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

Monday, July 29, 2013

The Mirage and the Material of Technoscientific Progress

An analysis of the history of technology shows that technological change is exponential, contrary to the common-sense “intuitive linear” view. So we won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century — it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate). The “returns,” such as chip speed and cost-effectiveness, also increase exponentially. There’s even exponential growth in the rate of exponential growth. Within a few decades, machine intelligence will surpass human intelligence, leading to The Singularity -- technological change so rapid and profound it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history. The implications include the merger of biological and nonbiological intelligence, immortal software-based humans, and ultra-high levels of intelligence that expand outward in the universe at the speed of light. -- Raymond Kurzweil, "The Law of Accelerating Returns"
Needless to say, not every analysis of history is quite so sensible or so reliable as every other. While there have indeed been magnificent discoveries that have improved healthcare outcomes as well as great political struggles in the service of democratic equity-in-diversity, the conventional European civilizational progress narrative seems to me mostly a cover for centuries of criminal theft, accumulation, and exploitation, rationalized with racist pseudo-science and hypocritical punitive plutocratic moralizing. The genocidal "manifest destiny" thesis of the American nineteenth century emerged out of this tradition, but I think it is important to grasp that the American exceptionalism of the World Wars and especially the postwar Washington Consensus involved a key technocultural inflection of this narrative, an erroneous mis-identification of civilization as such with the inflation of a fraught and fragile petrochemical bubble (much that otherwise seems quite befuddling about the conduct of the Axis powers becomes immediately clear once we grasp World War II as a skirmish of competing fledgling petrochemical industrial superpowers over oil and gas resources -- as has too much of history since then as well), within which a host of consequent "technological" bubbles were inflated in turn -- redemptive nuclear abundance, suburban car culture, ubiquitous plastics, the illusory "Green Revolution" of high-energy input-intensive petrochemically fertilized and pesticized industrial monoculture, "immaterial" information-computation-digitation powered by fossil fuels and accessed on petrochemical devices, and so on.

The deceptive rationalization for predation that narratives of progress have long amounted to in substance, but also the more specifically technocultural deceptions of the last century provide what seem to me to be the indispensable context out of which influential futurological pronouncements like Raymond Kurzweil's "Law of Accelerating Returns" have emerged and from which it derives most of its rhetorical force and intuitive plausibility.

According to that "Law" -- which is just an empty stipulation rationalizing abuses and enabling wish-fulfillment fantasies -- a whole host of "evolutionary systems" actually eventually "tend" to change exponentially. Of course, this apparently rather straightforward conceptual object, "technological change," would have to content with and corral together an incomparably dynamic ramifying explosion of historical vicissitudes in all the many disparate and yet often variously inter-related efforts of competitive and collaborative scientific, engineering, problem-solving imagination, research, discovery, funding, publication, testing, application, marketing, distribution, appropriation, reaction, education, regulation of and into artifacts and techniques resulting from the interminable struggles of the diversity of stakeholders to each. That Kurzweil wants to describe this historical scrum as an "evolutionary system" reminds us of the extent to which popular science and technology discourse has come to misconstrue evolution in its zeal to provide simple explanations as well as to find "naturalizing" justifications for otherwise unjustifiable parochialisms and prejudices -- as witness the facile and ugly racism and misogyny rationalized by "evopsycho" and "evodevo" pseudoscience as well. Not to put to fine a point on it, historical, economic, cultural phenomena simply are not "evolving" in the proper biological sense and the loose mis-analogization of the two fields -- prevalent and consoling though it may have become to so many -- falsifies not only the historical, economic, and cultural accounts to which it is applied but of evolutionary dynamics as well. And in much the same way, Kurzweil's attribution of intelligence to non-intelligent machines in the formulation has no substance apart from the denial of the real dignity and the real demands unique to the incarnated intelligence of living beings actually existing in the world.

When I declare that Kurzweil's thesis is utterly nonsensical but derives a false plausibility from its citation of an archive of familiar self-congratulatary justifications for privilege, it is amusing to note that my claim will not only seem wrong but also paradoxical to Kurzweil's deluded fandom -- this is because central to Kurzweil's own formulation of it, the accelerationalization thesis will presumably seem counter-intuitive to most people because their puny human brains evolved to cope with local and linear relations rather than kick-ass exponential entrepreneurial innovation, and one needs to be a techno-utopian sooper-genius like him or be a member of a singularitarian transhumanoid Robot Cult to overcome such limitations, or, gosh, at least be a blissed out gizmo-fetishizing hyper-consumer standing in line for the next glossy toxic landfill-destined gew-gaw while your world burns.

