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Thursday, March 08, 2012

"Mean, but true."

That was Annalee Newitz's rather pithy comment to me about this critique of transhumanism I posted to the blog yesterday.

You know, I get variations of "mean, but true" not infrequently about my anti-futurological writing, so there really might be something to it. I honestly don't think the critique in question seems mean, even granting that some of the arguments on which it draws from elsewhere may be -- especially when I'm in one of my "ridiculing the ridiculous" moods. But I do find myself wondering if this accusation of meanness is related at all to another criticism I often hear from the relentless enforced can-do cheerleaders of futurology, bummed out by what they deplore as my so-called "negativity" -- that muzzy under-criticality of the privileged that enables, I have come to believe, a million scams, skims, and scumbags. But of course Annalee -- who I know a little and like a lot -- is none of these things, and her response gives me pause. So, I'll ask you guys:

Is that post mean?

If yes, does its meanness undermine the force of the critique?

If yes, can you think of ways to reformulate the critique so that it retains its substance but becomes comparatively immune to this charge of meanness? (The post in question is divided into ten separate claims, so it should be easy to tackle the offending parts quite selectively if anybody is so inclined.)


Dale Carrico said...

The title and ten points of the post in question:

Ten Things You Must Fail To Understand If You Want To Be A Transhumanist For Long

One: Enjoying science fiction is not the same thing as doing science or making science policy.

Two: Indulging in wish-fulfillment fantasies is not the same thing as analysis.

Three: Extrapolating from speculations and stipulations mistreated as data will yield serially failed predictions, none of which amounts to foresight.

Four: There is nothing brave or useful or distinguished or progressive about saying magic would be cool if it were real, especially since there are so many real problems and real possibilities in the world that need all our bravery, pragmatism, special effort, and progressive struggle.

Five: Promoting as “experts” people with no training in actual professional or academic disciplines, celebrating the “genius” of high-tech billionaires of no real distinction, who have simply appropriated the invention and effort of countless uncelebrated others, and providing rationalizations for the "indispensability" of corporate-military elites who will presumably deliver us medical immortality, offer us nano-abundance, geo-engineer away our environmental catastrophes, and code for us perfect software god parent-substitutes, is not even remotely the same as having real thoughts, doing true philosophy, or making serious policy.

Six: Subcultures that remain very static, very small, very marginal, very megalomaniacal, and very defensive tend to look and conduct themselves more like cults than subcultures.

Seven: People who buy a Volkswagon, an Apple computer, or Diesel Jeans aren’t actually joining a political movement no matter what advertising executives say to the contrary, nor are people who watch BSG marathons, write Janeway shipper fanfic, work on a Steampunk casemod, or enjoy CLAMP cosplay actually engaging in political agitation no matter how personally resonant and edifying their experiences may be, or how interesting to ethnographers, nor are people who are invested in “The Future” of the futurologists -- which amounts in some respects precisely to such marketing phenomena and in others precisely to such fandom phenomena -- really joining or sustaining a political movement or engaged in political agitation in any remotely serious way.

Eight: “The Future” is not Narnia, it is not Middle Earth, it is not the United Federation of Planets, it is not Hogwarts, it is not Heaven, it is not Hell -- it will be a shared present attesting to stakeholder struggle just as this present is.

Nine: What we mean by life happens in biological bodies, what we mean by intelligence happens in biological brains in society, what we mean by progress happens in historical struggles among the diversity of living intelligent beings who share the present -- and to say otherwise is not to be interesting but to be idiotic.

Ten: We are all vulnerable, we are all promising, we are all more ignorant than we need to be, we are all more capable than we can know, we are all error-prone, we are all interdependent, we are all subject to chance, and we are all going to die.

jimf said...

> You know, I get variations of "mean, but true" not
> infrequently about my anti-futurological writing,
> so there really might be something to it.

It's the "hurt feelings" card that religionists use
to try to muzzle atheists, as described in

The Four Horsemen: Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris and Dennett 1/12

jimf said...

> That was Annalee Newitz's pithy review. . .

Which is presumably on io9 somewhere, but I can't find it.

Dale Carrico said...

