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

Monday, December 31, 2012

every one of them knew that as time went by…

…they'd get a little bit older and a little bit slower

ABBA New Year To All!

It's another Amor Mundi holiday tradition!

Devote another year
to love and not to fear.

Top Posts for 2012

The Unbearable Stasis of "Accelerating Change"

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

Schlock and Awesome; Or, The Futurists Are Worse Than You Think

"Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again"

I Don't Think That Phrase "Straw Man" Means What You Think It Does

Futurologists Are Mortal, But Faith-Based Futurology Is A Zombie That Cannot Be Killed

What People Are Really Talking About When They Are Talking About "Geo-Engineering"

Not Necessarily Abnormal, But Certainly Stupid

Technological Progress Is Not the Same As Social Progress (In One Simple Chart)

Taurus Londono, You Are Going to Die

An Open Letter to the Robot Cultists

The Artificial Man the Killer Clowns Made and the Mouse Child Who Said What She Saw

Today's Random Wilde (New Year's Resolutions Edition)

There is a fatality about good resolutions -- that they are always made too late. The Picture of Dorian Gray

There is a fatality about all good resolutions. They are invariably made too soon. "Phrases and Philosophies For the Use of the Young"

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Vulcan Wannabe!

I have edited (a matter mostly of combining two thematically connected posts into one) and created a permanent link in the sidebar to one of my personal favorite posts, Raised Vulcan Eyebrows and Hopeless Human Hopes. Together with the Memorial to Sasha it is probably one of the most emotionally revealing pieces I've written here.

Hannah Arendt, The Movie?

I doubt it's the Arendt movie I would want to see, but I don't doubt it's a movie I will see, because beyond doubt it's an Arendt movie.

"Keeping An Eye on the Futurologists"

I've added a list of easily accessible links to futurologists (all of whom I am strongly critical of) and their critics (some of whom I am critical of as well), since this is a topic that has always definitely been part of the mission of Amor Mundi, but which I think it is fair to say is the primary reason folks come here.

Athena Andreadis All around awesome.
Boing Boing
Jamais Cascio As nuanced as futurology gets, not good enough.
Peter Diamandis An abundance... of hype.
Edge If you think scientism is either new or scientific, this is a place for you.
ETC Group
Fight Aging! Techno-Immortalist sect of the Robot Cult.
Foresight Institute Nano-cornucopiast sect of the Robot Cult
Future of Humanity Institute What next, Oxford? Scientologists? Amway products?
Futurisms Anti-futurological critique in a different key than mine.
Gizmodo Gizmo-fetishization as guilty pleasure.
h+ Pop Robot Cult mag.
IEET Stealth Robot Cult outfit, many Very Serious White Guys of The Future.
io9 "We Come From the Future" (They don't.)
Richard Jones Nano-scale without Nano-Santa.
Alex Knapp Nearly as critical, but much nicer than me.
Ray Kurzweil One of the highest profile Robot Cult hucksters.
Less Wrong So wrong.
Long Bets Futurologists keep confusing making bets with having thoughts.
Blog of the Long Now Neoliberal boutique futurology.
Singularity Hub Singularitarian sect of the Robot Cult.
Singularity University Not a University.
Wesley Smith Bio-Con Anti-transhumanoid.
Bruce Sterling Futurity's Twain.
Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence Multi-century lifespans brought to you by software guys, stop making SENS!
Charlie Stross
TED Vapid corporatists selling things pretending to be teaching things.
Terasem New Age Cyberangelic Robot Cultism.
Turing Church Robot Cultism at Its Cultiest.
World Future Society Blogs Approach with suspicion, they publish me.

Suggestions welcome.

Today's Random Wilde

Criticism is the highest form of autobiography.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

My Politics

In the very top link on the sidebar, About Amor Mundi I talk about (among other things) my personal history of activism, my teaching of political and critical theory, and about various political affiliations I have and political outcomes I endorse. I try to be pretty scrupulously careful and concrete about all this, but I know that readers often have trouble reconciling my partisan politics with my radical opinions, or grasping not only the connections between Democratic and democratic commitments, but between my variously expressed democratic socialist, social democratic, radical democratic, green, feminist, queer, non-violent, anti-racist, anti-anarchist, and, of course, anti-futurological politics. I think the following ten posts elaborate my political perspective in a more general way that might provides a sense of more of that connective tissue. I readily admit that my politics are idiosyncratic, but they are my politics.

[1] Left and Right: Back to Basics
[2] Eight Propositions on Taxes
[3] Democracy, Consent, and Enterprise
[4] It Turns on Power
[5] Consensual Prosthetic Self-Determination and Progressive Democratization
[6] Arendt, Fanon, King on Violence
[7] Riot, Try It
[8] Happy Birthday, Occupy!
[9] Non-Violent Politics and the Democratization of the State
[10] Dispatches from Libertopia

Today's Random Parker

Salary is no object: I want only enough to keep body and soul apart.

"Autism" As Neither Subhumanizing Nor Superhumanizing

Upgraded and adapted from the Moot an "Anonymous" reader declares:
A sizeable wing of the 'new young improved' transhumanists are self diagnosed "Asperger" "autistics" who rail at "neuro-typicals" and claim specifically that their lack of empathy, lack f ability to read social cues and specifically their sociopathy (they do indeed claim that specific word) makes them human+ and closer to the Great Robot. They make a lot of allusions to a "new evolution" of "mutant xmen" autistics as "homo superior." Brain damage makes a better (trans)human! whoda thunkit?
I replied:

I must say I do not sympathize with the suggestion that everybody who might be posited to be on the "autism spectrum" should be thought of as brain damaged! I actually do sympathize with a measure of the politics of differently enabled folks who refuse enforced morphological norming or neurotypicality in the name of eugenic "optimality" or even as homogenizing "ends in themselves."

Much of my problem here arises from my sense of the incredible looseness of the notion of autism spectrum especially given what seems to be its growing popularity as an explanatory/ justificatory figure in public discourse. I daresay self-identification with the spectrum re-framed as super-humanizing is a compensation for abusive assignments to the spectrum that are abjecting. Neither move seems to me particularly useful.

Equity-in-diversity is a democratic virtue, and a fraught one. I default to a generous sense of consent -- where legibly informed and nonduressed citizens affirm wanted lifeways that pose no harm I tend to support them, whether they are normal or not. The legibility of consent imposes some limits on diversity itself, beyond that I think we need to be awfully careful.

This reply of mine generated a number of comments documenting the evidence of brain damage and pathology in some children diagnosed with autism, none of which seems to me to be called into question by my comment, but there you go. I elaborated:

"Autism spectrum" is also a DISCOURSE, very loosely formulated and yet generating very real effects of stigma (or worse) in its assignment, arising out of a historical context in which medical diagnoses regularly function to police arbitrary bourgeois norms, playing out in a current American context in which hyper-individualism is asserted while conformity is ferociously enforced.

I do not deny the existence of the condition, I do not deny the utility of treatments, I am simply insisting on care in judgment in the face of ambiguity. But, to be clear, neither do I countenance another hysterical public health panic from Americans driven by a perfect storm of authoritarian predilection and media sensationalism.

It is interesting that you publish this wall of evidence as if my call to recognize context and some nuances here is tantamount to denialism about mental health problems. Quite to the contrary, I regard mental health problems as rampant, and their stigmatization and mischaracterization exacerbates these problems terribly -- almost as much as lack of funding for public support does, to the extent that these issues can even be disentangled.

I will add here that as a queer person I am well aware of the ways in which "objective diagnoses" by well-meaning well-educated mental health care specialists exacerbated through what they were sure was support the misery of countless lgbtq folks, all the while seeing the misery in which they collaborated always only as more evidence of the dis-ease they sought to ameliorate. To this day, I am troubled by bio-reductionist accounts explaining differences in the brains of non-heterosexual subjects always in terms of excesses and deficiencies, smuggling pathologizing norms into apparently neutral diagnoses.

There definitely are such things as diagnosable mental health problems with objective symptoms and useful treatments. But there is no such thing as a perfect child, there are endlessly many different ways to flourish. There is no such thing as a non-problematic upbringing, maturation and socialization are always profoundly demanding, stressful, and probably ineradicably traumatic. There is no such thing as an optimally healthy individual, precisely because individuality consists in the different ends the facilitation of which demand we be differently capacitated. I am not prepared to deny all that may be described as autism in its difference its potential for flourishing or its contribution to culture, not to deny support or care where it is needed or wanted. Again, equity-in-diversity is a truly fraught democratic value, but I do think it enjoins us to resist an either-or here.

"Nothing About Us Without Us," seems to me a powerful recognition of the connection of a scene of consent as the ongoing democratic adjudication of the dialectic of equity in diversity, it is a slogan that seems to me to resonate beyond the field of disability politics (I prefer the term differently enabled anyway), just as the slogan "Keep Your Laws Off Of My Body" resonates beyond reproductive rights to encompass queer legalization and ending the racist war on drugs.

Ah, Good Times!

