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

Saturday, March 22, 2008

"Miniscule Probabilities"

An anonymous comment in the Moot, in the context of a brief discussion of Clinton and Obama Presidential campaign sniperie, expressed a cynical resignation to the interminable corruption, opportunism, deceptiveness, and elitism of our would-be leaders: We know from other conversations on your blog that thinking about scenarios with miniscule probabilities is ridiculous, so no point in speculating on what life would be like if this way of thinking were to change.

This is an understandable attitude and to an important extent a very sensible one. But you have to be careful not to overgeneralize in a way that misses the force of my critique, or elides differences that make a difference.

I talk here on Amor Mundi quite a bit about contemporary progressive politics and about the ways in which reactionary and conservative politics obstruct them to the cost of us all. But I also talk more specifically about what I think a progressive politics of technoscience and technodevelopmental social struggle looks like and about the ways in which incumbent interests, corporate-militarist assumptions, priestly and reductionist distortions of scientific practice and authority, hyperbolic and even transcendentalizing distortions of foresight, and elitist eugenic and technocratic attitudes obstruct progressive technodevelopmental efforts to the likely ruin of us all.

If in your reference to "other conversations on [my] blog" you are talking about my repudiation of techno-utopian claims about "mind uploading" or "techno-immortalism," be aware that I am not dismissing these as scenarios with "miniscule probabilities," but decrying these as impossibilities that no amount of "can-do" handwaving can accomplish, as profound confusions on the part of their advocates that indicate mistaken assumptions about what consciousness is (a process materialized in a substrate -- in the present human case, an embodied organismic one -- to which it is far from indifferent) and what life is (a finite and vulnerable process in a finite and demanding environment and not, to be sure, a perpetual motion machine) at a very basic level.

This is related but different to still "other conversations on [my] blog" in which I decry the skewed priorities that would, in the name of some generalized commitment to "technology" or "progress," for example,
[one] invest disproportionate resources in efforts to increase the longevity of already privileged minorities over efforts to address actually already treatable but neglected diseases suffered by already overexploited majorities,

[two] invest disproportionate resources in military technology to respond to social instabilities exacerbated by human-caused climate change, water and topsoil depletion, pollution and waste, and so on rather than in renewable energy technologies, subsidizing a diffusion of permaculture and polyculture techniques, and increasing the nontoxic and recycled materials available to us,

[three] invest disproportionate resources to centralized big-industrial solutions to problems that better comport with the continued control of incumbent interests rather than decentralized p2p formations, even when the latter are more robust, resilient, responsive and less costly than the former, solutions like geoengineering over permaculture models to address environmental problems, like nuclear plants over decentralized solar roofs and co-operative windfarms to address energy problems, like copyright extension over open-access or corporate media consolidation over Net Neutrality and free wi-fi to address the uneven global diffusion of useful knowledge and creative expressivity, like techno-utopian paranoid fantasies to harden borders with missile shields and top-down total information awareness schemes rather than open but transparent borders and participatory p2p defense in depth to address asymmetrical attacks and security concerns more generally, and so on.

This, in turn, is different from recognizing the human and social limits that stymie utopian political daydreams: The tendency of human beings to be corrupted by authority in proportion to their insulation from checks and oversight; the tendency of those who seek authority over others to be the very ones least suited to its proper exercise; the tendency of humans retroactively to rationalize any conduct, however harmful or wrong, when this option is available to them; the tendency of people to attend to short term over long term consequences, familiar over unfamiliar conditions, parochial over generalizable considerations, and so on. Anybody who advocates progressive democratic aspirations would be foolish to do so in a way that was indifferent to these human and social limits, but it seems to me any suggestion that these limits render democratic hopes as such impossibly utopian is exactly as wrongheaded as would be the suggestion that engineering is rendered impossibly utopian by the fact of gravity.

