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

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Are Both Advocates and Critics of Transhuman Techno-Transcendentalism Changing?

Upgraded and adapted from the Moot, "JimF" notices the discussion taking place in response to a critique of transhumanism over at Richard Jones' Soft Machines:
I see some of the heavy-hitters (or at least the eager-beaver Web-wide movement spin controllers) have weighed in on Jones' post. Giulio Prisco sez "What's the matter with wishful thinking?" and Luke Parrish sez "Honestly, I think you're reading too much into this [i.e., the connection between contemporary transhumanism and age-old religious aspirations]."
Part of what intrigues me in those comments to which you have drawn our attention is the extent to which some transhumanists now seem to be conceding as obviously, commensensically true points they used to describe as nothing but ad hominem attacks on my part when I made them.

Prisco assertively avows here (and has done for some years now) the indispensability of faith and New Age-mystical norms and forms in transhumanist/ singlaritarian/ techno-immortalist futurologies. Parrish avows (as if this is the most natural thing in the world) that transhumanist "thought-leaders" are just slapping together anything that sells more books and he also simply assumes that fear of death drives quite a lot of techno-transcendental belief and energy. Needless to say, I agree with all of these observations.

For years now I have pointed to the tonalities of religiosity, PR-hype, and death-denialism lodged in the assumptions, aspirations, and arguments of so much futurological discourse. As you know, these charges tend to have been greeted with outrage, righteous denial, denunciation, charges that I am indulging in name-calling rather than criticism, and on and on and on.

Although I am an atheist myself, I have no particular interest in denouncing the aesthetic idiosyncrasies of the variously faithful.

It is when religious faith tries to trump the verdicts of science or pretend it is simply an alternative kind of science or policy framework that I expose its falsities and dangers.

It is when religious moral practice tries to trump the reconciliations of politics or pretend it is simply an alternative kind of politics (let alone a democratizing politics) that I expose its falsities and dangers.

If the transhumanists are just an idiosyncratic and marginal faith-based community I might giggle at a South Park parody of their beliefs and I might worry about abuses if they assume authoritarian tonalities in their defensiveness, but apart from that I could scarcely care less how their members pursue their private perfections.

If the transhumanists are just another fandom for futurological pop texts -- that least creative and least original and least demanding of the sf genres -- I might use them as a sad symptom of acquiescence to corporate-militarist gizmo-fetishizing consumer pseudo-culture, but apart from that I could scarcely care less about what people want to be excited about to get them through the night (if I can celebrate Janeway-7of9 shippers, I can give a thumbs up to those who want to navel gaze over fictional traversible wormholes, Holodeck Heavens or magic nano lamps).

And so, I do indeed critique the regular efforts of Robot Cultists to peddle their shenanigans as a warranted science practice or legitimate policy discourse or real identity politics rather than as a loose constellation of faith-based sects and consumer fandoms.

To the extent that some transhumanoid/singularitarian membership organizations have attracted serious corporate funding (Thiel, Musk, Google) or legitimate institutional support (Oxford, Stanford, Google), I think it is important to be vigilant about the Robot Cultists: As I often say, the lesson of the Neocons is that palpably silly ideas with money and plutocratic networking behind them can still do flabbergasting damage in the world if you don't pay attention to them and connect the dots in ways that expose the players and limit their impacts in real time.

But most of all, I also think superlative futurological discourses are clarifyingly illustrative extremities of what are more prevailing justificatory corporate-military discourses playing out across the public field of deceptive, hyperbolic PR forms (age-defying skim kremes, cars as cyborgic agency amplifiers, get rich quick schemes, sociopathic self-esteem and management seminars) to neoliberal/neoconservative think-tank rationalizations (global digital finance scams, global development as hi-tech boondoggle investment debt coupled to deregulatory looting, global free market boom pitches backed by US military robo-info-biowar hardware).

I do think these mainstream reactionary, reductionist, fetishistic, triumphalist, immaterialist, industrialist, eugenic, technocratic ideologies do incredible harm both to real people's lives and to our efforts to make sense of what is really happening in the world. Exposing ridiculous robocultism to ridicule can help expose what is ridiculous and pernicious in these mainstream discourses which often seem unassailable and even invisible so prevalent, so hegemonic, so commonsensical have they become.

