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

Sunday, October 31, 2010


The willingness of Democrats to compromise will not change the refusal of Republicans (in their present incarnation) to call anything short of total capitulation to their agenda compromise.

"The Tea Party Isn't A Mirage"

Wow, and I thought I was feeling skittish and grumpy!

What BooMan said:
Jon Stewart and Frank Rich both spent the weekend before the midterms telling us that the Tea Party is really not reality. They tell us it is a mirage created with funhouse mirrors and Koch Brothers' money… The Tea Party isn't a mirage. It isn't something that the Trent Lotts of the world can control. If it were, Mike Castle and Charlie Crist would be cruising to election to the U.S. Senate. When you put people in government, particularly when you put them into government with six-year terms, you change that government. Whatever heat-fever of passion put them in there doesn't break as suddenly as it arose. It stays on... It eats away at the flesh of its host... We won't be politely waving each other through as we all go about making the little compromises we make every day just to get to work. Go out and vote. Vote because Stewart's happy vision may be inspiring but it ain't happening... [O]ther people told you everything would be okay if you just turn off cable news. It won't be okay. It won't be anything remotely resembling okay.

Of course what the Koch Brothers and Karl Rove and Fox News are doing is gaming a system that is only notionally representative into even more of a corporate-militarist plutocracy than it already was, which is not to deny that "Tea Party" views only represent a marginal minority of actual Americans in fact and hence are a mirage in the way the "Silent Majority" and the "Moral Majority" and the "Values Voters" were also mirages, but is indeed to deny that the "Tea Party" is a mirage if we think of mirages as too insubstantial to have pernicious impacts on the actual lives of a significant majority of Americans and precarious planet-wide targets of our bombs and neoliberal policies and catastrophic climate change. I think terrible things are going to happen over the next years if Republicans take over Congress, and I agree with BooMan that this is not at all okay, even if I do not mean by this that I think it is the End Times in the sense Stewart was lampooning either.

Why I Am Bothered and Why I Bother

As an empirical matter, I think what has been happening for mid-term GOTV on Spanish-speaking media and in Black churches matters more than Jon Stewart's "Rally for Blandity" audience does (not least because his audience wouldn't watch his show if they actually bought the phony equivalence he was peddling at the rally itself), and I also think it matters in ways that few pollsters or punditocraps are accounting for. I am very worried about Tuesday because the stakes do indeed seem to me to be high given the well-exposed fragility of both houses of Congress as remotely functional institutions and given the actual extremity of many who may be elected to them, but I won't be shocked by pleasant surprises any more than I am willing to count on them. No, the reason I'm paying attention to the Jon Stewart thing is just because he's made an argument, I disagree with his argument, I do think arguments matter and are worth having, and in the bigger scheme of things my particular disagreement with Stewart points to what seems to me the rather urgent problem that liberals still don't make a positive factual case for what they are doing often enough, don't testify repeatedly to their factual accomplishments in plain terms and hence allow deceptive mass-mediated narratives to commandeer conventional perception, don't seem entirely comfortable making appeals to their sense of the facts at hand or calling out deceptions or errors as such even when this is called for, and retreat all too readily instead into discussions of tone and mood that better reflect the comfort level of a comparatively (or imaginary) privileged speaker than the actual stakes or facts at hand, and all this in ways that render liberalism much less effective than it really has to be to be equal to the real problems we face (anthropogenic climate change, neoliberal class war, high-tech militarism).

The Crappiest Plutocracy Money Can Buy

World Wrestling Entertainment held a raucous, reduced-price event yesterday in Connecticut, with attendees encouraged by CEO Vince McMahon to vote on Tuesday, and to wear their WWE merchandise when they do so. And of course, this officially was not any kind of corporate promotion of Republican Senate nominee Linda McMahon, the former WWE CEO and Vince's wife and business partner.

One hopes Jon Stewart's researchers are busy locating the equivalent unqualified Democratic celebrity wrestling impresario trying to buy their election for a humorous and balanced bit this Monday before the Big Day.

(I still like Jon Stewart, by the way, and cheerfully watch his show. I'm just annoyed at him at the moment. I still think he's more a force for good than not, though for reasons he would apparently disapprove of.)

A Debate With Martin About the Jon Stewart Rally for Sanity

Upgraded and Adapted from the Moot, long-time friend-of-blog Martin writes:
Of course, everything that PZ said was wrong. Stewart implied none of that. He made it pretty clear that there were big problems and hard work ahead.

"This was not a rally to ridicule people of faith, or people of activism, or to look down our noses at the heartland, or passionate argument, or to suggest that times are not difficult and we have nothing to fear. They are, and we do. But we live now in hard times, not end times."

His criticism was aimed at politicians and pundits, the "the country's 24-hour politico pundit perpetual panic conflictinator." Less explicitly, it was aimed at wingnuts on both sides -- the people he had seen at Tea Party rallies and the Glenn Beck rally, which was the prime motivator for this rally.

The Rally to Restore Sanity was not designed to get out the vote or get people to vote democratic (some complaints that I've seen). It was exactly what it was advertised as from the beginning: a rally to show that the politicians, pundits, and wingnuts that we have been seeing on television don't represent average Americans; that the inability of Washington to get things done is not reflective of the millions of people who make compromises every day and get things done, despite their political and religious differences.

And yeah, I think Ed Schultz is just as bad as Glenn Beck, and quite *obviously* says outrageous things to get ratings, just like Beck and O'Reilly. This strategy pads their wallets, but it doesn't move America forward.

To which I reply:

Although Stewart said his rally was not ridiculing activists, his "balanced" montage included Glenn Beck saying false deranged things and Keith Olbermann saying true intense things and he acted as though these are equally problematic. And the montage was comedic, it posed Olbermann and Beck as not just the same, but as equally ridiculous.

If your problems are extreme (as ours surely are) and there are factions engaged in widespread deceit in the face of those problems (as climate change denialists and bigots and neo-cons eager to lie us into illegal immoral wars of choice palpably, factually do), there will be few ways for activists to address these problems that will not be vulnerable to Stewart's charge of immoderateness.

Like it or not his rhetoric diminishes the space in which activism equal to the problems at hand can function and does so through ridicule.

Stewart is a rich celebrity in New York. Because he seems to be a man of sense and feeling I do not doubt he grasps that these are hard times. But countless people die in warmonger adventures, countless people die due to the disruptions of anthropogenic climate change, neoliberal financialization and developmentalist SAP and austerity measures are class war with real casualities. I agree that little is helped by figuring these crimes and catastrophes through the narrative of theological apocalypse, but I do not agree that denial about the real violence and real end-time deaths of fellow human beings is sanity.

Of course his event was "aimed at wingnuts on both sides," a completely phony equivalence that is not the problem however much gentle-souled (that is to say, pampered and lazy) liberals would prefer to believe it is so that by ratcheting up their self-recrimination in the comfort of their homes they fancy they have struck a blow for freedom in the face of an ongoing reactionary class war that technoscience has exacerbated onto a planetary field.

I do agree that the Rally to Restore Sanity wasn't finally about getting people to vote. It was an entertaining promotional event for the one hour programming block of TDS and Colbert, rather like a Christmas Special or summer tour. I enjoy both shows myself, but the confusion of this extended ad for organized politics is profoundly demoralizing to me.

What will "Move America Forward" depends on where it is you want to go. The slogan is vacuous, precisely because agreement does not exist as to what America should look like.

I personally want a sustainable secular social democracy in the US as a prelude to a democratic federalist world government with a basic income guarantee, lifelong free education, and universal healthcare for every citizen.

Are we moving "forward" to that? Would a Tea Bag Patriot agree?

Democrats don't say what they are for or what they have accomplished, and the result is that people don't know what they are for and believe the lies of Republicans about what they have or have not done.

Stewart said he wants people to be more agreeable and to keep watching his show, and then pretended people who are disagreeable, whether their aims are noble or ignoble, whether they serve up lies or facts, are the problem.

He is wrong, and if enough people buy his line things will get worse not better in my view. If they get much worse it is factually possible that these will indeed be more like End Times than hard times, even for rich entertainers, come what may. It is not my saying this, but those who deny this but know better, who are the problem.

Thank heavens the crowd for the rally showed little sign of falling for Stewart's false equivalencies, and I do not doubt that Stewart himself will proceed in defiance of his own BS and continue producing a show ridiculing the actual wingnuts of the right with occasional nudges at the foibles of lefties that reflects factual reality rather than genuflects at faux balance.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Thankfully, Both Critical and Hypocritical

Fortunately for us all, we can expect Jon Stewart entirely to ignore his own recommendation of faux balanced treatment of both sense and scoundrelry and to continue cruelly mocking all the same people Keith Olbermann and Ed Schultz and Rachel Maddow also cruelly mock and for all the same reasons they cruelly mock them, even if he will occasionally sanctimoniously criticize them for doing so, and therefore his show will continue to be worth watching and keep him in the money.

