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

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Are You Serious?



Just for euphony's sake, "Are You Experienced?" by Jimi Hendrix, of course.

Upgraded and adapted from comments in the Moot:

I've been reading science fiction with pleasure for more than thirty years, and I am as prone to get starry eyed and enthusiastic about my favorite authors and works (everything by Octavia Butler, Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars books, Bruce Sterling's Holy Fire, Frank Herbert's Dune books, and so on) as the next geek. But I cannot for the life of me grasp this thing techno-utopian Robot Cultists do, confusing the things SF fans do in one another's company when they are cheerfully enthusing about stories, themes, and blue-sky scenarios in the books and movies they love with the things people do when they get serious and wonky trying to grapple with the sense and significance of ongoing disruptive technodevelopmental change in the real world.

I devote an enormous amount of my attention here on Amor Mundi to the quandaries and vicissitudes of ongoing, emerging, and proximately upcoming technodevelopmental social struggle as I see them, and I do so particularly and insistently as a person of the democratic-left.

At the moment I am most focused on three inter-related technodevelopmental concerns in particular:
first, on the promises and threats to democratic aspirations of emerging p2p social formations;

second, on the promises and threats to sustainable aspirations (and what Vandana Shiva calls "Earth Democracy") in remedial renewable technologies and permaculture techniques as against ongoing extractive toxic centralizing petro-chemical industrial technoculture; and

third, on the promises and threats to the scene of informed, nonduressed consent and the celebration of lifeway diversity in emerging genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive medicine and bioremedial networked practices.

Curiously enough, I am regularly castigated as "unserious" in my concerns with technodevelopmental social struggle by some of my more techno-utopian critics (a very prominent proportion of my readers here, if comments in the Moot are any indication) -- especially the self-described "transhumanists" and "singularitarians" -- for not devoting more of my attention to the "larger social implications" of digital "mind-emulation," "technological immortalization," "superintelligent artificial intelligence," "ubiquitous robots," "nanotechnological superabundance," and other preoccupations to which they are more devoted themselves.

Since none of these things actually even remotely exist, it seems to me that at the present time the more interesting "larger social implications" to discern in this area are those connected with the fact that some highly educated and quite privileged people with credible public reputations and a general audience in the so-called "developed world" are so willing and even eager to devote their own time and attention to these over more proximate technodevelopmental concerns in the first place, and even to use these extremely speculative -- and as I would put it, Superlative -- imagined technodevelopmental outcomes as the lens through which they would understand technoscientific quandaries in the present day to which the Superlative Technocentric Imaginary is highly inapt.

Among other "larger social implications" I have regularly discussed connected with this sort of techno-utopian discourse are my worries that they activate irrational passions one would already expect to be connected with long-ongoing disruptive technoscientific change, deep personal insecurities and hyperbolic hopes, rendering people more susceptible to manipulation and outright bamboozlement by political fear-mongers and flim-flam artists, deranging the prevailing technodevelopmental imaginary in ways that undermine sensible public deliberation when it is most urgently needed.

Further, I worry about tendencies I discern in too much popular techno-utopian discourse (including that expressed by people who insist on their progressive-left political commitments), that seems

[one] in its hyperbolic foregrounding of "existential risk" and "accelerating change" to provide a rationale for the circumvention of democratic politics, that seems

[two] in its foregrounding of security software and robotics to provide a rationale for increased investment in military R&D especially, that seems

[three] in its constant reiteration of security concerns, existential risks, and apocalyptic imagery to make recourse to tried and true strategies of authoritarian fearmongering, that seems

[four] in its sanctimonious assumption of a need for "us" to "save the world" to appeal to familiar reactionary and exceptionalist intuitions about the special Destiny of the West that reframes as a Burden its assumption of unearned privileges and authorities, that seems

[five] in its constant dismissal of especially ignorant or irrational majorities and the need for technocratic decision-making to appeal to familiar incumbent intuitions about the indispensability of elite and priestly Gatekeepers of "True Knowledge" and "The Way," and that seems

[six] in its incessant recourse to notions of "innovation," "competitiveness," "investment," "modernization," "early adoption," "diffusion," "spontaneous order," "market exchanges," "underdeveloped regions," among other endless comparable "politically neutral" terms of art to describe planetary technodevelopment to privilege and so consolidate neoliberal and neoconservative narratives that serve incumbent interests above all, and conjure up in the name of "the future" an endless prolongation and intensification of the status quo, a foreclosure of open futures in the service of a parochial fantasy of "the future" that is always, in essence, retro-futurist.

Be all that as it may, let me delve for a moment more directly into the preoccupations of the transhumanists on their own terms, despite all the reasons I've already given for my real misgivings about doing such a thing.

