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

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Technology. Will. Change. Everything. Something. Nothing.

One day a technology was developed that really did change everything, and as a result, naturally enough, not one of the technology journalists said it will change everything for once.

At Business Insider, Dylan Love declares, "Transhumanism Will Change Everything." I cannot tell you how many people have pushed the link at me to this little piece of techno-utopian agitprop so conventional it hurts. There is, of course, no more hoary futurological cliché than a pop-tech journalist declaring that some new gew-gaw Will. Change. Everything. Hence my little opening parable. The latest landfill-destined crap handheld will sweep the consumer world and cling to every breast, some highly qualified result from a medical research laboratory will yield a perfectly efficacious immortalizing treatment against aging, the Segway will change the way we think of cities. You know how these things go. Sometimes the lab result finds its way into a therapy that saves some more lives more affordably, sometimes the handheld device turns out to be popular for a season. More often than not nothing more comes of it than anything else comes to something epochal.

Is this what it means To. Change. Everything? Is it possible To. Change. Everything. without seeming To. Change. Anything. of our lived experience of everything? It takes two minutes to read a hyperbolic pop-tech piece promoting a slick-seeming gizmo, painting a roseate picture of nano-magic to come, megaphoning a technocolor warning about an asteroid impact leveling Metropolis, and we swallow the red-hot, the sour, the sweet, and the sensation is gone before the crinkly wrapper has drifted to ground to poison the planet just a bit more. Who honestly expects insight from a quick turn at the Tilt-A-Whirl?

Dylan Love says that transhumanism is "real" and that it is "already happening." The closest he comes to defining this real and already happening "transhumanism" is when he says, "Humans are augmenting themselves with computers and technology that will expand their abilities, and it's going to get more advanced… as time passes." That's not a very good definition, of course, but I think it is very fine as an evocation of transhumanism.

For example, the phrase "computers and technology" is enormously salient. Strictly speaking, the whole field of technique and artifice is "technology" in potential, but the discourse of technology always only circumscribes this field, selecting some technique and artifice as "technological" while naturalizing the rest. Historically speaking, different things will count as "technology" than at other times. "Technology discourse" adjudicates the "familiar" and the "unfamiliar," the "customary" and the "disruptive," the "political" and the "de-politicized." Usually, that artifice which is discursively produced as "the technological" will be especially redolent with fears and fantasies of agency, defined in our own moment with the polar opposition of transcendental dreams of omnipotence (sublime consumption, anti-aging, hitting the jackpot, total information awareness) and apocalyptic dread of impotence (precarity, obsolescence, pandemic, WMD, climate catastrophe). Computers are subsumed within technology, but Love's phrase "computers and technology" aptly delineates the transhumanoid's particular fetishism of the computational as the paradigmatic technology, the lens through which to think the logic of technologization, the burning bush invested with techno-transcendental aspirations. Transhumanism dreams of dream computers that are smart, imperishable, omnicompetent, and made of spirit stuff -- that is to say, transhuman "computers" are not really very much like the dumb, frustrating, badly behaving, already obsolescing, energy-hogging, toxic computers in the real world, and hence the "technology" figured through them is more idiosyncratic than you might expect if you are unwary about it.

Another thing I like about Love's formulation is just how quick he is to say that "humans are augmenting themselves" with "computers and technology" and "expand their abilities" (that he says "themselves" and "their" instead of "ourselves" and "our" is worth noting, since we are reading for transhumanoidal symptoms here) and "going to get more advanced": Of course, the fact of the matter is that technodevelopmental vicissitudes have a diversity of stakeholders. And the costs, risks, and benefits of change are always different according to the situations of stakeholders. And these costs, risks, and benefits are, in any case, never distributed equitably. Not to mention the fact that even for those stakeholders who accomplish wanted outcomes their achievement is purchased at the cost of other outcomes they might have been better off wanting instead. In other words, such transhumanoid promotional narratives of technological change as insistent, unqualified augmentation, enhancement, capacitation, amplification, progress, transcension are always radical oversimplifications. Usually these oversimplifications get much more wrong than they get right, and almost always, I should add, in ways that serve elite-incumbent interests, making them reaction clothed in progressive wonderment, making our grasp even of what they get right less useful than it might otherwise be, actively discouraging sensitivity to alternatives, inequities, complexities. In other words, these futurological frames are making us much more stupid in the very moment they offer up assertions congratulating themselves on their superior understanding.

This insistence that the substance of technology is illuminated by a fetishizing derangement of computation, this insistence that the substance of emancipation is the amplification of reactionary elite-incumbency, this insistence that the substance of technological enlightenment is an anti-intellectual repudiation of history and complexity is indeed a fine epitome of the substance of the transhuman discourse on technology.

