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

Sunday, October 06, 2013

WIRED Discussion of Techno-Immortalist Flim Flammery

Klint Finley's recent discussion of the futurological flim-flammery of the "Lifenaut" techno-immortalists is pretty good (and I might even say so if he hadn't quoted me in it). Finley does fall into too many of the usual pop-tech traps when talking about futurological faith-based initiatives -- he begins by confusing science with science fiction in a way that undermines both (eg, science fiction like most literature is not essentially predictive but a critical engagement with the present, science is recognized as such in part by its testability and fasifiability, which neither literature nor futurological belief ever is), he proceeds to give futurological nonsense a substance it could never earn on actual scientific terms (eg, robots "ensouled" through surveillance profiling, gee, it sure sounds completely stupid on the merits but, heck, it's "nearer than you think!"), and then he falsely suggests that criticism of futurological conceits derives from a feeling that they are "creepy" rather than from the straightforward recognition that they are extremely implausible or even utterly incoherent (eg, you are not a picture of you, portraits -- including data profiles -- are no more immortal than mammalian persons are, and even if they somehow were their longevity wouldn't amount to longevity for the selves to which they refer). And like so many journalists more generally who like to end on an "evenhanded" note that empowers cranks at the expense of sense he writes: "People are very much afraid of dying, but that’s also why organizations like Terasem -- and companies like Google and people like Larry Ellison -- will always look for new ways of extending lives. And it only stands to reason that, one day, we’ll make some progress." Of course, medical doctors and researchers and policymakers have indeed been making convulsive progress for centuries and one is right to expect that we will continue to cure diseases and improve human wellbeing if we continue to support public investments in research and organize our politics to ensure equitable access to its results. But this is a very separate question from whether futurologists peddling wish-fulfillment fantasies about cyberangels uploading into Holodeck Heaven to scared, greedy, or otherwise foolishly credulous True Believers so that they will drop more donations in Robot Cult collection plates provides any support at all for this research or organizing and hence provides any substance for our true hopes. Finley very sensibly gives the last words to Paul Graham-Raven, with whom I heartily concur: “It turns out that technologies which extend, augment or otherwise improve human life are already here! You may have heard of some of them: clean water; urban sanitation; smokeless cooking facilities; free access to healthcare; a guaranteed minimum income; a good, free education.” Hear, hear! You can take a look at a transcript of the much longer, more carefully elaborated exchange I had with the author, from which he culled his choice quotations here.


jimf said...

It seems that James Burke (of the "Connections" TV series, )
sees "nanotech" as the Technology of the Future.

End of scarcity, no need for corporations or governments,
people will autonomously supply their own needs with portable
nanofactories (the environment will largely return to a
wilderness, dotted with gardens), and "There will be no illness,
of course. . .".

What will life be like in the year 2100 ? James Burke predicts

nym dong said...

Oh boy. I had a (questionable) opportunity to watch the cable for the first time in years today, and guess what do we have on National Geographic(sic) during prime time? Goertzel and Bostrom scaremongering about how little time we have left to prevent "artificial" "intelligence" "overtaking" the world (gasp) accompanied by inseparable flashy shots of stock exchange floors, rush hour car traffic and super sophisticated-looking code flooding the screen. At first I tried really hard to feel some kind of outrage but then I remembered all the alien-themed programming and 24/7 toiletcam pseudocumentaries that have supposedly been plaguing "educational" TV for years and I resigned. This is why Dale's polemics matter, don't cede those cranks any more space without opposition.

jimf said...

> Goertzel and Bostrom scaremongering. . .

Bostrom was probably doing most of the scaremongering.
("Existential risk" is his thing).

Goertzel, these days, has pulled back from selling
AI as an "existential threat":

The Singularity Institute's Scary Idea (and Why I Don't Buy It)

Dale Carrico said...

Of course, for those of us who actually follow the futurological flim-flam, what is most striking is how these claims of robocalypse and nano-heaven right around the corner are so utterly unchanged after decades of urgent repetition by the same (or curiously interchangeably stale, pale, male) techno-handwavers, never changing and yet always treated as flabbergasting novelties: The Unbearable Stasis of Accelerating Change. To the extent that progress is largely a matter of the struggle to ensure that the costs, risks, and benefits of ongoing technoscientific changes are equitably distributed to the diversity of their stakeholders in the present, the stakes of my polemics in my view are shaped by my sense that futurological discourses (in both mainstream marketing hyperbole and neoliberal developmental policy as well as in more techno-transcendentalist sub(cult)ural forms in the various eugenic transhumanoid, digi-utopian singularitarian, and bio/nano/petro/info/geo/space manifest-destiny triumphalisms Robot Cults) are reactionary displacements/distractions from progressive deliberation in the present onto projections/ parochialisms denominated "The Future." As a good democrat I care about the democratic work of progress toward sustainable equity-in-diversity and take seriously the futurological undermining of that work, it's as simple as that.

