Say goodbye to global warming, toxic waste, and dependency on fossil fuels, and get ready to enjoy perfect health with exotic bugs that could one day cure every human disease, including aging.The first thing to notice is that the style here literally reproduces the familiar tropes and tone of a late-night low-budget informercial. Say goodbye to unsightly stains! Get ready to enjoy the perfectly white teeth of a youthful supermodel!
I have stressed repeatedly in my critiques that futurological discourse should be regarded as an amplified expression of the hyperbolic and deceptive advertising and promotional norms and forms that catastrophically suffuse our public life today. Even when I focus my attention on the most extreme and marginal variations of the discourse that play out in the sub(cult)ural fandoms and movement membership-organizations of superlative futurology -- those I lampoon as the Robot Cult archipelago of transhumanists, singularitarians, techno-immortalists, nano-cornucopiasts, digital-utopians, and greenwashing "geo-engineers" -- it is important to grasp that the techno-transcendentalizing faiths substantiated in the solidarity of socially shared True Belief they solicit are little more than variations of the hyperbolically inflated false promises and seductions into brand-identification inherent in all contemporary advertising, but now amplified into an explicit religiosity rather than the delusional aspirational opiate most advertising settles for.
Needless to say, the product the futurologists are peddling is The Future, an imaginary destination invested with promises of heavenly transcendence (and often complemented with titillating pornographic nightmares of apocalyptic robotic or nano-goo or clone Hells), usually taking on the very familiar contours of theological omni-predicates, technologized into superintelligence, superabundance, and superpowers like superlongevity.
These are just a few of the possibilities researchers envision as they try to copy how nature gathers matter and transforms it into life. Life is generally not thought of as being mechanical, but a cell can be described as a machine that rearranges non-living atoms to create parts that bring those atoms to life. Biologist Craig Venter and his team recently created the world’s first synthetic life form by programming an existing cell with new computer-generated DNA that offer unique benefits. This event paves the way to produce designer organisms that are built, rather than evolved… Experts believe that in the future, this technology will allow scientists to build bacteria that secrete food edible by other ocean creatures, which would result in more seafood available for human consumption. There could even be bacteria that would digest oil spills and repair other ecological disasters. Venter sums it up this way: synthetic life heralds the dawn of an era where new lifeforms can benefit humanity.Notice how deeply invested Pelletier is here in rewriting biology in the image of a mechanism. This figuration actually provides no greater clarity about the processes he is talking about, it simply shifts the reader from the complexities of a field few understand (and the understanding of which instantly derails any glib talk of these sorts of "envision[ed]" "possibilities" in any human relevant time frame). Robot Cultists flog this mechanization of life and intelligence whenever they can, because the pseudo-plausibility of their most fervent and fantastical faiths depend on precisely this sleight of hand, their various techno-immortalization schemes, whether involving super-longevity through the metaphor of ongoing repair (the SENS scam), nanobotic reconstruction (the cryonics scam), or soul digitization (the uploading scam).
I leave to the side the fact that long-term readers of pop-tech have heard precisely these hyperbolic claims about garbage-eating and disease-fixing engineered microbes for decades, always offered up with the same breathlessness, always whomping up the same modest and interesting basic principles and research results into resounding dramatic generalities, always handwaving the same time-line to earth shattering transformation but retreating year by year as the promises are repeated year by year. And I leave to the side as well the inevitable recourse to impresarios of self-promotion like Craig Venter (Ray Kurzweil is another obvious example) who speak a language closely akin to that of the futurologists in the effort to market themselves as brands, but who, unlike the futurologists who so adore them, do have some small substantial kernel of real results at any rate that they are debauching for parochial celebrity.
Pelletier continues to reproduce the classic characteristics of futurological discourse in the column, as when he goes on to "respond to objections" to his flight of fancy:
Though most people believe this technology will provide unlimited commercial and medical benefits, others warn that artificial life might one day become a dangerous species with sinister possibilities. Arthur Caplan of University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Bioethics and other concerned scientists believe this research could lead to unpredictable dangers… However, conservatives see still another issue to be resolved. Synthetic biology challenges our most cherished notions of the meaning of life. Is life sacred, or has it been reduced to a computer formula.First of all, notice that an extraordinarily complex constellation of ideas and theories and techniques, some of them actually long familiar, some of them hopelessly distant from application, some of them entirely implausible given what we actually know and what we actually can do biochemically, are now suddenly compressed into "this technology," a completely insubstantial and unsubstantiated non-object rendered discursively into THE object presumably under discussion. Notice that we are told "most people believe this technology will provide unlimited commercial and medical benefits." Oh, really? Unlimited benefits, you say? Despite the fact that "this technology" doesn't exist? Despite the fact that "most people" don't have any opinion on this topic at all? Despite the fact that nothing is unlimited and that all benefits are conjoined to costs and risks? Who are these "most people"? How do you know? To what survey are you referring? What terms are you taking for granted?
