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

Sunday, February 22, 2009

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.


Go Democrats said...

I'm not sure that I'd accuse every self-professed transhumanist of bad faith when it comes to technology and the poor, or even when it comes to windmills (the real kind, not the tilting-at variety).

I once saw a proposal for a transhumanist's "modular aquaponics system" that I think was supposed to be run via windmill. It incorporated a greenhouse, for the growing of fruits and vegetables, a composting toilet, which was going to provide fertilizer; sewage runoff was going to be treated with duckweed, and then the duckweed was going to be dried and fed to tilapia raised on-site, and a networked computer hooked to instructions for the thing's upkeep and modification . . . its originator promoted it as a partial solution to the problem of hunger, illiteracy and environmental degradation.

I have no clue whether or not a prototype was ever managed, but I know one was at least attempted, with an eye toward getting the price down enough to make it work in developing countries. Much more respectable than RepRap plastic shotglasses, IMO.

Dale Carrico said...

I'm sure you mean Mark Walker, who I remember to be a good guy from a few years back, whatever our disagreements.

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.

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 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 -- fears of death, anxieties about the contingencies of human existence, strong adherence to parochial mores, entrapment in authoritarian command-obedience formations, resistance to the instrumentalization of modern life, appreciation for certain atypical modes of consciousness.

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, and see reason as a matter not only of properly applying criteria of warrant relevant to the mode of belief, but also making a 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, superlative aspirations can contribute incidental inspiration here or there to this or that particular researcher or engineer, but 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.

In some cases you are 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 you are also right to say 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.

Forrest Higgs said...

Damn! And here I thought that only Congressmen and other politicians could blow enough hot air to float the Hindenburg. Both the blogger and the comments here open up amazing new vistas in that regard.

Michael Anissimov said...

I really did think that you regarded basic income guarantee as practical politics. You talk about it so often. I've read many of your posts but I still thought that. So, maybe I missed it before.

There are huge unfunded Medicare and Social Security liabilities. At this rate, the US government will go bankrupt. Every economist knows this. I'm in support of these programs, but the financial liability in the long term is untenable. Anyway, legislators keep kicking the can on this issue, just like our California legislation keeps kicking the can on the budget issue. But yeah, why do I know/and or care about any of this? I thought I'm a superlative Robot Cultist with no real-world concerns. Oh, it must be an act to look relevant.

I like Berkeley, I like intellectuals, and I don't mind informed (non-ideological) arguments for socialism. My sister Nina and my gf Sarah Rose both call themselves socialist. You're not rabid, but I think you're highly ideological and have a "If you're not with us, you're against us" mentality.

To call anyone that is concerned about unfunded liabilities a right-wing tool is absurd. This problem can't just be ignored. The fact that you label people this way shows how ideological you can be.

Anyway, thanks for writing the response, I read the whole thing and found it interesting. It is all rainy outside so I have even more reason to sit around and read long responses like this. Arguing with you is like having at-length office hours with a Berkeley professor, entirely free of charge.

Dale Carrico said...

Damn! And here I thought that only Congressmen and other politicians could blow enough hot air to float the Hindenburg. Both the blogger and the comments here open up amazing new vistas in that regard.

Well, different strokes, you know, Forrest. You may be well pleased to hear that in between my abstruse arias of nit-picking I am also capable of fart jokes.

Dale Carrico said...

Arguing with you is like having at-length office hours with a Berkeley professor, entirely free of charge.

I'm much nicer to my students than I am to you. They are paying to be helped and it's my responsibility to do so -- with you, I just say everything I actually think and damn the consequences. There is a place for both approaches, I think.

Dale Carrico said...

Every economist knows this.

That simply is not true, at least in a bald construal of the statement. You would be quite appalled I think to know just how much economics I read.

I'm in support of these programs, but the financial liability in the long term is untenable.

Steeply progressive taxation and social investment, my friend, and we'll see what becomes tenable.

Anyway, legislators keep kicking the can on this issue,

SS is a can that can be kicked for nearly a generation, longer if we simply raise the cap a smidge, especially so long as the house in on fire and their are real priorities to cope with.

just like our California legislation keeps kicking the can on the budget issue.

The disanalogy could not be more stark. A small ideological minority of right-wing anti-tax zealots are destroying the State because the 2/3rds rule gives them a power wildly disproportionate to their numbers and because they are eager to use that power to demolish the government they detest on principle.

The democrats may be insular and secretive and inbred and timorous but they overwhelmingly know what needs doing and are trying to do it and they have a gun held to their heads by wingnuts while media declares our legislators incompetent and feckless across the board in defiance of sense to the handful of Californians who are paying attention at all.

It's a complete debacle, but it isn't right to imply it is a matter of can-kicking. It's time for a Constitutional Convention to deal with the 2/3rds rule and reverse the multigenerational dismantlement of governance via anti-tax zealotry and deregulatory mania in the name of a market fundamentalist faith that turns everything it touches into shit.

Antonin said...

Great series. Flawless logic processed through a convulsing swell of bombast.

May it just proves malignant to those empty-headed ideologues.

giulio said...


Logorrhoea or logorrhea (Greek λογορροια, logorrhia, “word-flux”) is defined as an “excessive flow of words” and, when used medically, refers to incoherent talkativeness occurring in certain kinds of mental illness, such as mania. Logomania is the medical condition and mania with the underlying symptom logorrhoea. The spoken form of logorrhoea (in the non-medical sense) is a kind of verbosity which uses superfluous (or fancy) words to disguise an otherwise useless message as useful or intellectual, and is commonly known as “verbal diarrhea” or “diarrhea of the mouth”.

Dale Carrico said...

We cannot all manage the concision and plainspoken intelligence of charming Robot Cultists like Giulio Prisco, but it is a comfort to know he can always be counted upon to drop by and remind us all in that palpably superior prose of his of my many limitations in matters of style and argumentation as compared to his own.

I find it curious sometimes that a cohort of techno-utopians who crow endlessly about their superior intellects and who claim to pine above all for the arrival of post-human superintelligences (and even seem to think they might have a hand in crafting such things) express such anti-intellectualism, hysteria, and hostility in the face of exhibitions of intelligence that differ from their own in even the minutest respects or concerns.

Heaven help you poor things if you ever had to actually confront the creations you imagine you crave so desperately.

Michael Anissimov said...

Personally, I welcome criticism of my ideas, but the ad hominem intensity of many of your past posts has been insulting.

Dale Carrico said...

Don't press your luck, Michael. Robot Cultism is ridiculous and dangerous. Ridiculing the ridiculous always has its place.

Just because I can play nicey nice of a rainy afternoon, 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 pronouncements, you make it harder to talk sensibly about technodevelopment at a time when sensible talk is urgently necessary.

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.

Antonin said...

Malignant indeed! Giulio didn't even manage to register the appearance of an argument before the sheer cancerous constriction of his reading canals forced him back to some last-ditch, crowd-sourced definitional engagement.

How’s that Project for a New Singularitarian Century coming?

giulio said...

Try again Dale. I never initiate a debate here, just respond to your provocation.

Did you say something about expressing "hysteria, and hostility in the face of exhibitions of intelligence that differ from their own in even the minutest respects or concerns"?