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

Monday, February 23, 2009

Today's Random Wilde

Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.

Sounds Like Medicine!

American skin care ads with their pastel digitized molecules swimming in the background and kinda-sciency neologisms and flawless teenage models urging us to believe in the "age-defying," "allure-inducing" automagical powers of their crap products provide an illuminating lens through which you can read quite a lot of futurological discourse more generally, it seems to me. I give you, the hilarious, righteous Sarah Haskins:

Not Very Nice, But Necessary

Upgraded and Adapted from the Moot, Michael Anissomov wrote: Personally, I welcome criticism of my ideas, but the ad hominem intensity of many of your past posts has been insulting.

Don't press your luck, Michael. Robot Cultism is ridiculous and dangerous. Ridiculing the ridiculous always has its place. And strictly speaking, not everything that you happen to find insulting in my critique, whatever its intensity, qualifies as ad hominem.

Just because I can play nicey nice of a rainy afternoon, trading barbed witticisms with the Robot Cultists, don't imagine you've bamboozled me into forgetting that you and your friends want to code a superintelligent Robot God to solve all the problems of humanity you deem to be real in your impoverished instrumentalized accounting of them, upload your informational "essences" into the cyberspatial sprawl for all eternity, or at any rate lounge about in a treasure cave getting waited on hand and foot by a swarm of programmable nanobots functioning as Anything Machines, meanwhile many of your number peddle eugenicism in the name of a parochial "optimality" that denigrates viable, wanted, flourishing lifeways of peers of yours who share the world with you, share its problems with you, and will collaborate in the making of the futures that will present themselves to you in the fullness of time, whatever your facile blueprints and piecharts say on the matter.

Of course the Robot Gods and Immortal Robot Bodies and the Robot Slave Swarms are all the most infantile wish-fulfillment nonsense imaginable, conjoined to delusions of grandeur at their most flabbergasting, boys with their toys who fancy themselves holders of the Keys to History, Champions of the Enlightenment, the Futurological Brain Trust, but what you are saying is worse than wrong, worse than embarrassing, worse than fundamentalist.

In bulldozing around with your superlative megaphone you make it harder for people to talk sensibly about technodevelopment at a time when sensible talk is urgently necessary and enormously difficult. Disruptive technoscientific change activates irrational passions in any case -- hysterical fears of impotence, greedy fantasies of omnipotence -- that superlativity elaborates and exacerbates to a fever pitch.

If you were just a klatch of sf fanboys blueskying there would be nothing in the least problematic about any of that, but you fellows fancy yourselves a "movement" (and one sufficiently cultlike in some of its aspects to introduce a third set of worries about the damage done to some of the impressionable rubes you manage to hook) with "policy think tanks" offering up position papers that feed the deranging hype that already suffuses public technoscience discourse to the cost of all but the corporate-militarists who, in the short term at any rate, feed on it like gluttons at a buffet.

My unkindness to you is a kindness you'll never find among the self-appointed Elect of your Robot Cult -- somebody to knock some sense into you, figuratively speaking, and if nothing else laugh you out of town before you and your absurd friends manage to do too much damage you might after all be bright and decent enough to regret over the long-term.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

MundiMuster! Restore Democracy to California, Repeal the 2/3rds Rule

Courage Campaign
California is in crisis -- and Republicans are using it as an opportunity to advance their radical right-wing agenda.

The rule requiring a 2/3rds vote of the legislature to pass a budget allowed a small cabal of extremist Republicans led by Senator Abel Maldonado to hold the state hostage to their demands, as they have done year after year. As Rachel Maddow explained on her show, this is part of a pattern of Republican obstruction across America.

We have to stop the insanity. The only way this madness will end is if we eliminate the 2/3rds rule.

Please join the Courage Campaign and CREDO Mobile in signing the pledge to repeal the 2/3rds rule. Then forward this link to your friends:
We, the undersigned, are united in our determination to fix California's government and stop those who use the 2/3rds rule to hold public services, public workers, and Californians hostage to their demands.

We pledge to repeal the 2/3rds rule and restore democracy to California.

Click and Sign

Would You Hit It?

MundiMuster! America's Need and Love for Our Labor Unions on Parade

This Sunday's Parade magazine features an on-line poll "Does America Still Need Unions?"

Please take a moment to vote YES.

Pluralism, Bad Faith, and Being Reasonable

Upgraded and adapted from the Moot: "Go Democrats" gently chides, I'm not sure that I'd accuse every self-professed transhumanist of bad faith when it comes to technology and the poor.

That's quite right.

My point is not to assign blanket bad faith to transhumanists (as a straightforward empirical matter I can attest that this would be a false assertion), but to show that the superlativity of which Robot Cultism essentially consists makes no real, unique, definitive, indispensable contribution to the actual work of consensus science, progressive politics, or collaborative problem solving while the justificatory discourse of the Robot Cultists is constantly confusing the one with the others very much at their expense.

The hyperbolization of technique in general and actual techniques in particular characteristic of superlativity are arising out of other aspirations than science, pragmatism, or progressive politics, proper, and contribute nothing essential to these.

My own strong sense if I may say so is that superlativity arises for many out of passions very closely connected with the ones one also finds among many people who strongly ascribe to fundamentalist modes of religiosity. Among these are the fear of death, anxieties about the contingencies of human existence, strong adherence to parochial and exclusive mores, entrapment in authoritarian command-obedience formations, appreciation for certain atypical modes of consciousness, and so on.

I am happy to grant that some of these passions are perfectly edifying and beautiful and wholesome to particular faithful people, but none of them is properly mistaken for reasonable belief-ascription in an instrumental (let alone properly scientific!) rather than, say, moral or aesthetic, mode of reasonableness.

Note that this formulation insists on definitive differences in the criteria of warrant on the basis of which reasonable belief-ascription proceeds in an instrumental (also scientific) mode, but it is not a reductionist formulation that denies other modes of belief ascription their different criteria, their different reasonableness, their different indispensability in human life.

I distinguish instrumental from moral, aesthetic, ethical, and political beliefs, and regard them all as indispensable to human flourishing as it happens, and in measures particular to particular people. I see reasonableness, properly so-called, as a matter not only of properly applying the criteria of warrant relevant to a mode of belief, but also of making the proper determination of the mode of belief relevant to the experience at hand and what is wanted in it.

Thus, I am a pluralist, refusing both reductionist/absolutist and relativist positions on the question of reason in human flourishing.

No doubt, then, I can admit that superlative aspirations can contribute incidental inspiration here or there to this or that particular researcher or engineer without damage to my point, namely, that exactly the same can be said of taking drugs, falling in love, becoming work-obsessed through a refusal to deal with some personal problem, reading a poem, or any number of other things none of which would be essential rather than incidental to actual science, actual political organizing, or what have you, either.

In some cases "Go Democrats" is quite right to say that I am accusing the superlative technocentrics of bad faith -- indeed many of them are the worst flim-flam artists imaginable in my view -- but they are also right to insist that this is not by any means always true or the only story.

I daresay many Robot Cultists are more deceived than they are deceptive, more confused than they are fraudulent. But mistaken and damaging to progressive technodevelopmental deliberation they remain, and that is what matters here.

Centrism in the Robot Cult, A Coda (Response to MA Part Five)

In Yesterday's installment of my Response to Michael Anissimov I had occasion to address the curious politics that he described as "Centrist" as against my own apparently immoderate "neo-socialism." I think we are now in a fine position to circle back to these issues as they played out in another portion of Anissimov's e-pistle. Have a look at this paragraph as a totality, and then we'll return to give its component pieces a closer looksee.
About helping the poor. Even dismissing all "superlative" discourse, the best way I can think of to help the world's poor is still through technology. Windmills that can be built with common materials (I made a detailed proposal along these lines for the Google 10^100 contest), for instance, or, more usefully, a self-replicating factory like RepRap. Using these methods to help others seems more effective than being a stereotypical far-left Berkeley professor advocating extreme wealth redistribution with less-than-zero political viability, even if it were the greatest idea in the world.

Now, to begin with I suppose it goes without saying that a paragraph beginning with the blunt instrument of the sentence-fragment "About helping the poor," doesn't exactly inspire confidence in what is to come in the way of recommendations for anybody who actually takes seriously the complex ways in which people are radically differently precarized across the planet by their different locations in respect to global developmental risk, cost, and benefit distributions, resource descent and climate catastrophe, ongoing military, ethnic, and social conflicts, sanctioned violence, human rights cultures, legitimate legal recourse, citizenship status, access to healthcare, housing, food and water, education, and so on. To glibly propose "technology" as the solution to "the problem" of helping "the poor" is to exhibit the very techno-utopian reductionism Anissimov was so aggravated to hear attributed to him just a few sentences before we arrive at this latest exhibition of it.

