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Sunday, October 11, 2009

Cryonicists Getting Cool Reception These Days

Over the last few weeks, Larry Johnson and Scott Baldyga's book Frozen has drawn an enormous amount of unattractive attention to the ghoulish parodies of "medical practice" and "scientific practice" performed by the Techno-Immortalist True Believers in the so-called cryonics movement.

If you find yourself, somehow, in a creepy subculture as marginal as that of the cryonicists, it is probably easy to tell yourself that there's no such thing as bad press, but David Letterman's bad cryonicists Top Ten List probably didn't help our intrepid Techno-Immortalists mainstream their scam particularly, even if millions watched.

Truth be told, death-denialism is hardly confined to foolish cryonicist cranks and no doubt the pampered perpetual adolescents of the West who are presently freaking out to discover the details of a "neuro-suspension" (there just isn't a pretty way to get a human head into a cooler) would no doubt be comparably squeamish about the details of more conventional practices of cremation, burial, autopsy, embalming, and so forth.

I daresay the tales of megalomania, pseudo-science, hucksterism, and sociopathy in the community of cryonicists is more damaging in the long term to this branch of Robot Cultists (many of whom expect sooper-nanobots to build them robot bodies into which their hopelessly hamburgerized brains will be "revived" in The Future while others expect to their organismic minds to be "uploaded" into a pseudo-spiritualized cyberspatial paradise as immortal post-organismic data-streams in The Future) than the actual unpretty details of corpse disposal involved.

I personally don't think that the elaborate, infantile, and pointless death-denialism of the cryonicists is really that much more irrational than the dumb denialism that built the Pyramids or drives millions into churches on Sundays for a chance at a fluffy cloud-berth in Heaven or whatever. But it is true that institutionalized religious faiths tend to support their communities in more socially substantial ways than the consumer-model of cryonicist Death-Eating seems to manage, and it is also important to remember that most of the great religious traditions have done, however imperfectly, an enormous amount of the indispensable work hitherto of socializing human beings into the more empathetic and long-term thinking on which civilization depends (along, I should add, with all the authoritarian patriarchal war-mongering conformist damage they have also done from my personal perspective as a cheerful cosmopolitan atheist, democrat, aesthete, feminist, and pervert), civilizational work and support that is even less in evidence among the Randroids, transhumanists, would-be Heinleinian archetypes, and glorified boner-pill salesmen who throng the ranks of Techno-Immortalist subcultures. And I have to say that it really is especially disappointing, even pathetic, to find so many folks who pride themselves on their rejection of traditional supernatural religiosity falling nonetheless for faith-based pseudo-scientific hucksters peddling techno-longevity and pharmacological fountains of youth and spiritualized tech-heavenly virtual realities.


Mitchell said...

Dale, I was wondering the other day - were you ever a transcendentalist or utopian in any form?

jimf said...

Something I came across on the Web:

_Longevity Report_, Volume 16 no 96.
October 2003. ISSN 0964-5659.

by Charles Platt

Tim Freeman has wondered publicly on CryoNet why frequent
personnel changes seem endemic in cryonics. Here are some
suggestions based on my personal experience of personality
types who tend to be drawn to our field. (Undoubtedly I exhibit
some of these traits myself.) . . .

Now we get to the psychological factors, which I personally
think are more important. Cryonicists obviously are driven by
a strong desire to avoid mortality. This is an odd motivation
for people to share in a business or even in a nonprofit organization.
It creates an emotional environment. Moreover, since anger is a
classic response to fear, people who are apprehensive about
death tend to become contentious.

Statistically cryonics has tended to attract libertarians,
contrarians, and others who rebel against the status-quo. Such
people are usually elitist, argumentative, and reluctant to change
their opinions on any topic. Also they have little respect for
authority, even within their own group. It's hard to run an
organization that consists of rule-breaking rebels.

