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

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Crackpottery and Assholery Among the Robot Cultists

Updated and adapted from the Moot.

Quite a while ago I began an exchange with a techno-utopian "transhumanist-identified" person who seemed sufficiently ambivalent about that designation to be teachable. Here is the last of my replies to her or him or them, now too deep down the blog to easily scroll to, and hence beneath general attention unless you actually click the link to dredge the whole exchange.

We begin with the third of three questions I put to our ambivalent would-be Robot Cultist. The first two questions have been rightly and graciously conceded as devastating to the notion of "movement transhumanism" but my Anonymous interlocutor thinks one might still have a go at the third: Name one not crackpot belief common to most self-identified "transhumanists" that is not held by far more people who do not so self-identify.
Ah. This is the question that I now feel that I can answer satisfactorily. Put simply, it is the idea that the human condition is fundamentally, but not incurably, flawed, and that the only way to fix this is through the use of ridiculously advanced technology. From what I can tell, these flaws are as follows: death, disease, aging, stupidity, disability, the inability to sometimes communicate basic ideas with one another, not using all of the resources that are at our disposal, requiring a constant source of sustenance (food), weakness, and not being able to let one's mind focus on purely mental tasks. Every transhumanist that I have ever read about has expressed those ideas. I know that many other people share those same views as to Mankind's flaws, but transhumanists (to me) are the only ones that believe that technology provides the only, or best, means to fix these perceived problems. In my estimation, this belief is not crackpot. Misguided, probably. But not crackpot.

You will discover, via even a superficial survey of the record of human civilizations, that exasperation with the absurdity of mortality is a commonplace. But I think that to describe the constitutive finitude of the human condition as "flawed" is to imply a designer, a bad one, which I happen not to believe in at all -- indeed, I'll admit I find the find the notion of a perverse, or mean, or absentminded, or dumb Designer far more absurd, even insipid, than the condition of absurdity and heartbreak (and tender transformative promise, as it happens) bequeathed by the facts of our finitude…

But quite apart from all that jazz, and very much more to the point, the great works of medicine, education, artistic expression, and the helping professions are all of them already devoted to the work of ameliorating the vulnerabilities, diseases, humiliations, and ramifying ignorances human animals are so prone to.

You certainly don't need to join a Robot Cult to participate in any of these enterprises, and, I fear, the specific contributions of the brave boys of the futurological congress is mostly just to indulge in snide or hysterical wish fulfillment fantasies and then pout and stamp when grownups point out that far from making them scientific geniuses out to save the planet this tends instead to make them silly bores endlessly wasting time and confusing the issues at hand.

There actually is a more serious problem lurking in this formulation -- concerning the description of moral and aesthetic values (what counts as a disability? what do we take for stupid? what is it that is wanted from communication?) that are more properly conceived as the material of private perfection, as though they were susceptible of consensus in the way scientific descriptions provisionally are and ethical pronouncements formally are. This confusion fuels no small amount of the relentless reductionisms and whiffs of eugenicism that attach so indecorously to transhumanist formulations in the usual way that always plagues technocentric and techno-utopian discourses (a problem that is not, then, uniquely or even best addressed through a discussion of its transhumanist variant).

And so to speak more specifically of the Robot Cultists of transhumanism, singularitarianism, and the rest of the corporate-militarist Futurological Congress: Techno-immortalists, anti-political nanosanta cornucopiasts, cybernetic totalists ready to divest their informational "souls" of their meat encumbrances, and all those who pine or flutter over the coming of the Robot God are all of them, every one, awash in the most palpable and laughable crackpottery imaginable.

To the extent that this is what the Robot Cultists are on about, they are indeed crackpots. To the extent that they are just cooing their bland advocacy for medical research, technoscientific literacy, and a fairer more democratic distribution of the costs, risks, and benefits of global technoscientific developments, well, then they're just secular social democrats like most intelligent decent people are and they'll find they're more apt to make a real difference in a real measure in the real world if they drop the self-delusions and the stupid crap. That is to say, unless the chief difference they are actually out to make is to attract attention to themselves through hyperbolic noisemaking the better to fleece a few vulnerable dumb-dumbs looking for a membership organization to order them around and tell them the meaning of life in exchange for cash. These Robot Cultists, bless them, are not just crackpots but cool frauds as well, indulging in a venerable all-American past-time.

As for the suave neoliberal assessors of "existential risks" one finds among transhumanists, who like to calculate the odds of asteroid impacts and chart the probable paths of bioengineered pathogens, they seem to be a minor sub-population who don't look to me to be crackpots (at least until they start treating the Robot God as an existential risk to be contemplated on a continuum with actual realities like tsunamis and illegal arms trafficking, or demanding we treat the proposition that we are inhabiting virtual reality as serious in a way that makes some kind of difference) so much as mostly self-appointed technocratic elitists looking to divert public monies into corporate-militarist coffers for industrial model solutions to political problem in what is instead a p2p epoch, so we'll leave them to the side. Most of them still hold to the crockpottery anyway, and the rest is just a sideline in assholery.


Mildred said...

Certainly, Dale, if it comes down to a rhetorical contest, you win hands down. You are a master of the cutting epithet--the battle of words being a child of the humanities rather than the sciences--while the transhumanists are just not into that sort of thing.

But I wonder why you let the "Robot Cult" bother you so much? It's not as though they are seriously attracting resources. There have always been people who were into psychic masturbation, and whether that takes the form of transhumanism or Methodism, what's the difference?

ZarPaulus said...