Here is what looks to me like the transhumanoid money quote. Love writes:
Imagine transplanting your entire consciousness into a computer. That's a new type of immortality. Imagine having a robotic exoskeleton that's not just part of your body -- it is your body. That's a new type of existence entirely.
Five claims. Each one of them I have encountered countless times in futurological precincts. Preliminary forms of these claims were a commonplace in the OMNI magazine I read as a teenaged science fiction fanboy in the late seventies and early eighties. Already by the early nineties I could read their unalloyed faith-based futurological variations in pop-tech zines and online while I was subscribed to the Extropian mailing list. Now they are repeated endlessly every day in bestselling popular science (!?) volumes and in TED Talks and BigThink "Thought Leader" guruwannabe twaddle. Their mechanical predictability never interferes with the tonalities of wondrous novelty in which they are breathlessly uttered, any more than their perfect incoherence and vacuity interferes with the smug raiment of the mansplaining sooper-genius they inevitably, solemnly don.

Every one of these claims is perfectly typical of transhumanist discourse. And nearly every one is nonsensical and reactionary. Let's cover them, one by one. It'll be fun.

"Imagine transplanting your entire consciousness into a computer," Love begins. Of course, we can only imagine such a thing because nothing remotely like it can be observed since such a thing cannot be done. But there is a deeper perplexity at hand. Are you sure you actually can even imagine such a thing? Are you sure that cannot be done only implies cannot yet be done? What we are being asked to imagine is a "transplantation" of consciousness into a computer. This is a metaphor, you know. Are we quite sure "consciousness" is the sort of phenomenon that can be "transplanted" in the first place? Transhumanoids like to pretend that only spiritualists would raise such an objection, but even materialists about consciousness, like materialists about red wagons, are not forced by their materialism to believe of each material thing that it can do everything every other material thing does. In fact, very obviously, very much to the contrary. Materialists about red wagons take seriously the material differences between red wagons and damp sand piles as no small part of the seriousness of their materialism. If consciousness happened to be a perspectival effect through which we grasp some of the dynamic electrochemical dispositions in the biological brain and bodily-dispersed nervous system it is no small thing to declare such a material phenomenon "transplantable" in the way a comparatively stolid discreet organ like a kidney might be transplanted from one body into another. Is "metabolism" transplantable? Are we sure this metaphor is an apt one, an actually clarifying one?

And what is Love meaning to evoke with his qualification of "consciousness" as "entire consciousness"? Is he insisting -- as anyone should but as few champions of artificial intelligence seem to do when talking of consciousness -- that we should understand the whole richly non-rationalizable field of evolutionary vestiges and tics, random firings, arbitrarily reinforced associations, mappings, sensations, perceptions, introspections, extrospections, interospections, recollections, feelings, moods, conscious thoughts, unconscious symptoms, analytic methods as consciousness? If so, does that field look much to anybody like a transplantable organ anymore? And I daresay you will have noticed that organs get transplanted from one body into another body which is, you know, a body. A computer isn't a body. Computers are not conscious, they are not intelligent, they are not even -- billions of advertising dollars to the contrary notwithstanding -- smart. Even if consciousness is a material phenomenon (and I am among the ones who is happy to think so) it is quite flabbergasting to declare the intelligence investing biological bodies and brains can be "transplanted" into a red wagon or a computer which are not, after all, material in their materiality the way bodies and brains are. Sure, there is a deep cultural archive of clay figures, wooden puppets, mechanical automatons narratively invested with thoughts of their own, bespeaking deep fascinations and yearnings and fears of makers with what we make, and as a cultural and literary theorist I take the citation and appropriation of these archetypes enormously seriously, as I also take seriously the figurative operations of metaphor: but part of what it means to take these things seriously is to grasp the ways in which they are not, for example, testable hypotheses or logical entailments or coherent definitions. The brain isn't a computer. A picture or scan or profile of a person is not a person: Pretending otherwise about these things is not a royal road to understanding complex phenomena like consciousness, intelligence, or personhood, but is exactly as foolish the deeper you go as it obviously is on the surface of things.