I have written elsewhere that a properly contemporary understanding of the Democratic Left demands an embrace of six key inter-connected ideas (and that undue skepticism or outright rejection of these ideas tends to underlie contemporary right-wing attitudes and rhetoric). These ideas are that:
[1] All people should have a say in the public decisions that affect them;

[2] People who are not misinformed or under duress tend, in general, to be capable of articulating their own interests, of testifying to their personal knowledge, and of contributing a worthy measure to the collaborative solution of shared problems;

[3] It is always possible and always desirable, however costly and difficult it may be, to reconcile differences and conflicts between people in nonviolent ways;

[4] The act of informed, nonduressed consent is a foundation both of personal dignity and public nonviolence;

[5] The public provision of basic income, education, and healthcare facilitates a scene of consent that is nonduressed, while the public provision of the widest possible access to knowledge facilitates a scene of consent that is informed, and acts of consent are legible and legitimate as such only to the extent that they are so informed and nonduressed;

[6] Progressive taxation of property and income provides the essential means to meet the basic conditions on which the doubly foundational scene of consent depend, while at once providing a popular check (no taxation without representation) on the dangerous policing authority of government as well as a check on the tendency of individual stakeholders -- especially those who happen to be momentarily invested with conspicuous wealth, authority, reputation, or attention -- to forget or disavow their ineradicable social and historical inter-dependence in the always collaborative project of creative expressivity and problem solving peer-to-peer.

I see this as a delineation of a progressive-left ethos in an era of peer-to-peer democratization in particular. I would disagree with any suggestion that there is anything unrealizable or "utopian" about any of these attitudes. If democracy is first of all the idea that people should have a say in the public decisions that affect them, then democratization is what we call the ongoing, experimental, and probably interminable struggles in which ever more people acquire ever more of a say in the public decisions that affect them. This democratization is very real, it is the farthest thing from a utopian outcome or abstract eidos without material realization in the world, but an actually transformative force in history and a permanent possibility inhering in the dynamic play of the variously powerful in the world.

No amount of technological encrustration will ever deliver humanity to a "transcendent" place beyond vulnerability, beyond mortality, beyond error, beyond frustration, beyond political negotiation. This is not a claim about "miniscule probablilties," but about profound incomprehensions on the part of many Superlative and Sub(cult)ural Technocentrics of the ineradicable condition and consequences of human finitude.

Certainly, this is very different from any blanket cynicism about the emancipatory hopes of the democratic left. Democratization has already and repeatedly unleashed incomparable emancipatory energies into the world historically, and the lowering of the transactional costs of education, agitation, and organizing made possible through the ongoing proliferation of p2p formations in our own historical moment is being taken up opportunistically by people everywhere to carry this emancipatory project of democratization even further still, with who knows what consequences in store for us.

Again, try to be careful how you overgeneralize from skepticism about "miniscule probabilities" at the cost of losing sight of differences that make a difference. We can leave the smirking skepticism about the very possibility of people powered politics or legitimately democratic governance to the reactionaries who deploy this attitude always only to justify and so maintain, for as long as they can and to the extent that they can, their ever more precarious hold on unearned privilege and undue authority.

36 comments:

peco said...

[2] People who are not misinformed or under duress tend, in general, to be capable of articulating their own interests, of testifying to their personal knowledge, and of contributing a worthy measure to the collaborative solution of shared problems;

How do you know when they aren't capable? You could add this (if people who are "H" aren't capable, you could add "or 'H'" to make "misinformed or under duress or 'H.'"). (Example: is a lion capable? No. Why not? Is a five-year-old capable? Maybe, except for "contributing a worthy measure to the collaborative solution of shared problems." Why or why not?!)

[3] It is always possible and always desirable, however costly and difficult it may be, to reconcile differences and conflicts between people in nonviolent ways;

Always?! Why can't it sometimes be easier to resolve conflicts violently (and permanently)?

[5] The public provision of basic income, education, and healthcare facilitates a scene of consent that is nonduressed, while the public provision of the widest possible access to knowledge facilitates a scene of consent that is informed, and acts of consent are legible and legitimate as such only to the extent that they are so informed and nonduressed;

(agreement)

[6] Progressive taxation of property and income provides the essential means to meet the basic conditions on which the doubly foundational scene of consent depend, while at once providing a popular check (no taxation without representation) on the dangerous policing authority of government as well as a check on the tendency of individual stakeholders -- especially those who happen to be momentarily invested with conspicuous wealth, authority, reputation, or attention -- to forget or disavow their ineradicable social and historical inter-dependence in the always collaborative project of creative expressivity and problem solving peer-to-peer.

