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

Monday, January 12, 2009

Cyborg Angels Live Forever and Never Ever Have to Poop

The High Pristine Yes!Tronic Pontifex of the Order of Cosmic Engineers, or whatever he is calling himself these days, took apparent exception to a punchy little number I tossed off a few days back about an inter-faith squabble among some Robot Cultists. My statement that the techno-utopian aspirations of the Yes!Tronic Robot Cultists seems to be something on the order of "In Space Nobody Has to Poop" was, to all appearances, a real button-pusher. By all means, let's push it again! You should click the links if you are interested enough in this sort of thing to want to track all the argumentative to-and-fro. What follows are three contributions I made to the Comments section of the piece in question, which I think are intelligible enough on their own terms, but again, the links will take you to the full context if you like.

My First Comment (Italicized text is quoted material to which I am responding):

I think if we follow the logic of the author of the YES!Trons blog, cancer and Alzheimer should also be considered as noble manifestations of the vulnerability of the body, and revered as such.

Of course, you don't have to "imagine" where the logic of the author of the post in question will take you (in your skewed and facile reconstruction of it) on questions of whether or not cancer and Alzheimer's disease are "good" things. You don't have to "imagine" these things because I am endlessly on record dealing with these questions quite directly.

As you well know but seem not to have the honesty to report, I am an advocate of actually informed actually nonduressed consensual healthcare provision, whether normalizing or not. This means I defend forms of therapeutic self-determination that many bioconservatives decry as "unnatural" as well as forms that many transhumanists decry as "sub-optimal."

As it happens, I regard "bioconservatism" and "transhumanism," so-called, to be co-dependent extremisms, both disastrously hyperbolic, both actively irrationalist, both de facto eugenicist in their advocacy, and both deranging and hence dangerous to the proper practice of consensus science and its application to accountable policy-making.

You can pretend that wish-fulfillment fantasies about digital immortalization are of a piece with real-world health care advocacy or even real-world medical research advocacy, you can pretend that your infantile failure to come to terms with the vulnerability and finiteness of bodily life is somehow a stepping stone toward personal superlongevity or comic book superbodies, but few are fooled but a handful of other Robot Cultists like yourself.

Unfortunately, your simplistic formulations are just sensational enough and superficial enough to attract media attention and skew public technodevelopmental deliberation and (one fears) budgetary priorities, and certainly they tend to activate and exacerbate precisely the irrational passions of agency that always accompany technology-talk (dreams of omnipotence, dread of impotence) at a time when what is wanted is sane thinking about technoscience costs, risks, and benefits.

So, foolish though I think you are, marginal though I know you to be, you people do indeed manage to do far more real damage than any sensible person would suspect on a superficial looksee. Hence, secular progressives probably do indeed need to level ongoing sustained critique your way rather than simply leaving you bozos to your basements as you deserve.

By way of conclusion, let me just say that every single one of you reading this message are eventually going to die. And until the day you die, like it or not, you will always still have to poop. Denial of these things doesn't make you smart, it doesn't make you brave, it doesn't make you part of a cutting-edge movement, and it certainly doesn't constitute a philosophy worthy of the name.

My Second Comment:

Is this a threat Dale?

Pointing out the fact that like every other human being on earth you’re mortal? A threat? Are you kidding me?

But I do. Read the text above: “a very good writer who usually has intelligent (other) things to say when he forgets for a moment his obsession with transhumanists.”

Declaring me “intelligent” is neither here nor there. You implied that my argument entails the claim that disease is to be celebrated rather than treated. It entails no such thing. And you know I argue forcefully to the contrary, and regularly so, but you said it anyway.

I do not advocate public funding for the development of speculative technologies beyond the current timeframe.

What is your big stunning world-historical movement then, a knitting circle for sf-fanboys? Sounds about right to me, but it scarcely squares with the promotional images you lot disseminate about your organizations and movement! What, you don’t mean to redirect research agendas, policy priorities, public discourse on technodevelopmental questions, then? Hard to know if you’re being dishonest, delusional, or just haven’t thought this stuff through at even the most elementary level. Ah, transhumanists!

I consider long term speculative visions and here-and-now real-world actions as separate, not overlapping spheres of life. I dedicate some time to both.