Upgraded and adapted from the Moot, "JimF" provides a blast from the past (let us say, stoopid footures past):
"Former President Bill Clinton said many political leaders are 'out of touch' with the acceleration of technology, speaking at Brainstorm 2001: The Fortune Editor’s invitational summit conference... He recommended several books including Non Zero by Robert Wright... and The Age of Spiritual Machines by Ray Kurzweil, which he called a “compelling view of the future.”
Consider that another data-point for the "futurological as reactionary point of entry in progressive politics" thesis. Of course, Gore had/has his own eco-techno-fix and p2p-triumphalism problems, when it comes to it. It should be recalled that Clinton/Gore were a major force in the acceleration of neoliberal deregulation and looting and race-to-the-bottom globalization, too. They presided over the irrational exuberance of the dot bomb. They derided "big" government (it's so over!) and weakened organized labor like the good DLC-founding market fundamentalists they were. This is part of the context in which we should read the weirdness of Virginia Postrel's notorious "dynamism" manifesto of the time (in which fellow travelers Clinton/ Gore were cast as arch-villains), a book re-packaging (yet again) right-wing plutocracy as "beyond left and right" techno-spontaneism (people fall for this line of bs every time), all the while Wired digirati were celebrating reactionary Gingrich's techno-whiz-bang along with covers touting the crypto-anarchic fall of the nation-state and the beginning of "The Long Boom" paradise being brought to us by the sooper-geniuses of Enron and The briefly popular Tech Central Station website was powering up right about then, celebrating "where free markets meet technology" (operated by right-wing lobbying firms and funded by secretive major corporations who used the "high theory" of spontaneous order and futurology to deceptively editorialize for the wholesomeness of their obscene profit-taking and looting and fraud), meanwhile transhumanism was born in earnest in its Extropian phase, demanding the techno-transcendence of both taxes and death. The transhumanoid PR may have changed but the eugenicism and techno-triumphalist naturalization of mass consumption-elite plutocracy as "progress" remains the same.

GOP, Me, Me, Me, But Not Thee

Marco Rubio of Repeatedly Hurricane Devastated Florida Votes Against Disaster Relief Aid for Northeast Victims of Superstorm Sandy.

So did thirty-one other Republicans, many in the South who just love to scream against gu'ment while sponging that gu'ment money from the Blue States.


Friday, December 28, 2012

In A Surprise Move, People Who Hate Government Govern Badly

As 2012 comes to a close, the 112th Congress is set to go down in American history as the most unproductive session since the 1940s... Obama has signed 219 bills passed by the 112th Congress into law. With less than a week to go in the year, there are currently another 20 bills pending presidential action. In comparison, the last Congress passed 383 bills, while the one before it passed 460. The 104th Congress (1995-1996) currently holds the ignominious distinction of being the least productive session of Congress ... Just 333 bills became law during that two-year period, meaning the 112th Congress needs to send nearly 100 more bills to Obama's desk in the next few days if it wants to avoid going down in history -- an unlikely prospect, considering that both chambers are squarely focused on averting the 'fiscal cliff' before the new year.
In case you were wondering, the shitty 104th Congress this Congress is even shittier than was the Republican Congress of the Gingrich Revolution. In case you were wondering, the infamous "Do Nothing Congress" was also run by Republicans, who were far less shitty back then than Republicans are today, as was their shitty Congress, but still obviously pretty shitty. As I remark in one of my Dispatches from Libertopia: "II. Whenever a right wing politician declares all government wasteful, criminal, and corrupt you should pay close attention, because he is announcing his plans."

Today's Random Wilde

In the summer term Oxford teaches the exquisite art of idleness, one of the most important things that any University can teach.

Entrepreneurial Scam and Skim Artists As Real Superheroes

I've grappled amusingly with a fellow who names himself "Mark Plus" a couple of times (for shits and giggles, please enjoy this and this). Part of what is interesting about this character is that he spent a long time as a Robot Cultist, but has become something of a vitriolic critic since he has grown quite a bit older and yet the whole techno-paradise check never seemed to get cashed. His writing has that special quality of pique one discerns in the anti-catholicism of lapsed Catholics in particular. (I would note that such anti-catholics are rather more than usually prone to death bed re-conversions.) He writes:
I've noticed from reading H+ literature over the decades that transhumanists tend to focus on superpowers based on athletic models, like super strength, stamina and agility; affective models, like super-empathy; and, of course, cognitive models, the usual super-intelligence fantasies. (This leaves out a really useful power, which I'll get to below.) Robert Ettinger published a book 40 years ago which explores many of those ideas, but the padawan transhumanists seem to have neglected it for the most part because they don't care about the history of this odd way of thinking about the human condition versus possible alternatives. My exasperation with the padawan transhumanists these days partly derives from my knowledge of H+ history and how the febrile visions from That '70's Transhumanism I grew up with haven't worked out.
I will note that it isn't always exactly clear if Mr., er, "Plus" is really a critic of Robot Cultism as such rather than really a kind of paleo-Robot Cult circa Ettinger/L5/Durk&Sandy dead-ender, but be that as it may he does make fairly withering observations about some of the nonsense the current crop of Robot Cultists characteristically spew. But what really interests me is that his ideological fall-back position from advocacy of Robot Cultism has been an advocacy of fairly straightforward right-wing white power and plutocracy politics.

Observe this curious formulation:
We already have people with apparent super-powers among us called "entrepreneurs," the most advanced of whom can make more money in a few years than most Americans can earn in several lifetimes. The U.S. government has an official policy of tracking and regulating the activities of such individuals because of the economic advantages they enjoy over ordinary mortals. We've already stepped onto the slippery slope to the outright persecution of such super-beings.
I do not think this is very far from what one hears from Ayn Rand, the same literal worship of plutocrats coupled to paranoid fantasies of the persecution of the most relentlessly pampered and privileged people in the history of the world (Rand actually wrote an unconsciously Swiftian number entitled "America's Persecuted Minority: Big Business" howling about the tyranny of anti-trust laws in a world actually devoted to Too Big To Fail). I would note, as an aside, that the correlation goes both ways, once one recalls that the magical capitalist Bible Atlas Shrugged is stuffed with futurological conceits, John Galt's free-energy motor and hologram-hidden secret sooper-scientist base, Rearden's miracle metal, all the weird evopsycho crap about inherently subservient ladies aching for rape, and so on. But what seems revealing to me about Mark Plus's fallback from Robot Cultism into right-wing plutocratic white-power politics is that its intuitive plausibility as an ideological trajectory seems to me essentially facilitated by the extent to which the futurological is already deeply in service to corporate-military elite-incumbent interests rarely more than a hop, skip, and a jump away from white-racist plutocratic politics in the first place (one notes a correlate in the ultimate dependency of Movement Republicanism on the extreme Randroidal/ Friedmananian ideology and the fact that Randian pieties and Friedmanian libertarianism never had any autonomous political life except to the extent that they were imperfectly implemented in Movement Republican realpolitik):

It cannot be really that hard to grasp the extent to which futurological faith in techno-immortalism and nano-abundance and digital-utopia amounts to an amplification of consumer society's skin kreme/boner pill death-and-aging denialism and utterly fetishized gizmo-and-game-show acquiescence, or to grasp who benefits most from such aspirations and distractions. Neither can it really be that hard to grasp the extent to which futurological preoccupations with eugenic "enhancement" medicine, with the insistence on outsourcing politics to technocratic experts, with an "acceleration of acceleration" discourse that reframes neoliberal precarity as evidence of eternal triumphal civilizational progress in the direction of wordly paradise connect to racism, imperialism, manifest destiny, civilizing missions, western ethnocentrism. My point is not to declare Robot Cultists conscious and malignant white-racists and plutocrats (though there is more than enough of that to make sensible decent people profoundly uncomfortable), but to declare even those Robot Cultists who are avowed anti-racists and socialists are devoted to an ideological formation that structurally conduces to the benefit of corporate-military elite-incumbency in ways that should give even them pause, but which certainly render the whole enterprise hopefully reactionary for sensible people in general. Notice that this facet of the critique doesn't even touch on the inherent pseudo-scientificity and uncritically faith-based character of the belief system, both of which render Robot Cultism unacceptable for sensible people in general on entirely separate grounds.

Memory Holes for Sooper Science!

Just an amusing little update. You may recall a couple of days ago I posted this comment over at the Robot Cult pop zine h+ as a contribution to the discussion there over this column. My comment never appeared, but I was falsely alleged to have posted other comments there, and other comments appearing in the discussion also discussed me without allowing me any opportunity for response. Much of the back and forth in these rather silly allegations by the participants involved happen to be documented after all, but only because I actually published them all freely here. Naturally, none of the details remain at the Robot Cult site itself, to the extent that any real public discussion was partially and momentarily allowed there.

The final resolution of the dilemma from the transhumanoid standpoint seems to have involved eliminating a post by someone directing their attention to my criticism, the elimination of a few posts falsely alleging I wrote that post presumably in a pseudonymous bid for self-promotion, and then the shutting down of the post for further comment. My actual critical comment never appeared there, my denial of the false charges never appeared there.