Cryonics also tends to attract a minority who are deluded. By this
I mean that they have unrealistic expectations, wacky ideas about
science, impractical business plans, and personal ambitions based
on wishful thinking. Deluded people often insist that there is a
shortcut which everyone else is too dumb to see. Olga Visser, who
thought she could resuscitate rat hearts and cure AIDS patients
with the selfsame elixir, seemed deluded. Unfortunately deluded
people can sometimes generate so much excitement, they tempt others
to share the delusion. When the bubble bursts, the deluded
instigators may be excommunicated.

Cryonics activists also tend to be narcissists, which is natural
when you consider that you have to believe strongly in your own
worth to feel that preserving yourself justifies a significant
amount of time and effort. Narcissists are not team players. . .

The thing that makes Larry Johnson and Scott Baldyga's _Frozen_
worth the read, at least for me, is not so much the allegations of abuse of
Ted Williams' head, or even the allegations of suspension
personnel using paralytics such as Vecuronium to make sure their
clients are "not just merely dead, but really most
sincerely dead."

It's the intimate portrayal of the personalities of some
of the principals involved. Including Mr. Platt
(who apparently had a panic attack verging on a psychotic
break during the SARS outbreak -- "Don't you realize this
could be the end of the human race!" -- and wouldn't leave his
house until Mr. Johnson agreed to take him to Mexico
to lay in a supply of Ribavirin). Vignettes like these --
and there are a lot of them! -- were more interesting
to me than the Williams episode. It was scary how
many of the names I recognized, even if I haven't
actually met any of the people mentioned.

jimf said...

Another interesting quote:

"In my 20 years of watching cryonics, I've never seen a more narcissistic
self-destructive bunch of people than cryonicists. Mike Darwin was right
when he once said cryonicists don't deserve cryonics."

It is morbidly interesting to imagine the kind of world that
would exist if the sorts of people who sign up for cryonics
today became the immortal elite of tomorrow. I doubt if the
plot would be much like that of Damien Broderick's

Dale Carrico said...

Jim: I'm sure the cryonicists themselves, like all Robot Cultists, will decry your overgeneralization and then declare any generally observable anti-social tendencies in their subculture always only to be unrepresentative -- whereupon your observation of a worrisome general sociopathy will then trigger a facile-clever debate-club point-scoring accusation that you are the sociopath (rather like a dumb wingnut thinking it's the world's most brilliant move to decry as racist the one who exposes a racist sentiment or outcome).

Be that as it may, one may discern that cryonicists as a cohort are not just different from the larger population just in the choice of cryonics over burial/cremation upon death (and, yes, they are dead dead dead, like everyone on earth has and will die), but are rather atypical and monolithic in other ways as well.

Given that even on their own terms they are relying on social organizations that will presumably devote themselves continuously over long time-scales to their mission it has always seemed to me that this self-marginalization was rather counter-intuitive, inasmuch as it would surely only be through mainstreaming themselves -- and taking on the considerable diversity of the mainstream -- could they hope to secure the organizational resilience to provide for their own care and maintenance in an ever-changing world.

Of course, the pseudo-scientificity on which their claims are based, coupled with the irrationality that drives most people into their futurological sub(cult)ure ensures that they cannot achieve such mainstream success, hence it's not a real option. Just as the Singularitarians can never hope to be more than, say, neocons (who despite the damage they did, were ultimately defeated by their own palpable irrationality), and the transhumanists can never hope to be more than, say, scientologists (who despite their considerable resources remain absurd figures), so too cryonicists and even more so the other techno-immortalist branches of the Robot Cult (like the bio-denialist "uploaders") are doomed to perpetual marginality.

For me, these sub(cult)ures and their discourses and practices are interesting as clarifying extremes illustrating reductionisms, denialisms, elitisms in more prevailing techno-developmental discourses. Of course, they are also interesting in the contemporary mass-media terrain, since they attract undue attention in their drama and in the way they tap into certain conspicuous pathologies in a precarious era of disruptive technoscientific change, and so I think these interesting but absurd extreme futurological views impact in terribly negative ways on public deliberation, rendering it more confused in its actual scientific claims and more irrational in the fearful and greedy passions it excites than should be the case. Also, Robot Cult organizations bear at least some scrutiny, whatever their marginality, just because -- to return to my earlier examples of the coterie of neocons or the Church of Scientology -- foolish extreme social/cultural formations can occasionally do great mischief in the world for a time, and so need watching.