Regressive taxation makes rich people much, much richer than poor people. A flat tax makes rich people much richer than poor people. Progressive taxation makes rich people quite a bit richer than poor people. I don't see that big of a difference. Rich people are still richer than poor people. They still have almost as much power.

Anonymous said...

Always?! Why can't it sometimes be easier to resolve conflicts violently (and permanently)?
To me, - because most geniune conflicts are not "permanently resolved", violently or no. And any temporary resolution where people got killed is inferior to one where they do not. Even WWII did not "permanently resolve" neither most of the issues that contributed to Hitler's (and the likes) ascension to power, nor di it eliminate Nazi ideology, - just culled it to somewhat manageable size.

You can't of course, get rid of proponents of "violent resolution", violently or no, so it still would be used, probably forever, but you can marginalize their ideas, like that of Nazis.

It always struck me as ironic that libertarians, who happen to have "Non-initiation" as their basic tenet, are somehow pro-gun down to a man... (And to the extent that it's "if you can't trust your neighbhors with a pistol, you can't trust them with anything," or thar violence-free world can't be legislated into existence, I agree, but they usually do not stop there.) Just shows how hollow and sloppy L. philosophy might be.


I don't see that big of a difference. Rich people are still richer than poor people. They still have almost as much power.
They may, but poor people have definitely MORE power in progressive-taxation scenario, don't they? Whatewer Randroids(tm) may imagine democracy is not about "looting", it's about empowering as much people as possible.

Dale Carrico said...

I wrote:

[2] People who are not misinformed or under duress tend, in general, to be capable of articulating their own interests, of testifying to their personal knowledge, and of contributing a worthy measure to the collaborative solution of shared problems;

peco replied:

How do you know when they aren't capable?

Examine what makes this your first question.

I wrote:

[3] It is always possible and always desirable, however costly and difficult it may be, to reconcile differences and conflicts between people in nonviolent ways;

peco replied:

Always?! Why can't it sometimes be easier to resolve conflicts violently (and permanently)?

I did not speak of "ease." Violence sows the seeds of further violence, and those who act violently diminish both those they violate and themselves when they do so.

I wrote:

[6] Progressive taxation of property and income provides the essential means to meet the basic conditions on which the doubly foundational scene of consent depend, while at once providing a popular check (no taxation without representation) on the dangerous policing authority of government as well as a check on the tendency of individual stakeholders -- especially those who happen to be momentarily invested with conspicuous wealth, authority, reputation, or attention -- to forget or disavow their ineradicable social and historical inter-dependence in the always collaborative project of creative expressivity and problem solving peer-to-peer.

peco replied:

Regressive taxation makes rich people much, much richer than poor people. A flat tax makes rich people much richer than poor people. Progressive taxation makes rich people quite a bit richer than poor people. I don't see that big of a difference. Rich people are still richer than poor people. They still have almost as much power.

I disagree with your conclusions and I also disagree with the fantasy you probably maintain that you have assumed some kind of "consequentialist" perspective from which to survey these questions that puts you in a position to understand issues like these better than someone like me, assuming a principled position based on the values of both equity and diversity.

Remember, the point of delineating these ideas was to provide a model of what looks to me to be a progressive-left ethos in an era of peer-to-peer democratization in particular. I am not interested in the context of this sort of formulation in debating the ideas themselves (although I am happy to do so in other contexts, as my answers here already should suggest to you), since that would distract us from the matter at hand. The more interesting question is, is it right for someone who is strongly skeptical or even disapproves of these inter-connected ideas properly described as a person of the progressive-left in an era of peer-to-peer democratization such as our own?

My answer: probably not. Notice that this provides no answer to those who are not people of the progressive-left who might seek to argue about these ideas, their practicality, their relevance, their interdependencies, and so on. That is, again, a different discussion than this one, and a perfectly valid and sometimes enormously useful discussion in its place.