"That's a new type of immortality," Love declares of the "transplantation" of the "entire consciousness" into a "computer." Now, I won't belabor the point that this imaginary transplant operation, being nonsensical on the face of it, can scarcely be immortalizing of all things, any more than squaring a circle is immortalizing. Saying otherwise is rather like inventing a black box nobody can open but promising your heart's desire is inside. Religion does this sort of thing all the time, no better way to get asses in the pew, dollars in the collection plate, eyeballs for your website, amiright? But I will add that even if it did make any kind of sense to pretend that transplanting, migrating, translating, uploading (all of these metaphors are commonplace variations of your basic techno-immortalizing digi-utopian flim-flam operation) consciousness from biological brains "into" "onto" computers, networks, software, digital scans, virtual realities, and so on (and, no, it doesn't make any kind of sense), it should also matter at least a little that none of our computers, networks, software, digital scans, virtual realities, and so on are immortal themselves, now, are they? In my experience, legible conscious intelligent human selves tend to last far longer than our fragile, brittle, crufty, embarrassing, error-prone, rapidly obsolescing programs and devices do. Who in their right mind, witnessing a computer crash, a broken link, a text rendered gibberish by getting left behind too many software updates, a pixelation wave sweeping across digital media, or a landfill piled high with crushed desktop carapaces and shattered screens thinks to themselves: man, upload me into that and I'll live forever!?! The answer is: nobody in their right mind would ever think such a thing. It is the work of transhuman discourse to make such nonsense seem commonsensical, usually as a way to facilitate the irrational denial of human finitude (the facts of human vulnerability, mortality, unintended consequences, and proneness to error, miscommunication, and humiliation), and often in the service (instead or as well as) rationalizations for the ongoing or increasing authority and capacity of incumbent elites. If that still seems to you smart, or wise, or emancipatory, there isn't much I can say to teach you otherwise.

To continue Love's little transhumanoid soliloquy, he writes (nicely paralleling his anti-intellectual thought-experiment about techno-immortalizing AI): "Imagine having a robotic exoskeleton that's not just part of your body -- it is your body. That's a new type of existence entirely." The first thing to notice about this exhortation to imagination is that while the first was actually trying to conjure a nonsensical image (consciousness as a discrete whole like an organ, and also the biological "transplanted" into the non-biological) this second exhortation is conjuring the commonplace -- We need not imagine but only recollect such "exoskeletons": for crutches, splints, harnesses, even elaborate articulated remotely-teleoperated mechanisms exist across centuries and disciplines, from the cast on a kid's broken arm to a military drone targeting the heat signature of a civilian in our War on Terror to a doctor examining a new virus strain in a sealed suit. As I have already mentioned the field of artifice and technique, strictly speaking, includes much we have grown too familiar with to consider the technological in everyday parlance, but have naturalized like our language, our body language, our skills and our scars. When Love insists that our techniques are "your body" (again, not "our," you have to notice: one really should take care to read the interesting pronoun choices when often body-loathing, often socially-alientated transhumanists are doing their thing), he seems to be making what I concede is a crucial point: Judith Butler, for example, has devoted a lifetime of difficult deliberation to "the body" that is always really "the socially legible body," about the constrained and yet improvisatory public performances through which this "body" and its "legibility" as such are maintained, insisting that even though "the bodily" tends to be experienced as "prediscursive," and in ways that naturalize all sorts of catastrophic conventions, this is always an historically situated, absolutely discursive production of a politically provocative and useful prediscursivity, an entirely discursive prediscursivity. But why on earth does Love immediately follow this critical insight with the added insistence that this "[i]s a new type of existence entirely." Notice, for one thing, that "entirely" has returned again. Transhumanism is nothing if not a totalizing set of claims, else it could not elicit so well a membership keen to "sweep the world" with its Movement, else it could not evoke so well the transcendentalizing aspirations that seduce its faithful...

But when Weiner asked if the old man's cane is not part of the person the old man had come to be and then founded cybernetics he knew very well (as very few who seem to have been shaped by his discourse seem to do) that his question was older than written philosophy. He turned to the European "ancients" not only for the coinage of the name of his field but to frame its insights. If, as I have said already, all culture is prosthetic and all prostheses are culture, it is actually nothing new (if still crucial) to say that persons are articulated in their intercourse with and through artifice. And, I might add, given that our cultural performances are always multiple and fragmentary, as well as improvised within their constraints, "entirely" isn't exactly the best word to capture these fraught ongoing open-futural re-elaborations of inter-personal agency that have always been the work of multiculture. All of this is human, certainly it is more human than post-human or trans-human or whatevhuman neologism the futurologists have seized upon for the moment. Dylan genuflects at criticism by declaring "transhumanism" also to be "spooky" and "morally complex," but the celebratory thrust of his piece is clear, and in any case it isn't really more usefully critical to declare the nonsensical "spooky" rather than "awesome" when it comes to it -- both functionally seek to legitimize the unserious by conjuring two cartoonish "sides" debating nonsense in some clown college somewhere. The transhuman/techbrotarian insistence on the disruptive novelty of these commonplaces is of a piece with the re-packaging as exciting and new (and hence still-profitable for elite-incumbents) of stale consumer products by the marketing discourse of which the futurological represents the clarifying extreme form, sometimes the reductio ad absurdum.

