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Sunday, April 06, 2008

Techno-Utopian Superlativity Is an Ideological Profession, Not a Scientific Practice

Upgraded and adapted from the Moot.

I'm not a computer scientist, a molecular chemist, a roboticist, a gerontologist, or what have you. But, of course, very few of the techno-utopians who crow about my refusal to engage with their "technical arguments" about the odds of a Robot God, techno-immortality, or nano-santa are scientists themselves or making claims in line with scientific consensus.

It is intriguing to note that it is their clueless immodesty on this score rather than my own sensible deferral to actual scientific consensus that tends to be considered by them the consummate "championing" of Science.

Not to put too fine a point on it, engaging in "technical" discussions with crackpots validates them more than they deserve... though I imagine that at least some actual scientists might enjoy the sport of it. More power to them.

Techno-utopian superlativity is essentially an ideology, and as it happens my own training in rhetoric and ideologiekritik actually provides the perfect background to critique superlativity on terms most relevant to it.


Siggi said...

Because "future" does nowhere exist than in our imagination, it´s true that all this is more part of sociology than science. What I miss in these discussions are criteria derived from Bloch, Mannheim etc. because as you rightfully oberve the dangers of ideology are in the realms of future all to obvious.

Dale Carrico said...

Bloch and Mannheim are definitely rumbling around in the background of these discussions for me -- how lovely for somebody in the Moot to bring them up! My most forceful inspiration in discussing the open futurity domesticated by parochial implementations of "the future," however, is Hannah Arendt (from whose motto my blog takes its name).

Richard Jones said...

Unlike Dale, I am a molecular scientist (a physicist, to be precise) and I have extensively engaged in technical discussions with enthusiasts for molecular nanotechnology (see here, for example); after spending quite a lot of time doing this I have, from a different starting point, come to the same conclusion as Dale, that the essence of these arguments isn't actually technical at all, but ideological.

It's not exactly sport, though; there's no professional reward for doing it, and it gets wearisome and time-consuming. For this reason, very few practising nano-scientists do get involved (an exception to this is Philip Moriarty - see this long correspondence). In a way this is unfortunate, because I think that many enthusiasts for MNT are genuinely unaware of how strong the scientific consensus is against their ideas.

One of the reasons for the difficulties of these conversations is that some of the most vocal proponents of MNT (with some honourable exceptions) aren't as familiar with the basic physics, chemistry and materials science background as they should be. To be fair, it can be difficult for those outside academia and without access to the technical literature to keep up with developments (this is another strong argument for open-access publishing, of course), but sometimes it seems as though some MNT enthusiasts' main source of science understanding is from reading and reproducing press releases.

There's maybe a difficulty of tone, too - I've been accused of being occasionally disrespectful or disdainful to my interlocutors. There has sometimes perhaps been some truth in this, which I regret, though I claim in mitigation some provocation (for example by the not infrequent suggestion that I'm arguing in bad faith). But it does suggest to me that these communities don't have the same traditions of robust self-criticism and vigorous argument that science at its best does. I have to say that my reaction to some of the moans one gets about how unfairly MNT supporters are treated in some of these exchanges is to think to myself, these are people who've never seen a set of referees' reports from Physical Review Letters or Nature, or been at the receiving end of a rough bout of questioning after a conference talk on some controversial science issue. Proper scientific discourse does have some robust exchanges, and you need this if you are going to avoid group-think or wishful thinking.

Siggi said...

"Bloch and Mannheim are definitely rumbling around in the background of these discussions"

That may be part of the problem and part of the solution in this entertaining culture clash. ;-)

As far as I understand it there have to be distinct differences between ideology and utopy. And if this background Mannheim-Bloch-rumbling has to come to the foreground it has to be a positive utopy, Blochian to speak. But if even Mannheim admitted somewhere that the difference could only be told after the fact, what can be done?

All these imagined pictures of the future (whether negativ, positiv, dystopian, utopian, rational, irrational) guide action today. Perhaps not as a scientist, because this futurism thing is at its best a naive induktion (as Chamlers would say) as in the case of Kurzweil and in its worst case mere wishful thinking. But behind every wishful thinking stands also a wish, born out of what Bloch called "negative utopy". Death, inequality, illness, unjustice will be growing only very bizarr and superlativetsky even without this singudingu.

Somewhere Mannheim admitted that the disappearance of utopy will generate a static objectivity, which will be inhuman. So I think the sociological good core of all this are young and not so young people who perhaps feel that a human life without utopy is a life without dignity.

And of course Richard, all of this is for a hard working scientist nothing really tangible. ;-)

(sorry for my english, but I hope my english is better than your german ;-) )