Needless to say, by re-directing our attention instead to "critics" who are presumably worried about the "unpredictable dangers" of "this technology" our futurologist is circumventing the far more lethal threat to his faith-based initiative, namely that nothing he is talking about is real or relevant to present concerns. And even the small threat posed by those who would worry about the speculative dangers of these speculative developments is easily cast aside by the circus-barker spectacle of immortality, endless sex, and vast treasure being dangled before the credulous mark. And in any case, surely the real-world dangers posed by the radically under-regulated experimental subjection of all contemporary consumers in an unscrupulous uninformed unpaid -- and hence, strictly speaking, non-consensual -- lab experiment in the long-term effects of for-profit pharmaceutical combinations and toxic-material consumption, deserve the attention of bioethicists more than worries about science fiction bio-bots? (By the way, are such concerns really always or even usually "conservative"?)
The turn to the sort of undergraduate pot-induced new-age philosophizing to which we are next treated -- dude, like what IS life? like, what if we're living in, like, a computer, man? -- functions in precisely the same way, as a hedge against any reader's realization of the profound unseriousness of all these loose free-associational unsubstantiated extrapolations and stipulations and appeals to lowest common denominator fear and greed, by constantly changing the subject, by raising issues and questions that are never actually answered but bulldoze along at various levels of abstraction and sense yielding a fine warm panglossian mist in the mind the futurologists seem to have convinced themselves is what deep thought feels like.
We will see tiny self-reproducing factories, disease-killing machines, and exotic creations performing many useful functions. Experts believe that by 2020, synthetic life creations could eliminate, or make manageable, nearly all human sicknesses, including most of today’s dreaded age-related diseases. “The benefits of this technology are limited only by our imagination,” Venter says. By 2030 or before, human-made life forms could provide everyone with an affordable, ageless and forever healthy body, fashioned from newly-created ‘designer cells.’ Welcome to the future of artificial lifeforms.Notice that "the future of artificial lifeforms" doesn't exist even though we have been "welcomed" to it. How disappointing! One cannot help but be amused by the fact that even the inevitable declaration that techno-paradise is twenty years away is provided by Pelletier at the end. He deprives us of nothing! I can only assume that the promise of a "2020" deadline that preceded it was an artifact of a reference to some turn of the millenium piece making all the same promises in which the same Venter was similarly prominent. It must be hard to keep those deadlines straight, the way they change every year on the year, after all. We need not dwell too long in considering who Pelletier has in mind when he refers to the "experts" who presumably agree with him on all this nonsense (any more than the "researchers" and "most people" about whom he makes similarly absurd claims) except to say that possibly that word "expert" doesn't quite mean what he thinks it does. One gets that a lot in dealing with futurologists, don't you know. It is hard to know what to make of Pelletier's chrome-hard confidence that "[w]e will see tiny self-reproducing factories, disease-killing machines, exotic creations performing many useful functions…" Given his early proposal that living beings are just mechanisms, this comment could be the perfectly innocuous recognition that microbes exist and that molecular chemistry is a useful discipline. Needless to say, one needn't join a Robot Cult to learn such insights and needless to say such insights provide no reason at all to go on to talk about eliminating aging and death.
What most strikes me about Pelletier's piece is that in offering up this breezy daydream of microbial magicks in the lab on their way to eliminating environmental problems that threaten all life on earth, his piece is not only foolish and facile but actually dangerous and even, I daresay, evil. I do not deny that some remediative techniques involving microbiology may eventually be part of the mix of solutions to the crisis of catastrophic anthropogenic climate change, pollution, and resource descent: But I forcefully do deny that they can be an all-encompassing technofix if they end up providing any assistance at all. I forcefully deny that anybody is better off dwelling on such possibilities than on urgently necessary education, agitation, organization in the service of regulation of pollution and incentives for sustainable lifeways and public investments in renewable infrastructure. I forcefully deny that even a vanishingly small percentage of people who do contribute to environmentally remediative scientific research and technical applications will be indebted to texts like Pelletier's while many who do read and enjoy such texts will instead be rendered dangerously complacent or even hostile to real practical efforts to change their personal practices or support reforms to help solve our shared environmental problems.
Dick Pelletier describes himself as a "Positive Futurist" and there are few more commonplace responses from futurologists to critiques like mine than that they are unduly "negative" or "pessimistic." To this, I repeat now as I always do, that there is nothing "positive" about denialism in the face of real problems, there is nothing "positive" about false bravado distracting attention from real problems, there is nothing "positive" about the complacency of privileged people about real problems who simply think Other People will be the ones who suffer and pay the price. Futurity is a dimension of the present, it is the openness in the present that derives from the ineradicable diversity of the peers who contend for and collaborate in the present -- it is this open futurity which the futurological faithful foreclose with their imaginary "The Future," always monologically amplifying their parochial present anxieties and desires in a narcissistic stasis they peddle as progress or accelerating change. To say the least, I see nothing particularly "positive" at all in this sort of thing.