Anonymous said...

By the way... This one is an interesting illustration to why it's not about probability. Project itself may well succeed in all its goals, and obviously such a machine, once widely deployed would have profound political and economical effects.

But that they claim about "exponential growth" is sheer lunacy nonetheless. For starters, where would you get exponentially growing supply of raw materials and energy to get it?

P.S. Just love this one: "Engineering is coming home. We have private individuals building spacecraft in sheds and winning Anousheh Ansari's X-Prize. We have private individuals developing Farnsworth deuterium fusion reactors in their basements. We have reached a point in history where our most advanced technology is dirt cheap."

Never mind that Scaled may well be "shed" by Boeing standards but they do have CNC mills the size of house and other goodies Wright brothers couldn't even dream of, are lead by designer with 20+ years of expirience in small aircraft design and SS One cost $20 million to develop... "Private individuasls in their sheds" indeed, ROTFL...

jfehlinger said...

> By the way... This one is an interesting illustration to why it's not about probability.

Hm. . . Can it make a 12AX7 that sounds as good as a smooth-plate
Telefunken?

;->

Anonymous said...

"If in your reference to "other conversations on [my] blog" you are talking about my repudiation of techno-utopian claims about "mind uploading" or "techno-immortalism," be aware that I am not dismissing these as scenarios with "miniscule probabilities," but decrying these as impossibilities that no amount of "can-do" handwaving can accomplish,"

This is a misleading response. If brain emulations or novel artificial minds capable of equaling or exceeding most of the intellectual feats of humans are developed, that has large social implications. This would be so regardless of one's position on the personal identity relationship between a particular human and a brain emulation modeled on her.

This reminds me of someone claiming that atomic bombs based on fission are a logical impossibility, since "atoms are defined as indivisible entities, the word is drawn from the Greek atomos."

peco said...

I did not speak of "ease." Violence sows the seeds of further violence, and those who act violently diminish both those they violate and themselves when they do so.

Well, violence is bad, so it shouldn't be used, but force can definitely solve conflicts. You can stop someone who is shooting at you by shooting them.

I also disagree with the fantasy you probably maintain that you have assumed some kind of "consequentialist" perspective from which to survey these questions that puts you in a position to understand issues like these better than someone like me, assuming a principled position based on the values of both equity and diversity.

No (this is not from a consequentialist perspective). I don't really value equity. I value it, but I value other things a lot more.

^^ Why does that matter? I'm just saying that progressive taxes don't "provide the essential means to meet the basic conditions on which the doubly foundational scene of consent depend" much more than flat taxes or regressive taxes. I didn't say that regressive taxes are fair (I don't think they are).

Anonymous said...

Hm. . . Can it make a 12AX7 that sounds as good as a smooth-plate
Telefunken?

;->

Theoretically, - why not? :)

There are already machines of this type that do work with metals directly, like LENS or Arcam A2

I'm not sure how easy it would be to "RepRapify" one, of course, with both needing hermetically sealed containers, argon/vaccumm systems, etc. (And considering that even RepRap itself, much more modest in its planned capabilities, is not yet fully developed.)


But I'm fascinated by the things and that they can mean for the manufacturing in the long term, replication or no.

Dale Carrico said...

This is a misleading response. If brain emulations or novel artificial minds capable of equaling or exceeding most of the intellectual feats of humans are developed, that has large social implications.

Quite apart from the usual if if if if ifs here (why not just content yourself with your enjoyment of sf and not try to pretend this makes you some kind of policy wonk when it so palpably does not), what is more misleading to my eyes is your own retreat into "large social implications" when what was under discussion was my specific repudiation of "mind uploading" and "techno-immortalism." Nobody is denying that interesting emerging technodevelopments are afoot and to come with large social implications. But nobody has to join a robot cult to grasp such vacuities. You join a robot cult for other reasons, none of them particularly attractive to my way of thinking.

This reminds me of someone claiming that atomic bombs based on fission are a logical impossibility, since "atoms are defined as indivisible entities, the word is drawn from the Greek atomos."