For a more fully elaborated but still relatively concise formulation of this critique, read my Futurological Discourses and Posthuman Terrains in Existenz.


jimf said...

> If the transhumanists are just another fandom for
> futurological pop texts -- that least creative and
> least original and least demanding of the sf genres --
> I might use them as a sad symptom of acquiescence
> to corporate-militarist gizmo-fetishizing consumer
> pseudo-culture, but apart from that I could scarcely
> care less. . .

Soon to be a(n other) major motion picture:
Transhumanist Science Fiction: The Most Important Genre
The World Has Ever Seen? (An Interview with David Simpson)

. . .

David Simpson [is a] science fiction author, transhumanist,
and award-winning English literature teacher. . .
[H]is Post-Human series (which include the novels Sub-Human,
Post-Human, Trans-Human, Human Plus, and Inhuman) is centered
on the topics and interests of transhumanists. David is
also currently working with producers to turn the Post-Human
series into a major motion picture. . .

Sub-Human, Post-Human, In-Human -- sounds a little like
_2001: A Space Odyssey_, which I gather modern movie audiences
would have a hard time sitting through. (I read somewhere
recently that even _Blade Runner_ and _Alien_ now fall
into that category -- booooring!).

OK, so maybe it'll be _2001_ with, um, lots of guns,
fistfights, kung-fu, and car chases. I can hardly wait.

Dale Carrico said...

Gosh, I hope they're as good as the Atlas Shrugged movies!

jimf said...

> Gosh, I hope they're as good as the Atlas Shrugged movies!

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

(via )


(Of course, _Transcendence_, _Her_, and _Lucy_
will have stolen most of the thunder by now.)

Dale Carrico said...

If those sf retreads could steal transhumanoid singularitarian agitprop thunder, I can't for the life of me conceive why Star Trek TOS had already stolen their thunder irrevocably before they even started.

Needless to say, uploading (in at least half a dozen eos), sentient robots/computers, genetic (and ESPer) supermen, better than real virtualities, techno superabundance were all explored as sfnal conceits explored in TOS. Needless to say, none of them originated there, they were each citations in a popularizing sf series of readily available tropes.

Just as TOS explored current politics allegorically (notoriously sometimes somehwat clumsily) in many sfnal plots, so too their explorations of the sfnal archive were in my view reflections in the present on the impact of ongoing sociocultural forces (materialism, industrialism, computationalism) on abiding values and notions of identity and so on.

Star Trek actually did inspire a mass movement -- but surely (a surely behind which comes the confidence of having been at least tangentially a part of it myself) not all or even few of its fans thought their enthusiasm for the specificities of the show, or for the secular scientific liberal multiculturalism of its values, thought that they constituted the kernel of a literal proto-federation that would bring its inventions into existence through the shared fervency of their fandom at conventions.

I often chide transhumanoids as pseudo-scientists scam artists peddling boner pill and anti-aging kreme scams amplified from late-nite infomercials to outright phony religions faith-based initiatives -- but I also often chide them as fandoms of the particularly crappy sf genres of the corporate press release and the futurological scenario.

As to the latter, it seems relevant to point out that the problem of the transhumanoids isn't that I think they have terrible taste in sf (anybody who gets off on Toffler, Kurzweil, and venture capitalist spiels has execrable taste whatever their other character flaws) it's that they are an sf fandom predicated on not even getting what sf is about at the most basic level.

Like all great literature, sf at its best comments on the present, on present problems and possibilities, and the open (promising, threatening) futurity that inheres in the present. Of course, plenty of authors and readers may have said that their good sf was about "The Future," but this confused locution often obscures the ways in which their work actually engaged futurity in ways that exceeded authorial intentions and understanding. I will go so far as to say that no great sf has ever been about "The Future," predictive of "The Future," agitprop for "The Future. Of course, extrapolation is a technique in the sf toolkit (as in the satirist's and the fabulist's), but predictions and hypotheses and the rest never make for great or even good sf, to read sf as prophetic agitprop for parochialisms denominated "The Future" always reveals a crappy writer or a crappy reader.

Athena Andreadis said...

I think the change has a far more prosaic explanation: some things look better (or at least more understandable/forgivable) on the young, including arrant foolishness.