As it happens, I have a real fondness for some windmills I've seen at work or on the drawing board as ways of coping with certain problems certain people in certain places are facing at the moment. But to discuss windmills one certainly need not join a Robot Cult, I've never heard of a unique contribution made by a Robot Cultist to the discussion of windmills by those who care about them, and, frankly, my experience is that Robot Cultists only talk about common or garden variety problem solving by way of windmills and the like only when they are struggling to justify their relevance to a critic like me who has exposed the hyperbolic would-be transcendentalization of "technology" they indulge in to the cost of sense.

The fact that Anissimov leaps so gracefully from the actual world problem solving of windmills to the handwaving hyperbole of RepRap is a classic exhibition of the flabbergasting foolishness of Superlativity. This is not to say that there is no use at all in work to engineer a von Neumann Universal Constructor, so-called, despite the fact that its eventual useful applicability even if it is practically implementable is sure to be more limited than its "universality" in the abstract promises. But it is crucial to point to the deep irrationality that infuses such a project with the superlative aspiration to circumvent the interminable stakeholder contestation of the political sphere through the instrumental accomplishment of a "superabundance" that would "save the world" and bring us to a "wealth without money" through some expedient engineering by a handful of would-be "visionary" techno-elites. This drive for the instrumental accomplishment of post-politics is a fundamentally irrational one, and its irrationality skews what it might otherwise be possible to say sensibly about the actual science and engineering that is sometimes illuminated by such projects.

Just as important technoscientific discoveries in information and media systems, in medical research, in biology and chemistry at the nanoscale, in materials sciences more generally can have and are having significant technodevelopmental impacts in the world, as they are supported, regulated, funded, implemented, applied, and distributed through political, social, cultural struggles that are just as real as the science involved is also real, so too might shifts in automation technique legibly connected to the actual practical content alluded to in the RepRap project yield significant impacts in much the same way, at least in principle. But none of this would ever cause any sensible person to start handwaving about Robot Gods, techno-immortalization, superlongevity, mind uploading, virtuality as reality-enhancment, post-human cyborgs and enhancement, nano-Santa, or "saving the world" by engineering a "Universal Constructor."

Superlativity is not an expression but a derangement of consensus technoscience, one that radically undermines the practical usefulness of both science and real world engineering, and no less so when those who are indulging in this irrationality and hyperbole decide to declaim that in so doing they represent the true champions of science and enlightenment. The tendency of so many techno-utopians to substitute their hyperbolized wish-fulfillment fantasies for actual collective address of shared political and social problems is just one more expression of damaging irrationality in an already hopelessly irrationalist enterprise.

Of these real windmills and unreal Universal Constructors Anissimov proposes of them equally, that
Using these methods to help others seems more effective than being a stereotypical far-left Berkeley professor advocating extreme wealth redistribution with less-than-zero political viability, even if it were the greatest idea in the world.

Anissimov's insinuates here that my idea of practical politics is advocating for a basic income guarantee. This is, of course, an error that I addressed earlier, and I hope Anissimov is clearer now on that score. I must say that I am being rather generous in calling this an error rather than a deception on his part, given that Anissimov claims to be a regular reader of this blog and it is a difficult thing to imagine that many regular readers would make the mistake of assuming that my idea of practical politics is to advocate for a basic income guarantee, given the other practical political controversies I dip my toe into here. That aside, I think I will leave to the judgment of my readers whether one finds "more effective" the Superlativity of a Robot Cultist or the efforts of a "stereotypical far-left Berkeley professor."

As to Anissimov's question "How do you propose to deal with the entitlement crisis we have ahead of us?" I must say I cannot know exactly which "entitlement crisis" he means to draw my attention to.

I do know that a number of right-wing zealots have sought for generations to dismantle the New Deal, the more democratic American middle class society it imperfectly brought into being (imperfectly so, especially because American racism did not permit it to extend to domestic and migrant laborers, nor to implement a universal healthcare system, and with stunning catastrophic long-term consequences), and to destroy the incomparably successful Social Security program.

I know that there is no Social Security crisis in fact -- or at any rate no problem with Social Security so urgent that we should be attending to it before we deal with the deeper problems of ongoing profit-driven corporate health care, the ongoing profitability of war-making, the ongoing subsidization of extractive-petrochemical industry and energy and agribusiness over renewable and sustainable formations, the ongoing enclosure of the creative and genomic commons, and the de facto mass-disenfranchisement of American elections and election campaigns. To the extent that there might be pressure a generation hence on Social Security, I think it could be relieved by the simple expedient of raising the income cap for contributing into the system. I definitely disapprove of those who would make Social Security a means-tested and hence no longer universal entitlement (clearly a way to undermine the near universality of support for the program as a first step in demolishing it universally).

As I said, I know of few people who are not right-wing tools who devote much of their time at present to the discussion of this particular non-problem as compared to our actually pressing problems, and so I must be wrong to think that Anissimov is talking about this issue at all, since he has taken such pains, in between his bouts of excoriating me as a rabid high-falutin' socialist Berserkeley intellectual, to insist that he is the farthest thing in the world from a right-wing tool himself.

Are You Sure? Really? (Response to MA Part Four)

In a surprise move, Anissimov writes: "I totally agree with your whole paragraph about technology."

Here is the paragraph in question:
It is actually a difficult thing to grasp just what movement transhumanism is coherently imagined to consist of when Hughes himself goes on to celebrate a "big tent" in which liberals, conservatives, anarchists, minarchists, anarcho-capitalists, greens, technocrats, and so on all presumably contribute their measure to the "unique transhumanist vision." To the extent that transhumanism, whatever else it is supposed to be, is surely something to do with "technology" and the historical play of "technoscientific" change, it seems to me to matter enormously that the sorts of things that are going to be called "technology" in the first place, the sorts of uses to which these "technologies" are properly to be put, the ways in which one will seek to facilitate the emergence and articulate the circulation of "technoscientific" realities in the actual world will differ quite radically in their actual substance according to whether one is speaking from a liberal, conservative, anarchist, minarchist, anarcho-capitalist, green, or technocratic vantage. I have often reiterated that the word "technology" functions to conceal more than it reveals, that there is really no such thing as "technology in general" especially if one means to attribute to this "technology" certain monolithic or inevitable developmental outcomes, aspirations, tendencies. What passes for technology, what constitutes its substance, what articulates its developmental play in the world are all definitively determined by political, social, cultural, discursive factors. To propose that one can "advocate" a technology politics indifferent to the definitive differences actual political differences imbue into the constitution of technologies as such is worse than completely misunderstanding the very phenomenon under discussion (although that is a pretty fatal problem for those who are presumably defined foremost by that very phenomenon they are so disastrously misconstruing), it is actually to participate in a disavowed politics of technoscientific development that tends to conduce especially to the benefit of very familiar authoritarian right-wing political values and strategies. This is the point of the piece of mine that Bauwens posted in the first place, to which I already linked above.

I find it very difficult to square Anissimov's reported agreement with my conviction that "there is really no such thing as 'technology in general' especially if one means to attribute to this 'technology' certain monolithic or inevitable developmental outcomes, aspirations, tendencies," with what Anissimov talk about when he is talking about "technology."

"Cogno-Utopianism" As the Usual Facile Techno-Utopianism (Response to MA Part Three)

To my rather throwaway reference to the "techno-utopian and techno-dystopian nonsense" of the Robot Cultists, Michael Anissimov oddly "corrects" my description with what he seems to think is a more "technical" term: "actually, technically
-- I would call our beliefs cogno-utopian and cogno-dystopian."

Apparently some singularitarians are whomping up some new terminological distraction to peddle their made-up bullshit to the rubes.

Despite Michael's pedantic preference for his pet-term of the moment "cogno-utopianian" it is mildly interesting but not at all surprising to note that in the paragraph immediately following the aria to "cognitive growth" he provides after proposing this crucial terminological shift, he continues on by talking about how "technology" (construed in the usual completely overgeneralized and politically-"neutralized" fashion) will solve the world's problem. And so, within a few sentences he has drifted back into precisely the techno-utopianism I was talking about in the first place. But, fine, who cares, "cogno-utopian," it is!

It is here that Anissimov starts speaking about matters closer to his heart:
The source of the change is the greater intelligence. The technology the greater intelligence produces would technically just be a second-order effect. Human civilization was not caused by technology, it was caused by cognitive improvement. Cognitive improvement will once again transform the planet, this time from human civilization to transhuman civilization. And what an amazing civilization it could be.

How splendid heaven will be come the transcension, intones the Robot Cultist in the usual manner.

There really is nothing to say to this sort of thing, probably, finally, but to pat the True Believer's head in a kindly way and say, "yes, dear."

