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

Friday, February 24, 2012

Robot Cultist Declares Need for Holiday Counting Chickens Before They Are Hatched

We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives. And remember, my friend, future events such as these will affect you in the future. -- The Amazing Criswell, in the unforgettable opening lines of Plan 9 from Outer Space
Very Serious Futurologist Ben Goertzel bemoans the fact that most holidays commemorate actual events or actual accomplishments that actually have come to mean something to actual people, and proposes that we set aside a day to celebrate in advance instead future "events" and "accomplishments" that preoccupy the fancies of Very Serious Futurologists even though they have not happened and even though certainly many will never happen. The name of his proposed holiday, predictably enough, is Future Day.

As it happens, in the hours approaching and after New Year’s Day there is already a holiday in which friends and strangers celebrate together the experiences of our last shared circuit around the Sun and offer up toasts and make resolutions to our hopes for the next. In our New Year holidays we discern and celebrate the abiding reality of our open futurity, the present opening onto the next present, the fragile futurity arising at once out of the finitude but also out of the diversity of the human beings who share in the present the making of the world at which we are always arriving.

But of course “The Future” of the futurologists is not the same thing as the open futurity I am speaking of. You would think the Stock Exchange would be more than enough for those who want to blow time and energy and money indulging this sort of nonsense, but futurologists like other religionists really do seem keenly to feel the need for public rituals that will clothe their pet faithly cravings in the apparent substantial reality of shared True Belief.

As I write in my Futurological Brickbats:
Futurity is a register of freedom, "The Future" another prison-house built to confine it. Futurity is the openness in the present arising out of the ineradicable diversity of calculating, contending, and collaborative stakeholders who struggle to make and remake the shared world, peer to peer. Futurity cannot be delineated but only lived, in serial presents attesting always unpredictably to struggle and to expression. "The Future," to the contrary, brandishing the shackle of its definite article, is always described from a parochial present and is always a funhouse mirror reflecting a parochial present back to itself, amplifying its desires and fears, confirming its prejudices, reassuring its Believers that the Key to History is in their hands... To speak of "The Future" is always to indulge in reaction. All futurisms are finally retro-futurisms... Futurologists keep confusing making bets with having thoughts... When I hear the word "trend," I reach for my brain... In coming to terms with the present, especially in grasping the meaning of what has taken us by surprise, we understand and, better still, become understanding. In predicting the future, especially in proposing coinages that would work as spells to dispel being taken by surprise, we become ever more susceptible to fraud and, worse still, become frauds. Where thinking is concerned, this is a variation on the difference between investment and speculation.
As if to emphasize my point, Goertzel admits that his initial imagination of Future Day would involve "costume parties with SF movie themes … school essay contests on futuristic themes … humanoid robots giving speeches in the town square." That futurologists think there is a virtue in confusing science with science fiction is a truism. And, true to form, there are no humanoid robots that actually exist to "give speeches in the town square" unless you decide that pressing "play" on a tape recorder in the town square with a human being's speech on it means the tape recorder is somehow "giv[ing] speeches in the town square." All of which is just to return to Goertzel's initial suggestion that for some reason on "Future Day" one might want to dress up in costumes inspired by Science Fiction movies.

Now, I am the last person in the world to denigrate cosplay or SF con masquerades as celebrations of fan enthusiasm and creativity, but it really does take a Futurologist to re-invent that wheel and then try to peddle that tired appropriation as a window onto novel insights. Ask yourself to what extent dressing up in campy cat suits or Robbie the Robot drag would ever have connected anyone in any meaningful kind of way with those futures past that have already come and gone as presents past. I daresay people have connected to actual problems and possibilities to come in the years since the Earth Day holiday was proposed and celebrated than anything likely to arise from Goertzel's futurological "Future Day." Although I doubt this is his intention at all, I think one of the best ways to understand what is wrong with Goertzel's "Future Day" is that it would substantially function as a containment and circumvention of what "Earth Day" is about.

"Celebrating and honoring the past, and the cyclical processes of nature, is most certainly a valuable thing," Goertzel declares. "But in these days of rapid technological acceleration, it is our future that needs more attention, not our past." Of course, we cannot devote attention to "the future" because it has no existence to attend to, and certainly "the future" lacks special "needs" self-appointed futurological pseudo-experts need to direct our attention to. The task of understanding is quintessentially a matter of coming to terms with the unexpected present arising out of the complex dynamism of our pasts, but futurologists are forever seeking to disdain that demand and substitute for understanding phony prophetic utterances always only amplifying the parochial prejudices of the present in the form of wish-fulfillment and apocalyptic fantasies of "the future" and selling them to the rubes.

However typical the claim, it is worth noting that Goertzel's glib insistence that "these [are] days of rapid technological acceleration" is patently false. For one thing, there is no such thing as "technology in general" that is monolithically advancing or not, in an accelerating way or not. Certain technoscientific domains of knowledge advance while others stall and others vanish from our concern, sometimes to re-emerge in changed forms; -- techniques improve, mature, combine with others, become obsolete; -- artifacts answer to changing needs, sometimes better, sometimes worse. I have long suspected that the falsifying mystification of "accelerating change" especially beloved of California Ideologues and superlative futurologists like the transhumanists, singularitarians, techno-immortalists and so on, in whose company Goertzel is respected as nowhere else, is mostly what the destabilization and precarization and financialization of neoliberal global developmentalism feels like to those few who are either its beneficiaries or who identify (whether that practically makes sense or not) with its beneficiaries.

Goertzel declares that "in the more technologically advanced parts of the world, we are entering a regime in which material scarcity is less of a problem than attentional scarcity." I suppose we can set aside the obvious facile falsifications mobilized in constructions distinguishing "advanced parts of the world" from less advanced ones -- "advanced" in what way? longer healthier average life-spans? more equitable distribution of authority? better at exploiting the vulnerable? more wasteful? higher suicide rates? what? What I find myself flabbergasted by is that there are still people who want to pretend that material scarcity is less a problem in notionally representative plutocratic extractive-industrial-petrochemical societies (I assume this is the suicidal madness Goertzel means by "advanced") than what he calls "attentional scarcity."

In a world of conspicuous catastrophic climate change and neglected treatable diseases and rising human and arms trafficking it is hard to believe anybody is still shilling this sort of digital utopianism. I propose that Goertzel and his fellow futurologists dig deeper into the present that besets them (resonating with its pasts and open in its futurity) in an effort at understanding rather than disavowing that threatening and promising present for the fraud of "The Future." Goertzel does say, however, that "Future Day" is a big hit on Second Life, so maybe his digital focus makes a certain sense. Here in First Life, fewer folks are buying what the futurologists are selling after all.


jimf said...

> Very Serious Futurologist Ben Goertzel. . .

. . .who apparently has, or is going to, or was going to,
take over for Hugo de Garis at the "Artificial Brain Laboratory"
at Xiamen University, in China, following the recent
retirement of de Garis, at least according to a YouTube
interview with de Garis I watched the other day.

Very Serious People are Seriously Hard to keep up with!
(Well, not really. . . it just takes a few desultory clicks.
It's just that I don't bother all that often. ;-> )

Lorraine said...

I have no problem with future day.

Consider this:

Easter is defined as the first Sunday after the first new moon after the vernal equinox.

Canadian Thanksgiving is defined as the second Monday in October.

Hows about Future Day is defined as the day after tomorrow?

Happy Future Day!

jimf said...

> Hows about Future Day is defined as the day after tomorrow?

Yes, but then you'd never actually get to take it

(Come to think, that may be perfectly appropriate.)