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

Friday, September 07, 2012

Cryonics and Other Pseudo-Scientific Faith-Based Initiatives

I posted this comment in the midst of the discussion occasioned by my recent anti-cryonics post at the World Future Society. There is plenty of phrase-recycling in it so I wouldn't treat it as a post if I weren't busy prepping for teaching today, but it is still worth reminding people of the connections between the various sects of the Robot Cult as well as the rhetorical connections of their discourse to faith-based religiosity on the one hand and marketing hyperbole on the other.
There is no point in sparring with a True Believer, you tend to arrive all too soon at flinging "I know you are but what I am I?" at one another until everybody is much more tired but nobody more enlightened.

The only thing anybody can say with warranted confidence is that cryonics is a rather elaborate corpse disposal method -- like getting embalmed and then buried, like getting shot into orbit post mortem, like getting compressed into a diamond on a ring for a spouse to remember you by, like getting mummified and interred in the immortality-engine of an Egyptian pyramid. People of faith often declare that these rituals facilitate eventual resurrection, transcension, heavenly ascension. As an atheist I cannot claim that such claims hold much allure for me -- but I don't feel particularly inclined to argue with those who want to believe such things, any more than I would argue with a child who believes in Santa Claus. But what I disapprove are efforts to treat articles of faith as scientific hypotheses or to mistake religious proselytizing as serious political policy or stakeholder reconciliation.

It is hardly surprising to discover that not everything Robot Cultists believe is false (most of what everybody believes is factually true else communication not to mention survival, even with the wrongheaded, with the mad, and with the indoctrinated, would scarcely be possible), but what matters when it comes to the scientifically warranted beliefs and the scientifically legible concerns that are deployed by Robot Cultists will be the ways in which they are inevitably slotted into techno-transcendentalizing narratives that leave all facts behind and leap into pseudo-science and fantasy very quickly indeed.

There are, after all, plenty of real concerns among computer scientists about user-friendly coding and network security without going off the deep end and starting to handwave about Friendly AI and a history-shattering Singularity as half-rapture half-apocalypse existential risk. There is plenty that is promising for materials science, electronics, sensor technologies, biomedical techniques arising from discoveries in molecular biology and at the nanoscale without going off the deep end and starting to handwave about swarms of robust reliable programmable room-temperature self-replicating nanobots that can make nearly anything for almost nothing. There are plenty of lives to be saved by struggling to make clean water available to people in overexploited regions of the world and advocate for single-payer healthcare and demand more public investment in science education and medical research without losing a single second and diverting a single dollar to techno-immortalist outfits like SENS, cryonics, or -- even worse, because conceptually utterly incoherent -- "uploading" nonsense. What is distinctive in the discourse of the Robot Cult will be the organization of modest or superficially scientific observations through theological/ mythological frames and narratives in the service of transcendental aspirations that have nothing to do with consensus science or actual progressive development, often drawing on techniques from marketing and PR to do so.

Not content simply to engage in their endless cynical terminological sanewashing PR shenanigans (we're not talking about immortality but "indefinite healthspan," we're not talking about eugenics but "enhancement"!), adherents of the techno-immortalist sects of the Robot Cult go on to share with anti-abortion extremists the tendency to imply that the those who disagree with their marginal views are "deathists" or "anti-life," and also their opportunistic recourse to befuddlements introduced by technodevelopmental disruption to flog their (different) marginal and counter-intuitive aspirations -- as when anti-abortionists exploit sonogram imagery to render more apparently plausible pseudo-scientific "partial birth abortion" or when techno-immortalists exploit revival from once-fatal heart attacks to render more apparently plausible pseudo-scientific "cryonics" or "uploading."

Part flim-flam, part marketing hype, part newfangled theology, the Robot Cult -— whether in its eugenicist transhumanoid sects, or in its dead-ender AI (artificial imbecillence) Singularitarian nerd-rapture sects, or in its vitamin supplement replacement parts shiny robot body soul-migration techno-immortalist sects, or in its genies-in-a-bottle nano-cornucopiast sects, or in its greenwashing denialist “geo-engineering” sects —- takes all the lies of crass commercialism, all its infomercial boner pills and anti-aging kremes and endless promises of consumer ecstasy, and then sets the volume dial on eleven, turning what was just ugly stupid embarrassing commonplace circus-barker deception and crack-pottery into full on fulminating faith.

Drawing on culturally disseminated figures and conceits of mythology and theology (eden, prometheus, golem, invincible armor, the philosopher’s stone, rapture, love potion, sorcerer’s apprentice, excalibur, the fountain of youth, frankenstein, omnipotence- omnibenevolence- omniscience-) whose historically-weighted intuitive force reassures them, together with the fervency of the never-changing professions of their fellow-faithful, Robot Cultists keep telling themselves and telling us —- in a tune that never really changes year after year after year even while they also congratulate themselves on their unflappable embrace of “accelerating change” —- that there is some substance in their faith-based initiative, that their roseate “The Future” is real and that in it they can be young and rich and invulnerable and right and cared for forever.

Any child of two already knows where the Robot Cultists are coming from. We have serious problems in this world and we need serious people to help solve them. Pseudo-scientific wish-fulfillment fantasists might be enjoying the haze they’re in, like any techno-fetishizing bourgeois consumer dupe, but they are part of the problem and not part of any real solutions. For all their put-upon litigious sputtering, the Robot Cultists are lucky I restrain myself so far as to use the gentle word "scam" to describe their enterprise.

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