It may seem unfair to those who sympathize with superlative techno-utopian rhetoric for me to bring "heaven" into this discussion at this point, but I do want to point out that Anissimov has himself introduced the curious notion of what he calls "the change" here. Not "change," but "the change." And he introduces for the first time into the discussion thereby the tonalities of technodevelopment recast as the approach to an "Event," of no doubt earthshattering dimensions. This is absolutely typical of singularitarian rhetoric, but no less deranging for all that. Once technodevelopmental changes assume the hyperbolic and transcendent coloration of "the change" the tiresome inevitability that we are to be treated with paeans to the amazing transhumanization of civilization on the horizon arrives just a few sentences thereafter.

It is bleakly amusing I suppose to recall a much longer and more intensive exchange I had with Anissimov a few years ago. In the comments thread to his critique of my position I wrote:
You say I am criticizing certain “technologies,” which you list as “mind uploading, molecular manufacturing, [and] superintelligence,” but none of these are technologies at all, but very particular abstract idealizations with which you have come to personally identify. These are discourses of technology, not technologies, and while they function as ends to help organize your advocacy (whether productively or not is an open question), they also express underlying assumptions about technoscientific change (whether usefully or not is also an open question), and symptomize in their superlativity what seem to me deeper irrational passions that often accompany technology talk, worries about finitude, mortality, control, the force of chance in human lives, the demands of diversity, and so on.

Michael, responded:
Many people identify with the vision put forth by Eric Drexler. It’s a specific technological goal, not an abstract identification target.

The superlativity aspect isn’t symptomatic of whatever crazy pathology you try to project upon the advocates of these technologies. They fall out of the specs of the technologies themselves.

That is to say, these "technologies" that do not exist apparently have "specs" that the big-brained Robot Cultists are simply "reading" when they assign to them super-predicated historical outcomes in human life, the arrival of a superintelligence that solves all problems, the arrival of a superabundance that circumvents all conflicts, the arrival of a superlongevity that dispenses with death, disease, and vulnerability, and so on. "Falling out" of "the specs" in the manuals only they can read these hardboiled technicians find deliverance of the very same infantile wish-fulfillment fantasies that (no doubt completely co-incidentally) priestly adepts always claim to be able to "read," even if nobody else can, from their canonical source material to the delight of the rubes for which "talent" they "earn" their right to pass round that collection plate. And while it is true that "many people identify with the vision put forth by Eric Drexler" (one might add, or with the one put forth by Ray Kurzweil, or with the one put forth by Vernor Vinge, or with the one put forth by Hans Moravek, or with the one put forth by David Pearce, or with the one put forth by Roger Penrose), it is still just a matter of me cruelly and unfairly "try[ing] to project… whatever crazy pathology… advocates of these [non-existing] technologies" when I describe this "advocacy" as "abstract idealizations with which [Robot Cultists] have come to personally identify."

And now Anissimov glibly informs me that "[h]uman civilization… was caused by cognitive improvement," and that "[c]ognitive improvement will once again transform the planet, this time from human civilization to transhuman civilization. And what an amazing civilization it could be." What could I be thinking, claiming that the techno-utopians confuse hyperbolic idealizations with which they personally identify with actual scientific and political discourse? How utterly foolish of me.

It is, no doubt, neither here nor there, that by "cognitive improvement" Anissimov has in mind here the project of bright boys coding a superintelligent post-biological Robot God who, should it manage to be Friendly enough, can solve all the world's problems, whatever that is supposed to mean, or, alternatively or supplementarily, the project to prosthetically "augment" human brains (either hyper-individualistically or borganistically) into sooper-brains that could no doubt do the same. All that stuff "falls out of the specs," why bother mentioning it? In the background of such "predictive scenarios" and "engineering specs" are all sorts of extraordinary assumptions about what intelligence actually is, what it is good for, where problems come from in the first place, and what it means to solve them.

The endlessly failing, every year on the year -- but never one jot less cocksure of its inevitable eventual vindication for all that -- old school Strong Program of AI never really did justice to the fact that intelligence is embodied. And somehow its advocates got into their heads that the sign of their superior hardheaded materialism was to pretend the intelligence of squishy brained living organisms was really, you know, deep down, a kind of immaterialized information and number-crunching operation indifferent -- and in the way, no doubt utterly co-incidentally, "spirit" was always said to be but information in fact never is -- to its material carriers.

Despite endlessly failing, every year on the year, to witness the predicted arrival of the robotic intelligences they expected and expect to "fall out" of their maths, the dead-enders who cling to the assumptions of Strong Program have, if anything, amplified their investments in these assumptions rather than qualifying them. Nowadays, they find in the methodological impoverishment of intelligence from an actually organismic complex of processes to an abstract coding and crunching of spiritualized digits not only the promise of the arrival of useful and edifying human engineered intelligences to share our world with us (which might happen eventually, indeed, although it really does matter that it hasn't, hasn't at all, and, quite possibly, hasn't for a reason or two), but, more, declare the faith that such an impoverished intelligence might in its poverty deliver humanity immortal habitation in cyberspace or in robot bodies.

Through a comparable impoverishment of the idea of what a "problem" is, reducing the interminable political contestation over means and ends among an ineradicable and ever-replenished diversity of human peers who share the world in history into a finite calculable constellation of instrumental difficulties on a machine-readable table -- all of them susceptible of an engineering solution or, if not, then demanding the red-pencil of oblivion -- these same dead-enders now fancy that by coding a problem-solving sooper-brain they can, through the blank bulldozing expedient of making the thing brutally bigger and faster than we are ourselves and slapping a god-moniker on the resulting mess, accomplish thereby the joyless minuet of exploring that impoverished table of instrumental difficulties in no time flat, thus solving all problems. And just so they would body forth by way of their dumb Robot God their longed-for mineral Millennium.

Just as they drain intelligence of its body they drain it of its sociality, too, and through these impoverishments ensure the permanent failure of their facile program, a failure that is scarcely diminished but fantastically exacerbated by the superlative investment of this nonsense with the paraphernalia of transcendent religiosity and priestly elitism.

In my original piece I wrote:
"Singularity" means different things to different people, for some naming a rather muzzy notion that technoscientific development is accelerating irresistibly into some unknowable imminent transformation of everything into which they can stuff all their present existential anxieties or wish-fulfillment fantasies, while for others naming variously more specific and "technical" (but usually still quite controversial and to my mind usually still hyperbolic) claims about networked and artificial intelligence "surpassing" conventional personal and social formations of problem-solving and organizational-intelligence with various projected impacts on questions of public security, deliberation, privacy issues, and so on. But whatever else one can say about these notions, it looks to me like an overwhelming majority of transhumanist-identified people affirm some version of them as true, as urgently important, and as abiding preoccupations.

To this, Anissimov exclaims like a drowning man clinging at an innertube: "Yes! Thank you for referencing this concept directly. What we are claiming is so different than what Kurzweil argues."

About this I have a couple of things to say right off the bat. First, I have always distinguished between the various "technical" positions of singularitarians, finding the various flavors of crazy they dish up deserving of their separate attentions and demolitions, and since I have delineated these distinctions in many previous argumentative rounds on the singularitarian carousel with Anissimov himself I'm not sure why he wants to imply that "referencing this… directly" is such a surprise now. But beyond that, second, I cannot say that I approve his conclusion that these differences really make so much of a difference as he seems to want to believe when all is said and done. No doubt the sectarian squabbles among rival theology scholars debating angels on pinheads seem enormously fraught for those who devote significant portions of their lives to them, but these "insiders" are not always the ones to whom we turn first if we want to assess the merits of these debates objectively, after all.

There is a school of singularitarian Robot Cultists who like to imply that technological change is accelerating and that this acceleration is itself accelerating and that all this acceleration is picking up a head of steam and driving irresistibly toward breaking through nearly every wall and nearly every limit the better to arrive at the change of everything all at once all over the place. This accelerationalization yields a kind of discursive free-for-all in its enthusiasts in which revolutionary, apocalyptic, transcendentalizing notions all collide noisily but not particularly sensibly, yielding up what singularitarians like to assure us a blank Beyondness which is literally incomprehensible on our side of The Change, but into which, curiously enough, they seem to plug all sorts of fervent hope and dread and no small number of wish-fulfillment fantasies about which they seem to exhibit, not incomprehension at all so much as the smug assurance of faithful True Belief.

Needless to say, technoscientific change is hardly a matter of monolithically "accelerating development" at all. Some research programs proceed more or less speedily, some efforts improve and other stall, developments ramify, collide, get stymied, unintended consequences are discovered that make what was promising seem instead to be a dead end, elegant models disintegrate into hydra-headed masses of unanticipated problems, intractable difficulties mobilize paradigm shifts out of which whole new disciplines arise to replace old ones, and so forth. "Accelerating change" is a facile valorization pronounced by those who imagine themselves to inhabit the summit of some parochial construal of progress or civilizational attainment. I have occasionally proposed, for example, that "accelerating change" is what the global instability and planetary precarization of neoliberal financialization of the economy looks like to those who are its relative beneficiaries or those who personally identify with the beneficiaries.