Yeah, yeah, mild mannered advocate for healthy drinking water in overexploited regions of the world by day, radical techno-immortalist by night! How could anyone imagine one’s attitudes in the one sphere could possibly impact one’s arguments, interests, priorities in the other? Separate, but no doubt equal, eh, your worldly concerns as against your superlative ones? Like most people of fundamentalist faith, your superlative aspirations are the stained-window coloring your everyday inhabitation of the world. Would you be eager to put your money where your mouth is and have your readers casually take a look over the contents of your own writings available online to see what proportion of your attention you have devoted to policy concerns here and now as against superlative techno-utopianism? “Some time to both,” indeed.

My Third Comment (Taking off from my statement above: "Like most people of fundamentalist faith, your superlative aspirations are the stained-window coloring your everyday inhabitation of the world."):

Correct. That can be said about every part and shade of everyone’s worldview. Thanks for discovering hot water. So what?

So... you said they were separate and now you say they aren't. I already knew the falsity of your claim was obvious, now you agree. The question remains why you made it, then.

Re “what proportion of your attention you have devoted to policy concerns here and now as against superlative techno-utopianism?” Same as above. My own f-u-c-k-i-n-g business.

You ventured a proposition in public to which I responded. You'll forgive me if "mind your own business" fails to persuade me.

I wrote: “You implied that my argument entails the claim that disease is to be celebrated rather than treated. It entails no such thing.”

To which you replied: Then, please, tell me how to interpret “it is true that life is lived in bodies, and that bodies are various and vulnerable and mortal and hungry for connection, and that embracing embodied life demands an embrace of all this about bodies. To deny their variation, their vulnerability, their mortality, their sociability is to deny the body”.

You see these two statements as conflicting with one another? There is nothing in the second statement that entails that disease is to be celebrated rather than treated either. The whole point is that healthcare isn't about a quest for invulnerability or immortality or "overcoming the body," whereas these superlative techno-immortality discourses of yours (in this respect like cybernetic-totalist discourses) do indeed seem to pine after just such invulnerability and often to exhibit precisely such "meat" body-loathing.

"Extropia" [another Commenter] trots out the conventional desperate litany of anaesthesia, the Wright Brothers, and the telephone to remind me that Robot Cultists are on the side of History when they pine after consciousness digitization (even though the brain is an organ), techno-immortality (even though perpetual motion machines are impossible), and NanoSanta (even though alchemists have been failing to fulfill these infantile techno-fantasies since long before Bell and the Wright Brothers succeeded in their more modest if marvelous engineering feats, and long before Robot Cultists took up their superficially secularized magickal aspirations). Rather than agree with Extropia that the extropians and other Robot Cultists are supergeniuses with the Keys to History, I will venture to suggest that they are exactly as they appear, nutty garage enthusiasts thinking that theirs is the square-the-circle scheme that will be the Big Score.

So what? This does not stop me from considering it as a very desirable development

The statement, "wouldn't it be cool to live forever in a state of bliss" -- which has probably occurred in some form or other to most preschool children, after all -- hardly constitutes the basis for a practical or theoretical program worthy of serious consideration as such. By all means, indulge in whatever wish-fulfillment fantasies make you happy. Policy proposals, political, social, and cultural programs, and philosophical viewpoints offer themselves up to the critical scrutiny of others. You can't have it both ways.

As for the predictions about the practicality of "brain uploading," I think the very notion is incoherent, since what we mean by "consciousness" is embodied -- but we will have to agree to disagree about that. Rest assured, my radical skepticism about cybernetic totalisms derives from my materialism about mind and not any mystical faith.


Anonymous said...

I agree pretty much wholeheartedly with everything you said in this post, but I did notice something you said that I'm surprised the wacky transhumanists didn't bring up:

"...techno-immortality (even though perpetual motion machines are impossible)..."

I have noticed that the transhumanists tend to be at least somewhat scientifically literate (despite their batshit beliefs), so they would know that techno-immortality does not violate any physical laws (that we know of). The second law of thermodynamics doesn't preclude techno-immortality, since there isn't energy being created from nothing. Yes, literal immortality violates this law, because there would be a total lack of usable energy once the universe undergoes its eventual heat death, but I don't think the techno-immortalists would say that this minor point is anything more than a straw man.

