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

Friday, November 14, 2008

A Member of the HumanityPlusTron Caucus of the Reasonable Makes a Plea

Upgraded and Adapted from the Moot, an Anonymous reader makes a comment and a request:
Even though I would consider myself a "transhumanist," I find myself in almost complete agreement with you, Mr. Carrico, when it comes to the dumbass robot cultists out there. They all, in their minds, live in this pie-in-the-sky future, with all of the gadgets that you already mentioned, but are, in the real world, truly angry because we aren't yet immortal, etc.

I have met some of these people at local transhumanist events, seeking like-minded people, but have only found some of the most deplorable people imaginable. From what I can tell, these people share virtually no similarities to me, except that they use the same clichéd term to describe themselves as I. I consider myself a transhumanist simply because I believe (key word: believe) that most of this future crap is possible, and the development of which might even be likely in the relatively near future.

However, I am under the impression that you should be more careful when describing all, or most, futurists as robot cultists, since there certainly are exceptions to the rule. And just as a side note: there are a fair number of futurist scientists, such as myself (though I'm involved in pure mathematics, so it's not too relevant) and some physics and astronomy professors, who would describe themselves as transhumanists.

I can say with confidence that any truly reasonable "transhumanist" will abandon that idiotic self-designation soon enough that it isn't a particular worry of mine that all three of them will be annoyed by their inclusion in my blanket dismissal between now and then.

But let me be a tad more generous with you for a moment, thou Anonymous but Reasonable HumanityPlusTron.

Are you sure you aren't just a common or garden variety geek or, you know, a nice sf fan? We love geeks and sf fans here at Amor Mundi!

And if you are just a reasonably techno-scientifically literate person interested in facilitating concrete progressive technodevelopmental outcomes, well, there simply isn't really any reason for you to join a Robot Cult to participate in such struggles.

When you say you believe that "most of this future crap is possible" and "likely in the near future" I have to ask you to hit the pause button, though, because if by "this future crap" you mean the usual constellation of nanoscale santa-robotic swarms making you immortal and rich beyond the dreams of avarice, or you worry about the coming of the Singularitarian Robot God, or you think uploading your "self" into cyberspace is a coherent proposition, then, I'm afraid, I have to question your ascription to yourself of a "reasonableness" lacking in other HumanityPlusTrons you have been heeby-geebied by at HumanityPlusTron gatherings.

Becoming invested in highly particular visions of "the future" -- or worse, actually forming self-marginalizing identities with their attendant defensive identity politics or, even worse still, getting caught up in curiously cult-like membership organizations formed around shared identification with such particular visions -- is not at all the same thing as foresight, it is certainly not the same thing as policy making (though selling cults as think tanks seems to be something of a fashionable racket at the moment), nor is it even really what it most resembles, the kind of enjoyable speculative blue-skying about logically possible mega-engineering implementations and their imagined impacts one comes across in any good bookclub for sf fans.

I think you wildly over-estimate the actual number of serious people who self-identify as "transhumanists," or "singulariatiarians," or "techno-immortalists," or whatever other identity-formations are bubbling up at the moment, mostly online, around Ayn Raelian modalities of superlative technocentricity, though I have no doubt at all that many people you might be tempted to describe in these terms do indeed exhibit the more familiar reductionisms, scientisms, technocratic antipoliticisms, eerie near-eugenicisms of which "transhumanist" sub(cult)ures seem to represent the most noisy and photogenic extremities presently in play.

Not to put too fine a point on it, I feel sure that if you really think this business through you will discover there has been nothing reasonable at all about whatever it is that brings you to the odd choice of "identifying" as a "transhumanist," of all things.

Here, let me help you along a bit.

Tell me anything at all that is clarified about a presumably desirable technodevelopmental outcome by adding to it the designation "transhumanist."

Name one quality about an artifact that can only be clarified by describing that quality as "transhumanist."

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.

Now think it through.

No need to thank me. I'm here to help.


JM Inc. said...

Speaking as a former self-described "transhumanist", I'd have to concur with Dale here, Anonymous.

When I first got into the whole notion of transhumanism I didn't realise how much baggage it was meant to carry. I thought, "great, like-minded, future optimistic people!"

I would have said I was a transhumanist in the same way that I was a feminist; chiefly in the sense that I had found a group of people who seemed to share my interests and feelings on a subject. In this case, I felt that I'd found a group of people who cared about where society was heading, who cared about the democratic and democratising distribution of technologies both new and old to all people, who were interested in radical future possibilities sans the bioconservative revulsive reaction to anything not sufficiently like what came before.