I hope that our "business insider" (one wonders) Dylan Love will forgive me, as I hope all the countless enthusiastic white techbros who have liked and linked and favorited and alerted me to this piece will also forgive me, when I say that all this novelty they are promoting is better described as cliché, that all this sophistication they are promoting is better described as infantile, that all this wonder they are promoting is driven by dread, that all this promise they are promoting looks like con-artistry, that all this emancipatory capacitation they are promoting blinds us to the reality of the political and historical substance of freedom, that all this technological progress they are promoting serves the most elite-incumbent reactionary politics imaginable.


jimf said...

> Preliminary forms of these claims were a commonplace in the
> OMNI magazine I read as a teenaged science fiction fanboy in
> the late seventies and early eighties.

For me, it was during the golden age of the cheap paperback ca. 1964.
Got Daddy to buy me the paperback edition of Arthur C. Clarke's
_Profiles of the Future_ (Bantam H2734 -- original price
60 cents! -- a whole 20 cents more than the Ace paperbacks of
the time!) off the paperback rack of the local Food Fair
(which had a red neon sign just like this one: ).

Ah, those were the days. Transhumanism just seeped into me
from every direction -- black-and-white TV (_The Outer Limits_,
on ABC), and the wonderful revolving wire paperback racks
in the supermarket and the drug store.


[It wasn't until years later, though, that I finally got my
hands on some of the other literature referred to in
that non-fiction Clarke book -- the author's own
_The City and the Stars_, and Olaf Stapledon's stuff.]

Anonymous said...

Hi there, I've never commented before but I've been reading--always with genuine interest and often with a glee I rarely get elsewhere--the blog and archives for about a year now. I agree for the most part that there's nothing wrong with asking your reader to put some effort into it, but for this undergraduate (who has only incidentally encountered Butler in his course of study but has, at least, read a great number of the posts on this blog and moreover does not fear a polysyllable here or there), passages like the following are nigh impossible to decipher:

"...even though "the bodily" tends to be experienced as "prediscursive," and in ways that naturalize all sorts of catastrophic conventions, this is always an historically situated, absolutely discursive production of a politically provocative and useful prediscursivity, an entirely discursive prediscursivity."

Doubtless the "intellectuals" who dismiss your language as "hifalutin" did not even make it to this passage, so I hope am not joining the chorus of lazy or stupid charlatans, but could you explain what in Jesus Jones's name is, in particular, "an entirely discursive prediscusivity"?

Dale Carrico said...

"Entirely discursive prediscursivity" is a little bit of paradoxical word play, sure, but the whole passage you quote shows how I earned it, I hope:

We tend to think of the body as a site prior to culture, history, language, discourse (part of the way we experience the aversion of our finger to the sensation of a burning hot pot is to experience it as incontrovertible, Elaine Scarry, writing famously of the torturer's touch -- and she could have said much the same of the little death in a lover's embrace -- said that to experience pain is to experience certainty, to witness pain is to experience doubt), hence, from your citation, "the bodily" tends to be experienced as "prediscursive."

But, as I said, this supposedly prediscursive body is selectively attended, freighted with a sense of the possible and of the important, in ways that can be seen, especially retrospectively, as historically specific and culturally situated (think what the bodies of women, of slaves, of immigrants, of the "disabled" have been experienced as good for and capable of "by nature" of a piece with the incontrovertability of the skin's aversion to the fire and yet in later generations set aside altogether quite as firmly), hence, the absolutely discursive production you quote, but also my mention, even if only briefly that this functions to naturalize all sorts of catastrophic conventions -- as you now see, about sex/ gender/ race/ age/ ability, etc.

To the extent that the naturalization of historically contingent subordinations and marginalizations of some human lifeways serves political ends I went on to say that the socially legible body's apparent prediscurvity was politically provocative and useful for making infrahuman subjects ready for exploitation was a quick gesture moving from the specific to a more general point.

I'll admit the passage goes quickly -- partly because to go even into greater depth of this Moot explanation risked losing track of the main point of the post. But I did also want to tip my hat to the point -- because the topic interests me enormously for one thing, but also because it was a moment when an author I was otherwise excoriating seemed to me to be making a point I agreed with and even think is important, come what may. I hope this helps. Also, I hope it doesn't feel patronizing or anything. I'm glad to hear you like my blog: it isn't for everyone, but it is very bolstering occasionally to hear it is for anyone.