"Don't Sit This One Out"

Pentagon Preventing Soldiers Access to Progressive Voter Information

The Hill:
A progressive activist group in California is complaining that the Pentagon has prevented soldiers from accessing its web site in Iraq. Courage Campaign, a 700,000-member grassroots organization, has demanded in a letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates that access to its site be provided before the Nov. 2 Election Day. The group argues that Californians serving in Iraq who will vote on a series of ballot measures on Tuesday do not have access to the Courage Campaign voters guide, which might help them make decisions... In contrast, the group said a number of web sites that espouse conservative views can be accessed on Defense Department computers. The Hill independently confirmed that the Tea Party Express site can be accessed on Defense Department computers while the Courage Campaign site cannot be accessed.

Jon Stewart's Rally for Blandity

What PZ Myers said:
I'm at a loss about what we're supposed to do in the world according to Jon Stewart. Hey, all you people working for gay and lesbian equality, all you women asking for equal pay, all you workers trying to unionize, all you peaceniks trying to end the war in Afghanistan, all you nurses and doctors and clinic workers trying to maintain reproductive freedom and keep women alive, all you teachers trying to teach science and history without censorship, all you citizens trying to build a rational health care policy, all you scientists and doctors who want our country to progress in medical research, all you damned secularists who want to keep religion out of our schools and government, hey, hey, HEY, you! Tone it down. Quit making such a fuss. You're too loud. Shush. You're as crazy as the teabaggers if you think your principles are worth fighting for.



Listen for it.

Promoting False Equivalencies Is Not a Restoration of Sanity

As we head into a mid-term election that looks likely by most accounts to reward those who loudly proclaim their desire to do the opposite of what most people claim to want to be done, it is enormously important to grasp the reality and the significance of the reality that majorities appear to believe what is palpably the opposite of easily demonstrable facts of the matter concerning the rates at which they are being taxed, the public cost of the bank bailouts, the number of legislative accomplishments of this congress compared to others, while at once they seem indifferent to the declared hostility of so many soon-to-be-elected Republicans to elementary facts of climate science, Keynesian economics, American history, Constitutional law, harm-reduction models of public policy, and on and on and on.

Contra Jon Stewart, that speaking truth to power is often unmannerly is not what is making America insane at the moment, but that the media has grown indifferent or hostile to the wholesome force of the factual. And I cannot believe it falls to an effete elite aesthete, a menacingly relativistic humanities scholar, a convivial let a bazillion flowers bloom multiculturalist, to make this point -- namely, that however defeasible and contingent they always remain in principle, candidate descriptions for belief in matters of prediction and control (beliefs especially relevant to the administration of public goods after all) warranted by consensus according to the criteria of public testability and substantiation, among others, are indeed preferable to those that are not so warranted.

Declaring MSNBC (like it or not) the equivalent of Fox "News" -- as Stewart's rally seemed to do -- is profoundly disrespectful of fact, and to declare those who decry a non-existing "gay agenda" equivalent to those who decry actually existing institutional racism in America -- as, again, Stewart's rally seemed to do -- is profoundly disrespectful of both decency and fact, and to demand such disrespect -- as the rally seemed to do -- is not to champion a restoration of sanity but to indulge in delusion.

While it is surely true, as the enormously well-meaning, likable, and usually funny Jon Stewart said today, that not every self-identified Tea Party activist is a racist it is also true that without white racism the Tea Party would not be the force it has become in our debased public discourse, that the Tea Party depends on racism to drive its disparate energies -- and to disdain this truth is not a restoration of sanity but, again, to indulge in delusion.

Maintaining the insanity of false equivalencies is not a path toward the restoration (or, to be blunt, initial accomplishment) of sanity and fairness in America. Given that Stewart insists his is a critique of the media's coverage of politics rather than politics itself, it is rather depressing to find him re-enacting the phony "centrism" and false objectivity of factually-indifferent "balance" that has typified mainstream media debasement of sense for so long as his solution to this debasement. Until Jon Stewart takes a stand for the factual -- which requires courage precisely because one always risks being wrong in one's stand and paying at the least the price of correction -- he is, I'm afraid, part of the problem he rightly decries and not its solution.

There are both earnest and ironic ways of telling truths, including telling truth to power -- but phony balancing acts between con-artists and public servants, or between ignoramuses and experts, as well as recourse to cheap sarcasm all lack the courage of conviction and debase sense.

Also, when all is said and done, it's not funny, at least not for long.

And by way of conclusion I do have to note that I personally thought the only real laugh-out-loud comedy at what was essentially a Comedy Central promotional event was in the great signs and costumes in the crowd, not from the rather stale professional bits on stage.

This Week's White Guys of "The Future" Report

Hey, y'all, it's that time again!

Time to visit the oh so serious techno-"progressive" futurologists at the stealth Robot Cult outfit IEET, the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.

After two weeks with nothing but futurological White Guys on display, I am happy to report this week that of all the faces of featured authors to be seen on IEET's website this afternoon there is indeed a face that is not the face of a white guy. Yeah, one single face.

And yet, only a minority of people in the world are white guys. Only a minority of people with whom tomorrow will be made and shared are white guys. Only a minority of people in the world impacted by technodevelopmental changes are white guys. Only a minority of people in the world who are well informed and have important things to say about matters of technoscience are white guys.

The relentless non-representativeness I have been documenting week after week after week for months now over at IEET, supposedly the most "academic," "moderate," "respectable" of the membership organizations in the futurological Robot Cult archipelago, has long seemed to me to represent just one of the more obvious symptoms of the profound marginality of what I call superlative sub(cult)ural futurology.

For more of my critique of the glaring conceptual and political problems with these White Guys of "The Future" I recommend interested readers begin with my Condensed Critique of Transhumanism.

Futurological Either-Or

Upgraded and adapted from the Moot:

You can't get from commonsense materialism or consensus science advocacy to futurology, let alone superlative futurology.

Confronted with insistent criticism in respect to the techno-transcendentalizing wish-fulfillment fantasies that are unique to and actually definitive of the Robot Cultists they


provisionally circle the wagons and reassure one another through rituals of insistent solidarity (sub(cult)ural conferences, mutual citation) to distract themselves from awareness of their marginality,


they retreat to mainstream claims (effective healthcare is good, humans are animals not angels) that nobody has to join a Robot Cult to grasp and few but Robot Cultists would turn to Robot Cultists to hear discussed to distract critics from awareness of their marginality.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Joshua Variations

"A strange game. The only winning move is not to play."

More Anti-Singularitarian Comics!

pictures for sad children:
"…the singularity is the nerd way of saying, 'in the future, being rich and white will be even more awesome…' it gives spiritual significance to technology developed primarily for entertainment or warfare"

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

"Don't Be Evil?" Why Are Tech Companies Teaming With Karl Rove and Big Oil and Tobacco Cynically Sliming Kamala Harris on the Death Penalty?

Robert Cruickshank of Calitics asks an interesting question.

So, at what point exactly do we get that Google is evil, anyway?

Death Atlas, Time Lapses

A tip of the hat to my SFAI student Ian for this:

This is Isao Hashimoto time-lapse map of the two thousand fifty three nuclear detonations that took place between 1945 and 1998, beginning with the Manhattan Project’s “Trinity” test near Los Alamos and concluding with Pakistan’s nuclear tests in May of 1998.

The truly eerie beauty of the piece recalls Laurie Anderson's lovely lachrymose descriptions of America's bombing of Baghdad the first time around, as the images slowly unspooled on CNN's livid green night vision video, "It was like fireflies on a summer night, it was like the 4th of July..."

One gets the strange impression the continents themselves are waking into slow awareness and struggling to speak to one another with chimes and lights, eventually rather like that frenetic human organist chattering away at the Mother Ship at the end of Close Encounters. Of course, the spectacle we are witnessing is indeed a kind of conversation, or at any rate the belligerent traded signals of murderous intents, fueled by unawareness and disdaining conversation, signals that might still conversation and awareness altogether.

Do please discard the suggestions I have read on other sites featuring this amazing piece that you skip forward past the slower-moving more widely-paced early detonations -- the poetry demands you actually devote a dozen minutes of your life to the whole melody, and the impact of the whole is altogether shattering. If you really think you're too busy for that, then you're dead already and the piece has nothing to say to you anyway.

More Signs of the Singularity! (Also: MORE BOMBS!)