You know, not all Transhumanists are "robot cultists". Many of us simply want control over the evolution of our species. We acknowledge that natural evolution has no direction and seek to guide human evolution to a greater being through genetic engineering.

Dale Carrico said...

I wonder why you let the "Robot Cult" bother you so much?

I ridicule any number of ridiculous things on my blog. I wonder why it is only when I ridicule the specific ridiculousness of Robot Cultists that I get comments about how I must have some sort of hang up for doing so. I daresay for some it is a low-cost riposte, for when all else is lost, to propose to psychoanalyze the author of the better argument rather than simply derive the lesson of the exchange, apply its insights where they offer profit, or even simply enjoy the play of wits through which the contrary cases express themselves on their own terms.

Certainly, Dale, if it comes down to a rhetorical contest, you win hands down.

I am honestly curious to know what is insinuated in the claim that I have won a "rhetorical contest" here? Presumably there is a "merely" here somewhere?

I suppose it doesn't "come down" to such things -- "it" being the percussive basso profundo outcome of History, doubtless -- not to rhetoric, as foolish folks in the elite effete ranks of the humanistically inclined like me are sure to discover eventually to our cost.

But put down your hammer and nails and your toy tricorder for just long enough to riddle me this: Have I made a compelling case or haven't I? Is there a response to my argument or isn't there?

What other more real or relevant arena is presumably on offer? You may have noticed that the Robot God is not looming among us, you may have noticed that your immortality pill is not available at any price, you may have noticed that nobody is offering to "upload" you or anybody else into the cyberspatial sprawl any time soon, you may have noticed that the cornucopiastic tales of co-ordinated nanobot swarms are getting quaintly familiar by now but no closer to realization.

These are not mere verbal pyrotechnics sparking from my wand, here, however one might wish otherwise... the worldly furnishings and commonsense triangulations in which they partake are far more damning to the pretensions of the Robot Cultists than any puns I am occasionally afforded -- to my own amusement if nobody else's -- over the course of making my case against them.

And so, why do I do it?

It's fun. It's educational. I'm pretty good at it. I have changed a few minds worth changing, and I've amused even more. What's not to like, unless you're a Robot Cultist, I mean?

Dale Carrico said...

[N]ot all Transhumanists are "robot cultists". Many of us simply want control over the evolution of our species.

Comedy gold. Simply. Comedy. Gold.

Robin said...

We acknowledge that natural evolution has no direction...

Is this being said tongue-in-cheek or in all seriousness?

I can't decide whether to laugh, attempt to educate, or just cry a little bit.

Anonymous said...

Well, evolution indeed has no "direction" in the "ladder-of-Creation" sense. (E.g. true yeasts (Saccharomycetales) are thought to be descendants of multi-cellular ascomycota, not the other way around, as "ladder of creation" theory might suggest.) But that's NOT the same thing as evolution not having any direction at all. Everything evolves in a direction of maximum sustainable fertility, or in other words "fitness to an ecological niche". In fact, pretending that that "fitness" thing doesn't exist, and thus evolution really has no direction at all, is common trick of evolution deniers ("complex structures don't arise by chance" and similar strawmen.) Whether we, as sentient beings, like that direction, whether we can change it, and whether it's wise to do so are separate questions. (Not quite, yes, maybe, for me. And I'm not a transhumanist. ;) )

P.S. I had already linked to that one At least Fyodorov did have a basis for his predictions: "God Himself promised us immortality some day." Modern transhumanism doesn't have even that much of an explanation of how it plans to deliver on its promises. (Extrapolations like Moore's law can't be reliably applied to a distant future, or else we won't have to write "past performance doesn’t guarantee future results" in banking ads and would not have banking crises... And with disruptive technologies we even don't know what we really ought to extrapolate beforehand. So we don't have flying cars, but do have matchbox-size MP3 players with hours and hours and hours of music in their memory... Equally impossibly cool things for someone from 50's... But he would insist that flying car is easier to make and more practical.)

P.s. just say no to pig-in-a-poke blog-style links.

Kate said...

While I was reading this I was wondering what part computational neuroscience has to play in all this. I haven't been able to deduce much more use of the subject beyond the kind of things that you find in this sort of Robot Cult and related subjects.

ddjango said...


But they are "seriously attracting resources". They just aren't attracting enough bloody attention.

Whether it's a "conspiracy" or not, the general public has been systematically indoctrinated to accept this "movement" with wide-eyed glee and awe. The shock comes later.

Dale Carrico said...

Mildred is right in a sense, though, ddjango: self-identified "trasnhumanists" have remained an extremely marginal sub(cult)ure throughout the whole of their existence -- albeit unusually attention-getting for all that. They seem to me to be likely to remain so... although we have all learned to our cost how a small self-deluded coterie of extremists can do flabbergasting amounts of damage if they play their cards right (I have the Neocons in mind, but many examples are available). It pays to pay attention to the trasnhumanists in particular if only because they provide rationales for corporate-militarism that make them -- however ridiculous they are in so many ways otherwise -- sufficiently attractive to some incumbent interests to make them far more dangerous than could possibly make sense to the sensible.

But quite apart from all that, I have always said that the transhumanists deserve scrutiny less for the fascinations of their curious cultiness and kookiness but because they represent in their extremity a particularly illuminating reductio of techno-utopian elitist reductionist and eugenicist tendencies playing out more diffusely but disastrously across the neoliberal and neoconservative planetary imaginary in our present historical moment. I suspect this is a large part of what you mean to emphasize, ddjango, when you refer to "systematic indoctrination" here.