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

Friday, March 05, 2010

Why Can't More People Just Indulge in Insane Denialism About the Fact of Their Mortality Like the Robot Cultists Do?

A very young and palpably foolish transhumanist fellow named Kyle Munkittrick -- who very likely will in the fullness of time, poor mite, grow out of his present foolishness in the way that folks his age who are presently earnestly quoting Ayn Rand novels will also mostly grow out of all that embarrassing nonsense as well -- has written an essay in which he asks a question superlative futurologists of the transhumanist and techno-immortalist sects often like to ask, namely: Why Do We Accept Aging?

There is a very easy answer to the question "Why do we accept aging?" which relates closely to the answers to such questions as "Why do we accept having lungs?" or "Why do we accept the occasional need to pee?" and that is that sane people tend to accept things that are facts, especially when these facts are not seriously under contest anywhere at any time by anybody at all.

It does not occur to many people to ask the question "Why do we accept the breathing of air?" when the air is all there is to breathe. Nor is there any reason at all that such questions would sensibly occur to many people. This is especially so when we recall that there are far more urgent questions on hand that do need asking, such as, "Why do we accept the pollution of the air so that more and more folks are now suffering from life-threatening and quality-of-life-diminishing respiratory conditions?" when the air is all there is to breathe.

Munkittrick writes that "we tell ourselves curing aging will cause too many problems and that aging has a lot of natural beauty to it and creates a lot of meaning and that all of that is good." But of course almost nobody in the world is really telling themselves seriously that curing aging will cause too many problems because almost nobody in the world thinks some kind of blanket treatment of all the conditions we associate with the aging process is remotely on offer and so there isn't really much reason to start rattling off the problems that might eventuate from this non-existing non-proximate aging cure, especially when there are so many actually-existing actually-proximate problems for us to be thinking about instead.

This point has even greater relevance to the question at hand than you might think, inasmuch as many of those actually-existing actually-proximate problems are real-world healthcare problems, problems of getting more people access to available treatments in a timely cost-effective way, or to discover more effective treatments for neglected diseases in the overexploited regions of the world, or providing more public funding for medical research and development, or transforming the intellectual property regime through which multinational pharmaceutical companies increase their profits by restricting access to treatments, and so on.

There is, I suppose, a way in which one could describe any effective medical treatment as "life extension." I don't recommend this pointless reframing, since I think the value of healthcare is the health it provides and since, contrary to silly Robot Cultists, I don't think the value of healthcare really is instead that we can pretend for whatever reasons that it represents some kind of stepping stone along the path toward which human beings are being techno-immortalized into transcendent quasi-gods with sooper-powers (and, to be frank, I think those who think the latter are pretty palpably batshit crazy if they really truly mean what they are saying).

But, the point is that we already grapple with social and political and cultural problems connected with the provision of healthcare around the world, and I can think of almost nobody at all who thinks we should not provide people medical treatment because it "will cause too many problems." I do think a lot of callous rich assholes and awful racists don't much care if poor people or foreign people die of treatable medical conditions, especially if they think such treatment will interfere with their personal profit margins. But even those people rarely say this sort of thing openly. And so -- quite apart from the whole problem of the complete non-existence and non-proximity of a "blanket cure of aging" -- I see no reason why Munkittrick seems to think such a treatment would be publicly disdained for fear of the social dislocations it might cause.

I actually think it would be a very good idea to take such dislocations seriously, to ensure that medical treatments of some conditions hitherto associated with aging were not rendered moot by subsequent death by starvation or the like -- just as I think it is a very good idea to take dislocations introduced by therapeutic interventions like the pill or the overprescription of antibiotics seriously here and now -- but I am quite as sure that the clamor for access to such a treatment (I would very likely be among the clamorers) would far exceed any chorus of prohibitionism.

I really have to wonder why techno-immortalists so regularly seem to think they would be denied access to the aging cures they pointlessly pine for. This is especially weird inasmuch as so many techno-immortalists are educated privileged white guys in relatively democratic societies who are the least likely people on earth ever to be denied any actually available medical treatments at all.