Danger Room:
[F]or three-quarters of an hour Saturday morning, launch control officers at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming couldn’t reliably communicate or monitor the status of 50 Minuteman III nuclear missiles…. A single hardware failure appears to have been the root cause of the disruption, which snarled communications on the network that links the five launch control centers and 50 silos of the 319th Missile Squadron. Multiple error codes were reported, including “launch facility down.” [The event was] not unprecedented: “Something similar happened before at other missile fields.” A disruption of this magnitude, however, is considered an anomaly of anomalies…. “I saw this happen to three or four missiles, maybe,” says John Noonan, a former U.S. Air Force missile launch officer… “This is 50 ICBMs dropping off at once. I never heard of anything like it.”

Er, awesome.

Another paragraph in the report seemed rather worthy of note:
The incident comes at a particularly tricky time for the Obama administration, which is struggling to get the Senate to ratify a nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia. In conservative political circles, there’s a distrust of the nuclear cuts — and a demand that they be matched with investments in atomic weapon upgrades. Saturday’s shutdown will undoubtedly bolster that view.

Oh, yes, undoubtedly. It's just another window into the Republican Reptile Brain:
Problem: Failures of safety measures for our apocalyptic nuclear arsenal pointlessly imperil world.

Republican Reptile Brain Response: MORE BOMBS!

[Note: MORE BOMBS! is always the response, whatever the problem. It's easier to remember that way for your average Republican Reptile Brain. Do not mock Happy Fun Ball.]

Monday, October 25, 2010

"Don't Tread On Me"

According to Blue Bluegrass the Randroid Paul thug stomping the peaceful MoveOn protester was wearing a "Don't Tread on Me" button on his shirt.

Face, Meet Fascist

A wingnut boot stamping a critic's face... you know, for kids!

This is the essence of the Tea Party.

This is the Republican "base," this is the "new energy" they are talking about, this is the substance that fills the "enthusiasm gap."

This is what "mainstream" "moderate" Republican John McCain endorsed when he chose Sarah Palin as his running mate and declared her fit to be within a sapped superannuated heartbeat of the Presidency.

This is private thugs detaining journalists by force in Alaska, this is the threat of "2nd Amendment Remedies" should elections not go the way Republicans want, this is the promise to shut down government if Democrats don't do everything Republicans want, whatever the costs, whatever the impacts, whatever the facts, whatever majorities say to the contrary.

This is a mob screaming that building an Islamic community center in Manhattan is an act of terror, this is racial profiling in Arizona, immigrant bashing, fearmongering about desert decapitations, fantasies of Berlin Walls at American borders, this is gay bashing, this is justifying torture, this is the joy of bullies, this is the hatred of women that thinks a rapist's fetus has more rights than the woman he impregnated, this is racist jokes about the President, this is the insatiable demand for "proof" that he really is a citizen, really the President, this is impeachment without reason as a campaign slogan, this is citizens with all the rights and freedoms they have ever had shrieking "We Want Our Country Back!" this is every single Republican in Congress or running for Congress on record denying the plain scientific consensus that human industry is creating catastrophic climate change.

This is hatred of difference, this is hatred of thought, this is hatred of freedom.

This is the worst among us, the worst in us, with worse to come.

I hope this image circulates widely, and I hope the truth it exposes so baldly about the "libertarian" "patriotic" "freedom loving" consummation of Movement Republicanism in a brownshirt bacchanalia wakes people up before it is too late.

Dispatches From Libertopia: Jackbooted Thug Edition

MoveOn member versus Rand Paul supporter, Democrat versus Republican, political satire versus mob violence.

Yes on Prop 19

Whitman Endorses Brown

The punch of a negative ad and the glow of a positive ad in one seamless spot. Another brilliant blissfully effective ad from the Brown Campaign. And this one arrives less than a week after this devastating Brown ad appeared.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Three Pillars of Robot Cultism

Upgraded and adapted from the Moot, Friend of Blog James F. notes:
[T]he Three Pillars of the Transhumanist Creed these days seem to be: (1) superhuman AI, (2) nanotechnology and (3) physical immortality. Either (1) begets (2), or (2) begets (1), and (1) and (2) beget (3).

I'll note that Jim's Three Pillars here evoke the three super-predicates of my critique of superlative futurology -- superintelligence, superabundance, and superlongevity -- which mobilize in my view the three conventional omni-predicates -- omniscience, omnibenevolence, and omnipotence -- in a theologically-freighted techno-transcendental amplification of the marketing-promotional discourse already fraudulently suffusing mainstream neoliberal developmentalism (as discussed reasonably fully but succinctly in the Condensed Critique of Transhumanism). Jim's point that these three wish-fulfillment fantasies are presumably developmentally correlated in superlative futurology, mutually dependent, mutually reinforcing, is especially interesting in this connection, since everybody knows the three omni-predicates are mutually exclusive, a paradox only "resolvable" by recourse to faith over reason, and precisely the faithfulness Robot Cultists themselves disavow through their belligerent spectacle of superficial and pseudo scientificity.

Deal With Death or Deal In It

No one escapes this choice, and it is the one that matters most of all for most of us.

Rainy Days and Sundays Always Get Me Down

I am offended not so much by the faiths of the faithful -- we should all of us have the consolation of the poetry which moves us -- but by those who would peddle their faiths as argument and so steal the hope of a common knowledge from the world.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

This Week's White Guys of "The Future" Report

It's that time again!

Time to visit the terribly serious technoprogressive futurologists at the stealth Robot Cult outfit IEET, the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.

Sadly, I must report again this week that, just like last week, of all the faces of featured authors to be seen on the website this afternoon there is not a single face that is not the face of a white guy.

Let there be no doubt, the Robot Cultists of serious transhumanism have seen "The Future," my friends.

And "The Future" is a white penis.

And yet, only a minority of people in the world are white guys. Only a minority of people with whom tomorrow will be made and shared are white guys. Only a minority of people in the world impacted by technodevelopmental changes are white guys. Only a minority of people in the world who are well informed and have important things to say about matters of technoscience are white guys.

The rather relentless non-representativeness I have been documenting week after week after week for months now over at IEET, supposedly the most "academic," "moderate," "respectable" of the membership organizations in the futurological Robot Cult archipelago, has long seemed to me to represent just one of the more obvious symptoms of the profound marginality of what I call superlative sub(cult)ural futurology.

For more of my critique of the glaring conceptual and political problems with these White Guys of "The Future" I recommend interested readers begin with my Condensed Critique of Transhumanism.

Of Differently Intelligent Beings

Adapted and Upgraded from the Moot

"Mitchell" writes:
I notice that no-one has chosen to dispute or otherwise comment on my observation that the human brain gets things done, not just by virtue of being "organismic" (or embodied or fleshy or corporeal), but because its constituent neurons are arranged so as to perform elaborate and highly specific transformations of input to output, which correspond to specific cognitive functions like learning and memory, and which, at the mathematical level of description, fall squarely within the scope of the subfield of theoretical computer science which studies algorithms.

Under other circumstances, I'd be happy to have a freewheeling discussion about the subjective constitution of imputed intentionality in the practice of programming, or the right way to talk about the brain's "computational" properties without losing sight of its physicality, or exactly why it is that consciousness presents a challenge to the usual objectifying approach of natural-scientific ontology.

But however all that works out, and whatever subtle spin on the difference between natural and artificial intelligence best conveys the truth... at a crude and down-to-earth level, it is indisputable that the human brain is full of specialized algorithms, that these do the heavy lifting of cognition, and that such algorithms can execute on digital computers and on networks of digital computers.

That is why you can't handwave away "artificial intelligence" as a conceptual confusion. If you want to insist that the real thing has to involve consciousness and the operation of consciousness, and that this can't occur in digital computers, fine, I might even agree with you. But all that means is that the "artificiality" of AI refers to something a little deeper than the difference between being manufactured and being born. It does not imply any limit on the capacity of machines to emulate and surpass human worldly functionality.

My point is not that our intelligence is "just" embodied, but that it is indispensably so, and in ways that bedevil especially the hopes of those Robot Cultists who hope to code a "friendly" sooper-parental Robot God, or to "migrate" their souls from one materialization to others "intact" and quasi "immortalized."

That you can find maths to describe some or, maybe -- who now knows? (answer: nobody and certainly not you, whatever your confidence on this score, and also certainly not me) -- even much of the flavor of intelligence would scarcely surprise me, inasmuch as maths are, after all, so good at usefully getting at so much of the world's furniture.

I am happy to agree that it may be useful for the moment to describe the brain as performing specialized algorithms, among other things the brain is up to, and it is surely possible that these do what you call the "heavy lifting" of cognition. But that claim is far from "indisputable," and even if it turns out to be right that hardly puts you or anybody in a position to identify "intelligence" with "algorithms" in any case, especially if you concede "intelligence" affective dimensions (which look much more glandular than computational) and social expressions (which look far more like contingent stakeholder struggles in history than like beads clicking on an abacus).