Anissimov seems to think his "cognitivization" of the singularity represents an earthshattering shift away from such accelerationalization (I guess we are all supposed to pretend we don't know that Anissimov's blog is called Accelerating Future and that his singularitarian discourse is utterly beholden to these discursive frames as well), but I must say that I fail to see much difference that makes a difference between those who claim we are monolithically accelerating to the historical black hole into which Robot Cultists who are so inclined can plug heaven and hell and those who claim we are building bigger and bigger brains like a garbage dump that will one day monolithically accumulate the mass to awaken to its Robot Godhood and solve all problems and so remake the earth into heaven and hell in much the same way. Singularitarians tend to point to the same fetishized gizmos and pie-charts when they are looking to peddle whichever flavor of manifest destiny their particular church favors, after all. Despite the palpable brittleness, the incessant crashes, the unnavigable junk manifested by actual as against idealized software, despite Lanier's Law that "software inefficiency and inelegance will always expand to the level made tolerable by Moore's Law," despite the fact that Moore's Law may be broken on its own terms either on engineering grounds or in its economic assumptions, many Singularitarians still seem to rely on a range of imbecilic to baroque variations on the faith that Moore's Law amounts to a rocket ship humanity is riding to Heaven. Others have shifted their focus these days to the nanoscale, but they still seem to find Destiny where scientific consensus sees a mountain range of problems demanding qualifications and care.

Anissimov fulminates that my
phrasing trivializes the potential hugeness of the rapid evolution of self-improving AI in the human-equivalent and human-surpassing realm of general intelligence.

As if Neanderthals would debate the potential technological creation of Homo sapiens by saying it raises "privacy issues"! It actually raises "completely transforming the way the world works" issues.

Needless to say, one needs to actually already be a member of the Robot Cult to find much force in such jeremiads, I'm afraid. Note the indispensability of "rapid evolution" to Anissimov's supposedly radically different "cognitivization" of singularity. But notice as well how much Anissimov's discourse relies on the incessantly asserted conjuration of "hugeness" and "complete transformation" here, how he locates himself and his singularitarian fellow-faithful among his human peers as a homo sapiens (a real human) among Neanderthals (not quite human).

For me, it is not a trivialization of superlative discourses to identify the actually-existing technoscientific and technodevelopmental problems these discourses try to invest with irrational passions, transcendental colorations, oversimplified overdramatized narratives, fraudulent and deranging hyperbole to the benefit of nobody (except, I suppose, for a few charlatans hoping to skim a few bucks or attract attention from the rubes) at an historical moment when good sense in the face of disruptive technodevelopmental change is urgently needed. For me, this is a matter of re-introducing some sense into these discussions. I have written that transhumanism without Superlativity is nothing, and to that conviction I still hold firm.

But this is not in the least to say that without transhumanism of all things, without the "contribution" of the Robot Cultists, nothing remains of theory, practice, deliberation, education, organizing, activism in the service of progressive technodevelopmental social struggle in this moment of disruptive technoscientific change.

Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. For me, it is the superlative fantasists and irrationalists who are trivializing the work of actually emancipatory technodevelopmental social struggle through their facile wish-fulfillment fantasies, their New Age spiritualizations of technique at once transcendentalized and evacuated of consensus science, their anti-democratizing technocratic-elitisms and eugenicist daydreams, their whomping up of an hysterical futurological War on Terror peopled by clone armies and Robot Gods and planets reduced to goo, their derangements of collaborative problem-solving, peer-to-peer, to utterly fanciful, wasteful, incoherent money-holes answering their infantile scared-witless prayers for invulnerability, deathlessness, certainty, and wealth beyond the dreams of avarice.

Saturday, February 21, 2009


Going to see a movie -- will return to picking futurological nits later.

The "Centrist" Politics of a Robot Cultist (Response to MA Part Two)

I wrote:
I… am an advocate of guaranteed basic income to subsidize peer-to-peer formations of citizen life, criticism, creativity, commerce and as a necessary redistributionist intervention in the ongoing process of wealth-capture and wealth-concentration by the already wealthy by means of automation, outsourcing, crowdsourcing, creative/genomic commons-enclosure and so on. I have sometimes called this position "pay-to-peer," and I defended a version of it on a panel at the Fourth Congress of the US Basic Income Guarantee Network in 2005 with James Hughes right next to me at the conference table.

Michael Anissimov responded:
"wealth-capture" -- oh no! You make it sound like making money is inherently bad. I'm not a libertarian, and I laugh at Ayn Rand, but neo-socialist terms like this are pretty funny. If you were in charge of Obama's campaign strategy, he would have gotten completely owned in the election. Obama's triumph is a triumph for the *centrist* (center-left, really) politics that I adhere to.

It is an interesting thing that Anissimov construes my concerns about wealth-capture by elites as hostility to "making money" in general, thereby confusing stealing money with making it in a move that is well-loved by market fundamentalists.

Michael is quick to insist as he always does when he is demonstrating himself to be a right-wing tool that he isn't, after all, a right wing tool: "I'm not a libertarian," he declares immediately and emphatically. (How many of your colleagues are libertarians, Michael, and why would that be, I wonder? But no matter.) "I laugh at Ayn Rand," he assures us. (Do you laugh at yourself when you sound like her? But no matter.) And then, of course, quite characteristically, he proceeds to indulge in a little Red Baiting of me (like any good progressive surely would under the circumstances...). I wonder if Michael thinks Jerome Guillet is a "neo-socialist," too, for writing this?

Certainly, it is rather amusing to say the least that Michael thinks a vulnerability to the charge of "socialism" could have won the Presidency for McCain-Palin, given that the right-wingnuttosphere loudly and interminably and preposterously howled and continues howling about Obama's so-called "socialism" to absolutely no effect in any case, and for rather the same reasons and with much of the same idiocy and inelegance as Michael exhibits himself in taking up their tired tricks and directing them my way.

Of course, I quite agree that President Obama is a center-left politician, which is why I make that very point here on the blog endlessly. I do happen to think Obama is a center-left President open to pressure from his left (FDR's "I agree with you, now make me do it" is the key thing to bear in mind with Obama), and hence the greatest enabler of a truly progressive and emancipatory politics of any American President in generations.

As for Michael's "adherence to" what he imagines "centrist" politics to consist of, I recommend that interested readers read his defense of "Bell Curve" formulations of intelligence and dismissal of demands for caution and sensitivity on such questions as "political correctness," read his celebration of the "fact" that the Star Wars missile defense system "works," read his explanation (scroll down for his comments on a fine post by Jamais Cascio to which, as it happens, I responded at the time with this) about why people who are "serious" about climate change and comparable planetary problems should devote their efforts to creating a Robot God who can solve our problems for us rather than to, you know, actually solving our problems. There is surely more of that kind of thing aplenty for them as has the stomach for it, but I will admit that digging around for this stuff makes my brain bleed (as Atrios likes to say, the stoopid, it burns us!) after a while.

By the way, since the jumping off point for this discussion of contemporary politics was a reference to my advocacy of a basic income guarantee, I do think I should point out that I don't consider the achievement of a planetary non-means-tested guaranteed basic income practically possible however desirable I think it is for the reasons I often discuss. I do think negative-income tax schemes (Jimmy Carter toyed with this notion and it is still bouncing around inside Washington), expansions of public grants for open source intellectual work (the liberal think-tank Center for American Progress has generated some interesting position papers with concrete policy implications along these lines), as well, of course, as perfectly legible progressive agitation and organization for expansions of healthcare and welfare benefits funded through a more progressive system of income and property taxes constitute the terrain on which the practical proximate struggles that might eventuate one day in something like a basic guaranteed income are actually taking place in my view.

The basic income guarantee is an idea that permits me to clarify for myself and frame for others a larger progressive agenda -- the perennial progressive project to end slavery and conscription, including wage-slavery and conscription-via-precarity, conjoined to newer concerns with pernicious anti-democratizing wealth concentration via automation, crowdsourcing, IP-enclosure and so on, attentive as well to proper excitement about the emerging and consolidating emancipatory force of proliferating p2p-formations.

But I am far from mistaking BIG-advocacy for education, agitation, and organizing on the left wing of the possible.