Perhaps this paranoid delusion of some persecutorial denial to them of techno-immortalization treatments involves the belief that the actual factual non-existence and non-proximity of techno-immortalization therapies itself somehow represents a denial of treatment uniquely made possible by the refusal of the majority of people with whom they share the world to share in their delusive hope that techno-immortalization is actually in the developmental pipeline. Transhumanists often seem to resent and decry those who refuse to share in their hilarious techno-utopian faith-based wish-fulfillment fantasies, as if one need only find more techno-utopians to clap louder to bring tech-heaven into fruition.

Munkittrick also implies that anybody who would claim that "aging has a lot of natural beauty to it and creates a lot of meaning and that all of that is good" is somehow responsible for the non-existence of the aging cure the techno-immortalists seem to believe in utterly in defiance of sense. The first thing to say is that there are plenty of foolish embarrassing Boomers so hysterically hostile to the aging process that they throw billions of dollars into cosmetic surgeries that, as often as not, make people look like livid horror masks, not to mention falling for the siren-song of crap creams and pills and exercise-torture apparatuses and so on in the pursuit of the latest anti-aging "science." So, it doesn't seem to me the techno-immortalists are being particularly honest when they paint themselves as a vanishingly small avant-garde minority of folks in brave denial about the inevitability of the aging process. Quite to the contrary, it seems to me that there are all sorts of pampered privileged sad superficial idiots who are very much on board with the whole transhumanist aging-and-death denialist program. Just because futurologists don't want to think of themselves as boner pill hucksters and personal-motivation seminar carnival barkers doesn't mean the rest of us don't know who's who and what's what.

But I do suppose I do have to concede that I am indeed one of those awful people who has been inspired and comforted by what I take to be the beauty of human bodies that no longer pass for teen-aged, that I do indeed think that many people in coming to terms with the vulnerability of their aging bodies have seemed to acquire wisdom they lacked when they were young, dumb, and full of come, as it were, and fancied themselves invulnerable and irresistible. As someone who is probably at least a couple of decades older than Munkittrick appears to be I can cheerfully attest to the fact that there is plenty about the aging process that sucks and the therapeutic intervention into which would be plenty welcome by me -- as by almost everybody I have ever met -- and I can also agree that not everybody gains any measure of wisdom through their experience with the exactions of aging, perhaps me among them.

However, I disagree that it makes any kind of sense for techno-immortalists to pretend that it is somehow because some have been able to find resources for growth and beauty and meaning in the nearly universal journey of living human beings from youth to adulthood to age, that these Robot Cultists don't have access to the toypile of god-goods they think they want so much.

Further, I really do think it is profoundly disrespectful and frankly deeply disturbingly misanthropic to deny the measure of growth and beauty and meaning that human beings -- every single one of whom always has indeed aged and died and is likely always ever after to continue to so age and certainly will die -- have indeed found their way to some measure of wisdom and meaning in living their lives on the terms actually on offer on the earth that actually exists.

In the comments to Munkittrick's piece, prominent fellow transhumanist Giulio Prisco writes:
Aging has no natural beauty, but is a ugly and cruel thing. Have these bioluddite idiots ever seen a loved person age? There is no "meaning" in aging. It is a disease, a biological accident. At this moment in the history of our species, we are beginning to understand that we will be able to cure it, someday soon. And cure it we will. Those who find beauty and meaning in aging, should feel free to age. We will feel free not to.

Needless to say, though Munkittrick and Prisco and their fellow Robot Cultists may "feel free not to" age, they still are aging and still will age and then they still will die, every one.

Denial isn't an immortalization strategy, it is a becoming a crazy person strategy.

People have not and do not age and die because they have perversely "fe[lt] free to" do so. And to go on to deny that there are any resources available in the experience of aging -- as in every universal living human experience -- from which to make beauty and meaning is, in my view, to confess a desperately limited and profoundly troubled state of mind. If mortality is a biological accident, it is no more so than birth, taste buds, eyesight, thinking brains, or orgasms are.

What on earth do such patent recognitions of reality have to do with "bioluddism" or "cruelty"?