Inasmuch as all the issues to which you allude in your second paragraph -- subjective imputation of intention, doing justice to the materiality that always non-negligibly incarnates information, to which I would add uninterrogated content of recurring metaphors mistaken in their brute repetition for evidence -- suffuse the discourse of GOFAI dead-enders, cybernetic totalists, singularitarians, and upload-immortalists I do think you better get to the "other circumstances" in which you are willing to give serious thought to critiques of them (my own scarcely the most forceful among them) sooner rather than later.

You will forgive me if I declare it seems to me it is you who is still indulging in handwaving here. As an example, in paragraph three, when you go from saying, harmlessly enough, that much human cognition is susceptible to description as algorithmic then make the point, obviously enough, that digital and networked computers execute algorithms, you hope that the wee word "such" can flit by unnoticed, un-interrogated, while still holding up all the weight of the edifice of posited continuities and identities you are counting on for the ideological GOFAI program and cyber-immortalization program to bear its fruits for the faithful. You re-enact much the same handwave in your eventual concession of the "something a little deeper" between even the perfect computers of our fancy and the human intelligences of our worldly reality, which may indeed be big enough and deep enough as differences go to be a difference in kind that is the gulf between the world we share and the techno-transcendence Robot Cultists pine for.

You know, your "colleague" Giulio Prisco likes to accuse me of "vitalism" for such points -- which to my mind would rather be like a phrenologist descrying vitalism in one who voiced skepticism about that pseudo-science at the height of the scam. So far you seem to be making a comparatively more sophisticated case, bless you -- we'll see how long that lasts -- but the lesson of Prisco's foolishness is one you should take to heart.

I for one have never claimed that intelligence is in any sense supernatural, and given its material reality you can hardly expect me to deny it susceptibility of mathematical characterizations. It's true I have not leaped on futurological bandwagons reducing all of intelligence to algorithms (or the whole universe to the same), seeing little need or justification for such hasty grandiloquent generalizations and discerning in them eerily familiar passions for simplicity and certainty (now amplified by futurologists with promises of eternal life and wealth beyond the dreams of avarice) that have bedeviled the history of human thought in ways that make me leery as they should anybody acquainted with that history.

But I am far from thinking it impossible in principle that a non-organismic structure might materially incarnate and exhibit what we would subsequently describe as intelligent behavior -- though none now existing or likely soon to be existing by my skeptical reckoning of the scene do anything like this, and I must say that ecstatic cheerleading to the contrary about online search engines or dead-eyed robotic sex-dolls by AI ideologues scarcely warms me to their cause. Upon creating such a differently-intelligent being, if we ever eventually were to do as now we seem little likely remotely capable of, we might indeed properly invite such a one within the precincts of our moral and interpretative communities, we might attribute to such a one rights (although we seem woefully incapable of doing so even for differently materialized intelligences that are nonetheless our palpable biological kin -- for instance, the great apes, cetaceans).

That such intelligence would be sufficiently similar to human intelligence that we would account it so, welcome it into our moral reckoning, recognize it the bearer of rights, is unclear (and certainly a more relevant discussion than whether some machines might in some ways "surpass human... functionality" which is, of course, a state of affairs that pervades the made world already, long centuries past, and trivially so), and not a subject I consider worthy of much consideration until such time as we look likely to bring such beings into existence. I for one, see nothing remotely like so sophisticated a being in the works, contra the breathless press releases of various corporate-militarist entities hoping to make a buck and certain Robot Cultists desperate to live forever, and in the ones who do one tends to encounter I am sorry to say fairly flabbergasting conceptual and figurative confusions rather than much actual evidence in view.

Indeed, so remote from the actual or proximately upcoming technodevelopmental terrain are such imaginary differently-materialized intelligences that I must say ethical and political preoccupations with such beings seem to me usually to be functioning less as predictions or thought-experiments but as more or less skewed and distressed allegories for contemporary political debates: about the perceived "threat" of rising generations, different cultures, the precarizing loss of welfare entitlements, technodevelopmental disruptions, massively destructive industrial war-making and anthropogenic environmental catastrophe, stealthy testimonies to racist, sexist, heterosexist, nationalist, ablest, ageist irrational prejudices, all mulching together and reflecting back at us our contemporary distress in the funhouse mirror of futurological figures of Robot Gods, alien intelligences, designer babies, clone armies, nanobotic genies-in-a-bottle, and so on. I suspect we would all be better off treating futurological claims as mostly bad art rather than bad science, subjecting it to literary criticism rather than wasting the time of serious scientists on pseudo-science.

Be all that as it may, were differently-materialized still-intelligent beings to be made any time soon, whatever we would say of them in the end, the "friendly" history-shattering post-biological super-intelligent Robot Gods and soul migration and cyberspatial quasi-immortalization schemes that are the special "contribution" of superlative futurologists to the already failed and confused archive of AI discourse would remain bedeviled by still more logical and tropological pathologies (recall my opening paragraph), and as utterly remote of realization or even sensible formulation as ever.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Fun 'n Games With Robot Cultism

Upgraaded and Adapted from the Moot:

Contra my critic "Luke," superlative futurological discourses are not just "fun" "scary" kinda sorta "weird" idle speculation.

Else, transhumanists, singularitarians, techno-immortalists, nano-cornucopiasts, and the rest would admit the obvious, as they never do, that they are in fact simply a science fiction fandom consisting mostly of North Atlantic white guys fixated on that lamest and least demanding genre of science fiction, pop technoscience/futurology, rather than peddling themselves as engaged in techno-transcendentalizing variations of serious science or serious developmental policy discourse.

Superlative Futurology is, of course, an ideological formation with an undeniably theological coloration, an extreme form of the prevailing, blandly fraudulent futurological marketing/promotional discourse that suffuses neoloberal-neoconservative global developmentalism.

It is in its sub(cult)ural organization as a defensive marginal "identity-movement" with tendencies to underqualified pseudo-scientific enthusiasms often peddled to True Believer types by guru wannabes that the superlative futurologists are vulnerable around the edges (to be generous) to derisive charges of cultishness.

My "Condensed Critique of Transhumanism" is here if you want reminding of it.

Artificial Inbecillence in the Robot Cult

Upgraded and Adapted from the Moot:

"Mitchell," who claims in another of his comments that he "chooses his words carefully" responds to the denigration of Robot Cult hyperbole with this exasperated outburst: hello, we already share the world with giant distributed AIs[!]

But, of course, we don't.

It has always seemed to me that the primary impact of the futurologists' over-eager over-application of the term "intelligence" to that which is not intelligent is to render us all ever more insensitive to the richness of experience and actual concomitant demands of the precious beings who are.

AI discourse produces especially in its advocates, but also in the cultures in which its frames and figures become prevalent, nothing short of a kind of widespread artificial imbecillence.

From a related Futurological Brickbat: XXXI. Computer science in its theological guise aims less at the ultimate creation of artificial intelligence than in the ubiquitous imposition of artificial imbecillence.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

"Geo-Engineering" Could Be Almost Anything?

Tony Fisk comments over at Worldchanging: "Anything done to alleviate global warming could be classified as 'geo-engineering.'"

If that's true then what exactly is excluded from the category, and what clarified through the introduction of the term?

Aggregate impacts of environmental regulation, widespread lifeway changes, subsidization of sustainable energy provision and infrastructure can have impacts comparable to those attributed to speculative "geo-engineering" proposals, making it still more difficult to understand just what should be included and excluded from the category. This makes it still more difficult in turn to see how the category facilitates the weighing of risks, costs, benefits of particular proposals described as "geo-engineering" or not according to proponents for whatever reasons. Meanwhile, few mega-scale corporate-military "geo-engineering" proposals could be expected to achieve their desired outcomes in the absence of effective regulation and oversight.

And so the preemptive declaration of the failure of conventional environmental politics and regulatory processes that accompanies so many "geo-engineering" arguments seems more to defeat than support them. But if such politics and processes can indeed still be effective enough to facilitate "geo-engineering" proposals then it is difficult to see why we would turn to "geo-engineering" to save us as a last resort or what have you in the first place.

Unless "geo-engineering" is just a neologism repackaging conventional proposals for the promotional purposes of futurologists as distinct from serious science policy questions? In which case, as Mr. Burns might say... "Excellent."

Imaginary Republicans Highly Preferred Over Real Ones By Americans

Josh Marshall
The congressional generic ballot is commonly seen as a good broad measure of the trend going into a congressional election. And it's painting a pretty bleak picture for the Dems. At the same time, we're seeing a decent amount of evidence for individual races where the Democrats seem to be outperforming, sometimes substantially outperforming those numbers. To put it another way, voters are liking the generic Republicans a lot better than the real ones they're seeing on the ballot.