Singularitarianism In the News and on the Go Go Go! (Response to MA Part One)

Michael Anissimov begins his response by stepping back from the fray a bit and providing an intriguing indication of what singularitarian Robot Cultists see as the context in which my response to Hughes is taking place:
It's interesting how consumed everyone is with mentioning/rebutting Singularitarianism nowadays. Has this sect really grown so fast and exerted so much influence over anything to merit such attention? I am doubtful, but you guys keep going on about it...

Needless to say it is actually the case that only a vanishingly small number of people are even aware of movement transhumanism in the first place, let alone care about the inter-sectarian squabbles among the various flavors of transhumanism, the more Ayn Raelian "extropian transhumanists" who pout and stamp their feet at both death and taxes equally, the nerd rapture "singularitarian transhumanists" who squint into the future for a glimpse of The Robot God, the "democratic transhumanists" with all their curious authoritarian friends, the "techno-immortalist transhumanists" who plan to be therapized or roboticized or digitized into eternity, the "enhancement transhumanists" who would facilitate the arrival of an "optimal" post-human according to their parochial values on the matter through the application of "liberal eugenics," and so on.

I have always found the Robot Cultists a rather fascinating sub(cult)ural exhibition of techno-utopian madness on their own terms -- not to mention a usefully illustrative window by way of their very extremity into attitudes and rhetorical frames in the actually prevailing market-driven determinist corporate-militarist techno-hype of mainstream neoliberal "development" discourse. But I don't think my enjoyment of the ongoing trainwreck of movement transhumanism is particularly widely shared, and I don't think my own reference to it is much increased or decreased lately in respect to the other things I talk about here, and I can't think of anybody who seems particularly "consumed" by the apparently attention-starved singularitarians.

I think Michael must be feeling that his sub-sect of the Robot Cult is the apple of every eye at the moment because best-selling-complete-joke popular futurist Ray Kurzweil happens to have made some noise lately -- and much more to the point, seems to have attracted some real dough from otherwise respectable sources like NASA and Google and Stanford University -- creating his palpably embarrassing "Singularity University" that isn't actually a University. I talked about this curious development at the beginning of the month myself, and joked about it a couple of other places around then as well. Jamais Cascio demolishes Sing U "constructively" here, and P.Z. Myers sledgehammers singularitarian superlativity as silly (in a post tagged, perfectly appropriately, "kooks") here, in case you missed the non-event in real-time.

Responding to Singularitarian Robot Cultist Michael Anissimov

Last week I responded to a piece written by "democratic transhumanist" James Hughes published at the Foundation for Peer to Peer Alternatives, a piece following soon after (but not by any means a direct response to) a piece of my own had been published there.

In that earlier piece of mine I had outlined some of the reasons why I discern strong structural tendencies in "movement transhumanism" -- which I also sometimes describe as Robot Cultism -- to anti-democratic and authoritarian politics, whatever the professed politics of its advocates.

These anti-democratic tendencies arise, in my view, out of transhumanism's general tendencies to reductionism, to technological determinism, to technocratic elitism, to eugenicism, and to industrial-mode corporate-militarist responses to planetary problems it tends to frame in terms of existential risk.

One of the commenters on my later piece, Michael Anissimov, was a relative latecomer to the conversational thread it provoked and so I will respond to him on the front page rather than in the Moot, the better to ensure people who have moved on have a chance to actually follow the discussion. To read Michael's actual comment directly, scroll down the comments for the piece I mentioned. In any case, I will quote his comment liberally and will certainly try not to misrepresent him in my reply.

I am often accused of generating posts of unreadable enormity when I am trying to respond to criticisms in depth, and so this time around I will attempt to break my response into separate parts, roughly distinguishable by theme. A handy table of contents follows:
Part One: Singularitarianism In the News and on the Go Go Go
Part Two: The "Centrist" Politics of Robot Cultist Michael Anissimov
Part Three: "Cogno-Utopianism" as the Usual Facile Techno Utopianism
Part Four: Are You Really Sure?
Part Five: Centrism in the Robot Cult (A Coda)
Part Six: Nothing New

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Everybody Say This Simple Message Over and Over Again in Public Places Until Actual Reality Sinks in Here in California

[via Calitics, a comment attributed to John Burton]
If the last 48 hours has proven nothing else, we can no longer allow Republicans to hold the people of California hostage and therefore dictate to the Democratic majority the terms under which the budget is passed.

California should join the 47 other states [that] don't require a supermajority to pass the budget.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Today's Random Wilde

A man can't be too careful in the choice of his enemies.

Where We're At

Representatives in government who declare their hatred of government are declaring their hatred of the people, because in a democracy the people are the government. Representatives in government who have nothing to say but "no taxes" are either indulging in the fantasy that the things that only governments can do (maintain justice and equity, ensure security, promote general welfare) can somehow be done without paying for them or they are simply starving governance of funds precisely to demolish it because they hate it, after all. In California the two thirds rule gives real abiding power to the destructive feudal force of the ignorant malicious minority of Movement Republicanism here in the most populous progressive state of the Union, one of the top ten economies in the world. Our citizens are better informed about, better organized for national politics than the politics of our own State, and look what a state it's in.

Would You Hit It?

It's Centaur Wednesday, of course, and while scouting about for an amusing likely erotic (or ew-otic, ymmv) object for the day I stumbled instead upon this stunning Winsor McCay animation from 1921.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Today's Random Wilde

The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Village, Stimulated

The Netroots are getting their footing back a bit, thank heavens, shifting gears from what seemed to me painful weeks of unproductive paranoid mining of Obama's utterances and appointments for signs of betrayal of progressive principle and evidence of naivete foretelling failures to come and so on, and now they are returning their focus to their strengths, exposing and deriding the foolishness and deceptiveness of the corporate broadcast media they also happen to be supplanting before our very eyes.

Many of the best left blogs have been criticizing the stunning gap between the assessments of the punditocracy that Obama is embattled and error-prone and struggling an uphill slope to implement his agenda, while in reality he seems to keep getting pretty much exactly what he is asking for while his actual approval numbers remain steady or even rise. The Republicans keep losing elections, their "ideas" (trickle-down economics, climate-change denialism, exploitation and scapegoating of labor and immigrants, aggressive pre-emptive unilateral militarism, politicized evangelical Christianity, anti-choice and homophobic cultural politics) are discredited and unpopular, their vaunted "unity" appears to amount to an eager self-marginalization into a Confederate Rump Party, and yet they still surreally dominate the airwaves and editorial pages of Establishment and Beltway media outlets, every word another nail in the coffin they are fashioning for themselves.

Many of my long favorite blogs are becoming readable again, now that the Netroots are shifting from opposition to the bloodcurdling evil and incompetence of the Killer Clown Administration to the facilitation and pressing of a popular brilliant center-left Obama supported by Congressional majorities that can be made stronger and more effective with the right support, however critical, but can also be undermined to the benefit of nobody if they are opposed uncritically.

Here is Jane Hamsher offering up an especially pithy variation of a theme I am pleased to see popping up all over the Netroots these days,
There appears to be a pretty big gap between what DC journalists think Americans think, and what Americans actually think. No better example of this can be found than the "winners" and "losers" that DC media are proclaiming in the wake of the passage of the stimulus bill…

MSNBC's First Read lists among its winners "the Republican Party (which demonstrated unity after its big losses in November), and No.2 House Republican Eric Cantor (who raised his profile during the debate)." Reid gets a win, Pelosi gets a loss.

Chris Cillizza also declares Eric Cantor a victor for maintaining party discipline… and House Democrats are deemed losers, because "it appeared as though this was a Senate-run production."

DC lives in an economic bubble and remains largely insulated from the troubles hitting the rest of the country. No matter who is in power, no matter who is on the receiving end of taxpayer largesse, the money finds its way there. Fairfax and Loudoun Counties in VA and Howard County MD (where lobbyists and contractor beneficiaries of the defense/homeland security boon of the past 8 years live) are the top three wealthiest counties in the country, and seven more DC suburbs chart in the top 20.

The people who live in DC, who pretend to speak for the rest of the country, have no direct experience with what is happening there -- and their attempts to handicap DC politics have more to do with the inside baseball games that seek to protect their own interests above all else. The fact that three and a half million Americans will have jobs as a result of the passage of this bill, or that people who are unemployed or living on food stamps will continue to be able to eat, doesn't seem to graze their analyses.

The American public looked at DC, they saw the Democrats trying to do something, and they liked what they saw. People who are deeply worried about staying employed and taking care of their families do not seem to have the universal high regard for House Republicans who stood together to oppose helping them out that the DC establishment do.

Now, this is an Age of Obama Netroots that can get some work done. More like this, please.

Sergei Prokofiev Helps Make Amor Mundi More Positive

Today's Random Wilde

I can stand brute force, but brute reason is quite unbearable. There is something unfair about its use. It is hitting below the intellect.

Would You Hit It?

