared to the speed with which medical technologies for the repair of aging are developed."

Understand this clearly: Techno-Immortalists like "Reason" demand we disdain the address here and now of actually-existing disparities that contribute to actually-addressable suffering in the world, the better to invest our energies in the programmatic faith in non-existing "medical technologies" that would presumably deliver us from this despised world unto salvation in techno-utopian Heaven.

It does not seem to me the least bit accidental that this disdain of worldly concerns is couched in terms of a repudiation of "shiny trinkets," the same hostility to the present world of flesh and diversity and desire that reappears in every generation's would-be ascetic priests and cult gurus and Dear Leaders.

"Reason" offers up this consummating juxtaposition: "If we can make that happen rapidly enough, we're all rescued. If not, we're all doomed."

But what if we fail to feel doomed in our lives just because we are finite and vulnerable and error-prone and mortal?

What if we are eager to contribute to the collaborative solution of shared problems (including problems of disease and avoidable suffering) and to the sum of lifeway multiculture, but see this as an embrace of the finitude and plurality of a humanity forever in reformation? What if we are altogether unmoved by denialist repudiations of that finitude and plurality, what if we abhor the insistence that this open humanity must instead be junked to make way for some parochial fantasy of a "post-human" species soliciting the identification here and now of a handful of privileged sociopaths who are scared of death and contingency?

I will be as happy to contribute my support to a technoscientifically and socially progressive democracy devoted to the funding, regulation, and fair distribution of expanding medical knowledge and techniques to expand thereby the scene of informed consensual prosthetic self-determination, including championing non-normalizing modifications and interventions into hitherto customary capacities, morphologies, and so on.

But I don't see this as a need for rescue so much as an embrace of the collective genius and diverse beauty of an ever-more consensual sustainable democratic human planetary multiculture.

The world doesn't need saving or leading or controlling or rescue from your Robot Cult, thanks very much.

Worldliness is contribution to the collaborative solution of shared problems and contribution to the sum of creative expressivity, peer-to-peer.

Finite, mortal, vulnerable, this-worldly, but open, consensual, critical, fair, and free.


Critique or Defamation?

Over in the Moot, reader "Smartypants" distinguishes "sustained critiques of transhumanism versus sustained critiques of transhumanists," and then proposes that "[m]uch of your analysis on this subject, and even the analysis that looks like a critique of the philosophical underpinnings, actually falls in the latter category."

Let me get this straight. Are you saying this is the case because I am reading claims and conduct attributable to actual people?

The "-ism" is grasped as a generalization from the assertions and behaviors of the actual "-ists," surely?

Even your work on superlative technocentricity is a canard as it relates to what transhumanists see as the 'philosophy' of transhumanism. It's based largely on your ongoing observation of numerous examples of superlative discourse issuing from transhumanists.

Uh, yes that's true. It's based on what people actually say and do, rather than on the way they promote themselves. Non members have no responsibility to ensure that their critiques tow the Party Line, after all.

And you will forgive me, but "transhumanism," so-called, is simply not a philosophy in any meaningful sense. It isn't a world view encompassing all the dimensions of human life or meaning nor does it seek to hold its historical moment whole in thought -- it is far too focused in its instrumental concerns to pass muster as a philosophy worthy of that name, in my understanding of what philosophies do. There are lots of things that are valuable that aren't philosophies so transhumanists really shouldn't take that assessment too harshly. But I will add that to the extent that philosophizing does happen in "transhumanist" social and cultural spaces, I have to say none of that thinking seems to me unique or original enough to demand a new name to describe the perspective. Reductionism, technocracy, scientism, Social Darwinism, disdain of the flesh, and techno-utopianism aren't exactly new perspectives in North Atlantic intellectual life since 1660. Sorry.

You may see no difference between these categories, but your transhumanist interlocutors surely do, and will continue to accuse you of attacking strawmen until you seriously engage with the structures of transhumanism

It is commonplace for members of marginal sub(cult)ures to mistake critique for defamation -- even when they are making claims in argumentative forms that seem to solicit warranted belief.

