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

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Transcending the Lawnmower Man

Johnny Depp's upcoming film Transcendence has the Robot Cultists in a lather.

The film posits the usual serially failed AI-deadender proposition that soopergeniuses who don't seem to know what actually-existing biologically-incarnated socially-situated multi-dimensional intelligence is in the most basic sense are nevertheless on the verge of coding an artificial intelligence (as they have been for over a century of failed predictions of twenty years to AI!) whereupon the "serious debate" is re-cast narratively as the contest between cartoonish "anti-technology" technophobes versus cartoonish hubristic "pro-technology" mad scientists when the only debate truly at hand should focus on the infeasible, incoherent, confused, cartoonish assumptions on which such AI discourse invariably depends -- which should yield a debate over why anybody on earth takes this sort of thing seriously in the first place. (None of this is to deny that I will personally enthusiastically line up to see and enjoy this movie, natch.)

As is usual with futurologists, there are lots of techbros who seem to be confusing science fiction with science practice (as if seeing a cartoon you think is cool is like a testable scientific hypothesis in some way, or, even more curious, might somehow constitute evidence in the service of the hypothesis that the cartoon will one day be real) and also many techbros who think talking about how cool a movie is to them is the same thing as engaging in deep philosophical discourse of some kind.

There are few things more hilarious than casting your mind back to the spectacle of the techbros patiently mansplaining in awed yet oddly patronizing tones the serious issues about "the status of the real" clarified by The Matrix, or "friendly AI" clarified by I Robot or "animal uplift" clarified by The Planet of the Apes. As a trained philosopher who has more or less lived for philosophy for over thirty years and who teaches philosophy to undergraduates for my living, I must say that I for one am deeply grateful for all the philosophy I have learned from techbros mansplaining the profundities of B-movie science fiction flicks to me. Like, man, what if everything isn't anything because video games seem kinda sorta real sometimes? Or like, how future computers will be sooperintelligent because Moore's Law so that means crappy consumerism is really just cruising the road to personal techno-transcendent godhood, you know? Or like, since anything that would be profitable if it existed will exist therefore, obviously, it's game over, government, when you really think about it!

Inevitably these retreads of hoary filmic sf-conceits are also declared as evidence that the transhumanoid and singularitarian sects of the Robot Cult have finally reached "critical mass" or "mainstream respectability" or "cultural prevalence" that portends libertechbrotarianism is gonna sweep the world, Luddite Taker Mehum scum! That these films might actually demonstrate instead that the pampered gizmo-fetishing white guys who go in for Robot Cults are interested in the same things as the pampered gizmo-fetishizing white guys who go in for mainstream sf-inflected action movies is an observation which I daresay is shocking to exactly no one on earth.

Nevertheless, I cannot help but agree with the transhumanoids who are breathlessly intoning about the intellectual depth and revolutionary new ground being broken by Transcendence, if the trailers and promotional celebrity interviews making their way into the mainstream press are any kind of indication... especially for those of us who never saw that piece of crap The Lawnmower Man twenty years ago. Just think what that earthshattering movie event lead to in the grand scheme of things! As the Segway "changed the way we think of cities" (the promise at the time, as you no doubt recall), The Lawnmower Man, changed the way we think of humans -- but that goes without saying, of course, for we are all are living in the world remade by that epochal movie event after all.


jimf said...

> None of this is to deny that I will personally enthusiastically
> line up to see and enjoy this movie, natch.

Well, I should hope so.

I wonder if the Chris Edgette "I's" Kickstarter-funded sci-fi movie will ever
see the light of day.

BTW, did you catch Richard Jones' article in H+ Magazine?
(linked to on his own blog,
currently listed in your blogroll).

jimf said...

> As the Segway "changed the way we think of cities"
> (the promise at the time, as you no doubt recall)

Oh, no. That was the Sinclair C5 electric tricycle,
16 years earlier, back in 1985:

Wherever you're going, I can get there faster in my C5
than you can on your Segway!

Esebian said...

Apparently the marketing schmucks made up the trailers' scripts out of whole cloth, so this means it may not turn out to be eebil luddites vs. visionary H+ geniuses world-ending battle, right? Right?