That would certainly be consoling, which makes me suspicious of its appeal -- and I have heard the comment from folks I'd judge well-meaning and little likely to have their feelings personally hurt by my anti-futurological writing (I'd put Newitz herself in that category). But what you say is definitely part of it in many cases, especially with the cynically professionally invested and True Believer types, say.

Dale Carrico said...

Personal communication, actually. I've edited the post to make that clearer, I hope. What I'd really like to see is what the points of the critique would look like if fumigated of the meanness, if mean is indeed what they are thought to be.

jimf said...

> I have heard the comment from folks I'd judge well-meaning and
> little likely to have their feelings personally hurt. . .

Well, you know, if you're at fault here so were, oh,
Bertrand Russell and H. L. Mencken. And Sinclair Lewis.
And George Orwell. And the late great Christopher Hitchens,
for that matter.

"Ridiculing the ridiculous" is entertaining as well as
informative, which has value in its own right, and also
causes people to pay attention. (And even if you're not out
to convince or convert anybody in particular, you have a
right to exercise your voice in the expression of your
own intellectual integrity.)

If you pussy-foot, and use the "dog whistle" so that
only those already in the know will be able to decode your
criticisms, then yes -- you will be doing nothing to
counteract "that muzzy undercriticality. . . that
enables. . . a million scams, skims, and scumbags."

Which both scammers and their starry-eyed believers
will appreciate very much indeed.

I don't believe that either of us is being mean for the
sake of being mean. But the kind of BS that you poke
fun at in posts such as the one Newitz responded to **is a source
of harm in this world**. And both of us, having been
"groomed" by our previous interests to have been sucked
into the on-line >Hist orbit, and then, we may flatter
ourselves, having been sophisticated enough to have backed away
from it, are in reasonable positions to say something about
that experience.

**Of course** the remaining True Believers will cry foul --
just as Mormons complain about ex-Mormons "Why can't those
who have left the church just leave the church alone?"
or just as the Scientologists attempt to gag their departing
higher-ups (and then use lawsuits to back up those gags --
see the ongoing Debbie Cook lawsuit: ).

Dale Carrico said...

Yeah, see, I suspect we are on such a similar wavelength that you react to these criticisms with more or less the same befuddlement or annoyance I tend to do. It's just that I hear this all the time -- and I can't help but wonder if this constitutes in large part to the reason why this blog is, let us say, more widely read than it is written about among even reasonably critical folks who dwell in and around futurological precincts, that is to say on the streets where futurismic, io9, post-worldchanging, and so on live. As you say, I certainly can't dis-invent my acerbic temperament nor would I undermine the integrity of my critique in a bid for a wider audience -- but I am open to the suggestion that I am sometimes distracting or alienating congenial folks from my critique in ways that serve no real point. I'm just trying to imagine how these points I made in the post (all of which I think are true and important) might say what they say as forcefully as they say it without seeming gratuitously mean, if they do. That's all.

jimf said...

> I suspect. . . that you react to these criticisms with
> more or less the same befuddlement or annoyance I tend to do.

I certainly don't react to such criticisms with befuddlement
or annoyance. I'd say they're par for the course -- totally
expected. Just as similar criticisms were for Dennet, Dawkins,
Harris, and the late Hitchens -- even, or **especially** (as
noted in that conversation on YouTube) from their fellow
atheists. Chris Mooney, for example, is apparently somebody who
tries to spread soothing oil on the troubled waters of the
current standoff between science and right-wing religion in this
country by urging the atheist community to tone down their
criticism (where did I read that -- on P. Z. Myers' blog?).

> I can't help but wonder if this constitutes in large part
> to the reason why this blog is, let us say, more widely read
> than it is written about. . .

Well, of course you can't expect to get any thanks (as in, any
kind of positive recognition or woobies) from the >Hists themselves
(though you nevertheless still get plenty of mention by them ;-> ).

As far as the rest are concerned -- maybe they just don't care
that much. Or maybe, as I suspect, they are temperamentally
or strategically non-confrontational. They see what you see,
and maybe some of them even enjoy reading your snark, but it just
isn't worth it to them to rock the boat over it, either
by writing similar things themselves or by writing about what
you have to say (I can infer here that maybe you were in
fact a bit annoyed that Newitz's "review" was back-channel
rather than posted on io9).