The behavior of marginal defensive Robot Cultists or of critical thinkers championing promising science? You decide.

Still remaining among the comments on public view is one by the editor of the zine assuring me that criticism is welcome and my criticism in particular is welcome there (which is patently false given the above), as well as other posts that "passed muster" according to their stringent moderation policy including posts that call me "a joke" and another describing my views as "a load of woo" (no personal attacks permitted, the editor piously assures us), a post defending the white race by reference to claims about "blacks" in baseball, a post describing California as a socialist state on the road to oblivion, and a comment demanding an explanation why anybody would think it is juvenile to expect science to deliver him a 300 year lifespan and invulnerability to sky diving accidents (the direct response to which demand my original comment was devoted).

Beliefs Compatible With Ignorance

Upgraded and adapted from the Moot, "Anonymous" appeallingly snarks:
[M]any futorological claims take the shape of "X is not outlawed by the rules of physics therefore X will happen Any Day Now". I hope they're not holding their sooper-breath.
Notice that indefinitely many individual outcomes may be logically compatible with what we know now, but not logically compatible with one another, and so this rationale is not even really logically sound. Of course, it is a curious kind of "scientific" belief that bases itself on the compatibility of that belief with the current state of ignorance in respect to outcomes that would demand considerable expansions of actual knowledge to be accomplished! It is not surprising that this is a kind of belief that dispenses altogether with practical, political, profitability considerations that are all also indispensable to the actual plausibility of a technodevelopmental outcome. I propose that such futurological "arguments" for superlative outcomes are more than non compelling on their own terms, they also provide compelling evidence that futurologists do not grasp the nature of technoscientific change or technodevelopmental struggle at a fundamental level.

Is It Wrong To Take Stupidity Seriously?

I don't see much evidence that transhumanists are at all dangerous.

I urge you to read Ten Reasons To Take Transhumanists Seriously and then tell me why it does not change your mind if it does not.

The futurological drivel on io9 is essentially marketing material and not really deserving of analysis of any sort.

Do you think there is any reason to understand, for instance, the rhetoric through which relentlessly deceptive advertizing forms mislead, distract, and abuse consumers?

As somebody who teaches critical thinking skills to undergraduates I find I am very concerned to arm students with tools to engage critically with the actually prevalent rhetorical forms that suffuse our public discourse, most of them taking marketing and promotional forms, not just obvious commercials and ads, or self-serving rhetoric from politicians and pundits, but press releases, think-tank position papers, advertorial content in pop journalism, dating profiles, sartorial choices, armchair editorializing treating elite-incumbent interests as natural, and, yes, as you say, the sorts of broadly marketing hype one finds in fandoms like the ones solicited and remarked on at io9.

I agree that much, indeed most, of this stuff is frankly stupid. I think one of the ways smart people can be stupid is in failing to take stupidity seriously.

Critics of Pseudo-Scientific Futurology Need Sound Rhetoric Even More Than Consensus Science

Upgraded and Adapted from the Moot an "Anonymous" reader comments:
I agree mostly with what you've written in an effort to deflate digital-utopian hype, although I don't see much evidence that transhumanists are at all dangerous. The futurological drivel on io9 is essentially marketing material and not really deserving of analysis of any sort. Transhumanists make some scientific claims that seem to hold up to casual scrutiny and therefore the strongest arguments against transhumanism should be scientific arguments.
Actually, I deny that transhumanists and other superlative futurologists make any claims that are sound scientifically, that are UNIQUE or ORIGINAL with them. That is to say, nobody ever needed to join a Robot Cult to affirm the things they say that are consonant with consensus science. (To be blunt, that even a Scientologist has figured out how to run a nice bath is not exactly surprising, but neither is this a good argument for Scientology.) What is wanted if one is trying to grasp superlative futurology or weigh its merits is to understand its actual content and contribution, surely?

While it is true that Robot Cultists believe all sorts of things that reasonable people do, one also notices that they also fervently believe in outcomes that are very marginal ones, which vary considerably from consensus expectations of actual experts and scientists who have devoted their lives to actual fields indispensable to the substance of claims and outcomes the belief in which is indeed UNIQUE and often ORIGINAL to the transhumanists.

How many actual biologists and gerontologists and medical professionals are signed up for cryonics after literally decades of cryonics hucksterism suffusing public discourse and popular discourse? How many practicing molecular biologists would bet their home mortgage on the expectation that swarms of reliably programmable robust room temperature self-replicating nanobots can cheaply manufacture superabundance of the Drexlerian kind any time soon after decades of high profile handwaving? How many actual network security experts or professional coders seeking to make software more user-friendly for actual companies are working on coding a "Friendly" Robot God? Sure there is a small cottage industry of pop-tech self-described futurists and guru wannabes who keep churning out their glossy re-treads on these themes for the rubes, but this has no life in the actual doing of science and research in the real world.

While we can all agree that sometimes, very rarely, bucking scientific consensus has put a dedicated researcher in a position to author a paradigm shift in our understanding of the world, the thing to notice about the Robot Cultists is:
[one] that they are attracted not to one, not to two, not to three, but often to dozens of marginal beliefs,
[two] that in each case it is easy to see the passion of their belief connects quite clearly to wish-fulfillment fantasies they often indulge openly (invulnerability! omniscience! immortality! superabundance! super powers!),
[three] that few to none of them have any stature in the fields they buck or are likely to achieve the stature to actually substantiate a paradigm shift.

Let me be clear, not only do superlative futurologists believe incidentally in some soundly scientific facts nobody has to join a Robot Cult to entertain seriously, but what superlative futurologists go on to do WITH at least some of those sound beliefs is to treat them as foundations mobilizing and validating a host of absolutely marginal beliefs all of which are indeed definitive of Robot Cultism.

What matters in my view are not their scientific and unscientific beliefs, but the discursive operations that are central to their mode of belief, for example the characteristic ways in which scientific beliefs serve unscientific ones in their rhetoric, characteristic argumentative gestures, tropes, conceits, figures, frames that both shape and connect their assertions over and over and over again. In other words, I believe that the most powerful critique of the transhumanists is a critique aimed at transhumanism, singularitarianism, techno-immortalism, nano-cornucopism, digital-utopianism as discourses and as a characteristic subcultures soliciting identification as such, that is to say with superlative futurology as a discursive or ideological or cultural phenomenon closely readable by rhetoricians and critical theorists and, of course, that is precisely where I lodge my own critique as a trained and professional rhetorician and critical theorist.

I happen to think squabbling with Robot Cultists over the scientific specifities is often a waste of time. Few futurologists are actually sufficiently trained in the scientific disciplines relevant to the outcomes they enthuse over enough to weigh the implausibility of their cherished outcomes on actually scientific terms. The problem of the inaccessibility of expert knowledges to outcomes of public concern is a much larger and quite urgent one, suffice it to say that this problem is exploited by Robot Cultists, both those fraudulently pretending to an expertise they do not earn and those in the futurological fandom who superficial grasp of some science is often worse than no grasp at all and who fancy that uncritical enthusiasm vouchsafes their faith in the utterances of futurological flim-flam artists.

To go down the rabbit hole with Robot Cultists debating "uploading" as immortal cyberangels in Holodeck Heaven or debating the Robot God Odds on actual consensus scientific or engineering terms is rarely the least bit productive. This is not because these techno-transcendentalists have any substance on their side but because an appearance of substance operates most essentially in their discourse to provide the pretext for faith. A debate with an actually knowledgeable scientist confounding their assumptions and aspirations will most likely function for them if anything as a ritual substantiating the scientific seriousness of their faithly utterances.

Make no mistake, the error in such a case is actually happening on the part of the SCIENTIST who has misrecognized the objective nature of the discursive/ subcultural phenomenon with which she is grappling.

In pretending a pseudo-scientific faith-based initiative in the service of techno-transcendent wish fulfillment fantasies can be adjudicated scientifically with the Robot Cultist, one concedes a scientific substance to their aspiration which is the only concession they ever really wanted or needed from you and from which they gain all they could ever get from such a transaction in any case. Conceding the existence of angels one is left only to debate angels on a pinhead as an outsider with a monk who has devoted his life to these games.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Futurological As Reactionary Point of Entry in Liberal Discourse

Of course, I just posted this unexpected diatribe against Krugman this morning for his recapitulation of futurological conceits that do not conduce in my view to the values and ends for which he usually advocates (and for which I admire him otherwise). And I have regularly complained about the blatant informercial fluffing of gizmos and AI handwaving over at Talking Points Memo, too.

But now I also want to mention that over this winter break I have been watching the daytime MSNBC polichat show "The Cycle" sometimes. I guess the draw of the show is that it has younger than the usual pundits wisecracking in buzzier than the usual ways on it, but I have been appalled to see futurological guru Ray Kurzweil on the show (they didn't ask him about his techno-immortalizing tap-water rig or his pill popping regimen or his faith in a Robot God for some reason, I wonder why?), just as I have seen vapid pop-finance and net-jazz gurus regularly taking up segments, offering up stale free-market pieties but with new neologisms to garb them, and what amount to elite incumbent rationales as if they were poems to an "openness" which is vacuous at best and anti-democratizing at worst, with talking heads indulging in evo-psycho reductionism and techno-triumphalism and on and on. (I get the feeling Toure is the biggest booster for this crapola on "The Cycle," while Steve Kornacki is skeptical about it but hasn't quite managed to formulate a systematic critique to give direction to his skepticism and do justice to his own geekery -- maybe this is just because I think I like Kornacki best on the show, I dunno.)