As somebody who doesn't believe in God I don't think death is "cruel" any more than birth "generous" on the part of the universe -- I just think these are facts with which sane people come to terms and make what they will.

As for "luddism," I daresay it is quite easy to embrace anesthesia and penicillin and vaccinations and assistive reproductive techniques and medical research without indulging in the extremely and obviously false fantasizing of techno-immortalists that "aging cures" are now or are soon to be actually on offer.

Prisco says that aging cures are just around the bend. Either he is saying something conspicuously idiotic and crazy -- like "we will be popping anti-aging pills within the usual twenty year window beyond which futurological bullshit artists always claim their prophesies will arrive" -- or he is saying something so modest and sensible that nobody in their right mind would ever think you have to listen to kooks in a Robot Cult to hear such things -- like "we will benefit from effective emerging medical treatments of diseases that resist our available therapies now when certain promising medical research comes to fruition as at least some of it should."

Prisco also says -- with a certain strident panache, one notes -- "And cure it we will"! ("it" being aging and death). This leads me to wonder yet again, as I often find myself wondering when I read the screeds of superlative futurologists, whether he imagines medical immortalization is simply a matter of a few Robot Cultists who can't distinguish science from science fiction making a lot of "can do!" noises when they gather together at their Robot Cult conferences when all is said and done.

It is certainly unfair to saddle Munkittrick with the weird ravings of a commenter on his piece -- but it seems to me there is a profound continuity in the spirit of the arguments I am seeing from them both. Munkittrick goes on in his own piece to propose a kind of thought experiment. He writes:
Imagine we suddenly discover we can cure aging. It’s simple, cheap, universal, and we manage to quickly adapt society to deal with an undying population. All of the impacts described by bioconservatives don’t exist, anti-aging is a glorious and beautiful time and everyone lives for centuries. The cost is the realization that every death was preventable. That billions of people have been, in effect, tortured for decades by nature and because we could not change it we described it as beautiful and honorable. The crisis in our collective psyche would be something of unparalleled magnitude.

Munkittrick seems to be claiming that non-Robot Cultists are somehow deliberately restraining the otherwise inevitable emergence of techno-immortalization therapies because we don't want to face the shattering awareness that will come with the arrival of this techno-immortalization that presumably even more folks could have been techno-immortalized if only we hadn't clung so desperately to our foolish idea that all human beings have always been and are likely always to remain mortals and despite this mortality have sometimes managed nonetheless to have beautiful meaningful lives.

Needless to say, that argument is, er, implausible in the extreme. As with Prisco, Munkittrick seems to be lost in a rather fantastic paranoid delusion in which he is being persecuted by those who refuse to indulge the flabbergasting fantasy that "we [will] suddenly discover we can cure aging… [i]ts [cure will be] simple, cheap, universal[ly available], and we [will] manage to quickly adapt society to deal with an undying population… and [a]ll of the impacts described by [current critics of such daydreams simply] don’t exist [by fiat], anti-aging is a glorious and beautiful time [anti-aging is a time? okay, whatever that means] and everyone lives for centuries," and that we who refuse to pretend that all of these hyperbolically implausible eventualities are possible in any relevant sense of the word are somehow through that refusal making the death-denialist techno-immortalist daydream not come true, we are the ones who are snatching the immortality god-capsule from Kyle Munkittrick's mouth just by refusing to join in with the Robot Cultists and clap louder and louder about its perfect plausibility, nay, inevitability.

On a side note, I strongly disapprove Munkittrick's insinuation that the only people who criticize transhumanists are bioconservatives. Bioconservatives disapprove actually existing medical therapies as well as imaginary futurological ones, usually in the name of imposing parochial norms they defend in the name of the "natural." I criticize many of their claims in pieces anthologized here. One of the things I disapprove of in bioconservative discourse is what I regard as its eugenicism. But in that eugenicism, I perceive a profound and pernicious complementarity between bioconservative and transhumanist ideologists, just as there is a complementarity between undercritical technophobia and undercritical technophilia more generally. Transhumanists like to pretend that all those who oppose them are bioconservatives because through this gesture they hope to create the false impression that only the absurdly hyperbolic, usually outright hysterical, and certainly utterly marginal positions at the extremes of medical and technodevelopmental debates exist at all -- when of course the truth is that almost all the actually relevant arguments disregard the facile futurological fantasizing at the bioconservative and transhumanist sub(cult)ural extremes altogether.

