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

Saturday, April 12, 2008

What to Do About Those Who Toot in the Moot

For better or for worse, one of the niches occupied by Amor Mundi is that it is one of a few places online (for now) in which an ongoing and systematic critique of transhumanist and other variations of superlative and sub(cult)ural technocentrism can be found.

As someone who works on science and technology issues, superlative technocentricities are interesting to me both as examples of the episodic hyperbolic and somewhat hysterical transcendental recastings of the technoscientific imaginary that have regularly recurred since the Enlightenment here and there, but also as symptoms that reveal with special clarity more prevailing attitudes of reductive scientism, social Darwinism, eugenic normativity, elite technocracy, and extreme susceptibility to advertising hype in an epoch of global neoliberal developmental discourse.

As someone who is devoted to progressive and democratizing technodevelopmental social struggles, superlative technocentricities are interesting to me both because they derange sensible technodevelopmental deliberation and activate irrational passions precisely when environmental crises and corporate-militarist evil demand we see most clearly, but also because the organizational life of these discourses and the sub(cult)ures in which they are embedded tend to exhibit cult-like characteristics in their present marginality while at once aspiring to totalitarian pan-movements in ways that seem troubling to say the least to the prospects of sustainable, democratic progress in emerging technocultures.

It is unfortunately but also unsurprisingly the case that my comments section, the "Moot," is often filled with anonymous and pseudonymous bonehead cultists and fanboys sniping from the sidelines either because the sub(cult)ure or even the specific cult-like organization with which they are personally identified is perceived to be under threat or, more generally, their pet pieties (that "free markets" are magic, that technoscience is a politically neutral goose that lays golden eggs -- possibly including immortality despite the fact of finitude, cyberspatial brains despite the fact of embodied intelligence, post-politicizing genies in bottles at the nanoscale despite the fact of political plurality, and Robot Gods on the horizon despite the fact that nobody else sees them there --, that the humanities are hotbeds of menacing relativism, that "science" has objectively indicated the inferiority of people of color, the poor, the morphologically or cognitively atypical and so expressions of ugly prejudice don't really make those who utter them assholes, all appearances to the contrary, and so on) are all under threat just because I am offering up sustained and cantankerous critiques of them.

I get all sorts of great comments in the Moot. Anne Corwin, Richard Jones, Nato Welch, Robin Zebrowsky have all made amazing contributions to the Moot over the last week or so, for example. I find myself appreciating their comments all the more because it is palpable that none of these people agree with close to everything I say and may even disapprove of my rhetoric in fundamental ways, but still contribute to the discourse of Amor Mundi legibly within its terms. I've also appreciated supportive and creative comments by Jim, Seth, Vladimir, among others, who have often seemed this week especially to be running interference in the face of the Robot Cult noise brigade. Of course, even forceful detractors can make points from which the conversation benefits in general.

But I'll admit it is a bit depressing and even a little disgusting to get inundated with so many comments that seem to consist of endless repetitions of "I know you are but what am I?" I mean, I don't expect transhumanists to be thrilled to hear me point out similarities in their conduct and attitudes to cultists and fundamentalists, or to eugenicists and corporate-militarists (except, I guess, for the more Randroidally inclined among them who think being a corporate-militarist is teh awesome), but be that as it may, those charges are the end-points of long multi-faceted analyses on my part. To respond without a comparable compensatory reading of my own practice and just announce, no, you're the cultist! no, you're the authoritarian! no, you're the intolerant one! no, you're the elitist! no, you're the fundamentalist, and so on, apparently interminably, may be enormously satisfying emotionally, but it isn't exactly a response that is equal to the challenge at hand.

Of course, when the Moot gets clogged by nothing but a handful of spiteful Robot Cultists on one of their tears, it can no doubt come to seem, for them at any rate, at least in the moment, as if this sort of facile projective performance really is all that is necessary to refute a critique like mine. This experience seems a likely analogue to the way in which these same Robot Cultists can come to feel that the hopelessly implausible to impossible aspirations for "the future" with which they personally identify are sure to come to pass, just because everybody around them attests to this shared vision and in sharing it seems to substantiate it, despite its actual marginality from social or scientific plausibility and so on.