Dale Carrico said...

No doubt he communicated his change of heart from his underground lab in Nauru.

jimf said...

> . . . change of heart . . .

Pessimism on the Extropy-Chat mailing list:
On 2013-09-26 16:27, Eugen Leitl wrote:

> Ironically several people referenced in this article have died by now,
> including the article's author, Kathleen Stein; the writers
> Robert Anton Wilson and F.M. Esfandiary; and the scientists Paul Segall,
> Bernard Strehler and Roy Walford. The self-confidence of these deceased
> people in the 1970's that they would "become immortal," or at least
> live for several centuries, by arbitrary dates which have already
> come and gone, strikes me as remarkably sad. Yet I see many of today's
> "transhumanists" falling into the same delusional way of thinking,
> only they've just added another 30-40 years to the previous range of dates.

I assume you have seen Stuart Armstrong and Kaj Sotala's excellent paper
about why AI predictions are lousy?
Their analysis of why there are no experts on the future of AI seems
applicable here too: too little feedback, no good background theory,
people do not decompose their theories and scenarios into chunks that
can be analysed and criticised meaningfully, and so on.
(This is also why I respect Aubrey - he has at least tried to decompose
his theory.)

In fact, it makes me interested in making a copycat paper looking at
life extension claims in the same way - anybody know a convenient
database of them?

Dr Anders Sandberg
Future of Humanity Institute
Oxford Martin School
Oxford University

Is that Eugen Leitl putting "transhumanists" in quotes?
Everybody's succumbing to the Mark Plus disease!

jimf said...

> Everybody's succumbing to the Mark Plus disease!

I think it's called getting old(er).

Dale Carrico said...

I wonder if wrestling with himself in this manner feels anything like wrestling with a pig.

jimf said...

> I wonder if wrestling with himself in this manner
> feels anything like wrestling with a pig.

Yes, I remember that remark.

(Via )
Re: [New_Cryonet] Amor Mundi discussion
Posted By: [Eugen Leitl]
Fri Aug 31, 2012
. . .

It's useless to wrestle with a pig. You both get dirty, and the pig enjoys it.

You know, it's a funny thing.

These people, the Usual Suspects(TM) can say, or get around to
saying, at least in certain circumstances, many of the
same things you've said (or I've said -- not that anybody has
ever paid any attention to the things I've said ["What the
Klingon has said is unimportant, and we do not hear his words." ;-> ]).

But when they say it, they're not breaking their tribal
affiliation. But we broke our tribal affiliations with
the >Hists long ago (I was never visible enough to have
much of one in the first place, but you certainly were,
prior to, oh, 2004 or thereabouts).

When the wagons were circled, we were on the outside.

What the various "combatants" say seems to be much less
important than their team, or tribe, identities.

Dale Carrico said...

A paragraph from the introduction to my upcoming Existenz piece:

"I do not doubt that some discourses I would describe as futurological nonetheless attend selectively, at least occasionally, to some of the distinctions that follow. Accordingly, my modest ambition in this piece is to provide in these distinctions a set of criteria on the basis of the application of which we can mine the archive of futurological arguments, proposals, figures, and frames to find analytic and documentary insights that might still be useful for study of the substance and stakes of technoscientific change in the world. But I also do not doubt that futurological discourses properly so-called could not sustain their apparent coherence or real force were they to attend in a conscious and consistent way to all of these distinctions at once. And so, my immodest ambition in this piece is to undermine futurological discourses, ideally fatally, through the recommendation that we keep these distinctions always in the forefront of our minds as we contemplate technodevelopmental struggles. To use the viral imagery futurologists have taught us to prefer to the rhetorical terms that better describe the character of the contests at hand, I hope that this effort can provide readers with a measure of immunization from what seem to me to be reactionary futurological mystifications and mischief-making."

jimf said...

It seems, BTW, that Nick Bostrom has signed up for the old freezerino:

(via )

jimf said...

"For a historian, all this technoptimism is hard to swallow."

(via )

Dale Carrico said...

Had some fun with that piece here.

Dale Carrico said...

Niall Ferguson has fallen for plenty of ugly reactionary hype otherwise, however.