It is not me, it is the transhumanists who claim to be members of a subculture and a movement with which they identify. You can't claim to identify with a marginal community exhibiting discernible traits and beliefs generally in common, and then complain that every attribution of such generalities are "strawmen" because they fail to account for dime-thin differences of expression among the members.

If you make an argument, you open yourself to critique, if you just want to offer up expressions of faith for the Faithful, don't publish your writing for a general audience.

If you willingly raise the banner of a movement, you become answerable to its tendencies as discerned from generalizations from actual things its members say and do.

I am forever being castigated by transhumanists for "unseriousness" because I won't indulge in what they think of as "technical" discussions, few of which pass muster as technical in the first place for those who are not already True Believers, or because I won't indulge them in their demand that I treat every individual member as a completely distinct ab initio creation whose every utterance and shade of conviction I must grasp in its glorious individuality before I can be said to do justice to it, individual differences that appear significant only to the individuals themselves from the perspective of their already shared True Belief in the generalities that interest me.

Sorry, every fundamentalist will assure you that only those on the Inside know what it is to treat them "seriously," that critics and outsiders are missing the real originality, the real significance, the real force of their views, the true complex beauty of their system, and so on.

(starting with the foundational documents of the WTA) rather than the discourse of transhumanists."

Well, first of all, I am not a True Believer and so you are not empowered to insist to me that the only texts worthy of my consideration are the canonical texts of your Church. This is a straightforward fundamentalist demand. It would not be responsible, but actively irresponsible for me to confine myself to such materials if what I am looking for is an objective and sound accounting of how people who identify as transhumanists differ in what they say and do and want from people who do not so identify.

But I want to say that this is especially so for many of the documents you are talking about here, which are functioning as promotional documents designed to attract mainstream media attention and paid memberships and other forms of support.

This latter task is harder, less fun, but probably bears more fruit for you professionally in the end.

Back here on planet Earth, you will find that there are few professional gains to be made by taking the PR documents of an extremely marginal Robot Cult at face value, or at any rate reading them without the context of representative statements by members that elaborate and sometimes subvert the expectations generated by such promotional materials.

By the way, there is little in the way of professional benefit that attaches to attacking Robot Cults either. I do it because it is the right thing to do, not because I think it is some kind of boon to my career. Believe me, it isn't.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Ella Fitzgerald Helps Make Amor Mundi More Positive

This one's for my partner, Eric, one of his favorite songs. (He prefers Julie London's version, but it hasn't been Tubed.)

An Observation

It is interesting to note how rarely those who bemoan my negativity seem to have anything to say about my more positive posts, or how rarely those who bewail my "name-calling" "superficial" "polemical" writing seem to have anything to say about my more substantial analytical writing, and so on.

It is interesting to notice how often the Moot will begin with relatively respectful and engaged discussions of differences of opinion, and then degenerate into the trading of barbs only after commentators seize on the least substantive moments in otherwise substantive pieces or offer up outrageous misreadings of substantive claims and so provoke the polemical exchanges they will go on to decry and whine about.

I'll cheerfully admit I've an acerbic style and polemical bent at times (and there is nothing wrong in the least with that bent unless you're a dim-witted prig, ask Nietzsche, Bierce, Twain, Wilde, Mencken, Parker, Vonnegut, among many others, none of whom I am equal to but all of whom I variously venerate), but it is also true that there is an enormous amount of writing I do that plainly testifies to my training in analytic and pragmatic philosophy and to a very real Mousketeer streak of earnest progressive-left democratic politics which is the furthest thing from mudslinging.

The Jungle Red claws come out when I'm tackling fools and their foolishness, and rarely otherwise it seems to me.

Don't like it? Don't ask for it, then.

Like something else better? Support it, then.

Very simple.

The Supernative Summary (Was: A Bioconservative Bestiary)

"Bioconservative" is a term I long used to describe political and cultural arguments that oppose particular medical or other technodevelopmental outcomes in the name of a defense of "the natural" deployed as a moral category. Needless to say, there may be endlessly many good reasons to oppose particular medical or technoscientific outcomes on their merits, apart from bioconservative worries about their "unnaturalness" or our "playing God" (which we surely already did in inventing Him/Her/It/Them).