I find it very hard not to rise to the bait offered up by these sorts of challenges. It's a personal failing, I suppose. I feel nothing short of flabbergasted by some of the things people say in the Moot. It feels like an offense to sense sometimes not to register public shock at some of them. But to feed the trolls, as the common parlance has it, is to ensure their proliferation. I am especially confused about those who come to a blog that is clearly coming from a Green multicultural feminist pro-democracy sort of place just to make fun of people who care about poverty or militarism or vulnerable people, especially given the fact that this blog has such a modest readership. This kind of spitefulness freaks me out as much as the arrant irrationality of the Robot Cultists who decry my deathism or my Stalinism or my being an effete elite aesthete or what have you.

I will occasionally register this bewilderment at the brayings of some bravely pseudonymous sniper to be gleefully invited by them at that point to delete their comments if I dislike them so much. The fact is that comments in the Moot seem to me enough like publication that I don't like the idea of policing their expression at all (despite my intolerant Stalinism and so on). I banned one such person in exasperation at his smug demands that I explain my "irrational" disdain of nuclear proliferation, and ended up feeling worse about sending him away even than I did about hosting his ugly idiocy on my blog, even though so hosting him could easily send smarter, more appealingly democratically-minded people who make sense as my conversational partners away to find more congenial company. Even when nobody challenges the infantile rein of Robot Cultists in the Moot I like to think that reasonable people are coming to their own sensible but silent conclusions just observing the shabby spectacle the boys are making of themselves. But it is also true that what happens in the Moot often feels enough like community that neither do I like the fact that some people seem to want to come just to poop on the furniture and bully the nice interesting people who have contributions to make in terms that make sense given the actual preoccupations of Amor Mundi into leaving in boredom or disgust. Of course, some of the more stubborn trolls to this blog would reappear under different pseudonyms were I to police them in any case, and scouting around for their various incarnations would lead to a wider censoriousness that would end up harming the conversation in any case.

I could no doubt diminish this problem enormously by means of the straightforward expedient of critiquing the transhumanists and other Robot Cultists less in the first place, but I think it is an important and neglected service to expose their anti-democratizing discourses and their consolidating organizational archipelago for what they are. I suppose that isn't the sort of thing you can do without things getting ugly, however wearying and disappointing that may be.


Nato Welch said...

Welcome to the Web, I guess.

So in other words, as hard as you work to be able to justify calling someone an asshole, the least they could do is return the favor.

I relate. It takes trust in your readers, and discipline in yourself, to let bad comments die from attention asphyxiation. But it is worth it. I've been through this once before myself; it IS better, in the long term, to avoid, where practicable, charges of censoriousness - from your own conscience, if not from your debate opponents.

The Litany Against Anonymity:
(With apologies to Frank Herbert.)

I must not troll.
Trolling is the mind-killer.
Anonymity is the little death that brings total distraction.
I will ignore my trolls.
I will permit them to post over me and through me.
And when it has gone unreplied, I will turn the inner eye to forget its thread.
Where the troll has posted there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

Certainly carry on, vitriol and all. I've found your critiques as helpful and influential as they are entertaining.

Dale Carrico said...

I love your Litany!

(I actually used Herbert's Bene Gesserit original before going in to take my Qualifying Exams and was stunned to find it worked perfectly.)

Anonymous said...

I won't comment unless I can find a link that's less trollish (I can't easily put together more than 3-4 sentences and have it still make sense).

I could no doubt diminish this problem enormously by means of the straightforward expedient of critiquing the transhumanists and other Robot Cultists less in the first place, but I think it is an important and neglected service to expose their anti-democratizing discourses and their consolidating organizational archipelago for what they are. I suppose that isn't the sort of thing you can do without things getting ugly, however wearying and disappointing that may be.

This does all of the above without getting ugly.

Michael Anissimov said...

As a transhumanist, here are some things I learned about myself from reading Amor Mundi:

1. I'm "greedy, or stupid, or scared, or narcissistic, or invested in reductive scientism or some comparable parochialism, or you want somebody to tell you what to do or think and transhumanism just happens to be the cult you fastened on to."

