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

Sunday, July 31, 2011

"The Future" on the Planet of the Apes

George Dvorsky, one of the White Guys of The Future over at the stealth Robot Cult outfit IEET has written a piece explaining why "we" (a pronoun he calls into question but uses uncritically anyway) have an "obligation" to forcibly re-write the brains and bodies of nonhuman animals in forms more congenial to us. This notion is floated over in the futurological transhumanoid-singularitarian online precincts fairly regularly -- they have a pet term for it, "animal uplift," a phrase with all sorts of perfectly appropriate paternalistic and colonial associations in tow -- and I have written an extensive response to a similar proposal offered up at IEET last year by James Hughes.

The online futurological sects of transhumanism-singularitarianism-technoimmortalism-nanocornucopism function more or less as subcultural sf-fandoms do, with the difference that their devotion is to that form of corporate-military marketing discourse called futurology rather than sf proper, and like futurology itself their enthusiasm for this rather inept sf-subgenre (inept because it amounts to science fiction without the demands of plausible plots, engaging characters, subtle interplays of setting and theme and so on) depends on the deliberate confusion of science fiction either with science proper or science/development public policy.

Very much true to form, then, you will observe that Dvorsky has been moved to speculate on "animal uplift" right now, not because there is any actual breakthrough in biology or medicine or cognitive interface technology or even in the politics of animal rights activists striving to protect chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans from abuse at the hands of their human cousins (campaigns like the Great Ape Project with which Dvorsky absolutely inappropriately, indeed grotesquely, identifies his own fancifully intolerant project). No, George Dvorsky is writing about "uplifting" apes because a re-make of a Planet of the Apes movie is being widely advertized prior to its release, and transhumanists find it more difficult than other people to distinguish the circulation of hype about Hollywood action pictures from serious deliberation of technoscience policy questions. (To emphasize the point, Dvorsky's article is illustrated with a still from the upcoming film.)

It is important to point out that although Dvorsky sprinkles his article with the usual futurological handwaving -- "humans are poised to discard their often fragile and susceptible biological forms," he writes (oh, poised are we? but beyond the poses of Robot Cultists how is the science looking on the immortality pill and soul-uploading business, George? yeah, exactly like it always does) -- the fact is that there is exactly zero chance that any of the sooper-immortalizing sooper-geniusizing sooper-strongifying sooper-humanizing soup futurological sub(cult)ures pine for are in the pipeline. As always, the reason one takes superlative futurological discourses and sub(cult)ures seriously is because they symptomize in particularly clarifying and extreme forms the problems and pathologies in more prevalent mainstream forms of technoscience and developmental policy discourse, advertizing imagery and popular culture.

Dvorsky's article contains sweeping rather wikipediesque general surveys of the animal rights movement in a Peter Singer-centric frame and social contract theory in a John Rawlsian sort of way. The result, as is usual in this sort of discourse, I'm afraid, is rather a lot of loose talk and very little engaged understanding. My own reading of Dvorsky will be a closer one. The first note I would direct your attention to is the recurrence throughout his article of phrases like "Humanity’s relationship with animals" … "our relationship with animals is still changing" …and so on. What I want to point out is the obvious fact that human beings are also animals and hence that our relations with other humans are already relations of animals with animals. This matters, because we are so attentive to differences that make a difference among human animals that we take great care (or should) in generalizing about how we should behave in respect to one another.

The fact is that there are endlessly many differences that make a difference among the varieties of nonhuman animals, not only differences of species but among individual members of species (go ahead, think of all the endlessly many ways the cats in your life have differed from one another, I'll wait here for you). To begin a piece about "humans" as "us" intervening profoundly in the lives of "animals" -- in a way both denying the continuity of that "human us" with the nonhuman animals it targets for transformation but also lumping all animals other than the human ones into an undifferentiated mass of raw material available for transformation -- is a profoundly prejudicial opening conceptual gambit.

This denial of an already existing continuity of human with nonhuman animals prepares the ground for Dvorsky's proposal that a society of sentient beings must be engineering by futurological sooper-science while disavowing the endlessly many ways in which that society already profoundly exists, the ways in which our human lives are already made more meaningful through our connection with nonhuman animals (and I certainly do not mean only the ways in which we brutalize and exploit nonhuman animals, though those stories are also enormously complicated ones as well).

