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

Friday, July 31, 2009

The Curious Ethical Considerations of Futurologists

Upgraded and adapted from the Moot, "Dagon" writes:
Oh I think it pretty likely there will be at least 20 years of increase in average lifespans by the time I am 75, and I will be able to afford none of it. Yes, anyone who has even an inch of subconscious urge to pay his way into those 20+ years in the full knowledge other will not -- needs his (her) head on the block, logan's run style. Whatever sweet or bitter we get, I'd like everyone to share the fruits in full, including his eminence, the pope of dythiramblyness, Dale Quixote.

Here we have a confident futurological prediction of dramatic near-term medical advances based on who knows what, followed by a second confident prediction that "Dagon" will lack access to these advances, presumably based on extrapolation from his current circumstances in a society with an irrational and unjust healthcare system, followed by assertions about how sensible people are here and now depending on attitudes they might or might not hold about these predictions either of which might or might not end up being true in whatever measure under who knows what changed circumstances, concluding with what seems a fairly conventional assertion of belief in social justice but one which depends for him -- as such beliefs in social justice never actually do depend -- on the stance one has assumed in respect to the initial futurological predictions. What exactly is going on here?

Let's look at "Dagon"'s first sentence more closely: Oh I think it pretty likely there will be at least 20 years of increase in average lifespans by the time I am 75, and I will be able to afford none of it.

Responding to his assertion before the conjunction: I don't agree that "Dagon" knows enough to be quite so glib in his prediction about there being "at least 20 years of increase in average lifespans by the time [he is] 75." There are simply enormous numbers of technical and sociocultural contingencies in the way of such confidence if one is looking at these matters sensibly.

Responding to his assertion after the conjunction: I do believe that there are an overabundant number of people, who may include him among their number, who don't have access to actually-available healthcare here and now, and that this is both profoundly irrational and terribly unjust, and that this can and should be addressed by democratically-minded citizens.

But there is no need to dwell in the hyperbole of the first assertion to arrive at the substance of the second assertion. And, indeed, given that the first assertion (whatever his "confidence" in it) is considerably more problematic than the first, to attach the first to the second or, more foolishly still, to focus on the first over the second, can always only have the consequence of distracting or deranging sensible discussion of the second in my view.

This is ironic, inasmuch as if "Dagon"'s futurological hunch, for whatever it's worth, were indeed to find its way to slow fruition it would be precisely because already-possible healthcare is already-inaccessible to some, and efforts to make access more equitable over the years of the necessary medical research and development would continue, heartbreakingly, to fail, that his hoped-for healthcare advances might still be inaccessible to him.

The process of funding, research, regulation, publication, education, implementation through which techniques so powerful as to render an average twenty-year increase in healthy lifespan possible for humanity (were it actually-available via healthcare administration) by the time "Dagon" is seventy-five years old is a process taking place here and now and in a series of heres-and-nows to come, not one of which is beholden to some glossy futurological brochure dreamed up in the 1990s by science fiction fandboys under the influence of Eric Drexler, Ray Kurzweil, or Aubrey de Grey.

There is a strange bait-and-switch that such futurologists like to indulge in, it seems to me:

If -- if -- if -- if some hyperbolic imagined outcome were to arrive -- be it actually-intelligent humanoid robots, dirt-cheap desktop nanofactories, nonhuman animals endowed with speech, bioengineered genocidal-racist plagues, clone armies, handheld nukes, whatever -- then wouldn't a sensible person, or morally upright person, or person of democratic sentiments prefer this outcome to that one, and so on?

This sort of discussion can be entertaining and even illuminating to a point, but superlative futurologists seem especially prone to the curious notion that such fantastic speculations are the most urgently necessary ethical dilemmas that beset us, that these are the only deliberations worthy of their sustained interest, that these represent the best topics through which to determine how technically knowledgeable, how progressive minded or how morally conscientious a person actually is here and now -- and all this despite the actual unreality of their subjects and the actual urgency of real problems.

In his final sentence "Dagon" writes, recall: Whatever sweet or bitter we get, I'd like everyone to share the fruits in full, including his eminence, the pope of dythiramblyness, Dale Quixote.

As an aside, I'll note first that it is my skepticism in futurological wish-fulfillment fantasies that inspires a Robot Cultist first to attach the moniker of literature's paradigmatic daydreamer, "Quixote" to me when his is the discourse suffused with daydreams and to describe me as a "pope," when his is the discourse suffused with True Belief and membership organizations headed by would-be gurus. The usual facile futurological projections.

But more to the point, I simply personally don't think it matters very much whether or not "Dagon" thinks the People should all have equitable access to non-existent sooper-longevity pills, to non-existent shiny robot bodies, to more quality time in the brothels of non-existent Holodeks, to some non-existent nanotech genie-in-a-bottle, or what have you. I don't think these fantastic quandaries represent the place where the rubber hits the road where what we want to know is whether or not a person can be trusted here and now as an ally in the fraught ongoing struggle for equity in diversity, for democratization, for investments in our already vulnerable fellow-citizens and the needs and aspirations of the coming generation.

To be honest, I think these curious moralizing futurological gestures really function more to invest the insubstantial wish-fulfillment fantasies of superlative futurologists with the actually-urgent substance of present moral dilemmas precisely as a way of making their dreams feel more real.

The substance of especially the sub(cult)ural varieties of futurological politics (the so-called transhumanists, extropians, singularitarians, techno-immortalists, and so on) is a disavowal of the actually-plural present for an idealized future, a dis-identification with one's actual peers for an identification with a idealized post-human other. The substantiation of both idealizations always depends on the substance of the actually-real present, and hence involves much mischief in the way of extrapolations, amplifications, surrogacy, and allegory to "find the future" in that detested present.

All of this would be more harmless than not -- apart from the psychic harm suffered by the distressed extremists who indulge in it, of course -- were it not for the unfortunate affinity these rhetorical gestures have for the hyperbole of corporate advertising, of militarist scenario-building, and the sensationalism of broadcast media formations, which renders what would otherwise be a fairly palpable self-marginalizing pathological discourse enormously susceptible to abuse in more prevailing public discourse.

No comments: