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

Thursday, August 30, 2012

My Intemperateness With Robot Cultists

Upgraded and adapted from the Moot, Long Time Friend of Blog "JimF" offers up a thoughtful critique:
I have to admit I cringe a bit when these exchanges devolve into accusations of "lying". And Prisco did it first, long ago, when he repeatedly, in comments here and elsewhere, accused Dale of "lying" about >Hism.

I'm willing to extend Prisco the courtesy of assuming he is **not** deliberately "lying". On the other hand, "lying" is a slippery term. If a little kid breaks Daddy's camera and then solemnly declares, when asked, that he never touched it, that's lying pure and simple. If a tobacco company executive in 1970 suppresses an internal study indicating that smoking may promote lung cancer, is he "lying" if he believes that **of course** cigarette smoking doesn't cause cancer, and it would be irresponsible to release studies with statistically uncertain conclusions (just like global warming studies, eh?) to scare a gullible and easily-frightened public and also to damage the company's bottom line. In retrospect, such a thing might look a lot like lying, but at the time? Where do you draw the lie between lying and **self** deception?

Prisco is caught up in a religious enthusiasm, which he thinks will be good for him personally come the Singularity, and which will save the world, too. He really really really doesn't want to contemplate evidence that the "Singularity", and other superlativities longed-for by contemporary >Hists -- SFnal artificial intelligence, SFnal nanorobotic assemblers, SFnal biological engineering -- including radical postponement or reversal of aging -- are **not** in the cards for anybody now living (if ever). (Which leaves the O'Connors and others hoping they can be frozen and thawed and **then** reap the benefits of these technical miracles.)

Prisco may not be a stupid man (though he clearly isn't the brightest character on the block either), but he, like many religious adherents, is capable of a kind of selective stupidity when it comes to defending himself (and his "tribe") against threats to his cherished beliefs.

Is that "lying"? Weeellll... It is if you're looking to insult somebody or provoke a fight, I guess.
Of course Prisco is caught up in religious enthusiasm. But as I have made repeatedly clear his religious enthusiasm may not be my cup of tea -- just as his aesthetic tastes may not be -- but I don't particularly think people's faiths or tastes are my business unless they brush up close enough to my own to trigger something I can talk about that says something more about me than them.

I ferociously disapprove the pretense that Robot Cultism is a scientific outlook, let alone a mode of serious science practice, or education, or engineering, or policy-making, or an actually progressive or democratizing political campaign or party or program or movement, including an "identity movement." I think it matters enormously not to confuse such things.

People of faith often object to such scrutiny, but of course they are never only people of faith when they engage or espouse their faiths, but in notionally democratic societies like ours, they are always also citizens with the same rights but no more than other citizens who offer up assertions to public scrutiny as well, including assertions about what are for others articles of faith or signals of subcultural membership and so on. Sometimes Prisco wants to pretend that my refusal to engage with him on his terms is a kind of bigotry or hate-speech, a disrespect for his faith, when in fact in democratic societies part of the way a person expresses political respect for a public discourse is indistinguishable from disrespect as it would be seen from the vantage of the specificially subcultural location in which the discourse under scrutiny is lodged. This is a quandary, it makes for theoretical paradoxes, but I don't agree that it is fatal dilemma, or even something that in everyday life we don't happen to overcome with practical conviviality all the time. Of course, it isn't very convivial to call an interlocutor a liar, is it?

But, again, to the extent that the various sects of the Robot Cult are just a fandom for one of the more inept and derivative sfnal genres (futurology) or a kind of cosplay subculture or even a full-blown faithly sub(cult)ure it would not draw my ire. Sure, I think the Raelians are kooky but I find in them a certain campy appeal rather like documentary traces of 70s church services at SF's GLIDE, I think Scientology is perfectly hilarious, I think Mormonism is flabbergastingly loony, I think the Catholicism in which I was raised is a bunch of crazytown bloodsoaked kitsch (and that was before I heard about the Spider Queen), I mean, hell, I'm an atheist, of course I think the Singularitarians are bonkers as far as their faith goes -- but, But, BUT I don't feel much compelled to talk about any of these sociocultural formations except to the extent that they interfere with practical policy outcomes in ways that derange rational public deliberation to the cost of democracy or efficacy, except to the extent that their organizational dynamisms exhibit or facilitate authoritarianism, exploitation, or misinformation to the cost of the scenes of rational deliberation or consent on which democratic politics depend.

All of these formations, Scientology, Catholicism, Robot Cultism do indeed impinge on these larger concerns at times and in significant ways that need to be understood and effectively resisted. To the extent that Robot Cultists are just geeks there is considerable overlap between them and me which is no doubt why I noticed them decades ago in the first place and remain fascinated by them and know so deeply so many of the texts on which they base their beliefs and understand them so well. This familiarity also helps account for the brusqueness of my exchange with Prisco. Do you realize how many YEARS he has been indulging in these squabbles with me? You've been around for a whole hell of a lot of them yourself -- as a much more sympathetic participant observer I might add -- and part of what I am responding to is my awareness that Prisco is himself simply going through the ritual motions of insulting or provoking a fight to what purpose I no longer completely quite understand.

I don't expect to change Prisco's mind anymore and I see no reason to extend him the courtesies on which such projects of conviction or reconciliation depend for their maintenance. Fool me once, and so on. In my view, Prisco needs to be ridiculed in the hope that his discomfiture will undercut his expectation of a positive hearing in general audiences and so limit the kind of damage he can do, or he can function as an exemplary object, something of a reductio ad absurdum, illustrating in readily intelligible ways deep structural tendencies to religiosity, incoherence, pseudo-science, and True Belief in futurological discourse that other adherents mask more effectively than he does but who are tarred by the brush of his extremity in ways that are wholesome for general audiences that may observe our exchanges and who may be susceptible to futurology but still skeptical enough or teachable enough to reject it to the benefit of us all.

Prisco knows very well what I take to be the indices of legitimate science to which rational laypersons must make recourse in assessing the merits of technoscientific topics for their attention, opinion, and the public resources they have a hand in distributing as citizens -- he knows this from discussions about GOFAI, drextech, uploading, geo-engineering, and, yes, cryonics in the past with me, often over and over again -- and whether he is tsk tsking what he calls my "typical" so-called "anti-scientificity" for rejecting the ways in which his pseudo-scientificity (in my view) fails to pass muster as science, because he is just yanking my chain to waste my time, or trying to undercut my project with deliberate misinformation for the peanut gallery, the simple fact is that he is indeed being mischievous in a way that must be called out and stopped in its tracks in my view.

Realize how crucial the general problem exhibited here really is: my judgment that the Robot Cult is a pseudo-scientific faith-based initiative best grasped in its discursive and cultural performance is asserted on my part from the vitally important because so general position of a literate non-scientist who respects the role of proper science, against people who occupy positions more similar to me than not but who are claiming to be scientific in ways that I do not -- nor should they -- while also seeking to leverage their misunderstanding or deliberate mystifications on this score precisely against the position from which I am offering up my critique both as a person actually trained in discourse analysis of the kind most relevant to what they are doing (though not by their lights) and also as a literate concerned democratically-minded citizen quite aware of the extent to which technodevelopmental social struggle is a (possibly, nowadays, the) key register of historical conflict and possible progress in our moment.

Prisco and many like him are lying to themselves, and in ways that make them ridiculous, and I am willing to lampoon them in such moment in ways that render them less attractive to general audiences vulnerable to their moonshine because of the utter prevalence in the societies in which they have been raised of deceptive and hyperbolic promotional and marketing norms and forms, techno-triumphalism masking brutal exploitation, scientific reductionism enabling infantile narcissisms and denialism, and techno-fetishisms deranging our sense of history and social struggle. But I am more interested in exposing as a skeptic the misinformation and pseudo-science and fraud in which the Robot Cultists are indulging -- and in ways that have to be conscious at least some of the time -- to the extent that they are whomping up phony experts and think-tanks and "universities" and power conferences and terminological hanky-panky and citational log-rolling that are clearly working to circumvent legitimate objections, insulate themselves from criticism, augment the status and egos and fortunes of key movement players, and so on.

Deception is slippery, as you say, but so can be self-deception, and in ways that push us away in some cases from the generally wholesome liberality you are advocating toward greater skepticism. Never forget that True Believers will sometimes lie by their own lights in the service of the deeper truths to which they are committed. Even the corporate executive lying about "safe cigarettes" for money may think to undermine shareholder profits by telling truths is violating a truth deeper than those truths and so is himself most a truth-teller when he is telling those lies, especially if he also thinks that part of the truth is that everybody is lying about this sort of thing all of the time anyway (as indeed they may be in his awful milieu) and that it would be hypocritical to pretend otherwise. Never underestimate the capacity of people to retroactively rationalize ANY deception, any bad behavior, even any crime. What little lies will Robot Cultists tell mehum sheeple who are not intelligent enough even to grasp the Truth in an effort, they think, to tell that Truth, in service to the coding of the Robot God who will end history, deliver immortality, provide superabundance, reveal the secrets of the universe... or just to stroke the tender ego of a dumb luck celebrity tech CEO who stumbled onto unearned billions... or just to reassure a defensive True Believer in a marginal sub(cult)ure who senses even while disavowing its ridiculousness... or just to keep the lights on at a fly-by-night cryonics outfit or marginal but big-talking bio-nano-coding campus... or just to attract enough sustained attention for a fourth tier intellectual who once told herself she was gifted and has devoted her life to a marginal concern that she doesn't become suicidal?