I don't see why my statement should "remind" you of the terminological borrowing of the ancient's atom by modern atomic physics, which was never meant to be more than suggestive, after all. Nobody ever identified the concepts that share that term, embedded as they are in such radically different assumptions and practices.

It remains true that your personal consciousness will never be "uploaded" into a computer and that you will never be made immortal by medical technique. Neither of those things are going to happen for you.

If you think otherwise it is because you don't know what your consciousness is or 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.

Dale Carrico said...

I don't really value equity. I value it, but I value other things a lot more.

Uh, okay. Good luck with that.

Anonymous said...

This reminds me of someone claiming that atomic bombs based on fission are a logical impossibility, since "atoms are defined as indivisible entities, the word is drawn from the Greek atomos."
Not that this "they laughed at Wright brothers too" argument is that good... But Dale's post was exactly about why even if it's true, it does not mean quite what most >Hists think it does.

What exactly those "large social implications" would be? Could we direct them?

These questions have everything to do with "one's position on the personal identity relationship between a particular human and a brain emulation modeled on her." among other things, like realizing that that "uploaded mind" is still mortal, limited, etc., for all its "shiny robotness".

And comparing real rat with partially "uploaded" one makes one wonder... How much uploading would cost in resources? Real lab rat subsists on few grams of food a day, and does not require air-conditioned computer room, doesn't it? Oh, of course, this question might be dismissed with "exponential growth"... Only naive reliance on the exponent going on forever prove itself wrong and wrong and wrong countless times before... Wright brothers or no.

Dale Carrico said...

Nobody is going to confuse a digital mind emulation (even if it manages to be conscious under its own steam) with its organismic original. I don't personally see this being that much more or less significant than if the Strong AI boys come up with HAL any time soon... and more to the point I'm not much more interested in whether I'm right or wrong in this estimation than I would be about which of the two scenarios seemed to promise the more entertaining read of two books I'm considering side by side for purchase in the sf aisle of my local bookstore.

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 (with all the drear Star Trek conundra around whether or not it will do our bidding, be bored into dangerous madness in no time at all, threatens to get all Robot Goddy on our asses, should be treated as rights-bearing, and all the rest), although I will admit that I do sense a certain troubling dis-identification with one's fellows that curiously 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.

I honestly doubt most transhumanist types would be much interested in the whole "uploading" scenario 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.

But, hey, that's just me.

peco said...

Your consciousness is ineradicably embodied in your brain

How do you know that? And why can't your brain be a computer?

peco said...

Now I agree with you that transhumanism is cultish, but I don't like your alternative (and I don't want to do anything you suggest because I dislike you), and I don't want to forget about transhumanism completely.

Dale Carrico said...

Me: Your consciousness is ineradicably embodied in your brain

peco: How do you know that? And why can't your brain be a computer?


I'm not proposing that minds are supernatural if that's the facile point you're making. But, no, peco, you are not robot except in the sense that all organisms already are (and that's not a sense that will give robot cultists anything they want).

Now I agree with you that transhumanism is cultish, but I don't like your alternative (and I don't want to do anything you suggest because I dislike you), and I don't want to forget about transhumanism completely.

What is "my" alternative to your cult that you disapprove of exactly? Democratic technodevelopmental social struggle?

Hey, no problem.

People pay for what they do, including clutching onto their irrational attachments to cults or to reactionary political ideologies even after they should know better. If you are willing to pay the price, whatever that is, ostracism, ridicule, disconnection from reality, a sad shriveling of your spirit, whatever, it's not my business or inclination to interfere.

peco said...

ostracism, ridicule

No? I'm anonymous. Online, I deal mostly with transhumanists, so it's better for me online if I continue to be a transhumanist. I can always get a new name if I want to deal with people who don't like transhumanism.

disconnection from reality

Maybe disconnection from parts of it?

a sad shriveling of your spirit

That hasn't happened (and isn't happening) online, and it's already happened offline anyway.

including clutching onto their irrational attachments to cults or to reactionary political ideologies even after they should know better

I won't be a transhumanist, but I will still call myself a transhumanist, and I will still be in the WTA.