Such opposition on the merits isn't inevitably "bioconservative" or "luddite" by my lights, as far too many futurological cheerleaders would have it. (The question whether "luddite" is rightly a term of opprobrium at all given that the historical Luddites were precisely right to fear that certain devices were being deliberately deployed to disrupt their lifeways and hence perfectly reasonable to resist is another matter.) But it is also true that many critiques of the furniture and preoccupations of "technological society" will raise legitimate questions of safety, inequity, misinformation, misplaced priorities commandeered into the service of a larger bioconservative project of anti-democratizing "naturalizations" in the service of elite-incumbent interests and parochial concerns. It remains important to find ways of disarticulating these strands in assessing the force of any particular technodevelopmental critique.

I tend to regard the obvious and endlessly self-asserted antagonism between "bioconservative" and "transhumanist" advocacy also as a mutually enabling partnership in hyperbole -- rather like the way the antagonism between technophobic and technophilic attitudes can mask the pernicious undercriticality toward matters of technodevelopmental social struggle they often share and to which they contribute more or less equally -- and as a broader antagonism between what I call supernative and superlative futurological formations and figurations yielding mirror image retro-futurisms.

Lately, I have taken up this admittedly awkward, idiosyncratic term "supernative" instead of "bioconservative," in part to take a measure of distance from the confusions arising from these sectarian ideological disputes, but also to emphasize what I take to be key logical, topical, and tropological connections emerging between my critique of "bioconservative" futurology and my critique of the superlative futurology of the so-called transhumanists, singularitarians, techno-immortalists, nano-cornucopiasts, and other assorted Robot Cult ideologues one finds online (and in California).

I have engaged in quite a lot of forceful critique against the hyperbolic inanities of superlative futurology and the antics of the Robot Cult organizational archipelago devoted to such futurology, probably too much to the neglect of supernative formulations. Nevertheless, here is an anthology of pieces in which I have occasionally taken up these questions and problems.

1. Conservative Wants to Enslave Women to Make More Gay Babies, February 2005.

2. Healthcare and Private Perfections, February 2005.

3. Keep Your Laws Off My Body!, March 2006

4. “Where’s the Outcry?”, March 2005.

5. Bioconservative Bigotry's New Frontier, August 2005.

6. Bioconservative Bait and Switch, March 2006.

7. Bioconservative Crimes Against Humanity, March 2006.

8. A Dose of the New Medical Reality, April 2006.

9. Chimera, May 2006.

10. With Enemies Like Saletan Who Needs Friends?, June 2006.

11. Mass Mediated Hand Holding: Depressive Bioconservative Cinema and Its Manic Technophiliac Twin, February 2007.

12. Michael Sandel's Contribution to the Burgeoning Bioconservative Canon, February 2007.

13. Two Variations of Contemporary Eugenicist Politics, January 2008.

14. Resigning Oneself to Bioconservatism, April 2008.

15. My Enthusiasm, April 2008.

16. The Superlative-Supernative See-Saw, January 2009.

17. The Essential Continuity and Co-Dependency of Supernative and Superlative Futurisms, of Biocons and Robot Cultists, May 2010.

Aubrey de Grey, Technological Immortalism, and the Idea of a Longevity Singularity

There is a saying that nothing is inevitable but death and taxes, but it is beginning to look to some people, strangely enough, as if taxes will end up being the more inevitable of the two. In fact, reading the press-releases of folks involved in "longevity" and "rejuvenation" medicine these days sometimes suggests that if we just put our tax dollars to work in the right places we might have the whole death thing licked in no time at all.

For a readable account of the more radical sort of discourse I am talking about here, have a look at this piece by Aubrey de Grey (a figure who has acquired a wide pop-tech readership and no small amount of notoriety for his futurological "SENS" proposal, sketching -- and sketchily so -- what he calls Strategies for Engineering Negligible Senescence), or for a more modest variation, a bioethical policy piece on "social dividends" likely to compensate large public investments in emerging longevity medicine (on the mostly stealthed assumption that highly optimistic gerontological proposals like de Grey's are more legitimate than not).