In a later comment to Munkittrick's piece, Giulio Prisco really doubles down on the crazy and goes on to confess:
I don't want to live 1000 years as a senile brain in a rotting body. I want to live 1000 years as a smart brain in a healthy body. Or even better, as a software being without a biological body.

It would almost surely be better I daresay to pat dear delusive little Prisco gently on the crown at this point and say, "There, there, dear, of course you want to be software, don't you worry your pretty little head about a thing, the mean bioluddites aren't going to make your body start rotting, sweet pea."

But to Kyle Munkittrick and to all the other impressionable underexperienced youngsters publishing their earnest embarrassing Robot Cult e-pistles at the IEET website I want to offer a friendly word of advice. Even though you aren't making a whole lot of sense in these arguments you're making in this Robot Cult phase of yours, the truth is that almost everybody believes a foolish thing or two when they are young and you do seem to possess at least a quotidian kind of intelligence, and, well, it isn't too late for you guys. Have a good long look at Giulio Prisco and Natasha Vita More and understand where this futurological foolishness is taking you. You really can still enjoy science fiction and be a healthcare policy geek without being in a Robot Cult.


Athena Andreadis said...

Ah, whitebois and their navels.

A software being... until someone deletes that program. You forgot to mention Martine Rothblatt, plus or minus mindfiles, and David Pearce, with his ideas of eternal happification.

Look at it this way -- most people have to pay for entertainment. We get to watch the transhumorists for free! The sole expense is some stomach lining...

Dale Carrico said...

About Rothblatt's latest digi-splatt you may enjoy this piece from a few days ago. I must say I appreciate the moniker "transhumorists" very much! All best always, d

jimf said...

> I don't think the value of healthcare. . . is. . .
> that it represents some kind of stepping stone along
> the path toward which human beings are being
> techno-immortalized into transcendent quasi-gods with
> sooper-powers. . .

You know, back in the 70's, when I was quaffing the dregs
of the counterculture that I missed eith because I was too
young in the 60s or I was too wrapped up in _Star Trek_, I'm
not sure which, I knew a woman (OK, a girl -- we were
both in our 20s) who was into this amateur psychotherapy
thing called Re-evaluation Co-Counseling. (My God, I
see they're still in business, and on the Web, though
they seem to have dropped one of the "Co's".)

Anyway, the idea there was that you team up with somebody
who isn't part of your primary emotional vortex (you
don't want to do this with a boyfriend or girlfriend,
in other words), someone with some distance and objectivity, and
then you trade off being psychotherapist and client
with that person, in a non-directive Rogerian
kind of way. (I'm not so sure anymore that this is
a good idea, by the way -- psychotherapy is not for
dilettantes, any more than dentistry is).

But i seemed pretty harmless at the time. What I
didn't know, however, until somebody clued me in was that
Harvey Jackins, the founder of the "movement" (or whatever it is,
exactly) had some pretty strange ideas. I was told, for example,
that he believed that if you get rid of all of your hang-ups,
you can extend your lifespan -- be neurosis-free
and you can live to 150! It all sounds to me now like a kind
of also-ran competitor of Scientology.

This kind of wishful logic never surprises me anymore -- the folks
who promote "positive thinking" just don't know when to stop.
Got cancer? Then put on a happy face, whistle while
you work, and you're sure to lick it. And beat
growing old, too. And if you insist on getting old
anyway, you stubborn sad sack, then do it "somewhere
private, and out of my sight" as Sam said to Gollum.

Just Google "Barbara Ehrenreich" and "positive thinking"
(or the name of her recent book, _Bright-Sided_) for
some wryly-humorous commentary on how the bat-shit craziness
of the self-promoting motivational consultants has
permeated the corporate world. What do you do when
your boss is convinced he has The Secret? Or worse,
when he insists on sharing it with you?