I see the point of your critique -- and of course I agree in general with the force of it -- but I think this concern can be misplaced in certain contexts, when one is engaging with bad faith interlocutors like Movement Republicans and Robot Cultists who actually depend for their mischief both on the pretense that rational standards are met even as they actively undermine them and then treat and accuse the exposure of this destruction as if it were itself the destruction in which they themselves are engaged. In so saying I discern interesting parallels between the rhetorical and subcultural forms of Superlative Futurology and Movement Republicanism (though close historical reading reveals different specificities that are actually more interesting), which is not doubt part of the reason they are the twin objects of this blog's critical focus.

Anyway, yes, I do think Prisco is lying about what he is doing here, at any rate when he is talking to me, because this is a game that has had many innings by now and at this point it would only be my pretending he is engaging in a good faith exchange that gives him any power to do here the kind of damage I disapprove of. And doing just this damage is, after all, consciously and explicitly the cause to which he has devoted his life, flogging for the Robot Cult in ways that actively admit of its religiosity and yet still incoherently and vociferously insist on its scientificity and progressivity -- in the face of my endlessly reiterated critique of the error and the danger of precisely this conjuncture -- and in ways most of its adherents deny altogether.

YMMV, still, of course, and probably for good reasons, too. But those, at any rate, are mine. A temperate rationale for intemperateness is inherently weird, I'll give you that. Thanks as always, it was an interesting criticism to work my way through.


jimf said...

> I ferociously disapprove the pretense that Robot Cultism
> is a scientific outlook, let alone a mode of serious science
> practice, or education, or engineering, or policy-making,
> or an actually progressive or democratizing political campaign
> or party or program or movement, including an "identity movement."
> I think it matters enormously not to confuse such things.

Oh, absolutely.

Science and religion **do not mix**. I know there are both
scientists and religionists who would beg to differ with
that statement, but they're wrong. And the "top scientists" --
to coin a phrase -- know the score perfectly well.

"In an e-mail message from the American Association for the
Advancement of Science I learned that the aim of this conference is
to have a constructive dialogue between science and religion. I am
all in favor of a dialogue between science and religion, but not a
constructive dialogue. One of the great achievements of science has
been, if not to make it impossible for intelligent people to be
religious, then at least to make it possible for them not to be
religious. We should not retreat from this accomplishment."

-- Steven Weinberg,
address at the Conference on Cosmic Design, American Association
for the Advancement of Science, Washington, D.C. (April 1999)
( )

The fact that **particular** scientists (e.g., Francis Collins)
have managed to compartmentalize their brains so as to allow
them to continue to believe (for some value of "believe")
in their faiths while managing to do productive work in the
lab **does not** falsify this generalization. **Science**
in general -- the set of intellectual habits and standards
of the scientific community as a whole -- is **deeply**
antithetical to the intellectual habits and standards of
**all** faith-based belief systems, and deeply **corrosive**
to such faith-based systems, as the Republicans
and right-wing fundamentalists of all stripes know perfectly
well. (That's why they don't want evolution being taught
to their kids.)

**My** biggest beef with the >Hist crowd is that they are
attempting to cloak a faith-based belief system in the authority
of "science". That won't fly. BZZZT! The referee calls

My second-biggest beef with them is that they've devolved into
the kind of group-think herd mentality that makes them
unfortunately rather impervious to information that might
otherwise leak in from mainstream science.

And then, that they're a bunch of arrogant a-holes, mostly
(Narcissistic Personality Disorder, or the kind of nastiness that
is sometimes an unfortunate side-effect of being on the
Autistic Spectrum). And right-wingers, money-worshippers,
anti-democratic (and anti-Democratic), libertarian Ayn Rand acolytes.

jimf said...

> This familiarity also helps account for the brusqueness of
> my exchange with Prisco. Do you realize how many YEARS he
> has been indulging in these squabbles with me? You've
> been around for a whole hell of a lot of them yourself --
> as a much more sympathetic participant observer I might
> add. . .

Oh, yes I know. And I certainly haven't forgotten that
when Prisco was in a position to call for **my** muzzling on
WTA Talk, he had no hesitation in doing so. Before that,
I barely noticed his existence -- he was a lightweight, not
worth reading (as I told him outright at the time).

> -- and part of what I am responding to is my awareness
> that Prisco is himself simply going through the ritual motions
> of insulting or provoking a fight to what purpose I no
> longer completely quite understand. . .

Oh, he just thinks that if he gets the last word before you
get run over by a bus or abandon the blog, he's won.

Remember that scene in C. S. Lewis's _Perelandra_ where Weston,
as the the Un-man, keeps repeating, over and over, "Ransom?"
And when Ransom finally says "What?" he replies "Nothing."
And then "Ransom?" "Ransom?" "Ransom?" "WHAT?"
"Nothing." That's not far below the level of an exchange
with Prisco.

Dale Carrico said...

**My** biggest beef with the >Hist crowd is that they are attempting to cloak a faith-based belief system in the authority of "science". That won't fly. BZZZT! The referee calls foul.

Of course this goes to the white hot center of the dispute in question.

More and Prisco are trying to game the refs when they bury the credulous in neologisms and phony distinctions (it's not immortality it's "indefinite lifespan"; it's not eugenicism it's "enhancement") and in-house publications with logrolling citations and so on.

I don't think you can actually engage in this sort of activity in a sustained way and still be treated with the kind of generosity you were inclined to extend to them about their con-artistry, which I understand, knowing as I do and you do the extent to which criticism needs to be generous enough to let people explore and make mistakes and come clean and so on.

Of course, some of these Robot Cultists are just tragic techno-fetish fashionistas or sad True Believers looking for a guru and so on -- but when it comes to the high profile folks, and both Max More and Giulio Prisco qualify (tho' I doubt their "qualifications" would pass muster outside the Robot Cult) as high profile. They know what they are doing, deluded as they may be on so many questions as well.

Dale Carrico said...

And another thing! You know, Prisco just jumps on the trip wire about my "pre-emptive rejection" of all the in-house bullshit artistry as though this just shows I am screaming na! na! na! in the face of their staid scientific seriousness, but if you actually read the post the fact is that although I clearly stand on the principle that one shouldn't allow charlatans the space to lower everybody's standards by treating their bloviation as worthy of the same consideration as real science, despite this, and despite being right about this, I actually go on to talk about the worthiness of research dollars to organ cryopreservation and so on, which actually demonstrates that despite myself I actually DID go and read More's crappy sciency dog and pony show even though I had every reason not to do so, I actually DID give him the benefit of the doubt, because I Can't Help Myself! I actually do give these clowns credit they never deserve and endlessly take advantage of precisely because I am not as much a hard ass as I say I am and have every right to be. And follow that link and you get the impression that Brian Wouk is the only scientist in the world as far as these guys are concerned. And how many of the pieces they cite that actually are science are interesting to Robot Cultists in their actual science or in what Robot Cultists take them to justify -- and how often do the actual scientists so deployed actually approve such deployments themselves? How often do people outside the charmed circle of cryonicism cite these studies at all, or cite them approvingly, or use them in the service of actual research (rather than as examples of "some people say" in their general intro or concluding sections)? It's a goddamn scam and the actors involved are in on it, however they rationalize what they are doing. We have to be able to call them out on this conduct, just as we have to be able to critique the logical, topical, and tropological moves on which they depend (rhetorical and cultural analyses of the kind I'm trained in, for example) whether or not they themselves are fully aware of these operations or disapprove of such foci, we cannot allow these pseudo-scientists to circumscribe the terms on which we can critique them.

Even if it is true that Athena Andreadis and Richard Jones and PZ Myers and others like them (all of whom I cherish and respect more than I can say) really are able to demolish the would-be scientific claims made by superlative futurologists (transhumanoids, singularitarians, techno-immortalists, nano-cornucopiasts, and so on) on scientific grounds, I really do think there is also a vitally important sense in which such disputes themselves can perversely function to legitimize the pseudo-scientists, can yield for the true believers a kind of reality-effect that fuels and substantiates their fantasies.

In part this is because they themselves are not qualified to grasp the scientific arguments on their merits anyway, but it is also because "science" itself is not functioning scientifically for the faithful (as a public/published testing that warrants provisional but confident instrumental beliefs) but as a placeholder for a materiality generated by collective rituals of fervency better understood discursively and socioculturally when all is said and done.