Once upon a time, aging meant a shriveling of features, a creeping infirmity of frame, a diminution of countless capacities, the loss of memory and energy, a disastrously rising susceptibility to disease. While it is a commonplace to cynically observe that face lifts and Viagra have not in fact conferred eternal youth and immortality upon the foolish and superficial Boomer Generation (to which many of the reporters and writers of these stories belong, many exhibiting all too conspicuously both the narcissism and the very procedures they seem to be deriding) I think we sometimes overlook just how profound these interventions have altered, rightly or wrongly, the sense of what especially the most privileged people in the most privileged places in the world expect from a "healthy" human life. Consider the readiness with which comfortable contemporary Senators well past retirement age are willing to contemplate the deferral of the age for Social Security and Medicare eligibility, attributing their sense of healthy well-being to advances in medicine available to all rather than to the privilege of their class postion -- after all, ancient Roman Senators who escaped assassination often lived just as long, and for much the same reason of privilege and ease.

Still, with each passing year, medical science offers up to swelling ranks of would-be gerontocrats in the "developed" world therapeutic interventions into cardiovascular and cognitive conditions that have long been considered "diseases of aging." Although it is obviously quite foolish to leap off the deep end and start talking in an alarmist or ecstatic fashion about the immanent arrival of human "immortality" when one surveys the scene of such techniques is it likewise outlandish to envision, say, a relatively proximate arrival of a "longevity singularity," a threshold date after which average life expectancy begins to increase one year per year in a sustained (and sustainable?) fashion, simply in consequence of continued serial contributions to medical knowledge and therapeutic technique? (I encountered this terminology in the writing of Bruce Sterling.)

Even granting that the arrival of such a therapeutic threshold moment has become sensibly conceivable is far from proposing that its arrival is sensibly taken for inevitable, it is also important to stress that even at its most proximate and most efficacious the notion of such a longevity singularity isn't the same thing as a promise of techno-immortality. A rise in average life expectancy is not a promise made to any one actual person, and outside of that statistical ideal of a lengthening therapized healthy lifespan would be, no doubt, any number of mortal complexities, suicides, accidents, crimes of violence, dangerous social instabilities, new medical conditions, newly virulent diseases, unexpected combinatorial treatment effects, novel conditions we can scarcely conceive of that might stymie the longevity gains achieved by advanced techniques however splendid.

The question remains, nevertheless, just what remains of what we have customarily meant when we have thought of "aging" hitherto when we discover just how many of "its" underlying processes and customary outward forms become at least somewhat susceptible to therapeutic intervention and hence proliferate into a rich tableau of multiple and competing descriptions, each one of which then, in turn, becomes a field for prosthetic self-determination rather than a "natural" limit to contemplate?

Pop-tech journalism is beginning to speak not just of "diseases of aging," but of "aging as a disease." And inspired by this new confidence, some techno-immortalists are beginning to call for a "War on Aging." But is it really right to think of "aging" as a singular enemy we soon hope to be equal to, or is it that we are discovering that "aging" is another artifact of ignorance, a shorthand label for complex realities we never before could get a handle on?

Wouldn't it remain true, for example, that the post-senescent healthcare provision of actually living human beings will involve significantly different sorts of treatments and concerns than did their pre-senescent healthcare, just as pre-adolescent and post-adolescent healthcare differ in some significant respects? To render much or even all (surely a dubious hope) the damage hitherto associated with statistically typical experiences of senescent processes negligible through medicine is not the same thing as eliminating senescence as such through medicine, is it? Not even our most cherished and well-understood artifacts are imagined to have been rendered eternal through our devotions, not even our most meticulously well-maintained machines have managed perpetual motion through our ministrations.

Treating "aging" as a natural monolithic thing too easily misleads us into imagining that our interventions into its many forms amount to a comparable intervention into the other mysterious monoliths with which "aging" has been associated historically –- mortality, finitude, and so on. Quite apart from questions about whether or not any kind of narrative coherence for a legible "self" could be prolonged to the timescales celebrated by some enthusiasts of longevity and rejuvination medicine, there is nothing to suggest that increasing healthy post-senescent longevity would confer even bodily "immortality" on beings still prone at all to disease, mischief, or mischance. Nor should we imagine that tweaking our biology will confer on us some kind of godhood.