I don't have an elaborate thesis to offer here, I merely have a host of uneasy observations and anecdotes to testify to. I really do think the wholesome defense of consensus science, science and medical research, investments in education and sustainable infrastructure, harm reduction policy models, and so on -- very much in opposition to the biological illiteracy, macroeconomic illiteracy, sex panics, climate denialism of Movement Republicanism -- sometimes yields a compensatory credulity toward dramatic pseudo-scientific noises in digital utopian cadences, giving in to longevity and enhancement hype, flogging terrorizing existential risks at the expense of dealing with fraught real risks, offering up facile latter day reactionary social darwinisms, and so on.

You know, I remember so well in the early to mid eighties when libertarian pseudo-intellectuals on campus kept getting called "ideas guys" and Randroidal/ Friedmanian nonsense rhetoric was credited on tee vee and in magazines with all the "energy" and all the "momentum." It never seemed particularly true to reality on the ground, even though the resulting wreckage pile was certainly palpable enough, any more than the anti-feminist backlash a decade later ever seemed quite true to the reality on the ground either, I must say. It was just like somewhere somehow our ship had hit an iceberg or got torpedoed and now the deck was beginning to slant, a promotional GOP gravity well condensing at the site of endless repetition drawing everybody irresistibly down in the same direction... And I fear a comparable cloud of reactionary nonsense threatens to crystallize on the left among "tech-savvy" types who fail to grasp the connection of gizmo-fetishization to unsustainable consumer waste or techno-triumphalism to corporate-military ideology. It irritates me, sure, but it worries me, and that's much worse.

You Are Not of the Body! UPDATED

This comment apparently did not meet the exacting moderating standards at the Robot Cult zine h+, but you might be surprised to read what comments do meet those standards. How could anybody ever suggest these guys act like True Believers?

UPDATE: Classic! Not only has my comment been deleted to protect the beliefs of the credulous, but two comments have appeared falsely alleging that I am posting multiple comments under pseudonyms as an excuse for this panic stricken wagon-circling among the Robot Cultists. Needless to say, I do not expect any public correction of the record will be forthcoming. Of course, actual readers of mine know that I always publish under my full name -- as actual readers of mine also know my ridiculous verbosity and acerbic overstrenuousness would be hard to conceal behind a pseudonym in any case.

Krugman Flirts With Robot Cultism

In a recent post, Paul Krugman asks us to "[c]onsider for a moment a sort of fantasy technology scenario." The appearance of that word "scenario" should be chilling enough to those who know it tends to portend think-tank non-thinking is on the way. That it is preceded by the word "technology" removes all doubt, and as for the word "fantasy," well, whenever the words "technology" and "scenario" are combined one should more or less just consider that one implied.

The futurological fantasy in question follows immediately, and it is very much the usual one: imagine "we could produce intelligent robots able to do everything a person can do." We cannot do this, and it matters that we cannot do this, and it matters that whenever we pretend otherwise we end up indulging in other pretenses that are even worse, among them denigrating what it is about people that makes them other than robots and hence becoming a bit more cavalier about our responsibilities to ensure people flourish as such. This is something Krugman would not otherwise countenance, but in my experience futurological discourse sometimes makes sensible humane people far more credulous and sloppy and insensitive than they would be under normal circumstances, and I have no reason to think Krugman would be any less susceptible (indeed, we have good reason to think this is a particular weakness for the usually reliably sensible humane Krugman, about which I will say more near the end of my piece).

What Krugman proposes is that if we could (as we cannot) produce intelligent robots able to do everything a person can do, [then c]learly, such a technology would remove all limits on per capita GDP, as long as you don’t count robots among the capitas." Of course, this is far from clear at all, indeed it seems to me that to create a robot that could do literally ALL people can do, then they would necessarily have to be included "among the capitas." If prosperity means nothing but a slave economy (and we know it does not), then the tried and true method requires merely mistreating people as though they were robots, rather than making a go at the whole unwieldy making actually intelligent robots that are then mistreated as unintelligent robots project anyway. Of course, Krugman does not advocate for a slave economy (except on Fox News where everybody to the left of Newt Gingrich is said to be advocating for a socialist slave camp), nor would he likely countenance the treatment of actually intelligent robots that could do literally anything people can as slaves either. Fortunately for us all, this is a dilemma which confronts none of us, for nobody is making anything even remotely like intelligent robots in the first place.

Krugman admits this right off the bat: "Now, that [ie, intelligent robots to the rescue] [i]s not happening -- and in fact, as I understand it, not that much progress has been made in producing machines that think the way we do." Let us pause here and say what Krugman does not. It isn't just that not much progress has been made in producing artificial intelligence, it is that since just before World War II when the idea of coding artificial intelligence first seriously captured the imagination of certain techno-utopians (I leave to the side a long pre-history of fascinating automatons and con-artists, even though they have in my view much more in common with contemporary adherents of AI and robo-utopianism than is commonly admitted, even among their skeptics) advocates of the idea have been predicting with stunning confidence the imminent arrival of AI pretty much every year on the year, year after year, and with never the slightest diminishment in their conviction, despite being always only completely wrong every single time. Very regularly, these adherents of AI speak of "intelligence" in ways the radically reduce the multiple dimensions and expressions of intelligence as it actually plays out in our everyday usage of the term, and often they seem to disparage and fear the vulnerability, error-proneness, emotional richness of the actually incarnated intelligence materialized in biological brains and in historical struggles. It is one thing to be a materialist about mind (I am one) and hence concede that other materializations than organismic brains might give rise in principle to phenomena sufficiently like consciousness to merit the application of the term, but it is altogether another thing to imply that there is any necessity about this, that there actually are any artifacts in the world here and now that exhibit anything near enough to warrant the term without doing great violence to it and those who merit its assignment, or to suggest we know enough in declaring mind to be material to be able to engineer one any time soon if ever given how much that is fundamental to thought that we simply do not yet understand.

One might like to think that this awareness is embedded in Krugman's admission that AI "isn't happening," but of course, were he to take this lesson to heart he would little likely have invited us down this garden path in the first place, and, true enough, he takes back his admission that AI "isn't happening" immediately after admitting it: "But it turns out that there are other ways of producing very smart machines." Let us be clear, if by "very smart" machines Krugman means very useful machines well designed by intelligent people then this is true (but we would still then have no reason to entertain his "fantasy technology scenario") but if by "very smart" machines he means machines actually exhibiting something like intelligence then this is still as not true as it was a minute ago. That is to say, it is not at all true. And for all the reasons I mentioned before, this is an untruth that it matters enormously to be clear about, because in attributing intelligence unintelligently we risk loosening the indispensable attribution of intelligence to those who actually incarnate it.

Krugman writes of the new "very smart machines":
In particular, Big Data -- the use of huge databases of things like spoken conversations -- apparently makes it possible for machines to perform tasks that even a few years ago were really only possible for people. Speech recognition is still imperfect, but vastly better than it was and improving rapidly, not because we’ve managed to emulate human understanding but because we’ve found data-intensive ways of interpreting speech in a very non-human way. And this means that in a sense we are moving toward something like my intelligent-robots world; many, many tasks are becoming machine-friendly.
I do hope everybody takes note of the terrible argumentative burden being borne in this passage by the word "apparently" -- a burden that is especially noteworthy given how little evidence is offered up to render the claim, you know, actually "apparent." Quite apart from the silliness of pretending the enraging ineptitudes of Autocorrect and Siri, say, would suggest to anybody but a "true believer" in AI that "we are moving toward something like my intelligent-robots world" (do take note of that personally possessive "my" to describe a non-existing world of the future for which Krugman is uncharacteristically disdaining the empirical evidence of our -- you should note that pronoun, too -- actually existing world, peer to peer), I must protest the glib suggestion that one can still describe as the very human act of "interpretation" what Krugman is actually referring to when he speaks of "data-intensive… very non-human ways of… speech." Indeed, I protest that this suggestion is not just as bad as the falsehood of proposing as so many AI dead-enders do, and as Krugman seems to deny, that we have "emulated understanding" in code, but that the claim about machine "interpretation" is actually just another form of making exactly the same proposal.