"The Secret reveals the most powerful law in the universe.
The knowledge of this law has run like a golden thread
through the lives and the teachings of all the prophets,
seers, sages and saviors in the world's history, and through
the lives of all truly great men and women. All that they
have ever accomplished or attained has been done in full
accordance with this most powerful law.

Without exception, every human being has the ability to
transform any weakness or suffering into strength, power,
perfect peace, health, and abundance."

"Cancer, the physical disease, cannot occur unless there
is a strong undercurrent of emotional uneasiness and
deep-seated frustration."

Bring on the pink Teddy bears.

jimf said...

> Munkittrick writes that "we tell ourselves curing aging
> will cause too many problems and that aging has a lot of
> natural beauty to it and creates a lot of meaning and that
> all of that is good."

To which Dale replied

> [A]lmost nobody in the world is really telling themselves
> seriously that curing aging will cause too many problems
> because almost nobody in the world thinks some kind of
> blanket treatment of all the conditions we associate with
> the aging process is remotely on offer and so there isn't
> really much reason to start rattling off the problems
> that might eventuate from this non-existing non-proximate
> aging cure. . .

That's true enough, but let's cut the kid a break. First
of all 1) Demographers and political scientists probably do
in fact worry (or at least think about, in private in an
idle moment, if not in published scholarship or policy
analysis) about the kinds of population shifts that would occur
if human lifespan could be radically altered. 2) Religious
people probably do in fact have a knee-jerk response to
promises of "immortality" here on earth -- they think it's
impious, or a lying promise of the Devil (that's very much
in the background of, for example, J. R. R. Tolkien's mythology)
and finally 3) Aestheticians and philosophers do in fact place
a bittersweet value on the poignancy of transience as a
spur to the appreciation of fleeting beauty and goodness.
Maybe it's only making the best of a bad situation, but it's
also true that that bad situation **isn't** going to go away
anytime in the foreseeable future, and that, even from the
perspective of cosmically powerful and longeval beings,
may **ever** go away for any kind of life in the universe as we
know it. **That's** in the background of much of
Iain Banks' and Greg Egan's SF. Also see, for example, the
end of Olaf Stapledon's _Star Maker_, or William James's comments
on "The Sick Soul" in _The Varieties of Religious Experience_.

jimf said...

"What had seemed to us at first the irresistible march of
god-like world-spirits, with all the resources of the universe
in their hands and all eternity before them, was now
gradually revealed in very different guise. The great advance
in mental calibre, and the attainment of communal mentality
throughout the cosmos, had brought a change in the experience
of time. The temporal reach of the mind had been very
greatly extended. The awakened worlds experienced an aeon
as a mere crowded day. They were aware of time's passage
as a man in a canoe might have cognizance of a river which in
its upper reaches is sluggish but subsequently breaks into
rapids and becomes swifter and swifter, till, at no great
distance ahead, it must plunge in a final cataract down
to the sea... Comparing the little respite that remained with
the great work which they passionately desired to accomplish,
namely the full awakening of the cosmical spirit, they saw
that at best there was no time to spare, and that, more
probably, it was already too late to accomplish the task...

The sense of the fated incompleteness of all creatures and
of all their achievements gave... a charm, a sanctity,
as of some short-lived and delicate flower."

-- Olaf Stapledon, _Star Maker_
Chapter X, "A Vision of the Galaxy"

jimf said...

> Also see. . . the end of Olaf Stapledon's
> _Star Maker_, or William James's comments on
> "The Sick Soul" in _The Varieties of Religious
> Experience_.

Oh what the hell, I've quoted them before, I'll quote them

"The fact that we can die, that we can be
ill at all, is what perplexes us; the fact
that we now for a moment live and are well
is irrelevant to that perplexity. We need
a life not correlated with death, a health
not liable to illness, a kind of good that
will not perish, a good in fact that flies
beyond the Goods of nature...