Techno-Immortalists -- in the quintessential gesture of superlative futurology -- handwave away the gap between an essentially theological concept exhibited as a trait by nothing on earth and a presumably proximately engineerable outcome, in their particular case an overcoming of organismic aging and death. Since even most techno-immortalists themselves will grant that were we to achieve a postulated "superlongevity" through therapeutic intervention we (and this is a "we," one should add, that can only denote those lucky few likely to have access to such hypothesized techniques in the first place, with all that this implies) will no doubt remain vulnerable to some illnesses, or to violent, accidental death nonetheless, it is clarifying to our understanding of Superlative Technology Discourse more generally to think what on earth it is that makes it attractive for some to figure the desired therapeutic accomplishment of human longevity gains through the rhetoric of "immortality" in the first place.

One of the patron saints of the techno-immortalists, Aubrey de Grey, for example, relies incessantly on a theological archive to frame his project, speaking of targeting "Seven Deadly Things" with SENS, and sponsoring a contest to provide an existence proof he calls the "Methuselah Mouse." While de Grey insists on the consummate pragmatism of his "engineering approach," and seems to want to imply that skepticism toward his program from the vast majority of gerontologists and geneticists and other legitimate researchers, practicing professions, credentialed experts, and relevant theorists is a matter of incumbent resistance to a promising paradigm shift in the Kuhnian sense, it is worth noting that de Grey's focus seems mostly to be a matter of promotion and polemic, and his training (as so often in sub(cult)ural futurology) in computers.

Paradoxically, de Grey's formulation of an "engineering perspective" on aging is entirely a rhetorical rather than an engineering accomplishment. Presumably, by refiguring a human being from aging mortal organism into damaged reparable artifact de Grey is effecting a conceptual transformation that will facilitate the very repairs his new figure assumes (but does not show). While techno-immortalists enthralled by de Grey's hard-boiled engineering frame like to talk about hobbyists tinkering with century-old automobiles and taking them our for a spin, or about monks continually refurbishing wooden temples so they look brand new after centuries of use, there is a real question whether the gerontological reassurance provided by reference to these quotidian examples is really more apt than that provided by reference to the supernatural examples of Methuselah I mentioned a moment ago. Consider the premise, "Either humans are like angels or we're like red wagons."

Since angels aren't real but red wagons and humans are, we must be more like red wagons than angels then. Since we can build red wagons that can last thousands of years -- at least in principle -- then medicine can make people who can live thousands of years, too. But of course we haven't actually ever made any red wagons that last thousands of years, which seems like more than a problem of mere detail for this "viewpoint." And the fact remains that even red wagons that might last for thousands of years aren't exactly living for thousands of years, which makes one wonder if saying humans are more "like" red wagons than angels is really quite so useful as all that when everything is said and done, even if it is quite true.

What is especially curious to me, however, is that even at the level of rhetoric it seems to me were one to embrace the more "bioconservative" Hayfleckian ideal of a medical practice that would confer on everybody on earth a healthy three-score and ten years or even the 120-years some lucky few humans may have enjoyed this motivational exercise would be little distinguishable in the therapeutic effects it would likely facilitate (as a spur to funding, research, improvement of tools and techniques, theoretical publications, and so on) from those facilitated by the more "transhumanist" ideal of technological immortality in the first place.

Either way, the advocate for better healthcare outcomes for aging populations seeks to encourage and fund promising research and development into therapeutic interventions into the mechanisms and diseases of aging that are likely, eventually, to transform customary expectations about human health later in life, but neither way does one find one's way to anything remotely like immortality, invulnerability, or all the rest of the theological paraphernalia of superlongevity discourse.

Certainly, looking at the concrete costs, risks, and benefits of particular therapeutic interventions through an immortalist lens confers no clarity or practical guidance whatsoever here and now in the world of actually ill and vulnerable human beings seeking better health, wellbeing, and an amelioration of actually-existing suffering (including such suffering that may be caused by the seven conditions of "damage" with which de Grey is most concerned himself). The "transhumanist" or "bioconservative" variations of superlative futurology that would gauge a stem-cell therapy either against a dream of immortality or a nightmare of clone armies or Designer Baby genocide seem to me, once again, to leap a gap between the logically possible as against proximately possible that seems far more likely to activate deep psychic resources of unreasoning dread and wish-fulfillment than to clarify our understanding of actual stakeholder risks and benefits that now and may soon confront us.