2. I despise my flesh.

3. I worship free markets.

4. I worship the military.

5. I'm terrified of death, to the point of pathology.

6. I'm delusional and actively destructive.

7. Etc.

So I feel personally under attack. It's disappointing that people like Nato find these "cultural critiques" (hyperbolic caricatures borne of personal vendetta) "helpful and influential as they are entertaining". How would you like to be put down on the couch and told that you hate your body and that you're essentially crazy?

jimf said...

Michael Anissimov wrote:

> How would you like to be put down on the couch and told
> that. . . you're essentially crazy?

This actually deserves a serious and thoughtful reply, but I'm
afraid the comment area of a blog couldn't possibly encompass it.

All I can suggest to you, Michael -- and it's a **serious** suggestion,
not a snotty put-down, is that you read a few books on cultic
belief systems and how people eventually come to disentangle themselves
from them.

Eric Hoffer, _The True Believer_, from the 50's, is a classic
which I should re-read myself one of these days.

Start there. If you want to go on, there are plenty more. Here
are some:

Kramer & Alstad, _The Guru Papers_
Anthony Storr, _Feet of Clay_

Jeff Walker, _The Ayn Rand Cult_
Ellen Plasil, _Therapist_
The dark side of the Objectivist movement.

Andre van der Braak, _Enlightenment Blues_
Luna Tarlo, _The Mother of God_
(by two former students of Andrew Cohen's movement,
one of them his own mother)

Dale Carrico said...

Here's another option, Michael. To the extent that you are not greedy, or stupid, or scared, or narcissistic, not invested in reductive scientism or some comparable parochialism, you don't want somebody to tell you what to do or think and transhumanism just happens to be the cult you fastened on to, you don't despise your flesh, you don't worship free markets or the military [where do I say transhumanists "worship the military," by the way?), you're not terrified of death, to the point of pathology, you're not delusional or actively destructive, or any of the rest... you might address the tendencies in the "transhumanist movement" you affirm that might lead intelligent observers to worry otherwise.

Instead, you try to dismiss all these concerns by pretending they amount to nothing but name-calling happening at an argumentatively trivial interpersonal level, but they simply are not. What you are doing looks pretty palpably either like cluelessness at best or a cynical effort at cult-PR damage-control at worst.

If you worry about reductionism, or determinism, or market ideology, or militarism, or body-loathing in technocentric discourses wouldn't you really be talking about why my critiques are serious and should be taken seriously and about how you are striving to ensure that people drawn to "transhumanist" discourse and participating in "transhumanist movement" resist such tendencies? You just deny and dismiss and disavow, and then offer up little "cover your ass" qualifications around these questions when the heat is on, only to resume the usual techno-triumphalist steamroller the next minute.

I sincerely think transhumanist, singularitarian, and techno-utopian discourses and sub(cult)ural movements are dangerously deranging of sensible progressive technodevelopmental deliberation and worrisomely anti-democratizing in their practices and aspirations.

It isn't my job to promote your organizational agenda, it isn't my job to criticise you only in ways you are comfortable with, it isn't my job always only to focus on your expectations, emphases, and aspirations on your terms. That's perfectly absurd.

If you think I am indulging in psychotherapeutic diagnoses of you personally, Michael, I have to say that is possibly the most flabbergastingly narcissistic (and I don't mean that in the clinical sense) foolishness I've ever heard of.

I'm not a therapist and I don't know you. This isn't about you personally, except to the extent that I am occasionally in conversation with you and using your actual words as the basis for claims I am making. This is about a discourse, a set of rhetorical frames and figures, a host of argumentative entailments, a sub(cult)ure with discernible characteristics, all lodged in legible discursive histories.