Nick Tarleton said...

I'm still waiting for an explanation of why, since a computer can model any physical system to arbitrary precision (according to current knowledge of physics), a computer modeling a brain wouldn't be conscious; or why, even if unconscious, it wouldn't behave like a brain, since while behavior without phenomenal consciousness would make uploading personally unappealing, it would still be important because even an upload without phenomenal consciousness could modify itself for greater intelligence (for whatever definition of intelligence you like) and set off an intelligence explosion. (Even if intelligence is irreducibly social, that just means you need several interacting uploads.)

Incidentally, I don't expect to be able to live forever and I don't consider my meat-body abject or dirty or anything like that; I find uploading interesting because it would make longevity easier (thanks to backups and the fact that computers don't undergo senescence), and it would make modification easier (because digital data is obviously easier to modify than a living bunch o' neurons, it's easier to add CPUs and memory to a computer than to add neurons to a brain, and backups mean a lot less caution is necessary).

Dale Carrico said...

It's not you.

Dale Carrico said...

Also, don't speak of fancies as facts until they're facts. I really don't ask for that much.

Dale Carrico said...

I will still call myself a transhumanist, and I will still be in the WTA.

Thanks for sharing.

peco said...

It's not you.

Nobody would notice.

Nick Tarleton said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
peco said...

Dale:

Also, don't speak of fancies as facts until they're facts. I really don't ask for that much.

Nick:

since a computer can model any physical system to arbitrary precision (according to current knowledge of physics)

I'm pretty sure this is a fact.

a computer modeling a brain wouldn't be conscious

How is he saying that this is a fact? He's just saying that he believes a computer simulation would be conscious.

peco said...

It's not you.

Evidence?

Dale Carrico said...

behave like a brain

Even if you are "right," whatever that means, here and now, where all of this is little but handwaving and psychological symptoms playing out in public places, look at that "like" there, that figurative and not literal language you are pressed into. Simile: "like."

Like like like, can you get that into your skulls? Like, not is, "like."

These things matter enormously when the time comes to attribute being to minds and lives, these are not incidental details.

I don't consider my meat-body abject or dirty or anything like that.... computers don't undergo senescence... digital data [as opposed to] a living bunch o' neurons... backups mean a lot less caution is necessary...

Apart from the actually flabbergastingly delusive worldview expressed in such articles of faith as that computers are imperishable, although none ever has been even remotely so ever, apart from all these traits you are glibly and confidently attributing to never-existing imaginary technologies as though they were facts you are describing in furniture that occupies the room with you... Apart from all of that, do you even hear yourself, do you hear the way you are distinguishing living and conscious organisms from their imaginary robotic replacements, do you hear the hierarchy that gets posited and reiterated in this rhetoric of yours again and again and again? Are you so habituated to these formulations you cannot grasp how inhumane they might sound to those who do not share your predictive certainties (none of which you have earned anyway), can you not grasp the kinds of inhumane work this rhetoric might do, here and now, in a world of actually-existing human beings, caught up in disruptive technodevelopmental churn, with whom you are nudged into dis-identification for an identification with fancies?

Dale Carrico said...

peco requires "evidence" that the non-existing completely made up bullshit digital emulation of his brain that "wakes up" -- though this has never happened nor does anything show the least sign of anything remotely like this happening -- is not in fact him, even though, presumably, peco is not himself a digital emulation of his own brain (I mean apart from the fact that nothing is, even in the scenario that pretends such things are factual rather than fanciful, we are assuming he is not already an emulation but is emulated). There is only one response to this that makes any sense. peco, you are talking like a complete fucking idiot. Stop wasting my time.

peco said...

Like like like, can you get that into your skulls? Like, not is, "like."

He means "similar enough for the difference to be unimportant."

peco said...

If it acts like me, why isn't it me?

Dale Carrico said...

me: It's not you. ["It" being the made up bullshit digital immortal robot copy transhumanists pine for because they're skeered to die.]

peco: Nobody would notice.


Followed by:

If it acts like me, why isn't it me?

Classic robot cult reductionism bordering on lunacy.