Some of it seemed a little far out to me, but I took that to mean I didn't know enough to realise that it was more plausible than it seemed. Later on I started to worry because it looked an awful lot like there was a core of self-described transhumanists who seemed to talk an awful lot to other transhumanists, much more than they talked to anybody else.

I don't mean to credit Dale with too much here, but it was his superlative critique that helped to nudge my thinking back in the direction of remembering that labels are just labels, and "if/when" they outlive their broader usefulness or "if/when" they never had much broader usefulness to begin with, their persistence tends to be a symptom that something is wrong with the discourses sustaining them.


I've been trying to think of a familiar fictional character who reminds me of some of these self-described transhumanist-types, especially the self-described Singularipuritan Humanoid Carbon Units, and I finally realised who I’m reminded of: Adrian Veidt. For all their liberal/progressive affectations (some of them don't even bother with any of that that rubbish), there's something very false about being so concerned with transmuting your brain into an optical crystal computer that you forget the point of all this technologically enabled radical freedom that we in the West enjoy and look forward to enjoying. When exploding a NanoNetwork Robot God (or a gigantic genetically engineered cephalopod) onto the world looks like the solution to everyone’s problems, that’s a sign of serious disconnection from the mean plight of the mass of, as Dale would put it as eloquently as he always does, "actual persons with whom we share the actual world".

AnneC said...

JM said: Later on I started to worry because it looked an awful lot like there was a core of self-described transhumanists who seemed to talk an awful lot to other transhumanists, much more than they talked to anybody else.

Yep, same here. The insularity of the whole thing started to bother me a lot -- like people were cutting themselves off from the rest of the real (scientific, political, philosophical) world for no reason aside from weird ingroup clubbishness. And that kind of thing has never made sense to me.

Anonymous said...

You’re right that the word “transhumanism” does have some very odd, and very frequently negative connotations. However, I have only truly realized this fact over the past 2 months or so, when I started to meet other transhumanists (and see how much they and I truly differ). But after about two years of calling yourself something, it can be somewhat difficult to stop thinking of yourself in that way. So I guess that I call myself a transhumanist simply as a relic of my own stubbornness

Despite all of the above, even though I am a not a tremendous fan of the title “transhumanist,” it can still, however, be somewhat useful to call oneself something that has values somewhat similar to your own. For me, I have found it helpful to compartmentalize my beliefs, so using a word like transhumanist to describe myself is appealing. For instance, I would really hate to call myself a “space exploration enthusiast/powered exoskeleton junkie/life-extension hopeful/etc…” That’s just far too long for my tastes. It really is much easier to sum up all of that into one connotation-filled, four syllable word, even if it doesn’t quite fit the bill.

Getting back to what it actually means to be a transhumanist, I still think that it is a gross over-simplification to say that all, or nearly all, transhumanists are somehow robot-cult members. If I had to guess, the vast majority of them are somewhat like me, in that their views are quite non-extremist, and they’re just interested in the possible paths that technology will lead the human race down in both the near and distant future. I am, of course, excluding some people like Michael Anissimov (whose blog I still can’t seem to stop reading, even though many of his views are in stark contrast to mine) and Ray Kurzweil, whose views are quite decidedly extremist at best, and, put bluntly, scary at worst. I know that this is a cliché, but it is easy to make generalizations about an entire group of people based solely on its most vocal members, even though this will result in a skewed view of what the group actually believes. If it were up to me, I would shut up the vast majority of those people, since they have the ability to make people like me seem like disgusting eugenics-lovin’ people just because they might like to compartmentalize their views in a similar fashion to myself.

By the way, I choose to remain anonymous for the time being, since I really would prefer to keep my futuristic views firmly locked up in the closet.

Dale Carrico said...

Look, I'm not going to delve too deep into your personal life, it's not really my business.

You say "it is a gross over-simplification to say that all, or nearly all, transhumanists are somehow robot-cult members." I honestly think you are missing the force of my point altogether. Nobody who does describingly foolish or damaging things is exhaustively describable as a fool or a danger as a result. As witness, the dictator who is kind to puppies or the neglectful parent who is a fine teacher blah blah blah. I daresay we can all accept as a given that people are multifaceted beings, their identifications are always at once multiple and partial and (as a result) dynamic. And so on.

There is certainly nothing wrong with being a space enthusiast, some of my best friends are space enthusiasts, some of my best fucks were with space enthusiasts, it's cool, everything's gonna be all right. I am an enthusiast for ranked or instant runoff voting reform, but I do worry that narrating my selfhood through too deep an identification with colleagues in a club devoted to an educational and organizational campaign on the subject would serve no useful purpose while at once possibly signalling that my life had gone awry in a way that wants tending to.