Transhumanist technodevelopmental discourse treats conventional neoliberal terms of Development (market innovation, market competition, consumer choice, public cost, developed and developing and underdeveloped mappings of the world, existential risk assessment, and so on) as their natural point of departure thereby substantiating status quo assumptions and institutions that benefit incumbent interests in a corporate-militarist planetary order. First of all, saying that this amounts to the claim that you personally "worship the military" is, frankly, stupid. Second of all, you can disagree with me about the entailments that worry me but to deny the citation of prevailing Development discourse is enormously foolish. It is worse than foolish if you claim to agree with me about such entailments because you want to appear "progressive" as you sometimes do.

I have no difficulty in the least imagining that you don't personally hate your body, for whatever that's worth. But you are on incredibly thin ice indeed if you really think the regular expressions of hostility to the limits and frailties and vulnerabilities of embodied life, "meat" bodies, "suboptimal" bodies -- either their own or those defended by what some transhumanists refer to as "disability extremists" -- are not noticed by other people who happen not to share your beliefs. If you are not only not a body-loather but care about the impact on ourselves and on others of body-loathing discourse wouldn't you affirm my observation and have a conversation about how damaging it is rather than pretending it isn't happening and that I'm a liar or engaging in foaming at the mouth defamation of your "people" when I talk about such things?

Are you really denying the manifestations of true belief on exhibit in transhumanist public fora, the would-be gurus declaiming about The Way, the would-be Authorities and Champions of Enlightenment Rationality who reduce all opposition to forces of darkness, the uncritical optimism, the technological determinism, the facile apoliticism, and all the rest?

Most public groups get some of that sort of thing, but transhumanist subculture is very small, very new, very marginal, very unaccomplished considering the disproportionate prevalence and noise-level of this stuff. If you don't grasp the fact and the reasons why sensible peoples' cult-meters go off when you guys start talking about superintelligent friendly AI or uploading your brains and how everybody who doesn't see this as their number one priority is an ignorant fool then there is nothing I can do to reach you.

(If this last thing I say is the only sentence in what I am writing here that you respond to it will show how deeply unserious you are, by the way -- I earned that slightly oversimplified but clarifying sentence by putting it in the context of the more nuanced things I say elsewhere -- and you earn the right to respond to it only if you respond to the more complex context as well. You guys are constantly drawing me into less nuanced give-and-take and pretending that the more substantial arguments that prompt our conversations never happened at all, and that my entire position can be summed up in some trade of insults that happens near the end of the conversation at the point where I am finally brought to the place where I am throwing my hands up in disgust.)

Even if it is true that you have personally risen above all these things, do you really want to deny their prevalence among many with whom you actively nonetheless still identify as members of your movement and subculture? How do you square this what what you claim to believe, especially if you claim that these are important matters?

You say I am offering up "hyperbolic caricatures born of personal vendetta."

If in calling these "hyperbolic caricatures" you mean to deny that these attitudes and tendencies I delineate and worry about are actually in evidence and even prevalent -- even if non-universal, non-totalizing, expressed with qualifications here and there as is always true of any group of people -- then I have to say I think you are engaged in a very dishonest rhetoric.

If in calling my critiques a matter of "personal vendetta" you mean to suggest that I don't really believe that superlative and sub(cult)ural techno-utopianism is dangerous, deranging, and anti-democratizing in all the ways I say they are, then I have to say, again, that I think you are engaged in a very dishonest rhetoric.

Then the question becomes, why are you doing that?

Michael Anissimov said...

James, I will read it, but even by reading the summary it's easy to see numerous differences between transhumanists and the true believers as defined in the book. First, it says they're usually poor and easily influenced, but many H+ people are relatively wealthy and intellectual independent. Also, it says that cults are interchangeable, but few people who take a transhumanist stance drift away from it to another fad, suggesting it's something more fundamental and useful, like liberalism or vegetarianism. You haven't really even bothered responding to this, for instance.

Dale, I do address the negative tendencies you speak of, on occasion. I just think you vastly overestimate their prevalence. Back when I founded ImmInst with Bruce Klein, I made it a frequent point to discourage irrational fear of death in immortalist discourse.

I have repeatedly said that wishful thinking shouldn't be the foundation of futurist projections, as well. But to pretend as if it's not worth a second of time to examine the underlying technical claims of MNT enthusiasts, for instance, as you do, is counterproductive.

