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.