Sunday, February 15, 2009

When Worlds Collide

In my graduate seminar on the politics of design at the San Francisco Art Institute we are just now shifting gears from discussions of green design discourse (we've read Janine Benyus's Biomimicry, McDonough and Braungart's Cradle to Cradle, and David Holmgren's Permaculture, for example) to discussions of social software and network design (we'll be reading lots of Lessig, Yochai Benkler, and Michel Bauwens, for example), and I think this is the point at which many of my students -- some of whom are practicing artists of course, many doing exhibition studies, but many others are actively committed to variations of what they would call "design" practice -- are really starting to feel the connections of these texts to one another but, more significantly, to their own under-interrogated assumptions about what "design" is about, what it is for, what its designs on us might be.

Starting to read Lessig after spending weeks on sustainability, suddenly I'm getting questions about how the politics of copyfight and digital democracy that they often have no firm opinions about at all seem to connect up quite forcefully to writings like those of Nicolas Bourriaud (who is read by all of my art thesis cohort at SFAI but none of p2p thesis cohort at Berkeley, for example) on relational aesthetics that they have all sorts of opinions about already. It's very interesting, very provocative to me.

You know, I'd been working on the political theory of social software and p2p formations more generally for years before I encountered -- mostly through teaching at SFAI -- the incredibly rich ramified Social, Participatory, and Relational Aesthetics discourses that are in play in art theory and exhibition studies at the moment. I was enormously surprised to find how often the problems one finds in, say, Lawrence Lessig or Clay Shirky or danah boyd, recapitulate the formulations one encounters in, say, Claire Bishop's Participation volume, a survey of more or less programmatic statements mostly from the latter part of the 20C about the relationality or sociality of art interventions and practices.

The connections between good righteous democratic skepticism about the curatorial and the authorial are rich, and as yet underexplored, if you ask me -- which isn't to say that there aren't people talking about these things, just that there are people who aren't talking to each other who probably should be.

This is not the place for me to line up my own conclusions on the matter, but just to say that I decided to teach this sort of material at SFAI precisely with the expectation that these connections would spark all sorts of fruitful associations in my students, and I am happy to report that this seems to be the very thing that is happening, and right on cue. I'd like to think I will have more to say about this in months to come. Stay tuned.

James Hughes Flogs for the Robot Cult

My friend Michel Bauwens of the Peer to Peer Foundation recently asked "democratic transhumanist" (a term I regard as oxymoronic as well as moronic) James Hughes this question: "Do you have any references to recent more political, and specifically ‘progressive’, interpretations of transhumanism, especially also around abundance?" I suspect that a sense of fair play was one of the things that inspired the question, given that Bauwens had recently republished a critical piece of mine on the topic of transhumanism, so-called, in which I described its almost irresistible structural affinities with authoritarian politics, whatever the best-intentions or best-PR soundbites of its individual advocates might be. If you are interested in these sorts of questions I recommend you read Hughes' entire piece for yourself. Here is the more critical piece of mine Bauwens excerpted a bit earlier.

I do have a few comments about what James Hughes has to say in his defense of a democratic "movement transhumanism," that is to say a presumably more progressive Robot Cult. First, let me juxtapose two interesting sections of Hughes' apologia. This first statement occurs quite early in Hughes' account:
[I]n my little corner of ideaspace we have recently begun referring to the left-of-center varieties of techno-optimism and transhumanism as “technoprogressivism,” and many of us technoprogressives are enthusiastic supporters of end-of-work and basic income guarantee policies, which have roots back to Condorcet, Tom Paine and utopian socialist, anarchist and Marxist thought: automation can liberate us from labor, but we need collective action to get there and ensure it liberates instead of impoverishes. On the other hand there are plenty of “bourgeois” futurists who argue that technology will end scarcity without any need for public policy or collective provision, or only through free market minarchy.

This second statement occurs much later in his account:
Another dynamic in the 2000s has been a growing focus by transhumanists on the apocalyptic possibilities of emerging technologies. One manifestation of this has been the growth of the millennialist Singularitarian subculture which anticipates the day when machine intelligence surpasses human, and which ranges from naïve technoutopianism to apocalyptic fatalism about the outcome of the “Singularity” and our ability to effect it. Outside of this subculture however many transhumanists have begun to seriously engage with the regulatory and security policies that would reduce threats from technologies of mass destruction, while promoting the use of emerging technologies to making civilization more resilient to catastrophic risks. Engagement with these questions have contributed to the declining influence of the anti-statist right within transhumanism.

I sympathize with Hughes' personal position on both of these issues. I, too, am an advocate of guaranteed basic income to subsidize peer-to-peer formations of citizen life, criticism, creativity, commerce and as a necessary redistributionist intervention in the ongoing process of wealth-capture and wealth-concentration by the already wealthy by means of automation, outsourcing, crowdsourcing, creative/genomic commons-enclosure and so on. I have sometimes called this position "pay-to-peer," and I defended a version of it on a panel at the Fourth Congress of the US Basic Income Guarantee Network in 2005 with James Hughes right next to me at the conference table. Also, as anybody who has read any of the cantankerous texts I have assembled in my Superlative Summary will attest, I certainly disapprove as he seems to do the hyperbolizing disasterbatory accelerationalizing techno-utopian and techno-dystopian nonsense of the singularitarian nerd-rapturists.

Despite all this I cannot sympathize at all with Hughes' insinuation that he is defending "transhumanism" when he attributes to it a content (advocacy of basic income guarantees) that is in fact advocated by a vanishingly small minority of actually-existing transhumanist-identified people, and little likely represents even a mild topical preoccupation with more than a handful of these, and indeed is quite likely to be ferociously attacked by a larger number of transhumanist-identified people as "evil socialism" given the prevalence of market libertarian dead-enders and neoliberals among movement-transhumanists. That he makes this move at one and the same time as he disavows the apocalyptic "subculture" of the singularitarians among movement-transhumanism is especially problematic. "Singularity" means different things to different people, for some naming a rather muzzy notion that technoscientific development is accelerating irresistibly into some unknowable imminent transformation of everything into which they can stuff all their present existential anxieties or wish-fulfillment fantasies, while for others naming variously more specific and "technical" (but usually still quite controversial and to my mind usually still hyperbolic) claims about networked and artificial intelligence "surpassing" conventional personal and social formations of problem-solving and organizational-intelligence with various projected impacts on questions of public security, deliberation, privacy issues, and so on. But whatever else one can say about these notions, it looks to me like an overwhelming majority of transhumanist-identified people affirm some version of them as true, as urgently important, and as abiding preoccupations.

That is to say, Hughes defense of "transhumanism" seems to me to be one that affirms as part of it something that is in fact incidental to it, while disavowing as marginal something that is in fact nearly ubiquitous and hence likely essential to it. I leave it as an exercise for the reader to determine if this curious strategy is a matter more of deception, self-deception, or, er, creative "framing" and PR spin for the membership-organizations of which movement-transhumanism materially consists and in which Hughes is of course a high profile figure.

I must say I am also quite interested in the larger narrative Hughes offers up in his effort to shore up the credibility of his marginal Robot Cult. It is possibly fortunate for him that Condorcet and Diderot, being long dead, cannot comment on Hughes' enlistment of them in the cause of movement transhumanism.
“The story of transhumanist politics is part of the broader story of the three hundred year-old fight for the Enlightenment. Transhumanism has pre-Enlightenment roots of course, since our earliest ancestors sought to transcend the limitations of the human body, to delay death, and to achieve wisdom. But those aspirations became transhumanism when people began to use science and technology to achieve them instead of magic and spirituality. From the earliest writings of the Enlightenment philosophes, such as Diderot and Condorcet, there were suggestions that eventually we could achieve radical longevity, machine intelligence, freedom from drudgery, and the radical evolution of the human form.

The Enlightenment narrative of progress, the belief that we can continually improve our condition through rational scientific human agency, has also had a political dimension. The Enlightenment argued for democracy and individual rights. The French version of these ideas also pressed for egalitarianism and a strong democratic state, while the Anglo and American versions were less egalitarian and advocated market freedom. The tensions between these two versions of Enlightenment thought are an ongoing dynamic with the contemporary transhumanist movement.

The resistance to Enlightenment ideas that began three hundred years ago still shapes resistance to transhumanist meliorism today.

I think it evokes a rather skewed sense of Enlightenment discourse to propose it can be encapsulated into "the Enlightenment narrative of progress" in the first place, being in fact a quite contentious conversation rather than a straightforward "program." I find myself wondering how much Condorcet and Diderot Hughes can actually have read, let alone how he might weave Scottish and German Enlightenment threads into his rather facile programmatic simplifications, how he would cope with the different anti-authoritarianisms of Enlightenment freethinking and often still quite faithful anti-clericalisms, and so on. But quite beyond all that, to emphasize as he does in his own account the suggestive utterances of a few Enlightenment figures on questions of "radical longevity, machine intelligence… and the radical evolution of the human form" seems to me to risk a near evacuation of the actual content of Enlightenment discourse in the name of delineating it.