I leave to the side here for now the still more coo-coo bananas digital camp of techno-immortalism with which de Grey is cheerfully allied, the partisans of which metaphorically "spiritualize" digital information and then seem not to notice that this actually figurative leap isn't exactly a scientific move, and then conjoin their already poetic fancy of an organismically-materialized consciousness somehow "migrating" via "Uploading" onto to a different material substrate without loss, to the (always ridiculously reductive always absurdly overconfident never the least bit successful nor the least bit daunted by its non-success) faith in good old-fashioned AI, and deploy this rather wooly discursive cocktail -- which they seem to imagine to constitute exemplary or even superior science somehow -- to overcome what often looks like a plain common or garden variety hysterical fear and denial of death.

Saying this so baldly more or less ensures, I'm afraid, that all the nuances that have preceded this statement will be altogether discarded now, the better for the Futurological Congress among my readership to bray about my "Deathism" in the Moot. Not that a calming hand can hope to have any effect on this likely eventually, but I will repeat yet again, as I have done interminably here at Amor Mundi, in anticipation of the many sputtering objections occurring in the outraged sensibilities of my techno-immortalist readers in this moment that, no, your denial of the unavoidable fact of death is not at all the same thing as loving life nor is the admission of this fact the same thing as loving death, no, proposing to fund a "war on death" on those terms is not at all the same thing as championing actual healthcare that saves lives (lives that are not rendered "unsaved" by the fact that they remain mortal once their hurts are healed), no, the perfectly commonplace and indeed well-nigh universal desire to live as long and as well as one can manage isn't some kind of stealthy "closeted" adherence to the techno-immortalist Cause and, no, I am not a "Deathist" zealot just because I do indeed fully expect to die and yet somehow still think life is worth living and coming to meaningful terms with in a way that registers this expectation.

Whether in faith, in love, in work, in community, in activism, in poetry, in wine, we must all of us find our way to dealing with this fact of life, unsusceptible as it is to instrumental solution, and then, having come to terms with it, we may turn our needed attentions to helping ensure research and universal access to life-saving and life-extending healthcare practices -- including informed, nonduressed consensual recourse to desired non-normativizing therapies -- to all.

If anything I would hope that the promise of the ongoing therapeutic amelioration of key processes and effects we have historically associated with "aging" will mean that we will cease to freight these processes with such enormous metaphysical and superlative baggage in the first place. Since even modest increases in average life expectancy, however healthy, will introduce unprecedented problems and promises for global stability, social justice, welfare provision, environmental sustainability among other things it seems best not to get too distracted from these urgent eventualities by dwelling on what looks to me like little more than confused vestigial theological meditations on eternity.

As human beings grasp that there is not just one way that "aging" threatens to claim our lives, we set out upon the road along which ever more of our lives are our own to claim. Perhaps the point will not be so much to defeat "aging" as to proliferate its forms and so replace "it" simply with the many separate stories of our lives as lived in our freedom and in our finitude.

This post contains material I have adapted from a couple of earlier pieces published here on Amor Mundi, here and here, and anybody interested in following the development (some would no doubt discern devolution) of my thinking on these questions can observe the changes I've made in taking them up again here.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

MundiMuster! Sign the McCain FEC Complaint Letter

[via FireDogLake]
By his own admission, John McCain is breaking the law. His latest spending report has him $4 million over the limit he imposed on himself when he accepted public financing.

We're not about to let this stand, so on Tuesday we filed an FEC complaint against the McCain campaign... Now we're set for a second larger delivery, on behalf of the thousands of Americans who won't stand by while John McCain breaks the law.

Read the full text of the complaint.

Sign the letter.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Healthcare Advocacy Isn't the Same Thing As Techno-Immortalism

Sorry to pick on Michael so much today! But he chastises me in the Moot for attributing a desire for literal immortality to those I designate the techno-immortalists. What they (and he, I do believe) actually seek, quite to the contrary, he writes, is
"[n]ot "eternal life", [but] the indefinite prolongation of life. Aubrey de Grey does a good job of arguing this point in all his talks. And don't tell us that we don't know what's it like to be alive. Honestly, I'm not easily angered, but eventually the constant attacks (like this) piss me off.