Now, Krugman's whole discussion is a response to a piece by Robert J. Gordon proposing that "[g]lobal growth is slowing -- especially in advanced-technology economies. This column argues that regardless of cyclical trends, long-term economic growth may grind to a halt. Two and a half centuries of rising per-capita incomes could well turn out to be a unique episode in human history." In that piece, Gordon provides a handy little table summarizing the thrust of his argument and its assumptions, which Krugman reproduces in his response as well. Here is the key passage:
The analysis in my paper links periods of slow and rapid growth to the timing of the three industrial revolutions:
IR #1 (steam, railroads) from 1750 to 1830;
IR #2 (electricity, internal combustion engine, running water, indoor toilets, communications, entertainment, chemicals, petroleum) from 1870 to 1900; and
IR #3 (computers, the web, mobile phones) from 1960 to present.
It provides evidence that IR #2 was more important than the others and was largely responsible for 80 years of relatively rapid productivity growth between 1890 and 1972.
Krugman agrees both with Gordon's narrative of three key transformative technoscientific ensembles and with Gordon's insistence that the second ensemble was much more transformative than the third (in which we are presently caught up). Krugman's facile "intelligent robot scenario" is proposed precisely to suggest an as yet unrealized but presumably imminent (it isn't) amplification of the third ensemble that would render it even more transformative than the prior ensembles. I have long been a champion of Krugman's thesis that market fundamentalism represents a Dark Age of Macroeconomics in which public discussion of economic policy exhibits a basic illiteracy of Keynes(-Hicks) insights akin to the comparable policy illiteracies driving "intelligent design" into biology classrooms, climate-change denialism, abstinence-only education, more guns as the solution to gun violence, and on and on. But I have to wonder if Krugman's futurology in this instance is mobilized to defend an article of Keynesian faith actually much better left behind with the Dark Ages as well, the faith expressed in Economic Possibilities of Our Grandchildren that a prolongation of progress ensures prosperity for us all without the muss and fuss of radical politics simply via compound interest.

Quite apart from the extent to which Keynes was endorsing too much imperialism for comfort in that early argument, the deeper problem is that he was also endorsing, as so very many twentieth century intellectuals did, as "inevitable progress" what amounted to the inflation of a petrochemical bubble that so vastly amplified the forces available to human agency that it created an impression that its brute force could overcome all problems. This wasn't true, in fact it often lead to catastrophically greater problems (the Dust Bowl, antibiotic resistance, car culture, desert cities depleting aquifers, rising GDP conjoined to rising stress and suicide and reports of dissatisfaction, etc.), but even if it were true it was never going to last forever, indeed it was never going to last long enough to smooth away the criminal unevenness distributing its benefits and its costs, and it is beginning to look like the only thing worse than finitude pretending to infinitude as resources run out is the possibility that the waste and pollution accompanying this false infinitude might actually manage to destroy the world before destroying the world by running out.

I agree with Krugman that Gordon's illustrative table is useful to a point, but I want to point out that accepting it too wholeheartedly obscures as much as is illustrated. Although petroleum makes an appearance in Gordon's second ensemble it seems to me it should be foregrounded considerably more, and that coal should probably appear just as prominently in the first ensemble. This would immediately clarify that part of what is lacking in the third ensemble is a substantial shift to renewable energy the absence of which goes a long way to explain why the third ensemble really hasn't had anything like the transformative substance of the first and second. Recalling the famous introduction to Keynes' Economic Consequences of the Peace and its lament of the irrationally exuberant "Long Boom"-esque celebration of the networked globalism enabled by what Tom Standage has termed as the Victorian Internet of telegraphy one really is forced to question whether the Gordon's third ensemble isn't really just the continuation of the second after all. Indeed, to the extent that the internet is still powered by coal and implemented on petrochemical devices -- and to the extent that one accepts my premise that especially the petrochemical epoch amounted to the inflation of a ruinous meta-bubble misconstrued as modern civilization -- then it is really hard not to wonder if Gordon's third ensemble represents anything but a more hysterically hyperbolic variation of the preceding fraud, a "digitality" enabling outrageous global financial fraud, tragic race to the bottom globalization, and distracting attention from economic collapse and environmental catastrophe with promises of virtual heavens and robot paradises.

When I suggest that part of what makes the third ensemble vacuous is the lack of renewable energy investment I might seem to be providing my own variation on Krugman's robotic supplement to renew hopes for progress, but I would remind both Gordon and Krugman of Yochai Benkler's provocative suggestion that the substantial impact of digitization is precisely anti-industrial, where what is taken to be unique to industrialism is the reliance for productivity on capital-intensive infrastructure investment which in turn ensures concentrations of authority countervailing the otherwise democratizing force of comparatively more disseminated prosperity. I do indeed still believe in the possibility of progress, but I would not characterize it as industrial but absolutely anti-industrial in character, a matter of relocalized and disseminated investment, democratic and accountable authority, situated and networked knowledge, peer to peer. Political struggle in the direction of equity-in-diversity, and stakeholder/knowledge-struggle toward the solution of shared problems still looks to me like progress, but it is a matter of taking up democratic effort, not abdicating agency in a hope for techno-transcendence.

Krugman genuflects a bit unconvincingly toward such political realities in an aside:
Ah, you ask, but what about the people? Very good question. Smart machines may make higher GDP possible, but also reduce the demand for people -- including smart people. So we could be looking at a society that grows ever richer, but in which all the gains in wealth accrue to whoever owns the robots. And then eventually Skynet decides to kill us all, but that’s another story.
Of course, there is nothing so conventional among futurologists of the most embarrassingly Robot Cultic kind to propose altogether flabbergasting wish-fulfillment fantasies, involving sooper-genius brain upgrades, living forever in shiny sexy robot bodies, wallowing atop nanobotic treasure piles or in Holodeck heavens, and so on and so forth, but then to attempt to boost their credibility as Very Serious intellectuals by piously warning us of the dangers of clone armies, robotic uprisings, Robot Gods eating humans as computronium feedstock, and so on. That is to say, they provide a little disasterbatory hyperbole as a "balance" to their techno-transcendent hyperbole.

While these hoary sfnal conceits made for some diverting fiction when they first appeared decades ago and still can be jolted into life with great writing, great acting, great special effects doing some serious heavy lifting, I cannot pretend to find much in the way of original insight in this sort of stuff let alone, for heaven's sake, thoughtful policy-making. Of course, these literary expressions are most powerful when they provide critical purchase on our current predicaments: the rhetorical force of the genre depends on the framing narrative machinery through which what is proffered under the guise of future prediction or projection provides in fact the needed alienation to re-imagine our inhabitation of the present differently, more capaciously, more critically. When futurological scenarists go on to republish simpleton sketches of the scenery of literary sf and then treat this most dispensable furniture as an analytic mode involving literal prediction and projection of "the future" (which doesn't exist, and can only become the focus of identification at the cost of dis-identification with the present) the result debauches the literary form it steals from while at once it deranges the policy form it seeks to promote itself as.

Notice that one of the things one is not talking about when one is talking about perpetual GDP growth via intelligent robots (or the Very Serious non-worry of plutocratic slavebot plantation societies) is how incomparable wealth concentration was abetted through the upward distribution of profitable productivity gains of automation in the context of the destruction of organized labor in the United States in the aftermath of the great but incomplete gains of the middle class in the aftermath of the New Deal -- about which Krugman has useful things to say when he isn't impersonating a futurological guru. In other words, when one is talking futurologically one is talking about things that don't and won't exist rather than talking about things that do, or at any rate talking about things that do exist only in highly hyperbolized and symptomatic ways that render them unavailable for useful critical engagement, even though, as here, the actual reality of automation provides the disavowed real world substance on which the futurological fancies of intelligent slavebots probably ultimately depend for much of their intuitive force anyway.

Needless to say, I find little comfort in Krugman's jokey futurological offer of a Terminator flip-side to his transparently consumer-capitalist robo-utopia as ideological guarantor of eternal progress, and I am not at all edified to see someone I otherwise admire quite a lot (I've read all of his books, including the textbooks and memoirs, and often link to his work here, and of course I will continue to do so with great pleasure and to my great benefit) stooping so low. I'll return the favor with the low blow of reminding readers that as a kid Krugman wanted to be Asimov's Foundational Hari Seldon when he grew up, and regards economics as a poor substitute but perhaps a serviceable one for "psychohistory" -- which Krugman imagines as a discipline integrating economics, political science, and sociology (and no doubt "Big Data") -- "a social science that gives its acolytes a unique ability to understand and perhaps shape human destiny." Interesting word choice, acolytes! While I think it is enormously important for human beings to try to understand the times in which we live, the meaning of events that beset us, the history which we take up, the legacies with which we will come to grapple later in life as will generations who follow after us, I do not agree that there can be a political science of free beings, I do not agree that there is a human destiny but the open futurity inhering in the ineradicable diversity of stakeholders to the present, I do not believe that thinking what we are doing is the least bit about making profitable bets or making better prophesies. I think the skewed perspective of futurology may seem to be a matter of talking about robots but it is really more a matter of talking as if we are robots.