The sorts of politics that eventuate from strident championing of kooky oversimplifications of Enlightenment by marginal extremists declaiming the irremediable irrationality of their foes tend, I fear, to be ugly and reactionary in the main (see, for example, the army of Reason defenders convened by those sad lost souls who think Ayn Rand's earthshatteringly awful Atlas Shrugged is some sort of Bible), as I have argued at length here among other places, and I venture to suggest that few of the heroes of European Enlightenment would much approve the uses to which their discourse is being put in such cases. I daresay some might reasonably maintain that my own ongoing critique of superlative technology discourses and techno-utopian political "movements" is itself legible as a defense of enlightenment attitudes, contrary to Hughes' frankly flabbergasting insinuation that resistance to "transhumanism" is of a piece with resistance to Enlightenment. I will go so far as to suggest that at least some of the Enlightenment figures Hughes himself is fond of quoting might have some sympathy for my own suggestion that the "movement transhumanism" he defends is a scarcely concealed form of organized religiosity itself, investing hyperbolic technodevelopmental projections with transcendental significances with the usual yield of irrational, uncritical, and authoritarian consequences.

It is actually a difficult thing to grasp just what movement transhumanism is coherently imagined to consist of when Hughes himself goes on to celebrate a "big tent" in which liberals, conservatives, anarchists, minarchists, anarcho-capitalists, greens, technocrats, and so on all presumably contribute their measure to the "unique transhumanist vision." To the extent that transhumanism, whatever else it is supposed to be, is surely something to do with "technology" and the historical play of "technoscientific" change, it seems to me to matter enormously that the sorts of things that are going to be called "technology" in the first place, the sorts of uses to which these "technologies" are properly to be put, the ways in which one will seek to facilitate the emergence and articulate the circulation of "technoscientific" realities in the actual world will differ quite radically in their actual substance according to whether one is speaking from a liberal, conservative, anarchist, minarchist, anarcho-capitalist, green, or technocratic vantage. I have often reiterated that the word "technology" functions to conceal more than it reveals, that there is really no such thing as "technology in general" especially if one means to attribute to this "technology" certain monolithic or inevitable developmental outcomes, aspirations, tendencies. What passes for technology, what constitutes its substance, what articulates its developmental play in the world are all definitively determined by political, social, cultural, discursive factors. To propose that one can "advocate" a technology politics indifferent to the definitive differences actual political differences imbue into the constitution of technologies as such is worse than completely misunderstanding the very phenomenon under discussion (although that is a pretty fatal problem for those who are presumably defined foremost by that very phenomenon they are so disastrously misconstruing), it is actually to participate in a disavowed politics of technoscientific development that tends to conduce especially to the benefit of very familiar authoritarian right-wing political values and strategies. This is the point of the piece of mine that Bauwens posted in the first place, to which I already linked above.

That James Hughes is an advocate for many genuinely progressive technodevelopmental political positions is definitely true, and to my mind a delightful thing, but that in his celebration of a "technology politics" that is indifferent to definitive differences of politics as well as his insensitivity to the actual politics of would-be "apolitically neutral" or "anti-political" positions on developmental questions James Hughes is participating in and actively abetting quite authoritarian and anti-democratizing technodevelopmental political positions is also true, I fear, and the farthest thing from delightful. That as a well-meaning decent person of the democratic left he would no doubt recoil from the probable eventual impacts of his participation in the actually anti-democratizing politics of his Robot Cult were they ever to come to anything is really neither here nor there as far as I am concerned. A heartfelt cry of "what have I done?" is little consolation to those of us who are clear-eyed enough to ask here and now "what are you doing?"

Be all that as it may, transhumanism, so-called, is probably best known for what Hughes tantalizingly describes as its "bioutopianism" (that is to say, what critics might describe instead as its eugenicism) early on in his piece. I certainly disapprove the glib way in which Hughes identifies in some environmentalist politics what he calls "technophobia" or "luddism" when it would be better to discern a critical embrace of appropriate technology (a very different thing from any blanket technophobia even where one might disagree with particular claims it might inspire in some) or describes as "extremist" the presumably outrageous desire of differently enabled people to affirm as dignified and desirable atypical lifeways that Hughes himself might have parochially determined to be "suboptimal" by his lights. Such comments arising out of his "bioutopianism" are sprinkled throughout his piece, as indeed they saturate transhumanist discourses more generally, but I think the key passage occurs in this rather creative interlude of congenial storytelling:
The years 2002 to 2004 saw the first debates about the transhumanist project in elite policy circles. Francis Fukuyama published the bioconservative best-seller Our Posthuman Future, and was he then appointed to the Bush administration’s President’s Council on Bioethics (PBC) by fellow bioconservative Leon Kass. Under the leadership of Kass and Fukuyama the PBC published Beyond Therapy, which suggested the need for strong regulation of cognitive enhancement, life extension and other biotechnologies. At the same time the American Christian Right and the Vatican were evolving beyond opposition to abortion to a broader critique of reproductive technologies and human enhancement. Left-wing and environmentalist critics of biotechnology such as Jeremy Rifkin, Bill McKibben, the Center for Genetics and Society and radical disability rights groups also began to oppose nanomedicine, genetic engineering and human enhancement in the early 2000s. Gradually a network of Left and Right-wing bioconservatives has grown linking these groups on both sides of the Atlantic.

The Bush administration, the religious Right and the emergence of this Left-Right bioconservative axis had a polarizing effect on biopolitical intellectuals, driving many to associate with the growing transhumanist movement and to clearly advocate for the right to human enhancement. Bioethicists John Harris and Julian Savulescu in the UK joined with American bioethicists Arthur Caplan, Henry Greely, and Gregory Pence in defense of reproductive cloning, germinal choice and cognitive enhancement. Although these intellectuals explicitly reject the label of transhumanist, they represent the natural working out of Enlightenment ethics in biopolicy of which transhumanism is a product.

It is an interesting question what it means to "oppose" as against "defending" things like "nanomedicine" and "genetic engineering" and "human enhancement" when so much that gets talked about under these designations (superlongevity therapies, nanorobot respirocytes, designer babies, clone armies, labgrown centaurs, and so on) does not even remotely exist, and when so many actually urgent questions about safety and access and reliable information concerning emerging ARTs (alternative or artificial reproductive technologies), contraceptive and fertility techniques, therapeutic problematizations of the beginning and ending of viable life, non-normalizing prosthetic interventions into the diversity of human capacities, morphologies, and lifeways are utterly deranged by their association with these futurological figures. I have argued here and here, that such futural figurations actually tend to function as proxies for irrationally disavowed or stealthily deceptive debates on contemporary political questions.

Certainly, I strongly disagree with Hughes' insinuation that any disapproval of the socially conservative anti-Choice healthcare politics he describes as "bioconservative" amount to an affirmation of "transhumanist" politics, whether those who register this disapproval (among whom I myself am certainly one, as witness the pieces collected here) are sensible enough to disdain his Robot Cult label and its facile framing or not. Not to put too fine a point on it, I have long considered "bioconservatives" and "transhumanist" formulations on bioethical questions to represent inter-dependent extremisms.

The transhumanists, so-called, would engineer an optimal idealized postulated homo superior with which they presently identify at the cost of a dis-identification with the free and diverse homo sapiens with whom they actually share the world and, hence, are advocating a de facto eugenicist politics. The bioconservatives, so-called would ban safe, wanted, but non-normalizing therapies in an effort to "preserve" a static idealized postulated homo naturalis with which they too presently identify at the cost of a dis-identification with the free and dynamic homo sapiens with whom they actually share the world and, hence, are likewise advocating a de facto eugenicist politics. What is wanted is to advocate research into safe effective medicine, however unprecedented or non-normalizing it might be, to solve health problems in ways that people consent to on their terms in truly informed, nonduressed ways.

Just as one hardly needs to join a Robot Cult to defend "Enlightenment" values of critical thinking, consensual self-determination, and anti-authoritarian politics (indeed, quite the contrary!), so too -- and really this should go without saying -- one hardly needs to join a Robot Cult to advocate for funding, regulation, and fair distribution of medical research nor to defend the politics of Choice, not only in matters of reproductive health, but on questions of, say, consensual recreational drug use or how to improve the lives of the differently enabled by their own lights, whether in normalizing ways or not.

Future Schlock!

Futurist and Ugly Bag of Mostly Water Sez: "Inevitable!" "Cool!" "Augment!" *

Like the robots they so slobber for, these fun futurists aren't just dumb, they're dangerous!