When you call yourself a "transhumanist," though, you are in some mighty odd company, my friend, to put the point kindly, and it probably isn't a bad idea for you to understand that there are many other people who publicly so identify who see that declaration as an indication of participation in a "movement," a "subculture," a world-historical force, of membership or affiliation in organizations with published "principles" and programmatic manifestos that explain the world and offer their Believers the Keys to History and so on.

Most of these principles and formulations are the most arrant nonsense imaginable (I have earned that glib assertion through thousands upon thousands of words of close analysis, most of which you can read, if you care to do, by clicking the topic anthologies that cap my blogroll), and since they are making arguments I read them as such and expose what seem to me to be their mistaken assumptions, their wider historical contexts, and their antidemocratizing implications wherever I see them.

Taking these readings personally doesn't make a lot of sense to me, but I don't doubt it is rather inevitable when people become less critical about certain beliefs of theirs as a price for organizing a defensive marginal identity out of them. Many of the champions of these ideas say truly ridiculous things over the course of championing them and I am not ashamed to admit that I do not hesitate to expose the ridiculous to ridicule where pretending it serious gives it a power it doesn't deserve and with which it can do real damage in the world.

As I have pointed out many times, "transhumanists" and "singularitarians" are, when all is said and done, a rather marginal sub(cult)ure that never seems to expand beyond a few thousand members or so and are quite self-marginaling in their discourse in a way that suggests this will remain the case for good. It is mostly because they illustrate and symptomize in their extremity particularly clarifying expression of characteristically reactionary tendencies to reductionism, scientism, millenialism, fetishism, elite technocratic anti-politicism, and (crypto-) eugenicism prevalent in technoscientific discourses more generally that I have devoted energy to analyzing them. Also, it must be said, at the level of the Robot Cult archipelago of diffusely inter-related organizations, I believe that it pays to devote close attention to their corporate-militarist funders and to the curiously disproportionate impact their published intellectuals have had in framing certain quandaries of disruptive technodevelopment in ways that (whatever the professed politics of the writers themselves) have proved congenial in their overgenerality, in their technocratic elitism, in their fear-mongering and hype-notizing emotionalism, in their budgetary priorities, in their reductionism, sometimes (shockingly often given current disasters) in their explicit adherence to market libertarian formulations, and so on to neoliberal and neoconservative agendas I personally abhor.

At the end of your comment you made what looked to me like a promising claim: "Getting back to what it actually means to be a transhumanist..." I was expecting an actual address of the questions I posed at the end of this post, an effort on your part to actually characterize this "transhumanism" you would adhere to despite being so appalled by so many of its perfectly representative published figures. You'll recall the questions, I'm sure? [One] Tell me anything at all that is clarified about a presumably desirable technodevelopmental outcome by adding to it the designation "transhumanist." [Two] Name one quality about an artifact that can only be clarified by describing that quality as "transhumanist." [Three] 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.

I still think you would benefit enormously coming to terms with these questions. Instead of doing anything of the kind, though, you follow your declaration about what it means to be a transhumanist by pouting a picture with broad brushstrokes that hurt your feelings. Look, the world is full of nice people, full of bright, complicated people, full of people who do as many splendid and harmless things as dangerously idiotic ones. We're not in a nursery here, you can assume that everybody participating in this conversation is well aware of such vacuities already. You're talking about an ideological system with published formulations and funded organizations with published agendas. If what is wanted is a critique of these notions and their impacts it is simply neither here nor there that their adherents were sensible enough to vote for Obama or are likable at cocktail parties or are kind to their pets.

Anonymous said...

Carrico; you mean well. The ways you are going about "facilitating concrete progressive technodevelopmental outcomes" are of no consequence or influence though, or worse: counter-productive. You are not helping towards your stated objectives. On the contrary. You need to thoroughly change your tactics.

The searing criticism levied at Althusser -a Marxist thinker (too?)- applies to your tactics too: "Althusser a rien". Your surname does not lend itself to an equally satisfying pun in English, but the core of the criticism is identical: you(r tactics) are useless.

Case in point, your by now yawningly repetitive satirizing tirades against transhumanists. Your cutting pen shows you are not a minus habens, so when will you finally use your above average IQ to realize that, in the same way that competition is validation for the business ideas of a new start-up, that criticism is validation for new worldviews.

By showering so much attention on transhumanists, by showing transhumanists to be worthy of so much criticism... you are VALIDATING transhumanists ever more. Transhumanists should actually thank you for your active assistance in raising their profile.