In other news, Americans hate taxes but like functioning public services, hate work but like money, hate know-it-alls but like the fruits of knowledge, hate war but like tough talkin' bullies, and hate anybody different from them but like to brag about their individualism.

"I Like Jerry Brown"

It's a little bit lame, little bit, just a little bit, but it's heart's in the right place.

Environmentalism for the War-Profiteering Swinging-Dick Set

While fishing around the internets this morning in my quest for references to Monty Burns and "geo-engineering," I found an interesting observation from Everypundit Ezra Klein:
Geoengineering tends to be favored by conservatives rather than liberals. In part, that's simply because it's an effective retort to a policy liberals support…. Conservatives tend to be very wary of government efforts to intervene in the economy or in social policy. Health-care reform, for instance, is considered far beyond federal capacities. But invading Iraq and rebuilding its government was seen as a perfectly sensible effort for the government to undertake. So too with deploying untested technologies to refashion the reflectiveness of the upper atmosphere. Liberals, conversely, tend to pale at the complexity of these interventions.

I don't think anybody really believes that liberals pale at "complexity" -- if anything we are wont to revel in it to the cost of expedience -- but I do think the difference Klein may be onto here involves that strange Republican paradox of hating the very idea of government, you know, doing things effectively at all, while at once loving declaring war on stuff, even though that is something only governments can really do.

"Geo-engineering" is, after all, the equivalent of a declaration of war on climate change, involving corporate-military actors brute-forcing outcomes without much worry about ecological side-effects or regulatory niceties or real oversight. It's environmentalism for the war-profiteering swinging-dick set. Sure, it doesn't make a lot of sense as a working concept, sure it's really just a bunch of futurological CGI cartoons, sure it's just inviting disaster, sure it can't work if history is any kind of guide. If you’re a Republican, what's not to like?

Intriguingly enough, Klein (not a Republican) actually begins his post confessing "I've long been a proponent of exploring various 'geoengineering' responses to global warming."

His reasoning? "[B]ecause I'm a pessimist about our political system's ability to address the issue in anything even approximating a timely manner." This is of course the usual declaration of pre-emptive political defeat that almost inevitably accompanies "geo-engineering" proposals. As always, I really have to wonder just why pessimism about our political system somehow makes people optimistic rather than pessimistic about "geo-engineering" prospects, after all? Why on earth would Klein think corporate-military mega-engineering projects could succeed at their work without our political system's regulation and oversight of them when such projects have never yet managed such a thing before at scales more modest than those typically imagined by "geo-engineering" futurologists, or else why he thinks our political system can indeed function in respect to the regulation and oversight of "geo-engineering" projects and yet, somehow, nowhere else?

I don't think Klein's observations indicate he has really given the topic much thought, when all is said and done, and it's not as if this is really his main area of expertise or anything. But the chilling thing is that I rarely get the feeling anybody has really given "geo-engineering" a lot of deep thought, very much including the more enthusiastic cheerleaders for junking the demanding frustrating environmentalist politics of education, agitation, organization, regulation, legislation and leaping without looking into bazillion dollar science fictional corporate-military boondoggles helping the rich and powerful who got rich and powerful trashing the planet stay rich and powerful by cleaning up their mess for profit on their terms.

Full Monty "Geo-Engineering"

Thanks to the good folks at Worldchanging for directing attention to my serious-silly-seriously-silly-serious proposal that critics of "Geo-Engineering" make Simpsons arch-villain Mr. Burns the public face of this ultimately greenwashing discourse.

An io9 post by Alasdair Wilkins started the ball rolling, connecting the recent UN castigation of mad science, you know, for kids, sun-blotting schemes to the episode "Who Shot Mr. Burns?" (It turns out that this episode was formative for many a fledgling critic of "geo-engineering" discourse -- it comes up a lot.)

I was drawn to the episode "The Old Man and the Lisa" for my inspiration, in which Monty exploits Lisa's environmentalism for profit and creates out of recycled plastic six-pack yokes the geo-engineering nightmare monster, the "Burns Omninet" to "sweep the sea of life" and make "L'il Lisa's Patented Animal Slurry." (Hey, fans! Can you name three different uses to which Mr. Burns proposes his multipurpose slurry might beneficially be put?)

In my original post I proposed: "Let's make Monty Burns the face of 'geo-engineering!'" I also expressed the hope that "other fans of The Simpsons can provide legions of examples in which Mr. Burns attempts comparably catastrophic evil futurological schemes" and that they provide me with some of them. While awaiting that flood of responses (but not holding my breath), I did a little research.

It would appear that the connection with Mr. Burns is a natural one when talk turns to "geo-engineering." A rather bland introduction to the topic in Salon a couple of years ago, for example, notes early on: "Researchers all over the world have begun advocating large-scale climate control strategies that sound like something The Simpsons Mr. Burns might endorse." Although this cautionary tone remained throughout the piece, I have to note that it concluded as such "geo-engineering" puff pieces tend to do, declaring that, sure, "geo-engineering" is kinda-sorta crazy talk, but, heck, talking crazy is still doing something if we end up doing nothing and doing something is better than doing nothing so it would be crazy not to talk crazy, right?

As I never tire of pointing out, it is a very difficult thing to distinguish the aggregate effects of democratically legible environmental politics of education and regulation from the sorts of special effects that futurological "geo-engineering" boondoggles presumably make possible, furthermore it is plain to anyone with any historical awareness of corporate-military contracting in the context of global development schemes that without well-functioning accounting, oversight, regulation such schemes are invitations to inevitable disaster and corruption, and yet "geo-engineering" discourse tends to be premised on the failure of democratically legible environmental politics and on the failure of these indispensable regulatory processes.

Forgive my soapbox, now back to pop culture.

By way of conclusion, I think this post from Treehugger back in July, 2009, is my favorite example I have found so far:
"Bill Gates is recently listed as co-inventor "on a new batch of patent applications that propose using large fleets of vessels to suppress hurricanes through various methods of mixing warm water from the surface of the ocean with colder water at greater depths." TechFlash writer, Todd Bishop, contacted an expert who nailed the generic problem with this, and similar ideas.
Some of them are more plausible than others, but they all face an enormous problem of scale. ... [One is] reminded of "The Simpsons"... "The richest man in the world hatches a plan to alter weather and ecology in return for insurance premiums and fees from governments and individuals," he writes. "It's got kind of a Mr. Burns feel to it, no?"

Recirculating cooler, anoxic "dead zone" water back to the surface, as called for in these patents, is likely to cause massive fish kills and promote run-away algae blooms, expanding the dead zone in depth and possibly in breadth. Should we call it "Burns-headed" instead of bone-headed?"

As I said, Mr. Burns does indeed appear pretty regularly whenever talk turns to "geo-engineering." The references abound. I do still hope others will provide more examples, and I do still think critics of "geo-engineering" have a friend (a fiend?) in Montgomery Burns.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

We Tried That Already. It Didn't Work.

Will Carly Fiorina Repudiate the Extreme Anti-Gay Bigotry of NOM, Large Backers of Her Campaign?

The Futurological Gotcha and the Desperation of the "Geo-Engineers"

It is a commonplace for techno-utopian futurologists to declare "inevitable" whatever ill-conceived science-fictional wet-dream they happen to be putting their faith in and/or trying to get undue attention by peddling at the moment, whether it be reproductive cloning, or designer babies, or engineered superbugs, or nuclear power plant archipelagos, or "zootropics"- "cosmeceuticals"-"male-enhancement herbals," or cheap programmable desktop nano-genies-in-a-bottle, or whatever it may be, all by claiming that if we try to restrain the emergence of whatever sooper-mirage they're going on about through regulation or bans it will only arise inevitably elsewhere anyway through the irresistible force of human ingenuity, innovation, competition, avarice, or some such thing.

Of course this neglects the fact that it is rarely the straightjacket of Big Bad Big Brother Gu'ment that has restrained the emergence into reality of fervent futurological daydreams like artificial intelligence, crypto-anarchy, dinners in a pill, multi-century lifespans, paperless offices, robot slaves granting lives of leisure to the masses, energy too cheap to meter, colonies on the Moon, or personal jetpacks, but that these were all deeply confused, incoherent, idiotic notions as matters of fact. Among my Futurological Brickbats, XXIV points out, to the point, "It is always magical thinking to declare an outcome need only be profitable for it to be possible."