"Enhancement biotechnologies will profoundly impact on the nature of this co-existence" between humans and animals [sic], writes Dvorsky. Try to set aside the perfectly ridiculous but absolutely typical overconfidence of Dvorsky's use of "will" here, as if all the usual robo-magicks futurologists interminably handwave about were bulldozing down the hill toward us in plain sight, what matters here is the conceptual sleight of hand afoot:
Today, efforts are placed on simply protecting animals. Tomorrow, humanity will likely strive to take this further -- to endow nonhuman animals with the requisite faculties that will enable individual and group self-determination, and more broadly, to give them the cognitive and social skills that will allow them to participate in the larger social politic that includes all sentient life.
I would say that many nonhuman animals are already endowed with faculties that enable individual and, in a certain sense, group determination. Certainly, many nonhuman animals already have "cognitive and social skills" and already "participate in the larger social politic that includes all sentient life."

It seems to me that vegetarian and animal rights activists are better regarded not as proposing that we "gift" nonhuman animals, as it were in indiscriminate bulk, with sociality but as insisting to their fellow human animals that we are brutalized ourselves in the greedy insensitive parochialism of our denial of the sociality of so many nonhuman animals with whom we share the world and the ongoing making of the public world already.

From such a perspective it becomes clear that Dvorsky's proposal we shift from paternalistic protection of nonhuman animals to the cognitive imperialism of rewriting their capacities in the image of our desires is indeed a matter of "tak[ing]… further" an existing project, amplifying its terms, exposing its underlying assumptions through their reduction to absurdity.

Dvorsky's flabbergasting chauvinism is palpable when he simply assumes the outcome of deliberation in that fantastical fetal theatricum philosophicum of the Rawlsian Original Position that no sentient in its right mind would prefer to be incarnated as a dolphin or a Great Ape (though I must say that dolphins and Great Apes seem to me often to be having a high time, so long as human animals aren't behaving too badly in their near vicinity):
The prospect of coming into the world as a great ape, elephant or dolphin in the midst of an advanced human civilization can be reasonably construed as a worst outcome. Therefore, humanity can assume that it has the consent of sapient nonhumans to biologically uplift.
Of course, his "therefore" is a foregone conclusion, since it is already preceded by the declaration that entertaining any other possibility than that being a dolphin or an elephant is a "worst outcome" is "unreasonable." Hell, George, if it's really so bad to be an ape or elephant why doesn't your "ethics" require they be genocidally put out of their misery here and now? For my part, so long as I can evade their fishing nets and petting zoos, I daresay it might be quite a bit more fun to frolic in the seas as a promiscuous dolphin than to live as a human in a world run by Republicans, at any rate far from the "worst case" I can imagine entertaining from the Original Position.

Dvorsky's initial insensitivity to the richness of lives different from his own has mobilized his perfectly typical techno-utopian fantasy to impose a radical homogeneity upon the planetary commonwealth of sentients. Near the end of his piece, Dvorsky fancies that a "future world in which humans co-exist with uplifted whales, elephants and apes certainly sounds bizarre." I must say, that I honestly think such a world would be considerably less bizarre, less profuse, less provocative, less promising than the one in which we already live, the one Dvorsky disdains in the usual futurological manner for the amplified parochialism of "The Future" he pines for.

There is, after all, no more typical futurological gesture than for some futurological guru to handwave some mega-engineering day-dream or sooper-capacited body which essentially offers up a fun-house mirror of the present, in which all our present wishes as shaped by our present problems and wants are fulfilled a thousandfold, and then declares this utterly impoverished closure of the open-future for an amplified present satisfaction as some kind of wild and cra-a-a-a-azy imaginative exercise.

Just as futurologists like to cheerlead the profound instability and insecurity of neoliberal networked financialization of the global economy as "an acceleration of acceleration" when it really is nothing but planet-scaled fraud and exploitation, so too they love to peddle corporate-military triumphalist scenarios in which elite incumbents have nothing to fear but the endless upward-rocketing of their profits as if these dreary visions were the most fabulous utopianism. As I have put the point elsewhere: To speak of "The Future" is always to indulge in reaction. All futurisms are finally retro-futurisms.

"Ultimately, the goal of uplift is to foster better lives," writes Dvorsky.
By increasing the rational faculties of animals, and by giving them the tools to better manage themselves and their environment, they stand to gain everything that we have come to value as a species.
What should go without saying here is that there are profound differences of opinion and value as to what actually constitutes "better lives" among the members of the human "species" for whom Dvorsky feels so eminently capable of speaking as "our" spokesman -- by the way, thanks, but no thanks, George!

It is only by assuming that his own parochial values are neutral when they are in fact conspicuously under contest that Dvorsky can make the flabbergasting declaration that re-writing nonhuman intelligence in the image of human intelligence is always only a matter of "increasing the[ir] rational faculties."