The thing is, the non-crazy people would notice, peco. That would appear to count out many members of the Transhumanist Brain Trust.

But, anyway, clearly peco is starting to drift into straightforward adolescent troll behavior, and in any case his usefulness as an exemplary transhumanist is growing boring.

G'night all.

peco said...

If I gradually became a computer that acted like me, when would I become "not me?"

peco said...

[1] All people should have a say in the public decisions that affect them;

"The vast majority of residents wanted the unelected Board to get on with making decisions and expanding the sims and did not want to put time and energy into elections etc."

http://slpatroklus.blogspot.com/2008/03/extropians-delayed-democracy.html

smartypants said...

I talk here on Amor Mundi quite a bit about contemporary progressive politics and about the ways in which reactionary and conservative politics obstruct them to the cost of us all. But I also talk more specifically about what I think a progressive politics of technoscience and technodevelopmental social struggle looks like...

Lest your readers draw the wrong conclusions from your writings on the progressive politics of technoscience, would you agree:

You Don't Have To Attack a Robot Cult To Be a Technoscientifically Literate Secular Progressive Democrat?

Dale Carrico said...

You Don't Have To Attack a Robot Cult To Be a Technoscientifically Literate Secular Progressive Democrat?

There's certainly more for progressive secular democrats to do than ridicule Robot Cultists, but few of these needful things are quite so amusing and in any case somebody does have to do it.

Anonymous said...

Note: the original comment was intended as a more or less friendly joke whose rather weak point was to illustrate that nobody likes to have the things they think are important marginalized. In non-joking actuality, it is pretty clear to me that acts of progressive activism can have tangible incremental results in ways that the obscure abstract debates of "Robot Cultists" about things like whether a digital copy of a person is the "same" as the original in some important ways do not.

It amuses me to accept the label "Robot Cult" for that slice of my life spent musing about whether we as a species can think our way out of the catastrophes we have inherited and created (e.g. death and overconsumption) through technological means. Some people build ships in bottles; I think about how a machine might be able to learn, probably with equal "seriousness" -- which is to say, more than is probably justified, but less than is harmful enough to justify intervention.

I agree that some of the transhumanist folks do seem rather too earnest about such speculative matters; my theory from long association with such people is that some "smart" people are good at "logical" reasoning and become overly attached to that reasoning process itself and end up putting way too much faith in long or obscure chains of deductions (because they are good at producing them) without paying proper attention to the underlying assumptions. This results in very strange although sometimes fun and interesting bits of writing. However, that sort of pseudo-formal logic is actually an extremely poor way to model the world, which is the main reason that AI is still struggling to achieve any sort of general effectiveness (and just extending the idea to include a probability term doesn't address the fundamental point that in our actual universe there is insufficient information to support much of such modeling). One example of this tendency is the rather bizarre effort at overcomingbias.com where Yudkowski has apparently decided that teaching people to think like machines is a better approach to the apocalyptic vision of the Robot God than doing things the other way around.

People seduced by logical reasoning chains that work backwards from extremely large-valued end results (like immortality, NanoSanta, and the rest) end up trapped in trying to evaluate the result of dividing infinity by zero. I know because I'm one of them, though I'm less earnest about it than some others.

At any rate, I think your analysis of real things (like the six points listed in this post) are extremely interesting and worthwhile; your attacks on transhumanists are just mean and ugly, and I think you overestimate the importance of this particular brand of millenialism. The public may be titillated in a minor way by the promise of extended lifespans or space travel or whatever, but that has always been true and only a few people are susceptible to confusing reality with fantasy in this way.

If these things I and others like to think about actually do turn out to be possible (though I know you think they are impossible, I do not agree), there will be lots of public steps ('we' think there are some being taken already -- robot workers, genetic engineering, virtual reality, etc) and I am optimistic that each of the actual next steps, if they occur, will do so in a way that the stakeholders will get to participate in policy about what would be very large industrial efforts.

jfehlinger said...