This idea that whatever some futurologist is pining for at the moment is sure to come about, because were it to come about it would be profitable, and whatever is profitable will attract a market that will circumvent any effort to restrain it by law is a variation of what James Boyle had called "The Libertarian Gotcha," namely (as paraphrased by Lawrence Lessig in Code), that "no government could survive without the Internet's riches, yet no government could control the life that went on there." Of course, as even John Perry Barlow surely has grasped by now, one may fancy they live and work in "Cyberspace, the Land of Mind," but one's fat ass still lives and works in fact on planet earth where police enforcing laws have guns and the stomach must occasionally be consulted if one is not to perish -- and the riches of the Internet turned out be, like the riches of futurological McLuhan's "global village" before them, at best ambivalent.

Although Boyle called his fallacy "The Libertarian Gotcha," I can't help but note that it emerged very specifically in the context of not just libertopian but digital-utopian claims, that is to say it should be an open question whether what I might call "The Futurological Gotcha" is an instance of "The Libertarian Gotcha," or vice versa, whether the fallacious energies it enthusiastically unleashes are more essentially delusively liber-topian or techno-utopian. Perhaps there is an irresistible allure drawing the fancies of libertopians and the fancies of technotopians into Ayn Raelian discursive alliances, come what may. But what matters here is just to point out that these are indeed fallacious arguments, mobilizing hazy, hyperbolic assumptions of perfect technologies operating in perfect markets, which is always magical thinking in the first place, but in which magical thinking more generally (I will get what I want just because I want it so very desperately) is always very much in evidence as well.

If I may digress, it also seems worth noting in this connection that George Bush famously declared (actually more than once) in precisely this vein that there was no point in asking the rich to pay more taxes, since they would always just evade them anyway -- and yet progressive taxation has indeed been implemented here and elsewhere with undeniable material effects in funding general welfare, easing wealth concentration, among many other beneficial outcomes. To be blunt, one doesn't stop criminalizing murder just because people will always keep killing one another, one criminalizes murder because it is wrong, as one decries stupidity because it is wrong. "Trendspotting" the likelihood of more murders or more stupidity to come is hardly to the point if what is wanted from analysis is something actually, you know, helpful.

It is in this context that we should read Jamais Cascio's recent report on a talk he gave in a conference about "geo-engineering" (so-called) at the National Academy of Sciences. He writes of the general meeting
[W]hile there was plenty of debate, everyone in the room agreed on three big ideas:
• Climate disruption is happening fast, and we are rapidly losing any chance we might have to avert its worst effects through carbon reductions alone;

• Climate engineering needs a great deal more research (even making geoengineering research 1% of overall climate change research would be a vast increase), to identify both best options and techniques to avoid;

• Because "desperate people do desperate things" (a line from my talk), there's a very real chance that someone will attempt to use climate engineering.

I don't think the first idea that all the participants agreed on lends any support to "geo-engineering" advocacy per se -- indeed I don't understand why it's a "big idea" at all (anthropogenic climate change is denied by few but fulminating American Movement Republicans by now, after all, and most environmentalists advocate changes in agriculture policy and any number of other things in addition to proposals for carbon reductions, these are commonplaces that scarcely set one on the road to "geo-engineering" wish-fulfillment fantasizing), except I do know that self-promotional futurologists are quite fond of declaring every hairball of common wisdom they cough up a Big Idea, so perhaps that is what is afoot here.

And since there is very little agreement as to what "geo-engineering" actually includes or excludes as a category in the first place I don't even think the second idea is particularly worrisome: Since the aggregate effects of conventional regulation requiring smokestack soot-filters or the public subsidization of widespread tree-planting could both be described as "geo-engineering" in most fuzzy definitions of the term and neither of these proposals demand in my view the derangement of environmental politics from legible democratically accountable forms onto the elite-authoritarian military-industrial mega-scale engineering boondoggles that attract the ire in my critiques of "geo-engineering," it seems to me these moneys might be put to good use, especially the fewer the number of futurologists around to blow cash on science fiction misconstrued as science.

The third (Big!) idea is, of course, a variation of The Futurological Gotcha. It may seem compelling -- and apparently did to the conferees themselves -- as fallacies often do seem compelling, but that doesn't make it otherwise than a fallacy nonetheless. Cascio dwells on this third idea the most in his report and so will I -- it is after all his contribution to the larger debate at hand, and also the most quintessentially futurological of the ideas.

Of it, he writes:
I added the "desperate people" line to my talk because, as much as we are all concerned about the ecological side-effects and global political repercussions of climate engineering, this is ultimately about people trying to save themselves from disaster; we can't forget that human lives are at stake. The line seemed to strike a nerve, and several of the subsequent presenters repeated it. One told me that it crystallized a core issue about geoengineering.

I may actually agree with Cascio that this particular conceit does indeed crystallize "geo-engineering" discourse. To say why, let me point out that an equally commonplace phrase as "desperate people do desperate things," and often treated as roughly synonymous with it, is the phrase "desperate people do stupid things."

Stupid things are still stupid however desperate the people who do them, and it should not be the business of intellectuals to "predict" that people will behave stupidly, but to recommend non-stupid things they might do instead whether they are desperate or not.

Cascio tut-tuts about "ecological side effects and global political repercussions" in his comment only to dispense with these on the way to an advocacy of desperate "geo-engineering." Whatever the limitations of the "geo-engineering" concept as a way to actually coherently describe a set of techniques or projects connected according to their essential properties and distinguished from others, or as a way to assess the actual costs, risks, and benefits to an actual diversity of stakeholders in actual geophysical and historical situations, I have pointed out again and again that the category of "geo-engineering" does indeed function coherently from a rhetorical and political vantage:

That is to say, "geo-engineering" discourse is usually a direct address to incumbent-elite industrial-extractive corporate-military interests of a form which assures them that efforts to clean up the mess they made of the planet in becoming rich and powerful can make them richer and more powerful still if they manage it right.

Also, to speak of "geo-engineering" is almost always also to speak first of the "failure" of democratic-legible environmental politics of education, agitation, organization, regulation, legislation. This concession of the final failure of conventional political processes almost never does not take place in a "geo-engineering" argument, indeed usually frames such arguments, and hence I take it to be essential to the discourse, and indeed this is the gesture with which Cascio dispenses at the outset with any critics who might highlight "ecological side-effects" or "political repercussions" the better to bulldoze ahead with predictions about the irresistible force of "desperate people."

That Cascio couches this observation sanctimoniously in terms of not forgetting "human lives are at stake" is fairly appalling the moment we snap out of the futurological daydream and grasp that the reason actual critics might point to "ecological side-effects" and "political repercussions" is because these also translate, quite literally, to "human lives [that] are at stake."

Human lives would be the "collateral damage" of "ecological side-effects" being pooh-poohed by "geo-engineers" with their Big Plans and their impatience to Get This Show on the Road, human lives are likewise lost wherever corners are cut by corporate-military contractors, when stakeholder accountability is not ensured (but of course that would never happen, eh).

Pious genuflections to a need for "openness" would need to be accompanied by persistent reminders (all the more necessary in proportion to the prospect of profits involved) of just why accountability is necessary since the lack of it is literally lethal, as well as technical elaborations -- technical specifications as rich as the CGI renderings of mega-engineering fantasies that are always the real star of such shows where it's all boys with their toys all the time -- of just how this accountability is to be assured at the level of actual procedures, actual tracking of expenditures, actual chains of command, else "openness" just means the usual "openness, heh heh" operating in developmental theaters like these.

I must say, starting off one's case, as Cascio rather seems to do, by cavalierly declaring "political repercussions" to be dispensable niceties scarcely earns a futurologist confidence in their back-patting assurances later on of sensitivity to the need for "openness" (not the most robust word for accountability and oversight on offer, as it happens, and a notoriously vapid futurological buzzword by now), for anybody who has any historical awareness of development politics in the real world.

It isn't the risk to human lives posed by climate catastrophe that is in question here, it is the fact that desperate people doing and endorsing stupid things isn't exactly the best way to save lives, especially when desperation is exacerbated and used by the richest and most powerful interests in the world (many of whom acquired their station precisely through getting us into the mess at hand) to offer up slick rationales for continued profit-taking without real democratic oversight, regulation, accountability or scientific deliberation about risks and costs to everyday people they have never much cared about in the first place.

It seems to me likely that "geo-engineering" discourse itself, in conjuring the spectacle of such hasty hubristic corporate-militarist boondoggles as the only hope we have left, itself contributes materially to the desperation it then congenially "predicts" and then raises to the status of an irresistible force. To the extent that desperation can be mobilized and canalized into useful idiocy more generally by those minorities who would exploit the panic for continued profit-taking, I cannot say that I find this particular line particularly surprising to see.

Cascio devotes much of his article to the happy report that the "geo-engineering" topic has gone from something highly marginal to something taken very seriously indeed.