To these observations, I will add just two more, each a more specific application of the general case above: First, as a factual matter, a more proximate inspiration for Kurzweil's so-called Law is Gordon Moore's famous observation (pause on that word, if you will) in 1965 that over the relatively short history of computer hardware development so far, the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles approximately every two years. Moore's Law as an expectation that Moore's parochial observation will continue to hold true, or will accelerate interminably, amounts to an article of faith among many who are deeply invested, come what may, in more messianic understandings of the role of software programmers in human history -- indeed the Kurzweilian Law is best understood as a generalization to all technodevelopmental fields of endeavor of something like Gordon Moore's observation, perhaps justified by the premise that the application of these very computational improvements to other fields will yield comparable improvements. Needless to say, I regard Moore's "Law" itself as a skewed perspectival effect and that it fails even on its own terms, since, to quote Jeron Lanier, "As processors become faster and memory becomes cheaper, software becomes correspondingly slower and more bloated, using up all available resources."

Second, as a normative matter, I continue to insist that "accelerating change" is little more than what increasing precarity in increaasing numbers of lives resulting from neoliberal corporatism and neoconservative militarism looks like from the rarefied perspective of its beneficiaries (or those dupes who wrongly fancy themselves its potential beneficiaries). Techno-triumphalist progress narratives remain, as ever, plausible mostly to the few who benefit from predation and exploitation and useful mostly to the few who desire rationalizations for predation and exploitation.

True technoscientific progress is the furthest thing from natural, inevitable, or even predictable, since it is primarily a matter of public investment in the solution of ever more shared problems in which the distribution of the costs, risks, and benefits of technoscientific change are made to be ever more equitably distributed among the diversity of stakeholders to those changes through a process of social struggle as interminable as is the process of discovery and invention itself.


erickingsley said...

Kurzweil made that claim in 2001. So, why isn't 2013 as far advanced from 2001 as 2001 was from 1899?

Wait, let me guess, all the cool stuff will happen at then far end of this century, right? How convenient!

jimf said...

> So, why isn't 2013 as far advanced from 2001 as 2001 was from 1899?

More to the point, why won't 2043 be as far advanced from 2013
as 2010 was going to be from 1981 (according to some heavy-breathers
back then)?
"I am universal. I translive all over the planet. Learn via telecom.
Have many professions. Am involved with many people.
Consider all children as mine also. [And all before Facebook!]
Neither right nor left -- I am Up. I have no age. Am born and
reborn every day. I intend to live forever. Barring an accident
I probably will. I also want to help others to live on indefinitely.
My philosophy: optimism -- abundance -- universalism -- immortality."

Around 2010 the world will be at a new orbit in history. We will
translive all over this planet and the solar sphere -- at home everywhere.
We will be hyperfluid: skim on land -- swim in the deep oceans --
flash across the sky.

Family will have given way to Universal life. People will linkup/linkout
free of kinship and possessiveness.

We will stream ahead propelled by a cornucopia of abundance.

Life expectancy will be indefinite. Disease and disability will nonexist.
Death will be rare and accidental -- but not permanent. We will
continuously jettison our obsolescence and grow younger.

At 2000 plus ten all this will be the norm -- hardly considered
marvelous. . .
Up-Wing Priorities
F. M. Esfandiary

Nevertheless, hope springs eternal:

Enhanced post-humans face Star Trek-like future
Dick Pelletier
Jul 29, 2013
"In the 2040s, non-biological body parts became safe, affordable
and socially acceptable; and by 2050, doctors could transfer minds
from damaged bodies into newly-cloned ones. Dying became no more
disruptive than a bee sting. By 2060, death – which many scientists
had defined as a disease to be erased – has finally been conquered."

Easy To Understand, July 11, 2009
Dick Pelletier
This review is from: [Ray & Terry's] Transcend: Nine Steps to Living Well Forever (Hardcover)
"As a 78-year-old senior [in 2009, so he's 82 now], I found it
easy to comprehend the steps necessary to improving my health in
order to survive to the time when regenerative medicine and medical
nanotech can come to my rescue."

Oh, that Dick! Well, it must be very frustrating, if he really believes the stuff
he writes about, for him to think that he's likely to just miss
the boat to heaven on earth.

Curiously enough, Dick Pelletier was born within 10 days of Esfandiary
(both in October, 1930).