Again -- pursuing the Scientology parallel -- **decades** passed
during which the mainstream media thought that Scientology
was simply not worth the backwash to write about, whatever
journalistically-juicy rumors may have been circulating about it.
The people who did dare to speak out about it before the advent of the Web
basically swamped the church's ability to keep track of all the
criticism -- such as author Paulette Cooper
-- paid an enormous price for their outspokenness.

And perhaps it was a foolish price to pay -- maybe it wasn't a big enough
deal to bother with at all. (I don't, myself, happen to believe that.
Nor do I believe that ex-Objectivist Ellen Plasil should have refrained from
taking Lonnie Leonard to court, or writing _Therapist_. But I've
never had to pay such a price, either.)

As far as toning down your criticism -- you have already written
**reams** of academically-restrained prose. The "Futurological
Brickbats" are just spice.

I remember that when you had the technoprogressive blog, back
in '04 or whenever it was, you did not want to post the kinds
of things **I** was saying to **you** backchannel, and on Orkut,
back then. And yes, since you've taken the gloves off here on Amor Mundi,
you've been unceremoniously banished from IEET and are presumably
no longer on speaking terms with James Hughes. And I doubt if,
say, Damien Broderick would dare to breathe your name on
the Extropians' list even if he might privately agree with some
of your criticisms. Annalee Newitz might well be in the same
boat (though you might think she's already burned all her bridges
with the futurists after having posted "Extropian Trash"
on Techsploitation; on the other hand, maybe she's had to
undertake some repair work in that department).

There is of course one respect in which you and I are utterly different --
my day job has **absolutely nothing** to do with writing
or with being written about, I have no personal friends among the >Hists
**or** among the academic community, and I have no political concern whatever
to avoid offending anybody, short of getting into actual legal trouble.

Dale Carrico said...

I don't think I consciously posted this in a fit of pique, but there's a lot of truth in what you say. I suppose I am a bit annoyed at the number of futurologically-engaged but nonetheless futurologically-critical folks (obviously I couldn't care less what full-on fulminating Robot Cultists like Prisco and such have to say) who I know for a fact take me quite seriously but who don't blogroll me. I don't actually feel that way about io9 particularly since I don't think there is any conspicuous fit between their focus on sf/geek fandom and what I do. But I do feel that way a bit about some other sites that are interested in futurology while also critically aware of its limitations and which resist Robot Cultism (generally) as much as I do -- and whose proprietors in conversation reveal serious engagement with my work that never finds its way to public mention. I do after all believe that my critiques of mainstream and superlative futurology are right and relevant and in some respects unique. One would like them to find their way to the attention of people who might benefit from them or who might criticize them in ways that would benefit me. I'd hate to think whatever it is that is being addressed, possibly obliquely, through this "meanness" criticism -- which I still feel a bit at a loss to understand and at a loss to correct in a way that doesn't diminish the substance of the critique itself -- is finally the reason I'm the anti-futurologist in the futurological attic. That would be really stupid and it would really suck, not to put too fine a point on it.

Chad Lott said...

I say keep it mean.

You're basically dealing with people who should be smart enough to know better or are outright liars.

Neither deserve mercy.

Crush your enemies, see them driven before you, read their lamentations in your blog comments.

jollyspaniard said...

Amor Conan?

Athena Andreadis said...

Dale -- I didn't think that particular article was mean. As for your complaint, a lot of people will "support" perceived outliers privately but won't endanger prominent public alliances. When people say "We're behind you!", the right question to ask is "Exactly how far behind me are you?"

Jim -- the late Hitchens was an flaming misogynist and a mediocre intellect, his stoicism in the face of death notwithstanding. To put it more succinctly: late, yes; great, no.

JollySpaniard: *snerk*

jimf said...

> . . .Hitchens. . . late, yes; great, no.

I am willing to plead guilty to having my opinion of somebody's
intellectual stature perhaps unduly influenced by the ability
think fast on one's feet while simultaneously giving voice to one's
erudition in the tones of Richard Burton.