Now, I'm all for sophisticated expert systems and software mediated collaborative problem solving and so on, but I can't say I quite get the appeal of the whole entitative nonbiological superintelligence project that seems so to obsess my Singularitarian readers.

Honestly, who needs all the dreary predictability of those tired ethical conundra already done to death by bad episodes of Star Trek a dozen times over by now? Will AIs do our bidding? Will they be bored into dangerous madness in no time at all? Will they get all Robot Goddy on our asses? Should they be treated as rights-bearing?

And, honestly, I know it's wrong to overgeneralize from a few cases to a whole population, but can't we admit at least that there is something a little troubling happening at least some of the time when these fears and fantasies are getting endlessly indulged? If you transhumanist readers of mine can nudge past the hysterical defensiveness and tribal wagon-circling for even a moment, and concede that perhaps the force of my point is not to call you names (or at any rate not only to do that), can't any of you admit or at any rate empathize better with those who do discern that there is a worrisome dis-identification with one's fellows that curiously often (fine, fine, not universally, whatever, but often, be honest, palpably often) appears to freight the identification with such hypothesized beings among their more voluble contemporary "champions," despite their, you know, not actually existing and stuff in a world of actually-existing problems demanding address and actually-existing humans sharing the world with you?

The truth is, nobody is ever going to confuse a "digital mind emulation" (if we really must, if only for the moment, pretend that facts can be properly attributed to your fancies) -- even if it manages to be conscious under its own steam (forgive the mixed metaphors) -- with its organismic original. These sorts of debates about the "larger social implications" (very Serious stuff to contemplate, you can be sure!) freighting the fanciful eventualities of whether the Strong AI boys come up with HAL any time soon or whether software emulations of consciousness will "wake up" so that Uploads "come first" loom large among many transhumanist types.

Of course, I personally could not care less. Nor, I would argue, should you -- if what you want is to engage in serious deliberation about ongoing and emerging technodevelopmental social struggle in the actual world we actually share.

This sort of "condundrum" is unlikely to exercise my interest except, possibly, in the context of trying to figure out which of these two scenarios seemed to promise the more entertaining read between two books I'm considering side by side for purchase in the sf aisle of my local bookstore. It pays to think clearly for once about what kind of place you have to have found your way to that you would perceive my attitude here as the "unserious" one.

(Again, as a matter for enthusiastic balls to the wall nerd blue-skying in SF salon culture, by all means let your freak flags fly.)

Of course, I honestly doubt most transhumanist types would be much interested in the whole "uploading" scenario at all if it didn't seem to many of them to offer (again mostly because they are rather muddled in their thinking in this area) an eternalizing "escape" from their apparently abject mortal organ-bag bodies in the first place.

There is no nice way to say what needs to be said to people who find their way to this sort of perspective:

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.


If you have come somehow to think otherwise there are probably lots of reasons for that happening in your lives, but setting aside the psychopathological dimensions of these delusive and too-often anti-democratizing beliefs, I can say that at least part of what is happening here is that if you believe your consciousness might "migrate" to a digital platform this is because whatever else is happening in your life that brings you to this belief you honestly don't know what your consciousness is at a very basic level, and if you believe that some medical technique is going to offer you eternal life this is because whatever else is happening in your life that brings you to this belief you honestly don't know what it means to be alive at a very basic level.

Your consciousness is ineradicably embodied in your brain (whether or not consciousness can be materialized in principle in a radically different substrate is another question, but not one that lends comfort to the dreams of would-be "uploaders") and life is no more a perpetual motion machine than any other fragile process in a demanding environment.

Whatever else you might want to say, it is plain to see that I am very unserious indeed as compared to my "transhumanist," "singularitarian," and otherwise techno-utopians critics.

10 comments:

peco said...

Your personal consciousness will never be "uploaded" into a computer.


(I agree with the other one)

whether or not consciousness can be materialized in principle in a radically different substrate is another question, but not one that lends comfort to the dreams of would-be "uploaders"

Explain?! If consciousness can be materialized in some sort of computer, why can't a human's consciousness be uploaded (explain why this couldn't work).

---

If someone gradually became a computer that behaved the same, how do you know that the computer is not the same person? When does the original person cease to exist?

Dale Carrico said...

Oh, joy, peco is first out of the gate. Somebody shoot me.

giulio said...

Re your non-arguments about the impossibility of uploading, radical life extension etc.

Here we go again, Thou Shalt Not Fly and of course people will never walk on the moon. These are, as it is well known, evident impossibilities.