One can only respond with morbid mirth to the proposal that making nonhuman animals more like human ones would "give them the tools to better manage… their environment" when it is only human animals and human intelligence and human culture that has managed to bring the biosphere to the brink of destruction, while whales, dolphins, apes, and pigs make their way in the world quite sustainably and contentedly as far as I can tell, at any rate so long as human beings aren't making their lives a misery.

"[I]t would be unethical, negligent and even hypocritical of humans to enhance only themselves and ignore the larger community of sapient nonhuman animals," wrties Dvorsky.
The idea of humanity entering into an advanced state of biological and/or postbiological existence while the rest of nature is left behind to fend for itself is distasteful.
Again, there is of course zero chance that the Robot God is going to arrive any time soon to end history in a Singularity whereupon she/it/they will minister to the faithful post-parentally, allowing them to wallow in shiny immortal robot bodies in nanobotic treasure caves amongst the sexbots or to "upload" into cyberspatial heaven virtualities and so on and so forth.

What is interesting in Dvorsky's delusion is the confidence of his attachment to it of the innocuous adjective "advanced." What would be lost were humanity to gain what the Robot Cultists are hyperventilating about? How much of the context in which meaning, significance, value, intelligibility presently emerges can be transformed before it becomes problematic to speak of meaning, significance, value, intelligibility attaching to some profoundly altered state?

Enhancement is a word that actually indispensably always implies "enhancement" according to whom? "enhancement" in the service of what end at the cost of what other ends?

I actually need not indulge the transhumanoids in a debate about their parochial preferences in matters of brains might be more edifying arranged in the abstract, any more than I need indulge monastics in a debate about the number of angels that can dance on a pin-head, since I can simply point out that there are contentious debates afoot concerning the capacities and values about which they fancy their own judgments are neutrally denotative of "increase" "advance" and "enhancement."

To use these terms as Dvorsky and the transhumanoids do, is simply to reveal one is unwilling to participate in the relevant discussion, not to offer up a position in it (the attitude is a familiar one among the energetically faithful, with whom, after all, Robot Cultists have more than their fair share in common, upsetting though it usually is to them to point out the fact).

What actually substantially matters in Dvorsky's parochialism is how it is of a piece with already prevailing bioethical discourses, which shape the present contours of our catastrophically failed racist War on (some) Drugs, for example, encouraging the early release and public marketing of unsafe drugs that presumably make people more "functional" consumers and workers while prohibiting drugs that provide harmless pleasures or unconventional states of consciousness, discourses that encourage the therapization of neuro-atypical or simply demanding children into obedient conformity with their classmates, discourses that justify surgeries to police intersex morphologies into apparent conformity to the normative sexual-dimorphism in the name of "well-being" of the child, discourses that stigmatize deaf parents who would select for deaf offspring to celebrate a community of the differently-sentient as though they were child abusers, and so on. As happens so often in futurological discourses that pretend to engage in a policy-discourse of foresight in a developmental frame, what tends to matter in the futurological is the way it symptomizes and illuminates present prejudices and pathologies.

Paul Raven has already responded to Dvorsky's piece, a marvelously acerbic bit of which I cannot resist quoting:
To assume that we know what is good for an ape better than an ape itself is an act of spectacular arrogance, and no amount of dressing it up in noble colonial bullshit about civilising the natives will conceal that arrogance. Furthermore, that said dressing-up can be done by people who frequently wring their hands over the ethical implications of the marginal possibility of sentient artificial intelligences getting upset about how they came to be made doesn’t go a long way toward defending the accusations of myopic technofetish, body-loathing and silicon-cultism that transhumanism’s more vocal detractors are fond of using.
It is probably too much to hope that the writer of this eminently sensible and properly aggravated response actually literally had me in mind when he refers to "vocal detractors" making accusations of "myopic technofetish[ism], body-loathing, and silicon-cultism," but one will indeed find all these and many more accusations of that kind made by me, among other places collected here. Be that as it may, I cheerfully endorse Raven's critique here.

In a fit of pique, Dvorsky responded to Raven thusly:
I'm going to issue a challenge to the opponents of animal uplift: Go back and live in the forest. I mean it. Reject all the technological gadgetry in your possession and all the institutions and specialists you've come to depend on. Throw away your phones, your shoes, your glasses and your watches. Denounce your education.
Inasmuch as vanishingly few of the people who make gedgets, phones, shoes, glasses, and watches are now or ever were self-identified members of Dvorsky's little Robot Cult or have explicitly espoused Dvorsky's highly idiosyncratic viewpoint on the non-issue of "animal uplift" I do hope if Dvorsky will forgive my refusal for now of his very generous offer of standing as the Official Representative of artifactual civilization.