I don't think you're indulging in psychoanalysis of me personally, but all transhumanists.

I am obviously not purely techno-triumphalist, or why would I bother to do things like protest the Church of Scientology, or donate to presidential campaigns, or participate in protests against China here in SF? Honestly, when I read your words about how transhumanists supposedly don't care about social issues, I just laugh, because it looks so intensely silly to me.

Yeah, neoliberalism is pretty common. But are there more neoliberals among transhumanists than among, say, the American population in general? Probably not.

The human body isn't perfect. You seem to think that any acknowledgement of this fact equates to "body loathing". No, it doesn't. I can love my body and simultaneously want to reshape it with transhuman technologies.

The only "would-be gurus" I can think of you being angry about would be Eliezer Yudkowsky or Ray Kurzweil. Again, these two are few enough that I don't see how H+ is more susceptible to "would be guru-ism" than any other specialty area, including something as mundane as online groups forming around, say, Search Engine Optimization.

I don't think the attitudes and tendencies you try to delineate are necessarily untrue, but sometimes they reflect your political bias, and often they're exaggerated. That is why you rarely give any concrete examples. In normal papers and news articles, people are quoted and then responded to. You are often vague in your critiques, referring to strawmen created for your own convenience. I think your proposed project of compiling quotes would actually be a great idea because it would force you to be more specific.

You said many transhumanists think certain military advances are "teh awesome". Apparently praising any military-funded technology, even if it's an arm prosthetic that helps amputees in need, is verboten in your world.

I do actually deny the prevalence of some of your accusations, and where I don't, many of the characteristics you criticize are found in the same proportions in any random group as they are in H+. Of course, some of your critiques I do see as legitimate, which is why I keep reading. But I see about 10% legitimate critique, 90% substance-free hate screed. And James loves to play along -- for him, analyzing transhumanism is as simple as posting Scientology quotes and implying that H+ and Scientology are pretty much the same thing. Funny given that transhumanists like Keith Henson have taken the lead, even putting their own lives at risk, to protest destructive cults like Scientology.

jimf said...

Michael Anissimov wrote:

> [I]t's easy to see numerous differences between transhumanists
> and the true believers as defined in the book. First, it says
> they're usually poor and easily influenced, but many H+ people
> are relatively wealthy and intellectual[ly] independent.

Well, I suspect that Hoffer had in mind the fascist and Marxist
mass movements in recent and contemporary history. That's certainly
what was in the minds of the high-school social studies teachers
who assigned that book to their students. However, even today,
the most dangerous religious fundamentalisms of East and West
tend to be found in their most virulent and exploitable strains
among the relatively poor and uneducated.

That being said, there's certainly no guarantee that being rich
provides any immunity against being sucked into a cult. Far
from it! Many self-help movements, New Age religious groups,
and Large-Group Awareness Training systems specifically target
the rich and famous. (Can you say "Hollywood"? Can you say

As far as "intellectually independent" is concerned -- many cults
pay lip service to that virtue, while actively discouraging
any sign of it in their adherents. Objectivism is a notorious

> The only "would-be gurus" I can think of. . .
> would be Eliezer Yudkowsky or Ray Kurzweil.

Well, one of those has pretty obviously been (and probably remains)
**your** guru. You not only repeat the current "approved"
party line, but you assiduously herd the straying sheep
according to the latest coming out of Santa Clara (or Palo Alto,
or wherever the hell he is these days).

I've seen a couple of very telling public remarks from you.
One was that you "always wanted to be a saint". And the other
was something along the lines of "I'm not smart enough to
figure out how to save the world myself, so I just do what
I can to help along the folks who are." Intellectually independent,
my moldy shower curtain!

> I see about 10% legitimate critique, 90% substance-free hate screed.
> And James loves to play along -- for him, analyzing transhumanism
> is as simple as posting Scientology quotes and implying that H+ and
> Scientology are pretty much the same thing.

In some ways, they are pretty much the same thing. "Dianetics" was
invented by a crackpot psychopathic SF author back in the day when
psychiatry seemed to be on the verge of "unlocking the human
mind". They offered Power and Immortality (they had to cheat
a little on the latter -- they annexed an incorporeal soul, or
"Thetan", from traditional religion, while giving it an SFnal spin).