Come to think of it, maybe you are so smart -and devious- that you realized this all along and your plans-within plans-within plans and feints-within feints-within feints are to actually help transhumanism. Which would make you a hardcore transhumanist activitist.

In both cases, you are helping transhumanists far more than you think you are their detractor. You are helping transhumanists... and not your own cause.

When it comes to your relationship with transhumanism, perhaps you fancy yourself to occupy the function which Socrates fancied he was called to perform: that of the hornet on the broad butt of the farm-horse Athens. Maybe transhumanism is deserving of such, but if you do, do take a lesson from history: Socrates lost big time in the short run (they had him put to death on bogus charges) and Socrates was far from being "right" about many of the things he cared about deeply in the long run too. And no, your cause will not really be served by your becoming a martyr of any kind.

You cap one of your posts elsewhere on your blog with "No need to thank me. I'm here to help." Rest assured that you will not be thanked. Except maybe by transhumanists for all the attention and validation you lavish on transhumanism.

You genuinely believe that you are here to help and that what you do is helpful. You are woefully self-delusional on that point. Because you are not helping. Au contraire. You are helping those that you are bashing, satirizing, badmouthing and fighting.

Give your own cause a break. Stop being so vitriolically reactive against transhumanists etc. (On the point of your forum and blog discussion tactics, as an aside: do stop stooping to facile rhetorical skulduggery consisting of burying under a mountain of po-mo verbiage the sayings of people who respectfully disagree with you. Try proactiveness for a refreshing change. Try tangible *action* instead of this endless talk, this verbal diarrhea. Stop being so narcistically in love with your own facility with words. Yes, you have a way with words. Get over yourself already and put that valuable gift to actual and really good use. Besides, there's plenty of people out there with equal or greater -and with greater intellectual finesse- mastery of rhetorics out there. Get out of your vanishingly small pond, you big fish.)

Instead: focus like a laser on your own cause and how to really get THAT show on the road. So far your techno-progressive faction is not getting any traction at all that registers on any radars that matter. You don't even have any serious critics to validate your existence!

So... get your techno-progressives properly organized. Come down from your toweringly high horse, shed some undeserved and useless pride and, yes, stoop to the level of making your cause an -ism. Get down here in the gutter with the rest of us and proselytize properly like any cause worth its salt has to do.

If you show more sense and humility that becomes you... I may even join your cause... or otherwise help you and validate you by becoming your serious critic.

If not, the best thing you could do in your own interest as well as in the interest of everybody else... is to retreat to silence.

Dale Carrico said...

I'm a guy with a blog posting about things I like and dislike and saying why.

You call me narcissistic and po-mo and immodest and dishonest and all talk and all the rest of that crap, but am I any more narcissistic than anybody else in the world with a blog few people read or are expected to do, anybody else in the world who put pen to paper or who speak up without any assurance they'll get a hearing?

What are you so afraid of that you can't respond to my arguments but have to craft this elaborate stage set to recommend me to silence from? What do you know of what my best interests are? Who are you to tell me what my cause is contrary to my own clear indication of it? Where do you get the notion that I imagine myself superior to others in matters of thought or expression, rather than simply believing what I say in ways you disagree with?

I wonder if you might have a seriously distorted idea of my distorted idea of myself. I don't consider myself an original thinker in the least, having known a few people who do qualify for the description as I understand it. I'm a teacher, a synthesizer, a popularizer, a polemicist. I have no illusions at all about my gifts or my influence or my audience.

I don't want to be a guru or get a handful of white boys to sign my movement manifesto or organize a "technoprogressive cause." I think those are stupid, embarrassing, damaged, and damaging things to want.

My cause is democracy, I suppose, in the world as it is, as I see it is, and that's what I talk about here and elsewhere. I don't think that is a particularly exceptional thing to believe in and I don't think I believe in a particularly exceptional vision of it, when all is said and done.

People in Robot Cults who would claim to fight for "the future" are hucksters trying to sell something to the rubes. I disapprove of that and say so and say why. Cry me a river if you don't like it.

There's no such thing as the future, like it or not, progress is a process, not the crystallization of your parochial masterplans, the endless elaboration and prolongation of your present assumptions, including your assumptions of your heart's desires and deepest distress. Progress is building the road together as we're traveling it, peer to peer, making things better and fairer by our lights, and giving more people more of a say in the public decisions that affect them.

That doesn't mean I have to pretend conservative assholes aren't conservative assholes or transhumanist crackpots aren't transhumanist crackpots. But thanks for taking the time to read, and for your kind advice and support.

Dale Carrico said...

Transhumanists should actually thank you for your active assistance in raising their profile.

I find this roaringly funny, by the way.