Here is Krugman's final thought: "Anyway, [this is] interesting stuff to speculate about -- and not irrelevant to policy, either, since so much of the debate over entitlements is about what is supposed to happen decades from now." May I suggest by way of conclusion myself that the primary relevance of this speculation to future policy outcomes is precisely the deranging impact of this genre of speculation on policy-making in general. Consider the way in which futurological daydreams about longevity gains have provided the rationale for suggestions that the retirement age be delayed -- even though expectations of longevity for actual people at retirement age haven't increased at all for most people who have to work for a living, although no doubt superannuated senators and wonks in their cushy posts may feel their prospects past sixty-five are long. Consider the way in which futurological daydreams of megascale geo-engineering projects provide corporate rationales continued paralysis in the face of anthropogenic climate catastrophe -- rationales in which the very corporate-military actors who exacerbated and denied climate change are cast as convenient imaginary saviors from climate change, no less profitably of course but much less accountably due to the conditions of emergency, reckless proposing hosts of unilateral interventions into ill-understood climate systems, willy-nilly, at industrial scales, without who knows what consequences all the while decrying democratic environmental politics of education, regulation, incentivization, and public investment as hopelessly corrupt, dead on arrival, emotionally overwrought.

I am far from denying the necessity of policy makers to make recourse to consensus science in crafting effective legislation, making sound investments, planning for likely problems and opportunities. Every actually legibly constituted scientific and academic and professional discipline has a foresight dimension -- but there is no analytic discipline evacuated of or subsuming all specificity that produces "foresight in general," and there is no literary discipline devoted to testable hypotheses rather than to meaning-making through salient narrative, figurative, logical association. There is no such thing as "The Future" qua destination or Destiny, nor such forces as "trends" one can ride to that destination or Destiny: there are only judgments and narratives that provide purchase on the present and only to that extent provide some measure of guidance as the present opens onto the next present. There are few economists that provide us a better grasp through the application of empirically grounded models of the complex, dynamic policy terrain of international economics, uneven technodevelopment, and liquidity traps than Paul Krugman. He is invaluable in the work of understanding where we are going from the present, and as such he has no reason to pine after prophetic utterances.

We have no reason to think intelligent robots are on the way in any sense remotely relevant to responsible policy concern. And it won't be economists (or pop-tech journalists or, worst of all, futurologists) we should be reading to gain a sense when intelligent robots are proximate enough to assume real world relevance, it will be biologists, neuroscientists, engineers. But we have every reason to think that were intelligent robots to arrive on the scene they would do so only after who knows how many intermediary steps had been made, at every single one of which there will be quandaries for policy to address that will be shaped by the stakeholders to the changes of the moment, the shaping of which will articulate in turn the terms and stakes on which the next change will depend. The distances and destinies of the futurologists exert little force and provide little insight on the complex vicissitudes of technoscientific change and technodevelopmental struggle, and their pristine lines of techno-teleologic rarely have much at all to do with the shape and substance and stakes that drive the way to eventual outcomes. There is plenty for policy-makers to grapple with as we are beset by dumb automation in the hands of plutocrats, and every moment devoted to wish-fulfillment fantasies of intelligent robot friends and foes is a moment stolen from matters actually at hand, many of them sufficiently urgent that our failure to be equal to them guarantees as nothing else could that futurological fancies never find their way even to some fragmentary fruition.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Older, and More Literary

After a lifetime devoted to ethical philosophy and political theory, I find the older I get the more I turn to literature for insightful ethics and narrative history for insightful politics.

"Awaiting Moderation"

I'm sure they will get around to it any second now, given the acceleration of accelerating acceleration 'n all, but I do want to point out that the comment to the transhumanoid zine I re-posted here is "awaiting moderation" hours later, and for now one only hopes it can pass muster under the rigorous moderating standards that have already allowed through comments declaring California a socialist doom colony and pointing out the significance of all the "blacks" in professional baseball.

A Diatribe Against the Robot Tribe

A few days back I poked fun at some silliness appearing in the pop-tech Robot Cult zine h+ (that stands for "Humanity plus," and if you don't know what that is supposed to mean, well, that just means you're probably "humanity-minus," right?), and in the comments for the piece itself, I have been discussed a bit among the gathered Cultists. Comments sections at transhumanoid zines are seriously seeds and stems (Mark Plus makes an appearance to defend the white race against me at one point, for example) and so there is little reason to engage them. But I must say reading the outraged comment of one Robot Cultist tickled me too much to ignore this morning, one "Yosarian" sputtering that his desire to live 300 years and become techno-invulnerable to sky-diving accidents and such is the furthest imaginable thing from a "juvenile fantasy," indeed, such dreams represent (this is in quotes because I am quoting) "a baseline minimum of what to expect from the future." Why, Yosarian goes on to explain Robot Cultism is nothing, after all, but believing in science and progress and reason and apple pie! We are then assured, "It’s a good bet... to assume that anything that is allowed by the laws of the universe is something that we eventually will be able to do." If I've said it once I've said it a thousand times, futurologists keep confusing making bets with having thoughts, but this one really is classic -- hell, simple straightforward logic alone pretty much guarantees humans will crank their way eventually into becoming omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent Robot Gods! After all, if history teaches us anything it is that developmental vicissitudes unfold along pristine logical lines (er). But, gee, it's all so obvious, so very sane, and so very modest as lines in megalomania go! To this I responded, all too characteristically:
Nobody ever joined a Robot Cult because they advocated or want to contribute to improving healthcare, nobody ever joined a Robot Cult because they advocated or want to contribute to consensus science, nobody ever joined a Robot Cult because they advocated or want to contribute to network security. Hyperbolizing healthcare into the faith-based initiatives of techno-immortalism, hyperbolizing engineering into the faith-based initiatives of nano-abundance and digi-utopianism, hyperbolizing coding into the faith-based initiative of pining over a post-biological sooper-intelligent history-ending Robot God of loving grace, now that is juvenile wish-fulfillment fantasizing.

The transhumanoids and singularitarians have been selling their stale static catechism to the rubes for well over a generation. Sure, a few characteristically narcissistic celebrity-CEOs now throw your pseudo-intellectuals and circus barkers the scratch to cobble together "think-tanks" in which you pretend clapping louder will make The Future real and they get to pretend they are gurus and big-shots rather than frauds who skimmed the collective talent of underlings who would make their code and distribute their ideas for the joy of it for free. But that doesn't put the Keys to History in your hot little hands, boys.

I do not doubt that you people can do a whole of damage -- the damage that True Belief does to the believer who could have made a critical contribution to progress, the damage to sensible public deliberation about technoscience that happens when you churn out deranging frames and dramas for broadcast media to gobble up and disseminate more generally, the damage you do in distracting attention from the solution of real shared problems with real shared effort the better to indulge your daydreams of eternal adolescence and invulnerability and riches without effort and a sex that finally satisfies... but for all the damage you do you never will arrive at The Future you have substituted for the Heaven of the faithful.

Every one of you will age and die. Every one of you will continue to make errors and exhibit the ignorance that suffers and causes humiliations. Every one of you will struggle to be understood, to connect, and succeed only at the cost of opening yourself to betrayal and loss. There is no such thing as The Future -- there are only serial presents, stratified by history and diversity, shared by peers, at best shared by peers collaborating toward the progress of solving shared problems. Nobody joins a Robot Cult to join the work of that progress. You join a Robot Cult because you are lazy, because you are greedy, because you are deluded, because you are afraid.

Deny away, but you are known.
For all the good it'll do.

Technology and Myth

Upgraded and adapted from the Moot, "torn halves" says of that sniping snippet tumbling around at the moment:
'[T]alk of the digital revolution being a lie is spot on. More needs to be said, though, to clarify the extent to which it is not so much the technology that is the problem, but rather the way it is being mythologised and the way it is being sold.
I think you will find much on the topic of techno-mythologization here on Amor Mundi, especially in my critique of the kind of pseudo-scientific pseudo-progressive techno-utopian sales pitches I attribute to many futurologists and call Superlativity. To say this is a lie -- as I did and as you agreed -- is of course a simplification amounting to something like another lie, for there is the lying of parochially profiteering con men, there is the lying of those who aspire to understand the mysteries of the world in faithfulness, there is the lying of those who lie to themselves or make a lie of themselves in their denial of the damage they do or the damning they're in for, and all of this deception and self-deception and bad faith is a part of what I called in that quotation, too simply, "a lie."

Your choice instead of the word myth is a good one. About that word, myth, for now, I will merely make the preliminary and obvious point that there is no such thing as "technology" in general, just a constellation of artifacts and techniques, some useful to some, some not so useful to others, some not yet put to the uses that might make them useful, some so familiar they no longer seem to be artifacts at all. If mythology is, as Roland Barthes put it, "de-politicized speech" -- that is to say, if myth is our speaking of a world that has been and still could be otherwise than it is as if it were instead a natural world that is as it must be or is the best it can hope to be -- then there is no more forceful mythology than that which naturalized our sense of what counts as technology, what technology is good for, what progress it can be counted on to bring the faithful.

It is "myth" that makes "technology in general" where there is none, it is "myth" that naturalizes and renders uncritical and hence susceptible to incumbency the politics of familiarization and de-familiarization through which we invest some but never all of our artifacts and techniques with the force of the "technological." Usually in doing so myth freights its furniture into portents of "The Future," makes them resonate with the fears and fantasies of agency, with pathological intensities of impotence and omnipotence. But the critical work of the discourse and politics of technologization, not only discovery and implementation and distribution but the taking up technique and artifice in consciousness and culture and in historical struggle is one and the same as the ongoing collective elaboration of agency, the work of doing what we think and thinking what we do. The task of a democratizing technodevelopmental struggle, in my view, must be to re-politicize the field of artifice and technique always in the service of sustainable equity-in-diversity. For that is what is left of "progress" when its "nature," when progress' myth is drained away.