This sadness lies at the heart of every
merely positivistic, agnostic, or naturalistic
scheme of philosophy. Let sanguine
healthy-mindedness do its best with its
strange power of living in the moment and
ignoring and forgetting, still the evil
background is really there to be thought
of, and the skull will grin in at the banquet.
In the practical life of the individual,
we know how his whole gloom or glee about
any present fact depends on the remoter
schemes and hopes with which it stands
related. Its significance and framing
give it the chief part of its value. Let
it be known to lead nowhere, and however
agreeable it may be in its immediacy,
its glow and gilding vanish...

The lustre of the present hour is always
borrowed from the background of possibilities
it goes with. Let our common experiences
be enveloped in an eternal moral order; let
our suffering have an immortal significance;
let Heaven smile upon the earth, and deities
pay their visits; let faith and hope be
the atmosphere which man breathes in; -- and
his days pass by with zest; they stir with
prospects, they thrill with remoter values.
Place round them on the contrary the
curdling cold and gloom and absence of all
permanent meaning which for pure naturalism
and the popular science evolutionism of our
time are all that is visible ultimately,
and the thrill stops short, or turns rather
to anxious trembling.

For naturalism, fed on recent cosmological
speculations, mankind is in a position
similar to that of a set of people living
on a frozen lake, surrounded by cliffs over
which there is no escape, yet knowing that
little by little the ice is melting, and
the inevitable day drawing near when the
last film of it will disappear, and to be
drowned ignominiously will be the human
creature's portion. The merrier the skating,
the warmer and more sparkling the sun by
day, and the ruddier the bonfires at night,
the more poignant the sadness with which
one must take in the meaning of the total

William James, _The Varieties of Religious Experience_,
Lectures VI and VII
"The Sick Soul"

AnneC said...

Lots of what you're saying here, I now agree with, though it took me a while to get there. I suspect that a lot of the lengthy screeds "against" aging that come out are due to the fact that they're very easy to write without actually requiring the person to DO anything. There's a seductive quality to thinking that the "whole reason" older people die of nasty painful diseases is because too many people think this is okay and even desirable -- it makes the whole practice of writing melodramatic blog posts seem Deeply Significant (and yes, I speak from experience, and some embarrassment, here).

Now, none of this means I'm uninterested in biogerontology research (I remain very interested in this, and would happily work to further it if I had the opportunity), or that I don't see a need to reform healthcare policy. It just means I think, nowadays, that the whole Impassioned Rage Against Death thing is a mis-guided distraction, and not one likely to lead to anything remotely resembling what its purveyors claim to want.

Dale Carrico said...

Quite so -- biogerontology, medical research, healthcare reform, actual science, yes. But death denialism in futurological circle jerks peddled as royal road to techno-immortalization, uh, not so much.

Dale Carrico said...

Btw, Munkittrick has now posted this by way of reply to my post. By all means, give it a looksee and form your own opinions.

jimf said...

> Munkittrick has now posted this by way of reply to my post.

"Dale Carrico has been largely disregarded as a petulant
non-entity by those within bioethics and science studies

"Science studies", huh? are those the folks who write
articles for _Discover_ magazine?

Dale Carrico said...

I thought he must be talking about STS (science and technology studies), which is not a "community," of course, but, you know, a critical discourse. When you are cultist or a fanboy, every mode of association looks like a cult or a fandom, I guess. STS has a still-emerging canon and a few premier journals, but, well, I teach that canon (especially Haraway and Latour, as readers of Amor Mundi will readily recognize) and subscribe to those journals like many other academics who are interested in STS. I can't say that I have ever sought any particular "regard" from anybody for teaching STS material, apart from the regard of my many fine students over the years at UC Berkeley and at the San Francisco Art Institute, so it isn't exactly clear to me of what this "disregard" of me is supposed to consist exactly. In case anybody is curious, neither am I angling for some kind of stardom -- or whatever it is that Munkittrick thinks I am bereft of -- for teaching rhetorical theory, aesthetics and politics, gender theory, critical race theory, environmental justice critique, media theory, or peace and conflict studies. I can cheerfully report, however, that if this is what being a non-entity feels like, I must say it's not half bad.