Dale Carrico said...

Mitchell: I was raised Catholic -- and went to a Catholic school for a few years when I was very young. My faith was habitual and never considered, and did not survive for more than a few weeks after I left home for the first time for college. I confronted peers of different faiths, and drew the conclusion that these faiths were arbitrary at once, and became an atheist at once. I've never looked back.

When you ask about "transcendentalism" though, you know of course that folks like Emerson and Thoreau take up that moniker explicitly and I will say that I have a deep fondness for much that they wrote, as I do for Aldo Leopold's "Land Ethic" and the discussions of a "web of mutuality" in Martin Luther King, and the "web of life" in George Eliot, all of which seem to me related notions.

When William Burroughs declares that we live in a "magic universe," a universe susceptible to poetic refiguration it seems to me that this is less a conventionally supernatural claim than a recognition of the force of re-signifying practices, of rhetoric (my trade, after all), connecting the shamanic imaginary to the American Pragmatist/post-Nietzschean European philosophical traditions.

Despite the fact that I do not believe in either God nor gods, I tend to be rather laid back about those who do believe in these things, unless they want to get all authoritarian or judgmental about it. This is because I have noticed that when people affirm such beliefs they tend to be saying things I can make sense of if I simply translate them (to my self, out of politeness) into terms of affirming matters of personal aesthetic taste or affirming matters of we-intentions concerning moral communities to which they happen to belong. Likewise, I have noticed that when people do terrible things they rationalize through recourse to the affirmation of such beliefs I can make sense of it if I simply translate them into terms of authoritarian/ incumbent political views or mistaken claims that fail to pass muster as warrantedly assertible descriptions of the world for purposes of prediction and control.

The power of such translations tells me that there are more warranted modes of belief ascription than just the instrumental claims of the naturalist (indeed, I believe their are different criteria that render reasonable or not beliefs in instrumental, moral, aesthetic, ethical, and political modes), and although this doesn't inspire a faith in the supernatural in my case, those who cherish reductionist epistemologies would likely decry as "transcendental" in me what seems to me simply like sensible pluralism. Does that answer your question?

jimf said...

> The power of such translations tells me that there are
> more warranted modes of belief ascription than just the
> instrumental claims of the naturalist ["more things in heaven
> and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy" ;-> ]
> . . . [for which] those who cherish reductionist epistemologies
> would likely decry as "transcendental" in me what seems to me
> simply like sensible pluralism. Does that answer your question?

Dale -- I suspect Mitchell may simply have been wondering what
you would call whatever impulse it was that caused you to rub
shoulders with the >Hists in the first place.

I recall that you were posting on the Extropians' mailing
list back in '98 or '99 or thereabouts, back when I first

I would indeed have called myself a "transhumanist"
back in those days. (A guy who knew me more than a
decade earlier than that, before I'd had any contact with
any self-proclaimed transhumanists or Extropians or even
SF con habitues, once called me "the man from 5000 A.D.").

It didn't take long for it to get up my nose, though. I
didn't know what to call "it", at first -- I just thought of it back
then as California flakiness. I was a comparative innocent
that short a time ago -- of course I'd heard of Scientology
and cults and narcissism and other such things, but I just
didn't "bellyfeel" them.

Now I do. :-/ (And I think of that sensitization as a
good thing.)

Dale Carrico said...

I suspect Mitchell may simply have been wondering what you would call whatever impulse it was that caused you to rub shoulders with the >Hists in the first place.

That's easy. I was, and still am, a big geek.

jimf said...

> I just thought of it back then as California flakiness. . .

Out of his element in California, Alvy wants Annie to
get married to him, and to return with him to New York,
but she politely refuses. . .

Later, he is bailed out by friend Rob. . .
Before they drive away in the bright sunshine, Rob dons
a type of radioactive-proof headgear sun visor to prevent aging:

Alvy: Max, are we driving through plutonium?
Rob: Keeps out the alpha rays, Max. You don't get old.

Woody Allen, _Annie Hall_ (1977)