Anonymous wrote:

> I agree that some of the transhumanist folks do seem rather
> too earnest about such speculative matters; my theory from
> long association with such people is that some "smart" people
> are good at "logical" reasoning and become overly attached
> to that reasoning process itself and end up putting way
> too much faith in long or obscure chains of deductions (because
> they are good at producing them) without paying proper attention
> to the underlying assumptions. This results in very strange
> although sometimes fun and interesting bits of writing.
> However, that sort of pseudo-formal logic is actually an extremely
> poor way to model the world, which is the main reason that AI
> is still struggling to achieve any sort of general effectiveness
> (and just extending the idea to include a probability term doesn't
> address the fundamental point that in our actual universe there
> is insufficient information to support much of such modeling).
> One example of this tendency is the rather bizarre effort at
> overcomingbias.com where Yudkowski has apparently decided that
> teaching people to think like machines is a better approach to
> the apocalyptic vision of the Robot God than doing things the
> other way around.
>
> People seduced by logical reasoning chains that work backwards
> from extremely large-valued end results (like immortality, NanoSanta,
> and the rest) end up trapped in trying to evaluate the result of
> dividing infinity by zero. I know because I'm one of them, though
> I'm less earnest about it than some others.

Hear, hear!

You've described very succinctly and effectively one of the problems
I (among many others) started to discern about the >Hists very
shortly after I started interacting with them on-line almost a
decade ago.

Or, as Secretary Cromwell says to Thomas More in _A Man For All Seasons_,
"Oh well done, Sir Thomas, I've been trying to explain that to
His Grace all day."

jfehlinger said...

Anonymous also wrote (to Dale):

> I think . . . your attacks on transhumanists are just mean
> and ugly. . .

Well, ugly is in the eye of the beholder, I guess. I find much
of Dale's snark entertaining, but then I'm also entertained when
Kathy Griffin makes fun of Paris Hilton.

Ridiculing the ridiculous has a long and distinguished history --
some of the best minds have indulged themselves it, from Voltaire
and Jonathan Swift to H. L. Mencken and Bertrand Russell.

>Hists, who mostly think they're smarter than the rest of the
human race, have no compunctions when it comes to making fun of
traditional religions, or criticizing more recent idiocies such as
Scientology (one of their number had to leave the country as
a result of his enthusiasm for harassing the Scientologists).
That's fine with me, though I find it amusing when >Hist
critics of Scientology don't seem to realize the substantial,
and disquieting, affinity between the two SF-derived belief
systems.

Further, the >Hist publicists (much like the guardians of the
public image of Scientology) are wont to rush to "correct the
misapprehensions" of anyone who breathes a word of criticism
of >Hism on the Web. In the case, for instance, of blogger
John Bruce ("In the Shadow of Mt. Hollywood") who came across
>Hism a couple of years ago as a result of his interest in
(and disdain for) Glenn Reynolds the Instapundit, both
Michael Anissimov and James Hughes rushed to "educate"
Mr. Bruce when he dared to expose his skepticism about >Hism
publicly. I find this sort of hairtrigger spinmeistering both
fatuous and slightly disquieting.

Anissimov is fond of pointing out how many more hits the >Hist
cheerleading Web sites (such as his own) garner as compared
to Dale's poor following. Nevertheless, the cheerleaders
are clearly annoyed by the very existence of dissenting
opinions. I am perfectly content that those dissenting opinions
(Dale's, and John Bruce's, and Richard Jones', and Mark Potts',
and S. M. Stirling's, and H. P. LaLancette's, and Jaron Lanier's)
should have some public visibility on the Web, even at the cost
of breaking some >Hists' hearts. And the more entertaining those
critics are, the better.

> . . .and I think you overestimate the importance of this
> particular brand of millenialism.

You could say the same thing about Scientology, I suppose, or
any of the organizations listed on Rick Ross's Web site.

You could have said the same thing about the Nazis in
the 20's.

Most cults at most times and in most places are unimportant.
The dynamics of cults -- the structural similarities that these
organizations have in common -- the suceptibility that fearful
(or cheerful) "seekers" (after certainty, after sainthood)
have to the "guru whammy" excreted by certain narcissistic
personality types -- are far from unimportant.