As someone who earns his daily bread in the profession of education -- among other things I teach courses on science and technology, not to mention, occasionally, vegetarian and animal rights theory, to university students at Berkeley and art students at the San Francisco Art Institute -- I really must protest that disagreement with Dvorsky's rather odd views hardly demands that I renounce my education, quite the contrary in fact.

To the extent that our attire, our language, our posture, our affect is constituted socioculturally I would gently suggest to Dvorsky that his wished for expulsion of non-believers from the technological Eden of which he fancies himself uniquely representative (without ever doing much in the way of actually making or maintaining it, I really must add) involves the imagination of a primordial original "State of Nature" that really no more exists than "The Future" does, or more precisely, both exert their substantial justificatory force in the present in the political positioning they organize and rationalize.

As Raven suggests, I would propose that Dvorsky's "futurological" framing here on questions of the worldly relations of human and nonhuman animals plays out in the service of mostly reactionary political positions. In this, I would say that Dvorsky's article is fairly typically futurological.


erickingsley said...

What I love most about Dvorsky's reply to Paul Raven is that a simple word substitution turns it into a very familiar refrain we hear from the corporate-military complex when they defend their greedy, polluting, marginalizing, debasing and exploitative bulldozing of the planet in the name of lining their already well-lined pockets:

"I'm going to issue a challenge to the opponents of [Imperialism/Capitalism/American Exceptionalism]: Go back and live in the forest. I mean it. Reject all the technological gadgetry in your possession and all the institutions and specialists you've come to depend on. Throw away your phones, your shoes, your glasses and your watches. Denounce your education."

Dale Carrico said...

Of course, it is indeed rather unlikely that Dvorsky has given much thought to the "state of nature" into which many human animals are thrust in the glorious globalization of silicon-capitalism, the hunger, the illness, the malnutrition, the threat of worse, the misery of those who create the shoes, the watches, the iPhones that neutrally represent the progressive civilization of which he fancies himself the avatar.

It occurs to me that that a converse challenge might be offered to Dvorsky and other techno-utopian futurologists: If you love The Future so much why don't you go live there? Oh, yeah, you can't.... BECAUSE IT DOESN'T EXIST.

myst101 said...

Actually, I'd prefer to be a dolphin.

Dale Carrico said...

I've had the thought, too, there's no denying it.

RadicalCoolDude said...

Carrico: One can only respond with morbid mirth to the proposal that making nonhuman animals more like human ones would "give them the tools to better manage… their environment" when it is only human animals and human intelligence and human culture that has managed to bring the biosphere to the brink of destruction, while whales, dolphins, apes, and pigs make their way in the world quite sustainably and contentedly as far as I can tell, at any rate so long as human beings aren't making their lives a misery.

Exactly! This devastating response needs to not only be expanded upon but repeated over and over again whenever this "animal uplift" non-sense is brought up by these "transhumorists".

Dale Carrico said...

Yay! Agreement with RCD! Awesome!

Collin said...

I can't help but wonder if the Uplift campaign is a Poe, considering how perfectly it reveals the problem with the Great Ape Project.

I notice you put scare quotes around "species", as if humanity was something else. No. Humanity has been a distinct and completely isolated species for many thousands of years.

Human culture is not greater than that of other animals; but neither is it less or equal. Rather, the comparison is invalid. No value, good or bad, positive or negative, can be placed on any other species, because value itself is a peculiarity of human thought.

Bigotry is, and has always been, a lack of recognition of how much smaller the difference among humans is to that between humans and non-humans. And the framing of anti-bigotry as inclusiveness, rather than dignity, is, and has always been, a mockery.

Dale Carrico said...

I notice you put scare quotes around "species", as if humanity was something else. No. Humanity has been a distinct and completely isolated species for many thousands of years.

Homo sapiens is a species, "humanity," originating in the Roman humanitas has always been a civilizational ideal, famously Cicero's ideal orator, eventually the ground for a presumably universalizing humanism that, historically speaking, one cannot help noticing was never extended to all human beings and tended to amount to entitlements and accomplishments enjoyed by minorities but enabled by the efforts of majorities excluded from that enjoyment.

No value, good or bad, positive or negative, can be placed on any other species, because value itself is a peculiarity of human thought.

It is not only human animals who communicate desires and testify to pleasures and pains on terms that are intelligible to humans, and the peculiarities of human values (plural, not singular, mind you) are so regularly invested in non-humans -- artifacts, ideals, natural phenomena -- that I cannot make sense of your claim, and assume you are stipulating definitions here in ways that are strange to me.

And the framing of anti-bigotry as inclusiveness, rather than dignity, is, and has always been, a mockery.