The digital revolution is a lie. Cyberspace isn't a spirit realm. It belches coal smoke. It is accessed on landfill-destined toxic devices made by wretched wage slaves. It abetted financial fraud and theft at every level of society around the world. Its "openness" and its "freedom" turned out to be targeted marketing harassment, panoptic surveillance, and zero comments.
That little outburst, excerpted from this longer one, seems to have struck the fancy of some folks on tumblr. Those who make their way here via this quotation -- welcome! You might enjoy some posts that elaborate a bit more what might lead me to scribble that denunciation and propose some alternatives to the thinking that yields the denunciation, for example my Condensed Critique of Transhumanism and Futurology Against Ecology and an anthology of comparable anti-futurological aphorisms Futurological Brickbats.

Monday, December 24, 2012


Google stats tells me my last post has more comments than it has had reads. Apart from seeming unpossible, also feels like a meta-comment on my life.

Depressed GOPers Understand What Obama Represents Better Than Many Dems Seem To Do

My evidence is taken from, of all people, the terminally awful Jonah Goldberg, describing the ignorant mean whiny old white rich guys of the National Review cruise this year:
“This is a more downbeat bunch this year,” he said. “We lost in 2008, but it was almost boisterous and fun. This, a little less so. People were dyspeptic. Their conception of what the country is about, they really were sure the country would reject Barack Obama,” he continued. “I do think it hits them hard. The fear I have, why this election stung, I think, Obama has successfully ­de-ratified some of the Reagan revolution in a way that Clinton never could and didn’t even try to. That’s what freaks people out, that feeling in their gut, either Obama has changed the country, or the country has sufficiently changed that they don’t have a problem with Obama. That’s what eats at people.”
They lost. Not just the election, but a generational project to dismantle the Real America of the New Deal and the Great Society. They were wrong about the so-called emancipatory efficiencies of "free men in free markets" -- which was never anything but an apologia for white power, patriarchy, plutocracy, and unsustainable race to the bottom globalization -- and everybody knows they were wrong, everybody has seen the endless evidence of deregulatory looting and fraud, nobody wants to be them anymore, nobody buys their phony America is a "Silent Majority" or "Moral Majority" or "Values Voter" or "Real America." The barely but still intact New Deal and Great Society forms the foundation for progressive reform toward universal healthcare, public education, basic income, sustainable utilities, equity-in-diversity in a United States that is partner in a planetary polycultural social democracy. They lost. We have work to do, but they lost and we are winning. We should act like it.

Spontaneous Disorder

Anarchy is a perspectival effect -- the rule of elites is always spontaneous or natural and hence no-rule from their vantage.

More Dispatches from Libertopia here.

The Amor Mundi X-Mas Tradition

GOP/NRA Is the Froth of the Anarcho-Capitalist Cauldron

I fear that people who have expressed shock at the frankly dystopian vision of a total police state expressed by NRA head Wayne LaPierre, a vision of guns and guards in every American classroom -- and presumably, every store, every theater, every bedroom -- in his combative lucratively fund-raising sermon Friday have simply not been willing to follow the logic of our nihilist GOP back to its driving assumptions and aspirations:

Neoliberal/ Movement Conservative "smaller government, fewer taxes" slogans that never happen to specify what good government would actually consist of to them and just what portion of GDP should be apportioned with what progressivity to pay for that good government while still facilitating a healthy economy in their view always effectively amounts to the stealthy advocacy of no government and no taxes, which amounts in turn to the same batshit crazy anarcho-capitalism that the extreme right libertopians advocate openly.

Gun-nuttery is the ruggedization of the hyper-individualized cyborg-protagonist in these Randroidal/ Friedmanian nightmare-fantasies.

To be a gun nut is to experience any state as an occupying force, it is to identify with some variation of the fantasy of "spontaneous order" -- of market forces in which any contractual transaction is non-coercive by fiat whatever terms of precarity or misinformation duress it, or of omni-competent technocratic elites, or of superior incumbent elites of the plutocratic, white power, or patriarchal varieties all of whose rule is, of course, "only natural" and hence neutralized into a seamless entirely imaginary anarchic harmony.

If you were surprised to hear Wayne LaPierre speak, I really have to wonder if you have been paying attention to the prevailing political discourse in this country since the Reagan Administration.

To step back from this a bit, the New Deal and the Great Society were the Democratic left's counter-proposal, the 2006 mid-term election was the turning point, the Obama Administration is a gathering of the forces for a generation of progress, while the witch's sabbath of Death Panel Summer, Birthers, the Crazytown GOP Primary, the Skewed nonsense, the NRA freakout are all death-throes of a suicidally self-marginalizing movement organized to destroy the New Deal and Great Society that managed to hurt a lot of people but failed in its task and is now defeated utterly.

The regional consolidation of the GOP counter-revolution is troubling, the damage the right will do is still exasperating and, to the extent that it manages to stall constructive engagement with climate change, potentially catastrophic. But there is no mystery in any of this if you are paying attention.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Anarcho-Anti-Sexist Robot Cultist Decides Feminism Is Too Hard, Declares Himself A Robot

Over at the Robot Cult outfit IEET, the Institute for Ethics (where the ethics are rarely really discussed) and Emerging Technologies (where the technologies are rarely really emerging), one Very Serious White Guy of The Future Kris Notaro quotes another Very Serious White Guy of The Future William Gillis about how being a Robot Cultist enables you to skip all the hard work of feminism and queer activism. As I said a while back about another Very Serious White Guy of The Future George Dvorsky's "post-gender" manifesto: "I get nervous when a guy claims to be frustrated with 'feminism' … then proposes to junk 'it' and replace 'it' with some newfangled internet manifesto..."

I sympathize with the frustration that inspires the piece, to wit:
Imagine the situation. Bro-dude #1,459,005,410 has constructed some meticulous and elaborate set of bullshit anecdotes, his own evolutionary psychology fanfic and dozens of “social science” references. All to prove some ridiculously totalizing and conceptually hazy statement about women or men that they cling to as their own personal patriarchy-justification-wand. They’re expecting you to get bogged down in a fruitless quagmire contending all the things in order to avoid what is ultimately a really laughable appeal to the naturalistic fallacy. “Look, babe, this is just how the world works.” But whether or not something’s genetic or inherent to our bodies or “built-in” really shouldn’t matter. And giving that assumption fuel by fighting it on its own terms is actually kind of reckless.
I quite agree one should not argue against sexist, racist, imperialist declarations about the natural inferiority or proper quiescence of the ladies, the blacks, the poors, the furriners and so on offered up in the pseudo-scientific garments of latter day social Darwinism of the memetic digi-war or evo-psycho varieties by accepting the enabling terms of this reactionary nonsense wholesale, but then simply flinging one's own parochially preferred anti-sexist, anti-racist but ultimately no less ahistorical reductionist techno-triumphalist anecdotes back in the faces of the jerks.

Imagine the tableau of a heated battle between "progressive" and reactionary phrenologists. Not edifying.

But sympathize though I do with these frustrations, I am afraid I can only offer up a course of painstaking argument, critique, satire, education, agitation, organization resisting such reactionary, reductionist, sexist, heterosexist, racist, imperialist ideas, efforts, works in their assumptions, their aspirations, and their effects. I have no sympathy at all with the Robot Cult alternative proposed instead:
Transhumanists obviously don’t have to put up with that shit. In fact we can slide directly into terms of “abolishing gender” from the get-go to directly negate MRA-era contortions around “equality” without even having to slog through a lengthy education process about distinctions between gender and sex… Fuck you, I’m a robot. I’m a whatever. They’re whatevers… This is the future. We’re all becoming cyborgs and queers and entirely new ways and forms of existing. We’re self-altering, self-determining. There is no “women” just as there is no “men”. What there are are douchebags and fucked up social systems doing very real damage that happens to be based on the assumption that such genders exist or should exist. Patriarchy is the enemy and I don’t give a shit what it takes to bring the fucker down. If gender actually conflicts with ethics, then we should chuck gender. If human biology actually conflicts with ethics, then we should move to chuck human biology… So the next time someone starts rattling on about their crackpot gender essentialist theory may I recom[m]end countering with an ["]Even if that were remotely plausible, why would it matter in the slightest to the basic ethics of how minds should treat one another? Fuck you, I’m a floating metal sphere.["] And then just pummel them with future-shock and uncompromising radicalism until they’re in a fetal position.
Of course, Kris Notaro, of course, William Gillis, of course, George Dvorsky, none of you are actually Robots. Whatever "whatevers" you happen to be, you are socially legible bodies speaking legible languages which precede and exceed you, which in being spoken by you, also speak you.