* Actual quotes from the segment -- find each one, kidz! It's stupid!

Saturday, February 14, 2009

"It Should Dawn On You"

Jon Taplin:
As you look at the list of where the money is going, it should dawn on you that in one month President Obama has secured twice the investment in the things progressives care about than Bill Clinton did in eight years.

Indeed. It should.

The Decisive End of the Age of Reagan

I think this a far more significant speech than either Obama's Inaugural Address or his acceptance of the Democratic Nomination. This is one that historians (and rhetoricians!) will cite and study for years to come -- together with this one, this one and this one.

I served here for nearly a decade and, as has already been mentioned, this is where I launched my candidacy for President two years ago this week — on the steps — on the steps of the Old State Capitol where Abraham Lincoln served and prepared for the presidency.

It was here, nearly 150 years ago, that the man whose life we are celebrating today, who you’ve been celebrating all week, bid farewell to this city that he had come to call his own. And as has already been mentioned, on a platform at a train station not far from where we’re gathered, Lincoln turned to the crowd that had come to see him off and said, “To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe everything.” And being here tonight, surrounded by all of you, I share his sentiment. But looking out at this room, full of so many who did so much for me, I’m also reminded of what Lincoln once said to a favor-seeker who claimed it was his efforts that made the difference in the election. Lincoln asked him, “So you think you made me President?” “Yes,” the man replied, “under Providence, I think I did.” “Well,” said Lincoln, “it’s a pretty mess you’ve got me into.” “But I forgive you.

So whoever of you think you are responsible for this – we’re taking names.

It’s a humbling task, marking the bicentennial of our 16th President’s birth — humbling for me in particular because it’s fair to say that the presidency of this singular figure who we celebrate in so many ways made my own story possible.

Here in Springfield, it’s easier, though, to reflect on Lincoln the man rather than the marble giant — before Gettysburg, before Antietam, before Fredericksburg and Bull Run, before emancipation was proclaimed and the captives were set free. In 1854, Lincoln was simply a Springfield lawyer who’d served just a single term in Congress. Possibly in his law office, his feet on a cluttered desk, his sons playing around him, his clothes a bit too small to fit his uncommon frame, maybe wondering if somebody might call him up and ask him to be Commerce Secretary – he put some thoughts on paper, and for what purpose we do not know: “The legitimate object of government,” he wrote, “is to do for the people what needs to be done, but which they cannot, by individual effort, do at all, or do so well, by themselves.”

To do for the people what needs to be done but which they cannot do on their own. It’s a simple statement. But it answers a central question of Abraham Lincoln’s life. Why did he land on the side of union? What was it that made him so unrelenting in pursuit of victory that he was willing to test the Constitution he ultimately preserved? What was it that led this man to give his last full measure of devotion so that our nation might endure?

These are not easy questions to answer, and I cannot know if I’m right. But I suspect that his devotion to the idea of union came not from a belief that government always had the answer. It came not from a failure to understand our individual rights and responsibilities. This rugged rail-splitter, born in a log cabin of pioneer stock; who cleared a path through the woods as a boy; who lost a mother and a sister to the rigors of frontier life; who taught himself all that he knew; and everything that he had was because of his hard work — this man, our first Republican President, knew better than anybody what it meant to pull yourself up by your bootstraps. He understood that strain of personal liberty and self-reliance, that fierce independence at the heart of the American experience.

But he also understood something else. He recognized that while each of us must do our part, work as hard as we can, be as responsible as we can, although we are responsible for our own fates, in the end, there are certain things we cannot do on our own. There are certain things we can only do together. There are certain things only a union can do.

Only a union could harness the courage of our pioneers to settle the American West, which is why Lincoln passed a Homestead Act giving a tract of land to anyone seeking a stake in our growing economy.

Only a union could foster the ingenuity of our framers — the ingenuity of our farmers, which is why he set up land-grant colleges that taught them how to make the most of their land while giving their children an education that let them dream the American Dream.

Only a union could speed our expansion and connect our coasts with a transcontinental railroad, and so, even in the midst of civil war, Lincoln built one. He fueled new enterprises with a national currency, spurred innovation, and ignited America’s imagination with a national academy of sciences, believing we must, as he put it, add “the fuel of interest to the fire of genius in the discovery of new and useful things.” And on this day, that is also the bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s birth, it’s worth a moment to pause and renew that commitment to science and innovation and discovery that Lincoln understood so well.

Only a union could serve the hopes of every citizen to knock down the barriers to opportunity and give each and every person the chance to pursue the American Dream. Lincoln understood what Washington understood when he led farmers and craftsmen and shopkeepers to rise up against an empire; what Roosevelt understood when he lifted us from Depression, built an arsenal of democracy, created the largest middle class in history with the GI bill. It’s what Kennedy understood when he sent us to the moon.

All these Presidents recognized that America is — and always has been — more than a band of 13 colonies, or 50 states — more than a bunch of Yankees and Confederates, more than a collection of Red States and Blue States. But we are the United States. There isn’t any dream beyond our reach – there is no dream beyond our reach, any obstacle that can stand in our way when we recognize that our individual liberty is served, not negated, by a recognition of the common good.

That is the spirit we are called to show once more. The challenges we face are very different now: two wars; an economic crisis unlike any we’ve seen in our lifetime. Jobs have been lost. Pensions are gone. Families’ dreams have been endangered. Health care costs are exploding. Schools are falling short. We have an energy crisis that’s hampering our economy and threatening our planet and enriching our adversaries.

And yet, while our challenges may be new, they did not come about overnight. Ultimately they result from a failure to meet the test that Lincoln set. I understand there have been times in our history when our government has misjudged what we can do by individual effort alone, and what we can only do together; when we didn’t draw the line as effectively as we should have; when government has done things that people can — and should — do for themselves.

Our welfare system, before reform, too often dampened individual initiative, discouraging people from taking responsibility for their own upward mobility. In education, sometimes we’ve lost sight of the role of parents, rather than government, in cultivating a thirst for knowledge and instilling those qualities of good character, hard work and discipline and integrity – that are so important to educational achievement and professional success.

But in recent years, we’ve seen the pendulum swing too far in the opposite direction. What’s dominated is a philosophy that says every problem can be solved if only government would step out of the way; that if government were just dismantled and divvied up into tax breaks, that it would somehow benefit us all. Such knee-jerk disdain for government — this constant rejection of any common endeavor — cannot rebuild our levees or our roads or our bridges. It can’t refurbish our schools or modernize our health care system. It can’t lead to the next medical discovery or yield the research and technology that will spark a clean energy economy.

Only a nation can do those things. Only by coming together, all of us, in union, and expressing that sense of shared sacrifice and responsibility — for ourselves, yes, but also for one another — can we do the work that must be done in this country. That is — that is part of the definition of being American.

It’s only by rebuilding our economy and fostering the conditions of growth that willing workers can find a job, and companies can find capital, and the entrepreneurial spirit that is the key to our competitiveness can flourish. It’s only by unleashing the potential of alternative fuels that will lower our energy bills and raise our industries’ sights, make our nation safer and our planet cleaner. It’s only by remaking our schools for the 21st century that our children will get those good jobs so they can make of their lives what they will. It’s only by coming together to do what people need done that we will, in Lincoln’s words, “lift artificial weights from all shoulders [and give] an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life.” That’s all people are looking for, fair chance in the race of life.

That’s what’s required of us — now and in the years ahead. We will be remembered for what we choose to make of this moment. And when posterity looks back on our time, as we are looking back on Lincoln’s, I don’t want it said that we saw an economic crisis but did not stem it; that we saw our schools decline and our bridges crumble but we did not rebuild them; that the world changed in the 21st century but America did not lead it; that we were consumed with small things, petty things, when we were called to do great things. Instead, let them say that this generation — our generation — of Americans rose to the moment and gave America a new birth of freedom and opportunity in our time.

These are trying days and they will grow tougher in the months to come. And there will be moments when our doubts rise and our hopes recede. But let’s always remember that we, as a people, have been here before. There were times when our revolution itself seemed altogether improbable, when the union was all but lost, when fascism seemed set to prevail around the world. And yet, what earlier generations discovered — and what we must rediscover right now — is that it is precisely when we are in the deepest valley, when the climb is steepest, that Americans relearn how to take the mountaintop. Together. As one nation. As one people. As one nation. As one people. That’s how we will beat back our present dangers. That is how we will surpass what trials may come. That’s how we will do what Lincoln called on us all to do, and “nobly save the last best hope on earth.” That’s what this is, the last best hope on earth. Lincoln has passed that legacy onto us. It is now our responsibility to pass it on to the next generation.

Thank you, God bless you, and may God bless the United States of America.