Really, I think your arguments would be much stronger if you could be less fundamentalist and more open to possibilities. You may say that you _don't like_ something, and of course nobody can question your right to like or not like things.

Michael Anissimov said...

Now, I'm all for sophisticated expert systems and software mediated collaborative problem solving and so on, but I can't say I quite get the appeal of the whole entitative nonbiological superintelligence project that seems so to obsess my Singularitarian readers.

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?

And, honestly, I know it's wrong to overgeneralize from a few cases to a whole population, but can't we admit at least that there is something a little troubling happening at least some of the time when these fears and fantasies are getting endlessly indulged?

Sure. In particular, I worry about people who have just read Kurzweil's books and not looked very much closer at the issues.

Of course, I honestly doubt most transhumanist types would be much interested in the whole "uploading" scenario at all if it didn't seem to many of them to offer (again mostly because they are rather muddled in their thinking in this area) an eternalizing "escape" from their apparently abject mortal organ-bag bodies in the first place.

Well, MMORPGs already offer a practical escape for many of those that want it. Aside from getting up to go to the bathroom or laying down to sleep, you really can "become" your character, kinda. Yet we don't see too many transhumanists addicted to MMORPGs.

Yes, the "escape" would be worth it if the meat bodies started breaking down, especially.

Nor, I would argue, should you -- if what you want is to engage in serious deliberation about ongoing and emerging technodevelopmental social struggle in the actual world we actually share.

Why do that when you can engage in constantly criticizing a philosophy that only has a few thousand adherents out of billions of people?

Neither of those things are going to happen for you.

YES WE CAN!

psychopathological dimensions of these delusive and too-often anti-democratizing beliefs

Uh. I recommend "Citizen Cyborg" for a book that shows how democracy could work in a world where transhumanist technologies are ubiquitous.

that some medical technique is going to offer you eternal life this is because whatever else is happening in your life that brings you to this belief you honestly don't know what it means to be alive at a very basic level.

Not "eternal life", 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.

giulio said...

Re: "Not "eternal life", the indefinite prolongation of life"

Michael, of course this is correct, but I am afraid Dale & Co. prefer not to understand this point. For them, it is easier and better to pretend that we really mean "eternal life" in order to continue their constant attacks. There is just no way to explain something to those who don't want to understand.

Nick Tarleton said...

So, Dale, since you apparently refuse to respond to peco, what do you think would happen if someone tried a Moravec transfer? Clearly you think it would fail - how?

jfehlinger said...

Nick Tarleton asked:

> [W]hat do you think would happen if someone tried a
> Moravec transfer?

Well, if Ras Thavas of Barsoom performed the operation,
then clearly the hero would get the girl.
http://content.answers.com/main/content/wp/en/thumb/6/67/150px-Rgk1.jpg

If it were tried at St. Vincent's Medical Center in New York on
planet Earth in 2008. . .

> Clearly you think it would fail - how?

Somebody's brain would get flushed down the sink?

An insane person would get arrested and the case would
be all over the news?

There'd be a movie?

There'd be a national outcry to ban science fiction, as leading
suggestible people to commit heinous crimes?

Eric said...

If you all want to have "Moravec transfers", don't let us stop you, knock yourselves out.

" Yet we don't see too many transhumanists addicted to MMORPGs."

No doubt...the so-called AI in those games is so utterly stupid it undermines basic Nerd Rapture scripture.

chr15 said...

since you began this post talking about science fiction (i'm reading red mars for the first time now!), i thought i would mention something i've been thinking about lately

it seems to me that transhumanists, when discussing longevity, have taken a literary trick from SF and turned it into an ideology or political platform. that trick is using longevity to make it possible to cover sweeping distances in space-time from a single characters perspective. to visit different worlds seperated by light-years characters need to live a long time (this one is pretty common), to explore paradoxes of time travel (visiting yourself) characters need to live a long time till the invention of time travel (lazarus long in heinlein), to observe sweeping historical change characters need to live a long time (sterling's schizmatrix).

i am very skeptical of those who take literary tricks as inevitable or as ideology. its a little naive and undercuts the exquisite openness of literature to many interpretations and values

jfehlinger said...

Chr15 wrote:

> I am very skeptical of those who take literary tricks as
> inevitable or as ideology. It's a little naive. . .

Yes.

Or, as SF author S. M. Stirling put it in a Usenet article:

http://groups.google.com/group/rec.arts.sf.written/msg/2f347140819c6737
-------------------------------------
SF involves a lot of "literalized metaphors". Eg., the "mind is a computer"
metaphor. We have to remember that it _is_ a metaphor, though, not a literal
truth.


-- S.M. Stirling
-------------------------------------