I'm just saying, be careful what you say around the transhumanists. As you well know, they have a tendency to hyperbolize....

Anonymous said...

I guess I should step in here. Yes, the heat death of the universe (meaning that, as time progresses, the entropy of the available energy increases until it is all heat -- and you can't do anything useful with heat other than, well, heat things) is a major limit to immortality. Even if you convert all the matter in your observable universe to computational substrate (as seems to be the latest fashionable goal among transhumanists, including Kurzweil), at some point the energy that drives this computation will degrade into heat (the same way that most of the chemical energy in oil is lost as heat in a car engine, never to be re-used. Granted, we can make computational substrate more efficient than car engines, but we can't stop entropy...EVENTUALLY).

The only remotely plausible solution that I have heard, the one elucidated in Michio Kaku's _Parallel Universes_ (which is an excellent book otherwise, and I highly recommend it) is to tunnel out of our universe before the ghastly heath death obtains. With wormholes or membrane bashing or somesuch. This is all predicated on the notion that there IS a multiverse which we can exploit with available energies at the right (entropic) time, and that other low-entropy universes exist, and that we can actually target our exit into them.

Perhaps. Perhaps not. That's all speculation. The only thing that we do know with a great degree of certainty RIGHT NOW is that our universe is headed for a heat death. That's not a straw man. That's a major physical limit on immortality, as long as "mortality" depends on some substrate doing some computation somewhere which requires low-entropy energy (and it does).

The dreams of immortality among most people who dream about these things are vested either in an ignorance of these physical properties of the universe or in a FAITH in speculative propositions that the requisite conditions exist -- somewhere, beyond the scientifically known universe -- to prevent their eventual death.

Anonymous said...

What I meant when I said that it was a straw man was that heat death is so far off (something like hundreds of trillions of years, right?) that any being living for that long is really, for all intents and purposes, immortal (even though technically they're not).

And honestly, I think I could live with the idea of not pooping for hundreds of trillions of years ;-)

Dale Carrico said...

The emergence of non-normalizing genetic, cognitive, and prosthetic therapies seems to me to demand a shift in the language of democratizing progressive healthcare advocacy from universal access (at least as the sole or even primary organizing principle) to consensual self-determination.

This suggestion raises understandable red-flags to those who know well how a focus on consent-talk over access-talk in this area has often functioned as a reactionary strategy simply to deny healthcare to vulnerable people as a way of engaging in class warfare, often with ugly sexist, racist, colonialist inflections in particular.

I would like to think I manage to circumvent appropriation of my own argument by such reactionary politics since I do insist that consent, when it is substantial rather than mere pro forma, must be actually informed and actually non-duressed -- a requirement that demands a substantial provision of social services (as close to universal basic income as we can manage, the widest possible access to reliable knowledges, and so on) that tend to make my own version of consent talk unappealing to anti-democratic politics.

Be all that as it may, a shift into consensual therapeutic self-determination is indeed a real shift for democratic-minded progressives to come to terms with.

Among the implications of this shift is that progressives understand that the familiar technocratic forms of eugenics (for which the trasnhumanists I decry here represent an extreme case) that would police lifeway diversity into "optimal/normal" forms is matched by conservative forms of eugenics (for which the bioconservatives I decry here represent an extreme case) that would police wanted lifeway diversity into "natural/customary" forms, and that some traditional progressive advocacy language is vulnerable to appropriation by anti-democratic politics in the aftermath of the shift into non-normalizing therapy.

Superlative and futuological discourses (as well as the more mainstream developmental discourses they sometimes symptomize, sometimes exaggerate, and sometimes pioneer) seem to me to derange our capacity to think about this shift in a reasonable way at a time when it is fairly urgent that we do so.

I am interested in progressive healthcare discourse in an era of emerging non-normalizing therapy. I strongly regret the extent to which public discourse on these questions has been framed or frustrated by hyberbolizing and faith-based formations of superlativity and supernativity.

I also strongly regret that topics that are perfectly fitting for sf literary salons -- such as the question of what kind of coherent narrative subjecthood could be maintained through a completely speculative radically underspecified prosthetic prologation to the tune of centuries of something akin to what we presently mean by the terms lifespan or consciousness -- are sometimes treated as topics connected in even the remotest way to healthcare policy discourse.