I cannot say that I personally think so incoherent a notion as "geo-engineering" deserves to be taken seriously but it is hardly the first futurological incoherence to manage that feat by any stretch of the imagination.

To the extent that the substance of "geo-engineering" is telling the rich and powerful something the very much want to hear (namely, that the climate catastrophe they brought about for personal profit won't be the end of their world, but instead creates conditions under which they might indeed consolidate their position and gain a greater share still of the world's wealth), I must say it doesn't exactly take a futurologist to prophesy that this is one line in egregious hype that has a real future.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Must I Really Weigh In On "The Cult Debate"?

For me personally, it is hard to imagine a more surreally irrelevant distraction from the substance of my critique of superlative futurology than debating whether or not my derisive use of the phrase "Robot Cultists" to describe superlative futurologists is strictly correct according to somebody's dictionary definition of what a "cult" is. I have pointed out that I could always use, after all, the less concise but to me roughly synonymous phrase for "Robot Cult" instead "defensive-evangelizing-sub(cult)ural-membership-formation-organized-around-highly-marginal-but-strongly-held-ideological-beliefs-involving-personal-and-historical-techno-transcendence-which-are-expected-to-sweep-the-world-lead-by-would-be-gurus-few-of-whom-are-known-outside-the-sub(cult)ure-itself-but-is-not-a-cult-according-to-the-letter-of-your-dictionary-definition-so-stop-saying-that!" But would the Robot Cultists really like that any better, I cannot help wondering?

Sometimes I find it difficult to determine whether an interlocutor's turn to this (to me) rather trivial non-question is a result of an unserious person literally incapable of taking my serious questions seriously, or an effort at distraction on the part of an organizational opportunist trying to divert attention away from a threat in a fairly obvious PR move, or simply the sort of thing that happens when perfectly likeable but earnestly dull people don't know exactly how to deal with substantive critiques that happen to be sprinkled with little bits of irony and facetiousness and wit and are therefore a little harder to read than is, say, People Magazine.

Were the Extropians a cult? Is cryonics a scam? Are singularitarians a Kurzweil fandom or engaged in some geek headgame variation of a kind of silly eXtreme sport for boys? What about people who call themselves transhumanists, who declare themselves to be part of a "movement," to have a transhumanist "identity," some of whom are literally members in "transhumanist"-identified membership organizations and so on? Are they more like a science fiction fandom for folks who prefer the quasi-nonfiction futurist subgenre of science fiction? or more like members of a marginal not-particularly-coherent fledgling school of philosophy? or a noisy flashy sub(cult)ure that has attracted attention from mainstream media outlets out of proportion to its size? or an ideology trying to make a political movement or a political party but just unusually inept in these efforts? or a marketing scheme for a handful of wannabe gurus slash public intellectuals?

Are the ferocious fans of Ayn Rand's screeds and romance novels strictly speaking a cult, given their ongoing organized existence and annoying inability to talk sense? Are Scientologists still a cult once they have arrived at a certain number of adherents and garnered a certain amount of real estate and legal resources? If yes, is Mormonism a cult, if no, is Mormonism a cult? What about rabid pop fandoms and online conspiracist sub(cult)ures? What are they and is transhumanism whatever it is that they are?

These questions are all interesting questions, I suppose, but I can't say that these are the questions about superlative futurology as a discursive phenomenon to which I have devoted the lion's share of my own critical attention. A debate about none of them would provide the grounds for a substantive response to my critiques of superlative futurology as far as I can tell.

I do think there are things about especially organized transhumanist discursive formations which get a little bit culty, certainly enough so to upset (in a good way, to my mind) especially the real True Believer types or defensive organizational figures who tend to gravitate into conversation with me here on this blog. To be honest, it's hard for me to see how a sub(cult)ural ideological futurological formation freighted with explicit promises of personal and historical transcendence (even if "techno-transcendence") is not going to have some culty paraphernalia about it, after all, especially to the extent that it remains marginal and defensive, as the transhumanists-singularitarians-technoimmortalists-etalia certainly all are. If pointing out that obvious sort of thing freaks the Robot Cultists out, so much the better.

But setting all that aside, for the moment, it should be plain to the meanest intelligence devoting any time or attention at all to my many critiques of superlative and sub(cult)ural futurological formations (both organized and discursive), many of which are both topically and chronologically archived at the sidebar for anybody who actually wants to know what it is they are talking about if they are excoriating me for my so-called distortions and dishonesties, I tend to say a few basic things, over and over again:

First of all, I describe futurological marketing and promotional discourse as the prevailing, definitive discourse of contemporary capitalism in what is otherwise described as its current neoliberal/neoconservative corporate-military developmental-networked mode, and I declare that superlative futurology is most usefully understood as an especially illustrative and structurally clarifying extreme set of variations on -- or symptoms of -- that prevailing or mainstream futurology.

In the introduction to the Superlative Summary (the most sprawling -- also, admittedly, daunting and, after all, sometimes repetitive -- chronological archive of my critiques of superlative futurology over the years) I write, for example, that "[t]here is considerable overlap between… mainstream and superlative futurological modes, [since] both share a tendency to reductionism conjoined to a (compensatory?) hyperbole bordering on arrant fraud, not to mention an eerie hostility to the materiality of the furniture of the world (whether this takes the form of a preference for financialization over production, or for the digital over the real), [as well as] the materiality of the mortal vulnerable aging body, the materiality of the brains, vantages, and socialities in which intelligence is incarnated, among many other logical, topical, and tropological continuities."

In a piece I posted just yesterday, I made (yet again) the second, substantial claim that recurs in my actual critique:
[W]hatever its insistent but superficial scientificity, the substance and primary work of superlative futurology remains, as it always has been primarily:
one -- either ideological, consisting in prophetic utterances in the form of hyperbolic threat/profit assessments and marketing/promotional discourse wrapped in superficially technoscientific terminology providing incumbent-elite corporate-industrial interests rationales to justify continued profit-taking at the expense of majorities

two -- or theological, consisting in priestly utterances in the form of apocalyptic warnings of looming total catastrophes but also promises to the faithful of a techno-transcendence of mortality via super-longevity, error and humiliation via super-intelligence, and stress and worldly defeat via super-abundance providing both reassurance and consolation especially in the midst of the economic and ecologic distress of neoliberal-neoconservative technodevelopmental planetary precarization.

To return yet again to my Introduction to the Superlative Summary, I elaborate this second substantive point there as well, saying:
The characteristic gesture of superlative, as against mainstream, futurological discourses will be the appropriation of worldly concerns -- such as the administration of basic healthcare, education, or security, say -- redirected (in a radically amplified variation on conventional marketing and promotional hyperbole) into a faith-based discourse promising not just the usual quick profits or youthful skin but the promise of a techno-transcendence of human finitude, a personal transcendence modeled in its basic contours and relying for much of its intuitive plausibility on the disavowed theological omnipredicates of a godhood (omniscience, omnipotence, omnibenevolence) translated instead into pseudo-scientific terms (superintelligence, superlongevity, superabundance).

Again, I can see how a discussion of the relative cult-likeness or not of the various sects or flavors or genres of transhumanist-singularitarian-technoimmortalist-nanocornucopiast-geoengineering discourses, organizations, subcultures, whatever might lead us to nibble around the edges of some of my actually stated concerns about superlative futurology, but, frankly, it is hard to see how an exclusive or sustained focus on the cult debate is anything but a failure of intelligence, honesty, or nerve. As I said yesterday, I continue to welcome any serious engagement with my actual critique and especially welcome evidence of the dishonesty and distortion I regularly get accused of by some of the most foolish and most culty of the Robot Cultists (insert longer, unwieldy but just as damning phrase provided above here if so inclined, it makes no difference to me) in the Moot.

Batshit Crazy Market Fundamentalist Wins KY Senate Because Clueless Dem Challenger Accuses He's Not Batshit Crazy Christian Fundamentalist Enough?

Others now breathlessly declare this move the brilliant turning point which ensures a Democratic victory in an unlikely State. Either outcome sounds just about stupid and insane enough to be right.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Leviticus + Atlas Shrugged + Red Dawn = US Constitution

= Tea Party = Your Modern Republican Party = Dead End

Auto-Tune the Ruse

Mr. Burns As "Geo-Engineering" Archetype

Alasdair Wilkins reports this good news over at io9:
The United Nations's Convention on Biological Diversity is expected to either ban outright or limit research into space sunshades. Although NASA and other organizations are looking into these sunshades as a possible way to slow climate change, environmental advocates have criticized this research as providing only a short-term fix that wouldn't affect the underlying issues, like humanity's overuse of fossil fuels. There are also serious questions about how blocking out part of the Sun's rays could affect weather patterns, ecosystems, and agriculture.