I'm afraid that this little effort at word magic doesn't get our techno-immortalist friends off their particular painful fish-hook.

Every successful remediative therapeutic intervention manages to prolong healthy lifespan for the one whose condition it heals. If that's what you mean by "the indefinite prolongation of life" then you should just call what you mean healthcare like everybody else in the world already does and be done with it.

Nobody has to join a Robot Cult to affirm the value of healthcare.

But if by the "indefinite prolongation of life" you really mean the accomplishment of a discretionary mortality more or less under human control, or a mortality so statistically negligible as to no longer trouble the sleep of the mortally-afraid, then you should just call what you mean immortality like every other charlatan making the same promise has always done and be done with it.

Robot Cults are enormously useful to charlatans peddling eternal life to the fearful.

It isn't that hard to clear the waters that flim-flam artists like to muddy for the marks.

Barring climate catastrophe, neoliberal economic breakdown, or neoconservative military conflagration, I too expect emerging and proximately upcoming medical therapies to continue to intervene in hitherto customary capacities and limits, at least for some lucky people, including interventions into at least some of the conditions we presently associate with what is somewhat folkishly designated as "the aging process."

I don't expect the arrival of a "longevity singularity" -- the demographic moment when average life-expectancy increases one year per year -- to arrive as soon as my transhumanist readers do (but I could certainly be surprised without being too surprised by this expectation). More to the point, nor do I think the achievement of this longevity singularity moment should be a higher priority than treating neglected diseases in the overexploited world nor treating the conditions of the actually elderly in the world as I daresay most of my transhumanist readers do.

But what is key to grasp here in my view is how different this discourse of mine is from their own, even if I share with them a certain acceptance of the possible (even likely) significance of emerging genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive modification techniques. There is nothing in what I say that would lend comfort to those who would fearfully deride the finitude of the human condition.

I fully expect the play of actual and available and legible genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive modifications to express the historical complexities of human plurality, wants, passions, and violations. It will no doubt exacerbate many given injustices and provide creative recourse to many who would overcome historical deadlocks. It will not transcend nor will it circumvent the impasse of divers stakeholder politics, but constitute the field in which that politics plays out in the world. It will not transcend nor will it circumvent the basic dilemma of human finitude in the face of the openness of human freedom and futurity.

I offer no comfort to those who would disguise their disgust at human vulnerability in a denialist championing of techno-immortality. I offer no comfort to those who would disguise their disgust at human variation in a genocidal championing of hygiene or optimality. I offer no comfort to those who would disguise their disgust of human freedom in an anti-political championing of technocracy or any parochial future owned here and now by a tribe of the few.

And, by way of conclusion, let me return to Michael's little fit of pique there at the end: And don't tell us that we don't know what's it like to be alive. Honestly, I'm not easily angered, but eventually the constant attacks (like this) piss me off.

Life's a vulnerable metabolic process in a demanding finite environment, and not a perpetual motion machine. You can pretend I'm gratuitously insulting you when I say you haven't taken into account what all that actually means at a basic level when you claim to anticipate some imminent techno-immortalization, but it isn't that hard to grasp the force of my actual point on its actual terms. I don't doubt in the least that you are getting angry from my "constant attacks" at this point, but I venture to suggest that this is as much the anger of exposed fraud or questioned True Belief as anything else, and I cannot honestly promise you my arguments to come be will be any more comfort to you. Your options will remain to leave my critiques unanswered and pay the price of that, or to respond to my critiques on their actual terms and pay the price of that.

Confusing Fancies for Facts

Michael Anissimov makes a familiar techno-utopian claim, and with the completely unearned cocksure swagger that is also familiar from techno-utopians when they are bluffing in this way:
Appeal or no appeal, human-level AI will eventually be created if it is technologically possible. Can you name a reason why it wouldn't be?

Of course, it is the extraordinary claim that demands the extraordinary evidence.