You are raced, sexed, classed, gendered, aged, abled in ways that you are articulated by even as you are articulate them. You might think you are beyond sex, beyond gender, beyond race, but at most you practice sex, gender, race, and the rest in ways that render them more capacious than they otherwise would be. There are no shortcuts. And I can't help saying even looking for shortcuts when it comes to this stuff is something of a dick move, if you know what I mean?

François Poul-lain de la Barre declared that “L'esprit n'a point de sexe,” but of course sex and gender norms profoundly articulate who has or had a say in what is legibly apportioned to the sphere of "mind." He was a Very Serious White Guy too, you know (hell, so am I)! Those who would identify as minds while dis-identifying with their bodies confront (or disavow) the pickle that you can't "chuck human biology" without "chucking human mind" too. This intellectual puzzle is quite apart from the fact that nobody actually is "post-biological" in the sense being triumphantly crowed about here, very much including the very human very biological very white very male guys presently under discussion, and also from the fact that actually only crazy people seriously pretend anyone is about to do any such thing in any practical sense even if one finds some intellectually coherent way even to talk about the prospect of doing such a thing in the first place -- which I have yet to find anybody offer anywhere anyway. Mind, consciousness, intelligence is ineradiacably materialized, and so far always only incarnated in the materiality of biological brains and implemented in the materiality of historical struggles.

Setting aside these actually devastating quibbles for a moment, I find myself wondering as well if it has occurred to any of these fellows that their instrumental conception of historical agency, their techno-fetishizing priorities, their techno-triumphalist reconciliation with actually-existing diversity, their whole techno-transcendentalizing denigration of bodily finitide, error-proneness, vulnerability, and mortality really looks an awful lot like fairly conventional patriarchial categories and norms rather than the self-congratulatory "overcoming" these privileged white boys all seem so cocksure to report about themselves? The declaration that "[w]e’re self-altering, self-determining," all ruggedly individualistic in our cyborg-armor, is hardly new, and neither is it exactly bereft of gendered/raced baggage in its triumphalism. The image with which we are left in the piece, of an opponent "reduced to the fetal position" after being "pummeled" by the "radicalism" of a futurologist's "Fuck You!" hardly seems, you will forgive me, particularly beyond patriarchal masculinity let alone even remotely "post-biological" in its assumptions or aspirations. Future Shock, indeed!

Be all that as it may, there is certainly nothing "uncompromising" or "radical" about boys taking their toys and going home when there is serious work to be done. It's one thing to admit one is not decent enough to care about sexism or racism or exploitation in the world, but it is quite another not to care about any of these enough to do anything about them but then to demand one be celebrated as a champion of that which you disdain in the very moment of your relinquishment of the field of struggle itself.

May I gently point out that you are not a Floating Metal Sphere?

Maybe, just maybe, you are just a dick?

What Is Patriarchy?

Patriarchy names in the first place those sociocultural systems in history in which authority and control over property, and especially the generational transmission of property -- and therefore authority -- from fathers to sons, requires that women be owned as property as well to ensure male control over female reproductive capacity.

Patriarchy names in the second place a whole system of norms and institutions that preferentially benefit men in respect to women, both to facilitate the control of women by men that is patriarchy in its primary sense, but also those norms and institutions that tend to arise as results, expressions, or symptoms of this ongoing control. It is crucial to grasp that vestiges of these norms and institutions will tend to linger on, denigrating and disabling women in respect to men, or denigrating and disabling that which is associated with what is construed as "femininity" in respect to what is construed as "masculinity," even in societies and cultures that have overcome some or even most of the violence and injustice represented by patriarchy in its primary sense.

Patriarchy names in the third place those discursive operations through which bodies and lifeways are imagined and attended to and so produced as "sexed" and "gendered" in ways that are only legibly taken up and valued and hierarchized by sociocultural formations that are patriarchal in the first and second senses above. It is crucial to grasp that patriarchal sex-gender vocabularies not only prepare and facilitate bodily experience and desire for the denigration and disablement of women in respect to men, and femininity in respect to masculinity, in patriarchy's second sense above, but that the patriarchal in its third sense generates possibilities as well for still-circumscribed resistances to these denigrations and disabilities, contingent valorizations, ambivalent celebrations of femininity and womanhood within patriarchy's sex-gender terms. It is no less crucial to grasp that patriarchal sex-gender vocabularies open the way for new denigrations and disabilities of bodies and lifeways than those highlighted by patriarchy's first and second senses as when, for example, an intersex body is surgically policed into conformity with a normative sexual dimorphism whatever injurious consequences may follow from this operation, or when a wanted transsexual lifeway premised on the pleasures of the transitional itself rather than on a primary aversion to the legibly sexed "pre-operative" body or an ideal identification with the legibly sexed "post-operative body" is pathologized, criminalized, or otherwise dehumanized. In these cases the patriarchal assignment of facts and values functions not so much to denigrate women in respect to men, or femininity in respect to masculinity, so-called, but to denigrate and disable any body, experience, desire, or lifeway that is not legibly male or female, legibly masculine or feminine, or legibly reprosexual, beyond but still in service to the damage the patriarchal goes on to do to the bodies, experiences, desires, and lifeways that are legible in its terms according to patriarchy's first and second senses.

Bury Crass Mess!

Seasons Tweetings.

The Stoopid Footure, It Burns!

Over at the pop-tech fanzine h+ (that stands for what Robot Cultists call "humanity plus," and if you don't know what that means, well, you're probably humanity minus), Jason Xu enthuses about a weekly "health extension salon" -- that's a PR massaged phrase for eugenic "enhancement" and techno-immortalism, a kind of Vegas-style boner pill and nutritional supplement store, ThighMaster ad, power of positive thinking cattle call, anti-aging kreme/baldness cure snake oil late nite informercial, but amplified and hyperbolized into a religious faith promising immortality, paradise, and sooper powers. At this oh so California futurological discussion group these guys are "implementing programs" for techno-transcendence. They are divided into four "action groups" (I love this part): "Biotechnology, Branding&Influence, Fundraising, and ." Yes, the last one is a blank space. Xu calls this an "exciting chance to advance longevity via science" -- but I am not sure that word science means what he thinks it does. "Branding&Influence?" Classic! I shudder to think what kind of Kurzweilian tapwater infusion and bran-scan immortalization handwaving gets enthused about in the "Biotechnology Action Group"!

I think Stoopid Footure quick hits may need to become a regular feature.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

There Is No Constitutionally Protected Right To Own Guns

"A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."

Guns. Lots of guns.

There is no specification of the Arms protected by the Second Amendment, and the fact that nobody seriously proposes either that the Amendment is restricted to the possession of muskets actually available at the time of the writing or expands to protect private ownership of nuclear or biogenic weapons indicates that everybody already accepts the premise that Arms are a selective category, and even that considerations of safety can determine weather particular weapons can be banned or not.

Given the speed with which gun advocates inevitably point to the fact that the banning of guns will not eliminate murder since many artifacts can be used as lethal weapons -- table knives, golf clubs, fuel-fat jets -- it should be noted that, perhaps contrary to purpose, gun advocates are demonstrating through such arguments that even the banning of all guns altogether (which is a position few to none advocate at all) would leave citizens quite free to keep and bear any number of forms of Arms.

Neither is it true nor Constitutionally indicated that unrestricted access or private ownership are the only conditions satisfying the state of "keep[ing] and bear[ing]" of Arms that is Constitutionally protected. That access to guns be circumscribed by mandated security standards, locking mechanisms, restricted locations, or even contracted out to public officials working in the public interest need not necessarily be regarded as violations of "keep[ing] and bear[ing] Arms" under certain possible interpretations of the Constitution (not all of which I personally regard as plausible, nor would necessarily endorse myself, I'm just pointing out that the phrase is not one with a singular easily legible interpretation).

I personally think that the initial framing of the Constitutional provision by considerations of "a well regulated Militia" (you will notice that the word "regulation" appears right there in the very Amendment itself, and is clearly not thought inherently to infringe the right of the people to keep and bear Arms that follows it) in an era of precarious national security without reliable standing armies is enormously significant to a proper understanding of the Second Amendment, and one that is quite catastrophic to the arguments of so-called gun advocacy politics. But I also think there is little rhetorical force in any of that, true though it may be, because I don't think Americans generally have much awareness of the concrete historical context the phrase references nor do they much care for arguments that take such contextual and intentional considerations into account in the first place. I think Americans are more interested in the plausible applicability of Constitutional principles and phrases to contemporary problems and conditions than their initial ones, frankly. As someone who regards the Constitution as a living document I don't even think that is a particularly bad thing all told.

I will say, however, that I believe there is a profound and paranoid anti-governmental mentality at the heart of the most aggressive gun advocacy, while the Amendment deployed in the service of this anti-governmentality actually originally expressed a profoundly patriotic support of the need to defend the government from enemies. The commandeering of the Second Amendment in the service of a white-racist patriarchal anti-governmental anti-civilizational mindset declaring government of by and for the people itself to represent an antithetical occupational force represents a profound perversion of the spirit of the Amendment, and of the Document of which it is a part at the deepest imaginable level.