But more important still is Wilkins's next insight:
But let's be real here -- we all know what happens when people try to blot out the Sun… Matt Groening has extensively documented the folly of trying to block the Sun… on The Simpsons...

I have often complained -- most notoriously, I suppose, here -- that the futurological enthusiasts for "geo-engineering" have never really offered a coherent definition of the thing for which they nonetheless cheerlead so desperately. Sure, the word immediately conjures up images of vast orbital mirrors and monstrous pipe complexes belching icy water from ocean depths to the warming surface and fleets of ships spewing who knows what who knows where who knows why according to the latest geo-engineering fashion, iron filings into the sea, salt crystals into the clouds, sulfur into the atmosphere, and so on, what I have called in the past a constellation of mega-engineering wet dreams.

But though the images arise naturally enough one discovers upon closer scrutiny that there isn't much reason to corral such proposals together conceptually, really, there aren't the sorts of commonalities among the proposals that would properly lead one to think, at the concrete level of assessing actual costs, risks, benefits, stakeholders that one so-called "geo-engineering" proposal's relative successes or failures would tell us much about any other's. This is distressing because talk about "geo-engineering" tends to function precisely to dissuade discussion of individual proposals and displace it onto what amount to more philosophical claims (about "innovation" "human ingenuity" "overcoming despair" "desperate times demanding desperate measures") masquerading as "technical" and "engineering" discourse offered up in tonalities of superficial scientificity and can-do spirit (that is to say, futurological stock-in-trade).

I have also pointed to the ways in which, as a rhetorical operation, "geo-engineering" discourse indulges in two kinds of disavowals or denialisms. First, "geo-engineering" tends to take as its point of departure the decisive "failure" of democratic avenues of environmentalist politics, education, agitation, organization, legislation, regulation, a failure which impels industrial-authoritarian corporate-military avenues be implemented instead. Quite apart from the obvious dilemma that precisely these sorts of presumably failed democratic and regulatory processes would have to function well enough over the very geo-engineering enterprises supposedly rescuing us from their failure, else we know these vast-scaled geo-engineering boondoggles would surely culminate without regulation and oversight in Hindenburg heaps of slag and the usual corruption and embezzlement scandals -- but if democratic oversight and regulation has not irredeemably failed after all then why would we be indulging in highly questionable highly expensive highly risky futurological circle-jerks rather than pushing forward with democratic environmental politics after all, again? Second, "geo-engineering" really amounts to an inappropriately cheerful chirpy can-do variation on the premise of anthropogenic climate change itself, namely that human actions have collectively brought on or definitively exacerbated ongoing and upcoming climate catastrophe (from which it follows in a facile way that human technique, differently directed, might also, then, change the climate for the better as well).

Given that many of the actors who are warming (as it were) to "geo-engineering" discourse are the very corporate-military interests that acquired their positions by polluting and depleting the planet's resources but, much more to the point, actively maintain their position by denying their role or humanity's role in that climate catastrophe in defiance of evidence to the contrary, it is interesting that "geo-engineering" can function as a stealthy disavowal of anthropogenic climate change by the most guilty of the parties involved in the form of a recommendation of "geo-engineering" that makes no sense unless anthropogenic climate change is real.

It is this last point that has lead me to the conclusion that "geo-engineering" does indeed have a content, but that this content is specifically political rather than scientific. While "geo-engineering" does not corral together techniques according to coherent assessment criteria, even as it mobilizes inchoate passions (as usual with futurology fears of impotence and fantasies of omnipotence through hyperbolic technoscience imagery largely imported from the science fiction/fantasy imaginary), it does indeed corral together very definite political constituencies, whose address renders a category that otherwise seems incoherent instantly coherent:

"Geo-engineering," at its essence, is that discourse addressed to corporate-military incumbent-elite interests that proposes the redress of planetary pollution and depletion can be as profitable as was the pollution and depletion itself, so long as the mode of the response is framed in corporate-militarist terms and hence undertaken by incumbent-elite interests themselves.

It is hardly accidental that "geo-engineering" is functionally a declaration of war on climate catastrophe, inasmuch as declarations of war -- whether literal or figural (as with the War on Drugs) -- are also always circumventions of the consensual and democratic politics and processes of civitas and invoke more imperial and authoritarian War Powers: it is in such environments that the war-profiteering and state/proprietary secrecies of corporate-militarist elite-incumbency thrives best to the cost of the rest of us (and quite probably, soon enough, the ruin of us all).

A clip follows Wilkins' claim over at io9 about the key role of The Simpsons in educating a whole generation about the folly of sun-blotting schemes, in which his point is illustrated (er, that is to say, Mr. Burns blots out the Sun). But I was reminded in watching the clip of another of my favorite episodes, The Old Man and the Lisa, in which Mr. Burns is reduced momentarily to penury and finds his way back to super-wealth through the opportunistic exploitation of Lisa's earnest environmentalism, culminating in the creation of the Burns Omninet, woven together from plastic six-pack yokes (yes, that's what they're called, awesomely enough, I looked it up), which "sweeps the sea clean" of life, from which to create "L'il Lisa's Patented Animal Slurry." (L'il Lisa "makes Little Debbie look like a pile of puke," declares Moe, a line from the episode Eric and I repeat with ridiculous regularity at home, as we also do the line from the episode in which Mr. Burns is paralyzed in his first trip to a grocery store pondering the difference between "Ketchup…? Catsup…" The applicability of early season episodes of The Simpsons to life's every circumstance is truly wonderful.) Right then and there, pondering the memory of Mr. Burns's vast recycling plant and Lisa's horror upon realizing that the vile corporate-militarist Mr. Burns could indeed turn even wholesome environmentalist impulses to evil in the service of his profit-taking, I realized it, Mr. Burns is the pop culture archetype of "geo-engineering" as such.

I'm sure that other fans of The Simpsons can provide legions of examples in which Mr. Burns attempts comparably catastrophic evil futurological schemes. Do please let me know.

Let's make Monty Burns the face of "geo-engineering."

I suspect that doing so could do more damage to the prospects of dangerous greenwashing "geo-engineering" discourses than any number of patiently analytic arguments I might come up with.

Futurological Scientism and Pseudo-Science As Anti-Science Ideology and Theology

Contrary to their endlessly reiterated self-promotional declarations to the contrary, so many of these software industry drones pretending to be expert physicists and geneticists and nanotechnologists as well as corporate-militarist yes-men pretending to be bioethicists and think-tank futurists clearly are not joining the various sects of the Robot Cult because they want to do serious science or engage in serious policy deliberation.

I am reminded of those finger-wagging statements circulated occasionally by think-tanks and advocacy organizations stealthfully funded by petrochemical interests and loudly boasting the signatures of thousands of "scientists" to create the impression that the actually overwhelming scientific consensus concerning the urgent threat of catastrophic anthropogenic climate change is instead a left-wing conspiracy, but in which almost none of the signatories are scientists in fields the least bit relevant to the factual evaluation of the claims they are contesting (and for palpably ideological and not scientific reasons at that), if they are proper scientists at all. In such schemes the status and force of science is doubly looted and diluted: first, there is the specific undermining of an actually warranted consensus scientific belief, and an almost unprecedentedly urgent one at that, by scientists willing to conduct themselves unscientifically; and second, there is the general undermining of the force of warranted consensus scientific beliefs as such, however indispensable they may be to the administration of actually functional secular democratic societies, by actors irresponsibly willing to eschew long-term and general welfare for parochial, short-term, even minute momentary tactical advantages and gains. All this, in the service of extractive-industrial incumbent-elite profit-taking.

So, too, whatever its insistent but superficial scientificity, the substance and primary work of superlative futurology remains, as it always has been primarily:
one -- either ideological, consisting in prophetic utterances in the form of hyperbolic threat/profit assessments and marketing/promotional discourse wrapped in superficially technoscientific terminology providing incumbent-elite corporate-industrial interests rationales to justify continued profit-taking at the expense of majorities

two -- or theological, consisting in priestly utterances in the form of apocalyptic warnings of looming total catastrophes but also promises to the faithful of a techno-transcendence of mortality via super-longevity, error and humiliation via super-intelligence, and stress and worldly defeat via super-abundance providing both reassurance and consolation especially in the midst of the economic and ecologic distress of neoliberal-neoconservative technodevelopmental planetary precarization.

And, again, it is not just the reactionary political outcomes facilitated by their phony genuflections to scientificity that should be decried, but the deeper damage to the wholesome social force of science, properly so-called and in its proper precinct, that should worry critics of futurological (reductive) scientism and (hyperbolic) pseudo-science.

From half a decade ago, the post Is Science Democratic? provides some nice context.