It is always an incredible mistake for reasonable people to start trading "reasons" with techno-utopians on their own terms like the transhumanists are always trying to induce critics to do in the name of having what they call a "technical" discussion. This is because to do so is always to relinquish actual reality and enter the topsy-turvy virtual reality transhumanists inhabit in which it is somehow "extraordinary" to deny that a Superintelligent Robot God is coming to End History, that human beings are going to be robotically or digitally immortalized, and that nanoscale robots are going to create a superabundance that trumps the impasse of diverse stakeholder politics.

In the actual world, it is of course the transhumanists, the singularitarians, and the other techno-utopians who have to name the reasons why any of these beliefs of theirs make any kind of sense at all. And it is their job to make these actually compelling reasons.

Reasons that fail to account for the actually embodied nature of human consciousness, reasons that fail to account for the actual vulnerabilities of metabolism in demanding environments, reasons that fail to account for the actual impasse of diverse aspiration in a finite shared world that structurally tends to yield urgent conflicts between incumbent minorities and dynamic majorities are not likely to be reasons that are compelling to those of us who are not already True Believers like they are. If the transhumanists want to be, or at any rate to appear, reasonable I fear that it is they who have the explaining to do. And they certainly shouldn't expect me to make this easy for them. Nobody, not even the transhumanists themselves, would ultimately benefit from such a free ride, however unhappy it makes them to confront informed skepticism and disdain.

Something I wrote quite a few years ago, interestingly enough in response to the very same Michael Anissimov with whom I am sparring now, speaks to this quandary very directly:
“Permitted in principle by the laws of physics” is a larger set of propositions than “stuff that can be plausibly engineered” is a larger set of propositions than “stuff people actually want” is a larger set of propositions than “stuff people are willing to pay for” is a larger set of propositions than “things people still want in the longer-term that they wanted enough to pay for in the shorter-term.”

Glib corporate-futurists and other hype-notized technophiliacs are of course notoriously quick to pronounce outcomes “immanent” and “inevitable” (genetically-engineered immortality! nanotech abundance! uploading consciousness! superintelligent AI! bigger penises!), just because a survey of science at the moment implies to them that an outcome they especially desire or dread is “permitted in principle by the laws of physics.” But nested within that set like concentric rings on a tree-trunk are ever more restricted and more plausible sets, of which the target set at the center is the set of things people tend to still want enough over the longer-term that they are satisfied to pay (or have paid) for them.

I think it is a good exercise, and sometimes a good penance, for technocentrics to take special care around their use of the word "inevitable" to describe outcomes that are radically different from states of affairs that obtain today.

My suspicion is that this is a word technophiles actually use more to signal the usual attitude of the faithful; namely, "I'm not interested in arguing with you anymore." Too often, “inevitable” is a word that signals an inability to chart an intelligible sequence of developmental stages that could plausibly delineate a path from where we are to whatever Superlative State is imagined to be likely and attractive. And by plausible, I mean both technically and politically plausible.

Part of what is interesting about this passage in the context of the larger discussion of which it was a part is that I seem to remember that Michael claimed to find it reasonable in spirit, if not to the letter, and made lots of reassuring reasonable noises to that effect at the time.

And yet, here he is again, making the usual techno-utopian mistake, with the usual techno-utopian certainty, "human-level AI will eventually be created if it is technologically possible." From here, no doubt, he believes (he has said it elsewhere if not here and now) that the logical inevitability of physically possible human-level AI indicates the equally logical inevitability of superhuman-level AI, which in turn indicates the equally logical inevitability of a history shattering "Singularity" in which a Robot God metes out apocalyptic rewards and punishments to worthies and unworthies according to whether it is "Friendly" or not.

Needless to say, what looks like logical inevitability to even very bright well-meaning True Believers can all too easily equal batshit craziness if one's foundational assumptions or underlying motivations go too far awry too soon.

Let that be a lesson to us all.

The Transhumanist Brain Trust, Ladies and Gentlemen

I made the following completely uncontroversial and in fact so obviously true as to be utterly uninteresting claims:
Your personal consciousness will never be "uploaded" into a computer.

You will never be made immortal by medical technique.

Neither of those things are going to happen for you.

To which Michael Anissimov of the World Transhumanist Association, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation, responded:

Uh… no, you can't.

People aren't mortal just because they lack the "can do" spirit of you transhumanists.

Hype isn't hope, it's fraud and self-delusion.