I do not agree that the attribution of dignity to a being and the inclusion of a being in the set of those who have moral standing are antithetical frames. We share the world with nonhuman animals as well as human ones, and the nonhuman ones are among those who contribute to our sense of the furniture of the world and our sense of flourishing in the world. In another rather early essay, Animal Rites I say more about the political implications of our animal selves/others.

Whatever our differences, you can be sure that my position is not intended as a mockery.

Collin said...

The limitations that used to be imposed on the word "humanity", can be written off as casualties of the Culture Wars. It seems to me that the word has reached a stopping-point as a synonym of "homo sapiens".

Where I referred to value, a better word would have been valuation. It is a victory of many centuries of anti-bigotry efforts worldwide that it is now considered immoral to valuate any group of humans above or below any other. The discourse space thus emptied of the now undesirable class designations can be filled instead with judgments of each individual person separately. Or, as MLK put it, "the content of their character".

I read Animal Rites, and it seems you were struggling to form an opinion on the tendency to try to revive group valuation by weighing humanity (in its current form as a synonym for homo sapiens) against other species. You touched upon the obvious fact that non-humans cannot participate in political contracts, but you seemed to shy away from it.

My point is that the entire universe of discourse you're sorting through is indeed peculiar to humans, but this doesn't make us better or worse than other species. It is simply our way of organizing. Other species have other concepts of organization, which are not intelligible to humans.

We share with other species some concepts, such as pleasure and pain. But they do not suffice to judge relations between humans. But while talk of physically altering other species to make them similar to us is utter fantasy, the talk of claiming it as a legal fiat is not so easily dismissed.

If there were a project to prevent humans from being cruel to great apes, I would be in favor of it. But from what I've seen, the Great Ape Project is about granting personhood rights to great apes -- whatever that's supposed to mean. Great apes are okay as they are; they don't need to be invested with anything. It's humans who need to be divested of the practices of cruelty.

Dale Carrico said...

I don't agree that the etymology of humanity or the richness of the history of humanism can be written off as a casualty of the culture wars. I'm not sure I even know what you mean by that. When I teach about recent culture wars I point out that these began in the quarrel des anciens et des modernes in the immediate aftermath of the 30 years war. The many skirmishes over the status of modernity (also late modernity, post modernity, a-modernity, and on and on) reiterate the terms of that quarrel. The history of humanisms is actually linked to this story. It's an interesting topic.

I disagree that bigotry is as unacceptable as it should be, and I am keenly aware of the extent to which emphasis on bigotry as a form of conscious animus can distract from structural operations of bigotry. You probably agree with that, I couldn't really tell from your comment one way or the other.

You write: You touched upon the obvious fact that non-humans cannot participate in political contracts, but you seemed to shy away from it. I assume you refer to the fact that I point out that nobody expects cows to vote and nobody thinks it would be fair to try lions for murder in the veldt. Of course, I don't reduce the field of the political to the making of "political contracts."

I agree that futurological "proposals" of animal uplift are fantasy. They interest me, as I'm sure you know, in the attitudes they symptomize.

My discussion of bestializing discourse and the rest never implied that humans are better or worse than other animals in some aggregate sense. I don't believe in the attribution of collective judgments. I'm not sure what that part was about. When you say "claiming it as a legal fiat is not so easily dismissed" I am not clear what "it" is supposed to be. Animal uplift? Of course that can be dismissed: there are differences that make too much of a difference among nonhuman animal species as there also are between human and nonhuman animals for animal uplift doctrine on my understanding to make any kind of sense as a presumably libertory doctrine.

That said, I agree with you that anti-cruelty politics are good. I am happy to be agnostic on the question whether "personhood" as a category with legal standing might apply to more than human persons. I think animals that attend to the world and testify to suffering in ways that are legible to humans whatever their differences from us register as beings with moral standing in my view -- even if not in the same way that humans do.

Collin said...

Etymology? How can the origin of a word have any bearing on how it's currently used? If humanists wanted to preserve the word "humanity" in a historical context, they've failed miserably. They can't even agree on their own mission statement!

I'm not sure what you mean by "structural operations", but you know first-hand that there are shady things going on at IEET. Considering that IEET is a sponsor of the Great Ape Project, and considering how misleading the promotions of the Great Ape Project are, I think the stated purpose of stopping cruelty is quite dubious.

Of course, giving other species a full complement of human rights wouldn't work as a doctrine. But it would work as a frivolity, to disrupt the doctrines of humanism that have already lost their support base.

Collin said...

Legal proclamation of "uplift" just happened!

Dale Carrico said...

Bored now.