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

Friday, December 28, 2012

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.


erickingsley said...

The 'transhumanist' flock members themselves are, to borrow a phrase, mostly harmless. The real danger is the cover they provide for the plutocratic industrial machine.

After all, why worry about pollution/climate change/income inequality/wealth concentration/outsourcing to slave labor/police state surveillance/etc. when Magictech will solve all problems 20 years from now?

Just let the same actors who cause and/or exacerbate all those problems do their thing and they'll sell you the magic bullet cure to all that ails ya as well. All you have to do is not rock the boat and substitute dreaming for engagement with the messy world.

Anonymous said...

To take something seriously must mean actions are changed accordingly. This has to hold for all meaningful beliefs. So what are the reasons to think transhumanism is more of a danger than Scientologists, Hara Krisnas, Neoliberals, Neoimperialists, etc? I clearly can't take every form of idiocy seriously so I focus must focus on the groups that are most likely to harm society (i.e. neoliberals). I have battled my way through your Ten Reasons but you essentially argue that transhumanists and the like are at least somewhat harmful to society by e.g. derailing discourse. I readily agree with this but it is insufficient reason for me to take them seriously -- I cannot take everything that's marginally harmful seriously after all.

Item SIX I find the most convincing by a wide margin (TEN is runner up). What if in a sequence of increasingly implausible events somebody from a marginal inner circle ominously called The Collective will work his way through government and take charge of the Federal Reserve, radically change global economic policy and poison the study of economics for a generation? Hah! Like that would ever happen. So if the current generation of futurologists work themselves into a position of power that would certainly be cause for concern, but to me it doesn't look like they have any influence or are gaining influence at a worrisome rate. The libertarian tech millionaires and billionaires that associate themselves with the transhumanist movement have only made symbolic contributions so far. Kurzweil is certainly no threat.

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

Not aside from the obvious reasons (personal gain and intellectual curiosity). In general I think people are much better served with a better understanding of macro economics, history, politics, and a thousand other subjects I'm sure you can think of. It's relatively easy to recognize nonsense and hucksterism with simple heuristics like a) deviation from scientific consensus, b) concealed profit motive by author, c) unrelated radical beliefs by author. Heuristics like these aren't perfect but I think "good enough" for the average person. As somebody who is not a person who teaches critical thinking skills to undergraduates I assume that a person who is such a person is in a better position to judge this.

I'm sure you've noticed that Transhumanists, Libertarians, Objectivists, Techno-utopians and the likes are frequently intelligent and highly educated people who pride themselves on thinking for themselves, who memorize lists of logical fallacies and who read scientific textbooks on all sorts of subjects in their spare time. They are aware of the counterarguments to their positions but have after consideration discarded them. People from these demographics are typically genuine and genuinely interested in truth, social justice and progress. Far more-so than the average person. This applies at least to those whom I know personally and those I have engaged on the internet. As far as I can tell you've mostly given up on persuading the futurologists and have chosen to focus on marginalizing these groups instead. The problem with this is that by ridiculing people who pride themselves on being outsiders you are bound to radicalize them further. The groups you wish to marginalize are weird, certainly, but come across as sincere and make an effort to communicate to the best of their ability. You on the other hand frequently write in a style ("ridiculously verbose verbiage") that makes your blog inaccessible to casual readers and which makes you easy to dismiss on the basis of style alone. This conflicts with your goal to take stupidity seriously.

Side note: thinking and writing takes an enormous amount of time for me so I probably won't be able to address the other points you raised. I may find time somewhere next week. I will certainly continue to lurk, though.

Dale Carrico said...

Well, first of all, thank you for actually reading and engaging more deeply with the topic.

I find it very hard to disagree with your assessment that neoliberalism seems a more dangerous discourse than futurology in absolute terms, and indeed I think one way of reading my anti-futurological critique is as a critique of neglected underpinnings of neoliberal discourse, and as an exposure through the symptomatic extremity of Robot Cultism of some of the underlying pathologies of a techno-fixated corporate-military consumer society.

You actually seem to be conceding now that there are reasons to take Robot Cultism seriously, despite the obvious silliness of so many of its partisans, so I certainly won't quibble with your view that it isn't the most serious problem in the world or even something you would personally want to devote your attention to. I think that is perfectly appropriate, since there are plenty of problems calling for education, agitation, organization, and let a bazillion progressive flowers bloom, I always say.

I don't agree that Robot Cultists would be less wrong if I didn't pick on them, and I do believe that ridiculing them is more likely to marginalize them, which is what needs to happen to them.

I also deny your insinuation that I dislike the Robot Cultists because they are weird. As a vegetarian atheist faggot geek aesthete I am plenty weird myself, I'll have you know. The problem with Robot Cultists involves fraud and pseudo-science and authoritarian tendencies and rationalizations for plutocracy that attract media attention and enable dummies to exert undue influence. Obviously, ymmv.

Now, your complaints about my style are neither here nor there. Anybody who dismisses me because my writing is harder than you find in People magazine is either somebody looking for any excuse to dismiss me come what may or somebody too lazy for me to want to spend much time talking with anyway. Nobody reasonably expects to be everybody's cup of tea and my style reflects my temperament and concerns and thinking very well.

Good luck to you, and thanks again for reading.

Anonymous said...

No group is harmless who are as currently well funded as some transhumanists currently are (and this is a real first for them ; NVM has spent most of her career paying the bills with low level office temp work!) ... all that Sweet Peter Thiel money, it makes so much possible... And Thiel is an absolute enemy of Democracy. He is a right wing lunatic.

jimf said...

> . . .all that Sweet Peter Thiel money. . .

Wait'll Larry Ellison gets on board!
(I seem to recall that he's at least appeared as
a talking head in one of the >Hist propaganda films).

Well, hey, Ray Kurzweil is alleged to have been hired
by Google (though he was not yet listed in Google's employee
directory as of 8 PM last night -- an insider
checked it on his iPad from a Chinese restaurant
in Manhattan when I mentioned it to him ;-> ).

And Ray Kurzweil was "dubbed the smartest futurist on
Earth by Microsoft founder Bill Gates"

Hell, a decade ago "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.”
(ASPEN, Colorado, Aug. 3, 2001, by
[Extropian] Amara D. Angelica
[ ])

So laissez les bon temps rouler!

[*] Disclaimer: Bill Clinton seems to be a bit, shall we say,
eclectic in his reading. He's also alleged to be a fan of Ken Wilber's
"Integral" Theory of Everything

Dale Carrico said...

"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.”

Another data-point for the futurological as reactionary point of entry in progressive politics thesis. Of course, Gore has his own techno-fix problem. 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 the irrational exuberance of the dot bomb. They derided "big" government and weakened organized labor like good market fundamentalists. This is part of the context in which we should read the weirdness of Virginia Postrel's dynamism manifesto (for which fellow travelers Clinton/ Gore were cast as villains) re-packaging right-wing plutocracy as "beyond left and right" techno- spontaneism, while Wired digirati were celebrating Gingrich's techno- whiz-bang along with 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 Ah, good times!