These days, digital computers and Moore's Law seem to be the
with-it technologies for those jockeying for the fast lane.
They promise Power and Immortality, blah blah blah.

Actually, though, it's Objectivism, or what remains of it, that
seems to be joined at the hip with >Hism. It provides the default
theory of the mind for a lot of folks (who seem to think that
an AI will think a lot like one of Ayn Rand's Nietzschean
heroes), as well as a default theory of political economy.

Many SF fans (and authors!) who were (or would have been)
into Dianetics in the 50s and Objectivism in the 60s, are the sorts
of folks who would be into >Hism today.

> Funny given that transhumanists like Keith Henson have taken
> the lead, even putting their own lives at risk, to protest
> destructive cults like Scientology.

Mr. Henson does have an amusing blind spot in that regard.

Here's my obligatory "Scientology quote". You've seen it before.
Maybe you'll appreciate it more this time around.

(_Penthouse_ interview with L. Ron Hubbard **Jr.**,
June, 1983 )

Hubbard: Scientology is a power-and-money-and-intelligence-gathering
game. To use common, everyday English, Scientology says that you
and I and everybody else willed ourselves into being hundreds of
trillions of years ago -- just by deciding to be. We willed ourselves
into being ourselves. Through wild space games, interaction,
fights, and wars in the grand science-fiction tradition, we
created this universe -- all the matter, energy, space, and time
[what a MEST! ;->] of this universe. And so through these
trillions of years, we have become the effect of our own
cause and we now find ourselves trapped in bodies. So the idea
of Scientology "auditing" or "counseling" or "processing" is
to free yourself from your body and to return you to the
original godlike state or, in Scientology jargon, an
operating Thetan -- O.T. We are all fallen gods, according
to Scientology, and the goal is to be returned to that state. . .

We promised them the moon and then demonstrated a
way to get there. They would sell their soul for that. We were
telling someone that they could have the power of a god --
that's what we were telling them.

Penthouse: What kind of people were tempted by this promise?

Hubbard: A whole range of people. People who wanted to raise
their IQ, to feel better, to solve their problems. You also
got people who wished to lord it over other people in the
use of power. Remember, it's a power game, a matter of climbing
a pyramidal hierarchy to the top, and it's who you can step
on to get more power that counts. It appeals a great deal
to neurotics. And to people who are greedy. It appeals a
great deal to Americans, I think, because they tend to
believe in instant everything, from instant coffee to instant
nirvana. By just saying a few magic words or by doing a
few assignments, one can become a god. People believe this.
You see, Scientology doesn't really address the soul; it
addresses the ego. What happens in Scientology is that
a person's ego gets pumped up by this science-fiction
fantasy helium into universe-sized proportions. And this
is very appealing. It is especially appealing to the
intelligentsia of this country, who are made to feel
that they are the most highly intelligent people, when in
actual fact, from an emotional standpoint, they are completely
stupid. Fine professors, doctors, scientists, people
involved in the arts and sciences, would fall into
Scientology like you wouldn't believe. It appealed to
their intellectual level and buttressed their emotional
weaknesses. You show me a professor and I revert back
to the fifties: I just kick him in the head, eat
him for breakfast.

Damien Sullivan said...

Actually, though, it's Objectivism, or what remains of it, that
seems to be joined at the hip with >Hism.

Meh. Objectivism had some popularity on the Extropians list, but nothing overwhelming in my day. Really, Objectivism's too tame, all minarchist and such. Anarcho-capitalism, privately produce law, David D. Friedman's Machinery of Freedom, that's where it was at. Libertarianism in general and extropianism were close to joined; Objectivism is only one libertarian philosophy, and one that resents all those other libertarians.

And, on the list, there was awareness of non-libertarian transhumanism. The Borg as an extreme fictional collectivist example, but really, anyone who both liked the ideas of life extension and human enhancement without being allergic to taxes and and democracy and public health care. The European Union in Transhuman Space would probably be the poster child.