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

Monday, June 28, 2010

"Be Practical, Demand the Impossible"

Upgraded and adapted from the Moot, responding yet again to the tireless objections of bravely pseudonymous "Summerspeaker," once more with feeling...
You reject transhumanist similarities to revolutionary dreamers on the basis that the technologies required to implement their vision are impossible... The charge of impossibility applies equally to... radical feminism. I've heard it a thousand times. Our ideals of social transformation exist in the same unproven space as Aubrey de Grey's quest for rejuvenation therapy.

If you can't see the difference between the struggle to educate, agitate, and organize to give more people more of a say in the public decisions that affect them, as against the faith-based initiatives of Robot Cultists clapping louder so that their organismic brains can be "migrated" into non-organismic cyberspatial next-best-thing-to-immortalization in a virtual treasure cave or comicbook-capacitated robot body all under the wise kind care of a sooper-parental Robot God then there really is nothing I can say to you on this matter.

Just because patriarchal pricks and rich assholes refuse to relinquish their unearned privileges without struggle doesn't mean that the struggle for equity-in-diversity is impossible even if it sometimes seems too difficult to bear. This is why the Situationists rightly insisted in the name of practicality the apparently unpractical demanding of the impossible of our norms, customs, institutions, re-politicizing what incumbency would de-politicize to domesticate the status quo from its actual historical contingency into what will be taken as natural inevitability. But neither does the fact that the struggle for justice is always more worthwhile than it may seem in the belly of the beast mean that everything declared to be impossible is really secretly possible after all. Fighting for democracy, equity, consent, and diversity are difficult, indeed we will all of us break our hearts and be shattered on the wheel of history fighting for them... but building perpetual motion machines and squaring circles are faith-based initiatives built in basements by dot-eyed cranks and charismatic charlatans who are deceiving others or themselves or both. There is a difference. It makes a difference.

When I declare the superlative futurological formulations of the Robot Cultists impossible you really must understand that I am not declaring them impossible in the sense of being too tough because humans lack enough zizzy zazzy can-do spirit to get 'er done, but declaring them to be actually incoherent aspirations, profound misconstruals of the conditions on which the Robot Cultists' pet objects for techno-transcendentalization depend for their actual legibility and continence in the first place.

Intelligence is incarnated and socialized in ways that make it a profound error to speak of its digitization, agency is citational and interdependent in ways that make it a profound error to speak of its augmentation via autonomizing capacitation, to the extent that flourishing selfhood is biological it is a profound error to speak of its indefinite survivable extension, to the extent that it is narrative it is a profound error to speak of its indefinite coherent extension, and to the extent that it is cultural it is partial, multiple, and vulnerable in ways that make it a profound error to speak "neutrally" of it enhancement, history is constituted through stakeholder struggle in ways that make it a profound error to speak of its overcoming through digital or nanobotic or otherwise magical slavebotic superabundance, or its end without speaking as well of genocide.

Robot Cultists in my view literally do not know what they are talking about when it comes to the very things about which they talk endlessly. I mean that in the most fundamental way. Such substance as attaches to their formulations is an amalgam of irrational passions (fear of impotence in the face of historical contingency and disruption, anxiety about error and misunderstanding and disease and death, greed for control and easy pleasures, the usual infantile array) and citations of age-old mythic and theological frames (the omnipredicates, paradise, resurrection, apocalypse, transcension, Icarus, Faust, Frankenstein, Sorcerer's Apprentice, golem, and so on).
I'm trying to bring a leftist revolutionary perspective to the movement and (re)claim transhumanism for such ends, but that's perhaps a waste of time.

James Hughes already tried this and failed. Now he's a water-carrier and token lefty sanewashing neoliberal corporate-militarists and techno-fetishizing fanboys who confuse science fiction with science proper and with science policy. To the extent that futurology advocates technological determinism or autonomy (apoliticism or yet another "third way") it will always conduce structurally to incumbent interests, and to the extent that futurology casts its politics in subcultural forms -- especially given the defensive marginality of its membership -- it will always conduce to authoritarian formations, with their skewed conceptions of the possible and the important, either in the form of outright creeds or at any rate strict circumscriptions of the debatable and all at odds with mainstream and professional consensus on these matters, would-be gurus and noncredentialed eminences, True Believers convinced of their elect avant-gardism, and so on. Any democratizing sensibility will be swimming against an irresistably reactionary tide of industrial-broadcast incumbency and authoritarian subculture. (There are also different and deeper reasons still why every futurism amounts to a retro-futurism in my view, but that takes me into an account of futurity as an openness inhering in present diversity that must be closed in the service of devotion to the parochialism of any one projection of "The Future," for more elaborate accounts of which I recommend you read my other contributions to anti-futurological critique elsewhere.)

There is plenty of call for technoscientifically literate, technodevelopmentally concerned people of the left to engage in education, agitation, and organization to solve shared problems and facilitate the sustainable, accountable, equitable distribution of costs, risks, and benefits of technoscientific change to all the diverse stakeholders to that change and to facilitate the informed, nonduressed consensual prosthetic/cultural self-determination of persons and lifeways.

But I'm telling you the Robot Cult stuff is palpably ridiculous nonsense, not to mention a perniciously reactionary force in the world.

1 comment:

jimf said...

> Intelligence is incarnated and socialized in ways that make
> it a profound error to speak of its digitization. . .

Unless, of course, the whole world is capable of being "digitized"
and simulated in fine enough detail to make the simulation
"work" (for some value of "work").

As in Greg Egan's _Permutation City_. But whereas Egan could
hand-wave the "six-dimensional Turing-von Neumann-Chiang (TVC)
grid" into existence (in classic SFnal handwaving style --
think of a cool name for it and it's real) as a computational
substrate for his "Autoverse", and then just have his
characters go live there without a second thought, there's
never even been a hint of that kind of capability in the
real world (it would be a considerable stretch to say that Conway's
"Life" or even Henry Markram's "Blue Brain" count as such).

Yes, there are a few physicists (at the edge of crankhood) --
David Deutsch (_The Fabric of Reality_) and
Stephen Wolfram (_A New Kind of Science_) come to mind --
who believe that the fundamental basis of reality
**is** computation in some sense. Yes, Greg Egan
writes whiz-bang SF based on this idea (a lot of his
stuff is based on it, from the short story "Wang's
Carpets" through _Permutation City_ and _Diaspora_).

However, my crystal ball says that even if anything
like that level of simulation should eventually become
technologically possible (and it's an old, old idea --
I first read Daniel F. Galouye's _Simulacron-3_ when
I was 12 or so, and I believe there are even earlier
examples of the SF trope), it won't be based on
anything that looks in the slightest like a modern-day
digital computer (any more than the >Hists modern-day
computer-based aspirations look anything like
an 18th-century clockwork and steam-valve "automaton").